I wonder if you have a favourite Doctor Who?
Mine is John Pertwee, with his yellow vintage car, ‘Bessie’. It is amazing to think that this famous Time Lord has been on our television sets for over 50 years. We only have to double that number to 100 to bring us to the date being remembered today – 1st July 1916. In the United Kingdom and beyond, this date is being remembered in services and silence as the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.
The British Army suffered huge losses – 19,240 on the first day alone. The tragedy of the Somme marked something of a ‘sea change’ in the British nation’s attitude to ‘The Great War’ or World War One. Arguably the war that continues to define our modern age. One reason being the enormous, industrial scale, of killing that took place. I have already quoted some numbers and they can be hard to comprehend. But the soldiers who died in World War One on the British and Commonwealth side alone was brought home to me in the poppies seen around the Tower of London in 2014. A vast field of red ceramic flowers, 888,246 poppies, each representing a life. I saw it with my youngest son and together with the crowds of visitors we found it humbling, moving, breath-taking.
Trying to take in the scale of this may feel like like trying to comprehend time itself. For some years I was a chaplain for a local branch of the Royal British Legion. What helped me comprehend some of the significance of Remembrance Sundays and other events were personal stories amid the vast statistics of destruction. One of them was Rev. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy – nicknamed ‘Woodbine Willie’ – a name fondly given to him by the soldiers. Armed only with a packet of cigarettes and his faith, he dwelt among them. I am not promoting smoking but the cigarettes helped relieve their battle stress, was a rare comfort along with his listening ear, and Woodbine Willie helped the soldiers cope with unimaginable horrors each day. I believe it was for them something of a ‘communion’. A special word for Christians. But a word that simply means, ‘common unity’ or ‘deep fellowship’. Woodbine Willie shared that fellowship in the trenches, and made God known through what he shared. Eventually Woodbine Willie was awarded the Military Cross with this citation: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”
One story – amid a vast field of memories. One that reminds me we can make a difference in what may feel like a sea of chaos and sacrifice. There are so many stories that could be shared, but there is not enough time. Silence is probably best, even if it is only for 2 minutes. But 2 minutes can feel like a lot, just as 100 years can feel like very little. Time is relative. We are not Time Lords. We cannot change history. But we can learn from it. That is the message I once shared at a Remembrance Sunday service where there were many young people and families present. Remembering these events is not about glorifying them but trying to avoid the terrible mistake of repeating them. That is why we should never forget the sacrifices made.
We have no time machine to make things right, but we can share what Woodbine Willie shared in the trenches – faith.
- Faith in a better world that can come through the chaos of war.
- Faith in one another that our only hope is in working together.
- Faith that good can finally overcome evil, even if that involves terrible sacrifice.
- Faith in God – the Lord of Time.
We cannot change the past 100 years, but we can learn from it and faithfully shape the future. ‘Tomorrow’ is a precious gift that the words of the Kohima Epitaph remind us, has been entrusted to us by those who gave their ‘today’. Thanks to them the future is ours. Time is in our hands. In that sense we can be ‘Time Lords’. So let me just say this: “Travel well.”