On my desk before me is a photograph entitled ‘4th Seaforth Highlanders returning to the front’. It shows a group of civilians and soldiers in Highland army dress standing before an iron railway bridge in the station in the Scottish town of Dingwall, Ross & Cromarty (as it was in those days).
Among them is my grandfather, Private Daniel Alexander MacKenzie number 393, with my grandmother Ada beside him and two of my aunts as small children. My mother had not yet been conceived. The date is November 5th 1914. I know this because I have located some of his military records which show he was on the expeditionary force at that time, returning home on December 8th 2015.
I understand that the regiment returned to the front a second time in 2016 but I do not have the details. Fortunately he survived (obviously otherwise I would not be here) but he never spoke about this to me as a child so I have no stories to relate.
As the world remembers the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War and the sixteen million dead this picture holds a deep poignancy for me. Interestingly the iron bridge is still there but the station is now a Christian bookshop.
During the Second World War my father (not a doctor) was a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Core of the 157 Field Ambulance which was part of the 52nd Lowland Division.
I have the history of the Division and it makes fascinating reading. My father always joked that they were trained for some years in the mountains of Scotland, and were then landed in the flat lands of Holland!
However, he told me nothing else, either as a child or as an adult. In addition to the job of rescuing the wounded I think they also has to retrieve the dead. It was clearly very horrific and I suspect he suffered to some extent from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. It is said that 2.5% of the world population perished as a result of that conflict.
But as the world remembers the events of one hundred years ago it seems that so little has changed. The last century held two brutal world wars but also other wars almost too numerous to mention. This century, in its first fourteen years, seems little different. We have had Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other horrific conflicts which are on-going.
All caring doctors will be appalled at the deeply distressing images emerging from Gaza as ill-equipped hospitals try to cope with the tide of casualties, many of them women and children. But we are also aware that the issues on both sides are complex and historical with individuals arguing passionately on each side of the case, which is true of many of the other conflicts. The devastation of Syria has dropped off the news headlines, but the death and destruction continues unabated.
We meditated on this in church today. The Christian faith is not sloppy and sentimental about these things. “Peace on earth and good will among men” is NOT the message given by the angels announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds – that is a completely blatant misreading of the scripture and suited only for silly Christmas cards.
On the contrary Christ himself stated, “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars.” “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” “There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains”. Matthew 24.
Ebola is rampant in parts of Africa, and drug-resistant TB and malaria are becoming an increasing problem both in countries where they are endemic, but also here in the UK among the immigrant communities.
The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has announced that there is a developing famine in South Sudan which will likely affect four million people. This is because they have not been able to farm their lands due to the on-going conflict.
There has been an earthquake in China this week!
The world has never been more uncertain and modern communication brings this right into our living rooms.
There is much to reflect on as we remember the anniversary of the commencement of WW1.