Remember, remember

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Pupils at a north London secondary insist on a minute's silence to mark Remembrance Day. Andrew Granath reports

If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields These lines from John McCrae's First World War poem "In Flanders Fields" may be familiar, but marking Remembrance Day in school can be a difficult issue. First, it requires a commitment from staff to treat the occasion as important. If it is no more than selling poppies and a quick reading of Wilfred Owen, it is likely to fall flat. And as time goes on, remoteness is an increasing problem. For many young people The Somme is as remote as Waterloo. Until last year it was possible to say that the two world wars were events of the current century. This is no longer the case. And to some pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds the wars may seem to lack relevance. "Wasn't it just a fight between two white countries that happened a long time ago?" asked one of our pupils.

Latymer, a state secondary school in north London, has attempted to address these issues. Each year in early October, 150 members of Year 11 visit the cemeteries of northern France, where they are guided through the tunnels at Vimy Ridge and stand at the top of the ossuary tower at Notre Dame de Lorette looking over the Plain of Artois, where so many hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers died. The day culminates with a brief but dignified wreath-laying cemetery with readings from poets as disparate as Edward Thomas, Rudyard Kipling and Rupert Brooke.

This year, in a moment that transcended the boundaries of age and nationality, a group of French veterans spontaneously helped to lay the wreaths. The school has received messages expressing appreciation at seeing the school's wreaths on the battlefields.

Pupil Sam Kitchener was visibly moved by the occasion. "I had been reading Birdsong on the coach and it was incredible to see the cemeteries with the crosses stretching into the distance." But this visit is not about history or literature. It is about acknowledging sacrifice, creating an awareness that sometimes in terrible and unusual situations men and women are driven to war and that some will give their lives for the cause.

The initiative to observe a minute's silence in school on Remembrance Day came from the pupils - many staff believed it was doomed to failure. In 1998, a group of pupils approached the head, who tentatively agreed to restore the tradition. Last year the pupils stood in dignified silence, with playground games of football choked off in full flow.

The Remembrance Day service itself is carefully planned. Centre stage is given to former pupil, including those who fought in the Second World War. Their forces are marshalled by Dick Hibberd (1928-35), who during his retirement has worked to make sure those who died are acknowledged and remembered. He is supported by senior pupils, emphasising the continuity between past and present.

The address is central to proceedings. Every attempt is made to avoid any accusations of militarism or excessive nationalism. Last year the theme was the contribution made to the First World War by the non-white troops of the British Empire. It did not duck the issue of their shabby treatment and their employment, for the most part, as grave and latrine diggers and personal servants to white soldiers.

Pupil Chris Rene remarked: "I had no idea that West Indian soldiers fought in the war. The conditions must have been very strange for them." Mohammed Rafiq was struck by the contrast for soldiers born in the heat of India and fighting and dying in the cold mud of Flanders.

The address at this year's service, held on November 9, was on the conscientious objectors and the more than 200 British troops executed in the Great War for cowardice. "Today they would be given a counsellor," said sixth-former Leanne Peters. "But then they were shot." Next year we plan to acknowledge the role of women in both wars.

The personal connection is emphasised as each year a senior pupil reads out a fraction of the names of the 108 ex-students who died in both world wars. "Although I didn't know any of them," said Matthew Gorman of Year 8, "I felt a sense of pride and imagined they must have sat in this hall just as I am sitting now."

The service is conducted in restrained silence. As the muffled sound of last post drifts into the hall it is difficult not to be aware of the terrible sense of loss that for a moment pervades the atmosphere. The pupils' conduct is exemplary. There is no need for any early morning pep talk on the need for appropriate behaviour. It is probably the only formal occasion of the school year when it is possible to say that the pupils can empathise with what is happening around them.

On the day of the service a cross from the Royal British Legion is placed in the Garden of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey. It simply says "The Latymer School. In memory". A group of children view the garden accompanied by a member of staff.

If there is one thing the school wants pupils to take away from the whole experience it is an awareness of the old lie that we were so often told, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.

Andrew Granath teaches at the Latymer School, Edmonton, north London

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