Of service and sacrifice

So another Remembrance Day has faded from its annual blaze of red amid November’s greys. And this year, as so often before, I am left pondering the words of St. John (15:13): “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The sermon at our remembrance service pointed out that ‘sacrifice’ is one of those words that has been cheapened by casual over-use. And certainly this is a time of year that should help us to re-calibrate our vocabulary, to comprehend the magnitude of the sacrifice of those who have given their lives for the things we and our children take for granted today.

Goodness knows there’s plenty we do take for granted. In many ways, our lives are secure enough that we can afford to get irritated by things that intrude on our personal convenience or comfort – things like not being able to find a parking space, or having to reset the wi-fi when it breaks down. I get irritated when I have to sacrifice (sic) an hour or so of my valuable time (sic) to sit in a meeting with merchants of hot air and opinions.

It is salutary to reset my own expectations by immersing myself in the war poets, or by staring at a 68-year-old piece of paper which sits on my desk, to which a GPO clerk once glued the strip of telegram tape which told my grandfather that “your son Flying Officer James Donald Farrar (142059) is reported missing as the result of air operations”.

Now that’s sacrifice.

I realised something else during last Sunday’s service, though. I also have a sheet of foolscap of about the same vintage, on which my grandfather had copied out some extracts from Jim’s flying log book. According to this, Jim had flown 251.55 hours by day and a further 132.35 hours by night. I don’t know how many sorties that represented, but I realised with something of a shock that Jim’s sacrifice was one that he made every day, every night, every time he strapped on his parachute and climbed into his Mosquito.

Sitting there in the Abbey last Sunday, I recalled a paragraph from Paul Brickhill’s The Dam Busters, where he was talking about the notorious high spirits of RAF servicemen: “The rigidly virtuous [he wrote] might acquire a more flexible understanding if they followed the young pilot to the airfield and watched his face in its hood when the chocks were pulled away. Better still, follow him into the air, strapped to a seat and deafened by noise, held precariously aloft by wings relying on inconstant engines and petrol tanks, highly vulnerable to the assaults of flak and fighters, fog and ice-cloud. Follow him up there not once but sixty times till violent death is a threefold statistical certainty.” (p. 127.)

Or, as the 19-year-old Jim wrote across an otherwise empty page of his 1943 diary, “We live by Death’s negligence”.

Not that Jim would have expected much in the way of credit or glory for his daily sacrifice. Some few months before he died, he wrote: “I’ve felt ashamed all the way along to be living this pampered and comparatively safe life since Don’s death [his best friend Don Powell had been killed in north Africa in 1943]. And when some of the types show the usual lack of enthusiasm for any sort of effort, I feel, ‘Oh Christ, it’s little enough we have to do; what sort of stature could we have in the eyes of the dead?’ I begin to appreciate the original excellence of the now hackneyed term ‘supreme sacrifice’.” (The Unreturning Spring, p. 213)

Jim and his pilot, Fred Kemp, made their supreme sacrifice day by day, night by night, through June and July 1944 as they tried to intercept the V1 flying bombs that had started to hit London and the south-east. In late June, Jim wrote in cheerful but solicitous terms to his mother, whose home was in the direct firing line of the V1 attacks: “The main thing is, look after yourself and don’t go thinking about dignity or propriety if a sudden dive to the horizontal position is indicated!” (The Unreturning Spring, p. 221). There is no trace in his writing of resentment or reluctance about the job he has to do or the risks he faces. He just gets on with it.

Perversely, in one way it was easier back then. We were defending our own nation, our own homes and loved ones from attack. It’s quite straightforward to see that Jim and hundreds of thousands like him laid down their lives for their friends. Of course, they did so for the whole nation and for future generations too; but there was an immediacy to what they were doing.

Yesterday I was listening to Francis Pott’s magnificent setting of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s Lament – a piece at once quietly poignant and hauntingly unquiet. It is dedicated to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, killed in Helmand in 2009. Gibson’s poem is as intimate as any I have ever read in its portrayal of the loss of loved ones; but it is hard to see how Staff Sergeant Schmid laid down his life for his friends – for his wife and five-year-old stepson, to whom he had spoken just hours before he died – or even for his neighbours, such as Francis Pott whom he never knew.

He went beyond the demand that St. John made; he laid down his life not only for his friends but for complete strangers.

Now that’s sacrifice.

But even that extraordinary selflessness can be taken a step further – not by those who make the sacrifice, perhaps, but by us who are left. This is a friend’s Facebook update from last Sunday evening: “Thank you to all those who died for me to enjoy such wonderful freedoms – you never met me and yet I can count you as friends and will try and value your sacrifice in the way I live my life.”

That sounds like something we can all do.

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