You did not desert me, brother-in-arms.
This blog comes to you from a unique location, from where the very first Allied opposed landing took place during WW2. And it’s not in North Africa; operation Torch into Morocco and Algeria took place a full year later in 1942. Surprisingly we are here in the Norman seaside town of Luc-sur-Mer, just 9kms north of Caen, en route to Saumur in the Loire valley. This was to become part of one of the landing beaches, Sword Beach, in June 1944. But what I had not realised was that the D-day landings were not the first landings in this part of northern France by a long chalk. For some three years earlier, on the night of 28 September 1941, 5th Troop No.1 Commando led by Lieutenant Tom Gordon-Hemming landed here, as part of operation Chopper, in order to obtain information on the beaches. And this information was to be indispensable some three years later. However, the party came under heavy fire resulting in a number of wounded and two dead, both Welsh fusiliers Elwyn Edwards (20) and Cyril Denman Evans (24). As it happens, these two soldiers were given a full military funeral by the occupying German forces and were buried in the local parish church, just down the road from where we are staying in an Airbnb. Poignantly when Captain (he was promoted) Gordon-Hemming died in 1992 his ashes were, in accordance with his wishes, buried next to the graves of his two lost comrades. I aim to walk down there as soon as I finish this blog for the photo. It might have been fifty years earlier but the memory of their loss clearly stayed with him over the decades. For such relationships forged in war have a peculiar intensity. As Erich Maria Remarque recalled in his 1929 classic All Quiet on the Western Front: “We developed a firm, practical feeling of solidarity, which grew, on the battlefield, into the best thing that the war produced - comradeship in arms.” This depth of comradeship is the one thing which those who fought together recall with some passion, a relationship which they miss in a profound way as they re-enter civilian life. And often this will lead to taking on the responsibility of caring for the dependents of a fallen colleague, such is the depth of commitment. As Dire Straits sing: Through these fields of destruction Baptisms of fire I've witnessed your suffering As the battle raged high And though they did hurt me so bad In the fear and alarm You did not desert me My brothers in arms No doubt in Ukraine today we are witnessing the formation of such relationships as men and women leave their ordinary lives behind them to join the fight for their country. They will often find themselves in situations of grave peril, where mutual support can mean the difference between life and death. Those relationships, forged on the battlefield, will stay with them forever. It’s one of the very few positives of war and it is this quality of relationship which will rebuild Ukraine. But as Barack Obama explained, as he accepted the Nobel Peace prize in 2009: “The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.” This gives us an invaluable insight as to how we are to view our fellow Christians, not just as brothers and sisters but as comrades in arms, such can be the intensity of the spiritual battle. Such a relationship is to transcend all categories – social class, nationality, race. This is radical stuff and the New Testament strikes a chord totally at variance with today’s individualism. So in his shortest letter to appear in the New Testament, Paul appeals to Philemon to go against all cultural precedent and receive his runaway slave, Onesimus as a valued member of the family and not as a malefactor to be made an example of. Notice how he bases his appeal. “So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favour, friend. (Philemon 1:17-20, the Message) Clearly as comrades-in-arms Paul and Philemon had been through a lot together and together they had forged a strong relationship in Christ. And this strong relationship was to allow extraordinary outcomes. Also fascinating that Paul opens his letter with a reference to Archippus whom he describes as “our fellow soldier” (1:2) In fact, the apostle names several colleagues as fellow soldiers, such as Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25) and Timothy (2 Timothy 2:3) To fight side-by-side with a colleague invokes a deep level of mutual commitment, far stronger than any other relationship this world can offer. For to take up our cross to follow Jesus means entering spiritual warfare as a combatant, fully equipped and alongside our comrade-in-arms. However, as Don Yaeger reminds us: “Camaraderie doesn't happen by accident; developing a strong sense of trust, accountability, and togetherness around team goals requires intentional effort.” So as ever we need the Holy Spirit to unite and mobilise us for a campaign which will rid the world of evil and tyranny. It is he who makes all the difference.