Dominican friar Fr Samuel Burke OP is a chaplain in the Royal Navy currently serving on HMS Duncan in the Mediterranean. He gave a poignant reflection on remembrance and honouring our war dead on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.
It was broadcast on 11 November 2023, Armistice Day, known also as Remembrance Day.
What will you think about during the two-minute silence? Will you call to mind Flanders Fields? Or brave pilots in Lancaster bombers? Or perhaps those who perished in the ocean during the Battle of the Atlantic?
There’s an almost overwhelming abundance of things that come to mind in those quiet moments, including the personal connections that many of us have of family and place.
For me, at some point during that brief pause, I’ll look out at the assembled members of my ship’s company. Though their heads will be bowed in respect, I’ll glimpse the faces of ordinary men and women from up and down the UK, from across the Commonwealth, each of them serving far from their loved ones. And as I glance, I reflect that the war dead, whose memory we gather to honour, along with the many others who suffered through the ravages of war, were not so different to us. They too were ordinary men and women.
On our ship, we have a Book of Remembrance. It records the names of forebears who died in the World Wars, a young officer’s great uncle, for example. Some sailors have also written the names of shipmates who have died more recently, including friends deeply missed. And just as with names engraved in stone on war memorials at home, behind each name is a story, a family, an utter tragedy.
A name that I’ve added to the book is that of Father Basil Gwydir, a Benedictine monk who served as a chaplain on the hospital ship Rohilla. In the midst of a storm. Among the sick and wounded to whom he ministered, Father Basil remained on board as the ship sank off the coast of Whitby on the 30 October 1914. He was the first Allied chaplain to die in the Great War.
Each of the countless millions who lost their lives in the two World Wars and conflicts since give powerful witness to Jesus’s words in St John’s Gospel, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Consider that the average sailor, soldier or aviator is motivated by a sense of loyalty that runs even deeper than commitment to a cause or one’s country. Yes, they died for us, for our tomorrow. But in the heat of battle, they died, above all, for one another – for their friends. And I have no doubt that the men and women with whom I’ll be standing later would do the same today.
And if, during the two minutes of silence, the enormous shadow of grief and the haunting prospect of future loss can’t provoke each of us to rededicate ourselves to peace then, frankly, nothing will. Whatever else you choose to think about during the still moments later today and tomorrow, be sure to make good that solemn promise that we renew each year. We will remember them. They were not so different to us.