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Issue No.117
17 December 2018

Lest we forget

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Jo Hibbard reflects on remembering those who died in the First World War

 

ON REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY, 11 November 2018, it is expected that more people than ever will gather around our war memorials to respect the call for two-minutes silence at 11am and to "remember them". Across the country, church ministers and members will join others at civic events in town halls and squares, or organise services around local church and village memorials. For many, the focus this year will be explicitly on the anniversary of the end of the 'Great War', 100 years before. But is this just a nostalgic looking back to an imagined past, or do the stories of those who died also inform our mission today?

A war memorial, according to the War Memorials Trust, is "any physical object created, erected or installed to commemorate those involved in, or affected by a war or confl ict". Until the late nineteenth century, memorials were largely created to celebrate victories and great leaders, rather than mourn ordinary service personnel. This started to change in Britain with the Boer War (1899-1902), but WWI is usually seen as a turning point. Around two thirds of the war memorials that exist today resulted from the Great War, precipitated by the huge numbers of casualties. Almost every community was affected, but bringing the dead home for burial was determined to be logistically impossible and banned. It was decided that all should be buried near where they fell and with equivalent honour, regardless of rank or family fortune. Many service personnel have no known grave. This meant that most families who had lost loved ones had no grave as a focus for their grief at home after WWI. Communities of all kinds, including churches, therefore formed war memorial committees to design a locally appropriate monument to remember those they had lost. Some are considered to be great works of public art today and continue to retain and be a focus for the community's collective memory.

But should we continue to remember those who died so long ago? The Revd Stuart Bell is author of Faith in Conflict (Helion) and is one of the editors of The Hardest Part (SCM Press, reviewed on p.44). He suggests: "It is important that we remember. Many [men] voluntarily enlisted believing that the military might of Germany had to be challenged, and that 'brave little Belgium' had to be set free. After the fi rst few months, the long lists in local newspapers of thosewho had lost their lives, and the long lines of trains carrying the injured to military hospitals, ensured that no one signed up unaware of the risks. But that was an era in which the greater common good was seen as being more important than the lives of individuals. Many did consciously 'lay down their lives for their friends' - for their country, for the victory of what they believed to be a just and righteous cause, and for the triumph of good over evil. However we respond to those attitudes, the sacrifi ce of those who died and were injured should not be forgotten."

The sad fact is that WWI did not 'end all wars'. Communities added names and places to their WWI memorials after WWII and may continue to do so, while new memorials are also being erected. Groups continue to self-identify and want to remember their own in their unique way. For example, a new monument to the volunteer nurses who served in both World Wars was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, in June 2018, redressing the balance towards acknowledging women's wartime roles.

Remembrance Sunday is no longer confi ned to recalling the dead of WWI and WWII, and support has increased annually. This is due to heightened consciousness in society of the impact of confl ict, following Britain's engagement in more recent theatres of war, from the Falklands War to Iraq and Afghanistan, and linked to signifi cant anniversaries such as 1914/2014. With the cadets and service men and women of today's forces, and the relatives and veterans of recent confl icts, we will pause on 11 November. We will give thanks for those who have fought, and still fi ght, to maintain our relative peace, freedom and national safety. We will continue to remember those who have given their lives.

Jo Hibbard is Director of Engagement in the Methodist Church's Connexional Team. Thanks to Ann Fox and the Revd Stuart Bell for their contributions to this article.

 

Methodists and the Great War

On the MyMethodistHistory website, we are endeavouring to remember the 26,581 Wesleyan Methodists and 15,000 Primitive Methodists who gave their lives in the Great War. Our heritage has been a specifi c focus for contemporary mission in the Methodist Church for ten years; an opportunity to explore how our history has shaped us and how we can use the stories of the past to reach out to today's society. Interest in family history in particular has generated many opportunities for engagement, sharing stories of faithfi lled lives and exploring the relevance of Methodism today.

The Wesleyan fi gure is taken from forms submitted by the Wesley Guilds. These forms were collated and sealed in a casket, which was placed under a stone in the newly built Wesleyan Memorial Church at Catterick Camp on 8 August 1928. A further 204 late returns, with a further 2704 names, have since been found.

The Methodists remembered at Catterick are named on individual war memorials across the country, including many in Methodist churches and chapels. Website editor and project leader, Ann Fox, outlined the Methodist war memorial recording project to me. "We have 172 memorials recorded so far at MyMethodistHistory, with others at MyPrimitiveMethodistAncestors, telling the stories of hundreds of the people who gave their lives. We have asked that people send in at least a photograph of their memorial and transcribe the names so that they will be picked up by a search engine. Ideally, we hope our contributors will do some additional research about the people commemorated, although this can be added to the records online at a later date."

"There is a facility to leave a comment on each webpage", Ann adds, "through which people can add to others' stories, for example, linking up family members." Ann is keen to emphasise that "war memorials, and Remembrance, are still important because without them history is lost to today's generation. History should not just be something that is read about in books; it has to be visible, so that questions will be asked."

w: www.MyMethodistHistory.org.uk