It doesn’t matter who you are: you can be a ambassador from the Commonwealth; you can be a president or head of state of another country; you can be a bride on the day of your wedding to a Prince; you can be the much mourned body of a princess; you can be a reigning Queen; or you can be a King on the way to your coronation. However important you are, however much your arrival has been arranged with military precision and the professionalism of the Royal Household, however much it might be televised around the world, even though nothing has stood in your way as you have processed forward….when you enter the gates of Westminster Abbey, you must walk around the black marble stone framed by scarlet poppies which covers the tomb of an anonymous man; the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
No-one knows who he was; but he was someone lost in the First World War; someone born and brought up, someone who had been educated, someone who had been loved and cherished in Britain; in our green and pleasant land and then lost, as if he had never lived, no body for his parents, siblings and sweetheart to bury.
The body of the Unknown Warrior was selected randomly from the many graves of soldiers who could not be identified to represent those many who would never return to their homes; the grave stones of these unknown warrior read, ‘Here lies a Soldier of the Great War known unto God’.
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, over a million British and Dominion men were killed in the First World War and over two million maimed. The Germans, Russians and French lost many many more.
Of those, at least 400,000 British and Dominion soldiers were never identified and have no known grave, who were completely lost, affecting so many families.
The medals given posthumously (known as Pip Squeak and Wilfred) and a scroll signed by the King, such as those on the altar from the Impey family are all that remains of those young lives left like so much garbage..…on the churned up battlefield.
Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy,
an army chaplain known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ by the soldiers wrote the following piece, horrified as he was by an encounter at night in no-man’s land:
‘On June 7th, 1917, I was running to our lines half mad with fright, though running in the right direction, thank God, through what had been once a wooded copse, It was being heavily shelled.
As I ran, I stumbled and fell over something.
I stopped to see what it was.
It was an undersized, underfed German boy, with a wound in his stomach and a hole in his head.
I remember muttering, ‘You poor little devil, what had you got to do with it? Not much great blonde Prussian about you’.
Then there came light.
It may have been pure imagination, but that does not mean that it was not also reality, for what is called imagination is often the road to reality……
It seemed to me that the boy disappeared and in his place there lay the Christ upon His Cross, and he cried “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my little ones you have done it to me’
From that moment on I never saw a battlefield as anything other than a Crucifix…’
The tomb of the Unknown Warrior represents all of those lost soldiers; those who loved the lost could think – that the body buried in Westminster Abbey with kings and queens, might be that of their son, brother, husband, friend….
The tomb stands as a rebuke to those who see glory in warfare and as a reminder to politicians and leaders and to each of us as voters, that our political and social decisions must be made in the shadow of that terrible conflict.
And as we exercise those decisions, and take into account that shadow, those lives lost, then I think we are doing what we said that we would do as we stood in the cold at our village memorials today; ’we will remember them’
William Orpen, a fashionable Edwardian portrait painter who had been appointed as a war artist and had experienced the horror of the trenches first hand, was commissioned to paint scenes from the meetings for the Versailles Peace Conference.
He was so appalled by the back biting and petty behaviour of the delegates. He felt that they had already, even at the peace conference, forgotten the hundreds of thousands of dead; the millions of maimed and scarred, that he painted the painting on the front cover of your service sheet, set in Versailles, a place of grandeur and power built by Louis XIV. He set in it a simple coffin with a Union Flag and a helmet; the unknown warrior; something of greater grandeur than its surroundings, as sacrifice is greater than splendour.
I think we all stand in awe of the suffering of that generation and we are appalled that it had to happen.
But its not just those who died in the war or those who were maimed. Robert Hall has drawn my attention to the fact that the dead in WW1 (although a huge number) were only 11% of those who fought. Many, many others were lost to what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which has a number of symptoms including fits of anger, emotional numbness and depression.
Robert has given me an extract from this post armistice diary entry of Sapper John Gowland:
“I am demobilised and I am 20 years of age. Behind me are four years of death, misery, and stark horror. I am dazed and have no trade or profession. My body is whole but I have lost something that can never be regained. I have lost my youth.
At times I wish I had left my body with those who sleep beneath little crosses in France. Here I am alone…..I have no job and no ambition. There are thousands like me. We are young men without our youth….’
The effects of this lostness; the lostness of the dead and maimed and the lostness of the survivors the effects on the millions who fought but came home and upon their nations is incalculable. And it has had an effect which has cascaded down the generations over the 100 years since that conflict finally came to an end. The cross-generational effect of events is something which we, with our modern focus on the nuclear family, perhaps tend to overlook. But it is real.
To take one example: even in my own family my grandfather, who fought in the DLI, returned from Flanders a broken man, who lived the rest of his life in emotional numbness: not angry, but passive. He was lost.
His passivity resulted in failing to set the boundaries for his daughters which a loving parent will seek to do, which eventually had a catastrophic effect on my mother’s life, and, of course, through her, an impact on me.
Perhaps we sometimes feel lost in our present generation, passive about things outside the narrow frame of our own family’s self-interest…
For many of us, families broken, addiction rife, a preoccupation with the empty values of consumerism and choice; politically in turmoil, perhaps we too are lost, not knowing where we are going or why…..
We know from the Who Cares survey in our valley last Summer how much pain there is in our community, how many of us are lost, even though we in Europe have lived in the longest period of peace since Roman times, paid for by the sacrifice of that generation and the one which followed it.
But Jesus comes to find the lost. And the lost find their peace in him. As we discover from our second reading today, Jesus will not rest until he has found the lost sheep and it doesn’t matter if that lostness is in death or in life whether it was then or whether it is now. However much we may feel that we have sunk to the bottom, however much guilt or shame we carry, he never ceases until he finds us. He is there for us. All we have to do Is to ask for him to come into our lives.
Woodbine Willie continues, in the passage I have read to you, having found the body of the dead German boy, as a vision of Christ on the Cross:
‘But the vision of life in the Cross is not a vision of despair but of confidence and hope because behind it there is the empty tomb and the figure with wounded hands outstretched to bless, ascending to glory’
Jesus is always searching for us, however lost we are. Whether we are smashed to pieces on the battlefield or just ground down by modern living.
He is just so delighted when he finds us like the lost sheep and we are open to him.
You may just be able to see in William Orpen’s picture, the figure of Jesus on the cross casts a shadow down the hallway and that this touches the coffin.
This coffin of the Unknown Warrior
Jesus has come for this unknown man who he knows intimately.
The Good Shepherd has found his sheep.