They were among the New Armies, battalions that had not existed before Kitchener’s massive expansion of Britain’s fighting force. As a wartime chaplain wrote to the widow of a son of our county, ‘[theirs] should not have been the life of a soldier’ and yet in the face of their duty they did not shrink from the danger. As November drew on, the stakes could not have been higher: thick fog descended upon the battlefield the night before, and it was into the soup, on a chilly day that the armies advanced on to St. Pierre Divion and Beaucourt Hamel. More seriously, this was the moment, as winter began to bite, to take advantage of German exhaustion and to win back the hearts and minds of the folks back in Blighty, still stinging painfully from the first day on the Somme.
The end – which came on the 18th November - brought about a suspension of greater hostilities which would last until January 1917. Time to reflect upon battle strategy, and what had happened as aerial bombardment, heavy artillery, and the introduction of tanks had begun to shape the history of warfare. It was a pause in humanity’s first experiments in mechanized death, and questions over the morality of the technology employed there became something akin to the questions we have today about the means and the weapons and the extent of conflict. As ever, we continually test the idea of ‘just war’, as set down by St. Thomas Aquinas and which lies at the heart of our nation’s Laws of Armed Conflict.
Today is, however, not a day for battle analysis or expatiations on moral theology. We are well aware that conflict, while a prompt for heroism and self-sacrifice (and how the world needs that at the moment), remains a failure in human terms to preserve the peace of the world. Moreover, if is not a means to peace we shall not be able to satisfy ourselves of its legitimacy, legally or ethically. We are here for the sake of the soul. The souls of the fallen; the souls of the survivors; the souls of us, who now by generations, are their descendants. What is right and good we do now, that in summoning the scars of the past we might live more truly and thankfully in the present.
In recent years we have become painfully aware that those who fought and lived through the Great War, and many of those who fought in the Second World War, are no longer with us. Great names have passed from this world in the quietness and peace that was denied those who fell around them, and even the name of the Northamptonshire Regiment has fallen to amalgamation with other proud names into the Royal Anglian. Such names and battle honours are never forgotten, however, and it is a great honour for us to have among us this morning Sgt William Allen, the last living veteran of the Northamptonshire Regiment. He was among those who carried the proud name of our county in the liberation of the Auschwitz Extermination Camp. You have stood in the narrow place between the conflict and the peace, and seen the true wreckage. We are surpassingly proud you are here. Ninety years ago last Friday, in committing the memorial, about which we shall stand in silence at 11 o’clock, to the Mayor and County of Northamptonshire, General Horne said it was “right and fitting that there should stand in the county town some visible monument, some tangible memorial appealing to the heart through the eye, of the bravery, devotion to duty, and self-sacrifice of the men of Northamptonshire."
We continue that tradition today. Devoid of the markers that distinguish us by politics or faith, class or ethnicity, gender or sexuality (and regardless of what FIFA might think), our testimony is to the service of the fallen, whose blood has been the seed of peace. The risen Christ showed his wounds to his disciples, unafraid of them because they could no longer pain him. Whether it is us who in commemorating the conflict honour the peace, or those who last night marked the re-opening of the Bataclan theatre in Paris, we know that wounds – though painful – attest to the fact that we have lived, grown, and healed. And not done so as if we were islands unto ourselves, but more truly as human beings interwoven in the lives of our neighbours, community, and nation wherein is the source of our human flourishing. Today is a reminder of that as gift, as fragile and vulnerable as the children to whom we pass on this world.
For we, who also stand at the precipice wherein, were we to hurl ourselves forward, should find oblivion, rightly choose to skirt the pit. Such acts are too often interpreted as cowardice, or peacenik-ing, but they are a search for the deeper roots of brotherhood at the heart of humankind. Here we show our devotion for what has been lost, but we are more truly honouring what has been found. For my generation, where the world conflicts that have formed my perception of war and peace are still open, painful wounds for our society, we learn of these conflicts past, these times between which we commemorate the passing of a century, not first or even second, but mostly third hand. Like the Israelites recalling the Exodus, and release from the hands of tyranny: summoning up the terrible realities of the past into the present, and allowing our future to be determined by it. There’s a line in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys which says this rather more neatly, that of history we should “Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you. But for someone, somewhere, one day.”
In this place, and at this hour, we ask God’s grace for the peace in which we live and hope to live; his protection from the conflicts yet to come; and faith to trust that the heroes and warriors of the past now rest in His hands. It is the vocation of the Christian soul to hope to sleep in God’s peace, but it is incomplete if it does not yet yearn to rise and reign. It is a natural instinct of humanity, it is also the natural instinct of nature – the Poppy, growing preponderantly on blood-soaked fields is surely a sign of that. The greatest affront to the powers of wickedness and violence, that would otherwise have us cowering in fear for our lives, is to keep on living, to live as if nothing threatened us, to live, and to seem, free. It is the debt we owe to those who for our tomorrow gave their today, and the endowment we now make for graces unknown and ages to come, that we too might make our reasonable service.