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“We will remember them”: The Bible as a source for commemoration

On Remembrance Day, we feature an essay excerpt from Rev. Dr Colin Bale, Vice Principal-elect and Head of Department of Church History at Moore Theological College in Sydney. Colin has a research interest in war graves, a way he believes of “seeing what really matters to people.”


This excerpt is from an upcoming book to be published by Bible Society Australia in 2015, containing stories of Australians who served our country during times of war, and the inspiration, courage and hope they derived from the Bibles they took with them to battle.

By the end of the First World War 61,919 service personnel had died on active service for Australia.[1] The extent of this loss is staggering, given that Australia was a small nation at the time with a population of only 4.9 million. The deaths of so many young people, mostly single men, impacted on families and communities throughout Australia.[2] Historian Jay Winter writes, “it is not an exaggeration to suggest that every family was in mourning: most for a relative – a father, a son, a brother, a husband – others for a friend, a colleague, a lover, a companion.”[3] One hundred years later it is difficult to comprehend the magnitude and scale of grief and mourning in the Australia of that period.

One hundred years later it is difficult to comprehend the magnitude and scale of grief and mourning in the Australia of that period.

The desire to remember is a strong impulse in individuals and communities that have suffered tragic loss. Communal commemoration of the war dead sought to respond to this need. The public rhetoric of “Lest we forget” and “We will remember them” was given substance by monuments and days of remembrance (Anzac Day and Remembrance Day) to ensure that the Australian community did not forget the fallen nor those who had served in the Great War. While families and individuals could share public remembrance sites and days of commemoration with the wider community, the memory of a particular fallen individual remained very much the concern of his/her loved ones. As well as public commemoration, they often sought private ways to express their remembrance of the individual they had lost.


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Given the secular shape of many community war memorials, churches tended to create their own public memorials to those from their denomination who had served in the conflict. Just about every Protestant church in the existing suburbs and towns had some form of tangible remembrance in either the church building or hall or its grounds. The most common type of memorial was the honour roll/board. Most of these inscribed the names of all who served in the war with a marker like a star or cross alongside the names of those who had fallen. Some boards listed only the names of those who had died. For example, St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Newtown, NSW, has an honour board that lists the names of the 129 parishioners who died in the war. Some churches opted to have memorials in the form of structures, like a hall or lych gate, or some dedicated venerable object such as a baptismal font or a communion table. Interestingly, very few of the honour boards/rolls, or other memorials, have a biblical text on them. Rather, they usually have the heading of honour roll or board, with the title of the conflict with its start and end dates. If any other text is included it is normally a reference to “God, King and Country”, or the virtues, such as Justice, Right and Liberty, for which the war was fought.

Local churches usually allowed families to erect memorial plaques to honour relatives who had died in the war. For example, St Clement’s Anglican Church at Mosman, NSW, has ten such plaques inside the church building. These memorials often included a verse or verse fragment from the Bible. Space limitations meant that the text had to be short and, therefore, was often a section of a verse. At St Clement’s the family of Signaller Kenneth Bryant, who died of wounds in France on April 9, 1918, chose the end section of Philippians 1:23 – “With Christ, which is far better” – to be inscribed on his memorial plaque. For some families these plaques served as surrogate graves because the real grave of their fallen relative lay on the other side of the world. The local plaque was accessible and constant. For the wider congregation the biblical message on the plaque reminded them that no matter what age at death or what type of death, those who are in Christ are eternally secure.

The biblical message on the plaque reminded them that no matter what age at death or what type of death, those who are in Christ are eternally secure.

Church memorial plaques were one way that families could remember a family member. Another form of family remembrance was placing a personal inscription on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone in the cemetery overseas where their relative was buried. Families were allowed to choose an epitaph of no more than sixty-six letters, including gaps between the words. The message was inscribed on the bottom of the headstone. My study of the personal inscriptions revealed that families did not usually choose patriotic messages but rather opted for private and personal epitaphs rather than selecting texts that resonated with the public theme of patriotic sacrifice.[4] The biggest themes in the inscriptions are family connection, memory, loss, with religious devotion being the largest category.

What sort of religious epitaphs did next-of-kin choose? The devotional inscriptions range from clichéd phrases to carefully chosen statements of personal belief. The sentiments cover the spectrum from grudging resignation before the will of God to rejoicing at the certain prospect of heaven. In terms of using biblical texts, there is quite a variety. Two popular choices were “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10) and “the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away” (Job 1:21). These verses would have been very familiar to families via the burial service. The text of John 15:13 was also selected quite often. Other families moved from these familiar inscriptions to choosing messages from the Psalms, such as Psalm 23, or the New Testament, citing verses such as “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) or John 3:16.

The hope of heaven was an important theme in the devotional category. The most widely used citation here was “Until the dawn breaks and the shadows flee away” (Song of Songs 2:17), or a shortened variant of it (2 Peter 1:19). In both cases it has an eschatological sense of waiting for the dawn, which in Christian thinking is a reference to the second coming of Christ. Other biblical texts about hope were used less frequently or the idea was conveyed by the words of a well-known hymn.

What is apparent in many of the devotional inscriptions is the sense of comfort and consolation that Australian families drew from their Christian faith in the face of the death of a young relative. Lieutenant Tom Cozens of the 21st Battalion AIF is buried in Warlencourt British Cemetery in France. Tom was twenty-four years old when he was killed on February 24, 1917. It was a tragic loss fo
r his family but when they came to choose the personal inscription for his headstone they chose the text “The eternal God is thy refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). The verse conveys the idea that the people of God are secure in his care and that his arms support and cradle them forever. It was an understandable message for the bereaved family to show that they were consoled by the belief that their fallen soldier was in God’s care. The personal inscription on Tom Cozen’s headstone speaks of hope beyond the grave. As a Christian looking at this headstone it strikes me how its biblical message of hope and trust stands in stark contrast to the messages on other headstones where without Christian hope there can only be a sense of loss and despair.

The biblical message on the plaque reminded them that no matter what age at death or what type of death, those who are in Christ are eternally secure.

Lines from hymns were also an important resource for devotional inscriptions. The most popular hymnal choice was the opening words and title of Peace, perfect peace, written by Edward Bickersteth in 1875. The hymn was inspired by the text of Isaiah 26:3: “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.” Other common choices were Safe in the arms of Jesus, Abide with me, Lead kindly light, Nearer my God to thee and Rock of Ages. These hymns, while not biblical texts, were indebted theologically to the Bible and often used biblical phrases in their lyrics.

Thus it was in private and familial expressions of remembrance that the Bible was more likely to be drawn upon as families and next-of-kin made sense of their loss and tried to articulate how this was to be understood in terms of their Christian faith. The Bible verses normally chosen expressed their trust in God and the hope they had for eternal life with Christ. This contrasts sharply with much of the material forms of public commemoration, where use of biblical texts was often clichéd and secularised so that the words of Scripture were appropriated to suit the civic function of ceremonies and memorials. In the public space the inclusion of a text from Scripture was used to promote the virtuous ideals of citizens and any reference to God or Christ was secondary to the secular purpose.

[1] “Australia’s Membership of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission”, pp. 1-3. The total number of dead varies slightly according to the source cited.

[2] Over 80 per cent of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were single men so the loss was keenly felt by parents and siblings, as well as friends.

[3] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 35.

[4] C. R. Bale, “A Crowd of Witnesses: Australian War Graves Inscriptions on the Western Front of the Great War”, PhD Thesis, University of Sydney, 2008. The study was based on an extensive sample of the personal inscriptions.