This is a version of our remembrance assembly, from the morning of the 10th November.
99 years ago tomorrow, at 11 am, the First World War came to an end. We know of 1,115 Old Novos who fought in that war; on the school’s memorial organ, the 158 who were killed are remembered; beneath them, those who were killed in the second war. Looking at them now, they can seem a memory, just a list of names.
But every name there had his story, and every name of the fallen had their lives, their families, their loved ones.
100 years ago, to this very day, the fighting in the terrible Third battle of Ypres was finally grinding to halt. It had begun on the last day of July 1917; it had lasted some 102 days. As the rains came, and the battle became bogged down, the Third Ypres became notorious for the terrible mud, as much as the horrors of machine gun, artillery and gas. We think that some 77,000 British and empire soldiers were killed in those days.
One of the hardest things for us to do is to get inside the head of those who went, and those they left behind. As LP Hartley famously put it, ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’. If that much is true, what then of the past of that terrible war? Trying to understand them may be difficult, but it seems to me that if are to properly commemorate them, then we must try to understand the way the men, and women, of 1914 and after felt, the way in which they saw the world.
What were they fighting for? Why did they go? Why did they fight on for the four bloody years of, what was then, the bloodiest war in history? Sometimes, I think we need to take them at their own words. When war was declared, the headmaster of this school, John Talbot, took a lead role in recruitment, especially in the Northumberland Fusiliers so many of our Old Novos joined. When the time came to commemorate them, another great figure in the school and city’s history, Sir Arthur Sutherland, paid for this memorial to the fallen of the RGS. The words he chose, the words that would have been seen by so many of those who had served and lived, and by the families of those who had served and died, stand behind me now, the words of the Roman poet Horace:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI
It is sweet and right to die for your country. Perhaps one way to understand the war time generation is in their own words.
Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Cemetery stands on the very ground that was fought over in the most notorious phase of the Third Ypres, the battle of Passchendaele. It contains the graves of over 11,000 of the soldiers, now lain forever in that bloodied soil. Many of them bear no name, simply the inscription:
A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR
KNOWN UNTO GOD
Those words were coined by one the founding fathers of what we now call the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the writer Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s son was too short sighted to be accepted into the army, but was desperate to serve. Being one of the most famous men of the age, Kipling had pulled strings to get Jack a commission. He was killed in 1916. When Kipling coined those words, they were for his own beloved son as much as all the others.
At Tyne Cot, there is also a memorial, to the soldiers who did on Ypres salient from the summer of 1917, until the end of the war itself and have no known grave. Among the 35,000 names on that memorial, are six old Novos, also commemorated at school. After the war, the school’s science master compiled the school’s roll of honour:
ALLAN, ALEXANDER HUGH (’93)
Rifleman, posted to 1st/28th Battalion London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles)
Joined the forces on March 1st, 1915, in the A.S.C., went to Rouen in November of the same year, and was there until September, 1917, when he was transferred to the Artists’ Rifles. He was killed in the battle for the Passchendaele Ridge on October 30th, 1917.
GUTHRIE, HERBERT (‘97)
Private, 1st R.M. Battalion R.N. Div., Royal Marine Light Infantry
Joined up as a Private in the R.M.L.I. on January 4th, 1917. He was killed at Passchendaele, October 26th, 1917, aged 33 years.
ROUTLEDGE, JOHN FREDERICK (‘94)
Lieutenant, 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, age 33; husband of Evelyn Routledge, of “Thornhill,” Boxwell Rd., Berkhamsted, Herts.
Joined the Duke of Lancaster’s Yeomanry when war broke out and was afterwards gazetted Second-Lieutenant in the 13th Batt. N.F. Later he was attached to the Nigerian Regiment and served in the Cameroons. He proceeded to France early in 1917, and was killed in action on September 3rd of that year, aged 34 years.
TELFORD, WILLIAM (‘93)
Private, 4th Battalion Gordon Highlanders, age 39; son of William Spencer Telford, of Hare Law, Annfield Plain, Co. Durham; husband of Melinda Maud Telford, of 30, Eastbourne, Claremont Rd., Bath.
Served as a Private in the Gordon Highlanders, and was killed in France, September 20th, 1917.
