Ayr: St Columba Church

10 November 2019

Sermon Remembrance Sunday 2019
Lessons Romans 8: 31 – 35 St John 15: 9 – 17
Prayer of Illumination
Let us pray.
Bless our reflection and meditation. May the love of Jesus fill our hearts to overflowing so that our deepest desires be shaped and driven by justice, integrity and peace. Amen.
Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had given Germany an ultimatum to leave Belgium by midnight of 3rd August. Belgium’s neutrality had been guaranteed by Great Britain as far as back 1839. It was the eleventh hour at night, midnight in Germany, when the ultimatum expired. On 4 August, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. A statement from the Foreign Office read:
Owing to the summary rejection by the German
Government of the request made by His Majesty’s
Government for assurances that the neutrality of
Belgium would be respected, His Majesty’s
Ambassador in Berlin has received his passport, and
His Majesty’s Government declared to the German
Government that a state of war exists between Great
Britain and Germany as from 11pm on August 4th.
During the four years that followed, the total number of military and civilian deaths reached 19.7 million people. Of the civilian deaths, around 6 million were due to famine and disease. The four years of the war and those immediately following were bleak indeed. Besides the war, millions died in the Armenian Genocide, Assyrian Genocide, Greek Genocide and millions more from Spanish flu. It is difficult to believe that such slaughter and suffering took place only just over one hundred years ago.
In every corner of the country, war memorials are poignant reminders of the cost to families in local communities. It was the merciless battles of 1915 and the heavy losses inflicted that changed the idea that the First World War was a romantic adventure. The Battle of Loos in 1915 has been described in many ways: one historian says, ‘It was both an unnecessary and unwanted battle. In strategic terms it was meaningless’. Strategically meaningless, but during the 14 days of battle Britain suffered over 59,000 losses, more than twice that of the German Empire. It was at the Battle of Loos that the confinement and torture of trench warfare was laid bare. One soldier wrote:
The trenches were only taking shape, and once a
man was dumped in them, there he had to remain
until he was relieved. With practically no
communication trenches in existence, the men were
like prisoners, for normally there could be no daylight
journeying between the support and front trenches,
and a man had little more to do than sit in mud and
water…..It is not surprising that men sometimes fell
into moods of profound despondency; they had no
water except for drinking, they were limited to a diet
of bully beef and bread or biscuits, and their chief
companions were their own thoughts. Only at night,
under showers of bullets and shells, was exercise with
any freedom possible. On the conclusion of a spell
of trench duty a man resembled a scarecrow, every
furrow of his face filled with mud and stubbly beard
on his chin.
The British attack plan at Loos fell apart. When the British Army began its attack they were met with sustained machine-gun and artillery fire. Later, German historians recorded the amazement of their gunners as serried lines of British infantrymen marched towards them. One said, ‘Never had machine-guns had such straightforward work to do…..The effect was devastating.’ When finally the British forces began their retreat, the German gunners stopped firing immediately; they too were overcome by the slaughter. Nine months later, on 1 July 1916, the infantry regiments of the British Army suffered their bloodiest day at the Somme. From the 11 divisions which began the day, 21,932 men were killed or missing, 35,493 wounded and 585 taken prisoner. Can we truly begin to imagine what it must have been like?
In his poem, ‘High Wood’, Lieutenant Ewart Alan Mackintosh of the Seaforth Highlanders told how the easy enthusiasm of 1914 had given way to deeper and darker feelings:
The wild war pipes were calling,
Our hearts were blithe and free
When we went up the valley
To the death we could not see.
Clear lay the wood before us
In the clear summer weather,
But broken, broken, broken
Are the sons of the heather.
Broken, broken, broken. Many of the injuries suffered by those in combat are wounds of the mind. In a public lecture last year, Allan Little, formerly of the BBC, cited a US Veterans’ Association Report which said that between 1999 and 2010 twenty-two veterans a day took their own lives, totaling over 8,000 a year. Most of those veterans were over the age of 50, almost certainly suggesting that they had suffered decades of psychological torment before death.
In 2003, Allan Little was in Baghdad in Iraq during the American-led occupation. The statue of Saddam Hussein had fallen. He was staying in the Hotel Palestine with no electricity. On one occasion, two figures appeared at the end of his corridor silhouetted by the white sun. Tall and broad, the two American soldiers stood were cradling assault rifles. Their uniforms stained with the mud of the Tigris Valley. Allan said that they were a large, intimidating presence until they spoke, and then they became 19 year old boys. Quiet, shy and deferential, they asked if he had a satellite ’phone in his room. They wanted to call home and in the weeks that followed he had a constant trickle of US servicemen come to his room: almost all of them phoned their mothers. Allan said, ‘This great military machine that assembled in Kuwait was composed in part at least of boys who missed their mothers’. I wonder how many of those boys are today suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
This week, The Times reported on the story of a 32 year old man, a US veteran, Adrian Bonar. Born in America, Bonar was the son of a Scottish business man. Earlier this month, Bonar’s body was found wrapped in tarpaulin and duct tape in the boot of a Lexus, which had been dumped at the side of the road in California about 75 miles from his home in San Diego. Adrian Bonar was ‘known to police as a drug addict with a string of previous convictions for drugs and possessing weapons. He also had an outstanding arrest warrant against him.
Adrian served three tours in Iraq as a decorated soldier in the US army. He was honourably discharged after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and declared medically unfit for service. Adrian’s father, from Renfrewshire, said that his son had the brightest smile, was a big guy but, after serving in Iraq, he suffered terrible nightmares. Adrian’s father said that every bullet from the high-powered weapon which he fired ‘was a mini concussion and that was why [Adrian] suffered from this PTSD’. At the funeral, Adrian’s coffin was draped in the US flag and a picture showed him standing in full Highland dress.
During World War One, nightmares persisted for years but sympathy was rarely forthcoming. The symptoms of this so-called shell shock led to what was called ‘emotional weakness’; it was deemed to be cowardice. Soldiers arriving at hospital held their heads in shame. The poet Siegfried Sassoon, himself a patient at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, wrote of soldiers subject to the ghosts of friends who had died, of dreams that dripped with murder; men were broken and mad. During World War One the expectation was that those who suffered from shell shock should return to the front lines as early as possible.
When we remember World War One and the many conflicts that have followed, PTSD is a significant part of the human cost. Last year, the National Records of Scotland had an exhibition of photos and correspondence from the first war, much of it detailing veterans’ applications for a medical pension. Many were denied pensions. In the case of Alexander Douglas, there is a letter from his employer written in 1921. Douglas began work in June 1919: he is described as being dull and a dour Scot. With each passing month, the quality of his work had declined. The employer said that, had Douglas not been a returned soldier, they would have let him go. The letter closes by saying that the employer believed Douglas to be suffering from GPI (General Paralysis of the Insane). In our time, when political leaders contemplate conflict and ready themselves to send our Armed Forces, our sons and daughters, into harm’s way, they should first visit veterans who have lost limbs or whose minds are haunted by a veritable hell.
Let me close with words from Sergeant-Major Richard Tobin of the Royal Naval Division:
The Armistice came, the day we had dreamed of.
The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of
noise and bangs ended in silence. The killings had
stopped.
We were stunned. I had been out since 1914. I should
have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the
slaughter, the hardships, the waste and the friends I
had lost.
Amen.