Headmaster’s Remembrance Day Address
11 November 2018
Following our Remembrance Services on the centenary of Armistice Day, a number of people have requested copies of the Headmaster’s address to the School. The full text is reprinted below:
Every year we gather on this day, as we ought, to remember those who lost their lives or suffered as a result of war. In recent years, we have especially remembered the so-called ‘Great War.’
We have gathered to recollect its terrible battles; Ypes, Passechendale, the Somme. We have recalled individuals who died, such as the 93 Old Bromsgrovians whose names are forever etched on these stone plaques behind me.
To better understand the cost of war, we have reflected upon the other casualties of conflict. Mothers, robbed of their sons. Doctors and nurses, awash in blood and suffering. Survivors, returned home with bodies intact but minds in pieces.
Such are the usual motifs of our Remembrance Day services. This year however, we have a new thought to consider. It is still our sombre duty to reflect on the horror as the war progressed. Now though, we may dare to think, “What was it like when it stopped?” One hundred years ago today, indeed, almost to this very minute, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns fell silent. The armistice came into effect and peace descended.
Descended not just upon the mud-filled trenches of the battlefields, but also on every city, town and village in Belgium, France and Germany. So too in Austria and Hungary, Greece and Turkey, Italy and Russia. Even the far-flung regions of the US & Canada, Australia & New Zealand. And, of course, here in Britain. Right here, the word of a lasting peace rang out.
Britain is an old country. As are those other nations, places that many of you call home. Today though, we sit together here, in Britain. Whose shores have welcomed countless cultures across the centuries.
From the first prehistoric inhabitants, to the Britons, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norse and the Normans, many have all settled here. Sometimes arriving with rancour, sometimes in peace. Through the centuries, Britain’s communities have grown. First villages, then towns, then cities. People living together, flourishing, relying upon one another. And, as is the case whenever humans live together, sharing news, good and bad, with one another.
How then, one hundred years ago today, did the people of Britain hear and share the news of the armistice? How did ordinary folk learn hostilities had ended? That their young men were, by God’s Grace, at last out of harm’s way?
Not by text, that is for sure. Nor Facebook. Nor CNN. But by an ancient means. Conceived of before the internet. Before John Logie Baird invented television in 1920 or Marconi sent the first radio message in 1901. Before carrier pigeons, semaphore or the postal service. Even before the Middle Ages, when Guttenburg’s printing press first started churning out typed paper. For centuries before all that, the people of Britain had a way of broadcasting news quickly and effectively throughout the land.
It worked in all weathers, functioned around the clock. It spoke to all people, rich or poor, young or old, with the same voice. Quieter in a village, louder in towns and cities, yet heard by all. A method that became so iconic, so synonymous with life in Britain, that we use it still, to this day. Even in this School. It is, of course, the tolling of a bell.
A ringing bell, usually from a church steeple. A sound that cleaves the air like an axe through wood. A sound that conveys not just a message, but also a mood. A sound suited to all seasons; a joyful peal on a Spring morning, chimes drifting on a warm Summer’s breeze, a heavy knell that hangs like wood smoke in the Autumn air, or a mournful clang that haunts the Winter mist. For centuries, bells have spread our news. A single note can tell an entire story. The joy of a wedding. The tragedy of a death. The compelling call to worship. Even the simple striking of the hour is a gentle reminder that our time is passing.
The bell in this very Chapel speaks to each of us every week. Calling us together from wherever we are, audible from Walters to Webber (admittedly those in Housman may have to strain their ears a little to hear it). Thus has it been in this country for centuries.
So was it in 1623, when the great English poet, John Donne, was taken seriously ill. For weeks, he suffered, close to death. During which time, he wrote a poem that remains famous today for its insight in the human condition. In those days, a particular sequence of bells were rung to spread the news that someone in the community was dying. The first was the Passing Bell, rung to warn people that someone was gravely ill. Later, when they actually died, the Death Knell would ring out. Then, when their body was finally taken to the churchyard for burial, the Lych or Corpse Bell would toll.
