As I write this on Remembrance Sunday I am reflecting back on a week which has seen both our school remembrance service and the Annual General Meeting of our Old Boys Association. In our remembrance service boys spoke of their reflections on the recent school visit to the Battlefields of World War One. I want to share with you what one boy said:
“What do you think of when you have a minute’s silence? I think that for some it is exactly that – being silent for a minute, trying to shut out other thoughts on homework and lunch – trying not to smile at that earlier joke that comes back at the worst possible time. For others though, it’s bowing your head and trying, somehow, to imagine what life was like. From the sources in our textbooks, films such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and our own imagination, we try to build up a picture of suffering, warfare, death. Mental images are provided by the latest computer game – details are filled in by half-remembered facts: on the first day of the Somme alone around 19,000 British troops were killed – an absolutely horrific and genuinely terrifying death toll.
I suppose it was for that reason that, standing in Tyne Cot cemetery, before hundreds of headstones and thousands of the names of the missing, I was disappointed. Not in their brave struggle, or the sheer number of casualties, but in my reaction. I had come on the trip eager to learn more, but also with expectations. Expectations that I would see life in a new way, that through being distressed and moved I could mourn the dead.
I took a school emblem and a page number from Mr. Williams, under instructions to find Private Johnson amongst the missing, an old boy of the school. I walked past panel after panel, each bearing over one hundred names, reading as I went along. Wilfred Johnson was the son of Ellen and John –a litho printer- from Bramcote Street, Old Radford and served in the Honourable Artillery Company. There was no picture of Johnson but in my mind I thought of what he may have looked like, what friends he had, what his hobbies were – what we may or may not have had in common. As I walked past panels 40, 30, 20, and into the single figures, I eventually came to number 7, and began searching.
When I found the name, I suddenly realised that I had built up this man in my head; obviously I never knew him or even what he looked like, but that’s when the scale of the conflict struck me. I had made the mistake of coming to this cemetery with numbers in my head, with the image of dusty old bones and vast waves of white headstones. But I think that it’s far more important to remember lives lost than deaths – each digit in a textbook represents someone just the same as Private Wilfred Johnson, each weathered carving on a memorial wall was the name of a living, breathing person.”
Our remembrance service made clear links between the current generation and those that went before as another boy said:
“Overall, this trip has given me a unique insight into World War 1, but it has also reminded me about the unity presented by many people of different nationalities, in the midst of battle, and the brave sacrifice many made for our country along with many others, not alone, but, as brother-in-arms.”
Later that same day I went to the AGM of our Old Boys’ Society and I was delighted with the interest that so many of them show in what the School is doing today. The link between past and present was again very evident and as a School we are very keen to build this ‘Community for Life’.
At the unveiling of our school war memorial in 1922 the Duke of Portland said:
“This memorial should serve to remind many coming generations of pupils of this school that at the time of the severest struggle in which this country has ever been engaged, their predecessors in this place obeyed the call of duty and sacrificed themselves in the common cause of humanity. Not only should this memorial stir feelings of pride in, and gratitude to the dead, but it should be a source of inspiration to the living for all time. The young men here commemorated were absolutely unselfish. They thought of themselves as part and parcel of one great enterprise. It is to them and to all those who were animated by the same high purpose that we owe our independence as a nation and our freedom as individuals. Henceforward one of the traditions of this school will be the tradition created by its sons who took so noble, so honourable, and so self-sacrificing a part at the time of the Great War.”
We are proud to link the generations in this way and hope that such links will be a feature of school life for many years. We want to continue to welcome back those who were pupils at the School and to take pride in their achievements but also to let them know about how these traditions are being built on today. The greatest contribution of all though for all of us was made by those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and it is right on Remembrance Sunday that our thoughts are with them.