Paul Cartwright travelled to Belgium with the West Yorkshire Police Band to participate in the Act of Remembrance at the Menim Gate in Ypres
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.
Autumnal mornings can be so crisp, misty and cold, especially when you are in the middle of an unsheltered muddy field in the middle of nowhere. This is exactly where I found myself on a recent trip to Ypres in Belgium when once again my brass playing had led me to be involved in something which as a musician you could only dream about; I had been afforded the privilege to be part of the 11 November weekend of Remembrance at the Menim Gate; the place of remembrance for those who were killed in the First World War and whose bodies were never recovered.
I was there as part of the West Yorkshire Police Band that had travelled at its own expense to remember those who had given their lives for what they believed in; those who had fought for our historical security which we enjoy today.
The town of Ypres and its surrounding area played an important part in the First World War due to the trench warfare that took place in the predominantly flat land. It was almost impossible for those fighting in the area to advance towards the enemy and even the early tanks sunk on occasions.
Any war is horrible, but we know that conditions in the Great War were particularly bad. New weapons were in the process of being tested, and our travels took us to areas where the first use of poisonous gas had taken place. Even now, munitions are found on a daily basis and the police station at Ypres receives 25 unexploded bomb calls every day. Often the farmers who are ploughing the fields come into contact with these devices, and in most cases they just move them to the side of the road so that they are ready to be collected by the Army bomb disposal unit, but on occasions even ploughing the fields can be dangerous.
Making a sacrifice
If you have never visited the area I would urge you to make a trip; and certainly while we were there we met people from all over the world. Some had never been to Ypres before, and others had decided to make an annual pilgrimage of remembrance. The corporate action of many thousands of people from different backgrounds and different age groups as they join together in concert in an act of remembrance can be seen as almost a direct parallel with what we are all called to do during the Celebration of the Mass. In our daily worship we hear the words `Do this in memory of me; and we are called to stop, pray and reflect upon the sacrifice which Jesus made for us, a sacrifice which was made so that evil would be overcome.
`Known only to God’
In the First World War we also saw many people from different backgrounds and countries uniting to fight against that which was thought to be evil and destructive, and as I pondered this while I was standing in the many different war cemeteries surrounded by muddy farm fields I began to think about the countless soldiers who were still buried unknown in the earth. We read in Luke 22.42 how Jesus prayed to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane: `if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine: I wondered if maybe similar thoughts had been experienced by those who found themselves fighting in the trenches.
Jesus fulfilled his preordained duty by going to his death on the Cross, and through this we are given new life. As you look around the beautifully tended graveyards, this new life is reinforced with inscriptions such as `Known only to God; and for Christian soldiers the sign of the Cross is emblazoned on each gravestone. For the soldiers on the battlefields, they too fulfilled their duty, far too often by going to their own death, but of course this is where the parallel to Christ ends as the Peace the Jesus offers us is everlasting peace, whereas
the Peace obtained by war is short-lived. The soldiers may have died on the battlefield, but through the Cross they would live forever.
Essex Farm Cemetery
In the small amount of time that I had to explore the area I went with a group to visit the Essex Farm Cemetery, which was where the British Army set up an Advanced Dressing Station. It is also believed that in May 1915 the Canadian Army Doctor and artillery brigade commander Major John McCrae wrote his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ while he was stationed there, but it was not this which attracted my attention; it was one particular gravestone. Buried in the Essex Farm Cemetery are the remains of 5750 Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick who served with the 8th Battalion The Rifle Brigade and was killed on the 14 January 1916 at the tender age of 15, one of the youngest British casualties of the battlefield.
Being present on any battlefield brings with it a number of casualties, whenopposing sides seek to gain ground and destroy the opposition; this was true in the First World War and it is true today. Still now, our chaplains in the Armed Forces are called to care for those on the front line and to repatriate those who are injured and killed in the many conflicts around the world. Wherever fights take place people are injured, and they must be cared for and never forgotten. We as Christians are called to forgive those who cause us similar injury, be it physical or mental, and we can learn a lot from the Act of Remembrance which took place at the Menim Gate in Ypres at 8pm on Sunday 11 November 2012, for it was at this Remembrance Service where history was truly made.
As part of this service people are allowed to place poppy wreaths of remembrance, and it was on this day, while I was present, that for the first time in history members of the German Armed Forces paid their respects for the Allied Forces who had died in the Great War by placing a wreath alongside all the others who had come to pay their respects at the Menim Gate. Historically it would have been unheard of that such a thing would take place, but this year it was possible for those who had battled against one another in the past, to stand side by side, paying their respects, remembering the casualties along the way, and hoping that the same would never happen again.
An end to conflict
The German soldiers who were the obvious minority were accepted for who they were and what they represented, and for all those people who looked on, some with tears in their eyes, it provided hope for the future. Maybe we too can share the same hope that there will be an end to conflict on all battlefields, where a future will exist where minorities are welcome. If it can happen to those who experienced great loss through the outpouring of charity, then surely we too should have that same hope for whichever battle we may have personally experienced?
When you go home tell them of us and say,
for your tomorrow we gave our today.