Cork Commemoration of the Battle of the Somme ~ Bishop Paul Colton’s Address

Sermon preached at

A Service of Peace and Reconciliation to Commemorate the Centenary

of the Battle of the Somme

by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork

on Friday, 1st July, 2016 in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’

 John 1.5

My grandmother was Ciss Marsh.  Her mother, Sarah, was a cleaner and caretaker: a widow.  They lived over a premises at 30 Westland Row, where Sarah Marsh, my father’s granny worked.  Ciss’ brother, George, was a carpenter. George’s friend, Dan, was Ciss’ boyfriend:  Daniel Griffith.  Dan lived with his parents, five brothers and one sister, in a terraced house – eight of them in one room downstairs, two upstairs – at 14 Rialto Street, Ushers’ Quay, Dublin. His father, originally from County Cavan, worked in the stables at Guinnesses.   Dan too was a labourer in Guinesses, in the Engineer’s Department, and belonged to, what was enumerated in the 1901 census as, the ‘Irish Church’.   They were all Church of Ireland: working class protestants of a variety you hear little about in the histories of the Church of Ireland, in this part of the world at any rate.

Dan was 24 when he enlisted. Ciss was 19.  I can’t be sure why he joined the 9th Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – they were the so-called ‘Tyrones’ – a unit of the 36th Ulster Division.  Was there something in his father’s Cavan connection?  Was it a Protestant thing, to be in the 36th Ulster Division, or even an Orange Order thing? We still have the postcards he sent to Ciss from Finner Camp where fodder for the front was fostered.  We have the mementoes: cheery gifts and messages he sent to her in Dublin, lace and embroidered handkerchiefs: and his kit issue razor. They married before ‘The Big Push’.

The Somme; he was there on this day 100 years ago where, according to a certificate for gallantry which we still have, ‘he crossed the fire-swept zone to gain touch with the attacking troops on our right and succeeded in doing so.  He has done outstanding good work since.’ That was April, 1917.  Dan survived those Somme days. In 1917, with the ’Tyrones’, he survived Messines and the Battle of Langemarck.  He was killed in action at Cambrai 17 months on from now,  on 20th November 1917.  A grant to my granny, as his widow, of £16.10s was authorised.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme the man who would in time become my grandfather – Sam Colton – was in East Africa, in the Army Ordnance Corps, alongside the King’s African Rifles.

Forgive my indulgent personal starting point.  It’s a strange and unsettling existential perspective;  had Dan Griffith not died, I would not be here.  As ever, for us as people, our instinctive access point to something of the scale of the Somme is, frequently, the personal connection.  As a family, like many of you too, we have been to the Western Front to retrace the steps, and our door to seeking understanding of this event of global and catastrophic proportion has been one man’s story in one family.  It is a frail and limited approach but it is profoundly human and not untypical.   We are here tonight from many such personal perspectives, many of you with similar connections, stories and memorabilia (I know because you have shared these with me), and for other reasons; simply it is the right thing to do as we weave our centenary tapestry of commemoration of 1916 here in Ireland.  For many Irish households the Somme is a dominant thread in the weave of those complex times and in the years afterwards.  

The remnants of memories and memorabilia drip from the past like teardrops into our time.

When one visits the Western Front, because of the legacy in the landscape – seen and as yet unseen – and in spite of the pastoral and picturesque, war feels immediate.  As the Bishop of London said in Westminster Abbey last night,  ‘[t]he cemeteries … are a map of what happened’.

You do not need me to retell the story of that day, nor is that my role as preacher.   The phrases and imagery resonate still across the intervening century:  the pals, the whistles, ‘over the top’, ‘the Big Push’, ‘No Man’s Land’ – as do the place names of that region: Albert, Serre, Loos, La Boiselle, Thiepval, Beaumont Hammel, Gommecourt, Fricourt, Montauban, Delville, Mametz, Contalmaison, Ginchy, Pozières, Bazentin … and the list goes on.

It is not my function, either, to wrestle with the strands of historical analysis; that is for others.  Two days ago, Saul David, summed those up well in the Daily Telegraph (29th June): ‘the lions and donkeys’ perspective, now discredited of needless sacrifice and incompetent generals; the learning curve’ scholars (‘the Somme and subsequent battles were a necessary, though bloody and regrettable, rite of passage for an Edwardian army learning to fight an industrial war’); and new accounts published to mark this centenary, many of them based on ‘first-hand accounts’.

The scale of the conflict and the casualties, of the horror of human suffering, on all sides must be underscored, however, by all of us; and it should scare us.

  • 141 days of battle.
  • More than a million killed or wounded, not forgetting their families changed forever.  
  • 623,907 allied casualties – 146,431 killed or missing; 72,246 missing named on the Thiepval memorial, including 202 from Cork.
  • An estimated 465,000 German casualties – 164,055 killed or missing and 38,000 prisoners of war.
  • The 36th Ulster Division had 5,500 casualties on this day.
  • In September the 16th Irish Division would have 4,330 casualties.
  • From Cork, 26 died on this first day of the Battle alone.  