WATSON, RAYMOND VICTOR (‘10)
Second Lieutenant, 8th Bn., Northumberland Fusiliers
Was in the D.U.O.T.C., but decided to join the ranks. He was later transferred from the 6th N.F. to the West Yorkshire Regiment, and went with them to France in August, 1916. He was gassed at Thiepval, and returned to England towards the end of the year. At the beginning of 1917 he was gazetted Second- Lieutenant. and attached to the 8th Batt. NF. On June 24th he left with a draft for France, and fell in action at St Julien on August 16th, 1917. “Your son was killed,” says a fellow-officer, “while leading his men into action. All who were with him when he fell are either killed or wounded. He was a good soldier and a good comrade; always keen and eager to do his best, he worthily upheld the traditions of his regiment and his country— even unto death.”
WILSON, JOHN BRADY (‘98)
Private, 11th Battalion, Royal Scots
Served with the Royal Scots and with them went to the front. He was killed in action on September 20th, 1917.
One Old Novo is buried there. Captain Henry West, 11th Northumberland Fusiliers, aged 24. We know a little about him too.
WEST, H. M. PELHAM (‘07)
Captain, 11th Battalion., Northumberland Fusiliers, age 24; son of Mrs. Jane Meldrum West, of Camp Hill, Newport, Isle of Wight, and the late Dr. Charles E. H. West.
Carried with him the Collingwood prize when he left school for Hertford College, Oxford. When war broke out he applied for a commission, and in November, 1914, was gazetted Second-Lieutenant in the N.F. In the June following he was promoted Lieutenant, and went with his battalion to France in August, 1915. He was later invalided home with trench fever, but returning, was wounded during the battle of the Somme. He again rejoined his battalion at the front, holding then the rank of Captain. On September 20th, 1917, his battalion was called upon to attack a very strong position. During the fight he was twice wounded, but refused to go back. He gained his objective, but was fatally hit soon after.
That sort of courage, and the refusal to abandon his men, was so very characteristic of the junior officer corps of the Great War. I am certain one of his brother officers would have written to his family of those things. Maybe, it even brought some comfort.
Of what Henry West’s mother, Jane, felt, we can only imagine, only imagine what it was to lose her son.
But for some, we can glean something even now. Every soldier of the Great War who has a known grave has the same grave, regardless of rank. His name, his regiment, when he fell, sometimes his age. Some have an inscription beneath, written for him by his family. This year, as we walked the war graves, the white stones, we read them.
And they can tell us something of the men perhaps, and something of those they left behind. For many, the Christian faith so many held could offer hope, and comfort:
THOSE THAT SEEK ME EARLY
SHALL FIND ME
The hope of salvation, what Protestants call the chain of salvation, offered the sure and certain hope:
CHRIST WILL LINK
THE BROKEN CHAIN
CLOSER WHEN WE MEET AGAIN
FROM MUM BROTHERS AND SISTERS
Or, just sacrifice:
TO THE MEMORY
OF OUR DEAR BOY
WHO BRAVELY FOUGHT
& DIED FOR US
From mum, or to the memory of our dear boy.
For one broken-hearted family, there was no resolution, just:
SOMEDAY WE’LL UNDERSTAND
We might also take one soldier’s own experience. Henry West had fought in the battle of the Somme. So did Pte Tom Easton, a fellow Northumberland Fusilier:
During the attack we moved along the German front line where I saw one of my best friends, sitting in a German artillery position. He called me over to him and when I got there he asked me to sit down. I protested, telling him we had other things to do. He said it wouldn’t take long and asked me if I could hear music. I could hear absolutely nothing.
He described to me what he could see: “The whole sky was opening up. Orchestras were playing, choirs were singing, and all the ancestors were there telling him to come and join them.” He held his arms out. “There’s my old father” he says, “they’re waiting for me.” He fell forward and I saw he had no back. A piece of shrapnel had gone through his chest.
These things shake you. But it was a momentous experience for me, and in spite of the shock, it gave me the courage to do my duty as a soldier.
There’s my old father, they’re waiting for me.
One grave simply says, 1ST THESSALONIANS 4.14-18. Here, the bible tell us that when Christ comes, ‘with the voice of an archangel’, those already fallen will rise first: ‘and the dead in Christ shall rise first’. It goes on:
Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
For some, the faith so many held surely gave comfort.
For others, there was perhaps the memory, perhaps some pride, and overwhelming sorrow:
JUST A BRAVE ENGLISH BOY
WHO DID HIS DUTY
SO SADLY MISSED BY MOTHER
Comfort one another with those words?
For all the fallen of that terrible war, and those that followed. For Mrs Jane West, for the dear old father, the loved ones, the lives cut short, those that were ‘so sadly missed’ by mother, by mum. For those who served with them, and honoured their fallen comrades. For the fallen, comfort one another with those words: we will remember them.