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Remembrance Sunday

The Gospel story is very striking in the way that the first disciples, who are two sets of brothers, are hard at work and then they hear the call of Jesus to follow him, and they drop what they are doing and leave.

To leave everything behind is a huge decision, your family and livelihood for an uncertain future, but maybe they sensed something that could not be refused.

In 1914 and the years that followed around 220 men either volunteered or where conscripted into various regiments and as the names from the War memorial are read out, we are reminded that over a quarter of that number did not return.

Some of these men were agricultural labourers, gardeners, and farmers. Some such as Private John Randall were baptised and married in this church of St Mary’s. They were part and in remembrance still remain part of the fabric of this village.

In the assemblies this week I have shown a photograph of British soldiers heading to the frontline and some of them look about 18 and most were in their 20s.

They looked a cheerful bunch and there has been research on why they joined. For some there was a sense of excitement and adventure, but it could have been something much more and quite literally earthy.

One of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee’s Posters in 1915 shows a soldier pointing at a thatched cottage and rolling hills with the words: “Isn’t this worth fighting for? Enlist Now.”

For some, this connection with and love of the countryside, may well have been enough for them to put themselves forward.

The poet Edward Thomas was asked why he had volunteered and picked up a handful of earth and said “literally for this.”

Like hundreds of thousands of their contemporaries across Europe they became part of something that for Europe was a terrible trauma.

There was a human cost and an environmental one. The land was poisoned by gas and pummelled by artillery.

Yet the resilience of nature was strong: poppies, a wild flower, still grew on the battlefields and in 1916 Private Len Smith recorded how “with much caution one could even peep over the top and it was lovely to see groups of red poppies…they thrilled me intensely.”

Private Norman Ellison wrote from the frontline his amazement at the sudden arrival of spring and the arrival of swallows, warblers and nightingales: “I cannot recall any spring that thrilled me more. One felt that man might destroy himself and his civilisation through the incredible stupidity of war, but the annual re-birth of nature would continue. Here was something assured and permanent, an established truth in a world of constantly alternating values.”

The poppies a few years ago by the Tower of London captured the scale of the conflict for the British and Commonwealth nations with possible 850,000 killed.

Lieutenant Charles Douie of the Devonshire Regiment again captured the close affinity to nature in the trenches: “those who live, as perforce we were compelled to live, exposed to sun, rain and wind, surrounded by natural forces, in the constant presence of death, are conscious of a mystery in the heart of things, some identity of man with that which gives him birth, nourishes him, and in due time receives him again.”

In one way the land was to provide equality for all those who died. In previous conflicts there were no cemeteries for casualties. In the words of William Thackerry those who had died “shovelled into a hole and forgotten.”

A decision was made very early in the war that this should not happen and a key figure was Sir Fabian Ware, who at 45 in 1914 was told old to fight, so became Commander of the Mobile Ambulance Unit of the Red Cross.

His unit cared for the wounded but also searched for the graves of the dead.

The necessities of war meant most were buried in a shallow grave, with bent twigs to make a cross and possibly a scratched message on a tin.

Ware’s unit was entrusted with the task of finding graves and marking them with a proper wooden cross and a metal identification plate.

Ware became part of Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917, founded by Royal Charter and profound decisions were taken.

There was to be no distinction between rich and poor in military cemeteries.

It was recognised private initiatives would lead to costly monuments that would unfavourably contrast unkindly “with those humble ones which would be all the humbler folk could afford.”

Some families had pulled strings to get their son’s bodies disinterred and brought home for burial.

Ware stopped this as it smacked of privilege. Soldiers were to be buried in the fields where they died.

In these cemeteries the dead would lie beneath identical gravestones, with reference to name, rank, date of death and regiment insignia.

It was decided in 1919 that the maximum cost of a headstone would be £10.00

Ware also insisted that no matter where on the globe the cemeteries and the monuments to the missing, only the finest materials would be used and the most respected architects.

Kipling described it as the “biggest single bit of work since any of the Pharaoh’s had built the pyramids.

By 1927 the Imperial War Graves Commission had overseen the construction of over 500 permanent cemeteries, in which 400,000 gravestones had been laid down.

Yet, something else was also added so that they would be more than cemeteries or places for the dead.

The decision was made that they should be also gardens or small parks of remembrance, so they were planted with trees and flowers.

The aim was to cultivate a sense of home with snowdrops and crocuses being allowed to push up through the grass.

For the men of Northchurch and other villages who worked on the land, in the cemeteries remembrance was linked to the cycle of nature where the flowers bloom and die in accordance with the passing of the seasons.

I always feel that the heart of this service is found in the Act of Remembrance but also in the Act of Commitment.

This perhaps resonates most of all with the call of Jesus to his disciples to tell people about the good news of the Kingdom of God.

It is a message that is for everyone and the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is a place where all are valued and where reconciliation and peace can be found.

That can seem unlikely but in 1917 the war artist William Apron described something he saw a miracle.

He visited the Somme six months after the battle that had left nearly half a million dead.

“I left it mud, nothing but water, shell holes and mud. The most gloomy abomination of desolation the mind could imagine; and now, no words can express the beauty of it. The dreary, dismal mud was baken white and pure –dazzling white. Red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky was dark blue, and the whole air to the height of 40 feet, thick with white butterflies.”

A scene of transformation: that can seem in a polarised world an unlikely event, but with God all things are possible.

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