Remembrance day chapel service - 6th November 2018
by Mr Tom Moulton, Head of History

"As you are all aware, this weekend we shall mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Great War.  That famous moment – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 when the Armistice came into effect and, in a well-used phrase, the guns fell silent. 

 

It marked the end of a war so shocking, that no-one could have conceived of such an apocalypse before it happened.  It was by far the bloodiest conflict in human history up to that point and was unprecedented in its impact on civilians, especially in the way that the huge casualty list touched so many families across all the combatant nations. 

 

What I wonder, was the reaction to the end of this cataclysm, of our forebears – the Lawrentians of 1918? The school had endured four years of casualty lists, two years of evacuation, with the Junior and Senior Schools separated, at Camarthen and Chester respectively, the school buildings in Ramsgate had been used as a convalescent home for Canadian troops in 1917, and boys and staff had recently endured the Spanish Influenza, which killed millions across the world in 1918.  So there must have been a sense of relief that it was finally over.  The Lawrentian (very brief during this period) devotes attention to the hope that a return to Ramsgate would be possible in January - which it was. It is almost inappropriately lighthearted in its report on the Officer Training Corps (the CCF of its day), saying “The OTC carried on throughout the term with undaunted effort in the face of peace and flu.”  The Spanish Flu got more of a mention in another item of news, where it was reported that “In common with the rest of mankind SLC has passed through a course of influenza, Spanish variety.  Thanks to the untiring efforts and indomitable energy of Sister, the school survived.  What school can boast the distinction of 87 boys, 5 masters and a dozen servants stricken with one accord, and of a Sister able to cope with such a visitation?

 

The report for the Senior School at Chester makes no mention of what happened on Armistice Day, but the Junior School at Camarthen reported that “Armistice Day was celebrated by us in a truly patriotic manner.  Shortly after 11 o’clock the joyous news reached us and soon afterwards work was suspended. Bells were rung, patriotic songs sung, and cheers given for the Allied commanders.” A Thanksgiving Service was held on the following Sunday.  In fact, these ad hoc celebrations were to be superseded in the fullness of time by more considered events such as the plans for the erecting of a War Memorial and the building of this Chapel.   

 

We can gather from these brief references that the overwhelming mood was one of joy and patriotism.  This was reflected in the country more widely, with scenes of quite wild and uncontrolled celebration in London and other cities.  At the same time the school and the nation had to take stock of the huge losses they had suffered.   

 

A final 14th Roll of Honour was published in the Easter 1919 Lawrentian, by which time the Senior School had returned to Ramsgate.  This roll contained the names of 105 Old Lawrentians who had died on active service during the war.  You may be aware that this was in fact considerably short of the actual number, now believed to have been 144.  Half of these men were aged under 25 at the time of their death, and many were volunteers who had joined before conscription was introduced in 1916.  Nine were still to die after the war ended, 5 of these in 1919. Of the twenty Old Lawrentians to die in 1918, perhaps one of the more poignant stories is that of Private WT Wesley-Long.  He was born in Munich, Bavaria in 1895 and came to St Lawrence College in 1910, leaving in 1913.  He joined the army in Canada on 29th January 1918.  On his Attestation Paper the following question appears:  Have you ever offered to serve in any branch of His Majesty’s forces and been rejected?   Wesley Long’s answer is Yes.  The next question is If so, what was the reason? To which Wesley Long’s answer is Being born in Germany.  In other words, this was a man who had tried to join the army in the UK but had been rejected owing to his connections with the country Britain was at war with. In fact his family still lived in Munich in 1918, where his father was a doctor.  After being rejected for military service in Britain, he emigrated to Canada and made a second attempt to join the army, as part of the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force.  This time he was accepted, and he eventually arrived in France on 12th September 1918.  We of course know that at this point there were only about 9 weeks of the First World War left.  Wesley-Long did not actually reach the front until 3rd October and was killed in action a week later on 11th October, exactly a month before the war ended. He was 23.  Other OLs succumbed even closer to the end.  23-year-old FB Broad was killed capturing an enemy machine-gun post on 24th October and 19-year-old WN Hicks was killed on 27th October when a shell burst underneath his aircraft as he was flying low over his own lines on a contact patrol.  Other soldiers on all sides continued to lay down their lives right up until 11.00 am on the 11th November.  One can’t help but feel that that with the end so near, these deaths were completely unnecessary and it is this sort of tragic, futile waste, which seems to sum up the First World War for many.

 

That was not quite how it was seen at the time, however, - tragic certainly, but the term futile waste would not have been on the lips of so  many as it is today, and this raises questions about exactly what Remembrance meant then or should mean now.  In 1919 the idea that hundreds of thousands of young men had died needlessly or in a futile cause would have seemed madness for two reasons: ONE The mourning relatives of the dead had to believe that the deaths of their loved ones had served some purpose – and TWO The idea of the war being a just cause was firmly ingrained in each of the combatant countries, not least as a result of four years of anti-enemy propaganda.  So in the 1920s, Remembrance was an opportunity to mourn and to give thanks for those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.  In Britain the ceremony held at the centotaph (officially unveiled in 1920) was, much as it is today, a moment of solemn, respectful, national mourning.  At the same time, it was also an opportunity for some to celebrate. Great reunions of veterans were held at the weekend closest to 11th November and these were often marked by riotous behaviour and drunkenness.  But both of these types of Remembrance were completely national in character.  Not that anyone in Britain probably gave it much thought at the time, but how different must have been the mood in defeated countries, where the huge losses were not mitigated at least by victory.

 

With a hundred years of distance and the tragedies of more recent conflicts to consider, we have been able to view the Great War with a broader perspective, and consider the human impact on all nations, rather than just our own. Remembrance itself has undergone many changes and has evolved as events and new ideas have reshaped the world, not least as we have realised that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ was not that at all.  So how should we approach Remembrance 100 years on?  No-one who fought in that immense conflict is still alive.  Perhaps a tiny few still live who can remember 1918 but they are a fast dwindling number.  So it is up to us, who have no personal memory of the Great War, to honour the memories of those who gave their lives and those for whom the first days of Remembrance were filled with the raw emotion of recent bereavement, and at the same time to empathise with them in their great hope – that it would never happen again.  We might strive for peace with a realistic appreciation that it is something that cannot ever be fully achieved, but that does not mean that we should not strive for it. 

 

Whilst Remembrance today retains some of its national characteristics, it also reflects more of the mood of internationalism, which has gradually grown over the last 100 years.  Remembrance must not only be about looking back but about hope for the future, about understanding and about international co-operation.  We have a great opportunity to embrace something of that spirit in this school community.  Here we have representatives from countries on all sides of the various conflicts, which have scarred the last century. That in itself is symbolic of a better world, albeit one which still faces significant problems and challenges.  We shall all stand together in silence on Sunday and remember those who have died in war.  We will remember those former pupils of this College - those men whose names are on our War Memorial, with whom we all share a bond; those who paid the ultimate price - many of them very young.  But as we do, so I am sure that we will also remember the millions of others, from every nation, not connected with our school, who also gave their lives and left behind bereaved loved ones."   

 

 

TM,  Chapel, Tuesday 6th November 2018

 

 

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