Preparing for Advent: It’s going to be a Journey

Vicar Nick Parish has suggested a theme of “Journey” for the preparatory period of Advent and the congregation of St Stephen’s asked me to reflect on what that might mean in my address to them on the Feast of Christ the King.

– A Journey begins with a desire to move, a desire for a change

– A Journey necessitates some  change even it not the desired change

-> what would we like to change about ourselves / our church / our lives this Advent?   What would we like to be different before the coming of the Lord at Christmas?

– A Journey requires an objective, a route, waypoints, some planning and preparation 

-> What is our objective? What are our waypoints, our intermediate goals?

– A journey may involve a degree of danger, risk, of getting lost

-> what are we afraid of? 

-> how can we find ourselves if we get lost?

– A journey involves a change of scenery, of different landscape, different travelling companions 

– As in Strictly come dancing (where contestants commonly say ‘It’s been a journey’) we learn as we go

-> what should we learn? 

– it is an opportunity to slow down, to be relieved of the normal and mundane, the everyday distractions,  to ‘mindfully’ enjoy the journey of life

Once started why should we ever stop?

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” (Robert Louis Stevenson) 
What would arrival mean?  What do we hope for in Advent? 

On this the festival of Christ the King, arrival (our ultimate Advent wish) might be for all the world to know Christ as King.  

For if Christ is known as King then we are all understood to be united, unified and reconciled as his subjects 

As we heard in Colossians (1:15-20):

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Why do we remember? The Fallen at St Martin’s Epsom

The first time I entered St Martin’s, in March of this year, to meet its Vicar, Nick Parish[1], he was showing a group of schoolchildren around the church.  I remember he told them that it was ‘a treasury full of stories’.

I have been here for a few months now and I have come to see that he was absolutely right.  This building is full of things to help us remember the lives of those who have gone before us.

At the far end above the altar are the saints and angels – the founders of our Church.

Included among these are our patron, St Martin – bishop of Tours who died in the year 397 and whose feast falls this weekend.

Appropriately enough for Remembrance-tide, he was a soldier before he became a monk and a bishop.  He was famous for using his soldier’s sword to cut his cape in two and share it with a beggar.  And if you go and look after the service you will see that depicted here on the top right hand corner of the reredos above the high altar.[2]

Back here in nave we have fewer saints and more sinners – we have on the walls memorials to ordinary people whose lives people wanted to remember

It has been said that a person only truly dies when their name is said for the last time.

And in a way they have been immortalised because we remember them still

We refer to those monuments by the names of those whom the commemorate – the Evelyn Monument, the Northey Chapel – we can still read them – see their names – remember them

Historically such memorials were reserved only for the rich whose families could afford them.

But such was the public mood after the First World War, after the sacrifice that had been made with a million British and Commonwealth lives lost, that it was felt that every single person who died should be commemorated, treated like a rich person, like a saint.  And so we have our memorial here to the dead of the first and then the second world wars.

This morning I want to pick out a few of those ordinary people who have been remembered in this extraordinary way and to bring them back to life a little.  For this I am indebted to the contributors to the http://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk website  – where you will find all of the information which I will cover here, and much else besides.

The names on the memorial tablets are set out in date order – the date that they died.  Five of these names are dated 1st July 1916.

The first of the five is Walter Cooke who joined the East Surrey Regiment on 25 November 1915, Measuring 5 feet 2½ inches in height he was not a tall man.  He was just 18 but like many soldiers he lied about his age saying that he was 19 as that was the earliest age permitted for front-line combat.

Walter worked as a grocer and lived with his Aunt, Frances at Woodcote Cottages, Woodcote Road, Epsom; – by the BP garage on the road leading up to the RAC club at Woodcote Park.

The next name is that of Bernard Johnson who was a little older being 21 and had joined the East Surreys couple of months earlier.  They were neighbours as Bernard also lived on Woodcote Road – his father had a grocer’s business next to the Ladas pub – it is even possible that Walter worked for him.  Bernard Johnson was a celebrated local footballer.

