Reflection for Remembrance Sunday – sermon preached at the Memorial Hall.

As a former chaplain to the Royal Marines Association in Nottingham, I’ve been watching the TV programme Celebrity SAS – Who Dares Wins, where the recruits are subjected to the challenges of selection for the Special Air Service. During the final programme, when treatment not allowed by the British Army is used, one of the staff mentioned his own experience of interrogation when he constantly heard the refrain boots, boots, boots, boots, so I looked it up. It’s from a poem, Boots, by Rudyard Kipling and imagines the repetitive thoughts of a British Army Infantryman on a forced march during the Second Boer War in South Africa, which ended in 1902. How amazing , then ,

to hear its use  with the SAS today:

We’re foot—slog—slog—slog—sloggin’ over Africa—. 

Foot—foot—foot—foot—sloggin’ over Africa —

(Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up and down again!) 

There’s no discharge in the war!

Seven—six—eleven—five—nine-an’-twenty mile to-day—

Four—eleven—seventeen—thirty-two the day before —

(Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up and down again!) 

There’s no discharge in the war!

Don’t–don’t–don’t–don’t–look at what’s in front of you.

(Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up an’ down again);

Men—men—men—men—men go mad with watchin’ em,

An’ there’s no discharge in the war!……

We—can—stick—out–‘unger, thirst, an’ weariness,

But—not—not—not—not- not the chronic sight of ’em—

Boots —boots—boots—boots—movin’ up an’ down again,

An’ there’s no discharge in the war!

I–‘ave—marched—six—weeks in ‘Ell an’ certify

It—is—not—fire—devils, dark, or anything,

But boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up an’ down again,

An’ there’s no discharge in the war! 

There’s no discharge in the war – or from the war either. That was true for Kipling with the death of his son John who was killed in action at the Battle of Loos in September. At first, he was reported missing and Kipling and his wife went to the Western Front looking for him, visiting hospitals and dropping fliers about him. John’s body was never found and, like so many of the hundreds of thousands of parents whose children were killed in action, the Kiplings were left with no place to grieve. So, he joined the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and he it was who chose Ecclesiasticus 44:14 ‘Their name liveth for evermore’ which is found on the Stones of Remembrance in larger war cemeteries. He also suggested Known unto God for the headstones of unidentified servicemen and the inscription The Glorious Dead on the Cenotaph in London. For him, in the loss of his son, there was no discharge in the war.

Neither was there any discharge in the war for local lads Privates Edward Jones and Richard Lewis, who were gassed during WW1 and survived it but died of tuberculosis afterwards, or for Private Thomas Lewis who died of influenza on Armistice Day 1918. Nor was there for Private William Lewis who served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the Middle East and survived the first and second battles of Gaza but died in the hand to hand fighting in the battle of Beersheba, where he is buried. There is no discharge in the war for the families and friends of those who mourned their loss either.

So it is in Gaza today where the warfare from three thousand years ago resonates in the ongoing conflict. In the Old Testament, in 1100 BC, Gaza – which means strong city – was the place where the strongman Samson was imprisoned and the scene of many battles; just as the Palestinians now inhabit this area, so their name is derived from a Hebrew word meaning land of the Philistines, the people so often at war with the then Israelites. Ashkelon, where so many journalists are reporting from, was a base for the Philistines and also the site of the last battle of the First Crusade. Across the years, then and now, as Kipling writes there’s no discharge in the war. 

That was true also for Sergeant Maurice Enser, who served with the First Army in Algiers in 1943. He wrote of a communion service held in a hut one Sunday morning by the Padre Captain Barrett: “We started the service. After a short time we heard the shelling start. When the service ended he said, “You had better take what cover you can……” Mr. Martin and Captain Barrett, the two officers went into a corner and I dropped into a slit trench with another soldier. The next minute a shell dropped. There was dust and cordite everywhere and I could hear moaning and groaning. I went over and Mr Martin was dying. Captain Barrett was in a bad way, his legs were shattered. Stretcher bearers came and took them both away so I went and found my Company Commander and he said,”Go back to your position. You are now in charge of your Platoon.” Poor Maurice, no words of comfort for what he’d just experienced, not even a cup of tea or a rest! “I hurried back to tell them and one young man named Paxton asked if we could have a bit of a service for them, so we did. I know Paxton was pleased about that. In the event he was killed in my presence two weeks later. I had no opportunity to have a bit of a service for him – I was taken prisoner at the time. But 54 years later I was with my wife in Belper and we saw a war memorial. I went up and had a look at it – and Paxton’s name was on it.”

Maurice did his duty at the time with the Sherwood Foresters but struggled with PTSD throughout his life as a result of what he’d been through. When I knew him, he was still having nightmares about it all and he was well into his seventies. For him, too, there was no discharge in the war. And, as we remember the sacrifice made by so many for the freedom we sometimes take for granted, and witness the resonances of it on the streets of London this weekend, for us too there is no discharge in war as we live with the consequences of it. We also face battles in our day as well as hatred and violence; we may be wounded at times by events or find ourselves hurting others – but although the resonances of warfare and division live on, so too does hope, love, faith and perseverance. As we pause awhile together to remember today, so our various journeys through life will shortly resume and we shall have opportunities ahead to make a positive difference and to live the lives others laid down for our sakes. So, make sure you’ve got ready your boots, boots, boots, boots, boots!

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Guardian.