David McEvoy, Reader, 11 November 2018
The Psalm appointed for today is Psalm 62. Psalm 62 verse 5:
For God alone my soul waits in silence.
Silence. Silence is always more than the absence of noise or sound. Silence has meaning. This year, our two minutes silence may carry more meaning than normal.
Silence. One hundred years ago today the guns that had torn up millions of human bodies and thousands of square miles of good land fell silent at 11 o’clock. And the soldiers faced with this unaccustomed silence responded not with shouts of joy but with their own silence, a silence filled with relief and a silence filled with the unstated question ‘what do we do now?’
Silence. So many soldiers returning from the war were silent. They never spoke about what they knew. Some felt that civilians simply would not understand what they were saying or even did not want to hear what they had to say. As the parody of Jerome Kern’s haunting song ‘They didn’t believe me’ puts it
And when they asked us
How dangerous it was.
Oh! We’ll never tell them.
No, we’ll never tell them.
We spent our pay in some cafè,
And fought wild women night and day,
T’was the cushiest job we ever had.’
As the historian Jay Winter put it, ‘some wanted to leave their nightmares in the dark, where they belonged, and to go on living ordinary lives. Others went further and concluded that the horror of war was beyond speech, beyond images, beyond monuments’.
Silence. So many soldiers returning from the war were silenced by shell-shock. We see this pictured in fiction at both ends of the social scale. In Pat Barker’s book, Regeneration, Private Billy Prior’s shell-shock left him mute. He wasn’t able to speak. We see it in Dorothy L Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories. Wimsey, an officer in the war, back in civilian life found himself unable to give an order of any sort because his orders in the war had sent so many to their deaths.
Silence. From this country and what we now call the commonwealth, the voices of nearly one million men and boys were silenced forever. Our parish memorial plaques by the steps record 167 names. There are 50 names on the memorial to the 5th London Field Ambulance on the wall by the choir vestry. So many stories of loss and heartbreak of which the Sewell and Baulson families who each lost four loved ones are just two examples. 217 people whose voices would never be heard again.
Silence. When the country worked out how to express its grief it chose to express it in memorials made out of stone, wood, brass and bronze. Over 60,000 war memorials were built in the years immediately after the Armistice. The country also expressed its grief in rituals that we still use today. And the most telling of these rituals is silence. The whole nation stood in silence for two minutes on 11th November 1919. We follow our parents, grandparents and great grandparents in doing this today.
Silence. We are silent perhaps because God too was silent. Where was God in all this violence, suffering and death? This silence says that there are no easy human or even Christian answers to life. The treaties that ended the war and which were designed to prevent further war, led to another world war and to political fault lines in the Middle East that still cause war and violence today. But the silence of God strangely gives us hope because the son of God himself felt that silence as he suffered and died, suffered and died with us and for us. Somewhere in this silence we might find hope for the peace that has eluded the world since 1918.
Could I ask you to please turn to the 167 names in the centre two pages in the booklet you have. We cannot give those names their voices back. But we can give our voices to their names.
Please can you find the first person in the list whose surname begins with the same letter as your surname. And please read out that name and the 11 names that follow it. Please read the names out loud but quietly and slowly and stop after your reach the twelfth name (or thereabouts). We will all read our names at the same time. Those of us at the front will read the names of those from the 5th London Field Ambulance.
Please give your voice to their names.
For God alone my soul waits in silence.