Thoughts on Remembrance Sunday
The centenary of the Great War, The War to End All Wars. If we think back to the first world war, and the second world war, it is the carnage which comes first to mind, the death tolls, the statistics. I’m sure for some of you, or probably even most of you, you are aware of family members who fought, or died, or gave their lives in those wars. And so, for most of you, these wars are personal, they literally shaped the families you grew up in perhaps. As I’ve said to you all before, I have no such legacy. I am aware of no personal connection to world war one at all, and my only connection to world war two is through a grandfather, who took a dim view of the war. And as such, Remembrance Sunday creates in me something of an existential crisis.
I rarely find myself lost for words, but I really do find myself lost for words when it comes to Remembrance Sunday. Never do I find the blank page more intimidating than when I write at the top of it ‘Remembrance Sunday’. Not knowing where to begin, I read the article Fergus O’Connor wrote for the Inquirer last week. He is the minister up at Golders Green. He began with the statistics of World War One, the 10 million combatants killed, the 21 million wounded, or disabled. The 8 million missing, and 8 million civilians killed. And of course, although more people died in World War One than in any other war ever, just twenty years later in World War Two that record was beaten, and the death toll for that war was something like sixty to seventy million. And so, we remember.
Fergus goes on, explaining that Remembrance Sunday was introduced as an act of solemn remembrance a year after the guns fell silent across Europe, in response to the millions who had died. A fitting recollection of the dead, which should, as A. C. Grayling suggested, act as ‘an instrument for a further and greater purpose, namely to question war itself’. Fergus suggests that Remembrance Sunday should be about the utter waste, horror, and futility of war. But of course, we may decry the futility of war, but war goes on.
I found one quote I thought captured the post-Great War sentiment particularly well, one from A. A. Milne, the Winnie-the-Pooh writer. He wrote a piece after he himself fought as part of a line infantry unit during World War One. He said, “Tell the innocent visitor from another world that two people were killed at Serajevo, and that the best that Europe could do about it was to kill eleven million more.” To me that captures a rage against such futility, but the world did not have ears to hear, and it still does not.
During World Wars 1 and 2, the majority of the war dead were combatant. I wear my red poppy in remembrance them, in remembrance of those blood-soaked battlefields, those men who went to war, never to return. Those who fought across Europe for a better tomorrow. Since World War 2, the majority of the war dead have not been soldiers, they have been innocent bystanders, men, women and children caught up against their will, the collateral damage of falling bombs. And for them, across this paining world of ours, I proudly wear my white poppy. I dream of a world set free, when war shall be overthrown…