My hymn of praise to the greatest hero of all
As tributes were paid over the weekend to all who sacrificed their lives in modern conflict – with special reference to the horrors of the Somme 100 years ago – I thought of the part my own ancestors played.
There was Lt Frank de Pass, a cousin of my grandmother Minola, who was posthumously awarded the VC (Victoria Cross) – the first Jewish soldier to be so honoured – for conspicuous bravery during the early stages of World War I in November 1914.
He led an attack on a German post under enemy fire and subsequently rescued a wounded soldier, but was killed in action not long afterwards, aged just 27. A plaque in his memory was unveiled in London’s Victoria Embankment Gardens a century later. And Frank’s dress tunic is now on display at the Jewish Military Museum in Hendon, north London.
In addition, both my grandfathers fought in the Battle of the Somme, and I am honoured to have been named after them – as in Charles Geoffrey. Although they survived, the traumatic effects of what they experienced never left them.
Charles, my South African granddad, won a Military Cross for repairing telegraph wires under enemy fire but, after inhaling poison gas, suffered with diminished lung capacity for the rest of his days.
Geoffrey Johnson, my Yorkshire granddad, suffered badly with shell-shock and – ironically – was sent first to Kenya and then to Cape Town to convalesce. I believe that the stress he suffered led to his premature death from a heart attack in 1934, aged 42, when my mum was just ten years old. And it was because of Minola’s early widowhood that we ended up in South Africa as she subsequently met and married an Afrikaans businessman, Zach Coetzee.
It is right, of course, that we should remember our heroes who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. But it is also worth being reminded at this time of the greatest sacrifice ever made on our behalf.
A passage of scripture often associated with military memorials is from John’s Gospel when Jesus is recorded as saying: Greater love has no-one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends — John 15.13.
Jesus was indeed encouraging his followers to put no limit on the extent to which they should love one another, but he was also speaking of his coming execution in Jerusalem – not only on their behalf, but for the sins of the whole world as the ultimate Passover Lamb. And as our Messiah also said, God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life — John 3.16.
“There is no greater love than Jesus’ love for me,” we used to sing.
That is why, although I believe in the patriotism espoused in the words of the song I Vow to Thee My Country, I felt that the beautiful melody to which it is sung (an excerpt from Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite written in 1914) also justified a hymn of praise to our God.
For no greater sacrifice was ever made on our behalf.
The hope of believers
The middle verse of my hymn, written 20 years ago, captures the great hope of believers amidst the turbulent times in which we are living today:
When nations are in great distress, we’ll see the Lord Most High
From east right over to the west, as lightning lights the sky
Though we live in troubled times, we have no need to fear
Our Lord has told us it’s a sign that our redemption’s near
Behold, he’s coming with the clouds, and every eye will see
The Alpha and the Omega, the King of Kings is he.