The Great War, the war to end all wars, seems far away from our world today. A hundred years have gone by since the end of that war and all those that could tell us about their experience, yet Peter Jackson’s film, They Shall Not Grow Old, brings their voices to our ears.
The film was a wonder. The cinematography was great, the blend of genuine footage from 1914-1918 with colour and giving them sound drew me deep into the experience of those there. Yet it was the story of the men who went to the front that hit the heart.
Seeing the faces of the greatest generation and hearing them tell their own story alongside the graphic reality of the picture took you into the mud. It is hard to imagine how those men felt, how they survived in such gruelling conditions. However, seeing this film has brought me some way to understanding.
There are parts that every soldier can relate to, the absence of home, family and the comradeship among brothers in arms; the realities of war, being willing to close in and kill the enemy and face enemy bullets. Yet the scale and the hardship and the amount of death is something that no one alive today can understand.
Every moment of the film was moving, the men joining up ‘to do their bit’, the young lads, the too young lads who lied to join the army, to the last minutes of the film where the men returned to Britain and left the army.
The film is not for the faint of heart, there are horrible sights, there are honest accounts of what soldiers often get up to and scene after scene of death. Every emotion I can think of is experienced as I watched this film, pride, grief, profound sadness, a few laughs mixed in and shock.
For me the most heart wrenching words came at the end when the men returned to the United Kingdom — peace had been declared, the soldiers had been shipped back to London and de-mobbed, given their choice of suits and then they were no longer needed in the army.
‘By the end of the War the worth of a man was nothing’. Signs in shop windows, ‘ex-soldiers need not apply’.
I had the privilege of handing out Replica World War St John’s Gospels after the screening, which were produced by the very same charity who first made them for the soldiers in the War, LifeWords, which during the War was Scripture Gift Mission.
In John’s Gospel we find the words that are often spoken during Remembrance, ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends’. (John 15:13).
Of course, we hear these words and we think of the brave soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice for us and the country, yet Jesus was pointing to himself, that he was to give himself for us all. In John’s Gospel we also find words that tell the true worth of man.
‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).
Army Scripture Reader, British Forces, Germany.