Armistice Day, the Somme and the men of 1916.


This is the longer version of our Remembrance Assembly this morning.

At the heart of our school is its main hall. The focus of that main hall is its memorial organ. On that organ are two sets of names. One, added later, gives us the names of the old Novos who were killed in the Second World War. Above them are the 158 names of the Old Novos who died the First World War, set in the memorial when it was first consecrated, in 1922. We know of 1,114 Old Novos who served in that war. Many of those fought, and some died, in the great and terrible battle that was still raging on the Somme, in France, 100 years ago today. On 11th November 1916, that battle still had one bloody week to go. Most of them, we know, were volunteers: men who chose to fight.

Understanding why those men chose to fight is something that, in some senses, we will never know. A full understanding the heart of any man, let alone one of a hundred years ago, is beyond reach. And each of those men was an individual, with their own story, their own view of the world.

And yet, we need to make an effort to understand them. Otherwise, we them consign to a kind of empty space, make them just names on a roll of honour or a memorial, and nothing more than names. We somehow deprive them of the lives they lived, the thoughts and feelings they had.

If we are to try and understand them, perhaps a good place to start is to take them, and those that knew them, on their own terms and in the language they, and those around them, knew and used. We could do worse than start with the words chosen by Sir Arthur Sutherland and the designers of our memorial organ:

dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.


That’s not so easy for some of us to accept today. Many might see those words as, in the words of Wilfred Owen, ‘the old lie’ that led those men to ‘die as cattle’.

For many of the men of 1916 it was no lie. The men who fought and died, or indeed those who fought and lived, and lived to see that memorial and all those like them, most often looked back in pride. Memorials gave a focus gave some form of solace in sacrifice, but also were a statement of patriotism and duty: these men had done their bit. To try and understand that patriotism, pride, and sense of duty done, and want it meant to them, we have to try and understand it on their terms.


As good a place to start as any is the hymn we sung in our remembrance assemblies this morning: Jerusalem. It being a hymn is a good start: any attempt to understand the world of 1916 has to come to terms with the Christianity that pervaded much the lives, and culture, of the Edwardian world. It must also come to terms with the idealism of patriotism, and an ideal of England, set in that Christian framework.

We perhaps need to go further still. The Britain of 1914 was not simply one of God-fearing patriotism, but also one of empire (many of the British soldiers who fought in the war, including some old Novos, were from the empire). At first sight, Sir Francis Younghusband (above) personifies just that God-fearing, patriotic imperialism. He was born into a military family in British India (both of his brothers would become major-generals). He went to Sandhurst, and joined the cavalry (in the form of the King’s 1st Dragoon Guards). He would see action in Northern India. He led the 1903 invasion of Tibet, and was high commissioner there from 1902-4. He was also an explorer and mountaineer, opening up new mountain passes in northern China, exploring Kashmir and beyond. He was chairman of the Mount Everest Committee behind George Mallory’s attempt on Everest in 1922. He was accepted into the Royal Geographic Society aged just 24; he would become its president after the war.

In August 1915, Younghusband, fearing slipping morale at home and on the front line, founded a patriotic organisation known as the Fight for Right Movement. From the start its purpose was as much cultural as it was anything else: among its vice presidents were the composer Sir Edward Elgar, and the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy.

imageAnother vice president was the poet laureate, Sir Robert Bridges. In early 1916, Bridges published an anthology of patriotic verse entitled The Spirit of Man. In it he included an obscure and all but forgotten poem published over a century before, in 1808. The poem that begins ‘And did those feet in Ancient Time’ was the preface to William’s Blake’s epic Milton, a Poem. Bridges was much taken with it, believing it might ‘brace the spirit of the nation to accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices necessary’. In that spirit he asked another member of Fight for Right, the composer Sir Hubert Parry (below), to set it to music. Parry wrote the setting a few days later, on the 10th March; it was first performed for Fight to Right on 28th March, 1916.


It became one of the most sung hymns of the war, seen then and since by many as a hymn to simple Christian patriotism (King George V preferred it to the national anthem).

