Road of Remembrance

November 11, 2020 · Print This Article

Standing on the seafront cliffs in Folkestone, in Kent, on a clear day, you can easily see the northern coastline of France across the Channel. Calais is the closest French town to England – just over 30 miles away. London is more than twice as far. By the Eurotunnel, it takes 35 minutes to be in Calais – 90 minutes by ferry from Dover.

On those seafront cliffs there are 19,240 pebbles, set in a large square in the grass, and each one has a number painted on it – from 1 to 19,240. The artwork by Mark Wallinger is called ‘Folk Stones’ and it lays out – in every way – the sheer number of human lives thrown at the conflict on the battlefields of France in the First World War. The number of pebbles graphically represents the number of British soldiers killed on just one day – 1st July 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

And somewhere on the other side of the English Channel there will be other memorials; other records of French soldiers who died, and German soldiers who died. More than 1.2 million men lost their lives, or were wounded in this battle.

Folkestone was the embarkation point for millions of troops in the First World War – the beginning of their journey to fight in France. They marched down a steep hill – originally called Slope Road and renamed the Road of Remembrance in the early 1920s. The road leads to the harbour where they boarded crowded troop ships to France – for many this would have been their first time outside of England.

Each of those men hoped that they would return. The families who had said goodbye to them hoped they would return. The generals who had made the decision to send them knew that many would not return – such is the formula of war. They may have been hailed as heroes, but that is probably not how they saw themselves. Many would have been frightened – barely 18 – but frightened also to run away. The penalty for desertion was no better than what lay ahead.

A brief reading of the Old Testament – if any such reading could be described as brief – involves a catalogue of wars and armed conflicts. There would have been many families mourning the loss of their young men. Before he became king, David mourned the loss of his close friend, Jonathan, killed in battle alongside his father, King Saul. He shared the sadness of all those bereaved in war with these words:

“Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me” (2 Samuel 1:25-26).

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah wrote of the people of his day, “The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks along them will know peace.” This could have been written for us today. It is sometimes hard to find peace and justice – between nations; in communities; even within families.

Isaiah also described Jesus as the ‘Prince of Peace, and Jesus drew a line in the sand regarding solving the problems of the world with armed conflict. Just prior to His arrest and crucifixion, in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples, Peter was ready to start a battle. He was armed and didn’t hesitate to use his sword, slicing off the ear of one of the crowd hunting down Jesus. Jesus’ healing of this dramatic injury signalled a new approach. It was a defining moment. Weapons were to be discarded. Healing would replace the inflicting of pain and injury. The world is not there yet.

The Prince of Peace tells us,  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.” Whatever weapon we might choose – our harsh words, withholding a kind gesture, our silence or even physical aggression – the words of Jesus to Peter are also words to anyone who is listening: “Put away the sword”.

Maggie Mitchell

Maggie is an editor at Because

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