ROSES, lilies, and heather rather than the customary poppies decorated the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey on Sunday, during a service to commemorate the Armistice of 1918.
The choir sang a setting by Elgar of words from Isaiah 61: “For as the earth bringeth forth her bud and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all nations.”
The mood was brighter than that of the sombre commemoration in 2014 of the centenary of the outbreak of the war. That service concluded with the extinguishing of all but one light (News, 8 August 2014).
This time, the congregation had been advised that dark colours were not obligatory — the Queen wore bright purple, the Prime Minister a spring-like green — and the hymns spoke of light, hope, and love. A new anthem by Judith Weir, “The True Light”, began “The darkness is past.”
But the mood was not celebratory. Nothing matched the sight observed by Stanley Downing at Lincoln Cathedral in 1918: “Two of the cathedral dignitaries — one with a long white beard and both in cassocks, gowns and mortarboards — met in the middle of the Cathedral lawn, joined hands and performed a little jig of jubilation.”
This recollection was included in a commemorative 60-page brochure published by the Government and provided, unusually, in addition to the customary printed order of service (which it reproduced). Written by historians, and replete with photographs and archive material, it went on to recall the “revolution and social rest” of the years after the war, and “renewed concern for social housing, welfare, and education”.
In contrast with the jubilant scenes reported from 1918, the streets around the Abbey were closed to traffic, eerily quiet, and heavily policed. Armed officers patrolled the roof of the Methodist Central Hall. Inside the Abbey, a helicopter whirring above was eventually drowned out as the sub-organist played Elgar’s Sospiri. This had been composed on the eve of the war.
In the order of service, Sir Hew Strachan, in his historical note, stated that the end of the First World War had given rise to “disorientation” and “apprehension”.
“One will at last fully recognise that the dead are not only dead for the duration of the war,” Cynthia Asquith, the daughter-in-law of the former Prime Minister, had observed.
The knowledge in hindsight of what was to follow within a generation cast its shadow over readings during the service from the diaries of Beatrice Webb (“The peoples everywhere are rejoicing”) and Private John Jackson (“It was strange to think, and know, that once more we could move about fully exposed without fear of being shot at”).
PAThe Queen and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the grave of the Unknown Warrior on Sunday
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon referred to the horrors of the war and then spoke of “the hatreds that imposed reparations on the vanquished, and sowed the seeds for the next, still crueller and greater, conflict”.
Some good had emerged before being “slowly killed — destroyed by dictatorships, isolationism, a turning inwards by the strong, and the manipulations of the ruthless; by Depression and by tyranny and ancient hatreds which had not been reconciled”.
The scriptural readings had been written by Jews, he noted.
The German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier — “a friend to this nation” — took part. This was a first for Britain’s national Remembrance observances. He had attended the earlier service at the Cenotaph, and had now joined the Queen in placing wreaths at the grave of the Unknown Warrior. “Ihr Lieben, lasst uns einander lieb haben,” he read (1 John 4.7-11): “Beloved, let us love one another.”
The politics of the period was reflected in Sophie Okonedo’s reading from Beatrice Webb, who foresaw “the tide of revolution”, and also in an extract from Winston Churchill’s The Unfinished Task, read by Simon Russell Beale.
The victors had “now become responsible under Providence for the immediate future of the world. They can no more divest themselves of this responsibility than they could in the first instance have stood out of the war. To do so would be to sacrifice at a stroke all the fruits which have been gained by an infinitude of sufferings and achievement.”
The Prime Minister read from Isaiah 58: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen?” The passage includes a command to “deal thy bread to the hungry”.
Young people who had played a part in the past four years of commemorations laid flowers at the grave of the Unknown Soldier. Among them were Jhonattan Goncalves and Zach Opere-Onguende, from the Vale Special School, Haringey, in London. They had had been moved to write the song “My Mate George” after a trip to the grave, in Belgium, of Pte George Baxter Lowson, of Tottenham.
Among those who read prayers were Jasleen Singh, who won the Never Such Innocence competition for her poem “The Indian Soldier”, inspired by her two great-great-grandfathers, among the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who fought for the British Empire; and Rebecca Pinkerton, a Cadet Corporal in Armagh.
After the National Anthem, the Queen and the President departed together, a symbol of the “very different world” of which Archbishop Welby had spoken when he said: “Through the faithfulness of God and our loving obedience, conflict has been transformed and enemies have reconciled.”
Across the Channel, earlier in the day, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, had been seen clasping hands with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at Compiègne, where the Armistice was signed.
“It’s down to us to ensure that this image is interpreted in the future as the symbol of a lasting peace between nations, and not as a photograph of a last moment of unity before the world sinks into a new disorder,” President Macron commented later.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon.
THE battlefields of the world on 11 November 1918 were images of destruction and despair. Millions of soldiers had fallen, the vast majority young men.
Many more millions bore the scars of war, psychological and physical. Empires had been destroyed, the old order of things had ceased to be.
At home, yet more millions mourned the absent and lost, or sought help to care for the wrecked, yet still loved, family or friends who had gone away whole and returned so harmed.
The global economy was shattered, a shattering made worse by the hatreds that imposed reparations on the vanquished, and sowed the seeds for the next, still crueller and greater conflict.
Like the malevolent aftershocks of a great earthquake, civil wars sprang into flame amongst the ruins, and harried refugees were hunted hither and thither.
The great cry was of a war to end all wars, of building a nation fit for heroes.
Some good things had emerged, built in idealism and dreams of conflict transformed, such as the League of Nations. Yet no sooner were they, than they were slowly killed — destroyed by dictatorships, isolationism, a turning inwards by the strong and the manipulations of the ruthless, by Depression, and by tyranny and ancient hatreds which had not been reconciled.
Twenty-seven years later, there was a world whose destruction was orders of magnitude greater.
The people to whom Isaiah wrote would have nodded in agonised recognition. Exiled amidst mass slaughter, captive in a cruel and far-away land, they returned to a ruined, occupied, leaderless, and impoverished country.
To them, Isaiah, the Jewish prophet spoke, of God’s faithfulness and of human responsibility. They were to trust the God who would not forget a single human being and to act in love for the poor, for the weak and oppressed.
And to us, in a few minutes, in a sublime gesture, another Jewish man’s words will be heard, a disciple of Jesus, John, writing amidst persecution and suffering, yet with the same underlying theme: the faithfulness of God and the responsibility of human beings.
He calls for us to love one another, not to hate or to pursue revenge.
He writes out of knowing God in Jesus, who died on the cross and rose triumphant from the tomb, demonstrating that, in his faithful obedience, the final verdict on evil is defeat. The final call to human beings from the God we worship here today is hope, life, and liberation.
The fact that John’s words will be read in German, by that country’s President — a friend to this nation — demonstrates what can be done.
On this day we remember in order to act. We look back at the ruins and find that they have been rebuilt. We look forward, in a very different world and society, however great the challenges, and see that through the faithfulness of God and our loving obedience, conflict has been transformed and enemies have reconciled. And that is hope for the world. Amen.