Preacher Sir Michael Carleton-Smith
In November last year we remembered the one hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War, the war to end all wars. But eighty years ago today on Sunday 1st September 1939 the Germans invaded Poland, leading to Great Britain declaring war on the 3rd and thus started the worst war the world had ever known.
Anyone aged over forty was at it again including my badly wounded father. Between 50 and 80 million people died worldwide, including seventeen per cent of the Polish population.
I was eight years old and we lived in a tiny village in Leicestershire. The nation had been preparing for war for some time, conscription into the armed forces had started, the Air Raid Precaution organisation, the ARP had been raised, and I had already been trained to put out an incendiary bomb with a stirrup pump.
On the 3rd September I was helping my mother preparing a thatched 15th century stone cottage we owned in the village for the arrival of the evacuees. By the 2nd of September over half a million children had already been evacuated from London.
Our daily came in and I heard her say ‘It’s started’. I said ‘What’s started’. She said ‘The war’s started’. The first thing I did was run down the path, over the village green, up the drive and into our home to collect my gas mask, which we were instructed to carry at all times. Actually that instruction unlike many others did not last.
So what of many potential themes do I choose for a very brief little sermonette on this moving anniversary? Faith saw us through the war. Faith in God, faith in our country, faith in our cause, faith in our leadership. So Faith it is.
I hope you will forgive me if I lace this with a few recollections of those stirring times, just to give a feel for what it was like for a rural English child eighty years ago in time of war.
The dozen, or so, contemporaries in our congregation here now will each have had different experiences, particularly those in bombed cities. So did Sabina and Jutta now in our congregation, but they were little girls in Germany as was my late wife Katja.
Our evacuees arrived a few days later. They were greeted in the village hall. My younger brother and I met them at the door and gave each child an old toy as they arrived with gas masks slung over their shoulders and labels round their necks. Infants with their mothers, older ones on their own but holding hands with each other. They were distributed round the village.
We went home with two mothers and five children. We already had a mother and her two staying with us, who had been friends in the next army bungalow to us in Cairo in the early thirties. The Father went to France and became missing in the fighting so we had that drama as well. Four mothers and nine children in the kitchen was quite a scrum. The evacuees came from very unprivileged homes in the east end of London, no running water, no WCs. So washing and laundry were not part of their culture. The thing I remember most was the noise and the smell. One little girl sadly died. I forget the cause.
In due course our home was requisitioned and became a German Prisoner of War Camp with the prisoners working on the local farms. Mother lived the rest of the war on a friend’s farm in Gloucestershire where the husband, like my father, was away in the Army.
We went to boarding school and worked on the farm throughout the holidays. Ploughing, reaping, stooking, stacking, herding, feeding, hand milking and proudly earning the Boy Scouts National Service Badge.
At school, where we trooped down into the cellars in the middle of the night when the sirens went off, in addition to chapel on Sundays we had prayers every morning after our meagre rationed breakfast in the dining hall. We knelt on the floor, our clasped hands on the seats of our chairs breathing in the fumes from the stale food stains. Each day we concluded by singing, unaccompanied, the first verse from that lovely hymn-‘Eternal Father strong to save’ which we sang in this Church on Sea Sunday in July.
We were thinking at the time of the merchant navy and Royal Navy sailors in their convoys bringing through the battle of the Atlantic our food and other urgent supplies without which we would have starved.
Every time I hear it now I am reminded of those times. I would read you the verse now, but it’s much better sung. This I’m not up to doing but perhaps Wilma would kindly do so for us.
Eternal Father strong to save
Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
It’s own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.
So Faith saw us through those six long years of grim war. It held the Nation together. And should us together now. Individually and collectively. Thank God Almighty. So be it.