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.

Jutland Jack – faithful unto death

The Battle of Jutland was fought in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark from 31 May to 1 June 1916. It was the largest naval battle of World War I. Some 250 ships were involved in the fierce 36-hour battle. The British navy lost 14 ships and more than 6000 lives. The German navy lost 9 ships and more than 2500 lives.

Jack Cornwell was a 16-year-old Boy Seaman First Class on HMS Chester. His job was to help man the guns and keep the deck clear. HMS Chester was hit and badly damaged very early in the battle. A direct hit on the forecastle killed or wounded every member of Jack’s gun crew. Although he, too, had been seriously wounded Jack stood fast at his gun. He did not desert his post and took orders from the officer on the bridge to set the gun’s sights. When Jack was found he was barely alive and died two days later. Jack’s mother took his body home to Essex where he was buried in a communal grave because his family were poor.

Captain Robert Lawson of HMS Chester wrote to Jack’s mother a few months after he died. He wrote, “I know you would wish to hear of the splendid fortitude and courage shown by your boy during the action of May 31. His devotion to duty was an example for all of us. He stayed, standing and waiting, under heavy fire, just his own brave heart and God’s help to support him. I cannot express to you my admiration of the son you have lost from this world. I hope to place in the boys’ mess a plate with his name on and the date, and the words, ‘Faithful unto death’.” Later, Jack was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the youngest person to receive it in World War I. His body was reinterred, with full naval honours, in a private grave in Manor Park Cemetery. Homes for disabled and invalided sailors were established in his memory.

Two thousand years ago a young man, who was just 33 years old, died on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was “faithful unto death” when he died as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. His death for our sins, and triumphant resurrection on the third day, offer us all certain hope in the face of the tragedies and sadnesses we may experience in this life.

Remembering Edith Cavell

On 12 October 1915 Edith Cavell stood before a German firing squad. Her “crime” was that she had sheltered British soldiers and helped them to escape to safety in neutral Holland. About 200 soldiers escaped in this way. Edith, and those with her, knew they could be shot for harbouring Allied soldiers. At the Red Cross Clinic in Brussels where she worked, Edith had impressed on the nurses that their first duty was to care for wounded soldiers irrespective of their nationality. German soldiers received the same level of care as Belgian.

Edith was the daughter of Frederick Cavell, who was the vicar of Swardeston Church in Norfolk. She trained as a nurse at the London Hospital. In 1907 she went to Brussels where she was put in charge of “L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomas”, a pioneer training school for lay nurses. She was on holiday in Norfolk when she heard that the Germans had invaded Belgium. Immediately she prepared to return to Belgium saying, “At a time like this I am more needed than ever,”

The evening before she died Stirling Gahan, a German Lutheran chaplain, visited Edith in St Gilles prison. He found her perfectly calm and resigned. Edith said, “I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. I expected my sentence and believe it was just. Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

They observed the Lord’s Supper together and then the chaplain said the hymn “Abide with me.” Edith softly joined him in saying, “I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness; Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

Edith was a Christian who loved and followed Jesus, her Saviour. The teaching of Jesus is radically different. He taught his disciples not only to love their family and friends, but also to love their enemies. As a nurse, Edith did that at great personal cost. The gracious and courageous life and death of Edith Cavell is a powerful example and challenge to us all to live “in view of God and eternity.”

Abide with me

For nearly 90 years a hymn has been sung before the FA Cup Final begins. Since 1927 the crowd has sung the well-known hymn “Abide with me.” This year a choir representing each team that played in the 3rd round of the Cup led the singing. The hymn has also been sung at every Rugby League Challenge Cup Final since 1929 and was sung at the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

The hymn was written by Henry Frances Lyte. He was a curate in the fishing village of Lower Brixham in Devon. The hymn is a prayer to God asking that we might know his presence with us in all the experiences of life and in death. It expresses the aloneness we often feel and our longing to know God’s presence and peace in times of trial and especially when the time comes for us to die. “Abide with me” was sung by soldiers in the trenches in World War I and is always sung at the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance. Nurse Edith Cavell sang it the night before the Germans shot her for helping British soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium.

The hymn reminds us of our human frailty and the brevity of life. “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” All the experiences of this life are fleeting as we move inexorably to our last hour, which we must each face alone.

How wonderful it is to know that we can turn to the eternal God who will hear our prayer so that we will never be alone! “I need Thy presence every passing hour. What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be? Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me. I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness. Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

The “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” display at the Tower of London has caught the public imagination. More than 4 million people have visited the display which marks the centenary of Britain’s involvement in World War I. From 5 August to 11 November the moat of the Tower of London has been progressively filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies. Each poppy represents one of the British and Colonial soldiers, sailors and airmen who died in the Great War. The scale of the display visibly and powerfully commemorates the massive loss of life which happened 100 years ago. More than 16 million people, military and civilians, died and 20 million were wounded.

When war broke out the British Army desperately needed to recruit more soldiers because the German Army was five times larger. Among those who volunteered were 250,000 boys and young men under the age of 19, the legal limit for armed service overseas. Most of them had little idea of what they would face. It is estimated that half of those who fought on the front line were wounded, died or taken prisoner.

Our commemoration of the centenary of World War I coincides with the withdrawal of British service personnel from Afghanistan. The conflict in Afghanistan has vividly reminded us of the great human cost of war. Many young men and women have died. Many others have suffered life-changing injuries. Many families have lost sons and daughters, husbands and wives and brothers and sisters. Long after the Union Flag was lowered at Camp Bastion injured soldiers will struggle to cope with the rest of their lives and families will grieve the loss of deeply loved family members. There will be official help and support for a time, but the sense of pain and loss is deep and profound.

The message of the Gospel speaks to our deepest heart needs. Jesus was a young man who dedicated his life to seeking the eternal happiness of others. As God’s eternal Son he was entitled to enjoy all the privileges which were rightfully his, but he voluntarily came into this broken world “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” His death and resurrection stand as a beacon of hope to people of all nations. He understands our deepest pain and loss because he has personally experienced profound pain and loss, and in great love and compassion he comes alongside us in our darkest times to give us comfort, strength and hope.

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.”