A school, a community, is a living, breathing, ever-changing wonderful being full of promise and challenge and suffering and love. And when we love, we rejoice in the amazing moments and we also share some painful burdens. Each time of Remembrance, I reflect again on how terrible wartime must have been for the communities that were losing those they had worked with, played with, argued with, laughed with. I am forever grateful I have not had to lead a community in a time of war.
In our Remembrance Service this year, we will be marking the life of John Brice-Smith (East House), who was the Senior Prefect in 1914. On the 11th September 1915, he had laid down his life, fighting with the 7th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment on the Menin Road. It is not a difficult stretch for the imagination to realise how terrible it would have been if this had been Freddie, our 2017 Senior Prefect.
George Corner was Headmaster of Wellington School, Somerset for 38 years. History shows how deeply he loved his school and his ‘dear old boys.’ I will never forget finding his personal file amongst the archives kept in the Somerset Heritage Centre and grasping for the first time a little of what he must have felt as I read the letter from his brother telling about the loss of his nephew, letters to old boys, to parents.
In the period after the war, George received a typed form from the War Graves Commission identifying the names of each of the fallen from Wellington and where they are buried. Where the War Graves Commission has typed the rank and initials of each soldier, George Corner has crossed this out with his black fountain pen and in his own hand replaced it with their Christian name, returning to them their fuller identity. What love he must have felt; what sorrow and what sympathy for their families.
Each time the news reached Cranleigh of an Old Cranleighan who had lost his life, Headmaster Herbert Rhodes, marked that falling by placing the young man’s picture on the walls of the covered walk way that leads to the Chapel. 201 Old Cranleighans lost their lives in the Great War. In the summer of 1914, 4314 boys had registered since 1865, 2100 of whom would have been too old to fight. To put those numbers into a current context, in November 2018 there are 402 boys in the School and 149 in the Sixth Form. The prayers that followed must at times have been desperate.
Somehow, the war that was supposed to end all wars did nothing of the kind. The Second World War added mass genocide, revenge rape and slaughter of civilians on a massive scale, incendiary bombing, nuclear weapons. Today, we hear the news from Syria and from Yemen and the return of Cold-War rhetoric and we wonder whether humans have learned anything at all. We remember but we do not change.
For our children we have to hold out a different message. Cranleigh’s War Memorial, called ‘Leaving’, has two inscriptions; I read them as two promises. The first is the expected, ‘We will remember them.’ The second is taken from the last line of W H Auden’s poem September 1939, ‘Love one another or die.’ The memorial itself embraces all the vulnerability and potential of a leaving youth, and asks the current generation how they will lead the lives. Is our act of remembrance going to be a life of love? Will that be our promise?
This year, we are marking the centenary of the armistice by joining schools across the country in signing a peace charter https://www.oasisinspire.org/
Prefects and pupils are working on them together in houses, committing themselves to lives as peace makers, choosing actions and attitudes that put others first. Some of the examples shared in assembly as potential inclusions in a charter are:
- Not everyone will be my friend but I will nonetheless be friendly to all
- I will spend time with people and get to know them and not exclude them from groups
- I will look out for the stranger or the shy and make sure they are not left out
- I will try hard to walk in another person’s shoes before I judge them harshly for something they have done wrong or for what they believe
- If I get something wrong with someone, I will try to say sorry and listen to why they are hurting
- If I see something that I know is wrong, I will stand up for the person who is being wronged
- If I am wronged, and feel so angry I want to right that wrong or take revenge, I will ask a friend or a member of staff to help me find another way.
Conflicts so much begin with pride, a desire to dominate, a desire to be part of an exclusive group, a belief that our needs are most important. A peace charter aims to turn that around.
On the 9th November, representatives from all of the schools in Cranleigh will meet together at the War Memorial in the village, join in an act of remembrance and then walk together through the village to the new memorial garden. Our shared act of remembrance will be a walk to show our shared vision for peace.
Schools, communities have to be places of love and hope and peace. In a world where there is still so much brokenness, we hope that those who mark this centenary will honour the fallen by lives lived as peacemakers.