I had the privilege of leading our Remembrance service here once before. I pointed out that Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th, 1914 – and a day later, that famous Kitchener poster first appeared with the pointing finger and men of all ages joined up. One million men volunteered to join the British Army in the first four months.
In January 1916, when volunteers were running short, conscription came in for single men between the ages of 18 and 40. By June 1916 that was extended to married men of the same age. Later it was increased to those up to the age of 51.
123 gaps in the pews
My home church of St John & St Mark’s in Bury is just one building now. But there were 2 distinct churches at the time of WWI. In total 123 men across the 2 churches lost their lives during the conflict. 123 brothers, sons, uncles, husbands, fathers, lovers. 123 gaps in the pews.
I wonder how many of those church-going lads – and church going lads in Germany too, 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 missing from our churches now – but now it’s through choice or inclination. Through not seeing sufficiently good reason to be here.
I’ve previously told you about Fred Calderbank and Robert Austin who both volunteered and lost their lives at Gallipoli. Fred was 45 and Robert 18.
This time I wanted to tell you about James Desmond Aspin who died in World War II, aged 21.
Pilot Officer Aspin was the son of Thomas and Sarah Aspin. He was born 18th May 1922 at the family home in Bury. He was the youngest of three children and was known as Desmond, or Des, to his family and friends.
From a letter he wrote in May 1942, we know that he was stationed for flying training at the Air Corps Basic Flying School in Macon, Georgia, USA. Less than half of those who started their training there made it through to graduation. So, we know he was skilled and resilient.
Desmond then joined 625 Squadron. The squadron operated Avro Lancaster heavy bombers. 76 of these went down and 375 members of aircrew lost their lives, including Pilot Officer Aspin.
The London Gazette of 23rd November 1943 records the King’s approval to Desmond being awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations:
One night in October 1943, this airman piloted an aircraft detailed to attack Leipzig. On the outward flight his aircraft was attacked by 2 enemy fighters. Coolly and skilfully, Sergeant Aspin out-manoeuvred the attackers, enabling his gunner to shoot one of the enemy aircraft down and drive the other off. Although the rear turret became unserviceable, Sergeant Aspin flew on and executed a successful bombing attack. On the return journey, the bomber was hit by machine-gun fire from another fighter but Sergeant Aspin flew clear and was able to reach base. This airman displayed outstanding skill, courage and resolution.
His Wing Commander later confirmed that he was the first member of 625 Squadron to be awarded a decoration and was just shortly after the squadron’s formation.
That undefinable something
The appointment to commissioned rank had been approved only a few days before he was reported missing as the result of air operations on the night of 19th – 20th February 1944. The Lancaster aircraft, in which he was flying as captain and pilot, set out to again bomb Leipzig but was shot down and crashed at Almke in Germany. All of those lost were in their 20’s. Burial of the seven members of the crew took place in the nearby village of Marienthal. Their remains were later re-interred in a communal group of graves in the British Military Cemetery at Hotton, Belgium.
A member of the ground team later wrote to Desmond’s mother: ‘I met the greatest and bravest man I have ever, or shall ever, meet – your son. As a flyer Desmond’s name was a byword, and by his fellow pilots he was willingly given pride of place. Many of us had an affection for him, that rare affection that is shown by men towards the really great and worthy…there was that undefinable something in his make-up that caused him to stand out and above all those around him. How proud of him you must be – and rightly so…his supreme modesty won for him the hearts of all who had the good fortune to meet him’.
That undefinable something.
Victims on both sides
Because of people like Fred, Robert and Desmond we’re here today. They volunteered not knowing what would happen next, not knowing the consequences. And we should remember them and those that have followed in the conflicts since.
Desmond’s story does raise a dilemma though. Leipzig was a target because it was a major railway hub in Germany and it was where the Messerschmitt fighter plane was produced. But thousands of civilians lost their lives or were left homeless as a result of our bombing. Just as countless civilians lost their lives in Britain too. In war there are innocent victims and sacrifices are made on both sides.
It’s Remembrance Sunday, so we remember. But also of course we should bring to mind what’s been happening over the last few years with Covid and 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 self-lessness. It’s not that long since we were going outside to applaud – 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.
And we should be careful how we interpret the Gospel reading for today. Over the centuries it’s been used by some Christians to blame disasters on secularization or moral permissiveness. Most recently we saw it with authors like John Piper describing the coronavirus as God’s judgement on society and as a call to repentance.
Impermanence of human achievement
But when Luke wrote this the temple in Jerusalem was already destroyed. It wasn’t a prediction of something to come, it was more a statement on the impermanence of human achievement. Taking the chapter as a whole, Jesus was asking those with him to focus on the poor rather than on a building. And, indeed, authors like Tom Wright saw the pandemic as an opportunity for Christians, like us, to step up to the mark, to get stuck in and give practical help, just like Christians have done with disasters in centuries past.
Despite the language of destruction, the Gospel reading is ultimately grounded in hope. Hope that God remains present in the world and in our lives, even when it seems like everything is closing in on us.
The text tells us to trust God during difficult times. And that could be in economic difficulties as well as wars and disasters. Bad things will happen – but we should be assured of God’s faithfulness when they do. Should we blame anyone – no, we shouldn’t Jesus says. Instead, it’s an opportunity to testify, to live our lives for others in the way that God intended. And we will be given the strength and the wisdom to do that.
Which made me think of the Queen. It’s Remembrance Sunday, and I think this year it’s appropriate to remember the Queen too, may she rest in peace and rise in glory. During the coverage of her funeral one of the guests that they were interviewing on TV remembered a speech given by the Queen at an address to the Commonwealth in 2011. Quoting from an old native Australian proverb, she said: “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.”
Perhaps, when all is said and done, that’s the best way to remember those from the past. To stand on the shoulders of those giants and every day make that choice to observe, to learn, to grow and to love.
And, in time, we too will return home. Amen
‘Remembrance – that undefinable something’ was delivered by Ian Banks at Four Lane Ends on Remembrance Sunday, 13 November 2022. A version of it was given easier at St Margaret’s, Heywood and on-line. The Gospel reading was from Luke 21:5-19
- Piper, J. (2020). Coronavirus and Christ. Crossway.
- Wright, T. (2020). God and the Pandemic. SPCK.
- For more on Pilot Officer Des Aspin, please read this post.