Minister’s Letter November 2016

Dear friends,

When our friends from Adentan visited us in September, we made a visit to Ypres. The In Flanders Fields Museum highlighted for us different aspects of World War One, from the social history of the events leading up to the conflict to the appalling conditions endured by soldiers of the western front.  That evening, we were deeply moved by the wreath laying ceremony at the Menin Gate. As the Fire Brigade’s rendering of the last post echoed around the monument, onlookers listened respectfully and those laying the wreaths, young and old, carried out their duties with care and dignity.

2016 commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was commanded by Field Marshall Douglas Haig. Haig, along with other leading generals of the time, believed that the German Army would be overstretched by a new offensive, since they were already engaged with the French Army in the Battle of Verdun in NE France. As a result the French could not commit many divisions of their army to the Somme and so, even before the battle began, the expectation of success by Haig and his colleagues was lessened.

The battle was preceded by eight days of artillery bombardment of the German lines. Huge numbers of British shells were fired, but many of them were dud, badly constructed and ineffective. The German trenches, built in three successive lines, were dug deep and well-fortified. As a result, the German lines remained intact and so, when the British and French armies advanced on July 1st, the German army was not weakened as had been hoped. While the French army saw some success on the first day of the conflict for the BEF it was a catastrophe. When the men went over the top, they failed to break through the German barbed wire, thus allowing the Germans to use their machine guns to deadly effect. The British troops’ problems were compounded by the fact they had expected to meet little resistance in no man’s land and were heavy-laden with supplies.

That first day saw just under 58,000 British casualties, many of whom were volunteers in Pal’s battalions and Territorial Forces. A third of the casualties died. Undeterred, the British command ordered the assault to continue the next day with the hope of breaking through the German lines. Other attempts, made through the summer months and into the autumn, met with little success. The British introduced primitive tanks into the battle on 15th September, but of the 40 or so tanks that were available, a number of them suffered from mechanical breakdown.  The onset of heavy rain saw the battlefield transformed into mud, and on November 18th Haig called off the Somme offensive.

By the end of the battle 420,000 British casualties, with 203,000 French casualties and 500,000 German casualties. The allies gained 6 miles of territory and it must be considered whether such heavy losses merited such little gain.

I am continually torn when I reflect upon warfare. On the one hand I am deeply humbled by those who made the greatest of sacrifices but on the other hand, the enormity of the loss of life and the suffering of those who were wounded lies beyond my comprehension. The irony of the Great War is that it was considered to be the ‘war to end all wars’. When I think of the conflicts that have taken place since then, including those in current times- have we learned anything at all?

Some people might ask me if I ever doubt the goodness of God when there is so much conflict in the world. I never doubt the goodness of God, but I often doubt the humanity of my fellow human beings.

Your minister and friend