Christopher Smith reflects on the sacrifice of those who died in the ‘war to end all wars’
As I write, and we have an early deadline this month, I am struck by the way in which the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has captured the national imagination. We have traditionally concentrated our remembrance on the nearest Sunday to Armistice Day in November, and I would be surprised if many of us knew the date of the beginAning of the war until this year. A new memorial has been erected at Folkestone, and the government has made several million pounds available for the restoration of war memorials and graveyards.
Since I first saw it many years ago, the Menin Gate has left me with a very powerful image of the loss and sacrifice of the Great War. It stands at the Eastern entrance to the Belgian city of Ypres. The town was important strategically to Germany under the Schlieffen Plan, and no fewer than five battles were fought over it, the third of which was the battle (really a five- onth campaign) which we usually call ‘Passchendaele’, a name so resonant of that terrible attritional warfare by which so much of WWI was fought.
Hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth troops passed through the old city gate out to the battlefields, and 300,000 died. Of those, 90,000 died with no known grave. And it is 55,000 of those ‘missing’ men who are commemorated on the Menin Gate, the creation of Reginald Blomfield in 1921. It is impossible not to be struck by the sheer number of names carved into the arch – name after name, listed by regiment: the names of men whose bodies have never been identified for a named headstone of their own.
More recently, I had a comparable experience on holiday in northern France, in Picardy, where I saw for the first time the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. It is another arch, this one by Edwin Lutyens, dating from 1932, and upon which are carved even more names, half as many again, lost in that grinding conflict over inches of territory from July to November 1916. The memorial is, to my untutored eye, a particularly impressive work of architecture, and, behind the arch, as part of the memorial as a whole, an equally moving Anglo-French burial ground, containing the graves of 300 French and 300 British and Commonwealth soldiers. The French graves are each marked with a cross, and where the body is unidentified, the cross bears the single word, inconnu. The British and Commonwealth graves, where the body is unidentified, bear the words ‘A soldier of the Great War known unto God’, a legend which I find almost unbearably poignant.
And under the arch sits Lutyens’ most recognizable (because most commonly reproduced) design, which he called the ‘Stone of Remembrance’. It is a stone block, twelve feet in length, five feet high and three feet deep, on a triple-stepped platform, and to you and me it looks as if it should have a very large crucifix in the middle of it, and six very large candlesticks. It is undoubtedly an altar, and on the front of it is carved a text from the Book of Wisdom, ‘Their name liveth for evermore.’ Readers may very well have seen it, if not at Thiepval, then elsewhere, for the design was used several hundred times in war cemeteries all over the world, and was used again in some of the cemeteries of the second war. Often it is paired with another, even more common memorial, by Blomfield – the Cross of Sacrifice.
And so inevitably as this centenary unfolds, we must reflect on the theology of our war dead. The Stone of Remembrance and the Cross of Sacrifice. The sacrifice of the soldiers can only make sense if it is somehow able to be joined to the sacrifice of the cross, which is also the sacrifice of the altar. And that can sometimes be a difficult connection to make. ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ was dismissed as ‘the old lie’ by Wilcred Owen. And yet we know that we must not forget them, not merely for their sake, but also for our own, and for the future.
‘Their name liveth for evermore’. To fight and die for one’s country in a muddy, stinking trench may have seemed neither pleasant nor fitting, but we owe it to them not to forget, and we are thankful that we have the freedom to voice our opinions about that or any other war. The symbol of Sacrifice and the symbol of Remembrance are closely linked not only in many cemeteries throughout the world, but also in our national consciousness. It will rarely be sacrifice unto death that is demanded of us in our generation. We are unlikely to be called to fight in the way that our forefathers were. Indeed, we find ourselves much more confused and divided about the causes for which we fight in our modern world. But we do know something of the fragile line between peace and war, and the call to sacrifice and the need for remembrance.
And we are continually called to use what God has given us individually for the good of all, as best we can. It is the high level of trust which God places in us which should motivate us to act for the good of our neighbourhood, our communities, our country, our world. What, after all, are the consequences of doing the opposite? We have to bear our part in the building-up of God’s kingdom, and that will inevitably demand of us a degree of sacrifice, and we will not always see it coming. ND