The marking of Remembrance Sunday this year holds a unique significance in that it is 100 years since the signing of the Armistice on November 11th 1918. It is a day which has come to have increased poignancy for me through the lives of two of my great grandfathers, about whom I have discovered much through my growing interest in genealogy
Lt-Col Edward Frank Harrison died on November 4th 1918 aged 49. He never saw active service, but his eldest son died on the Somme in 1916 and has no known grave, although he is remembered both on the great monument at Thiepval in France and on his parents' grave in Brompton Cemetery. My great grandfather died from influenza... brought on, so one of his obituaries reads, by "two and a half years of constant work and the gas inhaled during the early stages of his work".
He was the leader of a team of people whose sacrificial work led to the invention of the gas-mask of which many millions were issued to troops at the front and which would be developed for both military and civilian use in subsequent conflicts.
As a result of this experience of loss, both my grandfather and my father chose to stand up as conscientious objectors and served their country in other ways. It is to remember them and many like them that I wear a white poppy with pride.
My second story comes as a result of a letter passed on to me as part of another great grandfather's papers. The Reverend James Robinson Irving was also a Methodist minister...
Manuscript note at head of letter: Norman Simpson's letter to his mother before "going over the top". He was killed the next day.
"My ever dearest mother,
I am writing you these few lines whilst in the trenches, where I have been for the last few days. It has been the roughest time so far, – so much rain, trenches nothing but mud, and I am standing above my boots in water now, – but am quite well, only feeling a little serious. Shells keep bursting all around and the roar of the guns is great.
Tomorrow morning at dawn we are going over the top, going to attack the Germans in their trenches, and I realise full well that it will be walking into the jaws of death, but I am not afraid. "He will give his angels charge over thee", and so I can only put my faith in God and leave the next few hours in his hands. If our charge is only successful, and I pray that it may be, it means a big step nearer the finish, and knowing that I am going to do something to bring that great day nearer, when I shall once more be your own "wee laddie", I do not feel any alarm, but rather a joy that we are going to do something great for our beloved land. My thoughts are only for you all at this moment. I seem to feel you very near to me in this cold cheerless trench, and so I heed not the discomfort, but only see your face with its smile, full of love and welcome for me.
Someone has been whistling, "Abide with me", a hymn of childhood's memories, a hymn of hope. "Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day", what calm and peace in those words, and even out here I can feel it steal into my soul. "I triumph still", and so I shall go forward at the appointed time, – just before the first faint streaks of dawn light herald the approach of another day of toil for you, confident that God is watching over me. I feel your prayers are about me and so whatever the day holds for me I know it is God's will. Far over the hilltops I can see a break in the clouds. I think the end is in sight, and soon this awful toil will be as a dream when it is passed. God grant victory to our arms, and bring us a speedy peace, and keep my loved ones safe this night."
It is to remember Norman Simpson and many like him that I also wear a red poppy with pride.
The word 'sacrifice' is central to so much of what we remember. There many readings within the Bible and within Christian liturgy that speak of Jesus' sacrifice made once for the sins of the whole world. When we speak of 'sacrifice' today what does it mean in a world where the most popular games played "for fun" by many people centre on the strategies and tactics for the killing and destruction of zombies, aliens, futuristic soldiers and fellow combatants?
What are we prepared to give up today that others may have the hope of a tomorrow?