Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Remembrance Day Chapel Address - What Does it Mean to Hold High the Torch?

November 11 is a special day, an important day, a solemn day for many countries in the world including Canada, for Appleby College, and for me personally. Both my grandfathers served in the First World War, and my father served in the Second World War. In fact he was one of about two dozen first cousins, men and women, who served.

I have undertaken a great deal of research on the meaning of Remembrance Day from an Appleby perspective with the help of our Archivist Tracey Krause and alumnus  Curran Egan, who shared with me one of his recent papers as he works towards his PhD in history.
And while I have read and seen so much about the accomplishments of Appleby students and alumni in education and sports, in the arts and the professions, in public service and in business, I have come to the realization that Appleby’s war record, in particular but not limited to the two World Wars, is not only among the most remarkable Appleby stories over our 102 years, I don’t have any doubt that it is by far the most impressive.
While indications of this record is all around us on the campus – this chapel was created as a memorial to the Appleby men who died in First World War, that stained glass window on the north wall lists their names, and the Memorial Classroom Building where my office is located and you take many of your classes was built as a memorial to the Appleby dead in the Second World War – I don’t think that we have a very deep understanding of what that record actually was.
So let me share some of the details of that impressive legacy starting with the Great War, the First World War. And let me begin with this plaque over here on the south wall, which is a memorial to Aubrey de Vere Arnold Turquant. “Turk” as he was known as a student was a Prefect, sports star, band a beloved student leader. He left Appleby two months after his 18th birthday and enlisted. Unlike almost all his peers, he didn’t go through officers training in order to get overseas faster. And once there, he turned down a promotion to sergeant, because he wanted to be what he described in a letter to John Guest, his Appleby Headmaster, “one of the lucky ones” – he wanted to get to the front as soon as he could.
Close to that infamous town Ypres, he was wounded twice. On both occasions, he insisted that he get patched up to return to the battle. On June 13, 1916 an artillery shell landed close to him and he disappeared into the mud of Ypres – his body never found.
He was the first of Appleby’s war dead, and it hit the community hard. Indeed, because of the extent of the outpouring of sadness, only those who knew him well were allowed to contribute to the commemoration.
Right before he died, Turquand likely received this, the very first publication of The Argus from March, 1916. You know The Argus as the school yearbook, but when it was created, its purpose was to connect the campus community with those Appleby men who were overseas. It was a blend of stories about school goings-on as well letters from the Appleby men in the war. This first issue included a letter from Vernon de Butts Harcourt Powell, after whom Powell’s House was named. The fraternity and connection to Appleby was important to our boys serving overseas. It allowed them to feel a part of the life of the school, to feel a sense of sustaining friendships, and to nourish their souls. Appleby was an important factor in their morale
A later issue talked about a reunion on June 30, 1916 between Powell, his colleague Tom Colley, after whom Colley House is named, and their student Don Macdonald. They talked about old times, and they “forgot the guns, the dust and the next day.” And the next day that was ebbing referred to was July 1, 1916, the start of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, which lasted over 141 days.
On that first day there were between 75,000 and 100,000 casualties. The action that has always stuck in my thoughts was the conflict at Beaumont Hamel. At that time, Newfoundland was still a British colony, not yet part of Canada, with a tiny population. That morning the Newfoundland Regiment of about 800 including 22 officers went “over the top”. They were essentially an entire generation of the men in the colony. The next day, only 68 (none of whom were officers) were available for roll call. And all of that happened in less than 30 minutes that morning. Over the period of the entire Battle of the Somme, there were 1 million casualties for only 12 km of progress.
And that level of devastation was not unique to the Somme. Time and time and time again it was repeated, in places like Ypres, Cambrai, Verdun, Passchendaele, Arras, and Vimy.
These young men did not go off to war as would have been understood by anyone at the time. They went off to what can only be described as a highly efficient, ruthless, industrialized slaughter with horrendous stories. Stories of men not being able to move forward because the mound of dead and wounded bodies before them grew too large. Of soldiers being splattered with the flesh of their friends who were next to them just moments before them. Of men slipping off duck (walking) boards into massive, mud filled craters and simply disappearing, never to be found again.
Even if someone was one of the lucky ones who was not a physical casualty – those who were not killed or wounded by bullets or shells – quite certainly disease, drowning, battling rats and other vermin fat from feasting on corpses, and being in the middle of the sights, sounds and smells of sheer brutality, misery, carnage and loss would have had a profound impact on them, both at that time and throughout their lives.
So this was the reality of the Great War. It was a reality for that generation that is literally unimaginable for those of us sitting here today in this chapel.
In 1914 at the outbreak of the war, Appleby was only three years old. Our enrolment was about 60 students, from very young students to matriculation. Quite remarkably, over the following four years, 27 Appleby boys and 6 staff (the majority of the teachers) for a total of 33 signed up and served. Nine were killed, five were badly wounded and two ended up as prisoners of war.

