“We will remember them.”
Well, we certainly remember them in the sense that we read their names out every year at this service – but every name was a life, a story, with a host of real characters, and personalities.
Which is why I was so heartened when I learned of a local couple who have made it their mission to find out as much about all those names written on our war memorial as humanly possible and to visit every grave of all those servicemen wherever they may be.
Of the 25 service men from WWI, 13 have been researched and visited, 8 have been researched and yet to visit, 4 are left still to find.
Eventually when finished all this research will be gathered and collated as a permanent record and will be kept in this church. I spoke to them briefly to garner a few snippets of information for today’s service.
However much or little we can find out about all of them, these are not just names they are lives. Some we only know a little about.......
There was Harold Dean Tenneck who lived in that little cottage next to the church wall who left his house in uniform with his pack, walked to Gainford station to go to Darlington in 1916 and never came back.
Frederick Heron, who won the military medal for gallantry, William Humblestone who was killed on the very first day of the battle of the Somme on the 1st July 1916.
Some we know quite a lot more about like George Edward Gent, who worked for North East Railways and lived in 8, Tees view. His dad had a plumbers shop there. He was a second lieutenant in the Royal Field artillery and he died on the 14th September 1917 struck by a shell which rendered him unconscious and he died within a few minutes. The two signallers who went to his aid under heavy fire and recovered his body both received the military medal. He is buried in a war cemetery in France near Armentiers but he is also mentioned on the black headstone next to the war memorial. Look for him as we leave this morning.
The enormity of loss can only be fully appreciated once the names have faces. They had lives, mums and dads, wives, children, brothers and sisters.
The brutality and waste of war comes home to us more fully when the lists and statistics become human beings.
But not only brutality and waste, but also heroism, service, self-sacrifice, comradeship. Even in the darkest nights there are flickers of light.
We can argue until the cows come home about the morality of war, about its causes and justifications, but what has happened can’t be undone. Today we are called simply to remember the sacrifice of millions, in this very particular context that is Gainford. To remember specifically those local men who would have been our neighbours if we had been living then. In fact if we had been living then, it might well have been us. Our name might have been on that war memorial.
Let us do them the honour of remembering them in a manner that is fitting and we would have wanted if we had been in their place – if it had been our names carved into that stone.
It is in remembering that we become more committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past. I am sure that sometimes war is unavoidable for many complex reasons, but must be avoided if it possibly can be. Surely the names, the lives recorded on that memorial should act as a constant reminder of the reality of war and its consequences and guard us against a gung ho attitude to war. As St. Paul wrote, “If it is anything to do with you, live at peace with everybody”.
I will end with a prayer by Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Runcie earned a commission in the Scots guards during World War II, serving as a Tank commander and earning the Military cross for two feats of bravery in March 1945: he rescued one of his men from a crippled tank under heavy enemy fire, and the next day took his own tank into an exceptionally exposed position in order to knock out three anti-tank guns. As a result, he is unique among modern Archbishops of Canterbury in having killed fellow human beings. In May 1945, he was among the first British troops to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He knew war and death and he wrote this prayer;
Eternal Father, source of life and light,
whose love extends to all people, all creatures, all things,
grant us that reverence for life
which becomes those who believe in you,
lest we despise it, degrade it,
or come callously to destroy it.
Rather let us save it, serve it, and sanctify it,
after the example of your son,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen