Every year, the Sunday nearest to the 11th of November is designated Remembrance Sunday. This year it falls on November 9th. On that Sunday, at 11 am we’ll stand in silence for two minutes. And in the silence we’ll remember the sufferings and the triumphs of two World Wars. We’ll pay tribute to those who gave their lives. And we’ll give thanks to God for his mercies towards us.
The First World War began when Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia on the 28th July 1914. It ended at 11 am on the 11th November 1918, just ninety years ago. In the four years of the war, nearly ten million men died on the battlefield; perhaps as many civilians died through famine or disease. Nearly nine hundred thousand British soldiers, sailors and airmen perished; many more were left crippled, blinded, or psychologically broken by what they had endured. Nineteen thousand British soldiers died on a single day, 1st July 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Every town and village had its roll of honour. Some communities lost virtually every man under the age of forty.
The conditions under which men fought are unimaginable. Waist-deep in mud, choked by mustard gas, they edged forward from shell-hole to shell-hole, only to be mown down by the hail of machine-gun fire. The wounded sank in the mud and drowned. Many of the bodies were never found.
How did we become involved in a war that began with the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Bosnian student? We went to war not because we had to but in order to keep a promise. We had promised to come to the defence of neutral Belgium if she were attacked. The German Chancellor could not believe that Britain would stand by such a promise. Would Britain, he asked incredulously, really go to war “for a piece of paper”? The Germans marched into Belgium. And for the sake of that piece of paper, Britain declared war on Germany. And not Britain alone. From all across the Empire, from New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, India, men came to fight alongside the British forces.
The First World War came to an end with the collapse of Germany. Britain and her allies had triumphed but at unimaginable cost. There was rejoicing as the guns fell silent across Europe. The Great War was over. World leaders declared that their task now was to build a world in which such a war could never again be fought. The First World War must be the war to end wars.
And yet, twenty years later, on the 3rd September 1938, Britain declared war on Germany again. Again it was to redeem a pledge. We had stood by while Hitler annexed Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia. But we promised that we would not stand by if he attacked Poland. And so when his troops marched into Poland, we knew that once again we must defend the cause of justice.
We knew too how much was at stake. We knew that Hitler’s ambitions could never be satisfied with anything less than world domination. We knew that if Hitler were allowed to continue unchecked, Britain could not survive as a free nation. The day would come when we too would be swallowed up by his monstrous empire.
So for seven long years we fought – in Africa, in Italy, in the Middle East, in Burma and Malaya, on the seas and in the air, through France and the Netherlands, and finally on the soil of Germany itself. It was total war, and every man, woman and child living on British soil was caught up in it. We lived through the blitz, we dug for victory, we handed over our saucepans to be turned into guns and aeroplanes.
From June 1940 when France surrendered to the Germans, until June 1941 when Germany invaded Russia, we with our Commonwealth allies, stood virtually alone, facing the greatest war-machine the world had ever seen. Yet even then, we refused to consider a negotiated peace with Hitler. Churchill’s words after the fall of France still ring out nearly sixty years later:
“What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.”
Well, we did not fail.On May 8th 1945, the remaining German leaders signed a declaration of unconditional surrender. We call that date, VE day – Victory in Europe Day. And we speak of September 2nd as VJ day, the day when Germany’s ally Japan surrendered and the 2nd World War finally came to an end.
It’s estimated that forty-six million soldiers and civilians died in the course of the war. The Soviet Union paid by far the greatest price, with twenty-three million dead. But we too had to pay our share with nearly half a million deaths.
These then are the events that we recall each Remembrance Sunday. But why? Why remember still events from more than ninety years ago? There are those who would say that it’s time to forget, that we should put the past behind us and concentrate on the world today, with all its needs and challenges. Especially there are those who would question whether we, as a church, should get involved in such a remembrance. What has the church to do with wars? Aren’t we glorifying war by the very fact of such a service? And should we as Christians who believe in the complete separation of church and state, be joining in such a national event as Remembrance Sunday?
Let’s deal with that last point first. We don’t observe Remembrance Sunday because the State tells us to. It doesn’t. It is an entirely voluntary thing which we as a church choose to do. If our government ordered me as a Christian minister to include such a ceremony of remembrance in our Lord’s Day worship, I would refuse as a matter of principle. I would say that no government has the right to dictate how we worship God, and what we include in our services of worship.
But as long as it is a voluntary institution, I am very glad that we take part in this annual remembrance. Why is it so important that we do so? I’ll give you three reasons.
Firstly because it is right to honour men and women who made great sacrifices in the cause of freedom and justice. I am not pretending that all the men who fought in our armed services were good men, or that they all fought for right motives or in a right spirit. I am not saying that every action we took in the course of the two world wars was moral and good. I am certainly not saying that all those who died will be found in heaven, saved and accepted. But I do believe that the cause for which we fought was a just cause. And I want to honour men and women who fought and especially those who died in such a cause. If they had not given their lives, we would not have enjoyed freedom for this past sixty years. Their pain, their tears, their blood: these were the price that bought the years of peace we have known.
