The Battle of the Somme: Attrition and its cost
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
3 July 2016, 10:30 (THE FEAST OF THOMAS THE APOSTLE)Europe! Europe!!
Am I lighting the blue touchpaper of political debate and uproar or am I tapping a boredom threshold after the events of recent days?
Yet this weekend, we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – a battle that lasted nearly five months from July 1st to November 18th.
This was fought on a devastating scale – the front line ran for 15 miles and the losses amounted to 420,000 British, 200,000 French and between 450,000 and 600,000 German soldiers. That is a total of a million soldiers or more.
And for what?
The allies failed to break through the German defences and advanced only seven miles.
This year in our five year cathedral centenary commemoration of the First World War, we focus on Attrition and its Cost.
Here at the Somme is a battle in this war of attrition – waged on a scale unparalleled with the intention of wearing down and destroying the enemy by sheer force of numbers, intensity and scale of bombardment and attack.
This hellish approach ignores the continuous loss of personnel and resources; human life is counted as a weapon of war and death on this scale is seemingly justified by the end: the collapse of the enemy.
At the end of the first day of the battle, July 1st, 19,240 men were killed and 35,494 wounded: the worst day of bloodshed in the history of the British Army.
The small amount of ground gained by the attack had been lost by the end of the day.
Here was a clash between huge armies equipped with advanced highly destructive weapons: artillery, machineguns, poison gas and the first use of tanks in September.
Like Verdun for the French, the Somme was a terrifying human tragedy.
The cost of attrition is almost beyond words: there is no glamour – individual heroism and valour are eclipsed by a societal darkness.
War is blasphemous and the Battle of the Somme saw a sea change in the promotion of war.
A. J. P. Taylor, the historian, wrote: Idealism perished on the Somme; yes, in the days of the First World War the old certainties were changed and lost.
And that is the world in which we now live.
So as we celebrate the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle, what does our Christian faith have to say as we remember of the unspeakable horrors of the Battle of the Somme?
Do people today make any publicly audible connection between history, current political policies and issues, moral and social values and the Christian faith?
In a month when murder and terror have continued to stalk us and surprise, do we find ourselves paralysed and powerless like spectators in a horror film?
For those of us who say like Thomas, “my Lord and my God” – what do we do?
We certainly have the scars of war as physical evidence – these are the marks too of the Christ’s redeeming love and they claim our commitment to his peace and reconciliation.
Is that how you and I and the whole family of Jesus see our priorities in living his risen life?
If we have forgotten this, no wonder has the world.
Peacemaking is not words; it is living the life of Jesus Christ.
However, in resisting the bully, the fanatic and the tyrant must we resist the means by which they flourish or the inner demons of prejudice and hate that fuel the terror and cruelty?
I am not suggesting that we all have to be pacifists but it is crucial that we constantly reassess how we live in a world of armaments, and understand that although defences and deterrents are necessary they are also disastrously dangerous – flawed by the nature of our human possession and temperaments.
This is what our Remembrance of the Fallen and the honouring of the dead are truly about: committing that sacrifice into a better today and tomorrow.
Ruth and I have been on holiday in northern France and as we motored through Picardy I was keenly aware how the rolling fields are literally drenched with blood.
And the blood is not silent though now unseen.
It cries out to God – and he hears.
His response is in Christ and then in us, his Body.
Our scripture readings this morning take us back to the Old Testament world where in the sixth century B.C. the Babylonians (called Chaldeans) having destroyed Nineveh and brought an end to Assyria as a world power, sought a similar role of world domination.
In 597 they conquered the Judeans and it is in the context of this terrifying threat that Habbakuk speaks in God’s name: there is still a vision for the appointed time ...the righteous live by their faith.
For St Paul, this faith is made visible in the body of Christ of which all who believe are incorporated.
We are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints, preaching peace.
This faith has entered history and humanity uniquely and fully in Jesus Christ.
As Christ’s Church we not only live in time and become history, we are called to change the world in His name and live his future, his peace and saving love.
Remembering the Battle of the Somme is not enough.
Historical facts have to become the resolve and purpose of the present.
History can seem neat and tidy in its statistics but it is loaded like a gun in its telling – because all history is interpretation.
History is never morally neutral – the distance of time may make us feel like spectators but we are always somehow linked to every human age and every human life.
For example, this year of 2016 also sees the hundredth anniversary on May 19th of the secret accord between Britain and France known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement by which most of the Arab lands under the rule of the Ottoman Empire were to be divided into British and French spheres of influence at the end of the First World War.
This led to the creation of lands such as Iraq and Syria and a hundred years of Arab resentment including of course Isis.
In fact, the practical partition of the Ottoman Empire was eventually agreed by a multi-national conference in Lausanne in 1923 but nevertheless the 1916 agreement animates the terror atrocities of today.
It is here in these realities that faith has to be born and lived. Christians need not only to tell the story of our faith but make the connections in our lives and actions through open eyes and minds and hearts.
God uses us – we are his body and we must lead as well as serve.
As we are privileged to hear the poets and writers of the First World War, most articulate and literate sacrificial victims in history, let us not forget not only their words but the substance and the courage of the life of faith.
I would like to end with a sonnet by Charles Hamilton Sorley who died in 1915 at the age of 20, killed by a sniper in the Battle of Loos.
He left a small number of poems, first published in 1916. He had been travelling and studying in Germany prior to entering Oxford, when war was declared.
You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm,
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.
Charles Hamilton Sorley
Jesus said to Thomas,
‘Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’