Remembrance Sunday Reflections

By REV DR ROB WHITEMAN,  delivered in St Mark’s, by REV MAUD ROBINSON

On Thursday, 22 June 1899, the thirteen year old A E J Collins went out to bat in a house match at Clifton College. He continued to bat during the afternoons, as the timetable allowed, until the following Tuesday when he ran out of partners. By then he had made 628 runs, a record that stands to this day as the highest single innings ever made. Andrew Edwards Collins was born in India. He left school at sixteen, having passed the strenuous exams to enter the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He served with the Royal Engineers in India and Afghanistan, before marrying Ethel in the spring of 1914. He died at the first Battle of Ypres on 11 November 1914. Ethel died in 1966. He played at Lord’s for his regiment, but never played first class cricket. This morning I am going to reflect on war through the medium of cricket, not because, as some have tritely said cricket is war without guns, but because its history and its effect on the people who play it can tell us much about war.

Collins was not a first class cricketer, but he was nonetheless a famous man. There were 289 Test and first class cricketers who died during the First World War. A further 407 received awards for gallantry. They came from all parts of the UK, Ireland, India, Guiana, Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Some were very big cricketing names in their day, but for us the sheer number is striking. Of the Oakham school XI of 1914, five were to die in the imminent conflict; three others also served in World War Two; one more, Percy Chapman went on to captain Kent and England, dying in 1961.

Most of them are now but names, though some, like Private Percy Jeeves, of Warwickshire live on. Jeeves was killed in action on 22 July 1916, during the battle of the Somme. His body was never recovered, and he is commemorated, with thousands of others, on the Thiepval Memorial.

Before the war, P G Wodehouse had seen the young cricketer play at Hawes, near Wensleydale. Writing fifty years after that match, Wodehouse said: ‘I suppose Jeeves’s bowling must have impressed me. I remember him in 1916 when I was in New York, and starting the Jeeves and Bertie saga, and it was just the name I wanted. I remember admiring his action very much.’

I have taken cricket as a theme for this Remembrance, but other sports could have been used.
In rugby 111 Internationals died in the First World War, the greatest number, thirty, being from Scotland. In this city, the death of many of the Hearts team that won the 1914 Scottish football championship alongside many supporters in a single battalion is commemorated in the clock at Haymarket. Tony Wilding, the New Zealander who won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon from 1910-13, died at Neuve Chapelle in 1915, and the story is repeated across many other sports and nations. Greater numbers of Germans and Austrians died in the First World War including leading sportsmen, especially skiers. I have taken this theme because it illustrates not only the changing nature of war, but also because of its universal and mundane nature.

On 12 July 1932 Hedley Verity, playing for Yorkshire, took all 10 Nottinghamshire wickets for 10 runs in 19.4 overs with 16 maidens; the best bowling performance in the long history of
first class cricket. A left arm spinner, he went on to play in forty Tests, including dismissing Don Bradman, the greatest batsman of all time, eight times. In the last match before the Second World War he took 7 Sussex wickets for 1 run at Hove. A Captain in the Green Howards, he died near Catania in Italy on 31 July 1943, one of nine Test cricketers who died in the Second World War. The only one to die after him, and the last Test cricketer to die in combat, was Maurice Joseph Lawson Turnbull, a Welsh cricketer who played in nine Tests between 1930 to 1936. A talented all round sportsman, Turnbull excelled in several sports. In cricket he captained the Cambridge University team in his final year and captained the Glamorgan County Cricket Club for ten seasons. At rugby union he represented Cardiff and London Welsh, and gained two full international caps for Wales in 1933. Turnbull also represented Wales at hockey, and was squash champion for South Wales. He is the only person to have played cricket for England, and rugby for Wales. A Major in The Welsh Guards, he was shot by a sniper in August 1944 in France, having been part of the Normandy landings.

The 109 First class cricketers who died in the Second World War represented half the death toll of the First World War. No Test cricketer has died in conflict since then. What are we to make of these facts? They can be seen as a reflection of the changed place of sport within our lives. It is inconceivable that David Beckham, Roger Federer or any of their ilk might fight in wars today, let alone be killed, but they are no greater celebrities than some of those previously mentioned were in their day.

It is also the effects of war that have changed. In the First World War around eleven million combatants died and seven million civilians died. In the Second World War, estimates vary greatly from fifty to eighty million, with combatants at twenty to twenty-five million. Nowadays, the ratio of civilian deaths is even higher, and is at least seventy-five percent. The figures for refugees caused by war are even more stark, though it is very hard to give with any statistical exactness. In the First World War they were tiny compared to the number of combatant deaths, today they dwarf them. Despite the supposed greater precision of modern weapons, their impact on non combatants is far greater than in previous centuries. This year, 2015, has marked anniversaries of Waterloo and Agincourt; battles that seemed totally divorced from the modern world, battles that were fought on a single day and involved almost no non combatants. We have moved to a world where the combatants are a minority. Today, we remember them and the sacrifice that they make and made, but we have also remembered in Andrew Hill’s chalice lighting and prayer that war is having an ever wider impact on us all. Nowadays few of us know active members of the armed forces. The number of people serving in our armed forces decreases year-on-year, and the idea of a specific battlefield becomes more and more archaic as drones are flown from thousands of miles away.

Our understanding of war is also changing. Nowadays, we hear much of legal and illegal wars, and I suspect that we will hear much of it next year. However the idea of legality of war is essentially a modern concept and has a certain dissonance to it. An older approach is to talk of a just and unjust war. In the Christian tradition this has given rise to Just War Theory, originally suggested by St Thomas Aquinas, as so many things were, and refined and added to over the years. Put simply, war must be waged by a properly constituted authority; waged for a good or just purpose with the aim of peace, rather than self-gain or aggrandisement; must be a last resort with a reasonable chance of success and be proportionate so that the suffering, especially of civilians is justified by the ends. This has underpinned much of the thinking about legality of wars but we must be careful in our increasingly globalised world. These ideas come from a Judeo-Christian world view that many, indeed most of the world, simply does not share. I speak here not just of Islam, but also of much older African, Indian and Chinese traditions among others. These have differing concepts of justice, truth and community at their heart and we do well to remember that, as we seek to project our values; projections that lie at the heart of too many wars.

As our understanding of war and its effects changes so, perhaps, should our view of Remembrance. The jingoism that offends many has been in retreat for years. The concept of the Unknown Soldier, or warrior emerged soon after the First World War and was spread throughout the world. Perhaps the next phase will include the interconnectedness of Remembrance. We now live in a world of ever greater civilian casualties and refugees, and we are all more involved in war than ever before, not only by what we see on TV, but by what happens in our communities.

I opened by looking at stars of cricket who died in war. Soldiers who were heroes to those who served with them, and were marketed as such to the wider population. I wish to close by quoting an imaginary cricketer, as an example of how war is not about heroes, but the commonplace, though not mundane. More and more it is not about Olympian gods, if it ever was, but affects the everyday lives of everyday people, not so much here, as everywhere. There is an ongoing globalisation to our Remembrance. As the series closes, Captain Kevin Darling, in Blackadder Goes Forth, outlines the future he knows he will never have, and underlines that war has real effects on real lives and always has done. .... ‘Rather hoped I'd get through the whole show, go back to work at Pratt and Sons, keep wicket for the Croydon Gentlemen, marry Doris.’…..

Copyright Rob Whiteman
used by permission given in St Mark’s on 8 November 2015

Rob Whiteman was a member of St Mark’s, and is now minister with the Cotswold Group of Unitarians