Today at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 2022, I paused to remember those who gave their lives for their country. And I wondered what the Millennials were thinking as they marked that two minute silence.
For I spent much of my final working years in the 21st century teaching the Millennials, both in England and later in mainland Europe, and I played my part in helping to pass on the tradition of Remembrance, as the memory of the 20th century slipped slowly away and my own Baby Boomer generation gradually went into retirement. So Remembrance for me becomes as much about the young of Europe as it was about the old generations before mine who actually lived through those conflicts or died in them. Did I successfully help educate the Millennials (and in my last teaching years Generation Z) so that they will also carry the torch of Remembrance? I like to think so.
I made many trips across the English Channel from Canterbury to the World War 1 battlefields with coach trips from the Archbishop’s School, but one particular school trip stands out from 2003 and it always sends a shiver down my spine when I recall it, every year on November 11th. In a war cemetery in the Somme, a 15 year old boy, of that Millennial generation, discovered an astonishing direct connection with our school. Teachers and students were suddenly moved to tears at the end of that day by the discovery.
Every year I organised the battlefield trip in the same way. With other supporting teachers, I would take the students around the Somme battlefields and the Thiepval memorial to the fallen, and then walk them through the experience of one group of soldiers on a day in July 1916. They began in the remains of a trench-line that can still be seen at the edge of a little copse of trees, and at the sound of their officers’ whistles the men climbed out of their trench and advanced into machine gun fire. The children walked the distance, just two hundred metres away in a field where farmers grow turnips today, to the little cemetery that holds the bodies of all those soldiers. Here the students sat and we recalled the last minutes of the men. I read some war poetry by Wilfred Owen. Then we started walking out of the cemetery back to the waiting bus.
One boy, who was autistic and was always very keen on exploring the detail in any situation, was reading the names on all the headstones in the cemetery and was reluctant to leave. I told him we must go. Our bus was booked onto the 6.30 evening ferry from Calais back to Dover and we needed to leave now. He was not persuaded and he carried on reading names on grave stones. I waited by the cemetery gate. I waved to the other teachers and mimed there was a delay…
“Sir!” the boy called to me from the far end of the cemetery. “Mr Thomas! Come and see.”
I walked quickly over to see. It was a headstone like all the others. With name and regiment and the very same date of death as every other man in the cemetery. What was special about this one?
“Look, sir.” The boy pointed to the name, Lieutenant Morris Bickersteth, West Yorkshire Regiment, age 23. I was slow to grasp the significance, so the boy told me. “That’s his brother isn’t it?”
“My God!” I said. “You’re right!”
In the entrance to the Archbishop’s School was a memorial plaque to the school’s founder, Canon Bickersteth who was a Canterbury Cathedral priest who had been an army chaplain in 1916 in the Somme and as part of my preparation for the annual trip to the battlefields I always told the students that the school had that connection with the Battle of the Somme. For Canon Bickersteth left a memoir recording how he had cycled over to have tea with his brother on the day before the big offensive. He never saw his brother again but we had found him.
When we got back on the bus the word went round quickly among the other students and the staff, and my camera circled around the bus, so everyone could see the photos of the head stone. In the school assembly next day – after I had confirmed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and cross referenced with all the family details of the school’s founder – I explained to the whole school that one of our students had discovered the resting place of Morris Bickersteth, the brother of the school’s founder. If we had wanted to research it we could have done so, but none of us had ever taken the trouble to do so. And that is how a teenager of the Millennial generation taught me something I did not know about Remembrance.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.