Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at St Mary’s Garsington on Remembrance Sunday for Commemoration of the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
This year I have really appreciated the focus that has been placed on some of the great battles of the First World War. With a knowledge that was one of a broad sweep of history rather an understanding of the finer details, I have come to learn a little bit more about what were the causes, actions and consequences of battles like the Somme, as far as they can be discerned. The Somme lingers long in the mind, especially if you hear the voices of those who stood in the trenches waiting to go over the top or experience even in second hand form the actual sound of a recording of the artillery bombardment that continued through those days and weeks in July 1916. I was sitting in the car waiting to go to an appointment when Radio 4 played the recording and remember turning up the radio to its fullest volume just for a moment to try, in my own rather a foolish way, to imagine what it must have been like for those who were actually there.
One of the battles of the Somme that has really seized my imagination and troubles me the most, was really seen as a side battle of the Somme. Some of you may have gone to the war memorial at Delville Wood, or Devil’s Wood as the British called it, which I believe still has areas that are out of bound because of live munition. Bois D’Eville near Longueval in the Somme and was part of Haig’s great push. The wood wasn’t one of those lovely beech avenues like Shotover which we enjoy so much at this time of year but a thick tangle of trees where the idea of digging deep trench system was out of the question. The orders were to clear the wood of German artillery. This began on 15th July 1916 and continued until the September of the same year. The southern section of the wood was cleared quickly but the response from the German side was fierce, at its peak 400 German shells were dropped per minute, smashing up trees and turning the area into a living hell. One survivor described the scene:
“Every semblance of a trench seemed full of dead-sodden, squelchy, swollen bodies. Fortunately the blackening faces were invisible except when Verey lights lit up the indescribable scene. Not a tree stood whole in that wood.
Food and water were very short and we had not the faintest idea when any more would be obtainable.
We stood and lay on putrefying bodies and the wonder was that the disease (dysentery) did not finish off what the shells of the enemy had started.
There was hand-to-hand fighting with knives, bombs, and bayonets; cursing and brutality on both sides such as men can be responsible for when it is a question of “your life or mine”; mud and filthy stench; dysentery and unattended wounds; shortage of food and water and ammunition.”
Captain S. J. Worsley, MC
A German officer who fought at Delville Wood described it in these terms, you may like to look at the picture I have given you in the order of service of what the wood looked liked after the war had finished
‘Delville Wood had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep.’
Four Victoria Crosses were awarded for bravery in this one of the most gruesome and horrific battles of the Somme where the casualties were as high on one side as they were on another.
Soon after the war tourists came to the site of Delville wood, some were looking for one of the 8,000 still lying there, some just to seen the iconic shattered trees that had been shown in newspapers back home, some out of searching love, some out of curiosity, some on a pilgrimage of honour. Today it is the site of the South African National Memorial, commemorating the 10,000 South Africans who were killed there. I wonder whether you have visited it and what it was like. Only one of the hornbeam trees from that original wood is still standing, studded with shrapnel from artillery casing, it is a perhaps more poignant memorial than all the concrete edifices which can erected to the many casualties of the Somme.
Today is not about an idle curiosity of the events of history, nor is it gruesome delight in the horrible histories of the past but it is about looking deeply and compassionately at the lone tree, scarred and shattered. It is about remembering, recalling the past into the present through our powerful imagination, so that we can understand who we are and recognise our ability as human beings to so easily enter the wood of hatred, fear, isolationism, prejudice and war, to create a living hell. Not for nothing does Dante’s great poem of human salvation begin with the soul lost in a wood. But like Dante, we too have our guide, if we will listen and follow him.
Lying behind the Delville wood of Jesus’ terrifying scene of destruction which we find in our Gospel reading today is the sense of a guide, a presence, a truth which lies behind and within the horror of all that we can go through, a lone tree which bears the shrapnel of all that can be thrown at it, the cross of Christ. Sometimes we think our salvation is something that we must achieve, we must earn or fight for. We are the tree and our human nature will overcome every time, humanity will succeed on its own. A saviour President or Prime Minister will make it all perfect. But if history teaches us anything when we abandon our Guide or use him to our own advantage then we skip down the path to the witch’s house of the Devil’s wood following the sweets of suffering. Today of all days is the time that we must remember our need of a Guide, the guide of the crucified Christ the lone tree of forgiveness which overcomes Death. For in that tree we see not only all the potential that we have to destroy ourselves and each other but also our salvation which has already been achieved through Jesus Christ our Lord.