Rector’s eNews – 04 November 2020/ Rector's eNews
Every day most Michaelhouse boys either pass through the lanterns commemorating the Tatham brothers who were sadly killed in action in July 1916 or walk past the names of those inscribed for posterity on the walls outside the Chapel. On these walls are the names of young men who lost their lives in the Great War, the war that was supposed to end all wars, or the Second World War between 1939-1945 or other wars. Soon the matrics will be bidding farewell to Michaelhouse, inasmuch as it is possible to do so, and walking down Warriors Walk where a tree was planted in memory of each of those boys from our school who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918. There are 43 of them, commemorating 42 Old Boys and Rector Brown, the only Head of an independent school to be killed in action.
For a short time this Sunday, Remembrance Sunday, the tradition is to come together as a school to honour those who died in conflict by reading the Roll of Honour. This will be at our outdoor service this year where, inter alia, the Last Post and Reveille will ring out and a period of silence between them will be observed. But why, in 2021, do we have such a service and what are we remembering? Certainly all the Michaelhouse Old Boys in the great brotherhood of men who have walked through Screens and laughed with others in the quads. Boys who worked and played in the carefree abandon of their youth, just like the boys of today. And what do we owe these Old Boys of Michaelhouse? What do we owe the millions who have perished in a succession of wars that should make us interrupt our business and our pleasure to remember them year after year? The answer to that question, I believe, lies in their sacrifice. It is easy to enshrine the acts of individuals engaged in war in the quasi-romantic notion of supporting one’s country. Much of the poetry of the First World War and the writings of brilliant authors such as Sebastian Faulks debunks that thought. Let us not confuse the act of sacrifice for the reason behind it.
Here is a letter of a 21-year-old on the night before he died at Arnhem which was a daring operation to open a bridgehead north of the Rhine in September 1944. It has been published without an author as the mother who is addressed felt it could have been written by any number of soldiers.
Tomorrow we go into action. As yet we do not know exactly what our job will be, but no doubt many lives will be lost; mine may be one. I am not afraid to die. I like this life-yes; for the past two years I have planned a perfect future for myself. I would have liked that future to materialise, but it is not what I want but what God wills and, if by sacrificing all this, I leave the world slightly better than I found it, I am perfectly willing to make that sacrifice.
Don’t get me wrong, Mum. I am no flag-waving patriot, nor have I ever professed to be. We have a great country, but I can’t honestly say it’s worth fighting for, nor can I fancy myself in the role of a gallant crusader fighting for the liberation of Europe.
My little world is centred on you and dad and includes everyone at home and my friends. That is worth fighting for and, if by doing so it strengthens your security and improves your lot, then it is worth dying for too. I want no flowers, no epitaph, no tears. All I want is for you to remember me and feel proud of me; then I shall rest in peace.”
There is no narrow jingoism here, no fanfare for his country, but an indication of sacrifice for family and friends and it is for this reason that it is appropriate to remember that sacrifice over the ages. Sacrifice appears in many forms and in many different eras, but there is a link which takes us to the hill outside Jerusalem over 2000 years ago. We remember and respect what is the best and finest in the human spirit. “No greater love is there than this that a man lays down his life for his friends.”
We live in a world where silence is a scarce and undervalued resource. Traffic, the constant ebb and flow of people, social media, industrial endeavour, protests, and much else all serve to create a society in which there is noise. But we will stand in silence to remember the young men of Michaelhouse who endured danger and who committed themselves with complete selflessness to possible death so that others might have life more abundantly.
And from that position, we would hope that we should draw inspiration from them and, through our own sacrifice, make the world a better place. This gives meaning to their sacrifice and our existence. This answers the question of the relevance of all these names and all those tributes, to the importance of Warriors’ Walk and the clear tones of the trumpet ringing out over the Balgowan veld. It is this kinship that spans the centuries and inspires us into action.