The news that Government has ordered local councils to discourage the public from attending Remembrance Sunday events is a blow for many as we enter a second lock-down. It means a further curtailment of worship in this year’s Season of Remembrance during November, when Churches make a special effort to reach out to their local communities to meet the needs of those who are bereaved, whether recently or in the past.
The Season begins with All Saints’ Day, then All Souls’ Day. It culminates with the national marking of the ultimate sacrifice made by thousands in the armed forces and also the civilian front line in world wars and in other conflicts throughout the world. Over the years we have developed a well-loved pattern of events beginning with the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance, a celebration of sacrifice, followed on Sunday by the ceremony of National Remembrance including the service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Much curtailed because of the pandemic, there will be no-march past this year, and all will be socially distanced.
Although our remembrance is limited by circumstances, other ways of remembering are increasing. I’ve noticed in the media that more of us are spending time researching our own families and the stories of what our relations contributed to the war effort, back to the beginning of the 20th century in some cases. My particular remembrance is, like many others, of family stories – what my father and uncles did on active service in the war, and my mother’s stories of working in a munitions factory (“one false move and you’re blown to kingdom come”). And she told stories of ignoring her mother’s strictures to stay home and stay safe (echoes of pandemic) and going dancing at the Star and Garter in Putney, and watching from the balcony bombs falling over London and into the Thames!
One of my dearest memories of past Remembrance Sundays is of watching on television the Cenotaph service with my father, a Royal Navy veteran with many years’ service. He loved seeing the veterans march past, and every year told me that the Royal Navy were the first in the parade “because you know they are the Senior Service, this country’s first and oldest armed force”. I also learnt the various naval structures, the Royal Marines, the Royal Naval Air Service, the Fleet Air Arm. He viewed it all with no love of war but with a sense of pride in his country and a pride in the sacrifice of those with whom he served who “didn’t make it”; he would never say that they died.
Few stories from my father, though, other than how he knew his life had been saved by some external power several times when torpedoed in mid-ocean and he had to swim for it. And then the time when he experienced God with him on deck for the mid-Atlantic night watch, God holding with him in his hands the ship and the sleeping men – a still small point in the middle of the chaos of war. He was a man who saw no glory in war but much to be thankful for.
Death in war is always wasteful death, the wasted potential of young lives, the blighted lives of those who came back but carry with them for ever the scars of war. Those who never live to the full because they are maimed physically, mentally or spiritually by their experiences. And those who die prematurely because of the blight of war on their bodies and minds, never enjoy their children, grandchildren or retirement. It is for these too that we give thanks and whom we remember today.
These people were not all heroes and saints; they were ordinary folk who willingly took on their responsibilities to protect civilisation, and in so doing gave up all their rights. In Wandsworth Museum there is a letter home from the 1st World War trenches from a young Wandsworth soldier. It’s a cheerful letter, full of every day matters, including whether the money from his army pay has reached his mother. A few days later he was killed. The ultimate sacrifice.
Sacrifice is not much spoken of these days. Recent generations, including my generation, the so-called baby boomers, are used to independence, individuality, personal fulfilment. We talk about dream homes, dream holidays, living the dream.
Pandemics have a way of smashing dreams, and so too do wars, and rearranging our priorities.
So like earlier generations we are learning to be thankful for the small things, and the value of our own small acts of kindness; we are learning what it means to be a community. We are finding that we have a deep interdependence with our fellow human beings, not just our fellow Brits, and with the natural world.
And we too have much to be thankful for today in our own war with a virus. We too can be thankful for self- sacrifice, for those who do not measure their efforts and the hours they work in terms of what they are paid, often far too little. We can be thankful for those who put their patients first and turn up for another long shift with their children and families elsewhere, separated, like evacuees long ago. We can be thankful for those who sacrifice self to keep buses and trains running, supermarket shelves full, doctors’ surgeries open.
No, the word sacrifice is not often used today, and with our higher standard of living and cult of individualism it’s not something we think about much as a society. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there, deep in our DNA, ready to rise up, part of our nature, ready to come to the aid of our fellow beings in times of pandemic and in times of war.