Holne Remembrance - 12th November 2017

Do not forget the stories

I begin with some words that were used at the recent Reader's licensing service in Exeter Cathedral:

In you have our fathers hoped; they have hoped, and you delivered them. They cried to you, and they were saved; they trusted in you, and were not confounded. The Lord will give strength to his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace.
However, take care and watch your soul, that you do not forget the stories, the things which your eyes have seen, that you do not let them depart from your heart all your life long. And teach them to your children and to your children’s children.

If you are like me, you may be one of those people who have significant numbers of unread books lining the shelves in your house. This past week, however, I’ve derived enormous interest from one slim volume written towards the end of World War II by a leading but comparatively little-known British General. But before I say anything about that, today I’d like to rephrase the words of another brave wartime personality, a nurse whom we remembered especially at this time two years ago, who said:"Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." The statuesque figure of Nurse Edith Cavell and her ability to hold to her beliefs and act upon them without resorting to hatred for others is a stunningly strong encouragement for us to do the same.

Now, two years on, I’d like to say that memory alone isn’t enough, though that is naturally what we do first and foremost as we gather here today on Remembrance Sunday. We must not only not forget the stories but also actively teach them to future generations, as the Kohima Prayer which we heard outside also reminds us.

But I’d go further and say further: that we need to recover the Christian faith and commitment which was so marked during both World Wars but which in our nation today is conspicuous by its absence.

But I come back to this little book. Most of us are aware of the some of the leading figures who conducted both World Wars. But the name of Lt-Gen Sir William Dobbie may be unfamiliar to you – himself a veteran of no less than three conflicts (both World Wars and before them, the Boer War). In this slim volume (a wartime economy production of 1945!), he describes his acceptance of the Christian faith and how it worked out in practice in his life, including his service life in the army, which was crowned by two years as Governor of Malta.

Malta, let me briefly remind you, was once described by Sir Winston Churchill as "an unsinkable aircraft carrier'.  A key piece of land to safeguard our supply routes in the Mediterranean  and also prevent Axis supplies reaching North Africa. We must not forget the stories.

Let me share with you some reflections following on from my cursory study of this book – reflections which simply underline what we have been singing about God as our ‘help in ages past’. And let us bear in mind that these are not the reflections of some Sunday School simpleton (forgive the phrase!) but of someone entrusted with wartime leadership of a very high order, and that they were seen not just in what he wrote but in the life he lived.

The whole of one’s life is to be lived to God’s glory

First, Dobbie makes it clear the Christian life is not just some sort of ‘Sunday supplement’ tacked on to the rest of our lives, our ‘real’ lives, and lived out in a box separate from our lives during the rest of the week, but involves the whole of life. Dobbie writes: “I was helped to realise that God desired, and was able, to come into every compartment of daily life, and that one’s spiritual life and ordinary work-a-day life should be one and the same” – that the whole of one’s life is to be lived to God’s glory. So this will affect the way we drive our car (or park it), the way we treat those who serve us in shops, or the way we answer the phone – even if it’s double-glazing that calls for the umpteenth time. The whole of life lived to God’s glory 24/7.

Taking the presence of Christ seriously

Secondly, the Christian life includes taking the presence of Christ seriously into every life-situation, so that we can, for instance, live out the words of a benediction by St Ignatius Loyola: ‘Grant, O Lord, that your love may so fill our lives that we may count nothing too small to do for you, nothing too much to give, and nothing too hard to bear – for Jesus’ sake’.

A friend of mine said how, at school, he passed through a certain blue door on his way out to lessons each day, and this door was a reminder to him that, as a Christian, he needed, consciously (in the words of the Apostle Paul), to ‘put on Christ’ as part of his daily routine. This has also been called ‘practising the presence of Christ’ – constantly and consciously being aware of this presence of Christ with us in each and every situation – again 24/7.

Utter and complete dependence on God

Neither of these two points had any specific bearing on Dobbie’s conduct of the war with the forces under his control, but the third one does: his utter and complete dependence on God as seen in the way he prayed through every situation that confronted him.

Dobbie’s example shines through with striking clarity, as when he was faced with a major military crisis, such as when he needed to move a large number of troops south along a line of deployment to prevent the enemy from breaking through a weak section dividing the British from their French allies. Phoning the officer in charge of troop transport, he was told no rolling stock was available – and no persuasion could alter this. Dobbie put down the phone, then prayed about it, saying to God that he was at the end of his tether and could do no more in connection with this vital task  - ending simply with the words "Please help" before resuming his work.

Minutes later, the phone rang with the news (from the same officer) that, contrary to all expectations, rolling stock was now available, and the necessary movement of troops was successfully carried out. Prayer is of course much more than some sort of emergency alarm bell we ring only when we need it. It is an amazing privilege, Dobbie writes, that we are encouraged to have personal, intimate and private conversation with a heavenly Father, anywhere and at any time 24/7.

So — we’ve looked at the need for Christians to embrace the whole of life, to take the presence of Christ with us into each new day; to show our dependence upon God by the manner, and frequency, of our praying.

