Sermon by Professor Graham Holderness: Armistice Sunday, November 11th 2018

Armistice Day 2018

As a Yorkshireman surrounded by so many red flowers I’m inevitably reminded of the Wars of the Roses, which as everyone knows was started by a quarrel over a bunch of flowers, the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York. The wars continued until an enterprising gardener came up with the Tudor rose, combining the two colours, so everybody was happy.

A historical myth, of course. But it sums up something very deep in our sense of history: the suspicion that war can often be needless; pointless; futile. The First World War, or the Great War as I was brought up to call it, of 1914-18 has become almost a textbook case of a war that never needed to be fought; a war that did nobody any good; a war that now belongs to satires like O What a Lovely War or Blackadder the Third. Christopher Clark called his great book on the war The Sleepwalkers: the outbreak of war in 1914 was ‘a tragedy, acted out by leaders who were blind to the horrors they were about to unleash on the world’. The ‘Great war for civilisation’, Clark says, ‘was an unwitting suicide pact’.

Every year we remember the Armistice. Today at 11 am on this 11th day of the 11th month, we will commemorate a moment exactly 100 years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front. When war gave way to peace.

Soldiers were killing and being killed of course throughout 1918, throughout this month, 3000 of them between the signing of the Armistice at 5 am and the cease-fire at 11 am on the last day of the war. The last British soldier to be killed was a coal miner from my home town, Leeds, George Ellison, who fell near Mons an hour and a half before 11 am. His grave faces that of John Parr, the first British soldier to be killed in the war. Why? Because Mons was lost in 1914, and recovered in 1918. With four years of slaughter in between, these two men got to die in more or less the same place.


On our war memorials, in and beside this church, there are the names of 27 men, and one woman, who died in 1918. Two died in November 1918: Henry Hall, and on this very day, John Boswell. Nine died in October 1918, weeks before the cessation of hostilities. When we think of these men, and this woman, some of whom had served throughout the war, who had already given so much, and whose lives were taken so close to the end, we’re bound to feel a profound sense of pity about the unfairness; the needless waste of life; the futility. And Futility is the title of one of most beautiful poems of Wilfred Owen.

Move him into the sun—

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields half-sown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.


Think how it wakes the seeds—

Woke once the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides

Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?


After such waste of life, such unnecessary slaughter in a questionable cause, you can end up feeling that existence itself is perhaps without purpose, futile. Owen himself was killed a week before the Armistice. His parents got the telegram almost exactly a century ago today, as the bells were ringing out to mark the end of the war.

Every year in in the lead-up to Remembrance Day there are arguments over its meaning: over who we remember, what we remember, and how we remember. Every year some activist, some celebrity, some student union grabs the headlines by attacking the Armistice Day celebration. We should be remembering, they say, not just British armed forces, but everyone affected by war. We should remember all wars, not only those in which our nation has been involved. We should ‘reshape remembrance away from the glorification of war, and campaign against militarism’.

Battle of the flowers

This quarrel leads to another battle of the flowers, between the red poppy and the white. The red poppy of the British Legion ‘remembers and honours those who have sacrificed themselves to secure and protect our freedom’, the servicemen and women of our armed forces. An alternative is offered by the Peace Pledge Union: the white poppy (introduced in the 1920s, shortly after the end of the Great War, and adopted in the 1930s), which commemorates ‘all victims of war’, promotes the cause of peace, and challenges militarism.

Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these principles. We always pray for the victims of war, military and civilian, and that must include by default enemy combatants. We pray for peace in every act of worship: it’s a defining value of our faith. So we’re not generally in favour of war, and we certainly don’t promote militarism for its own sake. Some Anglicans wear the white poppy, and espouse its pacifist symbolism. Wilfred Owen himself came to this same conclusion as the Peace Pledge Union: ‘Passivity at any price!’

This year, in a commemoration of the Armistice, the great film director Danny Boyle has initiated a project called Pages of the Sea, which invites people to gather on British beaches to witness the sculpting by a sand artist of the face of a casualty from the First World War; and then to watch while it’s washed away by the tide. In association with this project the Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy has written a new poem called The Wound in Time, from which these lines are extracted:

It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,
chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.
Not the war to end all wars … What happened next?
War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.
History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

Again, futility. The war to end all wars didn’t. We can’t learn anything from the kind of sacrifice we remember on Armistice Day: we just keep fighting wars. The First World War was futile: so are all wars. People give their lives for nothing. History just washes everything away, as the tide washes away the memory of that sand-sculpted Great War soldier. As I’m speaking to you now, people are gathered together on beaches to watch his face drowning in the pages of the sea.

