Remembering London’s Lost Lads

Posted: November 9, 2018 in Uncategorized

The Great War caused the loss of 42,000 London lads in a fight between empires intent on holding sway over the trade of commodities from cocoa to opium.

For each soldier killed many more were injured or traumatised, and families were impacted not for weeks but for years, and sometimes generations.

My family have our own story to tell. In 1917 John Montague Miller died reconnoitring enemy lines at the Somme. He had a wife, Annie, and 5 kids. Annie was devestated and was eventually sent to an asylum. Two daughters were sent to Banardos and promptly exported to Australia where they were used as fruit pickers. Annie’s youngest son Bert, stayed with her, as did her oldest daughter who became a young carer. Her oldest son, Jimmy lied about his age so he could join the army. By his 15th birthday he was being shot at defending Jewish villages in the British Protectorate of Palestine.

When WWII started Jimmy joined Churchill’s special service commandos, Bert became one of Montie’s “desert rats”. Bert died in a tank trying to relieve the siege of the Libyan town of Tobruk. Jimmy was shot at the battle of Monte Casino where his unit were wiped out. He survived to return to his wife, Peggy, in Scotland where he went on to be father to two kids, including my Dad.

Although Jimmy had been a Company Seargent Major with responsibility for dozens of men in the country’s elite forces he found it almost impossible to find work after the war. He ended his career as a caretaker for the local power station living in a council house in Southern Galloway.

Jimmy’s siblings had been failed by society. His sister’s had been packed off to Australia and his brother died in a desert but there was a feeling that things would change after WWII. Returnees from the war voted for a system that attempted to ensure there would no forgotten groups in society.

Today our “fairness” systems are breaking again. Wealthy men can expect to live 10 years longer than poor men, and have 19 more years of “healthy life”. In 1918 the most common cause of death for young men in the UK was gun shot wounds from the battle fields. In 2018 the most common cause of death for a young man in the UK is suicide. In London suicide has been overtaken as a cause of death for teenage lads by homicide by stabbing. We have another generation of young men who are dying in struggles and turf wars – will we remember them too?

Jimmy Miller would have been heartbroken to discover his great grandson died by suicide whilst on a waiting list to see an NHS psychiatrist. He would have been horrified to see the spike in crime across his beloved London following cuts to the capital’s hard pressed police force. He’d have been disheartened to see that the Officer/NCO class divide in society is still there even in our churches.

Lads of London have been dying and not followed up on for too long. This rememberance day I suggest we make a decision to remember all of the London lads who have died. We remember those who have given their lives in the wars of the twentieth century, we remember those who have died fighting the demons of mental health, we remember those who have died in the needless territory wars and initiation ceremonies of London’s gangs. I pray that we can work together to strive for peace and reconciliation and provide a peaceful home for Londoners young and old.

Christians have a particular role to play in being peacemakers in our cities. Before 1945 it was very clear that Christians had a responsibility for the poor and marginalised. If there had been a knife crime problem in the past it would have been a problem shared by the church. Most of London’s hospitals were started by churches. By 1870 when the schools were nationalised there were 36,000 attending the ragged schools for London kids founded by London City Mission. Since 1945 churches have often left “love for our neighborhood” to the council. This has changed since the introduction of austerity in 2010. As benefits have been cut and children’s centres have closed, churches have moved into the gap. 95% of Foodbanks are provided by local church groups. Church toddler groups and community centres with CAP courses are often filling the gaps left as Sure Start centres close.

The Church offers more than just the practical love of a handout, and the helping hand of a CAP finance course. The Church brings a message of good news, hope, forgiveness, love, and justice, much needed in our broken society. When we talk about the gracious example of Jesus, we talk of someone who knew hardship, who knew how to cross cultural barriers and bring people together. When we talk about the sacrifice of Jesus we come to understand that it is not our empires that will save us but Jesus’ death and resurrection. Last week a 15 year old lad, Jay Hughes, was stabbed to death outside a fried chicken shop in Lewisham. He’d been attending a local school and was well known to the LCM centre in Lewisham. He wasn’t a gangster. He was a good kid who was enjoying friendships with people at Ecclēsia church. His death is a tragedy, keenly felt. The loss of Jay and others must drive us to work and pray for a society where the are no marginalised or forgotten groups, where everyone has a chance of hope and good news.

100 years ago the families of the fallen were often forgotten about or mistreated. Let us resolve to do a better job today. When we hear of young Londoners dying in tragedy, let us take it upon ourselves to reach out with love. Let us remember and make a difference.

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