Good morning, everyone, and welcome. Thank you for your presence, and thank you for your ongoing connection to the School, whether you are a student, an Old Boy, a current or alumni parent, a retiree, a current employee, or simply a friend of St. George’s.
We are honoured to be joined by a number of special guests, including: The Reverend John Stephens ’83, who is leading our Service, as his father did before him; Mr. Michael Skene ’85, the Chair of the Board; Mr. Prentice Durbin ’89, our Foundation Chair; Dr. Paul Mitchell-Banks ’78, President of the Old Boys’ Association; Ms. Janna Warry, President of the Parents Association; a number of former Board Chairs and Builders of St. George’s School; Mr. Greg Devenish, former Principal of the Junior School; Mr. Shawn Lawrence, former Principal of the Senior School; various Board members and other volunteers.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in recent weeks, and one of the topics I’ve been mulling over is Remembrance Day and its relevance for the young man gathered in this gym today. I certainly don’t have any definitive answers, but I do have a few inter-related thoughts that I would like to share with you in my comments this morning.
Reflecting its official purpose, Remembrance Day provides us with the opportunity to honour those who fought and died for their country, including the Fallen—our 24 Old Boys and 3 Masters who were killed in the Second World War. As you may know, a disproportionately large number of Canadians served in the two world wars (600,000 in the First World War and 1.1 million in the Second World War), and altogether 100,000 Canadians lost their lives.
Amazingly, here at St. George’s, 170 of our 200 Old Boys served during World War II, and 24 of them didn’t return home. If we were to transpose those numbers to the current Senior School population, 650 of our 775 students would have enlisted and more than 90 of them would have died. Try to imagine that we are here today mourning the deaths of close to 100 of our Senior School students. That’s what it would have been like for the St. George’s Community in 1945.
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.
Most of the Old Boys and Masters who signed up did so out of a sense of duty. Take the example of Douglas Harker. He enlisted on the day that Canada declared war on Germany, even though his brother and boss, Headmaster John Harker, strongly disapproved, declaring that he “had let the School down badly.” In justifying his decision, Douglas told John that he “had a personal score to settle.” A supporter of Chamberlain’s misguided policy of appeasement, he had been slow to recognize the inherent evil of Nazism. With the invasion of Poland, the blinkers were removed from his eyes, and he felt compelled to enlist in order to defend democracy and human rights.
Over the years, I’ve shared with you the stories of The Fallen. At their core, those young men were not all that different from you, our current students. Some of them were scholars; some of them were athletes; some of them were both. Some of them were outgoing and gregarious, while others were more reserved and introverted. Regardless of their differences, they risked their lives in order to defend their ideals—each of them a hero in his own way.
I’m moved, for example, by the story of Flight Lieutenant William A. Black. When the aircraft he was flying was hit by fierce anti-aircraft fire, he ordered his crew to bail out while he kept their crippled plane in the air. By the time they had jumped to safety, it was too late for Black, and he plunged to a fiery death.
I’m also am drawn to the story of the Else brothers—Jim and Harry. They were among the 28 Old Boys who enlisted on the first day of the war. As John Harker recalled:
Their scholastic prowess was slight; their personalities outgoing and vigorous; their loyalty to their country, to each other and to their School, total.
The father of two young children and a Major in the RCA, Jim was twice wounded on D-Day, but went on to participate in the liberation of Belgium and the Netherlands. Almost a year later, he was killed in Germany by a land mine, his widow learning of his death three days later on Victory in Europe Day. Jim’s brother, Harry, was a Private with the Royal Canadian Ordinance Corps. He was badly wounded in Italy at the Battle of Ortona, and died about a year later never having recovered fully from his wounds.
As an exercise in empathy, try to imagine the grief experienced by Jim and Harry’s parents.
Do you think they ever recovered from the loss of their two sons? I don’t think so. On Remembrance Day, we remember William Black, the Else brothers, and the rest of the Fallen, along with all of Canada’s war dead.
While honouring The Fallen, we also are called upon to remember what Headmaster Alan Brown termed war’s “unspeakable horror.” The statistics are staggering. More than 40 million combatants and civilians died in World War I, and it’s estimated that more than 60 million people were killed during World War II. Included in that number are the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Pause for a moment and reflect on those numbers—40 million killed in World War I, 60 million in World War II, and 6 million victims of the Holocaust.
It’s impossible to wrap our heads around numbers of that magnitude—to conceptualize so much death and destruction.
This summer, I gained a new insight into the horror of modern warfare while visiting one of my sons in Newfoundland. I happened to be there on July 1st, and as you may know, in Newfoundland, Canada Day is known as Memorial Day. It’s not a day of celebration; it’s a day of mourning. For on July 1, 1916, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was virtually annihilated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Precisely at 9:15 am, the 758 soldiers and 23 officers comprising the Newfoundland Regiment began their advance towards the German position. As they emerged from their trenches, with 60 pounds of equipment on their backs, they were mowed down by hostile machine gunfire. By 9:45 am, half an hour later, 85% of the Regiment was dead, dying, or wounded. As a British officer dispassionately observed: “it was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed… because dead men can advance no further.” On the following day, July 2, 1916, only 68 of the 781 reported for roll call.