It was, in truth, never that simple. In the first place, we might begin with Blake’s poem itself. Blake was by no means a conventional Christian; he was also a (rather eccentric) political radical. The poem itself looks to the building of Jerusalem, a metaphor for heaven on earth, in the England of the ‘dark satanic mills’. For that heaven on earth to be built in the here and now:

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem

That could be just as much political as patriotic. In 1945, the Labour Party looking to create a welfare state and the NHS took up the hymn, and its theme, coining the ideal of the ‘New Jerusalem’.

imageEven Sir Francis Younghusband was not the simple bluff muscular Christian patriot I may have made him out to be. Younghusband wrote 26 books, including works such as Kashmir (a work praising its beauty and history, written to accompany paintings by Edward Molyneux). In Tibet, he adopted a form of Eastern mysticism, writing extensively on themes such as the universal mother. He believed in free love. In 1932, a woman named Gladys Aylward (left), who had worked as a domestic servant for Younghusband, her imagination surely fired by her employers love of the Far East, gave up her life’s savings to go to China to work as a missionary. Famously, she became a Chinese citizen, and when China was invaded by Japan she led over 100 Chinese orphans in her care across the mountains to safety, despite being wounded herself. (Her story was told in the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, with Ronald Squire portraying Younghusband).


imageAnother member of Fight for Right was Millicent Fawcett (right), the founder of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Fawcett’s NUWSS, like the now more famous Suffragettes, campaigned for votes for women (no women had the vote in national elections at this time); unlike them, it did not use violence or direct action. Campaigners for votes for women of all kinds adopted Parry’s hymn as their own: it was they who first called it, simply, Jerusalem. In 1917, Sir Hubert Parry left Fight for Right (finding its patriotism too narrow and excessively strident). For a NUWSS meeting in 1918, he wrote an orchestral score for the hymn and donated the copyright to Fawcett’s organisation (those rights would later be passed on to the Women’s Institutes). None of these were the simple cliched bluff Christian patriotism we tend to associate with the Edwardians.

I suspect that many of the Old Novos who joined up did so out of patriotism, at least in part. Many joined the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers, the Newcastle Commercials. They were made up of office workers from the city; one of its senior officers was Major John Talbot, headmaster of the RGS in 1916. He most certainly thought in such patriotic terms. But I also suspect that the patriotism of those Old Novos who followed him into the 16th, or the other battalions in the city, was more varied, subtle and complex than we might lazily suppose, like the kinds of patriotisms we have seen above.

imageOne North Easterner who would have had no problem with Horace’s Latin was a young man from Berwick, William Noel Hodgson (left). Hodgson went to Durham School, where he was a 1st XI cricketer and a 1st XV Rugby player. He was also a scholar: having won a king’s scholarship to the school, he went to take a first in classics from Christchurch, Oxford. Fighting at Ypres, in Belgium, in 1915, Hodgson won the military cross for holding a captured machine gun emplacement unaided for some 36 hours. A couple of days before the start of the infantry battle on the Somme, on the 1st July 1916, Hodgson’s poem Before Action was published.

Lieutenant Hodgson was killed on the first day of the Somme. He was buried alongside many of his comrades from the Devonshire Regiment, at Mansell Copse. Their surviving comrades placed a wooden cross where they lay, inscribed with the words:

The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.

Hodgson was the son of bishop. Ronald Hall was the son of the vicar of St Andrew’s, Newcastle, and an Old Novo. He won a commission in the 18th Northumberland Fusiliers, another pals’ battalion, and proved to be an exceptional soldier: MC, and bar. He became, reputedly, the youngest brigade major in the British army.

Limageater, after the war, Hall went to Oxford, and became leader of the British Student Christian Movement. As such, he first visited Peking in 1922. He became a clergyman, and was made bishop of Hong Kong in 1932. As such he had, according to his biographer, a ‘burning passion for the under-privileged’. He founded an orphanage, an association to build housing for the poor and helped found the Cantonese university (the first to teach in Cantonese). He was also a supporter of Chinese nationalism. His courage never left him. In 1944, he crossed Japanese occupied territory to ordain a priest, so that the likes of Gladys Aylward could have the comfort of the sacraments. That priest was a woman, Li Tim-Oi: the first woman to be ordained in the Anglican Church. In the photograph below we see her, far left, with Hall, far right.


