‘THEY WERE THE CONDEMNED GENERATION’
Now to the Kingdom of the Young
We reach out of the rain and dark,
Hearing far off the children’s song,
Blithe as the lark, fresh as the lark.
Katharine Tynan. 1918
For those who survived, the coming of peace had to be greeted as the unexpected guest it was. Some met it with relief and joy; others could only look up in disbelief. There were those for whom it was a kind of anticlimax. ‘We were too far gone, too exhausted really, to enjoy it. We simply celebrated the Armistice in silence and thankfulness that it was all over. We were drained of all emotion.’ Vera Brittain wrote that ‘the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: ‘We’ve won the War! They only said: ‘The War is over.’’ It was to become a different world from the one people had known through four long years, a world in which they could be light- hearted and forgetful.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that ‘abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, are obscene beside the concrete names of villages and rivers, the number of regiments, and the dates on which their men killed and were killed.’ There were no heroes, only victims. It became impossible for later generations to calculate the incalculable. Immediacy, believed Arthur M. Schlesinger, gave a knowledge denied those who were not around when history happened. ‘Participants,’ wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, ‘understood better than posterity, the movements of opinion, the popular inclinations of their times, the vibrations of which they can still sense in their minds and hearts.’
It was ‘an age of Death, and Agony and Tears’ wrote Vera Brittain, and one of the greatest tragedies in British history from which the country has never really recovered.
The Stratford-upon-Avon Town Council procrastinated over how to commemorate the sacrifice made by the local men. A Ball was held to celebrate the victory, and one option was the wearing of fancy dress. Finally, following a number of suggestions for a permanent memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon, and some time after the placing of a Memorial Screen and Reredos in Holy Trinity Church and dedicated on April 24 1920, it was decided to erect a cross of Horton Stone, locally quarried at Edgehill, on an island at the top of Bridge Street. Unveiled by three old soldiers on February 17 1922, the Memorial named those Stratfordians who had died, although there were anomalies including the absence of Reginald Warneford VC, an error that was not to be corrected for over ninety years. Struck by a lorry, the cross was then moved to the Bancroft Gardens on Waterside, and finally to the Garden of Remembrance in Old Town.
In November 1917, a meeting of Governors, Old Boys and Friends of the School was held in Big School with the Mayor (Archibald Flower) in the chair, where it was proposed to establish a War Memorial at the School in grateful and lasting memory of the Old Boys who had fallen in the war. The Memorial was to be a reading room and, if funds permitted, provide scholarships. It was decided, somewhat appropriately, to postpone any activity until the end of the war, when donations would be invited. By August 1919, £775 had been collected.
Coming to terms with what had been and what the years between 1914 and 1918 had cost, the Headmaster, Rev. Cecil Knight, wished to commemorate the boys in a way that would be a lasting memorial to them, and also ensure that they would never be forgotten and would always be a tangible reminder to succeeding generations. Composed of Warwickshire oak timber framing, the building was filled in between with plaster panels and with a brick lining, the whole being set on a plinth of local limestone. The interior was open up to the roof, supported by two oak hammer beam trusses, and the floor was also of oak. The Chairman of the Governors, Mr. Archibald Flower, described the building as a ‘simple, beautiful example of British design and British craftsmanship, in tune with its historic surroundings.’ The windows were filled with lead lights, and some of the glass came from an old disused screen in Holy Trinity Church. The north window was given by Mr. and Mrs. Howard Jennings in memory of their two sons. The library bookcases, a large oak table and a bronze memorial tablet were presented by the historian Sir George Trevelyan. The School opened the Memorial Library on May 12 1923. The School Cadets were drawn up and the band of the Weston Training School Cadet Corps accompanied the singing of ‘O God, our help in ages past,’ followed by the reading of the thirty-one Old Boys recorded on the Tablet. Present was General Sir H.B. Walker who asserted that the people of Stratford- upon-Avon and Warwickshire must be particularly proud of the School which sent forth so many representatives to fight. ‘This wonderful old School, dating back centuries, has indeed maintained its reputation and added to its honour and glories.’
In his poem about the boys who had died, and many of whom were his contemporaries at School, Gerald Jaggard wrote the lines:
Old boys laid aside pen and book and ball,
Happy to hear their country call,
And answer with a will.
The four years of the Great War never really left those who had fought it, and they were haunted all their lives. ‘For many days,’ said one speaking for many, ‘I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this.’ Edmund Blunden wrote of that idealistic generation:
Tired with dull grief, grown old before my day,
I sit in solitude and only hear
Long silent laughters, murmurings of dismay’
The lost intensities of hope and fear…..