I came across this little Staffordshire souvenir figure under a church war memorial last November. A hundred years on, it’s difficult to understand who would design such an ornament, or who would have bought it. As boys I remember us getting more run-of-the-mill designs for my mother’s collection, but we once gave her a Great War tank model, not thinking of the loss of life and all the human suffering it represented.
But what does this figure represent, other than a present from Bishop’s Stortford? Is the soldier a killer or a victim? Brave or resigned, or hoping for a ‘Blighty’ wound to get himself sent home for a month or two? Did it remind its first owner of a loved one lost? And how did it feel to see it if you were a returned front-line soldier, after the War? Pure white was not very often seen amid Flanders mud.
Caught in that moment when he goes Over The Top to kill or be killed: how do we bring this to God? This is not man-for-man fighting – the machine gun that may get him will be many yards away, and unless it comes to bayonets he won’t see the one he kills.
Perhaps it is fitting to put him down, as the parishioners did, in front of the Cross on the War Memorial; without a word, with the poppies around him.
What can we say? With our current weaponry we have no right to feel morally superior. Piloting deadly drones from hundreds of miles away or threatening to press the red button; or indeed having others do so in our name: lives on ‘our side’ are not at risk as those going over the top were.
Father forgive us for we do not want to know what we do.