Eloquent, but wrong. Couldn’t be more wrong, in fact. One of the most striking things that’s happened over the previous four years is the degree to which our knowledge of the First World War has widened and deepened. There’s been a huge explosion of historical research, and a huge expansion of its impact and dissemination. Many ordinary people have pursued their curiosity about what happened to their own ancestors, their own families, into serious historical research, to find the stories of the grandfather or great grandfather or great-great-grandfather who fought and perhaps fell. Let me commend here the fantastic work done by David Beresford in compiling a brilliant body of knowledge from the historical record about the men (and woman) whose names emblazon our memorials; about for example those 27 who died in 1918, and who we remember particularly today. The names and the faces of those soldiers have not been erased by history at all: quite the reverse. We have come to know them better than ever before. ‘To the innermost heart of their own land they are known /As the stars are known to the Night’. (Laurence Binyon) George Ellison, the last Brit to be killed, had been forgotten even by his family. A few days ago his descendants attended the unveiling of a plaque to his memory in Leeds City Station.

The price of peace

If we say with Wilfred Owen, ‘passivity at any price’, what are we really saying? That no price is too high to pay. But what if the price of peace entails, as it so often does, war? What if the price of peace is blood and sacrifice? Are we not prepared to pay it? Just as these men, who died in the closing stages of the war, paid the ultimate price for the peace they almost but didn’t quite live to see?

The Pages of the Sea project has something in common with the white poppy, which washes away the blood of Flanders Fields to produce a virtue-signalling emblem of political correctness. If we ask of the white poppy who, what, how do we remember? The answers are: Let’s remember everybody – no discrimination; let’s commemorate all wars, not just those we as a nation fought; let’s remember only insofar as memory advances the cause of peace, and forget everything else.

Money from the sale of white poppies is used for political campaigning by the Peace Pledge Union. Money from the sale of red poppies goes to the charitable purpose of helping wounded and disabled veterans, and the families of currently serving members, of the British armed forces.

Under the banner of the red poppy, who, what, how do we remember? We remember, in words inscribed on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, those who ‘gave the most that Man can give, life itself/For God/For King and country/For loved ones/For the sacred cause of justice and/ The freedom of the world’.

What do we remember? The two world wars, and the later conflicts in which our servicemen and women have served and are currently serving: ‘Great Britain still believes strongly’ in the words of the British Legion, ‘in remembering those who fought not only in World Wars, but the more than 12,000 British Servicemen and women killed or injured since 1945’. We may not support some or all of these campaigns: in 2003 I marched in London against the Iraq war with a million other people. But the service and sacrifice of those who fight and die for their country are no less real and worthy of remembrance, even though the cause may be less than just.

‘Greater love hath no man than this’, said Jesus. ‘that he lay down his life for a friend’. Red is the colour of sacrifice. Christ did not sacrifice himself in a just war, but gave everything, like the widow in today’s Gospel reading, ‘gave all the living that he had’, even unto death, for the unjust, for us: ‘to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself … once offered to bear the sins of many’ (Hebrews 9 24-8). The white poppy washes its hands of responsibility for those who have died in war for our sakes. Our hands may be clean, but their wounds are red, red as their blood, red as the poppies of Flanders Fields. ‘And though your hands be pale’, wrote Owen ‘paler are all that trail/Your cross through flame and hail./Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not’.

So let’s wear our red poppies with pride, to remember, and to actively support, those who have fought and fallen in war to defend our freedom; those who still suffer mentally from their experience of combat – for as Owen wrote, ‘foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were’; the families of those soldiers who have taken their own lives in despair of their terrible memories; those elderly veterans facing criminal charges over actions fought long ago, while terrorists go free. We stand with them, we commend their courage, and we honour their sacrifice. ‘At the going down of the sun, and in the morning/We shall remember them’. ‘Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds/And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds’.