As remembrance day approaches, I always think its so important that students (and everyone for that matter) considers individual examples of what remembrance day is all about rather than just the mass collective. To personalise it all makes it so much more powerful.
William Mcfadzean is a good place to start. An Irish soldier who is remarkable for so many reasons. At 21, hailing from a working class background, he received a Victoria Cross, for something so unique that the King himself described it as the "most brave act of WW1".
Mcfadzean was packing grenades into a box with his colleagues before the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Unfortunately, the pin dislodged from one the grenades accidentally. He had 3 seconds to make a life or death decision. He chose to jump on top of that grenade. He killed himself, instantly, but saved the lives of many soldiers. Perhaps as many as 30. All said they owed their lives to "Billy".
William Mcfadzean VC #wewillremember
For me, this story personifies the words of Jesus; "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends". He did that and more.
His was one incredible sacrifice, but thousands did similar but remain nameless. Sometimes because their deaths weren't witnessed or because their bodies were never found. They are now names on Thiepval. Soldiers who perhaps dived in front of bullets to protect wounded colleagues. Soldiers who perhaps endured mental breakdowns but carried on fighting for no other reason than "the folks back home". Soldiers who were 14, children, innocent but willing to die for others. All lost in the ether of time. Difficult to collectively visualise.
Jack Cornwell was the youngest ever VC winner. At 16, he was killed in the Battle of Jutland, refusing to leave his gunnery position, despite being mortally wounded. He became a symbol of national loss at the time, despite the carnage going on all around. For a 16 year old, unaware of the political dimensions of this global conflict, he only wanted to serve his country.
Jack Cornwell in 1915 #wewillremember
We often forget, in our short sighted world, the "normality" of war only decades ago was very different to now. At the turn of the 19th century, new technologies and global politics mixed together to form the toxic "war to end all wars". On one day in 1916, the British army lost 20,000 men. In one day. In the total war in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, we lost 2000. I know its horrible to compare losses from wars and have any favourable thoughts - all losses are surely bad. But I do think that somewhere along the lines, we are in danger of not understanding the sheer scale of death that beset this country and others in not so distant history.
Its also important, I believe, that in these times where immigration has become such a sworded political issue, to remember that our shared British heritage has often been protected by those with absolutely no geographical relation to us, but shared our core values.
Take Josef Frantizek. A Czech fighter in exile and RAF fighter pilot during the battle of Britain. He accounted for 17 "kills" before he himself died on 8th of November 1940. He was in the top 5 aces of the battle. There is still a special plaque for him in Westminster Abbey. His English wasn't great but he was very much a "defender of the realm" to sit alongside the likes of Douglas Bader.
Josef Frantizek #wewillremember
Perhaps more obscure, but no less significant, are the 200,000 East Africans who served as porters for allied forces fighting in WW1, the 239,000 Indian troops who fought under the British flag in WW1 or the 10,000 West Indians who did the same. Huge and often overlooked contributions.
One story that lives with me goes back to when I was a teenager and as a family we visited Pegasus Bridge, scene of one of the first battles of D-Day. It was a surprise attack by glider assault on a single bridge in occupied Normandy. It was also the scene of the first allied casualty, Den Brotheridge. Brotheridge led the first charge across the bridge at 6am on 6th of June. Brotheridge was hit in the back of the neck by machine gun fire and died of his wounds without regaining consciousness in the early hours of 6 June, aged 28. What did "Den" think about that morning? Did he wonder if it would be his last? Where did he find the guts to charge across Pegasus Bridge?
As I stood on the bridge, I contemplated one man, lost on a foreign piece of non descript concrete making a pin prick contribution to something so much bigger than himself, and felt saddened and inspired in equal measure.
Pegasus Bridge today #wewillremember
Den Brotheridge #wewillremember
And remembrance shouldn't just be about Britain or its historical allies. German soldiers in both the first and second world war fought and died with distinction. On the Russian front, Wehmacht soldiers were often cited for trying to protect Russian children from SS reprisals. Many were just professional soldiers doing their job. Karl Plagge is probably the best example, high up in Hitlers army but with the sense of humanity to protect 1,200 Jews from certain slaughter. He was later declared "righteous amongst the nations" by the state of Israel.
Karl Plagge #wewillremember
In the First World War, the relationship between "Tommy" and "Fritz" was generally one of mutual respect, not hate. This was captured in the Christmas truce but extended to the humanity shown towards prisoners of war on both sides.
Remembrance shouldn't be just about yesterday. Today, we are witnessing the rise and potential fall of one of the most gruesome regimes of recent times, Islamic State. Perhaps we should spare a thought for those European volunteers, like Dean Carl Evans, who have fought and died on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq with the Kurdish YPG and other groups, to protect the rights of others, foreign to them. Because he didn't fight with a British army uniform on shouldn't diminish his contribution in protecting others from certain death.
Most of all, lets keep remembrance day relevant, real and rousing. Its for all of us and all of them.