My dear Friends,
"Missing, presumed killed." This was the message my paternal grandparents received in the Spring of 1940. Then, another boy from Llanelli who had signed up at the same time as my father, confirmed their worst fears. He too had crossed the choppy seas at night to Norway, had been presented with a gun left over from the First World War and ordered to disembark and go into battle. He too had fought for his life, been frightened for his life and seen my father and other comrades mowed down by enemy fire. He himself had witnessed my father being shot, seen him fall to the ground and, filled with guilt and the desire to survive, had run on. Somehow he had managed to get back to the UK, heard from his parents that my grandparents had received a telegram with those potent words everyone was terrified of receiving, "Missing, believed killed," and went to tell them of the last moments of their precious boy’s life, fighting for his family and his homeland. Douglas Roy Williams, fresh faced, wide eyed, slim, innocent, hardly having had the chance to experience anything much of life, shot and killed and left in a copse somewhere in Norway, aged 21.
My grandparents had listened to him in silence, only speaking to ask for clarification, whispered their gratitude to him for having taken the trouble to come and explain. Then he had left, to go home to his relieved and happy parents, leaving my grandparents broken and beyond words as they stood on the front doorstep in Sandy Road, watching his receding figure.
They were bleak days for my grandparents. Life had to go on, but the heart, the meaning of it wasn`t there. There was a lot of silence in the house and other realities were weighed against this other shuddering reality of their son’s savage death. One who had been such a part of their lives and the life of their home was someone they would never see again. An experience all too many people were also experiencing at the time all over the country and of course beyond.
The Minister from Hall Street Methodist Chapel, which my grandparents attended, came to visit one morning. Lost for words he sat there in the empty, aching silence. The only thing my grandmother could remember from his visit was seeing the Minister kneel down, she thought at first to pray, but actually it was to attend to the fire in the grate, which was almost out. Oblivious of so many things, she was just sitting there, shivering, yet unaware of how cold the room had become. "You shouldn’t be doing that for me" my grandmother had said. "It won’t hurt me" he had replied. And though he couldn’t warm her heart, at least he could try to warm the room in which she grieved.
It was three months after the telegram arrived that another arrived. This time I believe from the Red Cross, informing them that my father had been shot, injured and was currently recovering in a German Castle, which was serving as a Prisoner of War Camp. It was obviously long before the invention of mobile phones or computers, there were no daily texts or emails between my grandparents and their boy to share the minutiae of life and assure one another of their respective wellbeing. There was instead wondering, worrying, silence, sometimes interrupted by a letter arriving, an event. My father spoke to me of spending much time thinking about his family back home. On more than one occasion he was put in solitary confinement as a punishment for helping others try to escape. Those were long days and seemingly longer nights. He was in a tower, high up in a remote area of the castle, one window in the wall, too high for him to look out of. He spoke of hearing sounds from way beyond, including the barking of Alsatians in the moat below. He saw the sun’s rays stroke and move across the wall as time wore on, so slowly. He was allowed out for half an hour once a day, presumably to go to the lavatory and to wash. Apart from that he spoke of bread and water, silence and his own company, thinking of his mother, father, brothers, sisters, friends and the streets and fields around his home town of Llanelli.
"As long as I felt that they were safe, I could cope, I was alright, I could endure anything," he used to say. "If I could do the suffering for my family, if that kept them safe, I could get through it, it was easier that way." They were all safe, they had no idea what he and so many thousands like him were enduring, many enduring much, much worse. Not just enduring physically, but in their minds, in the inner turmoil of their emotions, fears and imaginations.
In that small tower room where my father lived for many months, completely on his own with only himself for company, he had to find a way to survive, make meaning out of the everyday and the only way of doing that was of course to build up his inner life, to do "gymnasium" in his soul and mind. He had his thoughts, he had his memories, he had his imagination, he had his faith. Apart from his room, that was his reality.
Our experience of Lockdown was nothing like as bleak as that experienced by prisoners of war, whose conditions in other places in the world were far harsher than my father endured, indeed still are for those interred by unjust and ruthless States. Extraordinary suffering has been, is being, endured as people pursue a fixed idea of what society should be like, at whatever expense to those who disagree with them, intolerant as they are to other viewpoints. And in the confines of a controlled environment like a prison, we all know that with power comes the temptation to the corruption of power, the use of power, becoming the role which is assigned, as people act out an anger intrinsic to the unjust, unregulated and unequal ethos of the place.
