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Assembly 7 November 2016
In December 1915, the Irish nationalist Padraic Pearse wrote of the events on mainland Europe: “War is a terrible thing and this is the most terrible of wars”. How right he was.
At the very end of last term, we held a dawn vigil on the Quad to mark the start of the battle of the Somme, exactly one hundred years beforehand on 1 July 1916. The story of the first day of the Somme is well known. The seven days of bombardment that preceded a set piece attack. The deployment for the first time of many Pals battalions - groups of friends, work colleagues, team mates who had joined up together in 1914 and were now to be thrown into action, many for the first time. The explosion of huge mines under German lines, the eerie silence, the whistles signalling the attack, troops going over the top, the lines of British soldiers walking into the fire of the German machine guns. The guns traversing backwards and forwards, reaping a rich harvest of men caught in the murderous crossfire. The day’s statistics are also well known; on 1 July 1916 the British Army suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 killed. Many of the Pal battalions were decimated.
Charles Greenlees came to St John's as a Foundationer – which means his father was a clergyman - in 1904. A boy in East House, he left school in the summer of 1914. He was to have gone up to University College Oxford the following October but instead, on the outbreak of war, received a commission as a second lieutenant. He joined the Royal West Surrey Regiment and was attached to the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers nicknamed the ‘Dubs’.
On 1 July 1916 Lieutenant Greenlees led his men over the top at Hawthorn Ridge, the scene of some of the worst carnage on that tragic day. The ‘Dubs’ were in the second wave at Hawthorn Ridge their objective being well beyond the German front line. However most, if not all the Dubs, failed to even get to the British front line. Advancing just to the right of the Hawthorn Redoubt it is likely that Greenlees was mown down in a hail of bullets as he tried to lead his men forward from above the parapet of a support trench.
Four days after Greenlees’ death, Chaplain Herbert Kosher wrote to his parents:
Dear Mr and Mrs Greenlees,
Your boy, Lieut. Greenlees, asked me to send you a line "if anything happened to him," and by this time you will have heard the sad tidings that he is numbered among the young heroes whose names are placed on the Roll of Honour, having fallen in the recent attack at the head of his platoon. I am not chaplain to the Dubs, but I knew him well, being in the same brigade. We often had chats together, and, like all who knew him, I admired him for his loveable character. The morning that the brigade moved into action your son was present at the sacrament which was celebrated in the wood where we were encamped, and I know he went into the fight as a brave soldier. I cannot tell you all I feel for you in your distress, yet you will feel that your boy, with all his sensitive hatred of war, could not hold back at the call of duty, and, in the end, selflessly gave his life.
The Somme battle was to last for a further 140 days. For sure, the German army had suffered grievously, but the achievements in terms of territory were limited, by November 1916, the British and French allies had advanced a mere 13 miles. As winter set in, the British High Command decided to launch one last push – which later became known as the Battle of the Ancre. The battle started on 13 November 1916.
Frank Beechey was born in Lincolnshire in 1886. Also a Foundationer, in 1897, he joined East House. Academically he did well at school, winning a number of prizes. A keen sportsman, he represented St John’s at 2nd XI level in both football and cricket – although the Johnian magazine of 1904 rather unfairly describes him as a “useless batsman”!
By 1912 Frank had become a teacher at Lincoln Cathedral School and in the summer of 1914 he announced his engagement to be married. But when war broke out, he postponed his marriage and joined up with his local battalion, the East Yorkshires as a signaller.
Frank and his battalion had been held in reserve on the first day of the Somme battle but were brought up into the line for the last battle of the campaign. On 13 November it was Frank’s regiment that was to spearhead the assault against the German lines. As on 1 July, the British attack was to end in failure. Despite some men reaching as far as the German third trench line, the advance first stalled and then began to collapse as German counter attacks pushed them back or cut them off completely. Frank’s signallers tried in vain to maintain telephone lines to the forward troops but they suffered heavy casualties. Frank left the forward trench to help his men but he was severely wounded in both legs by a shell blast. It proved impossible to get him back into the trench as enemy fire swept No Man’s Land. The Battalion’s Medical Officer – who by chance was also an OJ - bravely crawled out to dress Frank’s wounds. As night fell, Frank was finally bought in and taken to 43 Casualty Clearing Station but it was too late to save him and he died the next day. Four days later, the Battle of the Somme ended in stalemate.
The statistics of the Somme battle are mind-boggling: 141 days - over 1 million casualties, including over 300,000 dead. They died at an average of 2200 a day. That is just under four times the number of us in this Chapel today, killed, every day of the campaign. But one the many, many problems of war is that it reduces its participants to mere statistics: 1 million, 300,000, 2200. So another one of the most important purposes of remembrance is to turn what I have just said back on its head - and turn the statistics back into people: back into names, faces, back into human stories.
The cross in the centre of the Quad was unveiled in 1920 as the School’s memorial. In addition, the boards mounted on the back wall of this Chapel were placed in the Old Chapel above a memorial Cross embedded into the floor the Chancel. Many of those who were present at the dedication of the memorials would for sure have known Greenlees, some would have remembered Beachy - for he was a little older – and the other 20 OJs who died on the Somme. For those who attended the dedication in 1920, the fallen had names, faces, stories, even voices.
Another purpose of remembrance, therefore, is that it reminds us all of our responsibilities as members of this community. As the generations of the wars of the twentieth century passed on, so the meaning of these memorials changed. We don’t remember those who died on the Somme with grief, for we have no reason to grieve. The tears are long gone. But our memorials - the monument in the Quad, the cross in the Old Chapel and the boards behind you – remind us of the importance and value of community. Even when we leave, we will remain part of this community. It will have shaped us and will have helped make us the people we are. And we are the guardians of this community. So, we should remember that those from St John’s who died in war and are named on the boards were also members of this community. If we, perish the thought, came to think of them solely in terms of statistics, just as faceless names, on a board, then we would run the risk of devaluing the sense of this School as a community that recognises its past as well as the present.
So boys and girls, the theme for this week at school is Remembrance. We should reflect on the horror of war and its de-humanising impact. We will remember – with dignity through the week but notably on Friday and Sunday - Charles Greenlees, Frank Beechey and the other 20 OJs who died on the Somme. We will remember them as members of our School who died in a terrible war.
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