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BC VOICES: Barry Gough

BC VOICES: Barry Gough

March 29, 2016

Testaments to Youth: Schools and Empires of the Dead

by Barry Gough, Victoria, BC

Recently I read Empires of the Dead, by David Crane, all about Fabian Ware, the person who developed what became The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Ware, a former journalist and editor, took up the task under the banner of the Red Cross and a motor vehicle collective organized by the Royal Automobile Club of Pall Mall, to find and document and memorialize the bodies of British Empire casualties. This great work began in 1914 and went on until late 1918 and thereafter through another great war and other wars. Crane reveals that it would take over eight hours for all the dead, if living, of the British Empire who were killed in the 1914 to 1918 war to parade past the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Just imagine. I have been to the same Cenotaph on 11 November on a few teary occasions, and the parade of those paying respect to those lost in war has left an unforgettable memory. I even remember that the parade was brought up at the rear by persons not authorized, then, to be officially in the parade: these were the war widows, the wives, sisters, and daughters of those lost in The Great War. They formed a sort of unofficial brigade of female mourners, taking their place in the march of tribute to the fallen. My memory is deep about this.

It deepened in remarkable degree when I tackled the history of my high school, Victoria High School, Victoria, British Columbia, and the Great War. The project was unintended, but sparked by the destruction of memorial trees that had been planted in 1917 to honour those students lost at the 2nd Battle of Ypres, a baptism of fire for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, also known as the coming of age of the Canadian Army. Bright sparks had decided on a new landscaping scheme. My book was an atonement for those arboreal losses, and more: it became a tribute in miniature to a world we have lost. I was fascinated to read about the females in the school whose male friends and brothers had marched away to war. As the halls emptied in that beautiful, state-of-the-art Beaux Arts school (the building, the school’s 4th in succession, opened the spring the war began), the cream of Canadian youth headed to war, in time for the Somme, Vimy, Passchendaele, Amiens, the 100 Days, and the Armistice. Almost a hundred — male students, three male teachers, and seven registered nurses — died in the catastrophe. Their names are on the bronze plaque of remembrance and sacrifice in the school’s main hallway.

Victoria High School retains other memorials from that war: stained glass laurel wreaths of victory and sacrifice embracing red poppies, the 1921 banner that was hung from the upper room windows at the time of the 1919 event honouring the sacrifices, and the famed Roll of Honour, listing the near thousand from the school who fought for King and Country. These are both monuments of valour and testaments to youth — to allude to Vera Brittain’s poignant novel of that name published in 1933. Such was this unusual time in our history when patriotism was unqualified and, in Victoria and British Columbia, irrefutable.

But we could not fight such a war again: we don’t have the stomach for it — the true patriotism has gone, destroyed at Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele, and elsewhere. But still, we made a nation out of Vimy. Our politicians, our veterans, our widows made that sure. The Vimy Alchemy, as I call it, gave us a nation just at the time that so many other nations were coming into being, and so many empires were becoming like those of Nineveh and Tyre. Lest we forget. As to those wishing to write the history of their own school’s war history, advice is provided in an article I have written and just published in the on-line Canadian Military History. In the writing of history, as in the fighting of battles it may well be remembered that, “Fortune favours the Brave.” But be prepared for some tears.

Article link: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol25/iss1/13/