Small circles and unarmed forces at the National Memorial Arboretum

Small circles and unarmed forces at the National Memorial Arboretum

War memorials and Quakers do not always get on. The kind of memorialising which is strong on military ceremony and pride does not sit well with us and we tend to avoid it. But we hold it important to remember all people killed in war, civilians as well as combatants. “This is the use of memory – for liberation” TS Eliot wrote in Little Gidding. And if we are to be liberated from bitterness, hatred and the propensity to pass conflict down the generations, we must remember well.

It was with this in mind that I went to the National Memorial Arboretum last week to see the newly inaugurated Quaker memorial which commemorates the work of the Friends Ambulance Unit and the Friends Relief Service during World War II (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18316). I will own to being a little uneasy about what else I might find in this huge woodland park and my intention was to head straight for the Quaker Memorial to prepare myself for encountering the more conventional manifestations of remembrance.

But there were many memorials to distract me along the way and as I walked among them, I realised that the Quaker memorial was by no means the only reminder of those unarmed forces who have given humanitarian and civic service in times of war. Here were memorials to the RNLI, to seafarers and fishermen, the police, and the Bevin Boys. There were harrowing reminders of the non-combatants killed in conflicts. A small pedestal, scarcely bigger than a rabbit hutch, bore the names of some of those who died when Nazi Einsatzgruppen cut such a swathe of hatred through an area of rural southern France that it is to this day known as 'the valley of the widows'.

The Quaker memorial lies on the edge of the site. Across a small footbridge, along an as yet un-manicured path, it appears almost as a surprise, four curves of Rutland limestone, warm coloured in the spring sunshine. The open circle, in the form of four benches, represents the configuration of a Quaker Meeting for Worship. On the outer surfaces of the benches are brief descriptions of the FAU and FRS and the citation of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Society of Friends in 1947. At the foot of each of the benches, the Quaker Testimonies are inscribed - Peace, Equality, Simplicity and Truth.

The stone ranges in colour from a honey shade through darker, almost grey areas and back to the mellow hue seen in Cotswold buildings. The qualities of texture and gradation impart a fluidity to the stone which is a mark of all good sculpture and carving. It feels both alive and solid, manifesting a sense of something quietly enduring.

The centrepiece of the National Arboretum is the vast monument to the armed forces. It is built on a high mound, approached by three broad flights of steps and overseen by a gold topped obelisk. It is also in the form of an open circle but on a quite different scale to the Quaker circle. At first sight it seemed to me oppressive and grandiose - its very size carrying a hint of the architecture of totalitarianism - an arena in which power conducts its rituals.

But first impressions do not always tell the whole story. On four immense walls the names of the 17000 service personnel who have been killed on duty since 1945 are carved : Korea, Suez, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. The roll of loss and record of our ongoing failure to resolve conflict without killing is deeply moving. There are no designations of rank, these are all loved sons, daughters, spouses and parents and that is all that matters. The witness of the two walls as yet without names has a shattering impact. It should be our challenge to see that they are never filled.

And if that is to be achieved, perhaps we need both these memorial circles. They have different functions and will be visited for different reasons. But maybe we can find sufficient common ground to build circles for the future that will eventually cure us of the madness of war.

In 1920 the Society of Friends held its first World Conference. In 1937, as another global conflict approached it was decided to hold another conference. Rufus Jones was asked to preside over the meetings and his words spoke to my condition as I set off for home. “In regard to the World Conference, I sincerely hope for good results, but I have become a good deal disillusioned over 'big' conferences and large gatherings. I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place. But others see differently, and I respect their judgment.”

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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