As a consequence, Hall was reluctantly admonished for ordaining a woman by a broadly sypmathetic and Christian socialist Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple: back in the Great War, Temple had been a member of the Fight to Right Movement. Today, the Li-Tim Oi Foundation provides grants to women to train as priests in the church, styling themselves the Daughters of Li Tim-Oi. Once more, we are not talking of just some kind of simple Christian patriotism.

imageHall lived on until 1975. John McCrae was less lucky, dying of pneumonia in 1918. In 1915, the Canadian’s best friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed at Ypres. His burial inspired his friend to write his famous poem, widely read at the time, In Flanders Fields. Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was a doctor: he is commemorated beside Essex Farm cemetery, in Ypres. It was the site of a casualty clearing station. In the same cemetery is the grave of a Private Joseph Strudwick, age 15.

Just a couple of weeks have passed since some one hundred of us from the RGS gathered at the tomb of Captain Arthur Thompson, another Old Novo.


We actually know relatively little about Arthur Thompson. We do know he worked in the city, and that he enlisted in the Newcastle Commercials. There were, of course, other Newcastle pals’ battalions, most famously the eight of the Tyneside Scottish and the Tyneside Irish Brigades. Thompson was gazetted captain in the 1st Tyneside Irish. He was killed on the 1st July, leading his men across the open fields from the Tara-Usna hill and across the Avoca valley we looked upon as we stood there, but on that morning into the deadly hail of German fire.

On the last morning of our trip, a morning heavy in fog, we went to the great French memorial at Notre Dame de Lorette.


There, every man who fell in northern France is listed in a new memorial opened for the centenary of the Great War. Their names are listed in simple alphabetical order. The first name is a French soldier from Indo-China: Aa Tet. On that same memorial are the names of Arthur Thompson and William Hodgson; many of the names listed behind me here are there too. In thick fog, it seemed almost like an endless sea, an endless vista of the dead. It is easy then to see them as simply that. I cannot help there but think of McCrea’s words: ‘We are the dead’.


Earlier that morning, in Albert, in northern France, we went to a cemetery that had also been close to a casualty clearing station, like McCrea’s Essex Farm. There lay the bodies of some of the great and the good, such as two Brigadier Generals. There, we also found the grave of a Tyneside Scottish soldier, who would have been fighting in the vicinity of Arthur Thompson and so many Old Novos.

imageHe was, in many ways, nobody special. His name was David Best. He was the son of William and Christina Best, of North Shields. He was an apprentice to Stonier’s chemists. He fought just a short distance from Arthur Thompson, the other side of the Roman Road that runs into Albert. David Best was wounded fighting on 1st July; he died of his wounds two days later in the Albert he was most likely taken to along that Roman road. He was just 17 years old.


In some ways he is just another of the 579,606 names listed on that Notre Dame de Lorette Memorial: just another of McCrea’s dead. But McCrea does not just ask us to mourn. He also enjoins us not to ‘break faith with us who die’ as ‘from failing hands we throw the torch’. To me, in 2016, that means taking these men as they were, and being willing to their words, their thoughts, their values on their terms. I quoted Blake before:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

Theirs was no simple, or naïve patriotism. It was a patriotism that was part of a wider and infinitely varied view of the world. It was, however, a real patriotism and we should take it seriously. In commemorating the fallen we should also honour them, and that means having due regard to their beliefs, in all their manifold complexities, but also on their terms, just as those who had fought and lived did then (below, in Newcastle, in 1936, from the Tyne and Wear archives).


So,we commemorate every Old Novo, every Geordie, and every North Easterner who fought; for all those Old Novos who and fought and died and we remember in our school hall. We think of William Hodgson, Arthur Thompson, David Best. Of their world, of their thoughts and feelings. We should remember them not just as the dead, but as the living too. But, most of all, we should still remember them.

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