For the hundredth anniversary of the armistice we’ve had an incredible flower festival with the theme “A stillness heard around the world”. Many of the displays linked to selected poems from the First World War. The focal point of the exhibition was this 3½m high model of the Menin Gate, complete with lion, that had been constructed at the front of the church. As part of our remembrance service this morning I offered these words.
The Menin Gate was built to commemorate the missing, soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth known to have died but whose bodies were never identified. There were 89,379 of them.
Commemorating the dead is easier than honouring the survivors. They place no continuing burden on us and we can tell their stories for them. We can assume that, united in death, they shared a common story. We can retell that story in words that are comfortable for us. They have no voice to correct us, no voice to tell us how it really was, no voice to express different opinions.
That is why the words of our war poets, those commemorated by our flowers here today, are so important. They are the words of those who were there, those who saw and smelled the truth. Different poets wrote different poems. Many wrote words to comfort, protect or inspire those at home. A few wrote to express their pain, their anguish and their anger. It is easier to read those poems designed to comfort, but it is more important that we read of the harsh reality. More important because those words remind us that this is not what God wants.
This is my Great Grandfather, Lawrie Dennison. At 21 he volunteered for the East Yorkshire regiment and fought for 18 months on the Western Front. His name is not inscribed on this arch or anywhere else, not inscribed because he survived – at least part of him survived. On 22nd October 1918 almost exactly three weeks before the Armistice his thigh bone was shattered by a bullet requiring his leg to be amputated.
My great grandfather survived to tell his story, but chose not to. Perhaps his memories were too painful. Perhaps he wanted to protect others. Perhaps he knew that the truth he wished to speak was not the story that others wanted to hear.
Eventually, in his eighties, after his wife of over sixty years had died and he had gone to live with my grandparents, he did tell part of his story. What emerged, was bitterness, bitterness for those politicians who had allowed the war to happen, bitterness for those generals who chose how to wage it, bitterness for those who, even after they had seen the carnage, refused to stop.
He had served as a machine gunner. His role was not to stumble underprotected through the mud towards enemy guns but to ensure that his gun continued to fire at those who stumbled underprotected towards him. After the war he returned home where he became a greengrocer and served as Sunday School superintendent at the Withernsea Methodist Church.
His story is uncomfortable, but it is one that needs to be heard. It needs to be heard to remind us that this is not what God wants. What God wants is for us to beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks. “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord”.
After this the congregation watched the video below as an introduction to our prayers. It is the winner of a recent competition to write a new hymn to commemorate the 1918 armistice. You can read the words of the other finalists at this link.
Another memory of Great Grandad
Having posted this my great aunt, Lawrie’s daughter, contacted me. She reminded me that, despite his involvement in the local church, Great Grandad would not attend remembrance services or wear a poppy. Perhaps his views of the how the War should be commemorated may have been similar to those of Siegried Sassoon as expressed in his poem, “On Passing the New Menin Gate“.
A colleague of mine had a similar conversation with family members about her grandfather, a veteran of World War II, who was also a committed Christian but chose not to attend remebrance services. Her mother remembers this as the one day in the year when the family didn’t go to church.
In the present climate its difficult to question how we choose to commemorate the wars but I wonder how common a reaction this was amongst those who had served.