We are half way through our commemoration of the first World War, and every year brings a hundredth anniversary of some event within it, small or large. I’ve often asked; and have been asked, why it is that both World Wars I and II loom large in our collective remembering; there have after all been wars before and there have been wars since.
I recently visited The Somme with my father. We went to Grovetown, a little cemetery just south of Albert in northern France. (I say a little cemetery - there are just over 1300 burials there). We had travelled to France to lay a wreath upon the grave of my great-great uncle, who died 28 September 1916. In a sense, part of the answer to my question is found in that grave. George Arthur Baker was not a soldier, he was a farmer. Although he volunteered for service, like so many others, I would say that he did not choose the profession of soldier. The time and circumstances of the First World War chose him to be a soldier, but almost all of his life he had been a farmer. The First World War put him in a uniform, gave him a weapon, trained him how to use it, and placed him in a regiment of other men just like him, doing their duty; not as professional soldiers as such, but as men who volunteered to leave their farms, their shops, their factories, their life-professions’. That is not in any way to say that they were amateurs, but ordinary people, offering to serve their country and protect it. I think that’s what makes the difference. It’s not that their sacrifice was greater or lesser than that of professional soldiers, but that the time chose them for his role; they did not choose it. Moreover, it chose to bereave nearly every family in some way. That has not been true since, and that mass bereavement was so great that we have no choice but to remember and honour the lives that were laid down.
28 September 2016 was a beautiful day on the Somme; the sky was clear and the trees that surround the cemetery were showing all the gold of Autumn. The Somme is an upland plain, not unlike the chalk landscape of Wiltshire and Norfolk, and the sky is very big. It was very quiet and still, which seemed to mirror and resonate with the simple white of the stones. Almost all of the names told the story of men who had died a hundred years ago at about this same time. One could almost reach out and touch the peace of the place. Hard to imagine the horror this land had witnessed a hundred years ago. I think the world is no less dangerous now than it was then, but that peace that was so palpable that I did not want to leave it, somehow represents that which those men died hoping to achieve. It is our duty not to betray their sacrifice but work ourselves for that peace that passes all understanding.
‘The scribes on all the people shove,
And bawl allegiance to the state,
Those who love the greater love,
Lay down their lives, they do not hate’.*
* Wilfred Owen - At Calvary near the Ancre
Vicar’s thoughts for November 2016