Sermon given at a Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving to mark ANZAC day 2014

25 April 2014 at 12:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster 

On 4th August this year from 10 until 11 pm we shall hold a solemn vigil of prayer and recollection here in the Abbey. At 11 pm on 4th August 1914 the Government in London, giving up hope of the diplomatic struggle to preserve peace with its European neighbours, declared war on Germany. The British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked to a friend, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.’

The darkness was to mark far more than Europe. The clash of European-based Empires drew in large support from many parts of the Commonwealth. The British imperial army included 1.3 million men from India, 600,000 from Canada, 200,000 from Africa. The smaller countries played their part: from the West Indies 60,000, from Cyprus and Malta, 3,000 each and even from Bermuda 360 men. From New Zealand, 124,000 men served and from Australia 411,000. Many men volunteered for service.

Many of those Australians and New Zealanders fought in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, ANZAC, alongside the British army, including large number of Indians, and the French forces, on the side of the Entente powers, the British allies, at Gallipoli.

A year from today we shall mark, again with a service at Westminster Abbey, the centenary of the outbreak of that conflict. The first service of commemoration following the Gallipoli campaign was here on 25th April 1916. Although many were to regard the campaign as a failure, the spirit here 98 years ago was one of celebration of commitment and achievement. King George V and Queen Mary, the Times reported, ‘were present at an impressive service in Westminster Abbey, in remembrance of a great deed by those of our brothers who died at Gallipoli … in the high cause of Freedom and Honour’. Billy Hughes, the Australian Prime Minister from 1915 to 1923, was here, accompanied by senior members of the United Kingdom government. But the destruction had been terrible.

In the light of the estimate that, on all sides of the conflict, 10 million military personnel lost their lives and 6 million civilians, the question whether the war was justified, whether it was worth it, seems absurd. And yet, in preparation for the forthcoming centenary of the outbreak of the war, historians, film-makers, commentators and warriors are adding to our understanding of the conflict.

The critical stance of the 1960s musical Oh! What a lovely war and of the 1980s television series Blackadder Goes Forth is now giving way to a sense that the war had to be fought and that, although the politicians and generals made many errors, they developed finally the successful strategies that brought the war to an allied victory.

No one knows the origin of the clever charge that the allied troops were lions led by donkeys. But perhaps we can now say that not all the generals were donkeys, any more than were all the servicemen lions.

But the centenary of the outbreak of the war will not be marked by any sense of triumph: far from it. Some wars have to be fought. If in retrospect we think that of the First World War, nevertheless there must be a spirit of regret, of repentance, for the failure of human beings, our failure, as individuals, communities or nations, to resolve our differences peacefully. We may hope to learn lessons not only from the diplomatic failure but also from the terrible oppression imposed on our enemies by the victorious allies, which led inexorably to the poisoned soil of chaos and confusion in Germany, Austria and Italy in which grew the noxious weed of dictatorship.

The vision of the prophet Micah, who lived in Judah in the 8th century before Christ, seems remote. He dreamed that from the city of Jerusalem might go forth an instruction that people should ‘beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks’ and that ‘nation [should] not lift up sword against nation, neither [should] they learn war any more.’ But it is as clear a vision in our own day as it has ever been. A century after the beginning of the First World War we have countless reasons to learn afresh that violence only begets violence, that destruction breeds resistance and further conflict.

As we commit into the gracious hands of the risen Lord those New Zealanders and Australians and others who gave their lives for their friends at Gallipoli, and in many other conflicts over the past century, and as we honour and pray for those who offer today their lives in the service of peace and freedom, let us commit ourselves to following the command of our Lord Jesus Christ that, across all barriers of division, we should love one another.


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