On our visits to the Western Front it is important and potent to visit the German cemeteries too.  At Fricourt, and later at Langemarck, I found it moving to see some Royal British Legion crosses and wreaths laid there too,  together with the personal messages of reconciliation from visitors with connections to the allied forces.

During the recent TV coverage of the centenary events, Baroness Shirley Williams said ‘This is the day when Europe destroyed its younger generation.’   ‘It changed the way we look at and feel about casualties’, said author Richard van Emden.  Strategically it was of little importance,. but it was symbolic then,  and it has been symbolic ever since.  Yesterday I asked Professor Gary Sheffield,  military historian and Professor of War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, what was the single most important note to strike on a day like this.  He said:  “It was tragic, but not futile, and has to be seen in the context of ghastly early 20th Century warfare.’

War is international and national.  It is local and personal; it scars lives and landscapes for ever.  The closing, enigmatic lines of Tom Kettle’s sonnet – To my Daughter Betty, the Gift of God – written days before he died, embody something of the wrestling with the meaning of it all, and the impulses towards a greater vision of the overall good, nurtured in a ‘dream, born in a herdsman’s shed …’.  As poet Theo Dorgan said, Kettle ‘wrote these words under the pressure of circumstances … it was forced out of him by the obscenity of the battlefield’:

So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,

And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,

Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—

But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,

And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

(To my Daughter Betty, the Gift of God ~ Thomas Michael Kettle)

Theo Dorgan rightly also said, and I share his view,  that ‘he resents it when people try to recruit either the men of the Easter Rising or of the First World War to contemporary politics … they lived and fought and died in the context of the time.’

It is, therefore, in the enduring witness of the scriptures that we must look for our charter and the catalyst of our own in our own day.

We heard from Isaiah.  The prophet writes about the human predicament, but God is near his people.  What the prophet speaks of is the glorious possibility of redemption of every kind – emotional, physical and spiritual.  This brings joy, such joy that he uses the imagery of mountains and hills bursting into song, trees in fields clapping their hands,  the throne becomes cypress and the briar becomes myrtle – all only imagery, of course, but it is a vision and promise of what is possible.

‘God is our refuge and strength’ sang the Psalmist, ‘a very present help in trouble.’  In this choice of psalm tonight, inadvertently perhaps, we have a reminder that in war, many sides, enemies, call on the same God.  This is the Psalm that the German theologian and reformer, Martin Luther, famously paraphrased as Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott.  Religion and religious profession has been used in history both to divide and to unite. That confronts us too in our own religious practice; the Christian calling is clear in tonight’s Gospel reading.

In that Gospel reading Jesus is speaking to his friends, the disciples; ‘the greatest love of all is laying down down ‘one’s life for one’s friends’. Supremely, Jesus himself will do this on the cross.   Keep in mind though, that this is the same Jesus who has already warned that we must also love our enemies.  The sayings and actions of Jesus so-often sound simple, obvious even, but they are disturbing, unsettling, radical and potentially transforming in their expectations.  In every era people are called to engage with and wrestle afresh with what Jesus has said:  ‘I chose you …’ he said, “I appointed you to go and to bear fruit … I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’

We are to go.  We are to bear fruit.  ‘Love’ is the characteristic of this going and it is the mark of fruitfulness in the Christian life.

Showing, manifesting, making real, putting into practice, passing on, sharing … that love is our calling in our time.  Hearing that simple message against the backdrop and within the context of our commemoration of the ghastliness, human horror and tragedy of war, on this centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, should energise us as we tackle the challenges and, indeed, confront head on the evils of our own day, some of them uncomfortably redolent of a history that risks repeating itself.

Our calling as Christians is, therefore, to champion an outlook and perspective that builds bridges, that includes rather than excludes, that welcomes rather than alienates, that fosters reconciliation, justice and peace.  Our Service of Commemoration tonight reflects these aspirations in its liturgical trajectory.  We have heard the bible readings.  We will now remember.  We will pray.  We will light candles – that bring light in darkness and remind us that the Word of God, Jesus, the light of the world, to use Saint John’s words, ‘shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out’ and as bearers of his light we will commit ourselves to work for reconciliation, peace, and justice in our time.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’

 John 1.5

The Church of Ireland in Cork, Cloyne and Ross, Service of Peace and Reconciliation to commemorate The Battle of the Somme (part of the Diocesan Remembering 1916 programme), at St. Fin Barre's Cathedral, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

The Church of Ireland in Cork, Cloyne and Ross, Service of Peace and Reconciliation to commemorate The Battle of the Somme (part of the Diocesan Remembering 1916 programme), at St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork.
Picture: Jim Coughlan.

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