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.

The Daily Mirror reports the end of the war, 1918.

It was a couple of summers ago when a friend and I cycled to Canterbury. It was during the holidays and I’d been teaching First World War literature to A-level students like yourselves for two years. Now, I was pretty foolish in attempting the ride. I hadn’t been on a bike in six months and so had exactly six months of accumulated flab to carry on the journey. I was also stunningly unfit. By the time we reached Canterbury, I’d had to buy a new, soft bike seat because my rear end had been bruised and shredded. Not dignified!

Anyway. When we finally trundled into Canterbury, we decided to go and see the Cathedral, walking around the grounds with our bikes. It was while nosing around the close that I saw something that rather discombobulated me.

In the gardens in the eastern part of the Cathedral grounds, I found a stone memorial to the First World War. I looked it over. It was, as many of these memorials are, a moving testament to the dead. Yet as I read, I noticed that the dedication read not ‘1914-18’, but ‘1914-19’.

At that moment, a mild panic swept over me. Was it possible, I thought, that I had been teaching the wrong dates for the First World War for two years?

It’s the kind of thing that makes you reel for a second and question everything. Do cats and dogs secretly get on? Does night follow day– or day follow night? Is the Pope Catholic?

The solution to the riddle was simple, however; the war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28th, 1919, though the armistice took place, as we all know, on the 11th of November, 1918. Hence ‘1914-19’: though perhaps, if German paper Bild and some of the British broadsheets are to be believed, it should be re-engraved ‘1914-2010’.

For in an interesting historical twist that will come as news to the generations who have lived between 1918 and today, the press have been reporting that the First World War only officially ended a week last Sunday.

The Daily Telegraph leads with an attention grabbing headline: ‘First World War Officially Ends’. Odd, eh?

Here’s the key: 92 years after the end of the war, Germany has made its last reparation payment of £59m to Great Britain. Reparations are compensation payments for wrongs done: Germany was held responsible for the war and forced to make massive reparations by the Treaty of Versailles. It was so punishing a schedule of payments– pushed for heavily by victorious France– that the level of debt that Germany was thrown into is today widely held to have contributed to the rise of Nazism. The Guardian writes a short but interesting article, ‘Why does Germany still owe money for The First World War?’ explaining the peculiar phenomenon. It just goes to show that even today we still live with the effects of World War One.

While you’re there, you may want to check out the Guardian’s First World War site. It’s not compendious, but it does have lots of interesting little pieces– like the articles on Harry Patch and the Guardian Series on the Great War. Check it out.