Our archivist, Old Cranleighan Martin Williamson, came across this sermon preached in Chapel by John Purvis on Armistice morning in 1934. He and I found it not only very moving but also utterly relevant for today.
Purvis taught at Cranleigh for 25 years, fought in World War 1 and went on to become a Canon of York Minster.
When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean these stones? then shall ye let your children know.
The Great War ended 16 years ago, before many of you were born. Yet we have joined this morning in a service of remembrance, very solemn, perhaps even to you affecting—we have observed again the Silence. England from end to end is full of war memorials : what do these stones mean to you ?
We pass, every day of term, between the portraits of Old Cranleighans who were killed in the war. To those who knew them personally and who taught them, their portraits may mean something : they can be little to most of you. To those who served, the day no doubt brings memories; to those who lost relations or friends the day must be sacred; but to you who generally are affected in neither of these ways? What was the war? We might regard it as having been a great opportunity to serve, to do something for one’s country. So it was. Or perhaps it was a great adventure, more thrilling than anything which peace-time could offer. So, to some extent, it was. Or perhaps it was the most appalling blunder that the world has seen.
Think for a moment of the typical experience of any of those thousands and thousands of men who served and died. He grew up, the object of care and hope and love : life was beginning to open before him : a career, marriage perhaps, and the supreme joy of young children. Then the war—a sudden and violent end to all that; a quarrel not in any way his own. He left behind all that had made life desirable; after a brief training, went overseas, to Flanders probably; then—drudgery,, mud, filth, fear, suffering, death : strength and beauty and intelligence living and dying in a foul ditch with rats : a life thrown away, all that hope, promise, value—lost.
“What mean these stones?” A memorial, certainly, but of what? A monument of pride in one’s record, so that some men may say, “/ served then?” No, nothing so selfishly callous. A testimony to the grief of the living for those they have lost, a memorial to keep alive the emotion of sorrow? No, nothing so emotional or unprofitable. A record merely of dates and names? Yet they must be forgotten in time. Then will these memorials be quite meaningless when all who served in the war, and all who lost father or brother there, are dead and gone? Will boys here still salute a monument as they pass?
These memorials stand for deeper things. They remind us that basest of all things is ignoble life: that in defence of justice and mercy men must be prepared to die : that in a day of utmost peril, courage and endurance and self-sacrifice were not wanting. For these things we remember with gratitude the men who fell, for these are things not to be forgotten. Especially where the war memorial is associated with a Church building are we reminded that to a Christian to leave this life is not the end of life ; that ” though the waves of the sea be mighty and rage horribly, yet the Lord who dwelleth on high is mightier “; that a Christian cannot lay down his life better than for the sake of others.
“What mean these stones?” They speak for ever of four years of the most ghastly waste in history,, waste and ruin on a scale so dreadful that they defeat the imagination and the understanding. The awful, awful slaughter—700,000 Englishmen, Englishmen alone —killed in action; our best stock, our best in body and mind: the appalling myriads of wounded—nearly 6000 of them still in hospital in England after at least 16 years of suffering—the unspeakable sorrows of thousands upon thousands of mothers. Many of you saw not long ago the film of the ” Battle of the Somme.” You will remember those only too truthful scenes of men living and struggling and fighting and dying in the mud, in the hideous conditions of winter warfare. Can you seriously find any excuse at all for a thing which should drive almost the entire youth of Europe into conditions like those? And that was a small part of the horror and foulness of war—things that blast the memory, that cannot be told in cold blood. Is there no lesson here? What does even common-sense suggest that you should do about it? These memorials speak of the social disaster, the threat to civilisation, the enormous debts, the misuse of the powers which science has placed in our hands, the mass-production recklessly overstimulated. Is there no lesson there? They speak of upheaval, revolution; of militant communism, militant fascism; of armament traffic, of international hate and suspicion; of the reaction against tradition, of licence and lowered ideals, and of all the moral and spiritual chaos which followed the war. Is there no lesson in any of these things? Yet has mankind shown any disposition to learn the lesson? Italy passes a law to train as soldiers all Italians from early boyhood to old age, and at once English newspapers begin to say that we must do the same. Germany gives examples of brutal violence and intolerant race hatred and kills freedom to build the nation into a war-machine. The one thing for which nations clamour, the one thing in which they most compete, is not to disarm, but to arm. Fear of air war, unscrupulously worked up; fear, suspicion, ill-will … . Oh! God must indeed be a God of the infinite patience of love, or long ago He would have destroyed such a mad, hopeless race.
