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Never forgotten

This year, Remembrance Sunday is all the more poignant because of the 100-year anniversary of the start of the First World War.

Few of us over 50 will not know someone directly who was in the war. My own grandfather fought at, and returned to Lancashire from, Ypres (he was invalided out) and one of my many plans for when I have a little more time on my hands is to order my historian husband to investigate how Arthur Day fared at the Front. He lived into his eighties, fit and hearty; he told my sister and me no stories of the war, but once, once mind you, he talked to my grandmother of gas and of a close comrade blown to bits more or less beside him. I have never known much about his time at the Front, and I can’t help feeling ashamed that I do not know more. My memory is of a resolutely cheerful man who whistled constantly, to the near distraction of my grandmother (“Oh, dry up, Arthur!”), and often tunes I now recognise as of the 1914-18 era (Pack up your troubles was a favourite of his, alongside It’s a long way to Tipperary).

This week I went to see the poppies in the moat installation (‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’) at the Tower of London. The Guardian’s art critic found it trite and toothless. A UKIP exhibition, I think he suggested. People have visited the installation in their thousands and all the 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a life lost in the conflict, have been sold. So, while it may not be art in the view of one particular critic, and may indeed be selective, the whole installation clearly sings out to a broad range of visitors as a metaphor for life lost and for compassion, for the scale of the conflict and for the importance of memory. All the proceeds of the poppies sold are shared between six service charities dealing with issues affecting current service men and women and their families. For me this seems a profound, active, and engaging way in which to seek to mark for a whole nation a dreadful anniversary and one which in some ways may well be dwarfed by our commemorations in 2018. This year after all marks the start of a war; that’s not an easy thing to get right.

Bryanston was not a school in 1928. Our archives (which I must relate need some further work done upon them, but I record my grateful thanks here to Alan Shrimpton (H ’55) for introducing some considerable degree of order) provide us with the facts that eight men lost their lives in the First World War, these being men from the Portman house in 1914 and Bryanston village. Unlike many public schools therefore, Bryanston does not have a list of terrifying length of young men lost in the war.

Most of the early masters at Bryanston would certainly have fought in the conflict. Thorold Coade (Headmaster 1932-1959) fought with the Loyal North Lancashire regiment in France and was wounded at the Somme. Their experiences would surely have coloured all that these first masters did, and indeed how they reacted in 1939 to the second conflagration within 20 years.

I think it is without doubt the mix of these factors that led to there being no CCF at Bryanston when the school was founded in 1928, a time when the country was, I am reliably informed, at its most pacifist. It might also explain why when I met the celebrated biochemist Fred Sanger (Sh ‘36) he talked of an early 1930s school exchange with Salem in Germany and of friends returning with, in effect, stories about the rise of National Socialism around them as they took part in this Kurt Hahn-inspired enterprise of entente cordiale. I wonder if schools like Greshams and others, who we all know lost so many young men, so cruelly in the First World War, would have, could have been involved in such schemes?

The passing of time and of those involved in past conflicts should never lessen the importance of Remembrance; indeed it is more important than ever in our complicated world that we keep the memory of their sacrifice as a part of not just a national, but a global consciousness. It may seem strange to some that we commemorate the anniversary of the start of the First World War, ‘the war to end all wars’, as Woodrow Wilson memorably described it, especially with conflicts still ongoing around the world. From my point of view, I cannot conceive of a world where we do not mark such important shared events in history; the simple message communicated by the poppies of the Tower of London made a very great deal of sense to me.

 

In Flanders’ Fields 

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow 

Between the crosses, row on row, 

That mark our place: and in the sky 

The larks, still bravely singing, fly 

Scarce heard amongst the guns below. 

We are the dead. Short days ago 

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 

Loved and were loved, and now we lie 

In Flanders’ fields. 

 

John McCrae, 1915

Tagged Reflection