Remembrance Day is one of those occasions when we are reminded of the public’s thirst for tradition and ceremony. The destruction of ceremony never has been a popular movement; it has always been imposed by a liberal elite. People find great satisfaction and great consolation in taking part in meaningful public ceremonies of a solemn nature. Sadly, there are few opportunities for them to do so, unless they happen to go to a major public school, where such things are preserved for the enjoyment of the economic and social elite.
But at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we believe that everyone can access great traditions. Everyone can appreciate the value of honouring the sacrifice of their forefathers to preserve the freedom of the country where they live. It’s not a complicated or excessively intellectual thing to understand that many ordinary men laid down their lives for their country a century ago, and it’s not a complicated or difficult thing to honour that memory through ceremonies such as a two minute silence.
In fact, even in schools which are normally chaotic, I’ve found in the past that the two minute silence can be observed successfully. Even pupils who are normally rude and obnoxious can rise to the occasion when there is something happening which all recognise as serious and solemn. This shows the edifying and uplifting power of public ceremony and tradition, as it reaches even into the dark world of the bog standard comprehensive.
But at Charter, we can do much more than a two minute silence. We can take many opportunities to talk about the virtues displayed by the soldiers who laid down their lives. Over the last fifty years, there has been an educational fashion whereby the poetry of Wilfred Owen is seen as the ‘real’ version of World War One, while poems such as ‘In Flanders Fields’ are derided as mere propaganda. It’s worth asking ourselves which poet better represents the experience of the typical British (or Canadian) soldier. Owen sees the suffering of the soldiers as meaningless and futile, while John Macrae, the author of ‘In Flanders Fields’ demands that we honour the dead by continuing the fight which they began.
We may debate whether the First World War was necessary, or the tactics adopted by the military leaders, but surely we cannot doubt the commitment, courage and loyalty shown by the ordinary soldiers who laid down their lives? Focusing only on the misery of the soldiers and not their courage and perseverance turns them into mere victims, and dishonours their memory. You won’t be surprised that it is not ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ but ‘In Flanders Fields’ that we are memorising as a school in preparation for Remembrance Day:
‘In Flanders Fields’ (1915) by John McCrae (1872-1918)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.