We will remember them

At 11am on 11 November 1918 -“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”- a ceasefire came into effect. World War I, “the war to end all wars”, had finally come to an end. Across Europe, 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died as a direct result of the war. In Britain one in three men aged 19 to 22 were killed. In the largest battle of WWI, the Battle of the Somme, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded.

This war was very different from past conflicts. Powerful new weapons were used for the first time resulting in many deaths and injuries. The big guns on the Western Front could be heard across the English Channel. 75% of all men who died in WWI were killed by artillery. The opposing armies dug long trenches, sometimes only 30 metres apart. The narrow trenches of the Western Front stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. Many men, on both sides, died in those grim trenches. Tanks, biplanes and the gigantic Zeppelin airships were used for the first time. Large battleships shelled towns on the east coast killing many civilians.

In 2018, 100 years after the end of WWI, special services of remembrance are being held to remember those who gave their lives that others might live free from tyranny. A few weeks after the start of WWI, when heavy casualties had already been suffered, Laurence Binyon wrote a poem, “For the Fallen.” Words from the poem have been adopted by the Royal British Legion as an exhortation at ceremonies of remembrance for fallen servicemen and women. “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.”

In 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918, at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament” with an inscription inside from Lord Roberts, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

Put your trust in God

One hundred years ago this week the Battle of the Somme ended. The Battle started on 1 July 1916 and ended on 18 November 1916. The British soldiers fighting in the Battle belonged to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener’s volunteer “New Armies”. This included “Pals” battalions made up of men who were friends, relatives and workmates recruited from the same communities. The Battle of the Somme was the first time this volunteer army had taken the leading role in a major battle on the Western Front.

On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle, there were 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 who were killed. These were the heaviest losses ever sustained in one day by the British Army. By the time the Battle of the Somme came to an end, 5 months later, the British had gained a strip of territory 6 miles deep and 20 miles long. There were more than a million casualties from both sides, including more than 300,000 who died.

Many of the soldiers who fought at the Somme were young men who volunteered to serve their country. Villages and towns lost a generation of men and many mothers, wives, sisters, children and girlfriends lost the man they loved. The sheer scale of the losses was overwhelming and some communities never fully recovered.

But how did the men themselves cope with being taken from their communities and daily employment to fight an attritional war in a strange place far from home? In World War I British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament.” Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, wrote an inscription in the Testaments that said, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.”

On the evening before battle many soldiers in the trenches, knowing that the next day they may well die, probably read their Daily Portion Testaments. They read wonderful promises from God including the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Whether we are soldiers facing great danger or people facing the uncertainties of life, we can all find strength for today and bright hope for the future in the promises of God’s Word.

Remembering Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson

The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. The British generals were confident of success as they sent 100,000 men over the top to attack the German positions. But on the first day the British army suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 killed. The Battle of the Somme lasted 5 months and more than a million soldiers from the British, German and French armies were wounded or killed.

One of the young men in the trenches was 23 years old Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson. He had graduated from Oxford University with first class honours and was a fine athlete. His father was the Bishop of Saint Edmundsbury and Ipswich. William was known as “Smiler” to his friends. When war broke out he volunteered for the British Army. He had already fought in the Battle of Loos and had been awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. He was killed in action at Mametz by a single bullet to the neck on 1 July 1916.

He wrote a poem, entitled “Before Action”, which was published two days before he died. It gives a powerful and deeply moving insight into the hearts of the men in the trenches.

“By all the glories of the day and the cool evening’s benison. By that last sunset touch that lay upon the hills when day was done. By beauty lavishly outpoured and blessings carelessly received. By all the days that I have lived, make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears and all the wonders poets sing. The laughter of unclouded years, and every sad and lovely thing; By the romantic ages stored with high endeavour that was his. By all his mad catastrophes, make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill saw with uncomprehending eyes a hundred of thy sunsets spill their fresh and sanguine sacrifice, ere the sun swings his noonday sword, must say good-bye to all of this. By all delights that I shall miss, help me to die, O Lord.”

Like William Hodgson, many men in the trenches in the Somme must have prayed to God for help as they faced imminent death. God always hears such prayers and, in Jesus, speaks comfort to our hearts. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me … and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Remembering The Great War

This year we are remembering the beginning of The Great War in 1914. It was a global war centred in Europe and lasted more than 4 years. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in world history. During the war 9 million soldiers and 28 million civilians were killed. It was called “the war to end all wars”, but sadly this did not prove to be true.

The war touched many families as ordinary men answered the call to arms to serve their King and country. Some had never travelled far from their homes and had no idea of the human slaughter that was to unfold before their eyes. They were fit and enthusiastic, but were inexperienced as soldiers. Many never returned. In the Battle of the Somme in 1916 more than 1,000,000 died in 5 months of fighting. British casualties on the first day of the battle were the worst in the history of the British army, with 38,000 injured and 19000 killed.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who fought in the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Their courage and sacrifice provided a stable and secure society for future generations. The words inscribed on war memorials around the world express the spirit in which they served and, in many cases, died. “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.” Those who fought in The Great War knew they were caught up in something very big over which they had no control. They saw their friends and comrades killed and knew that at any time they, too, might die. To whom could they turn in such terrible circumstances?

In 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918 at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament”. There was an inscription inside from Lord Roberts. “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”