Trinity 16 WW1 Commemorative Weekend
The overwhelming impact of hearing those short accounts of the lives and service of Raymond Lodge, Joseph Belcher and John Chamberlain, is to notice how they converge. Each individual makes a strong decision to sign up. In Raymond’s case, his parents were in Australia when he enlisted, and were distressed to learn of their youngest son’s initiative, but he didn’t wait for their return and was not to be dissuaded. In John’s case, the army offered successive opportunities for him to serve in support roles or administration, but he chose the front. Joseph signed up with the 5th Battalion the Oxford and Bucks as soon as it was formed. His letters during training in England show an eagerness to serve, even excitement.... This anecdotal evidence reflects what all the histories tell, that a very strong spirit of service, and indeed patriotic fervour, propelled very many young men into the ranks and across the channel..... Another common feature was that all of these three young men were part of Birmingham’s manufacturing boom. Mitchell and Butlers was formed in 1898 by the merging of two brewing empires and Joseph was clearly in a very secure job in Cape Hill. Raymond and John, too, had great futures ahead in their respective family firms, manufacturing sparkplugs and electrical meters respectively. Both were engineers. Wealth and opportunity stretched out in front of them. It is poignant that Raymond, Joseph and John all died near Ypres. Their stories illustrate how suddenly and gravely the world changed for young men like them when the journey was made across the channel. The ‘Ypres Salient’, as it was known, was a stretch of the front in the form of a bulge of land projecting into enemy territory. This made it particularly dangerous. Although John survived the early fighting at Ypres in 1915, it is salutary to observe that Raymond, John and Joseph most probably served alongside each other, and even in close proximity, in the battles at Ypres in 1915. As Raymond and his company had to retreat during the shelling on 14th September 2015, when he was wounded, it could even have been Joseph or one of his fellow stretcher-bearers who took him behind the lines in the last moments before he died. Whilst stretcher-bearers were normally assigned to companies, there were also common pools of stretcher-bearers who would go where they were needed. That Raymond and Joseph died after only six months and four months at the front, and within ten days of each other, simply illustrates how perilous and brutal the environment was that they had entered, and which claimed them.....
As I think of Joseph and his role as a stretcher-bearer, I find myself thinking of my own grandfather. I know little of his story, but what I do know is that he was wounded at the front. He then contracted trench fever and was sent home to England. He was nursed by my grandmother, or the lady who became my grandmother, and never returned to the front. He was among the fortunate. Having said this, the rest of his life was blighted by his inability to get back into a career or achieve what he might have hoped for as a young man. Survival of the trauma of war left many with emotional and spiritual, as well as physical scars. This introduced another test of character and fortitude, in which people had no choice but to engage. This remains the case, of course, for war veterans from every conflict on the planet: how to deal with survival and how to live again. When I look back, I judge that my grandfather lost that battle.....
This matter turns our thoughts to the impact of the war on families and at home. In the case of Joseph Belcher, whose body was not recovered, the family endured nearly a year of waiting for news. And like so many others, when they did hear from the Army Council, it was a judgement of ‘presumed dead’ that had to be somehow accommodated and accepted. Lives were overshadowed by every kind of sorrow and stress. The fact that Joseph’s name was not recorded initially on the Birmingham Roll of Honour, and that this omission was only rectified in 2012, will have been another hard disturbance of memory.
The impact of war in the Lodge family had some particular features. In the family, Raymond was the only male, out of six, to choose to serve. His older brothers had protected occupations through manufacturing. From the book written by Sir Oliver in 1916, entitled ‘Raymond’, it is apparent that the family leaning was towards pacifism. Sir Oliver was uncomfortable with the jingoistic mood of the day, and his links to Germany through his scientific discipline and to German colleagues who he’d invited to Birmingham, made him eager for a political rather than military solution. Raymond’s decision, therefore, to fight, and to sign up while his parents were away takes on a stronger significance.
One feature of the end of the nineteenth century was a fashion in British society for the psychic and spiritualism, and Sir Oliver Lodge was one who became very interested. In fact he first joined and then became president of the Society for Psychical Research from 1901-1903. His initial interest was through his discipline of physics. He conducted experiments to test whether scientific criteria could be used to explain psychic phenomena, for example ‘telepathy’. From his physical knowledge of wave theory, he considered this both reasonable and probable, and he produced theories to substantiate his claims, including his theory of the ether. Thus his interest in the transfer of wave energy or light through space corresponded directly with the matter of communication in the spirit world. His interest in spiritualism had another dimension. When war came, and so many parents were suffering intense bereavement, the possibility of communication with the dead was attractive. It provided both consolation, and empathy with others similarly affected. For Sir Oliver, he saw no conflict between his spiritualism and his Church of England Christianity, practiced here at St George’s. He was convinced that he was hearing directly from Raymond, and that he Raymond was telling him to enlist other families in seeking contact with their loved ones to ease the suffering of loss. This was based on belief in a seamless continuity between this world and the next. Many people made recourse to mediums, and the mediums would often give their services free of charge to grieving parents and families.
