When numbers become names

Address for Armistice Day 2020

For over more than a century, people in the Commonwealth have gathered on this 11th November to remember those who have died in wars and armed conflict. Today, Armistice Day, marks the day that the First World War ended, on 11th November 1918. Over the course of that war, 880,000 members of the British forces died. This was 6% of the adult male population and 12.5% of those serving.

In the Second World War there were 384,000 British soldiers killed in combat, and 70,000 civilians in this country died largely due to bombing raids during the Blitz. In the 75 years since 1945, just over 7,000 members of the British military died in armed conflict.

Here at Hurst College, much smaller then than now, the numbers also reflect the enormous impact the two World Wars had. During the First World War 112 former pupils and teachers died in the service of their county. During the Second World War 75 men lost their lives. In addition to them, another ten members of this community have died fighting for our freedom in various other conflicts, including most recently in Afghanistan.

Listening to these numbers, it is hard to understand the reality that they represent: the personal sacrifices made, and the pain and grief of those who survived. It becomes more real when this morning we hear the names of all those people. When we hear ‘Bernard Poole’ and ‘Sidney Poole’, we may wonder whether they were brothers, father and son, or cousins? What about their family, or families, those who were left behind?

Or we may hear our own surname, and wonder if we are somehow related to them? Or we may know that indeed our own ancestors sacrificed their future for ours. The hearing or seeing of all these names moves us from the historical facts of numbers to the story of which we are a part too.

But then we only really realise that this is not about numbers, not about names, but about people just like us, when we realise that each name belonged to a person. A person who sat in the very same seats in which you are sitting here in Chapel. A person with hopes and dreams, fears, worries and aspirations. A person like you and me.

For example, William Blackett, who was in Shield from 1909 until 1913. He was a school prefect, then left to go to Canada and was killed in France on New Year’s Eve 1915, just over two years after he had left school.

Bernard Catling, who was in Red Cross just for two years, 1896-1897. He was a member of the cricket and football elevens, as well as being a prefect. After he left school, he became a chartered accountant and captain of the Hertfordshire county football team. He also died in France, on 20th October 1918, less than a month before the end of the war.

Travers Adamson, who came to Hurst in 1910 to join Chevron. He wasn’t very sporty it seems, but became a sergeant in the CCF and was involved in at least three of the Shakespeare plays that were produced in those years. He also loved debating, and spoke out in favour of the right to vote for women. He became part of the Devon and Cornwall Regiment and was killed only one-and-a-half years later.

These three boys, like all the 190 others whose names we just heard, were pupils here, like you. They were here to study, to play and to learn what it means to become an adult: to take responsibility, to find their place in the world. And their sacrifice makes it possible for us to do the same.

That is why it is so important to continue to honour their memory. And we do that, not only by keeping two minutes silence today, not only by learning about the impact that the wars have had on our nation and world. No, most of all, we do that by the way we live, by the way we make our choices, by the way we decide to become adults in this world.

So I hope that these stories may become an inspiration for us all. That also we, when we are faced by those who seek violence, hatred or oppression, may take a stand. Because as long as ordinary people, like you and I, continue to be willing to do extraordinary things, like these 193 men did, then evil will never have the last word. Then peace for ever is no longer a naïve dream, but a hope that can become real. And it is because of their sacrifice that we have that choice.

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