Both men had joined the East Surrey regiment – who recruited a lot locally as their headquarters were in Kingston. They were drafted to the 8thBattalion a group of men who were to go down in history as perhaps the extraordinary on that fateful day.

For the first of July 1916 saw the start of the battle of the Somme, dubbed ‘The Big Push’, which was intended to break the stalemate which had been reached on the western front with a long line of opposing trenches stretching [from the Ardennes] to the North Sea coast.  The deep trenches had so far proved impenetrable, defended by dense rolls of barbed wire and dug-in machine gun positions – weapons which delivered a murderous 600 rounds per minute cross fire and an with an effective range of 800 yards.   To leave one’s trench in daylight meant near certain death from machine gun or sniper.

The plan for the breakthrough was to use a week-long artillery barrage to destroy the German trenches, disable the machine guns and cut the wire.

Despite delivering the longest and heaviest artillery bombardment in history with millions of shells fired, as we now know, the plan failed – the wire remained largely intact and the German machine gunners were safe in their deep dug outs ready to return to the surface as soon as the artillery stopped firing.

It was the southern end of this death-trap that the East Surreys were scheduled to attack – towards the small village of Montauban.

One of the officers attached to the 8th East Surreys was Captain Wilfred Percy Nevill.  Former Head boy of Dover College and a keen sportsman, Nevill new that the young men of the battalion who had never before been in combat would be under great stress about what might happen to them.  He also knew from patrols that the opposition they would face would be far tougher than the senior command had imagined – to cross no-man’s land at an even walk as they had been ordered would be to march to their deaths.

So to help take their minds off the dangers ahead and to encourage speed he bought four footballs, one for each of his platoons. The idea was that they would dribble the balls across No Man’s land, and he would give a prize for the first platoon to reach the German lines.  We can imagine that our footballer Bernard was excited by this prospect.

An observer from the artillery, who was based at a forward post at the time, witnessed Nevill’s attack.

The observer saw a man who he thought was an officer get out of the trench and give the ball a good kick towards the German lines.  That appeared to be the signal for the advance, with the other men kicking the ball as they went.

It is a nice thought that one of these footballers was Epsom local Bernard Johnson.

Nevill’s distinctly British public schoolboy idea turned out to be a good one and uniquely on the battlefield, the East Surreys achieved all of their objectives and took the village of Montauban – a distance of over a mile from the original front line.

The cost however was dear – out of around 1,000 men in the 8th Battalion, the East Surrey’s lost 446 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner that day – almost half their number.

In line with the statistics for the men, two of the footballs were lost but two were recovered having made it to the German trenches.[3]

The prize, however would never be claimed for Captain Nevill had been killed – receiving a bullet through the heart as soon as he reached the German wire.

Among the fallen were Walter Cooke and Bernard Johnson.  How exactly they died and where is not known since their bodies were never found.

 

Elsewhere the carnage was the same though the results were less impressive.

Nowhere was this more true than in the north of the battlefield where our other three Epsom parishioners were waiting with the London Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers to make their attack.

In September 1914 Albert Beams – a Grocer’s porter of 19 Aldephi Road, Epsom (where the Rifleman Pub is) walked into the headquarters of the 2nd London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), at Tufton Street, near Westminster Abbey and volunteered his services.  Just a bit further along the queue were two more local men, Thomas Burfitt, of East Street Epsom, and John Donhue of 9, Hook Road, Epsom.

Thomas Burfitt had been baptised here at St Martins church in 1897 –his parents had also been married here.  A keen church  goer, he was a member of the Epsom Brotherhood – a prototype church men’s group.  He was just 17.

It appears that quite a few Epsom men enlisted into the London Regiment at Westminster.  Perhaps they were like me – commuters travelling up to work around Victoria.  Moreover the 2nd London Regiment trained at Tattenham Corner on Epsom Downs which must have been attractive for keeping up with family and sweethearts. [4]

There is much talk about the Pals battalions of the north but these Kitchener regiments of the South East were also formed of close friends and neighbours.  All three of these Epsom men lived within a mile of each other in NE Surrey, they enlisted on the same day and all three were to die on the same day, within a mile of one another in NE France.

