You know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away.
I would like to start this letter with a photo of some of my family. This is a photo of some of my father’s family.
The man with the beard is my great grandfather, and the man sitting next to him is my grandfather. The men standing are my grandfather’s brothers. I never met any of these men, and hardly knew my father who had a difficult and distant relationship with his Dad: the confident looking man sitting there with his life before him.
I want you to notice the man in the uniform. His name was Robert, but he was called Bob. He served in and survived World War One. It is difficult to know what he thought when he went to war, but I imagine he was caught up in the enthusiasm of empire like many other young men. Empire was something we believed in here in New Zealand for a long time. Even when I was a kid New Zealand felt a lot more British than it does now. The imperial impulse had died but the sense of connection had not. It has now.
Like most men who served in World War One my great uncle Robert did not talk about his experiences in the war, but they certainly affected him. He lived the rest of his life after the war in a shed at the back of his sister’s house and kept to himself. He didn’t marry or raise a family. He walked out on the hills behind Clinton and shot rabbits selling the meat and the skins to bring in some money. It must have been quite an isolated life. Plenty of time to think.
Once he walked with my Aunt, my father’s sister, down to the shops to help her buy some shoes, and asked her – suddenly – if she believed in God. My Aunt said that she did. He nodded and said: “There is no God”. It shocked my Aunt, and she has always remembered it. She told me the story again when I went down South to talk to her about my father who died when I was five. For Uncle Bob I suppose that God was a casualty of war.
I told that story to my History class the other day. I wanted them to understand something about statistics. However many million people were killed or wounded in World War One there were millions more who are not included, who forever carried other burdens. Perhaps the loss of their faith in God, or man. Perhaps the loss of a loved brother or sister or friend. Perhaps the temporary or permanent derangement of the mind. Who knows what my great uncle saw on the battlefields, but what he saw was enough I think to say that he was a casualty of war.
As it happens my father was older than my mother and the youngest in his family. My mother is the oldest in hers. This means that while my father’s uncles could serve in World War One, my mother’s uncles served in World War Two.
This is my mother’s dad (and me… I’m the short one). He had two brothers and a sister. Both of his brothers were killed in World War Two. One was wounded in Crete, evacuated to Egypt, and killed when his hospital ship was bombed. The other served with the RAF in Britain on bombers. Over time I have wondered how I feel about that. Dropping bombs on people. Even enemy people. Actually it makes me a little sick, but not sick enough to stop me saying that one night his bomber didn’t come back, and that I regret it. My regret is for his fiance, and his family in New Zealand who had already lost one son. Reading his British fiance’s last letter to him is heart-breaking. One more heartbreak in the millions of others in that war.
My father’s father had rheumatism. That spared him World War One. My mother’s father was effectively blind in one eye. That spared him World War Two. And being spared they had a life in which to find love, marriage and family, and I had better be thankful for that.
I begin this letter to you in this way, John, because of a question my students asked me the other day. They asked me: “Would you have fought in World War One or Two?” Although I could answer quickly, I have since thought about my answer quite a lot. I said that, assuming I had had a choice, I would not have served in World War One, but I probably would have in World War Two. I said that I believed that World War One was over nothing but imperial vanities and greed, and that in World War Two there was the matter of what kind of world we wanted.
Churchill summarised it best in his best speech on 18 June, 1940 when it was becoming increasingly clear that the power of Germany was about to be turned on Britain as France fell.
Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: This was their finest hour.
They are fine words. They move me when I listen to them and they assure me of the fact that certain principles are important in life, and that others are sterile and empty and can lead us into moral dead ends and savagery. I wanted to begin with the uncles I never knew because I think they illustrate this point.
I should probably explain what I mean, and I will, if you have the time.
See you round,