Address by the Rev. Francis Gardom
On the occasion of the Dedication of
The Kings Mead War Memorial
Saturday 22nd May, 2002
Remembering and Forgetting
A few weeks ago a group of us visited the World War One battlefields around Ypres in Belgium.
As we traced the fortunes and misfortunes of those who were involved on both sides of the conflict, a number of ideas came into my mind which seemed to have a bearing on the ceremony in which we are taking part here today.
War is always costly. The hundreds of beautifully-kept cemeteries with those rows of identical wooden crosses and gravestones are eloquent of this fact.
War brings out both the best and the worst in those who participate in it. The best in the form of compassion, loyalty, bravery and longsuffering. The worst, as we have recently been reminded, in the form of cruelty, vindictiveness and self-indulgence.
War presents the dilemma between remembering and forgetting. After any war there is the instinct on the part of some people to "put it all behind them" and forget all about it. That means that they learn nothing from it. The opposite tendency is to be permanently searching for someone to blame. That’s like scratching at a sore: it only makes bad things worse.
What impressed me most at Ypres was the way in which the Belgians contrived to avoid both these mistakes. In every cemetery, and every evening at the Menen Gate, they remember with gratitude the part played by their British allies in their defence and deliverance.
This was why in 1919 they decisively rejected the suggestion (made, I believe, by Winston Churchill) that the town of Ypres, where not one single building remained standing at the end of the war, should remain a monumental ruin for ever as a reproach to those who had injured them and a warning to future generations.
Instead of this suggestion they decided to rebuild what had been ruined, in particular the mediaeval Cloth Hall, one of the largest and finest secular buildings in Europe, to turn it into the Museum now called In Flanders Fields in memory not only of those who had fought in the War but the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had been made homeless in the course of it. There are two permanent exhibitions on display there with exhibits dealing respectively with the military and the humanitarian aspects of War. In addition they decreed that the Last Post should be sounded at the Menen Gate every evening of the year at 8pm.
So the Belgian people forgot the War – but it was a positive forgetting, intended to avoid both self-pity and hatred for others. So they remember – but it is a positive remembering, pointing us, like this memorial, towards those who died that we might be free.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
as the poet William Cowper reminds us; but he goes on to add
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
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