Two months into starting as a church minister in Chichester, in November 1996, I spoke at the Boys High School at their Remembrance Day assembly. I arrived early. I can’t help it, it’s in my character to always arrive early, and very quickly I was joined by a dozen or so guys in their 70’s who stood with me and the head teacher and waited in his office for the assembly to start. I realised they came to this assembly every year to share in the service because they had attended this school and because they had served in the Second World War. As we waited they taught me two things.
One of them asked me how long I had been here in Chichester.
‘8 weeks,’ I answered, and I added that I was just beginning to feel more settled now. They were thoroughly unimpressed with my answer! One of them joked (I think he was joking) that you are never really from Chichester until both of your parents were born in the city and preferably both of your grandparents.
Secondly, they took me to the list of names of the fallen at the entrance to the school, those from this one school who had lost their lives. I stood there with these men and they talked me through a very long list on the board. ‘This guy was in my class’, ‘I used to get the bus in with him’, ‘He never stopped talking’. In those moments and anecdotes my theoretical assembly became real. The lives lost were real and I changed my prepared message and talked to the current boys about the older boys sitting with them.
This centenary year, in preparing for Remembrance Sunday, I asked a number of people in my church and others with strong current or past military connections to anonymously share some thoughts about what Remembrance Sunday means to them and who they are remembering. I offer them here, with their permission in the hope that their personal memories will add to our thoughts, prayers and reflections.
‘Remembrance Day means that I can think of and be thankful for all those nameless and faceless people who went to war on our behalf. I am remembering all those who died in two world wars in whatever capacity and those in further conflicts since.’
‘It reminds me of the baseness of war. Looking into wet, cold, filthy hillside dugouts in the Falklands, where the detritus eg personal belongings, medical items, food etc that still remained brought home such hardship.’
‘I remember, although I never knew him, my grandfather who having been gassed in WW1, came home and was so disturbed that he walked off one day and was never seen again. My father was an air gunner, but like a lot of his ilk didn’t discuss with his children what he had done.’
‘As an Officer, I was always involved in parades on this day when I was in the Army. There was also a profound sense of gratitude that we were standing there in freedom- freedom won because so many had paid the ultimate price and so many others had returned and were still living with shattered bodies and shattered minds.’
‘I am remembering my brother who was killed in Action during the Falklands War.
I remember a good friend with whom I was at University. After leaving a Regimental Dinner Night in Germany. When they reached home, he was gunned down in front of her as he got out of his car, by IRA terrorists.’
‘Remembrance Day captures the importance of personally and together, as a nation and as communities, reminding ourselves of the horrific cost of freedom. It should haunt us with the question ‘Is it worth it?’, and throw weight behind all attempts for reconciliation, peace, and the ability to live well together at every level.’
‘Though I knew a couple of guys who were killed in action, Remembrance Day mostly for me brings to mind my grandfathers - both of whom served in WWII and survived to be old men. But both of whom carried deep grief, rarely talked about it.’
‘I am remembering the families I have met or known at the horrific time of a husband’s death in combat. Their faces and names - wives and young children - are often very visible in my mind at this time of year.’
‘I am immensely thankful to God for allowing my varied experiences in the military to form and shape the person and minister I am.’
‘I remember the people I served with in Northern Ireland during the troubles, my tours in the Balkans but specifically the 83 soldiers that were killed and 600 injured during my tour in Afghanistan. I knew and served with some of them personally.’
‘There is a sense that as a veteran, I identify with Service men and women that have served in WW1, WW2, Korea, the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan.’
‘Now that I have added the poppy to my uniform, I am reminded of all those who have given their lives for us, for our freedom and safety. I wear mine in memory and in respect of those men and women.’