At the northernmost extent of the Somme battlefield the German trenches formed a salient into British lines around Gommecourt Park.  The attack on the Gommecourt salient was not considered part of the main thrust, it was supposed to act as a diversion, drawing off German resources that might otherwise have been used further south.

The ruse failed.  Not a single German reinforcement was required – instead, as soon as the bombardment finished, the defenders climbed out of their bunkers, put their machine guns in position and cut down wave upon wave of attackers.

Two companies of the London Regiment Royal Fusiliers had been held in reserve until two in the afternoon, when, despite what had happened in the morning, they too were sent over the top as reinforcements.  They met pretty much the same fate as their predecessors from the morning – either cut down by long range machine gun fire or blown to pieces by the German artillery who knew what to expect and were now vigorously shelling no man’s land.  We can reasonably assume that Albert Beams and John Donhue died here.

Some valiant souls, however, made it on to the German trenches where few in number, without officers to lead them and with little idea of where they were going, they retreated and then had to run the gauntlet once again of the German artillery which chased them back.

This appears to have been the fate of Thomas Burfitt

Thomas’ parents received a telegram from the War Office around 23 July 1916, notifying them that he had been wounded on 1 July.  His parents had tried to get information on what had happened to him through the Red Cross.

Our thoughts turn to those who were left behind to worry – what thoughts must have been going through his parents’ minds?

They received two letters.

In the first, Rifleman Southey, from Sutton, who recovering from a bullet wound to his leg, wrote from hospital in Clapton:

I am writing to you regarding your dear son Tom, with whom I, as a member of Tommy’s section, was intimately acquainted. I was with Tommy since we left England in 1914 and I am quite sure that one couldn’t wish for a better chum, and he was well liked by all of us who knew him. It was with great regret that I saw that he was missing and I have been anxiously waiting news of him also.

He was leading us when we made the assault on 1 July on the German line, which we took, however I was wounded during this and came back across No Man’s Land to our lines so I can’t say how he fared after that, but he was alright when I left him. I can only say that he may have been taken prisoner of war, but it is impossible to say for certain. It is one comfort to know that if your dear son has been killed he died leading his Section as a hero.

 

What comfort this may have been to Tommy’s parents is unclear.  In August, they received a second letter saying that a Corporal J Fawcett had last seen Tommy when he was apparently back within the British trenches trying to make his way to the relative safety of the village looking for a dressing station to get treatment for a gunshot wound to his arm. However, the trenches were suffering a very heavy bombardment…

Like the other four Epsom casualties of the 1st day of the Somme, Tommy’s body was never found and he is commemorated with them and all those who have no grave on the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme Battlefield in France and indeed, in this church.

In total the cost of 1st July was 57,470 casualties (including 19,240 men killed), just under half the total engaged.  It was, and still is, the bloodiest day in British Army history. The attacks would continue for four-and-a-half months, another 600,000 lives would be lost advancing 6 miles at the cost of one life for every 2 centimetres.

So what are we to make of all of this?

This extraordinary bravery in the face of very likely death.

How do we feel?  Humble, sad, proud, angry?

Perhaps all of the above.

Despite the complexities of the emotions which we feel, it is a fact that Remembrance appears to have a firm and growing hold over the national consciousness.

We do remember them.

Here and up and down the land – the two minutes’ silence at Armistice Day is kept corporately in a way which it was not when I was younger. [5]

There are concerns that this is a form of nationalism – that there is a closet fascism about remembrance.  But there is much more to this phenomenon than the recent arguments about football shirts might suggest.

In the 1920s a few thousand people a year visited the graves in the battlefields of France and Belgium.  This year it will be over 300,000.

Meanwhile, Remembrance-tide has become a kind of national passion play.  In which we annually replay the stories and plumb our emotions.  It makes us think about who we are and how we live.

A nation which does not often attend church, religiously keeps this festival which has its roots in the the passion narrative of Jesus Christ.

A man whom we also remember in this place.

