Preacher: Major General Sir Michael Carleton-Smith, CBE DL
Firstly I would like to thank Wilma for inviting me to what passes for the pulpit on this very special Remembrance Sunday. One hundred years since the end of the worst war the world had ever known, with a global total of twenty million dead. Then known as the Great War. The war to end all wars. But which, was followed by the Second World War, only twenty one years later, with eighty million dead. 3% of the world’s population. The surviving young veterans from the first war were at it again in the second, including my father. There followed more wars and campaigns, including our own Northern Ireland. My two SAS sons served there and in subsequent campaigns in the Balkans and Middle East
So the British armed forces have only had two years since the end of the Second World War in which a service man has not been killed on active service. We remember with gratitude and respect the men and women from our country and throughout the Empire who have died for our country, for the peace, which we and our families can now enjoy. Hopefully, please God, into and beyond the uncertain and potentially precarious future.
Many families will have had forebears who died or were wounded in body and mind in these wars. Personally, my father was badly wounded, shot through the neck by a German sniper, at Ypres in 1915, almost exactly one hundred years after the battle of Waterloo, and a great uncle was killed in Gallipoli. My Penny had two uncles and a cousin killed at Arras in 1917, one of whom was only twenty one years old and had already served in Gallipoli. We all have much to remember and much for which to be eternally grateful.
So what then has a war-time school-child, now an old soldier and back bench lay member of this congregation, got to offer in this unique opportunity to say a few brief and hopefully meaningful words on this Remembrance Sunday? Every sermon, if this is what it purports to be, needs a clear theme.
So do I choose war or peace, loyalty, courage, sacrifice, suffering or one or more of many similar linked emotions. At the end of the day a young man or woman puts their life on the line for King, Queen and country, for regiment, company, platoon, but actually in the final crunch it’s for their mates, their immediate muckers. Why? – because, although they may not have realised it, they loved them. Did not Jesus say “ Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends”.
Just before my battalion, within which I was a company commander, went off, at one week’s notice, for a twelve months unaccompanied tour in the Far East, with the concluding six months on continuous operations in deep jungle in Borneo. These included covert ten day raids over the Indonesian border without our customary weekly parachute drop and ‘cas evac’ by helicopter. My young, now late, wife said to me that one of my corporals had said to her: “We love ‘im, we’d die for ‘im.”
Very moving and we officers loved our men too. Once after leaving the Army and running Marie Curie, I was walking down Knightsbridge when a taxi pulled up beside me. I waved it on, as I did not need it. But it stopped anyway and the cabbie rolled the window down, leant across, and shouted in his lovely cockney accent: “ Ullo sir, ullo sir, it’s rfmn ulbert”. Thirty five years before Rifleman Johnny Hulbert had been one of many eighteen-year-old national serviceman in my company in Kenya during the Mau Mau campaign. I had not seen him since. He said “ge-in sir ge- in”. So I got in and he drove round into the park, pulled onto the verge and we both got out and hugged each other! God knows what the passers by made of it!
So love is my theme. The first and great commandment. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. And the second is likewise. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”.
What a universally wonderful word love is. Indeed, what a universally wonderful emotion love is. We all understand the meaning; the joy, the power of the love we share in our families, our parents, our spouses, our children, our grand children, and in the case of at least two of our dear friends in this congregation, their great grand children. But it’s much more widely used than that. Our muckers, our wider circle of friends and it goes much wider than that if one realises the width and wonder of it.
I remember some years ago coming away from a friend’s funeral having heard an impressive address and saying to myself; “I must have really loved old ‘what’sisname’. I wonder if he had any idea” and resolved, thereafter, to try and make such feelings more identifiable. And, of course, a form of love goes wider still. People are often fortunate enough to love their home, their garden, their job, going to the theatre, playing golf, a sunset, a particular holiday place, their pets.
And much, much more, including not least, so I should say most importantly, their church and its community. Penny and I experienced the amazing love and support in this our St Mary Magdalene community when she was enduring her recent savage cancer treatment, and subsequently, for which we are deeply grateful. Love is such a widely used and valued and wonderful word. Are we rejoicing in it, embracing it, grateful for it, living it as much as we could and God intends that we should?
If only love were universally recognised there truly could be peace on earth, no hate, no violence, no wars. How wonderful would that be? That is God’s message. “He so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Amen.
On this day of Commemoration and Reconciliation in a few minutes time the German President will lay a wreath at the Cenotaph. The British Army wreath will be laid by our Chief of the General Staff, whose mother was a German girl, who was born, raised and lived in Germany, until she fell in love with and married an officer at the HQ of the 1st British Corps. Me!