Before I close, and while still on the topic of prayer, Gen. Dobbie speaks of the effect of a long-delayed call for prayer by the whole nation on 1st July 1918. Dobbie writes that in the previous four years (August 1914–July 1918) ‘we had been within an ace of disaster and yet disaster had not quite overwhelmed us’. It was not until the 1st July 1918 that HMG issued a call for prayer. Within 30 days of this call Britain won its first and crucial victory against the German forces.  After the day of prayer the weather, which for so much of the previous war years had been against us changed in our favour.  British forces won repeated victories resulting in the war ending  just 100 days after the day of prayer. Two other examples of the weather affecting the outcome were the wind which favoured victory over the Spanish Armada, and the calm at Dunkirk.

Our situation today is certainly not as bleak as it undoubtedly was in 1918 or 1940 – but what might not happen if we as God’s people were once again to submit to him in obedience and humility – qualities not readily apparent in a society that is comfortable and yet careless of the things of God. Perhaps we could make a more conscious effort to recall, remember and remind ourselves and future generations of these events in the not-so-distant past – in short, not to forget the stories.

We ask God his forgiveness for the way in which our nation, and we ourselves, are tempted to short-change him in our lives – to offer him just a fraction when he demands our all. In the words of a modern hymn-writer:

Restore, O Lord, in all the earth Your fame,
And in our time revive the church that bears Your name.
And in Your anger, Lord, remember mercy,
O living God, whose mercy shall outlast the years.

In conclusion, perhaps we could pray these words of a much earlier theologian and pastor John Calvin:

Grant, Almighty God, that we may learn, whether in want or in abundance, to submit ourselves to you, that it may be our only and perfect source of happiness to depend on you and to rest in your salvation, the experience of which you have already given us, until we shall reach that eternal rest, where we shall enjoy it in all its fulness, when made partakers of that glory which has been procured for us by the blood of your only begotten Son Jesus Christ. Amen

I would be willing to lend anyone interested this booklet by Dobbie, even though it is probably irreplaceable. An addressed envelope for its return to me is supplied, but no stamp! The title of the book is A Very Present Help by Lt-General Sir William Dobbie, and it was published in 1945 by Marshall, Morgan & Scott (that publishing firm is no longer in existence). At a later date, the same author published (with the same firm but no date given) Active Service with Christ.

Those who wish to further their understanding of the Christian faith may also be interested in taking a copy of this booklet (Two Ways to Live), copies of which are available at the back of the church.

Lionel Holmes

Here is some further background information about Lt-Gen Sir William Dobbie which, while not part of my Remembrance sermon, might be of interest:

Dobbie, then holding the rank of major general, was informed that after Malaya he would be retired, because new War Office regulations deemed him too old for a further position. After war was declared in September, he was frustrated in his attempts to return to active service, until in April 1940 he encountered the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Edmund Ironside, who offered him the position of Governor of Malta and Commander-in-chief of Malta. As acting governor-general, he was granted the acting rank of lieutenant-general on 27 April 1940, and was knighted as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath on 14 March 1941. Promoted to temporary lieutenant general on 27 April, he was confirmed as Governor of Malta on 19 May. He remained Governor of Malta until May 1942, and retired with the honorary rank of lieutenant-general on 10 November 1942.

When he arrived on Malta, its defensibility was in question because of the presumed ease with which Italy could overrun it. There were only 4 planes on the island and these had probably been overlooked. Few other than Churchill saw any strategic value in maintaining it and the commitment of the Maltese to the British cause was also questioned.

On the day Italy declared war Dobbie issued a statement to the garrison:

The decision of His Majesty's government to fight until our enemies are defeated will be heard with the greatest satisfaction by all ranks of the Garrison of Malta.
It may be that hard times lie ahead of us, but I know that however hard they may be, the courage and determination of all ranks will not falter, and that with God's help we will maintain the security of this fortress.
I call on all officers and other ranks humbly to seek God's help, and then in reliance on Him to do their duty unflinchingly.

Despite being a Protestant on a Catholic island, his faith became an asset. Admiral Cunningham, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, described him as "an Ironside of a man. His profound faith in the justice of our cause made a great impression on the religious Maltese. The complete and calm faith shown in the broadcasts he made nearly every evening contributed immensely towards keeping up the morale of the people".

Over the next two years, Malta was a crucial element of war in the Mediterranean. Churchill responded to Dobbie's requests for planes and reinforcements and the Malta Fortress played a key part in reducing the German supply lines in North Africa, until the Luftwaffe joined in the most intense bombardment of the war in early 1942. In two months there were 500 air raids during which 27 times the tonnage of bombs were dropped as in the Coventry Blitz.

Two attempts to relieve the island failed when supply ships were bombed in the harbour and a succession of Spitfires were picked off on the ground shortly after delivery. There also were problems in the Administrative Council in which a blame culture had emerged. Despite a visit from Dobbie's friend Lord Cranbourne, in May 1942 Churchill replaced Dobbie, who was exhausted and unwell, by Viscount Gort. Gort brought with him the George Cross that had been awarded to the island by King George VI. Dobbie himself received the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George.

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