The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Wednesday, 25th April 2018 at 12:00 PM
A hundred years ago today, the First World War had been transformed from the static grind of trench warfare, the endless endurance, the occasional faltering advance, the effort to gain a few yards, let alone miles, against the enemy. A hundred years ago today, all was movement, endeavour, valour.
The Anzacs in 1915 had spent half a year in a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to open up a new war front from the East; Winston Churchill’s great game plan aimed at fore-shortening the war and guaranteeing an allied victory had turned to dust. They, alongside other Allied troops, had passed weeks and months only yards from where they had landed in the Dardanelles. Although they had attempted from time to time to gain more than a foothold, they had made no substantial progress. Much of the time, therefore, they were settled in trenches and dug-outs confronting the enemy. Mutual respect developed. The troops could shout across to each other, and engage in a ‘constant traffic of gifts in the trenches, the Turks throwing over grapes and sweets, the Allied soldiers tinned food and cigarettes.’
Since those days in the first half of the war and their magnificent, stealthy and secret retreat from Gallipoli, the Anzacs had moved to the main battleground, to Europe. In April 1918, exactly a hundred years ago, they were involved in attempting to repulse a significant last Westward thrust of the enemy. The imperial German troops, freed at last from fighting the Russians on their Eastern flank, were determined but exhausted, short of ammunition, short of men and short of ideas. Their last sally, the Ludendorff Offensive, launched on 21st March 1918, was a desperate and disorganised series of attacks pressing back towards land that had been destroyed by earlier battles. The assault was strong and violent but the advancing storm-troopers far outran their supply chain and were therefore bound eventually to fail. But their routing demanded extraordinary courage.
The New Zealanders played their part. Operating in part of the Somme battlefield of 1916, the New Zealanders, with considerable British help, repelled a series of German attacks. Len Coley, a private in the 2nd Battalion, Wellington Regiment, left a description of the fighting on 27th March: As dawn broke ... we were warned that Fritz was in the vicinity. Our scouts headed out to have a look. The Germans were marching along the road, half a mile away, towards us. The skipper gave us orders to stand by. He then spoke those words that make any soldier face hell ten times over and never think of saying die. “Well, boys, it’s up to us. There’s no one behind us for miles – but there soon will be. I want this crowd stopped here, right here, and knowing you, I have faith in you. Now go to it.” No more orders were necessary. We all knew what was required. I could now see the Germans, less than 300 yards away. Our platoon officer lying beside me said in my ear, “Sonny, you start the ball. Fire.”
The Australians played a vital part. I quote from an article written in The Australian on 21st April this year by Paul Kelly, editor at large.
‘The Germans took Villers-Bretonneux from the British on April 24, sending a shock through Allied command. Supreme commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch ordered it be retaken immediately and British commander Henry Rawlinson ordered the Australians to be deployed. It would be a surprise counterattack at night. The Australian 13th and 15th brigades would encircle the town to trap the Germans, a complex operation with vast distances to be covered by the troops and the details still being sorted until just before zero hour at 10pm on April 24… The operation began with the Australians facing intense German machinegun fire… The 13th Brigade fought through machineguns, wire and a field lit by tracer bullets. By dawn on Anzac Day’ that is, a hundred years ago today, ‘it was apparent the counter-attack was successful; the encirclement was complete the next day. British and Australian forces began to clear the town of trapped Germans.
‘Foch referred to the Australians’ “altogether astonishing valiance”. A British brigadier general at the battle said Villers-Bretonneux saw “perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war, the successful counterattack by night across unknown and difficult ground, at a few hours’ notice, by the Australian soldier”. Amiens had been secured by the tenacity and valour of the Australians’ Corps.’
This was seen as the symbolic turning point of the Great War. The battle brought to an end the Spring offensive of March 1918, in fact the last German offensive of the war.
Soon, the British troops and their allies, supported now by fresh and largely untrained but brilliantly courageous United States forces, were to begin the Eastward drive that was to bring the First World War to an end.
Stalemate had turned to vicious attack and ultimately victorious counter-attack. And the Allied troops, now reinforced, were also supported by far more advanced tanks than had been the case when the tank was first introduced two years earlier and by the advantage of the Royal Air Force, founded on 1st April 1918.
On Sunday 11th November this year, we shall hold a service here in the Abbey in the early evening, on the centenary of the Armistice, the end of the Great War. We hope to welcome to the Abbey representatives of all the countries involved in that war whichever side they took in the conflict.
We shall then have an opportunity of standing back, giving thanks for the reconciliation of former enemies, but also reflecting on the terrible damage done to our countries, our peoples and our world through the two appalling conflicts we call the First and Second World Wars.
Ever since the 8th century before Christ, the world has resonated with the prophet Micah’s call to people in the name of God to beat their weapons of war into instruments of agriculture, of cultivation, their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks and his instruction in the name of God that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Have we heeded those words? Have we, as a people, as a world, made any progress towards true civilisation? There is extraordinary progress in science and technology. We can expect to live longer and healthier lives than any generation before us. We have amazing technologies that inform us and connect us and network us in ways that would have been unimaginable a century ago, even a decade ago.
And yet, and yet, the prospect of war, the reality of war and turmoil in nation after nation seems not to diminish a jot. People in so many parts of the world live in fear for their lives or in refugee camps, dispossessed of home and hearth, or make astonishing journeys to find for themselves and their families a better future. Meanwhile those of us for whom life is comfortable, generous, too easily turn away.
In a moment we shall listen to words sung from the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, holding out the hope and prospect of a new heaven and a new earth, where God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.
That is a promise for our future. But if there is to be real, vibrant, happy life before death, we who are strong, who are confident, who are, relatively, rich, must commit and plan and work to make it happen. If we do, then the centenary of the Armistice will be really worth celebrating.