Sunday, 11 November 2018

Remembrance Sunday 11th November 2018

Armistice 2018

Christopher Clark’s 2012 book argues that the statesmen of the nations of Europe were “Sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” And it was the world, for the unforeseen consequence of an assassination in Sarajevo would involve as well as the whole of Europe, the United States, Brazil, Australia, new Zealand, Africa, Japan and the Pacific. The numbers of the dead are too large to be assimilated in the mind; more than eight million excluding civilian casualties which were almost as high. The post war influenza epidemic exacerbated by the poor conditions claimed a further ten million lives.

After 1561 days of conflict beyond imagination, the armistice was signed in the Forest of Compiegne at 5.30 a.m. on November the 11th 1918 - but came into effect at eleven o’clock in the morning - the fighting continued until 10.45.

It is impossible for most of us and certainly for me, a product of a generation that has not known conscripted all consuming war to imagine the thoughts of 1918 so I have compiled some from those who were there at the time. We start with David Lloyd George who said in the House of Commons:

“Thus at eleven o’clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say thus - that this fateful morning came an end to all wars.”

There were some celebrations of course, mainly in London but for the most part the reactions were more muted; the horror, shock, numbness from all that had happened and fear for the future weighed heavily. Thomas Hardy who was too old to have been a combattent captured the mood in his poem “And there was a great calm” written on Armistice day:

Calm fell; From heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky
Some could, some could not, shake off misery
The sinister spirit sneered : ‘It had to be.’
And again the spirit of pity whispered “Why?”

Laurence Binyon, whose words we will hear later as we lay our wreaths at the memorial stone, asked Elgar, the great composer of wartime music, to set a peace ode but he curtly and steadfastly refused to do so.  His cello concerto, familiar to us very often in the Jacqueline Du Pre performance has been called an elegy for the war dead - he did write it following the armistice so maybe it is.

Here is Virginia Woolf from her diary.She and Leonard had travelled to London:

“Twenty-five minutes ago, the guns went off announcing peace. A siren hooted on the river, they are hooting still, a few people ran to look out of windows. A very cloudy, still day, the smoke toppling over heavily towards the east, and too wearing for a moment a look of something waving, floating, drooping. So far neither bells nor flags”

Eve Curie speaking about her sister, Marie Curie:

“The armistice surprised her in her laboratory. She wanted to dress flags on the Institute and took her collaborator Marthe Klein with her to search neighbourhood shops for French flags,, there were none left anywhere. An attendant drove them up and down the streets, to and fro, through the eddying mass of people both happy and grave. In La Place de la Concorde the crowd stopped the car. People clambered onto the fenders of the Renault and hoisted themselves onto the roof.”

The outlook was not optimistic, people had been writing about the coming peace virtually since the outbreak of war - people we know, H G Wells, Bertrand Russell, Clive Bell, D. H.  Lawrence and a plethora of clergymen. Here is Beatrice Webb writing on November the 4th 1918, so just seven days before the day we have now in our minds:

“There is little or no elation among the general body of citizens about the coming peace. The absence of public rejoicing and sombre looks of private persons arises, I think, from preoccupation as to the kind of world we shall all live in when peace has come.”

The faith and prophecy of Micah is missing:

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more, but they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees and no-one shall make them afraid anymore.

Of course the armistice was not the end : The Times continued to print its daily roll of honour well into 1919 as men went on dying of old wounds and men previously described as missing in action were declared dead. The armistice was not the end because as we all know there was another world war, there was Korea, Vietnam, The Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan and the list goes on.

This morning we are gathered together to remember the dead of all wars, particularly those of our nation, perhaps especially that here in Britain we have had comparative peace in our land, but we are not there yet : We cannot be sure to sit under our own vines and fig trees, we cannot be sure never to be afraid, we cannot stop being truly watchful and we must not stop proclaiming Jesus’ words:

“I give you a new commandment that you love one another as I have loved you”

And for this men and women lay down their lives, for our todays people fought, endured, suffered, survived and died.

We will remember


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