More than a Memorial 

A reflection for Remembrance 

In the book of Joshua chapter 4, in the Old Testament, God commanded Joshua to have memorial stones set up that would serve to remind the Children of Israel of how God had helped them cross the river Jordan and enter the promised land. At their first encampment in the promised land at Gilgal Joshua had the stones set up, and we read in Joshua 4:21-22

‘ And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean? Then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’.

Joshua 4:21-22

The memorial stones were set up to be a permanent reminder to the people, of God’s provision for them. The God who had led and guided them out of Egypt and fought for them in the wilderness was taking them into the land of their inheritance. 

These stones were more than a mere memorial. They were to serve as a permanent reminder to the supernatural power and help of God. Think of the background to this account. A nation of runaway slaves evaded Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and escaped. They had journeyed over forty years in a hostile wilderness but were miraculously sustained and supplied with all that they needed. They were opposed continuously and harassed by marauders but were now entering the place promised to them long before. The stones were more than a memorial. These Stones were saying in effect ” We didn’t do this alone”. The stones are in memory of God’s help and provision for them.

I love Psalm 124 ( 2nd version – especially to the tune “Old 124th”) 

1 Now Israel may say, and that truly,

if that the Lord had not our cause maintained;

if that the Lord had not our right sustained,

when cruel men against us furiously

rose up in wrath, to make of us their prey;

4 Even as a bird out of the fowler’s snare

escapes away, so is our soul set free:

broke are their nets, and thus escapèd we.

Therefore our help is in the Lord’s great Name,

who heaven and earth by his great power did frame.”

Metrical Psalm 124 ( 2nd version )

When we are asked what do our war memorials and services of Remembrance mean to us? What will our answer be? 

When we are asked what do our war memorials and services of Remembrance mean to us? What will our answer be? Over this weekend, the community and the nation will remember the suffering and loss of many lives in not only two world wars but also in all wars. The present situation means that our gathering at the War Memorial on Main street Tarbert will be much more muted and sparse than usual.

There are 176 names on the Harris war memorial. Each name representing a son, brother, husband neighbour or friend, tragically taken away in their youth. The appalling loss the Western Isles suffered still continue to shock many years later. The number of names on the various memorials pays tribute to the heavy price these islands paid.  My grateful thanks to my friend and colleague Rev Alen McCulloch North Uist for gathering much of the data.

  • Berneray & North Uist 201
  • Benbecula: 57
  • South Uist & Eriskay: 177
  • Barra & Vatersay: 125
  • Harris 176 
  • Lewis 1151 

It is hard for us to envisage how different our communities and islands would be had these young ( mostly men) survived, and had families themselves and continued to stay rooted to the islands of their birth. It is however fruitless to ask these questions, they have gone and our islands are the poorer for that.

On another memorial far away from these shores are written words that are now closely associated with Armistice and Remembrance. 

‘When you go home

Tell them of us and say

For your tomorrow

We gave our today’.

The Kohima Epitaph

 These famous words are attributed to Major John Etty-Leal and are engraved on the Kohima War Memorial to commemorate the men of the British 2nd Division who fell in the Battle of Kohima in North East India against the Japanese in 1944. 

These words tell of a generation of young men and women who not only at Kohima but in other theatres of war, gave their lives for the freedom we enjoy today. The names on the war memorial on Main street Tarbert have their stories to tell as do all the other memorial stones set up in the island and elsewhere. They speak of those who gave their lives from our communities and villages in the cause of freedom. These memorials are not there to venerate or worship anyone but serve as poignant reminders of the heavy price our islands paid in the wars. The loss of so many young lives so keenly felt by their families was a loss shared by a community and wider world which was deprived of the individual and collective vigour, intellect, talent and energy of these young people. 

These stones pay silent witness to a young generation’s love of their country and the cause of freedom. But these stones have more than this to say. When our children ask us ‘what do these stones mean?’ what will we tell them? Will we tell them that if God had not intervened in providence, we would have lost the war, and the cause of evil would have triumphed. Will we tell them that without God’s mercy our whole way of life would have perished long ago. These stones are more than Memorials. They are silent reminders testifying as Samuel’s Ebenezer or ‘stone of help’ was long ago, to remind us all that it was God who helped us.

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”

1 Samuel 7:12 NKJV
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