Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th, 1914 – and just a day later, that famous Kitchener poster first appeared with the pointing finger. Your country needs you. Men of all ages joined up. One million volunteered to join the British Army in the first four months, adding to the 700 thousand already serving or trained. To get that into some sort of context, in April this year we had just over 152 thousand personnel in all of our Armed Forces.
In January 1916, when volunteers were running short, conscription came in for single men between the ages of 18 and 40. 6 months later that was extended to married men of the same age. Later it was increased to those up to the age of 51.
One hundred and twenty three
My home church of St John & St Mark’s in Bury is just one building now. But there was a St John’s church and a St Mark’s church at the time of WW I. In total 123 men across the 2 churches lost their lives during the conflict. 123! 123 brothers, sons, uncles, husbands, fathers, boyfriends. 123 gaps in the pews.
I wonder how many of those church-going lads, and those from the German side, had Psalm 70, or words like it on their minds? Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me. May those who want to take my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace.
Men aged 18-51, and a few who were younger and lied about their age, volunteered or called up for war. If you look around you, it’s sobering that it’s also that age group largely missing from our churches now – but now it’s through choice or inclination. Through not seeing sufficiently good reason to be here.
Fred and Robert
I’ve mentioned them before but I want to remind you of two that were lost. At the older end was Fred Calderbank, aged 45. Fred was a machine fitter. He worked in the mills in Bolton and Bury. He lived with wife Lilly and their children on Raven Street in Bury, about 100 yards from where June and I live now.
One of the youngest was Robert Austin and he was just 18 years old. Robert lived with his auntie Salome and uncle Thomas in Freetown, Bury.
Fred and Robert both served in the 1st/5th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers. They were both Privates and they were both killed in action in Gallipoli in 1915. The 1st/5th landed at Gallipoli on 5th May. Fred died 2 days later and young Robert within a month. They were amongst 13,642 Lancashire Fusiliers who died during the course of the conflict. They weren’t conscripted, they both volunteered. One older, one younger. One married, one single. Both answering the call.
Because of people like Fred and Robert, we’re here today. They volunteered not knowing what would happen next, not knowing the consequences. And we should remember them, their comrades and those that have followed in World War II and the conflicts since.
But if 123 died at St John’s and St Mark’s, then how many more were wounded, physically or mentally? Three or four times perhaps? There’s no plaque to them – or to their families. No memorial to the survivors, to the people who had to get on with life and living when the war was over.
And from 1918 to 1920 the world then had to cope with the Spanish flu pandemic. It’s said to have infected 500 million people, about a third of the world’s population at the time. Estimates range from anything between 17 million to 100 million people dying.
I’m drawn back to Psalm 70 again, verse 5: But as for me, I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; Lord, do not delay.
And so we remember
It’s Remembrance Sunday, and so we remember. But also of course we should bring to mind what’s been happening now with all the ongoing conflicts around the world. It should remind us of the heroes and heroines of today. Some are wearing military uniforms, or nurses’ uniforms but many aren’t. You may have family members or neighbours who every day are showing courage and bravery and selflessness. It’s not that long since we were going outside to applaud the essential services – but that seems a distant memory now. And think of the ordinary people, people just like you and me, caught up in countries like Ukraine, Israel and Gaza.
Our reading from Amos is a reminder to be careful about what we wish for, that there can be unexpected consequences. I’m sure those who perpetrated violence in Ukraine and Israel were sincere in their beliefs. But sincerity doesn’t make things right. We have to hope and pray that out of these dark circumstances does indeed come justice, rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Those words that so inspired Martin Luther King Jr.
In the 2 minutes silence to come we have a chance to reflect on the price of peace and the price of conflict. To be still and think about the significant loss of life that war has caused and is causing. And in this shared space let’s think too of our own lost loved ones. Some old and full of years. Others whose time was cut-short. Because we will remember them.
OK but forever changed
Pray God that at some point these current conflicts will stop. That people will survive against the odds and they will rebuild, because that’s what people do. And people will learn to celebrate again. But that joy will always be tinged with sadness and anguish. And in time they will be OK but they will be forever changed. And that can be true of us too, with our own losses. OK but forever changed.
I came across some other words recently which I’ve used a lot since, as sadly they’ve been appropriate on many occasions. Jan Richardson wrote this on an anniversary of 9/11, thinking of those who courageously went back into the buildings as they were collapsing. But you might think of any of the natural disasters or conflicts that we see on the news from around the world – but also any tough situations that we find in our own community.
She had this to say about what she wrote: ‘I am thinking about how the act of remembering asks us to do just that: to re-member, to put the pieces back together again, to sit with what was shattered and ask what we will create anew from the shards. I know how daunting this is, when our grief and fear and rage can be both overwhelming and numbing. We are not asked to do it alone. And, so, remembering is what we do together.’ Let’s pray…
The endless beginning of creation
More than ever
Let us be the ones
Who will not turn away.
Let us be the ones
Who will go
Farther into the wreck
And deeper into the rubble.
Let us be the ones
Who will enter into the places
Of devastation beyond belief
And despair beyond our imagining.
And there let us listen
For the Spirit that brooded
Over the formless darkness,
And there let us look again
For the God who gathered up the chaos
And began to create.
Let us be the ones
Who will give ourselves
To the work of making again
And to the endless beginning
Of creation. Amen
‘And so we remember’, or versions of it, was delivered by Ian Banks on Remembrance Sunday, November 12th 2023, to congregations at St James, Heywood and Four Lane Ends Congregational – as well as online. Bible readings were from Amos 5:18-24 and Psalm 70.
- Lipman, J. (2023). The Tablet, 14th October 2023. Volume 277.