It is that time of year again already. We are surrounded by dust and the almost continuous noise of farm machinery. Since our return from our holiday at the beginning of July the fields have been systematically stripped of their crop which has then been transported to silos or barns.
The first places to be worked on were the commons and strips of common land at the sides of the lanes. All the grasses and seeded wild flowers, as well as a few plants just coming into flower, to my disappointment, were cut and baled up for hay. The verges to the lanes were cut and the hedges and trees were cut back with great slashers. The fields of oil-seed rape were harvested and then the barley. And now the wheat fields, including the one at the back of our house.
Once the fields are harvested the straw is baled and transported away to be stored, muck is spread on the fields and then they are ploughed. With nowhere to live once the grain has been cut the flies are homeless – for a while – until they discover our house! We have a choice; either keep the windows and doors shut and boil or open them and let the flies in. We have a rudimentary fly-screen on the conservatory door but none anywhere else. Netting can be attached to windows but that makes opening and shutting them difficult and the rooms gloomy. Houses in this country do not come with proper fly-screens on doors or windows as a matter of course and I wish they did.
This now brings me to the centenary of the start of the First World War. That mowing down of men and the harvest of souls.
Today, the 3rd of August, R and I attended a Requiem Eucharist at St Michael’s church to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. I will quote the introductory address made by our rector this morning. He wishes me to point out that his point of reference for the general facts and figures was a speech made by the Prime Minister recently. The East Anglian information was from his own research.
‘One hundred years ago, on 3rd August 1914, the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, explained to the House of Commons why Britain was obliged to go to war with Germany. His speech, with its heavy heart and its clear argument, was greatly admired. Then he returned to the Foreign Office, and worked til dusk. He looked up from his desk and saw the man lighting the gas lamps in St James’s Park below. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” Grey said to his companion, “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” At 11.00 p.m. the following day Britain declared war on Germany.
When they set out, with the blessings of their respective Churches, none of the armies had any idea of the length and scale of the trauma that was going to enfold. For many, going off to war was a rite of passage, and in East Anglia “patriotism” was low on the list of reasons for the boys and men to leave their villages. Agriculture was going through a deep depression that had been set in motion at the start of the century by endless rain and huge grain imports form the prairie farms of North America and Canada. Many people had already fled to the towns to seek work, and consequently family farms had collapsed and fields were empty. To those who remained, the War offered a golden opportunity to get off the hated land. And so they enlisted in a state of excitement. They would now eat better and have access to free medical care, and many thought they’d be home by Christmas, anyway.
Four months later, one million had died in the heavy artillery battles that presaged the digging of the trenches. Four years later, the death toll of military and civilians stood at over 16 million, nearly 1 million of them Britons. 20,000 were killed on one day of the Battle of the Somme. The death and the suffering was on a scale that outstrips any other conflict, and for evidence of that we only have to look at the Great War memorials in our villages, our churches, our railway stations, schools and universities.
Out of more than 14,000 parishes in the whole of England and Wales, there are only 51 so-called ‘thankful parishes’, which saw all their soldiers return. Every single community in Scotland and Northern Ireland lost someone, and the death toll for Commonwealth personnel was similarly catastrophic. The then Indian empire lost more than 70,000 people; Canada lost more than 60,000, so did Australia; New Zealand lost 18,000. And as part of the UK at the time, more than 200,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during the war, with more than 27,000 losing their lives.
This was the extraordinary sacrifice of a generation, and it is right that we should remember them.’
Last year a couple of men journeyed around England and Wales on their motorbikes, visiting all the Thankful villages. They contacted the Rector to let him know of their intention of visiting the church of St Michael and the date when we were to expect them. They kindly had a slate plaque made for all the villages they visited and today this was unveiled during the service. One of the bikers attended the service along with the local Councillor and the descendants of two of the returning soldiers. All of the parishes in our Benefice were represented at the service and there were so many in the church there was standing room only.
As the plaque was unveiled by Dolly, who is one of the church wardens at St Michael and also a descendant of two of the people on the Roll of Honour,
the biker who had presented the plaque Councillor Colin Law read a poem by Anthony Devanny.
We are indeed the lucky and unlucky ones,
As we are the ones who have lived
to tell the tales of those we once knew
We are the ones who carry those scars
of things seen, done and lost
We are the ones who must never let those who are not here
be forgotten by the new
We are the ones who will never need to be reminded
that “We will Remember Them”
as we are the ones who will always remember
those we forever call friend
The Rector had also compiled Roll of Honour folders for all the parishes in his benefice, detailing all that can be discovered about the men who died and all that can be found out about the men who returned to St Michael’s. After all the parish representatives had collected their folders, together we all quoted the poem by John McCrae.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
The whole service was very moving and I was so glad to have been there and to have taken part in it.
Photos of the guests and congregation chatting over coffee and biscuits after the service. We also sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the Rector and wished him many happy returns for which he excommunicated us. But not really. I hope!
We said cheerio to the biker outside and admired his bike.
The field next to the church had been borrowed to use as a car park.
It was definitely needed!
We will remember them