Remembrance Sunday 2020

To day, as we have for more than one hundred years we pause to remember young men of this congregation who died in the course of the First World War. Even though they died more than one hundred years ago there are good reasons to remember them and that war. The conflict that took their lives was exceptional.
          There is the numbers sixty million combatants with about nine million fatalities. Over the four years of war six thousand soldiers died each day. Every soldier witnessed unimaginable brutality.
          Countless young men who returned home were mentally damaged; many never fully recovered.
          Those who died were generally young - some were just teenagers. We know that some children faked their ages to enlist. These children believed the propaganda that the war would be over in months and they didn’t want to miss the adventure.
          Three hundred and forty six British soldiers were shot for cowardice. Most of them were actually suffering mental breakdowns. It took until 2006 for 307 to be officially pardoned.
          The rows and rows of war graves give us some idea of the scale of young lives lost. A huge number of soldiers do not have a grave. The Tyne Cot memorial records the names of 34,887 British and New Zealand soldiers who died during a fifteen month period, who have no grave. One of the names on that memorial is George Stride Falkiner who died in 1917 aged 19. George went from boarding school into the army. His 22 year old brother Frederick is buried nearby in plot 1.AA. 20 in Tyne Cot.
          The deaths of the young men from the Dublin Congregation are recorded in the Annual Reports with the words they “fell in defence of our Empire”. Had they survived the war they would have returned to a changed political landscape and to a country that was hurtling towards civil war.
          All religions address the ethics of killing in war. The protagonists in the Great War were Christian. Christian teaching says “Thou shall not kill” and Jesus instructed his followers “Love one Another” these tenets of the Christian faith are clear and unambiguous; they are always ignored. In the First World War those who refused to fight because of their Christian beliefs were persecuted both during the war and in the years that followed.
          The Buddhist scripture the Damapada has these prophetic words:

“Never does hatred cease by hating in return.
Only through love can hatred be brought to an end.

Victory breeds hatred the
conquered dwell in sorrow and resentment.
Let us overcome violence by gentleness
Let us overcome evil by good.”

At the end of the Great War the “Victors” deliberately imposed terms that were designed to destroy the German economy; they succeeded. As the Buddhist text says “the conquered dwell in sorrow and resentment”. In Germany in the 1920s as unemployment and inflation soared, the atmosphere in Germany was full of resentment; that resentment proved the fertile ground that allowed the Nazi ideals to take root and flourish. Following four years of killing the desire of the “Victors” for revenge was understandable; taking that revenge was the direct cause of the Second World War.
          The Second World War was not fought in the trenches. Fighting moved to the skies and civilians became legitimate targets. London and Hamburg, Coventry and Dresden, Berlin and Belfast these are just a few of the cities that were extensively bombed taking a huge death toll on the civilian population. In 1945 all major German cities were in ruins.
          The war in the Pacific was remote from Europe. It too was a bloody affair. America fought from island to island step by step across the Pacific Ocean. Each island was taken at the cost of a great many lives. Japanese soldiers, American soldiers and civilian lives were snuffed out in an instant.
          The war ended when America dropped two Atomic Bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In two explosions hundreds of thousands of people died instantly. In the following weeks and months tens of thousands more would die of burns and radiation sickness. Many years after the explosions people affected by radiation endured long term illness. In the years that followed children not conceived in 1945 would be born with physical deformities and suffer life long ill health.
          Throughout the world, war cemeteries with their rows of crosses are kept in impeccable order. During the early days of November memorials ranging from the huge ones at Tyne Cot to the small ones on village greens and those in churches such as ours will be dressed with red poppies. We will speak their names and we remember them.
          Who is there to remember the names the civilian casualties of war? In the hundred years since the First World War, war has fundamentally changed. Until and even during the Great War it was soldiers who died. War is now mechanised and it is civilians who bear the brunt of the suffering.
          When the first Atomic bomb was dropped it is estimated that about a quarter of a million civilians, ordinary people going to work on a Summer’s morning were in an instant annihilated. The figure is a guesstimate there were too many casualties to count accurately. These hundreds of thousands of citizens are honoured in a few monuments. There is not a single name inscribed on them. Their individuality, their very humanity is obliterated they are statistics.
          Right now there are wars in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and many other places are experiencing conflict. The majority of casualties in these wars are civilians. These are the wounded and malnourished children, they are the parents grieving the death of their child. They are the millions of refugees existing in tents on the edges of Europe; we see them on our television screens.
          America in particular learned an important lesson learned from the First World War. Instead of destroying the German and Italian economies after WWII and leaving the rest of Europe to fall into an economic depression America showed leadership when it gave financial assistance to Europe to rebuild its economy. America gave Europe what in today’s money would be $140 Billion to rebuild itself. West German was a beneficiary of Marshall Aid. This was how Germany recovered after complete surrender and the destruction of the country.
          Likewise with Japan America rebuilt the country and established a democratic government there.
          Instead of resentment Germany is a prosperous, democratic country. The greater part of Europe has enjoyed a peace and prosperity and security for seventy five years. Japan is now America’s strongest ally in the Pacific.
          In recent times there is evidence that European Unity is splintering with a corresponding rise in nationalism throughout the world. We should not take peace for granted. We have the responsibility to find what unites humans and we must never provoke division.
          Remembering past wars should reinforce the knowledge that war is never the best option. The world cannot afford more wars because modern weapons have the ability to obliterate humanity from the earth. Today’s weapons have the capability to destroy the fertility of the soil.
          Imagine if humanity could let go of fear. Imagine if there was no need to invest in munitions and armies, air forces, arms and battleships. There are no victors in War, the only beneficiaries of wars are the manufacturers of weapons.
          The young men commemorated in this church gave their lives believing that they were fighting “the war to end wars”. Their sacrifice was in vain; as the song says:-

“its all happened again and again and again and again”.

This morning we remember them and we pledge ourselves to work for peace.

Rev.Bridget Spain
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church                                      8th November 2020