This sermon was given by Canon John Reynolds at St Mark's.
Some years ago we were staying in Picardy in northern France near the Somme where my father had fought in World War One and where like many others he was gassed, an experience which would eventually lead to his premature death in the early years of World War Two. Though I was very young when he died, I have some specific memories and I felt I wanted to visit the place he had been when he was a young man. Hence our visit to the Somme.
On the visit we stayed in a friend’s house in a small village. Not far away there were the original trenches, now fairly sanitised, being covered in grass where once there would have been mud and duckboards. I remember being amazed that the front lines were barely 100 yards between the German and British trenches. I felt I could smell the acrid smoke of ammunition, see the yellow cloud of mustard gas and hear the chattering of machine guns. And I thought of those young men, many not out of their teens, dying a long way from home and their loved ones.
Nearby there was another village which had a small military cemetery - all the villages seem to have them - but here I found a grave and on it this inscription:
*Major J T B McCudden, VC, DSO +bar, MC +bar, MM
Royal Air Force Age 23
“Fly on, dear boy, from this dark world of strife
On to the Promised Land and to Eternal Life”
*He had served when the R A F was part of the Army, hence the rank.
And next to this grave was another, and with the inscription:
Private J White
East Lancs Regiment
“AS GOD WILLED”
United as they were in death two contrasting views expressed in those two young lives. The first beautiful words poetically shaped and full of hope. The second is a stoical acceptance of something in which I could not believe.
The first has a recognition that there is ultimate meaning and direction in which death acts as a gateway to a fulfilled life in the promised land of heaven. The second, one which the wonderful trench poets like Wilfred Owen would themselves had rejected. God does NOT will the tragic, painful, lonely death amongst devastation. It is an accident of war itself - the fact or hideous outcome of man's bestial behaviour towards his fellow man.
But I can imagine the parents of Private White in their heartrending situation writing the inscription to commend their beloved son into the loving arms of God and I felt that behind their fatalistic words there is a sense that somehow God’s will is ultimately greater in his life to come, than in his cruel and miserable death.
So perhaps the two expressions of grief are not all that far apart after all with both looking to God and to a new world opening up to them.
As we remember the sacrifice of these two young lives and the memory of many another In that war, World War Two, and many other conflicts since, we recall that out of tragedy there is so often a new dawn waiting to emerge and a new tomorrow which comes to us all and in which we will find the fruition of the meaning and purpose of all our lives.