We know that before the battle many men, in fact most men, went to church and said their prayers like Jesus going to the garden of Gethsemane.

A man who like them was frightened on the eve of certain death.  Who prayed as they prayed and then went bravely to meet his fate.

A man who’s death leaves us mixed emotions – of gratitude while wondering what exactly was the point of the sacrifice.

Like all passion narratives, Remembrance reminds us of the fundamental fragility, even futility of an individual human life.

It reminds us that the meaning of life is in our relationships

That if life is to have meaning then it is necessary to live and sometimes to die for others – that is where life and hope and love are found.

Jesus wanted us to remember that.

That is why we have him here hanging on the cross at the point of death as the very focus of this building.  To help us to remember him

So in the two minutes silence which approaches, what will we remember?

– Remember the valour of the soldiers and the folly of the generals

– Remember the ordinary lives of ordinary people involved in extraordinarily events

– Remember those who came back but bore internal wounds

– Those who were bereaved, the parents, wives and sweethearts, the brothers and sisters left behind

–        Will we remember our own mortality and commit to live our lives more sacrificially?

–        Will we remember that we are never more human than at the point of death.  Never more like Christ than when giving that life for others?

Greater love has no man than this; that a man lay done his life for his friends

This is not Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, not one of our great poets of the great war but Jesus Christ in chapter 15, verse 13 of the Gospel of John.

That is how we remember him and why we remember him.

That is how we remember them, and that is why we remember them.  Amen

Sermon delivered by Rev’d Christopher Hancock at St Martin’s, Epsom, Remembrance Sunday, 13th November, 2016

 

 

 

[1] Nick Parish was formally collated and installed as Vicar on 13th November, 2016

[2] When he died his ‘cape’ was put in a special building ‘a house of the cloak’ – in Latin this is domus capellae the origin of our word chapel – so all chapels are named after St Martin’s cloak

[3]One of these is kept by the Princess of Wales Regiment at Dover Castle.  The other used to be kept in the East Surrey’s regimental museum at Clandon House until it was sadly and rather ironically destroyed by fire in 2015. (http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk/new_museum/20th_century_room/Case5/The_Football.shtml)

[4] From Tattenham Corner the 2nd London Regiment moved around quite a bit, being sent to Malta, then to Egypt, on to Gallipoli, back to Egypt, and then to Marseilles, France at the end of April 1916. They were then trundled by train, the length of France to Rouen, which provided a large base area for the British, with training grounds, hospitals, stores depots and the like. Whilst at Rouen the military authorities decided that the Battalion should be disbanded, and the men used to bolster three existing units of the 56th Division. One draft was sent to 1/16 London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles), a second draft was sent to 1/12 London Regiment (The Rangers), and a third draft to 1/2 London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers).  Albert went with the third draft and thereby split from his chum George Whiskerd, who he had signed up with. They were however, destined to take part in the same attack and to die on the same day.

[5] I do remember at work in London one Armistice day getting an internal phone call from an American Managing Director just as the silence began – Larry, I said, it’s the two minutes’ silence – “it’s OK”, he replied, “we can observe at another time”.  Somehow that isn’t the point – it’s about doing it together.

Armistice Day 2016

I was a great pleasure to join with representatives of our armed forces, local schools and civic dignitaries as we paid our respects at the Clock  Tower at 11:00 today.

A short but moving service was lead by the Mayor’s Chaplain, our friend Fr Russell Dewhurst from St Mary’s, Ewell.

Confirmation classes in 2017

A message from Adrian Esdaile and Christopher Hancock:

Anyone who would like to consider the possibility of Confirmation is invited to get in touch.  Similarly, if you know of anyone who has ever expressed an interest, please let us know. We are delighted to visit and discuss with anyone what it all means. You can start the group meetings without any obligation to be confirmed in the end.

We are aiming to have an adult group and one for youngsters starting soon after Christmas – the dates and times can be worked out with the members of the group.

The Confirmation itself is likely to be that at Epsom College on Thursday, 23rd March at 7 pm.

Adrian Esdaile and Christopher Hancock
01372 723 770 or through the Office 01372 722 567