Lest we forget…

There have been a lot of poppies in school this week and with them an awful lot of remembering.

The common or Flanders Poppy is thought to be native to the eastern Mediterranean but its delicate petals have be-come a common sight in Northern and Western Europe. It may well be the case that Papaver rhoeas was brought here in seed corn transported from southern climes in prehistoric times.  Over the years they have become a welcome feature of the countryside.  Long associated with both fertility and death the poppy was adopted after the First World War as a symbol of remembrance.  It is certainly the case that John McCrae saw poppies when he looked out of the casualty clearing station at Essex Farm near the Belgian city of Ypres in 1915.  His famous poem did much to promote the poppy as a symbol of remembrance in Anglophone countries.  In France the cornflower is favoured, in Germany it is the forget-me-not. Whatever the flower chosen, I believe that we as a school community are right to recognise the individual sacrifice made by individuals in war.  It is not that we seek to glorify war, or indeed the political will that stimulates it; rather it is the case that we remember those who paid the ultimate price of conflict.  Perhaps the poppy is the most appropriate symbol for our remembrance as a community.  We, like the poppy, have (in many cases) come from elsewhere in the world and have put our roots down herein French soil.

As an historian and as Headmaster I believe that this annual period of remembrance is vital for our young people. It gives an opportunity for these individuals who will go on to mould the future an opportunity to reflect on what it means to pay the ultimate price.  The association of a flower with this sacrifice is an important reminder of the human cost of conflict and perhaps regular revisiting of his loss will eventually persuade individuals to consider alternatives to war. It is oft said that those who fail to learn the lesson of history are condemned to repeat them. Our commemoration of the fallen acknowledges their sacrifice rather than any nationalistic sentiment. In doing so I hope that an important lesson is learned.

This week I was fortunate to be able to accompany the Year 9 historians on a trip to the First World War battlefields. Having seen their reactions to what they saw at Passchendale, Langemarck and on the Somme I believe that, more than ever, we must look to learn the lessons of the consequences of war.  As we stood at the Menin Gate and listened to the piper’s lament and the ringing notes of the Last Post our party was undoubtedly moved and I feel sure that they will remember with greater clarity and an enhanced understanding of what happens when nations collide and also our obligations to those who are left behind.

Whilst we were in Belgium and Northern France we saw plenty of poppies, it was also good to see our prefects giving generously of their time to sell poppies at Notre Dame Cathedral on Wednesday before the Royal British Legion’s annual service of commemoration.  It is always heartening to see young people working to support those who now endeavour to live on after loss.  Such service to others is at the core of what we stand for as a school.  It was therefore good to see so many Beavers, Cubs and Scouts being invested at the end of the service of remembrance on Wednesday as service to others is a hallmark of the these groups.  We were also delighted to welcome into the Junior School representatives from the British Legion in Paris to talk about the work of this charity on Thurs-day.  If you have a moment please do look at the display of ceramic poppies that have sprung up in front of the Senior School art building, rather like last years’ installation at the Tower of London they give a more permanent expression of  remembrance.

On Monday the Senior School will end the School’s period of remembrance with a special assembly. Once the notes of the trumpet have faded across the Seine; I hope that our students will use their talents to ensure that the nations of the world will work to avoid war wherever possible; in this the humble poppy will help to remind them.

Nicholas Hammond


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