An address given by Mr Williams on Wednesday, 11th November 2020
Today we remember those who took part in the First World War, the Second World War and wars since then. We give thanks for the freedom we enjoy because of the personal sacrifices made by those who have gone before us - some of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice - they died in the course of doing their duty. It is also important not to forget those who did not die. During the First World War, for example, the startling statistic is that 89% of men in the British Army came home. Nearly 900,000 British men died fighting the First World War. Many died, most came back - but who can say in what state they came back? They all gave and did not count the cost: ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances.
On our war memorial in chapel are the names of 63 men, each of them with their own story to tell. They are not "just names and nothing more" to us, the Kingham Hill of 2020. As we stand here now, we are part of a School which takes its history very seriously: almost every pupil in the Fourth Form and above have been part of successive Third Forms who have been to the battlefields of the First World War.
In normal times, today's Third Form would have just returned from the Western Front. We pray that we may still yet have the opportunity to take you on what most pupils will tell you is the most life-changing school tour you will ever go on. Next term, we will start up our amazing digital literacy projects, researching the lives and service of these men, bringing them back to life through the pages of records in the National Archives. It is pleasing that progressively we are all learning more and more about what these men did; how these ordinary men lived in extraordinary circumstances. But let us remember that these ordinary men, when they lived on Kingham Hill, were ordinary boys.
One such boy was Charles Ernest Dutch. He entered Durham House, over there, at the age of 5 in September 1896. Before coming to Kingham Hill he had lived with his parents in Bermondsey, south east London. His father was an assistant at a fishmonger's shop and was a respectable man, but Charles's mother was a drunkard and ill-treated her children. The Founder's diary states that she had been in prison 35 times for beating her children and at the time when Charles came to the Hill, his mother was serving a three-month stretch on a similar charge.
Charles lived in Durham House for nine years, attending lessons in Top School, learning a trade in the workshops, playing sport on these pitches. When he reached the age of 14, he moved to Plymouth House - not the one we know so well today: in those days, the house we now know as Plym was Norwich House. The Plymouth House Charles moved to was much larger and is now a privately-owned house close to Teachers' Village. He spent three and a half years working on the School farm until he emigrated to Canada aged 17, along with nine other young men from Kingham Hill. Once there, he worked at Havelock Farm in Woodstock, Ontario for a year or so, before setting out on his own much further west in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan.
He volunteered for military service in the 54th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry in January 1916. There is a picture of Charles on your Order of Service which will have been taken shortly after he joined up: he was five foot seven inches tall, with dark hair and blue eyes. He would have started his training in Canada, crossing to the east coast by train and then over the Atlantic by steamship, arriving back in Britain at the end of June 1916, just as the preliminary bombardment before the start of the Battle of the Somme was getting underway. After a further month and a half of training on Salisbury Plain, he was on a cross-channel ferry from Southampton, arriving in France.
First of all, his battalion were sent up to Ypres in Belgium and Charles would have got his first taste of trench warfare near there in late August 1916. After nearly a month, he was on his way south and was training in practice trenches about twenty miles behind the line, ready for his first attack. For a month and a half, Charles and his battalion spent a few days at a time in the front line near the village of Courcelette on the Somme until on 18th November, he went over the top for the first time in an attack to capture a section of German front line. The attack was successful, but Charles was wounded in the face and arm, being hit by a bullet and a piece of shrapnel.
Charles spent just under a month recuperating and was declared fit for duty just before Christmas. By the time he rejoined his unit, they had moved to the Vimy sector near Arras. This was where all the Canadian Army Corps would prepare to work together for a huge operation in Easter 1917 to push the Germans off the high ground of Vimy Ridge.
However, before this successful operation, the Canadians had to find out as much as they could about the enemy they would be facing. They did this through a combination of air reconnaissance and trench raiding where they would hope to take a few prisoners and find as many secret documents as possible. These raids were generally carried out in the highest secrecy and under the cover of darkness. Charles and his unit were to be involved in the largest trench raid the Canadians had ever planned on 1st March 1917.
The raid took place at dawn. The Canadians released poison gas over no man's land and into the German front line defences. This was followed by another release of chlorine and phosgene almost two hours later. The idea was that it would kill off the Germans in their positions and allow the attackers a free reign. Unfortunately, since the gas had to travel uphill to reach the German front line, it dispersed and the Germans, who had excellent gas masks, were relatively untouched. The Germans repelled the raid quite easily. Many of the Canadians died from gas poisoning as they took refuge in shell holes in no man's land. It seems that that is how Charles died.
A lad from south east London with a rough, hard upbringing, given a chance in life by the Founder, spending 12 years on Kingham Hill, who emigrated to Canada to start a new life in the hard, physically demanding job of prairie farming; he answered the call to serve his King and Country. He did his duty in the trenches, went over the top, was wounded, got better, went back to his unit, worked hard for three months in harsh conditions through a deep winter in the trenches and was gassed to death in a poorly-planned trench raid on a French hillside.
When the war memorial in the chapel was unveiled in 1922, the Founder preached the sermon that afternoon on Psalm 46, which tells us to trust God because he is unchanging; he is unbreaking; he is our refuge and our strength. He is our fortress. In my research, I have found that many of the men of Kingham Hill who fought in the Great War were Christians, men who cherished the faith they had been introduced to on the Hill, and who looked to God as they went through the worst experiences men could go through. The words "God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in trouble" could well have been dear words to them indeed to help them face up to life in the War.
So let those words encourage us too at a time when the world is not as we have known it to be: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Those words were an encouragement to our lads in the trenches, let them speak to us today.
May we be inspired by the obedience and service of those who have gone before us. May we hear the call of the Lord to obey and serve. And in serving Him may it be our constant joy to serve those around us whenever we can.