Secondly, because it is right to give thanks to God for his mercy towards us in those great wars. Few people now remember how close we came to defeat and disaster. In the First World War when German submarines were cutting off our lifeline across the Atlantic, we came close to despair. In the great Spring Offensive of 1918, when the German forces seemed to be sweeping everything before them, defeat seemed certain. In the Second World War, when our army was stranded at Dunkirk; and then in the months that followed as we waited for Hitler’s invasion, our survival hung by a thread. Night after night our fighter pilots, outnumbered and exhausted, fought for control of the skies. If the Luftwaffe had maintained its attack on our airfields for another fortnight in September 1940, our defences could not have stood the strain.
Yet again and again we saw God’s hand: in the failure of the German Panzer divisions to close in on our helpless troops at Dunkirk; in the “Miracle of Malta” when for 18 months a tiny garrison held Malta against overwhelming air attack; in the sudden change of weather that made possible the D Day landings on 6th June 1944; in Hitler’s insane decisions first to invade Russia and then to encourage Japan in its attack on Pearl Harbour. In all these things, believers recognised the hand of God and were amazed.
Ken MacRae, evangelical minister in Stornoway preached on the 9th May 1945 from Psalm 124 “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, now may Israel say, if it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose against us: then they had swallowed us up quick…. Blessed be the LORD, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth. Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken and we are escaped…” Our deliverance, he said “was entirely due to the Lord being on our side – we could not save ourselves…” He confessed that Britain did not “deserve divine assistance”. But that to MacRae was all the more reason to remember God’s mercy. He finished with four applications:
- Surely we are not to continue sinning against our Deliverer.
- Surely He should be our confidence.
- And our praise.
- We should never forget that He can cast us down as easily as He raised us up.
I wonder what MacRae would say if he could see Britain today, and see how totally our nation has forgotten God and his kindness to us. What ingratitude we have shown to our Deliverer! But if everyone else forgets to thank and worship God, then surely it’s that much more important that believers should do so, and do so publicly. Others may refuse to give God the honour that’s due to him; we must remember and give thanks. That’s what we’ll be doing on November 9th.
Thirdly, because there are vital lessons to be learned from the two World Wars.Anyone who looks with open eyes at the events of those years will be left horrified by what they reveal about human nature. Before the First World War many theologians and philosophers talked glibly about the essential goodness of human beings. They declared that we were moving ever upward towards perfection. The last traces of our bestial past would soon be erased and our world would be heaven on earth. Those optimistic dreams were blown to pieces in the bloodbath of the Somme and trampled in the mud of Passchendaele. They were burned in the ovens of Auschwitz, beaten to death on the Burma railway, vapourised in the mushroom cloud that hung over Hiroshima.
For us every Remembrance Sunday is a reminder that Man is bad and that no education, no economic reform, no political or social scheme can change human nature. If anyone doubts the truth of the Bible’s stark words, “The heart is deceitful above all things, incurably wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9) let him read Martin Gilbert’s Holocaust or Second World War. And if he says, “well that was just one nation brainwashed by one man”, then give him Antony Beevor’s Berlin as a follow-up.
It’s important too to be reminded where godless philosophies lead. Secular historian J M Roberts wrote of the cultural and philosophical shifts that led to the two World Wars. He saw them rooted in the “teaching of those who saw conflict and violence as the dynamic of progress.” But who’s he talking about? “The roots of such cultural currents are very deep. The teachings of Karl Marx and Charles Darwin about the social and biological role of conflict must be counted among them…” Of all nations on earth, Germany had absorbed Darwinist ideas most thoroughly. The survival of the fittest, the right of the strong to supersede the weak – these were the ideas that drove Germany to war in 1914 and again in 1938. For Hitler, the Jews, the Slavs were inferior products of the evolutionary process: it was his destiny to enslave or exterminate such subhuman types. Every Remembrance Sunday is a reminder that if Darwinism is true, then human beings are chance products of an undirected and purposeless process. They have no value and there is no crime in exterminating them. Hitler was merely applying what was being taught in every university in Europe.
And one more lesson. Remembrance Sunday is a reminder that we are no different from any other nation. God handed Germany and Japan, over to unspeakable wickedness. He took away from these nations all moral restraint. Civilised, educated, cultured people did things that went beyond savagery. And then when the iniquity of these nations was full, he punished them. The smoke and dust that hung over Germany’s shattered cities was the testimony to God’s wrath against nations which reject him.
Read Romans 1 again. And ask if the same thing could happen, is happening to Britain today? “God gave them over… God gave them over… since they did not think it worthwhile to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a depraved mind…They have become filled with every kind of wickedness” (Romans 1:24,26,28). How far are we from that total handing over?
These are not comfortable lessons to remember. But they are vital lessons. Our children need to learn them. We need to remember them. So on November 9th, I’ll be wearing my poppy, and I’ll be standing in silence, and I’ll be remembering.