This week our school community will come together in Chapel to remember those who have died in war and, in particular on this occasion, to mark the fact that 100 years has passed since the end of the First World War at the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month 1918.
This important anniversary has seen events of remembrance take place around the country and overseas. We have been honoured to display some of the transparent figures of soldiers as part of the There But Not There commemoration. This simple and powerful commemoration, representing those who were involved in the war, places figures back in the communities they left behind. Also, on Armistice Day, Pages of the Sea will see thousands of people gathering on beaches in the UK and the Republic of Ireland at low tide on 11 November. It has been designed as a moment to say goodbye and thank you, together, to the millions of men and women who left these shores during the war, many never to return. A new poem ‘The Wound in Time’ by poet laureate, Carole Ann Duffy, will be read on the beaches and the event will see the portrait of a casualty from the war, drawn into the sand on beaches around the country, until it is washed away by the tide.
In the middle of our Quad at St John’s, we have a war memorial to commemorate those who attended this school and lost their lives in war. We all walk past it many times and day and, while we respect and acknowledge what it stands for, the people it represents can sometimes seem a distant part of our history. A total of 768 former pupils and 21 teachers fought in the First World War and 158 former pupils and two staff members lost their lives. It can be hard to imagine the lives of these people, lives which were changed irrevocably by the times in which they were born, but we actually know quite a lot about them. What I want our school community to pause and consider on this anniversary, is how much we have in common with those who went before, as well as how much we owe them.
There are many individual stories but one I spoke to our pupils about is Clement Barrington Furmston who was at St John’s from 1905. He was one of the first recipients of a Downes Prize, founded by Dr Downes, the then headmaster’s father, in 1909. The prizes at that time were worth three guineas and were awarded to boys who had been prominent in furthering the best interests of the School, in games and work, for a whole school year. When he left school in 1911, Clement became an articled clerk in his home town of Alfreton and had passed the first of his Law Society exams before he enlisted at the outbreak of war. He was wounded in France on 5 March 1917 and, in the space of the next six weeks, his mother received three telegrams. The first, from the War Office, was sent at 8am on 9 March 1917 informing her that he was injured. Clement recovered and wrote to his mother on 4 April 1917 wishing her a ‘very happy Easter’. Just a few days later, on Easter Monday 9 April 1917, Clement was killed in action during the Battle of Arras. The following week another telegram from the War Office, dated 14 April 1917, was on its way to Mrs Furmston: ‘Deeply regret inform you 2 Lt C B Furmston M G C 154 Coy was killed in action April ninth. The army council express their sympathy, [signed] Secty War Office.’ On the same day, Clement’s mother received a letter from his Commanding Officer, Major AV Board, giving details of his death: ‘He was killed half an hour after the beginning of the action. A shell landed in the middle of his gun team whilst it was in action and instantaneously killed him and the three men with him.’ Enclosed with this letter was Clement’s pocket book and the last letter he had written to his mother on Easter Sunday, just hours before he was killed.
Clement, alongside all the others who are commemorated by our memorial and named on our roll of honour, were real people with lives not so different to ours. He walked the same corridors, learnt in the same classrooms, was awarded the same prizes, played sport on the same fields and left school with plans, hopes and dreams.
Over 16 million people were killed in the First World War, with somewhere around 800,000 these being British. Carole Ann Duffy asks in her poem ‘What happened next? War. And after that? War. And now? War.’ The Second World War followed the First all too quickly and, since 1945, the only years without British personnel being killed on operations were 1968 and 2016. This week we remember not just those who died, but all those families affected by the aftermath of service and all those individuals who survived but whose lives were impacted by service.
For anyone who is interested in finding out more, a War Memorial website for St John’s School has been created to commemorate those who served in the First World War.