Lost

At 9pm on the 11th November 1918, Norman Stirling sat down at his desk in the Stanley to write a letter to his sister. At the end of a long day, Norman reflected on whether there was ‘really anything important to say’ while acknowledging that ‘one must talk about it to somebody’.  Before taking advantage of the ‘opportunity for an early night’, Norman paused to record the small things that had changed: prep had been cancelled, the quad was covered with pillow stuffing, and – something that felt very odd – he could now leave his window ‘uncovered’, no longer being obliged to ‘draw his curtains’.

Many years later, Anglesey pupil, Geoffrey Grindle, recorded his memories of that day. It had been ‘celebrated, naturally enough, by a little horseplay – firehoses trained on the bowler hatted bust of the Duke on Great School, and a resounding Chapel service’ at which the whole school sang ‘Now Thank We All Our God’ loud enough to ‘bring the roof down’.

In College this week, houses have marked Remembrance with a series of readings and, tomorrow, the whole school will come together for our Remembrance Ceremony. While we will acknowledge the sacrifice made by men and women in all wars, this year – the year of the Armistice Centenary – we remember particularly those who lost their lives in the First World War. As Head Girl, Scarlett Zein, reminded us in her address on Monday, our assembly theme for this term, that of ‘hidden stories’, is poignantly illustrated by the 550,000 unidentified men whose stories were lost with them on the battlefields of France and Belgium. On Monday, we heard readings from works of literature, which gave us different perspectives on the experience of war; in our house readings this week, students have noted the names of the fallen on the walls of Great School; and now, thanks to the work of our College Archivist, Caroline Jones, we can put faces to those names, and we can share their stories.

Over the last two years, Caroline has been working on a World War 1 Memorial website to mark the Armistice Centenary and to commemorate the staff and pupils of Wellington who gave their lives. The site is a treasure trove of information: there is a Roll of Honour, which gives biographical details for each individual, such as the date and place of death and tributes from those with whom they served; there are letters and poems written by pupils; and there are extracts from the College Year Books and The Wellingtonian magazine. Together, these documents commemorate Wellington’s fallen and they paint a rich picture of College life as it continued during the war. In other words, they give us stories.

I encourage everyone to delve into the memorial site; the experience is fascinating, moving and entertaining in equal measure. The site provides a sobering reminder of the resilience needed by Wellingtonians and their families during that momentous period in our country’s history and it puts into perspective some of the challenges we face today. One particular page, from a 1918 edition of The Wellingtonian, caught my eye: it contains an account of a lecture given to Wellington pupils by The Hon. H. A. L. Fisher, President of the Board of Education, on Sunday 2nd June 1918.

The writer comments that Mr. Fisher ‘opened up a new sphere of thought’ for those listening and inspired some of the senior pupils to go away and read ‘illuminating documents’ on ‘various factors of modern social, political and economic life.’ The writer refers to the ‘Industrial Situation after the War’ and to the ‘pros and cons of the Irish Question’ and explains that,

‘All this has had the effect of widening our outlook on matters in general, and no one can deny that this widening is of vital importance. To all of us, after the War, a knowledge of the social and economic conditions in which we live will be essential if we are to rebuild the fabric of England, torn and twisted by war and disorganised and disjointed by new conditions, on a firm and secure basis’.

With an uncertain future ahead, and a country ‘disorganised and disjointed’, we might be tempted to draw parallels between the outlook of this young Wellingtonian and that of his present-day counterpart. However, that is where the similarities end. The students who listened to Mr. Fisher’s address on 2nd June 1918 faced the future not only with the weight of responsibility, but also with the burden of grief. Some 700 Wellington staff and students had lost their lives during the War. The emotional impact of this is something that, today, we struggle to comprehend – and we cannot possibly imagine the range of emotions that must have been experienced as the Armistice was announced on 11th November 1918. Norman Stirling, in his letter to his sister, described the feeling with these words:

‘It is funny to think that it is peace! Actually peace!! At least I suppose it is. One feels quite lost and funny.’

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