Vicar's letter for November Fowey News

Dear Friends

Rudyard Kipling’s  ‘Recessional’ is a summons to remember: ‘Lest we forget, lest we forget.’ 

This year we mark the centenary of the Armistice at the end of the Great War. US President Woodrow Wilson, borrowing a phrase from the novelist HG Wells called it ‘the war to end all wars.’ Sadly that was not the case. Even at the time, politician David Lloyd George is reputed to have responded to Wilson, ‘This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.’ The scale of lost and destruction it inflicted on the lives of so many people is difficult to grasp:

  • 65 million troops were mobilised during World War 1

  • 6 million British men fought

  • 65,000 of them suffered shell shock (1%)

  • 170,000 of them became prisoners of war (3%)

  • 1.7 million of them were wounded (28%)

  • 772,000 of them died (13%)

  • On the first day of the battle of the Somme, 20,000 British soldiers were killed and 38,000 wounded

  • The average life expectancy of the WW1 fighter pilot was just a few weeks

  • Over 6000 allied and neutral ships were sunk by German U-boats

  • More than 15 million people lost their lives as a direct result of the conflict

So called ‘Pals battalions’ were recruited so that men could fight alongside their friends, work colleagues and neighbours. The impact of heavy losses from these battalions can still be seen on memorials today: whole communities lost their sons and fathers.

The Armistice agreement was signed in Marshall Ferdinand Foch’s private train in the forest near Compiegne in France. One year later King George V dedicated the 11th day of the 11th month as a memorial to all those who had died in the line of duty and ever since our nation has remembered those who gave their lives for the peace and security we enjoy.  On Remembrance Sunday we shall once again stand as an act of simple, silent, eloquent remembrance. ‘Lest we forget, lest we forget’. 

Yet Kipling calls us to remember more still. There were two even more fundamental matters which he wanted us to remember and which we are in constant danger of forgetting. 

First, he wanted us to remember what we owe to God. It was tempting then, as it is tempting now, for us to exult in our own wisdom, strength, wealth as individuals and as a nation. Despite all the power and glory of what was then a mighty empire, Kipling says to us, success in war is owed to God, and we had better remember it: ‘Beneath whose awful hand we hold Dominion’. A nation (or a person) that glories in its own strength; a nation which declares itself independent of God; a nation that believes that it is always in the right – this is a nation which has forgotten that it is accountable to God. 

Then second, in our remembrance we rightly and thankfully speak of sacrifice - a sacrifice that only some have paid, but from which all of us have benefited. But Kipling uses the words of the Bible itself to remind us that there is an even more fundamental sacrifice which is demanded of us all. ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God thou wilt not despise’ (Psalm 51). Most sacrifices involve giving up something very precious. The sacrifice of a broken and a contrite heart is the recognition that our failures leave us without anything to bring to God. It is the sacrifice of pride, in which we determine to trust not in self but in God. 

Lest we forget? We should - and will - never forget the sacrifices of those who fought for our nation, and the pain of those who waited for them. But we ought not to forget what we owe to God - ultimately that unique sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, and the way in which only that meets our deep needs. 

with every blessing, Philip de Grey-Warter


God of our fathers, known of old--
   Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
   Dominion over palm and pine--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
   The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
   An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe--
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
   Or lesser breeds without the law--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
   In reeking tube and iron shard--
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard--
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!

Rudyard Kipling, June 22 1897