Brighton College has benefited in many ways from the leadership and vision of Anthony Seldon. One of the most remarkable innovations he has brought to pupils, parents and OBs alike are his now legendary visits to the Great War battlefields.
If anyone doubted his knowledge or enthusiasm for the history of World War I, even after being told that Anthony has been to Ypres on 42 occasions, all doubts would have been cast away after joining the latest Seldon excursion. Equally, anyone who dared to suggest that the schedule might be a bit ‘tight’ in the time available, clearly did not realise that Anthony runs these trips with military precision!
We started, appropriately, with a brief service in the Brighton College Chapel which was extended to commemorate the 143 pupils, OBs and staff who were killed fighting for their country between 1914 and 1918. The last time I was in Chapel was to share the celebration of 140 pupils graduating from the College in July. It chills me to imagine that entire group of young people might, in another age, have been wiped out by the horror of war.
After a comfortable ferry crossing and onward drive to Ypres we were led to the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. The memorial contains the names of 54,896 officers and men from all the overseas British and Commonwealth forces who fell in the Ypres Salient before 16 August 1917. Every day since 1929, with a four year gap during the German occupation of Ypres, traffic from all around has been stopped and the Last Post and Reveille has been sounded in all weathers at 20:00 hours. Usually two members of the volunteer fire service perform the salute, but on this occasion there were five buglers. Representatives of six men whose names are listed on the Portland stone panels were invited to lay wreaths. It was a short, simple ceremony, but also very moving and poignant.
Afterwards, the Brighton College party stopped to look at the seemingly endless names of those whose bodies remain in the Flanders soil, their bodies never to be identified. The sheer scale of the loss of life was starting to weigh heavily on us all.
An exceptional allowed us a bit of time to reflect and get to know others in the group. There was a tremendous spirit which transcended the broad age range of our party. As the courses kept coming and the wine kept flowing, new friendships were made and the horrors of war were temporarily forgotten until the next morning.
Whether or not Anthony Seldon went for his much promoted 06:15 walk is not clear, but he wore a chunky sweater to breakfast to make us think it was cold outside all the same! In fear of detention we had all taken heed of his warning to be in the hotel lobby at 08:40 sharp and it was a short walk to St George’s Church for the dedication of a plaque commemorating the Old Brightonians who gave their lives. The plaque, a long overdue tribute, was generously donated by Ian White, Chairman of the College Governors and an Old Brightonian and parent of an OB. He had invested many, many hours in arranging this trip and for him and his wife it was something of a pilgrimage as relatives had been lost on the fields of Flanders.
The Church is entirely dedicated to remembering the British and Commonwealth troops who were sacrificed in the horrors of 1914-18. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of plaques and memorials list friends, family, former pupils and colleagues. Every one tells a separate story. The College Chaplain’s sermon gave those Old Brightonians life once again when he pondered which one would have been the class clown, which the football star, and who might have been the Oxbridge high achiever had the War not intervened…and he suggested that like boys and young men throughout the generations, these OBs would have been just as interested in sport, sex, food, drink, sex as any other lads their age…..not fighting a war on foreign soil when barely out of school uniform.
The remainder of our time in Ypres was a whirlwind of visits to cemeteries, both British and, importantly, German, as well as the Field of Flanders museum in the Cloth Hall, and Hill 60, the site of a most horrific carnage and still largely preserved but for the hand of nature with all its craters caused by mines and shells.
If it is possible to choose a highlight of this entire experience, it should surely be the visit to Sanctuary Wood and the trenches which have been preserved thanks to a Belgian family who purchased the land at the end of the War. After visiting the museum which contains some of the most horrific images of war I have ever seen, we walked through the trenches to see for ourselves how claustrophobic and wretched they were.
We then paused in the wood as the chiming of bells struck the hour, for a two minute silence. And as we did so, the yellow and orange leaves of the trees around us silently fell to the ground as if to symbolise all those who had fallen on that very spot all those years ago. Many of us remarked later that at that moment, there seemed to be an atmosphere which cannot be explained. It was something very raw, and real and powerful.
To Anthony Seldon, and to Ian White, our deepest thanks for enabling us to join in this collective weekend of remembrance. I hope that in years to come future generations of Old Brightonians will visit to pay their respects to the Old Brightonians who never lived to see their potential fulfilled. If they do, they can finally see a fitting memorial in St George’s Memorial Church. I for one will be returning – and I will take my godson as soon as he is old enough to understand. We will remember.