Preached at Barnet Brookside Methodist Church (part of the East Barnet Anglican-Methodist Partnership) on Remembrance Day, 2014
Robert George Clarke was born just around the corner from here. He was one of eight children. His mother and father were Emma and George Clarke. The family lived barely a stone’s throw from this church, on Cat Hill. No doubt he went to school near here. No doubt he grew up playing in the streets of East Barnet village.
Robert Clarke didn’t stay here. He moved to Hampshire, somewhere near Winchester, and got married to Evelyn. He worked as a bricklayer’s labourer. It was, no doubt, a hard life. In September 1914, like so many young men, he joined up. He became a rifleman in the 13th Battalion, the Rifle Brigade. Like so many people, I imagine he hoped the war would be over by Christmas. He was 25 years old.
Robert Clarke spent the winter of 1914 training in High Wycombe. The battalion arrived in France on 31 July. They fought in the Battle of Loos in 1915. In 1916, the battalion was part of the Battle of the Somme. On 10 July, at the beginning of that terrible battle, the battalion came under bombardment from the German artillery. Robert Clarke, like 400 of his comrades, was killed. His body was never found, and his name stands on the memorial at Thiepval.
One of Robert Clarke’s younger siblings was a boy named William. William Clarke was not a strong boy, though he worked as a gardener at the time of his wedding in 1915. He too joined the Rifle Brigade, and in 1917 he too went to France. He arrived at the time his battalion was fighting in the Battle of Arras. William Clarke saw just two months of war. He was killed in Flanders, in the Battle of Passchendaele. His body was never found. His name stands on the memorial of Menin Gate.
Two short stories. Two young men, brothers, whose lives and deaths were very similar. It’s very easy to get caught up in the enormity of the numbers when you think about the First World War. Go to the Tower of London, after all, and you will be utterly overwhelmed by the field of poppies there. 888,246. It’s staggering. Astonishing. Heartbreaking.
But also oddly impersonal. Each is alike. It’s like the cemeteries in Belgium and the north of France. Rank upon rank of upright, proud graves. They are hugely moving. I don’t think anyone could go and see all those poppies in London or all those graves in Belgium and France and not be affected by it.
But it’s worth reminding ourselves of the smaller picture too. It’s worth remembering each and every individual who lost their life in conflict. We must make sure that we remember them not only as one among 888,246, but as unique human beings. Each of infinite importance.
So of course the national ceremonies in Whitehall and at the Tower of London are important. But this is important too, meeting here. Meeting in East Barnet. Meeting at our war memorial. Looking at each individual name.
Each of them, like Robert and William Clarke, a young man from our community, who made the ultimate sacrifice amidst the horrors of war.
And war is horrible. Many of you here will know that far better than I ever will. The trenches of the First World War hold a special place in our national memory, but there is no such thing as a ‘nice’ war.
War is horrible. Today, one of our tasks is to remember the sacrifices of the past and to commit ourselves to preventing war in the future.
But war is also a time when human beings do astonishing things. Ordinary men. A bricklayer’s labourer. A gardener, whose commanding officer said that he was ‘never at all likely to become a fit soldier.’ In another generation, we would have forgotten their names. But, in war, they stepped up. They showed courage. They showed perseverence. They showed extraordinary valour.
In the most desperate human situation, in a thousand small ways, they showed what human beings can be.
In our reading from St Matthew’s Gospel, we heard the Beatitudes. These sum up the upside-down world of the Christian faith. ‘Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who are persecuted.’ Being a Christian means believing that the world is not necessarily as it seems.
And we see that in war as well. We have human beings who would have been unremarkable in the sight of the world. Loved, of course, by their family and friends. But nothing out of the ordinary. And yet in war they do something remarkable. They may not have known quite what they were getting into. They may not have done deeds worthy of a Victoria Cross. But they did something extraordinary anyway.
Blessed are the ordinary, then, for they can do extraordinary things.
I have the good fortune to know a lot of people who are or were in the armed forces. Their experiences are varied. Some fought on foot or by air in Western Europe in the Second World War. Some fought in Iraq, or in Afghanistan. The challenges they faced were as varied as the lands they fought in.
And yet there is a theme that comes up time and time again when we discuss their experiences. The theme of comradeship. The close friendships that were forged not by shared interest or a common background, but by facing conflict and adversity together.
When I think of those names on our war memorial, I often wonder what they were thinking of as they died. No doubt some thought of home. Of family. Of those they loved. Perhaps some thought of England. But I think many of them would have been thinking of those men who were standing beside them. Their comrades, and their friends.
As Jesus Christ said, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’
None of this can eclipse the senseless death and destruction that comes from war. War is horrible and will always be horrible. Let us never forget the horrors. But let us also never forget the human virtues they showed.
In the end, though, what words can we use? How can we commemorate this day? What words can we use to give thanks to those who died in this way? How can we possibly do them justice?
I don’t have the words in me. I don’t think many people do.
All we can do is what we have done today. We stand in silence.
And, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.