War changes nothing and nobody for the better, however noble the motives with which you go to war. War brought out only what was there in men, good or bad; it could not make the coward brave, the brutal gentle or the foul decent. It brought out what was there. It could not destroy courage, endurance, self-sacrifice —that was gloriously proved—but it could and did bring out, and give hideous opportunity to, all the weakness, cruelty and baseness that there was in man. Can anyone read even the soberest history of the war and fail to see how the qualities which had most opportunity were not the higher qualities of man,; but the stupidity, the meanness, the falseness? Yet do not believe the rather hysterical novelists with whom it was a fashion to make out that most men took the war as an opportunity to indulge unrestrained in drunken ness and sexual licence. To believe that would be to support a gross and insulting lie against thousands of men who did not so readily change their standards of decency; and many of them are dead and cannot defend themselves. But no man has the right, or ought to have the power, to subject men, however brave and enduring, to the things which they must face in modern war. But there are certain lessons of the war which are true and abiding, lessons which every war memorial will hold up so long as it stands—true after 16 years as they will be after 1600 years, even if civilisation has committed suicide before then : time cannot alter these
The first lesson is this : that death, suffering, waste, disaster, evil, are the typical results of war, from which neither vanquished nor victor can escape, and that on a, scale which leaves unaffected no life in any part of the nation. Romance and chivalry have been finally stripped from war; it is an outburst of the vile and deadly, which puts all ideals to an agonising test. Will any say to me that war is a part of human nature? Does such a nature deserve to survive? No: the evil beastliness of war is no true part of human nature, and the hope of mankind rests only in the conquest of the beast within us. True, that we must fight against evil, but no real victory can be won in that struggle by using the weapons of evil, and of these war comes ever most readily to hand. Nor need we fear that courage, endurance, devotion will come to an end when mass-hatred and mass-slaughter have followed other forms of human sacrifice into the number of past evils.
But there is another lesson greater than that. War is an offence against God. The evil things which the late war has illustrated with such shocking clearness are inevitably the result when nations disobey the Will of God, when they set up any laws but those which God has given, when they turn to hate each other instead of seeking to promote each other’s good. For God has given us, as the expression of His Will once and for all, two laws and two only —that we should love Him with all our powers, and that we should love our neighbour. Only by seeking the good of others shall we obey that second law. Do not blame God for allowing the war; lay the blame rightly on the wicked foolishness of men who allow wars to go on in defiance of God. There can be no compromise, no half-obedience, here.
At a strenuous and noisy moment in the Battle of Arras in 1917, a man remarked to me, ” I suppose we’re making history.” We were certainly involved in making one of the great lessons of history. The pages of history are strewn with the names of nations which trusted in their armies, and have vanished from the face of the earth; which refused to do the Will of God and chose rather the material things of visible power, wealth, domination— and are no more. ”
Woe unto them that trust in chariots, because they arc many,; and in horsemen because they are very strong : but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the Lord.” The nation of the Jews prided themselves on being the nation chosen of God, but they had to learn bitterly that no nation is the chosen of God which does not obey Him. We in this country have prided ourselves sometimes that we are a nation especially favoured by God; but God has no favourites, and the eternal law will not be broken for our benefit. Certainly we have been highly favoured, certainly we have been given great opportunities, but it is that we may be able to do the work of God more fully. If we reject that or fail in it, then by the inflexible law we shall become as Nineveh or Tyre, nations that trusted in their might and their wealth, and not in the righteousness of God. ”
Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” We must neglect neither side of that ordinance. Surely we have a. duty of obedience to the State, but it is no less our duty to see that the State lives in obedience to the laws of God. That will not be done by a sudden or violent movement, nor by a great outburst of emotion. There is a problem to be solved, vast and complicated. Fear, nor any form of excitement, will never lead us to the solution. International competition in the use of force has been a failure, 1914-1918 showed that dread- fully enough, but what will you put in place of the rule of force? The answer will not be found quickly nor accepted easily,, but it must be found. The real reason why we dare not take the risks, which we imagine, of renouncing the use of force is that we have no real faith in God. We think that we can rule the world better than He could, so we keep Him out of it, and the results are sufficiently obvious. Only love of God and love of our neighbour will bring us to the true patriotism. Each man has a work to do as best he may. The result may be gradual, but may become irresistible. If you should be called to take your place in the councils of the nation, or to manage money, so often the cause and the support of wars, how will your influence be used?
We remember our dead who fell in the Great War—for your sake, as so many of them believed. We think to-day of their sacrifice with gratitude and wonder and reverence. But unless we remember it also with an understanding how deeply war is dis- obedience to God, unless we remember it with a strong determination that never again, by fault or consent of ours, shall war be possible, but rather we will give our energy for peace—then they have suffered and died in vain; the whole tremendous tragedy has been in vain. There is more than self-preservation in this revolve : before mankind is the opportunity to choose the right. But the opportunity may pass, for ever. “When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying,. What mean these stones? then shall ye let your children know.”