This week is one of the more significant and special of the year in school. Perhaps at a time like no other, our act of remembrance has never been so immediate to so many. An act of remembrance is significant for at least two reasons: it is about bringing to mind those who have gone before us, it is about bringing to mind events and individuals from the past and in so doing we make them present in the moment. In bringing them to mind we transcend time and place and find ourselves united with them in the present. Secondly, as much as the act of remembrance brings individuals and events to the present moment, it compels or challenges us to consider why we remember and what those who have gone before us are remembered for.
In the act of remembering is a categorical imperative to act, to do something, to conduct ourselves in a way that honours their sacrifice. Did they pass unnoticed? Was it all in vain? Are the memorials in stone anonymous icons in the tourist landscape of our villages, the supporting cast in a modern vista without meaning or purpose?
I think our act of remembrance is a challenge. What will we do? How should we live? Our act of remembrance must bring with it more than a sepia toned antiquity. It issues forth in a call to act such that the sacrifices of those who died are memorialised in a lived disposition to make the world a better place, to honour freedom and cherish the dignity of the individual.
One hundred years ago the remains of the Unknown Warrior were interred at Westminster Abbey. In the Halls of the great and mighty this humble anonymity stands in stark contrast. The Abbey stands at the heart of the nation. It is an architectural masterpiece but the product of the unknown, a greatness born of an intrinsic humble anonymity. Though it is the burial place of monarchy and the place of coronations since William in 1066, the setting was created by hands unknown and unremembered. But this is not surprising. Over time and through history there are notables who make the headlines and whose work and legacy stands on the shoulders of unknown and unremembered giants. Why should the warrior be any different? His anonymity amplifies the sacrifice.
You will be familiar with the scene, the simple black slab encompassed by poppies, but how familiar are you with the inscription? It reads:
BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY
OF A BRITISH WARRIOR
UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK
BROUGHT FROM FRANCE TO LIE AMONG
THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS OF THE LAND
AND BURIED HERE ON ARMISTICE DAY 11 NOV: 1920,
IN THE PRESENCE OF:
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V
HIS MINISTERS OF STATE
THE CHIEFS OF HIS FORCES
AND A VAST CONCOURSE OF THE NATION
THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT
WAR OF 1914-1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT
MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF:
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE
FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND
THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD
THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
They buried him among kings because his legacy is kingly, noble. The nobility comes from a sacrifice that is selfless. It is one thing to pay the ultimate price for those near and dear, but quite another to tender that for those unknown. The simple black slab marks at the heart of the nation the memorial to an ideal of sacrifice for the highest good; for what a nation holds dear, the cause of Good.
Two hundred years ago Florence Nightingale was born and came with her parents to Embley from where she would plot and develop her own legacy. It is humbling that among the cedars and parkland we now enjoy, she contemplated her response to the crisis of her own time. Each time brings its own unlikely and unsuspecting heroes and heroines. Florence’s grumpy sufferance of Drawing Room conversation among the ladies who withdrew from the society of the men after dinner left in her a deep resentment. She felt the human need of the time as a call to a different kind of arms, to help those more likely to succumb to their wounds than to die at the hands of the so-called enemy. It is quite remarkable that this girl from Hampshire is now remembered for changing the world. Her memorial at St Margaret’s Church in Wellow stands at odds with her request; she was refused the anonymous burial she sought but with the best of intentions by a grateful nation. She bequeathed to us a legacy in common with the Unknown Warrior, that of doing good toward God and his house.
This “Good” may be contested today, but the “Good” of Freedom and Justice seem to be sorely tested not only in our national life but globally. The memorial is not a cause to ponder idly but a modern call to arms to defend the rights of the individual, personal freedom, the capacity to create a society which is inclusive and understanding, one that embraces difference not because it is worth tolerating but because in this difference we are all enriched. What Goods will we defend? What sacrifice are we prepared to make?
I suspect that neither the Warrior nor Florence spent long in theorising and working through a manifesto for good, they were too focused on making a difference where they were with what they had to hand. The noblest of sacrifices seem to have this in common: they are not born of extended strategy, of five-year plans and conferences canvasing opinion. Rather they are individual and humble responses in the moment to the felt need of others, the response is practical and meaningful and as such open and accessible to us all. The difference they made is available to us, their legacy is our inheritance.
As we remember, let us bear in mind all those who have gone before, their legacy of doing good for God and his house and let us contemplate how we will act such that our legacy will be one of doing good for God and his house…
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)