From what we can garner from the records, which are not perfect , it is conceivable that every single Appleby alumnus left the school and enlisted to fight. If not all, it was certainly close to it.
And of our entire alumni population, 1/3 of our Old Boys were killed or badly wounded in the First World War. I want you to look around this chapel and think of the graduates of the last few years. Young people who were sitting next to us such a short time ago. Try to imagine one third of those face perishing in this terrible way, and their futures – the 60 years of what was to come – vanishing in a second. All of our alumni enlisting and one third ending up as casualties – those are stunning, stunning numbers.
Depending on where you start counting, the Second World War was taking place only 20 years after the end of the First World War, so it was very much fresh and seared in the minds of the citizens of combatant countries, including Canadians. But unlike the First World War, which was mainly focused on Europe, the Second World War truly devastated almost every region of the globe
Sixty to eighty million humans (4% of the world’s population) were killed. Shockingly, the majority of these were civilians. Horrendous battles in every corner of the globe, the atom bombs, the blitz and fire bombing, the Holocaust. No conflict in the history of our planet has come close to the destruction on either an absolute or relative basis, before or since.
At Appleby in 1939, the start of the European part of the war, enrolment was 85 students. We estimate that there were somewhere around 450 alumni
Of the 450, who would have ranged in ages from 17 to their mid-40s, fully 327 alumni and seven faculty members served. And you also have to remember that some of the 450 men would have been too old or medically unable to enlist. Six were also veterans of the First World War. Of the 327 who served, 20 were killed, 19 more wounded and 19 were prisoners of war.
Three hundred and twenty-seven is nothing less than a staggering number. It was about 3/4s of the entire alumni population. To put that in today’s terms proportionally with our current school and alumni populations, there would be 4000 alumni serving. Nine out of every ten members of graduating classes would be signing up. Appleby men served in almost every theatre of combat – from Italy to the North Atlantic, from the Pacific to Dieppe, from the Battle of Britain to D-Day, from Dunkirk to the march through Europe.
While many were motivated in part out of a sense of adventure, at the core of this number is a deep and abiding sense of duty, of responsibility and of service beyond self. And like Canadians in both of these wars, a scan of the roles, ranks and honors shows that Appleby men punched well about their weight class.
Appleby’s military story certainly did not end in 1945. Graduates have gone on to continue this proud tradition; fighting in conflicts and serving as peacekeepers in locations around the world, including the Korean War, the Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan, among others.
Most of you recognize the name John McRae. Lt. Col. Dr. John McRae was born and raised quite close to here in Guelph. He wrote this most famous poem while commanding a field hospital in the First World War right after he heard that his former student had just been killed:
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Let me close with a question - what does it mean? The end to that haunting poem, “We throw the torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep”. What does that mean to us today?

There are many things that “holding high the torch” could mean. Let me suggest there are three 3 that we should as a community, but also as individuals, should consider:

1.     Remember.

We can honour these men that served, and especially those who never returned, simply by remembering.  Not just on Remembrance Day, but when you look at the windows or tablets, or enter this chapel, or the Memorial Classroom Building, take a moment to think about their service and their sacrifices.

2.     Revel in our diversity, and take power from our mix of students.
From time-to-time I have wondered how it feels to be a student here from a country that fought against Canadians in one of the wars. Most recently, I was meeting with a Chinese family and found out that both of the Appleby student’s grandfathers fought in the Korean War with the Chinese against the UN Forces. I am sure that the student’s family has the same feelings about service and sacrifice as a Canadian family.

It also made me think about notions of allies and enemies, and how they are constantly changing. 200 years ago, the US and Canada were each other’s most significant enemies. Now we are closest of friends. For hundreds of years prior to the 20th Century, the French and the English were mortal enemies. Germany is once again the leader in Europe and assisting many other members of the EU. Indeed all of the Axis powers in both World Wars are counted among Canada’s friends and allies today. And that is a great thing.
Developing understanding and the ability for people of different backgrounds and perspectives to work and live together is something that we do well here at Appleby today. And this understanding is one of the most important foundations for building a just world and a world of peace.
I would suggest that part of “holding high the torch” should relate to how we, throughout our lives, should be compelled to advocate for just societies. We must be willing to engage in complex international issues. We should be willing participants in those difficult debates about the concept of liberal intervention in places like Kosova, Rwanda, Somalia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Syria. We must be willing to wrestle with questions of when and how to intervene, and when not to; about the roles of economic pressure, diplomacy, and force, where necessary. “Holding high the torch” bring with it the duty to protect the vulnerable of our world.

3.     Courage, Bravery and Service

Do you ever think how you would handle a difficult situation? Would you go into a burning building to rescue someone or do something else that requires immense courage, either physical or psychological? I wonder about that.

Today, more often than not, service above self is an easy decision – there is no real cost. But there are still times when it is a dangerous decision; a decision that requires courage. In those times, I want you to realize that you are part of a greater continuum of Appleby men and women who have made the courageous decisions.
Take inspiration from those listed on these plaques and do them proud in how you live your life

So, take inspiration from these alumni, take power from our diversity in advocating for a just world, and simply remember these remarkable stories of service and sacrifice.


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