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Memory and delivery: World War I

A sermon given at the Civic Service, St James’s Church, Poole, Dorset, Sunday 3 August 2014.


Last Tuesday I had a morning with the Dorset Army Cadet Force, at their annual camp. I reminded them of a Russian proverb: “Dwell in the past and you’ll lose an eye. Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.”

We are here today to remember. The Hebrew word for remember (zachor) comes 169 times in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus’ Bible, our Old Testament. The same Hebrew Bible commands the Israelites to “Love the stranger’”in no fewer than 36 places.

Remember. Love the Stranger. Two narrative ways of reading World War One.

Nick Spencer, research director at Theos, the Christian think tank, has written about these two narratives (Bible Society, Transmission, Summer 2014):

It matters whether we tend towards the narrative of shared memory and collective identity or towards the narrative of struggle and conflict, of oppression and minorities.

Those who favour the first insist that without a common narrative we become divided, rootless and vulnerable. The best basis for mutual self interest is a sense of belonging together. The best defence against hostile identities is to be sure of your own.

Against this, those who favour a more analytical, more self critical, and more conflictual history insist that the common narrative approach exists only at the cost of exclusion, and readily involves the tyranny of the majority.

The stories of those who do not fit — the social underclass, denominational minorities, people of ethnic groups, women — are suppressed.

I imagine that today we can see aspects of the truth in both of these approaches, even if we naturally veer towards one or the other. We need to hold the two together to see truly.

Perspectives and Local Memories

Perspectives are crucial. Alison and I used to serve in Kenya for 7 years, as mission partners of the Church Mission Society, and lived 7 miles up a mud road in the foothills of Mount Kenya. I worked with Bishop David Gitari. He once asked me why Europeans talked about World War One: “Was it a world war? Or was it an inter-tribal war in Europe?” Worth pondering.

Common memory is served in villages and towns across Britain by War Memorials. Salisbury Cathedral has gathered the names of all those who are remembered on the memorials in the whole diocese. I was present at a service there, on 29 June, when the names were presented at the altar.

In Iwerne Minster, the village where I live, both the war memorial and the ‘War Office’ was designed by Gilbert Scott. The latter is a stone hut, constructed with notice boards for news from the Front.

Last Thursday evening I had dinner with a friend Caroline Rucker in Fontmell Magna, a village just north of Iwerne Minster. We first met in 1973 when I had a gap year in the army in Munster, West Germany. I served with her late husband James Rucker in the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards.

Caroline showed me the letters of her father-in-law, Charles Rucker, to his mother in Ashmore, Dorset. He was in the Rifle Brigade and was a cricket blue at the University of Oxford.

January 2nd 1916

We are still in the same billets and are really having a most delightful time under the circumstances. The best part of all is having a proper bed to lay on. I have had a good four hours then this afternoon as we do no work if possible on Sunday afternoons, unless of course we are in the trenches.

By the way, Mummy, I hope to get a week’s leave shortly. I expect you will have already seen in the papers that I have been awarded the M.C. so expect to come home any day.

I have the official citation of his Military Cross here:

Dated 22nd January, 1916. Awarded the Military Cross:-

Lieutenant C. E. S. Rucker

For conspicuous gallantry on the night of December 15th-16th, 1915, at Cordonnerie. He took out two parties to cut wire before a raid, and commenced work, but, being interrupted  by an enemy listening post, he returned to report. The enemy being aroused, the raid was abandoned, but Lieut. Rucker took out a bombing party and destroyed the listening post under a heavy fire. This post was inside the German wire and close to the enemy’s parapet. He volunteered for both these duties.

Sadly, this Oxford cricket Blue in March 1916 was wounded at Ypres and as a result lost a leg and the chance to play for England.

The lighter, every-day side of some of his letters home are illuminating. On January 15th 1916 he wrote:

By the way, Mummy, there are several things I want and should be greatly obliged if you would send them along when any member of the family is going up to town. They consist of:

  1. Cigarettes (Turkish)
  2. Tobacco (John Cotton No 1 Mild)
  3. Socks
  4. Collars (size 15)
  5. Couple of ties (light flannel ones)
  6. Handkerchiefs
  7. Couple of pairs of kneelets & couple of pairs of anklets for football. These can be got at any chemist I believe.

You might also have some food sent out from Fortnum and Mason. That cheese went very well and might be repeated, also a couple of bottles of Curacao.

Memory and Delivery in Holy Scripture

Our Old Testament reading today, Psalm 126, reflects the first approach to our commemoration today, which I mentioned at the beginning: the collective identity. It is one of the Psalms of Ascent, which Jewish pilgrims would sing on their way up to Jerusalem. It is in two parts. The first concerns the wonder of a past miracle (vv. 1-3):

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
        we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
        and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
        ‘The Lord has done great things for us,
        and we rejoiced.

