May 8th of this year marked 100 years since University School founder Capt. Robert Harvey’s death as a prisoner of war in a German hospital during the First World War.
His contributions to the school community as a founder and as a soldier during the war does not go unrecognized, as he is honoured every year at the Middle and Senior School Remembrance Day Service.
Remembrance Day at SMUS is steeped in history and tradition.
A letter dated August 21, 1914, written by Capt. Harvey to the students of University School, is read aloud each year during the Service. It was his last letter addressing the school before he went off to fight in the war, and is a constant reminder of his commitment to both the school and the country.
“I need not tell you that my heart is all with the old school, now as always, and I can hardly realize that school is going to re-open while I am far away,” Harvey wrote in his letter. “If I go to join the troops who are fighting under our flag I shall feel that I have all your best wishes and prayers, and that while I am away every boy will do his best in school or out, at games or at drill, to keep the honour of the school as high and untarnished as we others are trying to keep the honour of our country.”
This year, the Remembrance Day Service also highlighted another set of historic letters. Acting 12 students performed a segment of R.H. Thomson’s “The Lost Boys: Letters from the Sons in Two Acts”, which was written based on a collection of letters from five of Thomson’s uncles who all fought in the First World War.
As is tradition, the SMUS Review publishes below Rev. Keven Fletcher’s speech, delivered during the Middle and Senior School Remembrance Day Service. This year, he also touched on the theme of “letters”.
July 20th, 1918
I do not know how to start this letter.
The circumstances are different from any under which I ever wrote before.
I am not to post it but will leave it in my pocket,
if anything happens to me someone will perhaps post it.
We are going over the top this afternoon
and only God in Heaven knows who will come out of it alive…
Oh! How I love you all and as I sit here waiting
I wonder what you are doing at home. I must not do that.
It is hard enough sitting waiting.
We may move at any minute…
(Excerpts from a letter by Company Sergeant-Major James Milne)
Almost one hundred years ago, Sergeant-Major James Milne penned that letter on the frontlines of World War One. This morning, we’ll hear more words from those who fought in the same war, including our own Captain Harvey.
The letters are old, but don’t be tempted to relegate their contents to the past. Lately, our national papers have been taking account, again, of those who fell in Afghanistan and the even more recent deaths of those who returned in body, but clearly were no longer whole.
This day is about all their stories across time, their very human experiences in the trenches and on the battlefields. It is not about sides or victories or heroics. This is no celebration; it is an act of remembrance.
And we need to remember. We need to remember, so that we are fully aware of the price that was paid and is still being paid because in the busyness of our daily lives, we so easily forget the frightening cost of the way we run this part of our collective life.
And by remembering, we cannot so easily overlook our own calling to build a more compassionate and just society.
We’ve been in here for a while now. The subject matter has been heavy, a long weekend awaits. There’s no doubt that most of us are done with sitting and we want to move, which brings us back to the letter with which we opened this ceremony,
Remember how the soldier wrote that he shouldn’t think longingly of home in the moment before engaging in battle: He said, ‘It is hard enough sitting waiting.’ We may move at any minute. In his context, imagine what it meant to sit and wait. Imagine what it would have meant when the order came to move.
How different our world from his. How fortunate you and I. All the greater our responsibility to remember and to act. Writing, not necessarily in words but through our actions, an even clearer statement about who we want to be. Writing, through our lives, an even deeper declaration of our personal commitment to a more peaceable and just world.
When it comes to living that kind of life, may we be done with sitting.
(photos by Kent Leahy-Trill and Kyle Slavin)