This is a version of the school’s remembrance assembly this morning.
It’s probably hardly surprising that most of us haven’t heard of Florence Li Tim Oi, or the Li Tim Oi Foundation. It was founded to help provide funds for women associated with Anglican churches (that is churches in communion with the Church of England), to do a wide variety of jobs all across what the movement like to call the two-thirds world: in essence, the world beyond Europe and North America. They have funded women to do a wide range of work associated with the church, from legal advocacy for women’s rights, to health care work, to education, to training women priests.
One reason that foundation exists is that, one hundred years ago, the guns of the western front fell silent. That meant Ronald Hall’s war was over. He ended the war serving as the youngest brigade major in the British army: awarded the military cross and bar, as well as being mentioned in dispatches. He went on to Oxford, and then became mission secretary to the Student Christian Movement. He would go on to be bishop of Hong Kong. There, Hall was the principal founder of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (which taught in Cantonese, rather than English) and numerous schools. He was an outspoken advocate of the rights of the Chinese people, and politically controversial.
The most controversial thing he did was in 1944. At the time of the Second World War, Hall’s diocese extended to South China and Macau. It was to ensure that the Anglicans of Macau had a priest ordained a deaconess, Florence Li Tim Oi. She was the first woman to be ordained in the Anglican Church anywhere in the world. For Hall, a Tractarian (on the Anglo-Catholic side of the Anglican divide) the most important thing of all was that his flock in Macau should have the communion given to them by an ordained priest.
The archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, was privately sympathetic. His successor, Geoffrey Fisher was not. Hall became a nationally known and much argued about figure
From 1926-32, Hall had been vicar of St Luke’s, in Newcastle, where he founded food distribution and housing schemes for the unemployed. Tractarians were often attracted to inner city parishes, and social activism. For Hall, though, this was a kind of homecoming. His father was curate at St Andrew’s, Newcastle. Ronald was one of three Hall brothers to have attended the Royal Grammar School, fight in the Great War, and come home.
Largely forgotten now is the wonderfully named Tod Slaughter. Norman Slaughter left the RGS, aged 16, in 1905. He then became an actor and theatrical impresario. In the war, he served in the Royal Flying Corps. By the ‘thirties he had become one of Britain’s best-loved and most famous actors, famous for playing villains and, most of all, Sweeny Todd. He was one of the first people to be given the accolade of appearing on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. No less a figure than the great novelist, Graham Greene, described him as ‘one of our greatest living actors’. He may not have changed the nation, but the nation certainly loved him.
Alastair Smallwood left the RGS in 1912. At school, he was captain of the first XV. In the war, he had served in the 6th Northumberland Fusiliers. He would go on to play on the wing for Leicester and England, scoring seven tries in 14 matches. Back in the day, the winger threw in to the lineout. Before that, it had been the scrum half. Smallwood is believed to be the first winger to throw in, a practice that would endure in the game for the next 50 years. He was also a much-revered housemaster at Uppingham School. The picture below shows action from the England-Wales Five Nations clash in 1923: Smallwood (pictured in the inset) kicked the winning drop goal.
Starting a remembrance assembly with the stories of three Old Novos who survived the Great War, rather than any of the 158 who died in it and are commemorated on our school’s memorial organ might seem a trifle perverse at first. We know the names of 1,115 Old Novos who served in that war, there were probably more. 957 of those named men came home. Overall, something close to 88% of soldiers who served in the First World War came home. Some returned home permanently affected by life changing wounds, physical or psychological. Most, like most of us, lived ordinary lives, but real and valuable lives nonetheless.
Beyond the confines of the RGS, some of those who fought and came home lived extraordinary lives. All four of Britain’s prime ministers between 1940 and 1962, had served in the Great War. Churchill, a member of the cabinet in 1914, was sacked in 1915 and went back to his old regiment, and served on the Ypres salient, in Belgium. Antony Eden won the military cross. Clement Attlee was the second last man off the beaches of Gallipoli, the attack on Turkey initiated in large part by Churchill. Attlee was seriously wounded in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, one of two British prime ministers to have been seriously wounded in battle. The other was Eden’s successor, Macmillan (above), who carried two wounds from his Great War that would affect him for the rest of his life.
They were, of course, the lucky ones: and they knew it. Macmillan, who had been to Balliol College, Oxford, was one of only two Balliol men out of 28 to come home. For him, Oxford was thereafter a ‘city of ghosts’.
The decision was taken that all of the men of Britain and its empire who fell would be buried where they had fallen. This principle, set forth by the founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission, Fabian Ware, was for very sound reasons. The practicalities problems and cost of repatriating so many bodies after the war, not only Britain but all over the empire, were formidable. There was something else. This was a citizen’s army. If the families of the great and the good were able to honour their sons in a way that their comrades could not be honoured, then something was surely wrong. Then there were those with no known grave, or lost at sea. Instead, the men would be buried in rank and file, in identical graves, from generals to private soldiers, at rest in Flanders’ fields and beyond.
In what was still a predominantly Christian culture, the dead had their tombs where they had lived and had been loved. Families tended them, grieved over them. The families who lost their sons, husbands and brothers in the Great War had no such privilege. All across Britain women petitioned the government to allow their men’s bodies to come home: in anger, in desperation. It was not to be.
