Will Beckwith was a road-sweeper, a man of very few words. When I lived in London he lived with his sister in a house not quite opposite ours. His conscientiousness was legendary: seen out with his barrow on Boxing Day, he was asked if he was earning “double time”; his reply was “don’t tell them at the depot – they don’t know I’m out!” When he retired, the Council gave him a certificate but the Chamber of Commerce, the shopkeepers of Eltham High Street gave him a gold watch. He was at a loose end after that so I suggested that he could keep the churchyard free of litter. Bit of a mistake, that: it meant that the church had to buy extra dustbins, because Will’s idea of the churchyard included a mile of road from the Bull at the top of Shooters Hill down to the police station at the bottom. If he saw a cigarette end in the middle of the road, he would step out - oblivious of the busy traffic - and pick it up. When Will died, his sister asked if I could take his funeral although I was then only a Reader.
When I sat down to talk with her, I discovered his history. He had done well at the local grammar school, and was working as a solicitor’s clerk, in London, with hopes of becoming articled and possibly becoming a solicitor. He was a sprinter who could well have represented Great Britain in the 1940 Olympics. But war came and Will was called up into the navy. He finished up with the British Pacific Fleet. At the end of the war, Will didn’t come home. He went instead into the huge asylum outside Dartford, and there he stayed until his sister signed him out in 1949, and he was found the only job he could manage: he became a road-sweeper. He was one of the many unseen casualties of war – a psychiatric casualty, a victim of Post Traumatic Stress disorder, or, more simply “Combat Stress”. It was sad to realise, only at the end of his life, how much of the early potential that Will had shown had been swallowed up and lost by his experience.
The media keep us well informed about those who lose their lives in conflicts such as Afghanistan, but these are only the tip of the iceberg. We don’t see the hearses on their way through Royal Wootton Bassett any more, but there’s still a steady flow out of Brize Norton. Modern medicine brings more wounded soldiers home, and we celebrated a number of them in the Paralympics. But, like the iceberg, the bit we do not see is much larger. The Americans reckon that about ten percent of returning troops will at some stage exhibit psychiatric symptoms; we British manage about half that, but we match it with an equal number who succumb to alcoholism, which is how a lot of people try to cope. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Combat Stress can lie dormant for twenty or more years. It destroys relationships; it destroys lives, as people are possessed by the demons of their past experiences. One result is that ex-service people are “over-represented” – a lovely euphemism – “over-represented” among the homeless on the streets of our big cities. Years ago, many of them would have wound up in the great mental hospitals which are now defunct. A study of Falklands veterans noted ten times the average rate of suicides. Remembrance Sunday is a time to bring into focus such hidden costs of conflict.
On Remembrance Sunday we remind ourselves of the costs of war. We read the names on the war memorials, and think of lives cut short and families bereaved. A large proportion of our poppies are made by those whose injuries prevent them from leading a full and normal life, a reminder that the cost extends beyond the lists of names. We remind ourselves of the sacrifice made on our behalf, that we may enjoy the freedoms we hold most dear. Remembrance Sunday exists to bring into sharp focus the cost of peace. That cost is measured not only in young lives cut short, but in lives blighted by injury, by grief, by the scars which can’t be seen and which may never heal: Will Beckwith was never able to fulfil his early promise.
On Remembrance Sunday we draw parallels between the young man who gave his life on a cross outside Jerusalem to give us the peace that passes all understanding, and the young people who have written, are writing, and will write blank cheques for their lives so that we, and the world, might live in peace.
As, day by day, we struggle to make and keep our lives worthy of the sacrifice of Calvary; as, day by day, we struggle to follow Jesus’ teaching, so, on Remembrance Sunday, we are called to remember those who make peace and keep peace – not just the soldiers at the sharp end, but also the diplomats and negotiators who enter into the often risky process of brokering a deal. One rule which holds firm in today’s world is that in the end, there is always a deal: because without a deal there isn’t an end. On Remembrance Sunday we are called to remember the Peacemakers, and pledge ourselves anew to strive for peace: true peace, where ordinary people can live ordinary lives without fear. On Remembrance Sunday we are reminded of the cost of seeking, making and keeping that peace: the price that is paid on our behalf, just as a price was paid on our behalf on a cross.
Peace does not come without cost. The church was founded to celebrate the terrible agony of the cross, the sacrifice of life that we might receive eternal life and the Peace of God that goes with it. That sacrifice shapes our response: the total gift of nothing less than everything demands from us nothing less than everything in return. As we gather today in the name of the Prince of Peace, we remember that the peace and prosperity we enjoy came and still comes at a price, at a terrible price, most of which is hidden from our eyes. Day by day, we must face the challenge and ask ourselves: are we worthy of the price paid for our peace? Do we treat it as if it were cheap or easy? Do we truly value the sacrifice of those who, in the words of the Kohima Memorial, “for our tomorrows, gave their today?”