A few years ago, the mayor of a Suffolk town, an atheist, planned to mark Armistice Day with an inclusive, secular ceremony. After the procession through the town and a wreath-laying on the war memorial, it would be up to those who were Christians whether or not they attended a church service. It never happened. The mayor had to deal with a family matter and handed the arrangements over to others who (influenced by conservatives in the British Legion) did things the usual way, with religious ceremonial.
I was reminded of this while watching BBC News this morning. They showed soldiers at a remembrance service in Basra, Iraq, who appeared to be singing a hymn. If thatâ€™s what they were doing, would they have been given the option of non-attendance at a religious service? Probably not, which means that, since itâ€™s statistically unlikely that theyâ€™re all Christians, some of those soldiers are singing hymns and saying prayers that are meaningless to them.
This sort of thing wouldnâ€™t have been questioned in the years immediately after WW1, but why are the same old assumptions made now, nearly 90 years later?
The futility of war and the pain of loss mean the same to most people, religious or not. It is simply wrong for Christian leaders and politicians to claim Armistice Day events as they do. To be truly inclusive, they should be secular ceremonies.
Itâ€™s an insult to all those servicemen whoâ€™ve died asking whose side God was supposed to be on, to mark their deaths with religious ceremonial.
This is from The Good Soldier Ã… vejlc by Jaroslav HaÃ…Â¡ek, 1923:
The great shambles of the world war did not take place without the blessing of priests. Chaplains of all armies prayed and celebrated drumhead masses for victory for the side whose bread they ate â€¦
Throughout all Europe people went to the slaughter like cattle, driven there not only by butcher emperors, kings and other potentates and generals, but also by priests of all confessions, who blessed them and made them perjure themselves that they would destroy the enemy on land, in the air, on the sea etc.
Drumhead masses were generally celebrated twice: once when a detachment left for the front and once more at the front on the eve of some bloody massacre and carnage. I remember that once when a drumhead mass was being celebrated an enemy aeroplane dropped a bomb on us and hit the field altar. There was nothing left of the chaplain except some bloodstained rags.
Afterwards they wrote about him as a martyr, while our aeroplanes prepared the same kind of glory for the chaplains on the other side.
We had a great deal of fun out of this, and on the provisional cross, at the stop where they buried the remains of the chaplain, there appeared overnight this epitaph:
What may hit us has now hit you.
You always said we’d join the saints.
Well, now you’ve caught it at Holy Mass.
And where you stood are only stains.
The UK Armed Forces Humanist Association welcomes new members.
The photo of a WW1 family group is from my private collection.