It is a great privilege to be invited to preach here this morning. It is humbling to be asked to preach on this Remembrance Sunday, as we progress through a decade of centenaries in Ireland. 1915 saw the First World War enter its second year, and it became obvious that neither side was going to gain a quick victory. The war was to last for four years and see 16 million people killed and many more wounded. It was supposed to be a war to end all wars, yet tragically barely 25 years later the world was at war again. Of course Remembrance Sunday remembers those who died in World War Two, Korea and countless conflicts through to the present day. However, in these centenary years, the men and women who died in World War One have a special place in our services of remembrance.
Time has separated us from those who fought in the First World War. As a child I was lucky enough to meet such men, well into their 80’s and 90’s, when veterans from the second war were barely in their 60’s. Yet now, for those who went to war in 1914, very often the only sign of their presence and service are brass plaques in our parish churches, bearing the names of long lost sons who died. If one visits the battlefields of the Somme or Flanders, the cemeteries seem to stretch forever. These lists of names are multiplied seemingly to infinity. I have stood under the Menin Gate in Ypres and looked up at the names of 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who have No Known Grave. 54,000 grieving families, who had no grave to visit. This is only one memorial to the missing. The Thiepval memorial lists the names of 73,000 more with no known grave and there are others memorials throughout northern France and Belgium. Yet these men are still remem-bered. Every evening the trumpeters from the Ypres Fire Brigade play The Last Post under Menin Gate, to give thanks for those men who gave their lives in the defence of Ypres. It is a very moving experience.
As human beings, we find it difficult to identify with such figures. We cannot comprehend such a scale of loss. I have stood in Auschwitz concen-tration camp, where one million people were murdered, and my mind could not comprehend the scale of such savagery and evil. Yet I was brought to tears by the sight of a little blond pigtail in a sea of human hair, all which remained of some of the victims. The scale of the horror was beyond my comprehension, but I could identify with a frightened little child. We identify with individuals, who had lives, loves, troubles like our own. Lists of names or historical accounts do not touch us as deeply as the personal details that allow us to identify with others.
I hope you will forgive me if I tell you of a recent personal discovery that has brought remembrance to the fore in my thoughts and prayers over the last week or so. I have always known some of the details of my family’s involvement in both world wars. Some of my family served in the South Irish Horse, an Irish Yeomanry Cavalry Regiment, during the First World War. I have seen a film clip of them training in the Curragh, Co. Kildare, in the summer of 1914, prior to the declaration of war. The ladies are picnicking while the men race their horses. It looks like a combination of a parish fete and a day at the races. A few weeks later many of them were dead. For the survivors and the bereaved families, Remembrance Sunday held many painful memories; it was a personal act of remembrance, a personal loss, as it is for many today. My great grandmother lost several members of her family in the First World War. I can only imagine her anguish when her son, my grandfather, sneaked off from Dublin to fight in another war in 1943, aged just 17. He survived, and was ordained after the war. He never spoke much about his experiences.
However it was only recently that I discovered another aspect of my family’s involvement in the First World War. As a child I remember seeing a little bronze memorial plaque in my great-aunt’s house, to a fallen British soldier. I have a great interest in the period, so recently I have been investi-gating further family members who served in the Army. I knew little of this individual. My family knew little. I did not have much to go with apart from a surname and the area that he was from. I decided that I would try to discover more about him, where he died, where in France he had fought and with which Regiment. A quick search on the Commonwealth war graves commission website supplied me with some answers and a lot of further questions.
25026 Private Abraham Watchorn 5th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, from Rathvilly, County Carlow. Eldest son of Abraham and Jane Watchorn Volunteered for enlistment 22nd November 1915 Killed in action, 26/4/1916 aged 21.
The surprise lay in the place of his burial. Buried in Grangegorman Military cemetery, Dublin. I had expected a grave in France, and it did not say he had died of wounds in a hospital but rather that he had been killed in action. Then I looked at the date of his death, 26/4/1916. A check of the regimental history of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers revealed that my relative had not been killed by the Germans in Flanders or the Somme, but by one of his own countrymen outside City Hall, Dame Street, Dublin during the Easter Rising. He was killed and buried, not hundreds of miles away from the small village of Rathvilly, but rather 42 miles away. As with all the Irishmen who served, he had volunteered. There was no conscription in Ireland. He was sent to train in the Curragh camp but before been sent to France, the 5th Battalion was transferred to Dublin following the rising.
In this decade of centenaries, from 2012 to 2022, all aspects of that period of Irish history are been remembered and commemorated. There has been a great awakening to the role that Irishmen played in the First World War, long removed from the history books by Republican Ireland. For the family of Abraham Watchorn, in post Independence Ireland, remembrance of a loved one who had died in British uniform during the 1916 Easter Rising was a dangerous act. So the history of Abraham Watchorn was forgotten. I recently visited his grave and placed a poppy on it, thinking of the anguish of a family who lost their son so close to home.
I have thought much on what had motivated a young man like Abraham to volunteer to fight. The war was nearing the end of its second year. The horror of the casualty lists was common knowledge. Britain was about to introduce conscription in England, Scotland and Wales because so few were volunteering. The patriotic fervour of the outbreak of war had disappeared. Yet still he went. No matter what your position is on the First World War, it is clear that men went to face such horrors because they felt called to it, that it was the right thing to do. This has hit me, as I enter the fifth year of my training for ministry. This boy left everything he loved and in the end gave his life for what he felt called to do. It is a sobering lesson when next I feel tired or that dissertation deadline is looming. I have been asking myself what I would have done in 1914 or 1915. Would I have enlisted? A large number of young men, both north and south, did. Approx-imately 50,000 were killed.
The Irish poet Tom Kettle volunteered in 1916 and was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the same regiment as Abraham. He was killed in action in September 1916. He wrote a poem to his young daughter trying to explain why he had left her to fight in this war.
To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God
In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death. And oh! They’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
In these centenary years, the history of World War One is being revised and written about as never before. It was a war that should never have started, a slaughter, a clash of Napoleonic battle plans with modern weaponry. Yet the men who went to war felt that they were doing the right thing. Remembrance of their sacrifice is important but we must be wary of celebration or the politicisation of the history of warfare. War is a deplorable thing, yet men from all traditions on this Island volunteered to fight. The famous First World War chaplain, Rev. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a.k.a “Woodbine Willie”, the son of an Irish clergyman, described the horror of war.
There are no fruits of victory,
no such thing as victory in modern war.
War is a universal disaster…
Studdert Kennedy received his nickname for giving cigarettes and what comfort he could to men facing the horror of the front line.
“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” This quote is attributed to Sir Edward Grey, British foreign secretary on the eve of the outbreak of war on August 3rd 1914. If we reflect on the world we live in, one hundred years later, has the light returned? Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine. War and fear have not left this world.
As we worship together as a community, as Christians, we also remember another personal sacrifice, a sacrifice given for us, for our sins
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.”
The term sacrifice is not one that holds much meaning in our post-modern world. Jesus called his disciples to leave everything and to follow him. As Disciples of Christ, there is much we can learn from the example of young men like Abraham Watchorn. Their willingness to give all for what they believed in, to turn their backs on those familiar comforts of home and to risk their lives as they stepped into the unknown, are sobering. Some may well disagree with their motivation but their selflessness and willingness to sacrifice all for what they held dear cannot be ignored. As Disciples of Christ, are we ready to shine a light into the darkness, bring light to the world and prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom? Are we willing to give everything that we can? What are we willing to do, what are we willing to sacrifice?
Rev. Ross Styles