Bishop’s Letter: Commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War
“I would suggest that nothing less that pledging ourselves to peace making and preventing further conflict will do if we are really serious about commemorating the centenary.”
This autumn will be dominated by television programmes, newspaper articles and exhibitions marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Estimates vary, but it is thought that as many as 18 million soldiers and civilians were killed worldwide. Here in Britain around 1 million people were killed and 1.67 million injured.
Behind these horrendous statistics lie the tragic stories of individual soldiers who never returned to these shores and whose bodies lie in foreign soil.
If you visit the St Symphorien military cemetery, near Mons in Belgium, you will find two adjacent tombstones marking the graves of the first and the last soldiers to be killed in the First World War.
Seventeen year old Private John Parr was a local man, born in Barnet and brought up in North Finchley. After leaving school he worked as a golf caddy but then decided to enlist in the Middlesex Regiment despite the fact that he was only 14 years old. He became a reconnaissance cyclist and whilst on a patrol was killed seventeen days after the start of the war. It was thought he was shot by a German cavalry patrol, although the 17 year old’s body was never identified.
Private George Ellison, a married Yorkshire miner, who fought with the Royal Irish Lancers, had survived the battles of Mons, Ypres, Armentieres, Loos, Bassée, Lens and Cambrai. It is tragic that as the war drew to a close he was killed just 90 minutes before the armistice whilst on patrol near Mons.
These stories could be replicated thousands of times. Hardly a community or a family in Britain were unaffected by death and suffering. As we approach the centenary of the armistice, the pressing question facing us is how we should commemorate the end of the war.
Karen Bradley, the Culture Minister in the government has suggested that the centenary should be marked by the ringing of church bells, just as they rang out at the armistice. Well, as a bell ringer, I am always keen to hear bells being rung. Yet we surely, as well as marking the moment in this and other transient ways, we need a response which is more ambitious and more fitting to honour the memory of those who died and suffered.
I would suggest that nothing less that pledging ourselves to peace making and preventing further conflict will do if we are really serious about commemorating the centenary.
It is easy to presume that peace is simply the absence of conflict. Yet in the beatitudes Jesus spoke about ‘peace makers’, suggesting that it is not a passive state but an activity which requires our attention and our energy.
Peace making starts with us. We need to make peace in our own hearts where it is all too easy to harbour resentment and jealousy. It was significant that following the Brexit vote, there was a surge in hate crimes across our nation, some of it rooted in zenophobia. If such feelings are not challenged and channelled, they can become the soil in which the seeds of conflict can flourish.
We can also make peace by working for a world in which justice and equality prevail. Many of the trouble spots of the world are places where ancient grievances have lain dormant for decades like unexploded bombs (think of Bosnia or Rwanda), only to be detonated when a spark sets off a chain reaction of tit-for-tat revenge.
Perhaps the most important area that we need to address if we are to be peace makers is nuclear weapons. Last July 122 nations belonging to the United Nations voted for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a legally binding international agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons. The support of at least fifty countries was required to bring it into effect. By January 2018 the treaty had been signed by fifty-six states.
The treaty prohibits the ‘development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance and encouragement to the prohibited activities’. For those states which have nuclear weapons, the treaty specifies ‘a time-bound framework for negotiations leading to the verified and irreversible elimination of its nuclear weapons programme’. However, having a nuclear capability, the British government has been unwilling to sign the treaty. Meanwhile, many of us are concerned that in an unstable world where nuclear weapons are proliferating, we cannot afford to wait much longer. This was illustrated recently when, in response to Chairman Kim Jong-un, President Trump promised that if North Korea attacked the USA it ‘will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.’ The problem is that if, God forbid, either leader were to authorise the use of nuclear weapons it is unlikely that either of them, securely shielded in bunkers deep beneath the earth, would suffer personally. The collateral damage would be the millions of civilians who had nowhere to shelter. It is for this reason that I long for our county to engage with nuclear disarmament, even if it takes us several years.
So to return to the centenary of the Armistice, I hope that over the coming months we will all reflect on the part that we can play as peace makers in today’s world – peace in our own lives, peace in our world and peace in the light of the threat of nuclear war.
This is an abridged version of Bishop Alan’s March 2018 Presidential Address to Diocesan Synod which can be read here.
See page 4 for examples of two activities in the Diocese of St Albans that are contributing to peacemaking.
Bishop Alan, St Albans