I write this having just returned home from one of the most beautiful and well-orchestrated remembrance events I have ever attended.
On 11th November 1918, the opposing sides in World War I signed an armistice that marked the end of hostilities on the Western Front. From then on, that day, the 11th of November, was kept as a day of Remembrance and marked as a public holiday in many European nations, including Belgium where I live. In Britain and many Commonwealth countries, the acts of Remembrance were later transferred to the nearest Sunday.
The Netherlands was neutral in World War I. It keeps its national Memorial Day and Liberation Day on 4th and 5th May. But in Sittard, in the South Netherlands province of Limburg, where some of the fallen of WWII are buried, there is a long-established tradition of observing the November Remembrance Sunday.
2017 is the 50th year that the Sittard War Graves Commission, the Mayor and the community of Sittard has joined with the NATO Allied Joint Force Command at neighbouring Brunssum for a service at St. Peter’s, Sittard, followed by an Act of Remembrance at nearby Ophoven War Cemetery.
The event is a model of co-operation between different churches, different countries, military and civic authorities and ordinary citizens.
The ecumenical service was hosted by the Roman Catholic Dean, Mgr. Wilbert Van Rems. Dominee Irene Pluim represented the Dutch Protestant Church, and our Reader from Eindhoven, Jan Waterschoot, and I represented the Anglican Church. I preached on John 15:13: ‘Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’
Music was provided by a superb local brass and wind band – the Philharmonie Sittard and the St. Peter’s Choir and Organ. Most of those buried in the Sittard Commonwealth war graves are Scots, so it was particularly appropriate to have two pipers from the Coriovallum Pipe Band.
After the Church service we were taken by coach, with a police escort, to the cemetery. As always, the cemetery was beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Located in a peaceful housing area, the calm of the cemetery belies the bloody reality of the fierce Allied battles in this border region.
Children were invited to lay a red rose on each of the 239 graves. Wreaths were laid by representatives of many different organisations, including a Colonel from the German Army.
After the Act of Remembrance, we were taken back to Sittard for refreshments. Speeches were made by, amongst others, the Chair of the Sittard War Graves Committee and Major General Karl Ford, representing the NATO military presence.
During the reception, the local military wives choir sang the prayer ‘Bring Him Home’ (from Les Misérables).
Having just laid roses on the graves of so many young men, the words seemed particularly poignant and appropriate:
He is young
Let him rest
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home.