Saturday, 19 July 2008

Reflections on history

I was a small boy by the end of the 50s and a somewhat bigger boy in the 60s. In those dimly remembered days, the Second World War loomed large, not just as a great event, but as a recent one. At my first school we had big earth air raid shelters in the grounds that were frustratingly (but sensibly) sealed off from our attentions. When we played soldiers it was always as British and Germans. My father worked in the aerospace industry and many of his colleagues had been in the war: one had flown in Lancaster bombers; another, a Pole with an impossible surname, had flown with the Polish Air Force element of the RAF. It is possible that the proximity of the war was heightened by the fact that in Britain rationing did not end until something like 1953. Well into the 60s no one ever wasted food.

All this came to mind because in our church there is a small bronze plaque to the memory of Lieutenant Fred G. Beeny, East Lancashire Regiment, killed at Caen, France, 29th July 1944. As we will be passing through Caen later this summer I thought I would find where the grave was and make a visit. So I have been doing some very basic research on the lieutenant. Apart from the wonderfully efficient Commonwealth War Graves Commission website which pinpointed the grave within seconds, I have largely drawn a blank. If I had a spare day I could trawl through the microfiche records of the local paper and probably come up with more information but I don’t have that luxury. The trouble is, as you are probably aware (or ought to be), the D-Day casualty figures were so horrendous that they seem to have overwhelmed the system. For example, The London Gazette (which is in digital format and hence easy to search) only records Fred’s death in November 1944. However the local library has archives that include the minutes of our church, so I may unearth something there.

What was interesting was asking even the oldest members of our church and finding that none of them knew anything about Fred or his family. Part of the reason is that most of our very old members joined the church after the war. But another element is simply this; what was once so close to me has now been removed into the far distance by time’s remorseless march. The lieutenant himself was 25 and so would have been born in 1919. In other words, any of his contemporaries will now be thinking about their 90th birthday celebrations next year. It will not be long before we hear someone described as being the ‘last surviving combatant’ of this or that Second World War battle.

I suppose at this point I should shift to discussing how vital it is that God is eternal. Well that’s true. But I am more struck, I think, by the other side of the coin: the sheer brevity of human life. Not just this one life cut short at the quarter century, but the fact that an epic struggle will soon have passed from the realm where it is discussed by living witnesses, to that faraway state testified to only by cold, flat, written records. History is like a leisurely treadmill whose pace is so slow that you do not think it moves at all. Events like this remind you that time does pass and all too soon the greatest of events slips over the horizon of knowledge into mists of history.

Paraphrasing Psalm 90 Isaac Watts wrote:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the op'ning day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower's hand
Lie with'ring ere 'tis night.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
Just so.