Way back in the histories of many countries are accounts of battles fought, wars lost, casualties in legions, the repercussions of a single death reverberating into the souls of all who knew them, all who loved them. This coming weekend we too will remember, will stand in bewildered silence, listening. We will hear the prayer for those from our community who died for their country in the First and Second World Wars; we will see poppies in our minds, uncompromisingly blood red. If we watch the event from the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday evening we will witness the fluttering fall of poppy petals, each one representing a life, a life that knew death in those savage days of carnage and courage, bloodshed and brotherhood. That moment of stillness, that moment of silence, raining blood on those who stand below, is for me the most agonising moment of Remembrance Weekend. "Each one of those petals stands for someone who died in the war," I recall being told by my mother as a young child, my father was silent, gazing at the television screen, eyes bright with moisture, biting the inside of his mouth, nails biting into the white skin of his clenched hands.
It is right that we remember. It is important we do not forget what others experienced not so long ago. It is crucial that annually, we receive this reality check on the freedom we may take for granted and compare our experience of life with what they endured. "Because," I remember more than one person who had endured the Second World War telling me, "of course, we didn’t know how long it was going to go on for. We didn`t know which side was going to win." It wasn`t over until it was over and then for some, it lasted a few months more. Then a new way of living had to be learned, so changed was society, so different were people as a result of what they had experienced and endured. Women were relatively liberated from the restricted roles which had hitherto been assigned to them; classes were now more fluid as people crossed cultural divides; greater opportunities were given to people based on ability rather than background - at least to some extent, this is the UK after all! Things were changing, nothing remained the same and inevitably some fared better than others.
The two World Wars of the last century were colossal events in our history, collectively as well as individually. This weekend we hold in tension those two great realities: remembered suffering and desired peace. We lend our minds and open our imaginations to the experience of those who fought, were frightened, saw horrendous things before their eyes and recall their deaths. This weekend we allow them to become part of who we are, part of the ongoing story of humanity in its attempts to live in respectful relationship with one another. In hushed tones we thank them for what they endured, suffered, adapted to, were deprived of, for the part they played in securing if not a peaceful world, then at least a Europe not at war with itself, where we can live and thrive and explore and experience the fulness and possibility of life.
But let us not forget, let us always remember, the price that was paid for this relative peace and continue to respect and use the freedom we enjoy in ways which brings honour to their sacrifice.
Rest eternal grant to them O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. May they rest on peace, may they rise in glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
With blessings and best wishes,
REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY Apart from last year, we have tended to hold the Parish Eucharist at 10am rather than at the usual time of 9.30am, so that we could all keep the Act of Remembrance together at 11am. This year, I have been asked to conduct the Act of Remembrance at the War Memorial in Radnor Gardens. This will mean that the service at St Mary’s will be at the usual time of 9.30am after which, if anyone would like to join me, I shall then be walking up to Radnor Gardens for the service which will begin there at 10.50am.
On Remembrance Sunday evening at 6pm, there will be a special performance of in St Mary’s of The Requiem Mass by Gabriel Fauré. This will also include passages of scripture which will be read between the different movements. Please join us for these special moments as we remember and pray for all who have died, especially those who died from our community in the two World Wars of the last century.
At St Mary`s on this REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY at both the 9.30am Eucharist in church and the 5pm Zoom service online, we shall be reflecting on the Gospel passage, which this week is Mark Chapter 13 verses 1-8.
COLLECT FOR REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY: Heavenly Father, Whose blessed Son was revealed To destroy the works of the devil And to make us the children of God And heirs of eternal life: Grant that we, having this hope, May purify ourselves even as He is pure, That, when He shall appear in power and great glory, We may be made like Him, In His eternal and glorious kingdom. This we ask though the same, Jesus Christ our Lord, Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. AMEN
More details of our Services and a list of those we pray for in our Intercessions can be found on this website's 'Services' page at https://www.stmarytwick.org.uk/services