Mud and Stars
In his book Catastrophe Europe Goes To War 1914 Max Hastings describes some of the action in the retreat at Le Cateau after the first battle of Mons just three weeks after Britain had begun hostilities.
“Late on the night of 27 August Major Tom Bridges led his squadron of dragoons clattering along the paved road into the central square at Saint-Quentin, where he was dismayed to find two or three hundred exhausted soldiers lying prostrate, impervious to shouting or kicks. Bridges was even more shocked to discover that two battalions – the Warwicks and the Dublin Fusiliers – had piled arms at the railway station after their commanding officers handed to Saint-Quentin's mayor a written undertaking of surrender to save the town from bombardment. But when he sent a messenger to tell the two colonels that his cavalrymen would cover their battalion's escape, the troops refused to move unless a train was produced to carry them. Bridges then declared that if they failed to set off within thirty minutes, he would leave no British soldier alive in the town. Under this threat the men sullenly scrambled to their feet and began to move. The major then turned his mind to the stragglers in the town square. He contemplated their sleeping forms and thought 'If only I had a band'. His eye fell on a toyshop and he saw means to create one. Equipping himself and his trumpeter with a drum and a tin whistle, the two marched round and round the square manically playing 'The British Grenadiers' and 'Tipperary'. Soldiers began to laugh and then to cheer. Bridges haranged them, shouting that he would take them back to their regiments. One by one they roused themselves and fell in. Darkness had fallen. Bridges and his trumpeter reinforced by two mouth organs led his motley column out of Saint-Quentin. ...four days later 291 men of the Warwicks were still missing...Both colonels were were convicted for 'behaving in a scandalous manner unbecoming to the character of an officer and a gentleman' and dismissed from the Army.
This is a fascinating account of just one of many such incidents during the First World War. It tells us what war is like. It is tragic and it is farcical and it has its moments of bravery and honour. The soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force just wanted to sleep and sleep. If they were captured by the Germans they didn't seem to care. Their officer colonels had given up the fight and wanted to surrender. Major Tom Bridges had other ideas. He wanted to lead them in retreat back to their base and live to fight again another day. But the men refused to march and demanded a train take them back. This was mutiny and it suggests that the soldiers had a say in what they were ordered to do. Bridges improvised by getting at toy drum and whistle supplemented by two mouth organs from a toy shop and marching around the sleeping men until they woke up, saw the funny side of it all, and started to retreat. You have all of war there at one time, cowardice, poor leadership, exhausted and broken soldiers who had given up any sense of the need for survival, a brave officer, a silly plan which worked, and many men saved from being captured or killed. We think of war as only about bravery but it never was and never is. It is about folly and wrong and stupidity and mindlessness perhaps more than it is ever about heroism and glory.
This is the centenary of the First World War. The amazing display of poppies at the Tower of London reminds us of the scale of British losses, 826,746 dead. In addition some 1,633,435 were wounded. Hundreds of thousands of widows and fatherless children left to struggle in life. Highland communities in particular bereft of a generation of sons. This was warfare in never seen before industrial proportions with weapons of terrifying capacity for slaughter. We do well to remember what happened and to remember those from our communities who lost their lives.
In the Old testament reading we heard that 'the mountain of the Lord's temple will be established as chief among the mountains...and all nations will stream to it'. What does this mean? Is it a real mountain? Is this a way of thinking about God as great and good and giving us shelter and security? Jesus once told his disciples that if they had enough faith they could say to this mountain 'Move over there' and it would happen. What did he mean? The context was the failure of Jesus' disciples to heal a very sick boy. Faith moves mountains is an expression we sometimes used to hear said. We are talking about spiritual power here and seemingly immovable objects like serious illness. The mountain of the Lord is the power of God ruling, stabilising and blessing our lives.
But there is an actual physical proof of this prophecy of Isaiah who lived in the 8th century BC being fulfilled 2700 years later. On the wall of the United Nations building in New York is inscribed the worlds 'They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war any more'. This is the mountain of the Lord and all nations actually do go there today to discuss peace. It does not work perfectly as yet – but – it has helped prevent many wars and does much humanitarian good throughout the whole world community. This prophecy of Isaiah has come true. And that is remarkable and we should be filled with awe and reverence. God does speak through ordinary people.
In our New Testament reading we listened to Jesus telling one of his parables. A parable is a story with a moral and spiritual message. Jesus said that there was a farmer who sowed good wheat seed in a field. Farmers still do that today although they use tractors in this country rather than spreading seed by hand. That's where Weetabix comes from. When the farmer had finished, he went home to have his evening meal and then he went to bed to sleep. But one of his neighbours hated him and so, during the night, he took a lot of weeds and planted them among his neighbour's field of good seed. We call this sabotage which is a deliberate act of destruction. In war time soldiers seek to sabotage their enemies by blowing up bridges or armaments factories or railway lines or fuel stores. Industrial spying takes place every day where companies try to undermine other companies by stealing their latest designs and plans. Even in sport rivalry can lead to one team seeking to sabotage another by contaminating hotel food or by spreading untruthful things about some players. And families and friends and members of churches can sabotage one another from time to time. In Jesus' story the farm workers ask if they should go into the field and dig up all the weeds. The farmer says that they should not do so because they will dig up good seed along with the weeds and make a complete mess of the field. He says, 'We'll wait until harvest time, take everything in together, separate the weeds and burn them and bring all the good wheat sheaves into my barn'.
That was how Jesus explained why there are bad people in this world who do bad things and why God does not strike them down to stop them doing harm. In Jesus' story, the farmer does not even take revenge on his enemy who caused him so much trouble and lessened the yield of his harvest. Wars happen because bad people do bad things. The First World War and the Second World War are the largest scale bad things that have ever been done. But every day someone does something bad to someone else somewhere.
The point of Jesus' story is that the farmer gathers in the good wheat sheaves and just burns off the weeds. He is in control. The enemy did not manage to destroy his crop. He just made it more difficult for him and caused him trouble. Jesus was not just talking about Weetabix. He was talking about you and me. He was talking about everyone on earth. He was talking about everyone who loves Jesus – all his children – all his people everywhere. We are the good seed and He wants us to become good harvest. Our lives have a purpose and a destiny in God's loving care and we will be gathered into heaven just as the farmer gathered the good wheat sheaves into his barn. God has a great plan for our world and for humanity. It is going somewhere. We do not live for nothing. We are not weeds to be burned of as of no account. And I think that the world will go on for a while yet with the good seeds and the weeds – the good people and the bad people - living together generation after generation.
We have enemies in this world as we can see every night on the TV news. We might wonder what their purpose is and why God allows them to cause so much harm. Christianity says that we can all give in to being bad and many do and that's why wars begin. Jesus our Lord and Saviour lived in peace and went about doing good and loved his friends and disciples and forgave his enemies and He asks us to do that too.