Newfoundland was devastated; there wasn’t a town, village, or extended family that hadn’t lost a loved one.
The following first-hand account from a runner, whose job it was to run through the trenches delivering messages, provides a glimpse into the carnage of the Somme battlefield:
I could see nothing moving, just heaps of blood-soaked Khaki slumped on the ground…I started to push my way through the trench, but it was filled with the wounded, and as I tried to push by, agonizing cries would come from them…It was too much for me…
Keeping in mind that image of “blood-soaked Khaki,” we must never glorify warfare, nor should we forget that behind the statistics are human beings—people like us, who loved and were loved, and who in many cases are still mourned.
I also had the opportunity this summer to visit Budapest. While there, I learned about the impact of the Holocaust on Hungary’s Jewish community. I also learned about a man named Carl Lutz, one of the Righteous among Nations, and his story has helped me to understand the importance of remaining hopeful in challenging times. As you may know, the systematic murder of Hungary’s Jews began in March 1944 with the German occupation.
In a matter of months, the vast majority of the Jewish population was rounded up and deported to Nazi death camps. Most people remained silent or actively collaborated with the Nazis, but there were a few courageous individuals who risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbours.
One of the most significant was Carl Lutz. The Swiss Vice-Consul, Lutz used his ingenuity and diplomatic status to lead what may have been the largest rescue operation of the Second World War. He began by obtaining permits offering Swiss protection to 8000 people. He then deliberately reinterpreted this mandate, applying it to 8000 families rather than 8000 people, and he extended Swiss protection to 76 buildings so that those with permits could be protected from Nazi raids. Lutz also worked with the Jewish underground, producing forged protective papers so that even more people could be saved.
In November of 1944, when the local fascists, known as the Arrow Cross Party, assembled 70,000 Jews and forced them on a death march, Carl Lutz repeatedly drove out of the city and pulled as many people as possible out of line, issuing them forged papers. He then drove them to one of the safe houses in Budapest before returning to the countryside to conduct another rescue.
Approximately 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered during the Second World War. Amazingly, Carl Lutz saved 62,000 of the 130,000 who survived. As he explained years later, Lutz was motivated not so much by courage, but rather by a profound sense of hopefulness. Despite the depravity all around him, he wanted to show the world that goodness remained, and that light can overcome darkness, just as love can conquer hate.
How many of us would have had the strong moral compass that guided Carl Lutz and the other Righteous among Nations?
I’ve been wondering in recent weeks about the significance of these historical events for the young men gathered in this gym today, seemingly so distant in time and place. Last year, I shared with you the thinking of our definitive Headmaster, John Harker. He believed that we are indebted to The Fallen; they fought and died so that “we can live in a world free of hatred, tyranny, and injustice.” The best way for us to demonstrate our appreciation to them is through our actions—by striving to become better versions of ourselves. Above and beyond anything else, Harker urges us to be respectful—to reject cruelty and oppression—and to embrace compassion and basic human decency. Underlying his thinking was a deep commitment to the notion of service above self; in his words, “service to others is the rent we pay for our room on earth.”
The world has changed since John Harker’s time, but his words are as relevant today as they were 50 or 60 years ago. Every year, on November 11th, we pause to remember The Fallen and to reflect upon the lessons learned from the past. We also are challenged to rise above our meanness—to embrace what Abraham Lincoln termed “our better angels.”
We live in troubling times. Demagoguery, extremism, exclusionary politics, and hateful language and behaviour are on the rise. The tone of public discourse is increasingly disrespectful, and repressive regimes around the world are violating human rights with impunity. We’ve also seen the insidious potential of technology, spreading lies and hatred, and attempting to subvert the democratic process.
Within this context, I believe that we have an increasingly important responsibility.
We have a responsibility to be active and engaged—to keep ourselves informed—to deepen our understanding of key issues—to recognize our own biases—to get involved—to vote—to volunteer—to give back—to have the courage to speak up when others are being maligned or mistreated—to embrace diversity and inclusion—to treat others as we would like to be treated. Moreover, like The Fallen, we are called upon to defend the ideals that define us—here at St. George’s, our Core Values (empathy, humility, integrity, resilience, respect, responsibility); and in the wider world, a commitment to democracy and human rights, including freedom of expression, due process of law, and equality for all.
In the spirit of Carl Lutz, I’m going to conclude with three passages celebrating the power of hopefulness. Writing about 3000 years ago, the Prophet Isiah envisages a world without war:
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.
More recently, in Anthem, Leonard Cohen, the great Canadian poet and songwriter, declares that light overcomes darkness even in the most dire of circumstances:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
And finally, I ask you to reflect on the words of Vaclav Havel, the Czech author, dissident and statesman. Imprisoned several times by an oppressive Communist regime, he sees hope as a powerful antidote to what he terms “the cowardice of cynicism”:
The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness, and human responsibility…Hope is just a feeling that life and work have a meaning. It is a dimension of the soul...an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond the horizon. Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred.
Every year, at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, we gather as a community to remember The Fallen. We also remember the horror of warfare and reaffirm our commitment to making our School and our world better places. That is our hope; that is our sacred trust. For in our hearts, we know that “truth and love will overcome lies and hatred.”