Without graves, the nation began, even during the war itself, to make memorials. Newspapers honoured the fallen. Families made memorials. Schools solemnly announced the deaths of their old boys. By this time 100 years ago, Britain was a nation that rejoiced in victory, and yet was beset by grief. The living sought to honour, and remember, the fallen.
Those living would have been old comrades, the likes of Attlee and Macmillan or Ronald Hall, Tod Slaughter and Alistair Smallwood. They would also be the families and loved ones of both the fallen and the living. We might suppose that both the Reverend Halls, father and son, would have led remembrance services, helped preside on each Armistice Day. Institutions would mark the day, as this school did. Local associations raised the funds for memorials. Others were gifts from benefactors.
The school’s war memorial was paid for by one of its, and Newcastle’s, great benefactors, Sir Arthur Sutherland. The school is rededicating it on Armistice Day itself. Perhaps, like we do, Henry Pritchard stood there, and looked on. Henry was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 23rd Northumberland Fusiliers, the 4th Tyneside Scottish. He was wounded in 1916, and awarded the French equivalent of the military cross, the Croix du Guerre. He had two brothers: they went to war as well.
The Headmaster of the RGS at the time, John Talbot, was a key figure in raising a battalion nicknamed the Newcastle Commercials, the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers. It was based around the city’s offices and, given the RGS connection, it is hardly surprising that Ralph Pritchard enlisted in that battalion. He was a distinguished soldier. Though he had enlisted as a private, by 1916 he was a junior officer in the 27th Northumberland Fusiliers, known as the 3rd Tyneside Irish. On the first day of the battle of the Somme, Henry would have been in the front line, Ralph in the second line. Both battalions suffered terrible losses, but the two brothers survived. Ralph won the military cross on that day.
The youngest of the three brothers was William. He fought with the Durham Light Infantry on the Somme. By 1917, he was an officer too, a 2nd Lieutenant. By then, Ralph was Acting-Major.
By April 1918, the German Spring Offensive had come to Ypres. Ralph led his men heroically (he would be awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his leadership), and his men managed to hold on through four days of bitter fighting near Mount Kemmel. On 16th April, he was severely wounded leading a counter-attack.
Ten days later, William was fighting on Mount Kemmel itself. He was killed. On the same day, 26th April 1918, Ralph succumbed to his wounds. The two brothers dead, their parents issued memorial cards, and doubtless grieved. Whether they ever visited their graves: who knows?
Back in 1915, Alastair Smallwood’s 6th Northumberland Fusiliers attacked on the Ypres salient too, at St Julien. Among his comrades in arms were another two brothers: George and Howard Hunter. We know rather more about them. The family were from Gosforth, like many here: they lived on The Grove. George was 28 years old, an architect by profession. He was also a territorial soldier, a part time civilian soldier for many years before the war. His younger brother was a surgeon. Likewise, he too was a territorial. When war was declared, both went to France as captains in the 6th. Both were killed on that attack at St Julien, 26th April 1915. So was their sister’s fiancé, Arthur Garton.
They have no known grave, and are commemorated on the Menin Gate. The Hunter brothers are also commemorated in St Nicholas’s, Gosforth, in a memorial window erected by their parents.
They are commemorated on our school war memorial too.
Perhaps, who knows, the Hunters have a grave:
A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR
KNOWN UNTO GOD
It is very easy, at this time to descend into cliché, or platitude. Yet, there are things that should be said. We may no longer think it glorious to fall in war. However, the men who fought in the Great War, and in the war that followed, did win wars fighting for their country, and against a militant autocracy, or worse. It was the greatest military victory in British history. The men who fought, those who lived and those who had fallen, had won that victory.
Those that lived on lived their lives out in the way we all do: some of fame or import, others in the ordinary way most of us do. What could the fallen have done? What they could have given? What lives could they have led? The Pritchards. The Hunters. The 158 men listed here. The 115 below who fell in the war that followed. Instead, they lie still.
In the words of Rupert Brooke (seen in the school’s Roll of Honour):
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
For those who lived, would come commemoration, grief, and the memory of lives that had been lived. Those that lived, their families, their friends, their old comrades, their old school, when they commemorated, were not only commemorating the dead, but commemorating those who had once lived. Perhaps in those lives there were ‘some thoughts by England given’, perhaps some ‘gentleness’, ‘laughter’, ‘hearts at peace’.
They remembered though. Today, just before the day on which the guns fell silent 100 years ago, we do the same. We remember those who fell in the war that was to come, those who would fall in other wars, those that fell in the war that ended 100 years ago. As the living did and do once more, we remember them. All of them. Those at home, those who lived on, and those who fell. All under an English heaven.
You can read more about the Hunter brothers here.
You can read more about the school’s memorial organ here.
You can read more about Harold Macmillan’s war, and more, here.
You can read some reflections on Attlee here.
You can read more, and see ab it about, Tod Slaughter, here.
You can find out more about the Florence Li Tim Oi Foundation by clicking the link: http://www.ittakesonewoman.org/public/index.php