They say that there is a First World War memorial in just about every city, town and village in Great Britain. Within those cities, towns and villages, there will often be more than one place set aside for reflection on the sacrifice of the dead. There are memorials that go unseen by casual eyes: in churches and cathedrals to dead parishoners, in town halls, post offices, schools. Here at Southfields we have our own First World War memorial, and it’s one of the more beautiful modern memorials that you’re likely to see.

A few years ago some of our younger art students were encouraged to make tiles depicting scenes and symbols of the First World War. They made brightly coloured tiles of poppies, soldiers, trenches, airplanes and pressings of barbed wire and iron. They coloured these and gave them a beautiful glossy glaze. Finally, they constructed a tableau out of the different elements, arranged around the words, ‘We Remember’. My picture really doesn’t do the bright simplicity of the arrangement justice: you can see it in the college’s reception hallway. It’s a favourite part of the school buildings.

The Southfields War Memorial, made by our own pupils.

Today the school stopped for its minute’s silence which, as usual, was observed impeccably. History classes lead up to Armistice day and our pupils are well informed about the reasons for observing the silence and respecting the dead. Remembrance Day at Southfields also takes in those affected by many of the contemporary wars that have ravaged the planet, and too many of our pupils have been forced from the lands of their birth by conflict and death. Remembrance Day is not an abstract moment of reflection for some at our school. The war memorial at the very entrance to our school seems to commemorate that.

My AS class met today and together we read about the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior (see my post yesterday), watched a film of the coffin’s passage from France to Westminster, and the discussed the last days of the war. Then we read extracts from Max Arthur’s excellent ‘Forgotten Voices’, the words of those who knew how it felt on the 11th of November 1918.

The answer is not romantic. In London celebrations ensued. Elsewhere, exhaustion and sorrow reigned supreme. As Sergeant Major Richard Tobin of the Hood Battalion testified:

The Armistice came, the day we had dreamed of. The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of noise and bangs ended in silence. The killings had stopped.

We were stunned. I had been out since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste, and the friends I had lost.

The discussion we had about these feelings was perceptive and, for me, moving. At the end of the lesson, the class and I (well, half of the class at least– the rest were on a trip) went down to visit our memorial and allow me to take a photograph. It’s not a solemn picture, and that’s as should be when your English teacher keeps messing up with his camera.

The Southfields AS English Literature class, sharing a moment. Left to Right: Solomon, Toni, Jarry, Aakanksha, Abdul and Ryan.

A good Remembrance Day.

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Poppy Appeal?

As Armistice Day approaches, the question of how we should remember the First World War has again hit the news.

Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, does not wear a poppy when he reads the news. Many presenters on television choose to at this time of year, but he does not. This has led to controversy in recent days, summed up in this BBC report, ‘TV’s Snow rejects ‘poppy fascism’‘.

You’ll remember that the poppy is worn as a symbol of remembrance for the deaths of soldiers during war. The blood-red flower has been associated with death in war at least since Waterloo: it flourishes in turned over ground, such as fields churned up by horses and artillery, or, a century later on the Western Front, folded and cratered by massive shell explosions. Fed by lime and human fertiliser, the poppy famously began to cover Flander’s fields.

John McRae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, led to a wider identification of the poppy with the butchery of the First World War, especially in his homeland Canada. The poem begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

By twists and turns, but directly inspired by the poem, the Royal Canadian Legion eventually began giving paper poppies as symbols of remembrance for the dead of the First World War. This custom spread worldwide, and hence the poppy is still worn today.

The question at the heart of the controversy is whether and why a poppy should be worn today. Snow isn’t against the wearing of poppies; he says he doesn’t wear any kind of symbol. Some people are angry that he seems to have rejected the poppy: in doing so, they say, he is rejecting the dead that the poppy represents. Tempers are high. What do you think about this issue? Some people say the whole thing has been whipped up by the media. Does it matter that Snow won’t wear a poppy on the news? The Daily Mail weighs in, here: a historian defends Snow, here.

Meanwhile there seems to be a more bothersome problem with remembering the First World War on television. Where are the stories and accounts of WWI on the mainstream terrestrial stations? A week before the anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the BBC hasn’t shown a single new documentary on the conflict. Less emotive perhaps, but more important for the nation’s remembrance than the fact that a telly newsreader isn’t wearing a flower? Perhaps.

At any rate, in a nice irony, Channel 4 has repeated a fascinating documentary on the First World War, ‘Not Forgotten’. Presented by Ian Hislop, it looks at the history of the reviled ‘conchies’, or conscientious objectors to the war. These were people who objected totally to the fighting, and decided to take no part in it, for personal or religious reasons. They suffered social isolation– and worse. You can watch the episode on the web at Channel 4 online.