Solemn Mass for the Dead of the Battle of the Somme
On 1 July, on the precise centenary day of the start of the Battle of the Somme, a Commemoration Mass for the Dead was offered at St Marie’s Cathedral.
Fr Chris Posluszny celebrated the Mass. A choir of more than 40 sang and added hugely to the solemnity of the occasion. Under Hugh Finnigan’s direction, members of the Diocesan choir, supplemented by members of the Eckington Singers, sang Faure’s Requiem. Kieran Fallon, director of the visiting singers played the organ. They also sang ‘Abide with me’, ‘Lead kindly light’, and John Bell’s ‘What shall we pray for those who died’. At the end of Mass, the deputy mayor of Sheffield, Mrs Anne Murphy, laid a wreath at the World War One memorial by the entrance to St Marie’s (pictured on the right).
The Order of Service contained introductory information about “The Somme” and local losses written by I Pearson of All Saints School.
On 1 July 1916, some 60,000 British soldiers fell, dead or wounded. The Pals Brigades, notably, for us, the Sheffield Pals and Barnsley Pals, suffered huge losses and never recovered as fighting forces from that day. The battle dragged on until November 1916, before moving on to Passchendale and the remaining two years of bloody warfare.
Deacon Bill Burleigh assisted Fr Chris and preached at the Mass.
“We have come here to pray for the dead, to unite our prayer with Christ’s sacrifice, to remember and let our remembering spur us forwards to strive for peace.
“ Tonight’s first reading took me to the mind of any soldier expecting death, any wounded man lying in mud, anyone of faith close to death. ‘Surely the Lord’s mercies are not over, his deeds of faithful love not exhausted… It is good to wait for the Lord to save’.
“And we do. Both before our death and, most vividly for us to recall tonight, after death. Tonight we pray for the dead of the Somme who wait for the fullness of life in God’s presence.
“What do I mean? Blessed John Henry Newman clearly expressed our Catholic faith in his poem about a man he called Gerontius, dying, dead and waiting for God to save him, waiting for himself to be ready to enter heaven. Relying on his own and the prayers of those he left behind on earth.
“Gerontius asks the angel walking him into heaven, “Why have I no fear of meeting him. All my earthly life the thought of death and judgement were to me terrible.” “It is because you did fear, that now you need not fear” the angel reassured him.
As they walk the angel continues, “And now we have come to the threshold.” “Judgement is now near, for we have come into the veiled presence of God.” “I hear voices that I left on earth,” says Gerontius. Yes, he is told, what you can hear are the prayers of those praying for you. And yet, the good Gerontius knows he is not ready, not prepared or good enough for the glory of heaven, the banquet of the Lamb, the fullness of life in his presence. He chooses to cleanse himself, knowing his imperfections, to pray, to use his newfound rest to praise and sing of God’s love. The angel assures him, “Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here. I will come and wake you then on the morrow.” Gerontius will wake ready for heaven.
“Countless men who were killed by the Somme, like Gerontius, know their imperfections, their unreadiness for the totality of heaven. We assist them with our prayer tonight as we pray for those killed one hundred years ago today, those killed outright, those who languished and died later in the mud or back in the trenches and the few in the field hospitals over the next days, weeks and months. We pray, too, for those who survived the six months of the bloody attrition of the Somme and those who eventually came home to live and die later with their memories of what they endured, suffered and did during the dark months and years that followed. We pray for the British, the allied and the German dead.
“At 7 o’clock on the morning of this day 100 years ago, along a 15 mile line of trenches, 100,000 British soldiers waited, knowing they might face death, but confident that the week-long bombardment of German trenches will have killed or forced into retreat the enemy. The Sheffield Pals Brigade was at the extreme north end of the battlefield, with Barnsley Pals and the Accrington Pals close by on their right. Men from Chesterfield and Doncaster were further along. What prayers or confident words of swagger and joking were spoken, we do not know. Maybe sheer silence under orders.
“At 7.30am the whistles sounded and the first waves went over the top. The atrocious weather for days meant leaving the trenches was, in a way, some relief. The word was that victory was assured and they would walk to decimated, silent German trenches.
“Within minutes the first wave of the Pals fell to the ground, as planned, to let a final wave of mortar and artillery whistle over them. All around them was a smokescreen. White lines had been laid during the night to direct the men to the gaps in the tangled barbed wire defences. But the breeze was clearing the smoke and the white lines had disappeared in the mud. Men were falling under a hail of machine gun fire that had no end. The second and third and fourth waves met the same onslaught.
“By midday in the Pals brigades, and all along the 15 mile narrow strip of No Man’s Land, men lay dead, dying or wounded. Of the 100,000 British soldiers deployed that day , 60,000 had fallen – 19,000 dead and near 40,000 wounded. By November, when fighting paused because of the, by-then, impassable sea of mud, there had been 400,000 British, 200,000 French and 500,000 German casualties of war. Countless more moved on to other battlefields, to two more years of war and eventual release home to an impoverished country.
“The scale is mind numbing; the suffering indescribable; the folly pitiful. The distance from the Gospel of life, immense. Where was God? And the answer is, as at Calvary, right there, among his people, all people; there in the countless acts of good, brave, mutually-supporting men reaching out to meet the needs of one another.
“The dead of the Somme are at peace. Their cemeteries, their recorded memories, their memorials at every part of the Somme and here at home, speak of their early deaths – husbands, sons, brothers, fathers. Thousands are recorded only on the Thiepval monument, the names of those never found, never buried, just lost in mud and bombardment. Of the 64 fallen from this parish, 7 died on the morning of 1 July, and every one has no known grave, only their name on the Thiepval memorial – James Connelly, Robert Hackett, Joseph Higginbottam, John Marsh, William Molloy, Andrew Mulvey and Horace Parkin.
“Calvary continues. The son of God made man has died once and for all, but man continues to inflict Calvaries on humankind and God feels the pain of their suffering. Where is God now? The God of mercy weeps, weeps at our folly, our injustices to one another that engender new conflict, new deaths. Our true native land is in heaven. But it is the home too, of so many who have had their lives stolen; soldiers and, increasingly, civilians slaughtered, executed, starved or driven far from home. Their homeland and ours is in heaven, for friend and former enemies alike. Can we accept this? Can we embrace peace, overcome national and cultural differences, then and now? Can we accept our true native land full of foreigners, refugees, people very different from ourselves? Or need we draw back and wait, unworthy to enter heaven, needing purifying prayer, like Gerontius?
“The gospel this evening gives us the pivotal moment in all creation. After the very worst, God gave the very best. After Calvary, the killing of God-become-a-man, the cold of the tomb, the resting of the dead Christ, came life everlasting. The women were the first to be shown it. From death, comes life. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
“For the dead of the Somme, like for the fictional Gerontius, life is offered. They do, and we will, rest in peace waiting for our salvation offered, to be realised; waiting for our prayer and the prayers of others to impel us forward through the unworthiness we feel into the vision and eternal life of God our Father, our way and our life. We do not need to stay among the dead, focussed only on the cemeteries and monuments to the war dead, never to be forgotten. We are called to go forward, like them. We are called to build on the peace they died for.”
Deacon Bill ended his homily in prayer.
“We pray for them and for ourselves that we all become prepared, ready, worthy to accept the awe-filled totality of God’s love and mercy, his life shared with him in his presence, free from all sin, the effects of our sin and memories of suffering.
“Eternal rest, happiness and peace in the vision and fullness of life in God’s presence, at the banquet of Christ our Redeemer, grant to them all, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.”