The background to this is the delivery from exile in Babylon. The Lord did it. Wonder. Joy. Praise. The recognition of the nations.

The second half of the psalm (vv. 4-6) is a prayer for a future delivery. A lament. A cry. “Lord, do it again.”

There are two pictures of renewal here. First, water, in v. 4: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like watercourses in the Negeb.”

Water may be seen as a metaphor of grace — God’s unexpected initiative and gift — and of the Spirit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water,” and the writer adds, “Now he said this about the Spirit.” (John 7:37-39; see also Psalm 78:15-16)

The second picture is of the harvest, in vv. 5-6:

May those who sow in tears
       reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
       bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
       carrying their sheaves.

Harvest may be seen as a metaphor of cooperation with God and a picture of the Word of God. A bishop once delighted in a garden and commented, “Isn’t God wonderful in his creation?” The gardener heard this and replied, “You should have seen how he had it before I got here.”

Holy Scriptures have been part of the standard kit of the British soldier since 1825. The Duke of York, Army Commander-in-Chief, ordered every literate soldier should be issued with a Bible at public expense. I have here a centenary reprint of the Gospel of John, copies of which were given to soldiers during World War One by the Scripture Gift Mission.

Our New Testament lesson reflects the second approach I mentioned: the conflictual history of the excluded. The words are the Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5:1-12. I remember an interview with Robert Powell, who played Jesus in the 1970s TV production Jesus of Nazareth. He said that filming the Beatitudes was the most difficult part for him. It took about 12 takes before they got it right. These powerful words kept choking him. They are powerful — especially as we remember today.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Mourning. Hungering for justice. Peacemaking. All were interwoven in war — then and today. The “upside-downess” of the Beatitudes, which reverses cultural expectations, is shocking.

Causes of the First World War

Christopher Clark has written a perceptive book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914. It ends with these words: “The protagonists of the First World War were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams yet blind to the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

The Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove, summarizes Clark refusing to lay the blame on any one of the European quarters, whether:

  • Austria-Hungary for its peremptory ultimatum threatening war unless Serbia complied with its conditions
  • Russia for raising the stakes by resorting to general mobilization in support of Serbia and the pursuit of pan-Slav unity
  • Germany for entertaining the idea of war before Russian forces grew to overwhelming strength
  • France for uncritically associating with Russia’s intentions as a way of keeping Germany in check and winning back the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine
  • Britain for being so distracted by the Irish question that it failed to notice what was happening on the continent until it was almost too late.

Christopher Clark concludes that the outbreak of war was a tragedy not a crime.


So we have considered:

  • Two narratives which challenge and intermingle: the shared memory of collective identity and the conflictual history of the excluded,
  • Wider perspectives from Kenya and local memories from Ashmore, Dorset of Lieutenant Charles Rucker MC,
  • Two passages of Scripture, reflecting the narratives, Psalm 126 and the Beatitudes of Jesus,
  • And the causes of World War One, interpreted by Charles Clark.

How may we learn for today’s conflicts?

Israel certainly has a right to defend herself, but the attacks on United Nations schools in Gaza are outrageous in their atrocity. According to Christian Aid, up to 28 July, 229 children and 795 adult civilians have died. Hamas should not hide missiles in schools, but destroying children is ungodly. Archbishop Justin has published a carefully worded statement of challenge to both sides. We need to pray, to give money to Christian Aid’s Gaza appeal and to campaign for a cease fire.

In Mosul, Iraq, Christians predated the birth of Mohammad, but the Islamist group ISIS are persecuting Christians and an 1800 year old church has been destroyed. The Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, spoke on the Sunday programme of BBC Radio 4 today pleading with the UK Government to take in Christians from Mosul as asylum seekers.

When I was with the Dorset Army Cadet Force last week, we discussed the changing future of warfare. We need to be prepared. In Dorset, we have two significant centres. The Royal Signals at Blandford Forum: cyber-warfare is now quite rightly being recognised by the Government as crucial. And The Royal Armoured Corps at Bovington: as our British tank regiments short-sightedly are reduced to only one, Russia strikes in Ukraine while the irony is hot.

I finish with a poem in which I have reflected on the theme of water in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation: it also draws on the metaphor of a woman giving birth.

By the Waters of Delivery

By breathing and brooding,
By breaking and birthing,
By parting and loosing,
By stirring and soothing:
By giving, re-living,
By stilling, refreshing,
By drowning, immersing,
By raising, re-versing,
You, Lord, deliver us.


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