We gather on November 11th to remember the Fallen—our 27 Old Boys and Masters who were killed in the Second World War. We also remember the tens of millions of people who have died due to armed conflict since the beginning of the last century, as we look forward to the day when war will be nothing more than a painful memory. The words of the Prophet Isaiah come to mind:
…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
We are honoured this morning to be joined by a number of special guests: the Venerable Andrew Pike, who is leading our Service; Mr. Michael Skene ’85, the Vice-Chair of the Board; our Foundation Chair, Mr. Prentice Durbin ’89; the President of the Old Boys’ Association, Mr. Dirk Laudan ’87, and Mr. Martin Shen representing the Parents’ Association; various Board members and other volunteers; Old Boys, retired faculty and staff members, and both current and alumni parents. I also would like to recognize all of the men and women currently serving their country, as well anyone in uniform who is here with us today.
With every passing year, the Second World War becomes an even more distant memory. When I began teaching 30—or maybe it was 40—years ago, it wasn’t difficult to find a D-Day veteran or a Holocaust survivor willing to meet with students and share with them their wartime experiences. That would not be the case today. Only a handful of survivors remain, and our connection to that critical time in history is more tenuous than ever.
To give just one example…My father-in-law, George Abbotts, passed away around this time last year, just a few months short of his 103rd birthday. A veteran of the Second World War, he served for more than six years in the British army, and he saw action in North Africa, Italy, and Austria. George didn’t like talking about the War, but he always attended this service, and his powerful presence in our lives somehow made the War more comprehensible.
With the passing of that ‘most heroic of generations,’ Remembrance Day is more important than ever. It forces us to pause, to move beyond ourselves, and to remember those who died for their country. It also encourages us to ponder the significance of their sacrifice and to contemplate the horror of war. And, in our hearts we are left wondering…Surely there is a better way of resolving human conflict?
As we all know, the official purpose of Remembrance Day is to remember Canada’s war dead—the men and women who lost their lives in the two World Wars. In the words of Veterans Affairs:
We must remember. If we do not, the sacrifice of those 100,000 Canadians will be meaningless. They died for us, for their homes and families and friends, for a collection of traditions they cherished and a future they believed in; they died for Canada. The meaning of their sacrifice rests with our collective national conscious; our future is their monument.
Here at St. George’s, November 11th has particular relevance. A disproportionally large number of Old Boys enlisted during the Second World War (170 out of 200), and a significant proportion (24) lost their lives. If you were to transpose those numbers to the current Senior School population, about 650 of our 775 students would have enlisted and more than 90 would have been killed in action. As one Old Boy recalled: “We were barely out of St. George’s before we were all in the armed forces, and many of my class died in the next three or four years.” As a sign of our respect for the Fallen, this ceremony always takes place on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, even when it falls on a Saturday or Sunday.
An additional theme underlying Remembrance Day is what Headmaster Alan Brown termed war’s “unspeakable horror.” The numbers alone defy comprehension. More than 40 million combatants and civilians died during World War I, and it’s estimated that more 60 million people were killed during World War II. Just as staggering as the statistics are the stories of those individuals whose lives were impacted by war. Let me share with you just three examples.
I recently spent several hours listening to interviews recorded with Canadian World War I veterans. I was struck, not just by the horrific events they described, but also by the emotional rawness still evident in their voices more than 50 years later. One man named Charles Skeates, a barber from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, provided the following account of the Battle of Passchendaele during the fall of 1917:
That was the second gas attack up there. The Battalion went in at about 700 strong and came out with only 75…Oh, it was disgraceful to send them in under those conditions. There was many fellows slipped into a shell hole and couldn’t get out, got drowned, and that got shot. The big guys, the top guys that forced that battle onto the troops, they’re the ones that should have been shot. God, it was ridiculous. The horses couldn’t move, couldn’t pull the guns up. You couldn’t walk hardly in that chalk. It was terrible when it was wet. Yes, it was ridiculous to try to send troops over under those conditions. You couldn’t stand up hardly.
So many decades later, his voice cracked as he recounted the horrors of trench warfare and remembered his fallen comrades.
Closer to home, I’m reminded of the story of one of our Old Boys, Stewart Ross. Stewart came to St. George’s from Victoria as a Grade 8 boarder. His school reports describe him as “a very shy boy” and “an outstanding student”. I’m not sure what he did following his graduation from St. George’s, but I do know that on June 6, 1944 he was among the 150,000 Allied soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy. He was lucky enough to survive D-Day, but was hit by a rogue shell 10 days later.
Severely injured, he was paralyzed from the waist down, and his mangled arm was amputated in order to save his life. Once his condition stabilized, he was sent back to Canada, and his parents moved to Vancouver so that they could help care for him at the Shaughnessy Hospital, only a few miles from here.
