A terrible price – are we worth it?

Eric Guy Sutton, a member of the wealthy family which owned Sutton’s Seeds, Reading’s iconic horticultural business, had joined up soon after the start of the war. He was awarded the Military Cross a year later for saving a fellow soldier’s life, but was killed in action in April 1916. His home church, St John’s, was devastated by the news.

It was with great sorrow and deep sympathy for the bereaved family that we heard of the death of Lieut. E. G. Sutton. This most promising young officer, who had already been awarded the Military Cross for an act of great courage and self-sacrifice, was killed on Saturday, April 8th, in the gallant performance of his duty. We shall hope to publish some details of his career in the next issue of the magazine.

“Ye are not your own. You are bought with a price” (1 Cor VI.20)
Most of us were moved, I think, a few weeks ago by a story of almost unexampled heroism given in a list of recently conferred V.C.’s. A young officer attempted to throw a bomb into the enemy’s trench. The missile, however, struck his own parapet and fell in to his own trench. The officer cried a warning to his comrades and himself sprang back into safety, but then noting that his warning had been unheeded, turned back, flung himself upon the bomb and was destroyed by its explosion. And I wonder what were the feelings of his comrades and whether the thought of our text came into their minds, and they said to themselves: “We are not our own, we have been bought with a price.” And I wonder how many of us at home had the same thought in our minds as we read the account, or whether we have ever sufficiently thought at all that not to one such glorious act of heroism, but to countless splendid and ungrudging acts of devotion, do we owe today the security of our shores, the air we breathe untainted by foul poison emanations, the food we eat unstinted in quantity, our women their honour, our children their deliverance from brutality, our old people the quiet, even tenor of their placid lives, and all of us our immunity from the horrors that have desolated Belgium and Poland and Serbia.

We are bought with a price! Who will deny it? Vicarious suffering! Vicarious death!, say some. “We can’t understand it, we can’t accept it!” To such, I say: Alas for the poverty of your intellect and the hardness of your heart, when the very thing is happening today before your very eyes and crying to your souls. When not one minute passes, but even now in France, in Russia, on the seas, wherever the ceaseless battle rages, a man dies that other men may live. We are bought with a price, and day by day in that pitiful concentration of tragedy we know as the casualty list, the bill is presented, and every now and then, at longer intervals, the account is rendered up to date. And how stands it today? Some half a million of Englishmen slain, mutilated, sick, languishing in pestilent Wittenberg prison camps – for us. Mown down by machine guns, crashing from the air in the shattered aeroplane, settling to the ocean-bed in the sunken submarine, buried beneath the soil, buried beneath the waves, unburied in the hideous no-man’s-land between the trenches, tossing in our hospitals, limping about our streets, cry of the wounded and sob of the broken of heart, laughing boys who do not know what awaits them, grave-faced men who do, going forth in courage to do their part – behold the price that is paid; the price that is paid for us; in virtue of which we sit tranquilly in this church this morning, and shall walk tranquilly home to our tranquil and ample dinners.

To us in this parish, this has been brought very deeply home, for we heard last week with such sad hearts of the death of one known and loved throughout his brief life by very many members of this congregatuion. I refer to Lieutenant Eric Sutton, whose brief but brilliant and distinguished military career ended last week in heroic death. Note that I do not use the words “untimely death”. We cannot think of such a death as this as untimely. Life’s completeness depends not upon the number of its years but upon the extent of its achievement. And if life be love, and love express itself in sacrifice and service, then that life in which the greater love has reached its perfect expression is a whole life rounded and complete. Such a life may not be commemorated by a broken column or any such device. The epitaph can only be, “It is finished”. For Lieutenant Sutton then – his rest and the crown of life promised to the faithful after death; for those who mourn, sorrow and the shining memory of a great heroism; and for us all the thought, “This is part of the price”.

Are we worth the price that has been, is being, paid? A searching question which some of us will probably be inclined to answer with a sorrowful “No”. we with our silly grievances, our pitiful complaints, our screams when danger comes near us; we with our lamentable drink-bill, our shameful Clyde strike, our whining, nagging, fault-finding popular Press; we who can behold this sacrifice for us, and not be purer, truer, kinder, better men and women, who are bought with a price and love to be selfish – no, we are not worth it.

Yet to those brave ones spilling out so freely the red price, we are worth it. For what we individually are? Yes, when love of children, wife or mother has been the spur to drive men forth to battle. But worth it, more often, for what we in the aggregate are – England the glorious and the free. England with her grand past and her great future, England with her splendid God-given mission, her splendid God-given destiny. For England they gave their lives, saying, “Who dies if England lives!” Is England then worth it? Yes, if she be true to herself, servant of the Lord who made her great, to know His will and do it. But if there be in the heart of England a dry rot, if the spirit of England wither and fail, then will the price be squandered and wasted. But what is this England of whom we speak? The sum-total of men and women who have English blood in their veins, who speak the English tongue and share the English faith. What the majority of us are – that England is. Is England worth it? Let us make firm our resolution that England shall be worth it – that there shall be the due return for this great price in an England cleansed of her national faults, braced to her national purpose, regenerate, reconsecrate. So shall the sacrifice not be in vain, and the watering of blood and ears shall bear its harvest of redeemed, transformed, cleansed and quickened men and women.

Reading St. John parish magazine, May 1916 (D/P172/28A/24)

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