On 21 September 1914, 2 months after the first world war had been declared, David Lloyd George gave a rousing speech at the Queen’s Hall in London. He talked about the little nation of Belgium, about German military aggression, the defence of democracy, and about how he wished he were young enough to enlist. But it was the end of the speech which caught the national mood. Let me read it to you. I won’t try to do the welsh accent:
“May I tell you a simple parable of what I think this war is doing for us? I know a valley in North Wales, between the mountains and the sea. It is a beautiful valley, snug, comfortable, sheltered by the mountains from all the bitter blasts. But it is very enervating, and I remember how the boys were in the habit of climbing the hill above the village to have a glimpse of the great mountains in the distance, and to be stimulated and freshened by the breezes which came from the hilltops, and by the great spectacle of their grandeur.
We have been living in a sheltered valley for generations. We have been too comfortable and too indulgent – many, perhaps, too selfish – and the stern hand of fate has scourged us to an elevation where we can see the great everlasting things that matter for a nation – the great peaks we had forgotten, of Honour, Duty, Patriotism, and, clad in glittering white, the great pinnacle of Sacrifice, pointing like a rugged finger to Heaven.
We shall descend into the valleys again; but as long as the men and women of this generation last, they will carry in their hearts the image of those great mountain peaks whose foundations are not shaken, though Europe rock and sway in the convulsions of a great war.”
There is much that is troubling about Lloyd George’s rhetoric: the narrative common at the time that Britain had gone soft and that a war would toughen her up again. Or the way he romanticises sacrifice, draping it in elevated language: On the Western Front , amid the mud and decay, whatever the colour of sacrifice was, it wasn’t white.
But for me he does convey something of the great forces which swept away so many young men between 1914 and 1918. For in truth the difference between that generation and our own is one of circumstance. I doubt whether the chaps listed on our war memorial were really so much more patriotic or more eager to fight. They just found themselves coming of age at a time when, to the surprise of many, a war erupted across Europe. The dominant reason for joining up was that so many others were doing so, and to hang back would be to shirk the burden being shouldered by their peers. And once in uniform, if they fought bravely, as most did, it was to look after their comrades, to survive, to come home again.
There is a connection I feel with the young folk of 2020. They did not expect to deal with a pandemic in the middle of their GCSE’s, A levels, or university, or attempts to find a job. Their hopes and plans have been swept aside by the pandemic, bringing fear, isolation and economic hardship in its wake. And even more so I think of our healthcare workers, never expecting to be on any sort of front line, putting in long days through April and May, making do with inadequate PPE, quietly exposing themselves to great risk to care for their patients and so as not to let down their colleagues, and now repeating the ordeal.
So as we today remember those whose lives were taken from them in these different struggles, I reflect on the uncertainties of life. The structures of our advanced societies are wonderful in what they offer when they work. And I am part of a privileged generation, and group within it, which has known stable, trouble free years. And yet the ways our society is structured are also shot through with unthinking injustices and liable, with little warning, to erupt in crisis and chaos.
If there is a message for us it is the message of today’s parable of the bridesmaids: “Keep awake for you do not know the day or the hour.”
To keep awake, however, is not to protect yourself from the destructive forces, the wildfires which sweep across our society. We cannot protect: our mutual vulnerability, our connectedness, is inescapable.
So the call to keep awake is a call to engage, to tend, repair, build and re-build the society we share in common, to dare to imagine the fullness of its God-created potential, to invest our hopes, our love, our prayers, in making it better. And in doing so to make common cause with all who share those hopes, however framed.
But it is also a call to accept our vulnerability, grudgingly, uncomfortably perhaps. For ultimately there is no security, economic, judicial or otherwise, which can insulate us from our fellows. And in the example of Jesus we find one who, when facing the cruelty of power, stepped into the danger, unarmed.
Today we remember all those who in their own way stepped into the danger. We honour their everyday nobility. We grieve for lives of beauty and love cut short. We pray that such cruel tragedy may not happen again.