After a year-and-a-half of suffering, Stewart Ross passed away at the age of 25, with his parents by his side, never having been well enough to leave the hospital. At the funeral service attended by many of his former classmates, he was described by his commanding officer as someone who had “all of the qualities of a great leader” and as being “loved by all his men”.
My third example involves a Holocaust survivor I met almost 40 years ago. She privileged me with her story, and I will never forget her gut-wrenching description of what it felt like when she was separated from her parents and younger sister, shortly after arriving at a Nazi death camp. While the other members of her family were sent directly to the gas chamber, she was selected to work as a slave. Miraculously, she survived for more than a year, before being liberated by the Allies in the spring of 1945. “To my dying day,” she wept, “I will feel the pain of that moment of separation, just as part of me will always feel guilty for surviving while my family and millions of others perished.”
The unspeakable horror of war is something that we must never forget.
Here at St. George’s, we have a tradition, not only of honouring the Fallen, but also of drawing lessons from their sacrifice. John Harker, our definitive Headmaster, frequently reminded the boys of how indebted they were to the Fallen. “They fought and died for King and country,” he declared, “as well as for all of us so that we can live in a world free of hatred, tyranny, and injustice…. It should be your ambition to prove they did not die in vain, and that you, their heirs, are worthy of their sacrifice.”
Telling them that they were “too complacent and self-satisfied,” he urged the boys to become better versions of themselves—to become what he termed ‘a young man with a purpose.’
A young man with a purpose, he explained, is respectful and able to think for himself.
He has a good sense of humour, hates cruelty and oppression, and has a strong sense of justice and compassion. Integral to Harker’s vision was the notion of ‘service above self.’ As he reminded the boys, “service to others is the rent we pay for our room on earth.”
There is a direct link between Harker’s words, and the School that we aspire to be today, as articulated in our Mission and Core Values. Similarly, Harker’s commitment to service aligns perfectly with our definition of leadership—making a positive difference in your community. It’s all about responsibility and about serving in our own time and in our own way.
Particularly in these bewildering times, we have a responsibility to be active and engaged citizens—to keep ourselves informed, to deepen our understanding of key issues, to get involved, to volunteer, and to vote…to have the courage to speak up when others are being maligned or mistreated, to embrace diversity, to build bridges, and to reach out to others.
Like the Fallen, we also have a responsibility to defend the values that help to define us as Canadians—including a commitment to the democratic process and to basic human rights, such freedom of expression, due process of law, and equality for all. As was the case during the Second World War, ignorance, disengagement, and complacency are not viable options.
Last month, at the CAIS Heads and Chairs Conference in Calgary, I had the opportunity to listen to an extraordinary speaker—a Blackfoot elder named Casey Eagle Speaker. Forced to attend a residential school where he was labelled #56, he suffered every form of abuse imaginable. And, as he explained, the most important thing he learned in that residential school was how not to treat children. Despite his horrific childhood experiences, Casey Eagle Speaker delivered a message of hope and reconciliation. We have a responsibility to learn from our past mistakes, he implored, while trying to envision a better future for all of humanity. No one person is better than another. We are all made by the Creator, for whom there is no such thing as colour or gender. We are, quite simply, human beings. Our spirit is a gift from the Great Spirit; our bodies a gift from Mother Earth. And as human beings, we have a responsibility to give of ourselves, without the expectation of receiving something in return.
He told the story of the hummingbird that flew repeatedly into a great fire in an attempt to put it out, one miniscule water drop at a time. (Try to imagine how little water a hummingbird could carry in its beak). When challenged by the bear and the wolf for risking its life and wasting its time, the hummingbird replied: “I’m just doing what I can!” That, Casey Eagle Speaker concluded, is what is expected from all of us—to do what we can, to help one another, and to change the world for the better, one drop of water at a time.
John Harker was right—if we want to be worthy successors to the Fallen, we must be willing to abandon our ‘complacency and self-satisfaction’. We also must take to heart the sentiments expressed by Casey Eagle Speaker and ensure that our lives reflect the very best of our humanity. A good point of departure is the Golden Rule embraced by all of the world’s great faith traditions. If we treat others as we would like to be treated, our lives will tell powerful stories of service and responsibility; of empathy, respect, and inclusion.
Regardless of our cultural background, religious beliefs, or political views, we have a responsibility—a responsibility to serve; to give back; to help make our community, our country, and our world better places. That is how we can express our gratitude to the Fallen.
That is the most powerful lesson that we can learn from their sacrifice and from the deaths of countless others. We gather today to ensure that their names be not forgotten.