Lying on his sick bed, John Donne heard the Passing Bell tolling and was about to send his servant to find out who it was for, when he realised it might be him. In the poem, he ponders whether perhaps he is so sick that he is soon to die and nobody wants to tell him.
As the poem develops though, he realises that it does not really matter whether the bell tolls for him or for another. He sees the fundamental truth of our existence, that all people are connected. All share in the loss of any other. Hence, we should all care about the welfare of those around us. Why should we care, today, about those we did not know, who died in the Great War one hundred years ago? Because we are all connected. They died for us. Just as we may one day make sacrifices for others. “No man is an island” wrote John Donne, “entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
He went on to compare a community losing one of its members to the physical erosion of the land “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” Concluding that “any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
Leading to his most famous final line “Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
It matters not whether the solemn, tolling bell was announcing his impending death or that of someone else. Donne knew any person’s death should matter to him, just as his own death should matter to others. Just as the sacrifice of those in wars past should matter to us.
Tragically, throughout the war years, 1914 – 1918, the bells of this land tolled more often than ever, telling of death and loss in every village. It became so bad that the more melodious notes had to be removed from the ringing and many bells were muffled. That is, people climbed into the bell tower and placed leather socks around the metal clappers, dampening the sound. Muffled bells could still be heard, but their tone lost any gaiety, conveying only sadness.
Month after month, year after year, the bells of Britain rang only the muffled knell of loss.
Imagine then, if you will, what it must have been like on Armistice Day, one hundred years ago. Start right here. Picture the scene, on a chill Autumn day in Bromsgrove, as people going about their daily lives pause, prick up their ears to a sound they had not heard in five long years. Perhaps thought never to hear again. Unmuffled bells.
Someone has scurried up the steeple tower, untied the leather sleeves from off the clappers, and is now down below, heaving on the pull rope for all they are worth. The bells of St John’s church are once again resounding, jubilant down the Bromsgrove High Street and out into the fields beyond.
Can you see an old farmer there, laying down a rake and hobbling out of the gloom of the barn, blinking in wonder? Can you see a cook, frozen stock still in the pantry, hands limp, eyes brimming, scarcely daring to believe what those distant notes are saying?
What about that row of hospital beds in a ward at Hartlebury castle? Can you see the prone figures of wounded, broken men stirring? Rising unsteadily? Cheering?
And can you see children, school pupils right here, in Kyteless, hunched in silence over their books? I can. Watch their heads coming up, bemused, as that exuberant peal of bells cascades over the roof of WG and in through the classroom window. See them glancing at each other, marvelling at the sight of tears flowing down the cheeks of their usually stern and implacable Latin master.
Imagine that, and then multiply those same scenes out through every neighbouring village and town; in Tardebigge, Barnt Green, and Hanbury, in Droitwich, Kidderminster and Redditch. The news carries on the wind and other communities unmuffle their bells and pass it on. On into the cities, in Worcester and Warwick, Birmingham and Coventry, where the great cathedral bells take up the refrain. And on and on and ever on. An outpouring, the music of reprieve, like a spontaneous wave of relief, washing across this entire country.
Until even that father of all bells, Big Ben itself, in London, sheds his mournful muffles and tolls the news of peace. Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. The death bell tolls for you, but so, too, do the bells of peace.
At 12:30 today, the bells of Britain will ring out in unison once again, in commemoration of Armistice Day. Wherever you may be, even in our modern, urbanised environment, I daresay the sounds will find your ears. When they do, I charge you to pause, just for a moment, and consider how euphoric those notes must have sounded one hundred years ago.
How that ringing, from out of a leaden sky, foretold a day, soon to come, when husbands, sons, fathers and friends would walk back through the door unscathed.
And for those, like me, who are not British born, remember also that those same grateful strains were multiplied in a million towns in every corner of the globe.
“Ring out the thousand wars of old,” wrote Tennyson,
“Ring in the thousand years of peace.”
Usually on Remembrance Day, we consider the toll that war takes on communities. Today, at last, let us also reflect on a happier toll; the joyous tolling of the bells of peace.