100 years ago what became known as the Great War had been in progress for over two years. It was not all over by Christmas as people had been predicting. Neither side backed down, and the fight to the death was on.
Row after row of boys from both sides were mown down. Tens of thousands were killed in those first two years. What had started out in a wave of patriotic fervour was exposed as a catastrophic blunder by both sides. Shocked civilian authorities could not understand why the enemy should be so determined. In the German trenches, the soldiers hung up a sign to taunt the Tommies, ‘God is with us’ which in German is “Gott mit uns”. With characteristic wit the Tommies held up a sign next day that read, “We got mittens too!”
God is with us, said the Germans. God is with us, said the British.
God is with us? Oh yes, that can be true. But God is with us in the blood and the pain, not in the cruelty and the triumph. Today we remember the blood and the pain. We especially remember, just as we do on Anzac Day, young men, some really only boys, who used to sit in these pews and went off to war, never to return; buried in some faraway land.
Around the world today people will gather to lay wreaths at war memorials and cenotaphs. On this Remembrance Sunday throughout the Commonwealth people will gather to remember those who have fallen in war. It is one of the amazing things of our time that, rather than these ceremonies becoming smaller and smaller as those who fought in the major wars of the last century die of old age, the numbers gathering each year are reported as increasing. And thus it should be - people should remember.
For most of us here in church the horrors of large scale war are unknown – they are something we can only guess at from what we have seen in films and on TV, or read in books. In 1991 it was the 50th anniversary of one of a number of disastrous battles in Commonwealth military history; the battle of Sidi Rezegh. Early in 1991, as the National Chaplain of the South African Gunners Association and as Chaplain of the Artillery regiment concerned, I was sent a copy of a letter written by a young soldier soon after that battle. We do not know who he was as he only signed with his initial. Those of us who studied the letter at the time and then consulted the nominal roll of his, and our, regiment think he was a bombardier, who died in a later battle. The letter had so moved the Australian officer who was on censoring duty at the time that he had made a copy of it.
The battle of Sidi Rezegh was fought, on the Allied side, by the Eighth Army. It was made up of up of the 7th Armoured Division, the South African 1st Infantry Division with two brigades of the Sudan Defence Force and the independent 22nd Guards Brigade, as well as the 4th Indian Infantry Division, the 2nd New Zealand Division, commanded by Major-General Bernard Freyberg, and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. It also included the Tobruk garrison with the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, and the Australian 9th Division and the Polish Carpathian Brigade
In reserve, the Eighth Army had the South African 2nd Infantry Division, making a total equivalent of about 7 divisions with 770 tanks. Air support was provided by up to 724 combat aeroplanes of the Commonwealth air forces in the Middle East and Malta.
Of the battle our unknown bombardier wrote:
“Early in November, in Merca Metrouh, we had a full regimental church parade … This .. was the first indication that the coming campaign was soon to be underway. The only thing I liked about the Church service was the Padre’s choice of hymns. For the first time I felt the power behind the words of some of our grand old hymns."
Time like an ever rolling stream
Bears all its sons away
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
“…When we broke ranks, it was with a feeling of confidence for the future. Air supremacy was assured; we had as support a proved and experienced Armoured Division; we had faith in our guns…”
He writes about the height of battle:
“After a short time there slithered over the skyline German tanks – to the attack! In fives and tens they came into view disappearing for a few minutes in the deep wadis which gave the Germans such an advantage, then re-appearing on our right and left or front. As each wave of tanks surged forward, the German machine guns would come forward under their fire. Meanwhile at the gun position our boys were performing heroic work. It was now a fight for life. We hurled at them round after round of gunfire. As the tanks attempted to form into line, we broke their formation again and again with shellfire. But as each tank was beaten off we could tell those terrible machine guns were 50 or 100 yards closer. Our gun positions were now well within range of the tank 6 pounders.”
“From where we were, observation (which meant sitting up) was impossible and almost suicidal, but the officer beside me was magnificent. Only for those shells and mortars, whose whirring whining swishing scream told us that they would land right on us, would he duck his head. This almost split second warning was followed almost immediately by a crackling explosion, which made the ground shudder and enveloped us in a shower of smoke dust and flying metal.”
“All this time our guns were pounding away. Gunners were hit and others took their place.”
After the battle he concludes:
“It would be unwise for me to mention casualty figures. General Smuts has already told you they were heavy. In our fist battery roll call we had the sad little figure of 24 men and 2 officers… The lesson I have learnt is this: Put your trust in God and never say die.”
At the end of the Second World War General Smuts, the South African war time Commander-in-chief, spoke to the men of the Allied forces who had entered Milan. He said “I cannot make you any promises for the future. I cannot promise you a new heaven or a new earth. It will be a hard future of hard work and toil, but I shall be with you on the new road of peace.”
His Majesty King George VI said:
“…in every country men may now turn their industry, skill and science to repairing (the war’s) frightful devastation and to building prosperity and happiness. …I ask you at this solemn hour to remember all those who have laid down their lives and all those who have endured the loss of those they love… The war is over… Great therefore is our responsibility to make sure by the actions of every man and every woman here and throughout the Empire and Commonwealth that peace, gained amid measureless trials and suffering, shall not be cast away.”
That responsibility is still ours all these years after the ending of the Second World War, and 98 years after the end of the First World War. The words of St Paul apply to us now, just as much as they have applied to God’s people in every age. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.”
That is what we have to learn from the battles that are remembered both on Anzac Day and on Remembrance Sunday. We should not be remembering the battles but rather those young people who went out to fight; young people, some of whom grew up in this parish; attended Sunday school here, were prepared for Confirmation either in the church, or the belfry, or the hall, were Confirmed here by the bishops of their time.
As Binyon wrote in his well known poem published in 1914,
“They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
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."