Sermon on Remembrance Sunday

Sermon on Remembrance Sunday

November 9th 2014, by Ron Cosford –

It shocks us, after two world wars and countless other conflicts, to know that a hundred years ago, many prominent European intellectuals glorified war.

In his famous poem ‘The dead’, published in 1915, a few months after the so-called Great War began, Rupert Brooke proclaimed:

‘Honour has come back, as a king, to earth…
And nobleness walks in our ways again.’

War, to some, was considered noble.

Ironically, Brooke died soon after this poem was published – not amidst the heroism of battle – instead, of sepsis following a mosquito bite. His early death denied him a more objective view of the squalid nature of war.


War was declared on 4th August, but people felt it would be over by Christmas. Some of those early feelings of idealism and optimism may well have been echoed here in St Mary’s on Sunday November 8th 1914 (no Remembrance Sunday yet!). By then two Iffley men had already been killed in battle, but no one present would have had the slightest idea of the industrial scale killing that was to come.

Among the congregation that day would have been Tom Farnell, Manciple of Christ Church, whose diary I have seen, recording his attendance at this church every Sunday. He would not have known that five of his sons were to fight, of whom one, Herbert, was to be killed in 1918.

Also present that day a hundred years ago might well have been Mrs Veale, of Rose Cottage. Three of her sons fought, and two of them died. One of these, Jessie, discharged with severe injuries, died at home in 1919 and lies in the burial ground here – sadly in a grave that remains unmarked to this day.


My wife and I began our research into the 21 names on the Memorial Tablet on the south wall of the nave because we are grandparents. What do I mean by that?

Sadly, we lost three of our grandfathers in that war. But it was only when we had grandchildren ourselves that we were able fully to realize what we had missed in our own childhood. I would guess that most of you will understand the nature of that special relationship.

We felt more should be known about these 21 Iffley men who either never became grandfathers or were never known by their grandchildren.

We wanted to find out their Christian names. How old were they? What jobs did they do? In some cases, what connection did they have with the village – in 1914 so very different from now? Indeed a major difficulty we faced was that nearly all of the families bearing those names have moved elsewhere.


However we have succeeded in making contact with descendants of two men named on the memorial (Herbert Farnell and Aubrey Hurst Ludlow) and of John Holland Bellamy who was one of the five additional fallen that we identified. And I welcome them here today.

We also identified a huge number of others who served and, fortunately, returned – though who knows with what injuries?

Our reconstructed Roll of Honour now includes no less than 192 names – among them the three Godfrey brothers, whose family is still strongly represented here in St Mary’s by Beryl Godfrey and her daughter Mary Carroll.


Jaw-dropping numbers like a million British dead, a quarter of a million amputees, a combined figure from all nations of ten million military deaths and even more enormous civilian casualties, can miss the mark. I am not sure anyone has ever estimated the number of those left to grieve? It is not easy to pause and think about each death – to realise it meant the loss of that beloved grandson, a brother, a father, a husband, a son, an uncle, a fiancée, a colleague – or a very close friend. And such losses really did blight the lives of families and individuals left behind, affecting them in ways difficult to imagine in these times of relatively prolonged peace at home. Just one example: nearly all the teachers at my wife’s Northampton School for Girls in the late 1940’s were unmarried.


World War One, it was once thought, was the war to end all wars. But within a generation, came World War Two. And since then, so many other conflicts – horrific in nature, some shamefully based on religious differences, as at present in the Middle East and in Africa. They call into question what lessons the world has learned from all that suffering. Has it done any good to remember?

Of course organizations now exist like the United Nations, NATO and the European Union, which offer some framework for resolving disagreements between countries. They can appear pathetically inadequate at times. Nevertheless for all their many obvious faults, as Churchill reminded us, “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war!” And, on the whole, governments in the democratic world are increasingly reluctant to accept war as a way of settling differences. We are heading in the right direction.

The popular desire for peace is tangible. Europe itself, with the notable exception of the Balkan States, has enjoyed peace for nearly 70 years. Which brings me to the importance of Remembrance Day when we contemplate the waste of human lives and acknowledge our indebtedness and gratitude to those who have served and given their lives in war on behalf of their country. We think especially of course of the huge losses in two World Wars – from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry alone nearly six thousand men in the first (5878) and one and a half thousand (1408) in the second.


There is a plaque in Rose Hill Methodist church in honour of two Cowley men both of whom died in 1944: Leslie Probitt in Burma at the age of 21; and Norman Cooper, a Flying Officer, at the age of 25.

This seems to be the only World War Two memorial in Iffley bearing individual names and this has puzzled several of us.


Only recently, seeking an explanation, Diana and I met some of those who lived in Iffley during World War Two: John Taylor, Ron and Fred Bromley and Harold Simmonds. Harold told us about his own service in Burma, and could name four other local men who served:

Ralph Wyatt, Albert Bagnall, Ron Thomson and Johnny Ives.

He almost forgot to add his future wife, Kathleen Kimbrey who was a WAF.

No one was aware of wartime deaths of servicemen from the village. So perhaps that explains simply why there is no World War Two memorial.

One important point to add, though, is that there are those who fought in World War Two but who moved into the village only after the war – one or two of them present here today.


But we also need to bear in mind the function of the Iffley Memorial Institute. This once stood in the field along Church Way near the noticeboard. It was created as a meeting place as early as 1917 (and I quote):

’to commemorate the brave sons of the village who are fighting for England and those who have already died in her defence’.

An American visitor in 1923 said of it in a light-hearted way:

‘…it is a perfect memorial to the men in the late War who have gone Westward forever to a place sweeter than Iffley. Here their memory keeps green, not in a cold shaft, but in a house where …folks can play the games (the men) loved to play and read the books (the men) left unread. Whist drives bring the Colonel and the postmistress together to clash with Lady John and the village butcher…’

Incidentally, two of the people we have recently met described it as a ‘fun place’.


Sadly its fortunes declined and it was finally demolished in 1973. Now of course village social functions take place in the Church Hall.

We do know, however, that photographs and framed lists once hung in the Memorial Institute. What we don’t know is whether any of them related to World War Two. All the contents disappeared with the building, so we shall never know.


So I return to our purpose today, which is to recall the sacrifices of war, especially the courage and bravery of those, known and unknown, who served and died for their country in both world wars and also in more recent conflicts. We honour them and