The 19,240 individually numbered stones stand for the exact number of British soldiers who left Folkstone and were killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Standing on the seafront cliffs in Folkestone, Kent, on a clear day, you can easily see the northern coastline of France across the English Channel. Calais is the closest French town to England, and the distance between the two towns is just over 30 miles. London is further away from Folkestone – more than twice as far. Travelling by the Eurotunnel from Folkestone takes 35 minutes to be in Calais – 90 minutes if you take a ferry from Dover.
On those seafront cliffs, in front of once-grand Victorian houses and hotels reflecting the time when Folkestone was a thriving coastal resort, there are 19,240 pebbles. They are set in a large square in the grass and each one has a number painted on it – from 1 to 19,240. The artwork by Mark Wallinger is called ‘Folk Stones’ and it lays out – in every way – the sheer number of human lives thrown at the conflict on the battlefields of France in the First World War. The number of pebbles graphically represents the number of British soldiers killed on just one day – 1st July 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
And somewhere on the other side of the English Channel there will be other memorials; other records of French soldiers who died, and German soldiers who died. Overall more than 1.2 million men lost their lives or were wounded in this battle. Folkestone was the embarkation point for millions of troops in the First World War – the beginning of their journey to fight on the battlefields of France. They marched down a steep hill called Slope Road (Renamed the Road of Remembrance in the early 1920s). The road leads to the harbour where they boarded crowded troop ships to France – for many this would have been their first time outside of England.
Each of those men hoped they would return. The families who said goodbye to them hoped they would return. The generals who had made the decision to send them knew that many would not return – such is the formula of war. They may have been hailed as heroes, but that is probably not how they saw themselves. Many would have been frightened – barely 18 – but also frightened to run away. The penalty for desertion was no better than what lay ahead.
It’s a little known fact that every one of those 19,240 men who gave their lives on that day had been issued with a Bible (a copy of the New Testament) as part of their essential kit. In fact, every one of the 5.7 million British soldiers, sailors and airmen who joined up during the First World War were given a copy of the Bible.
Doubtless, many used those Bibles to search for comfort, understanding, or simply a link with home as they lay dying in a foreign field. And, since they were reading the New Testament, there’s a very good chance they encountered Jesus Christ in those pages. Jesus Christ drew a line in the sand regarding solving the problems of the world with armed conflict. Just prior to Christ’s arrest and crucifixion, one of the disciples he was with was ready to start The 19,240 individually numbered stones stand for the exact number of British soldiers who left Folkstone and were killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Most people have someone who is an inspiration in their lives – maybe it is a parent, or a teacher, or some charismatic character from the pages of history. One person who has inspired me is Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie was born into a Christian family in Amsterdam in 1892. When the Netherlands was invaded by the Nazis in 1940, the Christian beliefs of Corrie’s family led them to protect Jews and members of the Dutch resistance and, after hiding them within their house, they passed them on to the underground network. It has been estimated that Corrie was involved in saving the lives of 800 people.
Sadly, in February 1944, her family was betrayed, arrested, and taken to prison. From there she and her sister Betsie were sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where women prisoners were either used as forced labour or executed. Here the health of Betsie deteriorated, and she died on 16 December 1944. Just fifteen days later, due to a clerical error, Corrie was released. The following a battle. Peter had armed himself with a sword and didn’t hesitate to use it – slicing off the ear of one of the crowd hunting down Christ. Christ’s healing of this painful and dramatic injury signalled a new approach. It was a defining moment. Weapons were to be discarded. Healing would replace the inflicting of pain and injury.
The world is not there yet. The prophet Isaiah, speaking to the nation of Judah, 700 years before Christ, did not hold back when he declared, “The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks along them will know peace.” This could have been written for today. It is sometimes hard to find peace and justice – between nations, in communities, even within families. Isaiah referred to Christ, among other names, as the “Prince of Peace”. We are encouraged to take on this quality when this Prince of Peace tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God”.
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