The example of the Lodges is a very striking one and they attracted significant public interest, especially through the publication of Sir Oliver’s book ‘Raymond’, both acclaim and criticism or rebuttal. But the Lodges’ interest in spiritualism is specially worthy of our consideration, I think, in this context of worship and remembrance, as it offers one expression of how people chose to deal with such a sharp human challenge. Yesterday, in our day of seminars, it was noted that the turn to spiritualism was partly occasioned by the failure of conventional religion to meet the spiritual challenge of mass deaths taking place in far-away places with little or no possibility of a funeral. And even if in some cases a funeral was available, the traditional BCP service stressed repentance as a necessary precursor of salvation, so what was to be said for the state of grace of so many young men who had had no chance, arguably, to repent? In this context, spiritualism, with its promise of survival after death and access to the dead on the part of the living, offered a welcome alternative.
We would like to think, now, that good religion has this very capacity to provide wellsprings of resource, consolation and encouragement that are capable of carrying us through life’s greatest moments, be they for good or ill. And in this service, we have followed the pattern of modern liturgies designed to deal specifically with remembrance in connection with the trauma and loss of war. And the attempt has been made to try and find a balance between looking back and looking forward that allows memories to be both registered and transformed. By going back to moments of trauma and offering prayers and seeking grace, a basis is laid for memories of pain and disturbance to be acknowledged and then placed at the foot of the cross, which from a Christian perspective, is where they belong – not to be relinquished irresponsibly, or to be discarded, but in order to be reconfigured and transformed. It is said that ‘we can’t change our memories, but we can change the effect of our memories’. Through release from burdens of pain and suffering, taken up in the mystery of the redemptive suffering of Christ, fresh instincts of the Holy Spirit can rise up within us, individually and collectively, so that we are empowered to embrace the future with hope.
In Hebrew traditions of remembering, the call is to ‘Remember Egypt’, and we heard about it in our first reading. It is a call to remember God’s rescue of the people when they were in most deadly peril. It is also a call to then allow that gratitude to be transformed into a great commitment to reach out to the stranger, the widow, the orphan and the poor in their own day – so that what God did for them, they should do towards others. And from that tradition comes the second great commandment, to love your neighbour as yourself. Memory is transformed into action in the present. This kind of living, active, ethical remembrance has its origin in an event of great promise and grace, the exodus. It is a mode of remembrance that every person who feels gratitude for the blessings of life can draw upon. And it is a mode of remembrance that urges us to direct ourselves towards present suffering and oppression in the world, to address it and live for its redemption. And in this present time we have many pressing challenges to address, such as the present refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, child poverty in Britain and the abuse of wealth and power by corporations and institutions. And this day of remembrance charges us to take fresh steps along this road. The best way to counter the futility and destruction of war is surely to build a better future now?
As we are looking back at the suffering and trauma of wartime, and seeking the transformation of memories, we have noted already that through Christ new perspectives and even new life are possible. Every time we take holy communion and hear the words, “do this in remembrance of me”, we know we have willingly placed ourselves at the behest of a divine commitment to work a way in the world, through us, whereby suffering love can change everything forever!... little by little, slowly but surely. To know that power is a blessing; to live by it is a promise of grace to the world that comes from God: that something new and joyful can come to birth, the rebirth of resurrection.
What stands out, brilliantly, at the dawn of this new day is, of course, the gifting of the Holy Spirit, whose gifts we read about in the second reading this morning. What has its origin in Christ, the Spirit nourishes, nurtures and inspires in all who call upon her. Shortly we will go outside and dedicate the Peace Garden in which the nine lavender plants remind us of the nine manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit in living – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the new resource that will take us forward. Still we will remember the suffering, hardship and sacrifice of our forebears – yet as we do so, in the light of the redemptive love of Christ, we will not only be free to look forward in hope but will be turned towards our neighbours in the present whose burdens we can share and whose present suffering waits to be transformed. And as we do so in the Spirit, we will live the future now.
Reverend Julian Francis
[War could cast its shadow in some unsuspecting ways. In a book called ‘Public Schools and the Great War’, I read recently about the impact of casualties at the front in schools, and particularly on headteachers, who day after day had to announce deaths in school assemblies and services. In the all male public schools, sixth formers would leave school to go to the battlefields, and they would do so with junior masters in their twenties and thirties. When their names came back as lists of the dead, the toll of sorrow this took on some heads was sufficient to break them and end their careers.]