First World War centenary

24th June, 2014

Packwood held a First World War commemoration day yesterday to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the War and to remember those former pupils who fought in that terrible conflict.

Inevitably, with the passing of time, the First World War becomes increasingly remote, particularly for children and young people, but it is something that should never be forgotten – a sentiment shared by Mr Hugh Trevor-Jones, Shropshire County Chairman of the Royal British Legion who joined us at the start of our day to take a special assembly. Mr Trevor-Jones spoke to the children about the origins of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance and how the sale of poppies every year, along with other fundraising activities, raises millions of pounds for the Legion. He explained how this money is spent in supporting members of the armed forces who have been injured and the bereaved families of those who have been killed. He was accompanied by a colleague who brought along the Legion standard to show the children and this was dipped, as is customary, during our singing of the National Anthem. It was a stirring and thought-provoking assembly that set the tone for the day and helped the children to understand the significance of our commemoration.

Over the course of the day the children took part in a range of workshops – activities designed to be fun but also to give the opportunity to reflect on the experience of those involved in and affected by the War. The juniors studied artefacts from the time, watched part of Joyeux Noel, a film about the First World War Christmas truce, enacted the story of the Accrington Pals, and talked more about the theme of remembrance during a poppy-making session. The seniors tackled an assault course, investigated the Chemistry of War, looked at wartime art and poetry and produced some work of their own, and studied the research undertaken into the 23 former Packwood pupils who lost their lives in the War.

We were also privileged to welcome two more guests to school whose presentations in the theatre were a highlight of the day. LCpl Ian Russell from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps gave a fascinating talk about the role played by animals in the War – a topic which proved to be extremely popular with the children and which provoked an almost overwhelming number of questions from them, bizarrely mostly about pigeons! He really captured the interest of his audience as he told them, not just about pigeons, but also about the horses that were used by the cavalry and for transport, and about the dogs who carried messages, assisted with casualties and acted as scouts and sentries. These animals were highly thought of and invaluable four-footed comrades, fiercely loved and protected by the fighting men (they even had their own gas masks as revealed in some very amusing photos!) We also learned how camels were used in the Middle East and how elephants supported the war effort on the Home Front, taking on many of the jobs previously done by horses. There was some amazing – and incongruous – video footage of circus elephants working on the farm – ploughing fields, pumping water and loading the hay rick.

Our second speaker was Packwood parent, Colonel Colin Weir from the Royal Irish Regiment. He spoke movingly about his and his soldiers’ experiences of modern warfare in Afghanistan and how it compares to the experiences of those who fought in the First World War. It was interesting to realise that while much has changed, there is also much that hasn’t. Living conditions can be equally harsh and uncomfortable, there is the ever-present danger from the enemy and there are the long months of separation from loved ones at home to endure. Again the questions flooded in from the rapt audience and Colonel Weir answered as many as time allowed with heroic patience and good humour.

After the final workshop of the day all of the children and members of staff gathered together before making their way to the Centenary Copse which was planted earlier this year. Everyone walked across the grounds in absolute silence and it was a moving and humbling moment to witness these young people respond so thoughtfully to everything they had done throughout the day and to see that they understood that this was the right and proper behaviour. The ceremony that followed included prayers and the reciting of a poem written by one of the Packwood fallen. A memorial plaque was unveiled and the junior children laid the poppies they had made earlier in the day. The names of those who had died were read out and labels bearing their names were attached to each of the 23 oak trees that make up part of the Copse. The ceremony concluded with Alfie H playing The Last Post followed by a minute’s silence – a fitting conclusion to a really special day.