REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY in Finedon and we meet at the War Memorial, the only one I know of which has an exhortation to “cheerfulness” above the names of our Glorious Dead. Everyone turns out, from Rainbows to Veterans, for this centenary year, although I have noticed the numbers rising for a few years now. Perhaps it is the Wootton Bassett effect, the thrown flowers and respectful applause greeting the repatriated bodies of our service personnel who’ve died in “Afghan”, as they call it? Perhaps also because there are no veterans of the First World War left (although I have a parishioner who remembers the Zeppelins over Burton Latimer) and few members of the generation that fought in the Second World War, many of whom I have buried since I’ve been here. Maybe we sense their absence and seek to fill the thinning ranks? I have come to love the veterans, their comradely help for each other, their reliability, their reluctance to make a drama out of things.
They are very much in my mind this centenary year. The BBC has invited me to visit the First World War battlefields of northern France and find the grave of my fellow priest and former chaplain of my school, Bernard Vann, who — unusually for a High Church parson — won a VC, awarded posthumously. I find it jarring. How could a shepherd of the sheep, even a public-school chaplain, charge into battle with his bayonet fixed? He did exactly that, often, having enlisted in the Artists Rifles — not as a padre but as a private soldier — and then been swiftly promoted up to lieutenant colonel, collecting an MC and bar and a Croix de Guerre as well as his VC. He seems to have been one of those people who came fully alive only on the battlefield. Vann had no doubt that he was fighting a righteous war, in defence of Christian civilisation.
When I look out over the graveyards, not only of British troops and their allies but of Germans too, lying, equally dead, in the heavy soil of Picardy, it strikes me that the enemy, too, had thought God was on their side. Kaiser Bill said, “I look upon the people and the nation, as handed on to me, as a responsibility conferred upon me by God. And I believe, as it is written in the Bible, that it is my duty to increase this heritage, for which one day I shall be called upon to give an account. Whoever tries to interfere with my task, I shall crush.”
This is not my idea of a Christian civilisation we would want to preserve, but neither is old maids cycling through high-hedged lanes to evensong, which sounds more like the title sequence for a whimsical sitcom than a civilisation a kaiser would want to destroy.
THE film crew and I stay at a hotel in Arras. We arrange to meet in the bar and then go for dinner. I come down early, in my dog collar, and perch on a stool, trying not to look self-conscious. My drink arrives, and as I lift it to my lips with unhurried savoir faire I lean backwards and very slowly the stool teeters, then tips over. No one says anything.
At Thiepval, the Lutyens memorial to the “glorious dead”, I get talking to two Englishmen who turn out to be instructors from Sandhurst doing a recce before bringing their students out for a tour of the battlefields. I say that I find it hard to imagine something like this ever happening again.
“What do you mean?” he asks. I can’t imagine infantry and tanks facing each other across churned battlefields any more, I say. It’s all intelligence and drones now, isn’t it? He tells me, “I give it 20 or 30 years.” Till what? “Till infantry and tanks meet again and churn up some battlefields.” Why? “Russia and China are looking to extend their borders,” he says.
SOMEBODY shows up wearing a white poppy, and I bridle a little. Not because I object to people expressing a commitment to peace, but because it implies that those who wear red poppies are not equally interested. According to the Peace Pledge Union and the Quakers, the kind of remembrance red poppies promote is un-Christian, embodying the idea that violence can serve the cause of good, while the white shows that absorbing rather than inflicting violence is what lies at the heart of the gospel. To me, the red poppy, so fragile, the colour of shed blood, recalling not banners and trumpets but the dead of Flanders, does anything but glorify violence. I had this conversation with a veteran in the shopping centre in Wellingborough the other day, selling poppies there. He seemed to think that anyone who had experienced war would not think it something to glorify at all.
And then I remember, years ago, going to Boston Grammar School’s Remembrance service. After the names of fallen Old Bostonians were read out, an Old Boy spoke about two local men, the Staniland brothers, whose names are commemorated on a brass plaque in the Stump. Staniland is an honoured name in Boston, and one of these two brothers was the Town Clerk. When war broke out in 1914, he and his brother were commissioned as officers in the 4th Lincolnshires and in due course were sent to the Western Front.
The younger brother, Geoffrey, a second lieutenant, was killed on 12 April 1915, aged 34. Three months later his brother, Captain Meaburn Staniland, followed, dead at 35. You’ll find similar stories recorded baldly in a line or two on war memorials the length and breadth of Britain.
Did their families put out more flags, stiffen the upper lip, raise up sons to follow their fallen kin into battle? Yes — another Staniland, I noticed at the Grammar School Remembrance service, was killed in the Second World War. The family chose to remember their dead sons not with trumpets and blood and glory, but with the text: Greater love hath no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends. In answering the violence of the world with the sacrifice of their lives, the Staniland brothers, and millions like them, did not glorify war, but transcended it.
© Richard Coles, 2016. Extracted from Bringing In the Sheaves: Wheat and chaff from my years as a priest by Richard Coles, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £20 in hardback (CT Bookshop £17) and £9.99 in ebook.