What does the Great War mean to young people? A century after the Somme, the commemoration of the fallen of the Great War is being renewed by the creativity of current and former pupils of Magdalen College School.
It is 11am on November 1st, and Tom Piper is at work installing poppies in the Dining Hall. It is break time, and groups of pupils slow their pace to watch what is going on; the tables closest to him are having an unusual first sitting of lunch, and they are uncharacteristically quiet. Tom is an Old Waynflete, an old boy of MCS; he is better known for having installed Paul Cummins' Poppies at the Tower of London. Of the 888, 246 poppies which comprised Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, 50 commemorated the lives of the 49 old boys and one master of MCS who lost their lives as a result of wounds sustained during the Great War. These 50 poppies now bloom from a beam above the central door, and will remain there.
A few yards away from where Tom Piper was working, a Sixth Form trumpeter was practising the Last Post. She was preparing for the dedication ceremony, as were the boys who read out the names of all the fallen while the choir sang. As well as completing our poppy installation, the only private one of its kind in existence, Tom Piper spoke to our Art scholars. As he explained to them, a circuitous route brought him to the poppies: he began reading Biological sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, but during his second year he changed to Art History. When his old school friend Sam Mendes asked him to build some sets for a theatre production, Tom knew what he wanted to do.
In Big School, our main hall, the finishing touches have recently been completed to a new wall of remembrance. Three Upper Sixth Formers who are applying to University to read architecture have redesigned it. Until recently, MCS commemorated 47 Great War dead. The work of one of our Chemistry teachers, Dr David Bebbington, has revealed new names to be added to our roll of honour, bringing the total to the fifty which our Poppies memorialise so beautifully.
In DT, Junior School boys have laser cut poppies in mdf and etched the names of the MCS war dead on them; each black centre has a different commemorative message, written by the boys themselves in their History and PSHCE lessons.
Today, on Remembrance Day itself, we also dedicate a new paving stone in Cowley Place. This is in honour of Noel Chavasse, Victoria Cross and bar. A competitor in the 1908 Olympics and an army doctor, Chavasse is remembered for a modest bravery which few people could begin to imagine. One of only three men to be honoured with the VC and bar, Chavasse was a much-beloved medic in the Liverpool Scottish regiment who rescued injured men with scant regard for his own safety, receiving the VC for his rescue of men while under enemy fire both on the Somme and during the Battle of Passchendaele, where he was fatally wounded. (Read J4's James Lewis' poem in memory of Noel Chavasse). All the School’s houses are named after heroes who gave their lives during the Great War, and it is at this time of year in particular that we remember what they and so many of that generation endured and lost.
On November 11th, 11 am is a time of sombre silence. Shortly before 11am every other school day, our first sitting of lunch begins. Now, everyone at MCS eats this and every other school meal under the sinuous stems of our 50 poppies. As Tom Piper observed, this is as it should be. He wanted this installation not to be revered, but to be enjoyed in an everyday place. What better way to honour those who gave their today for our tomorrow than for the men and women of tomorrow to enjoy their todays in the gentle shadows cast by the poppies we treasure in their memory?