Driving into the university this morning I was listening to the radio, a regular routine that keeps me abreast of the news, when a report came on featuring a ten year old schoolboy from Newcastle in the north east of England. Spencer Turner who attends Farne Primary School was being interviewed at the National Arboretum located in Staffordshire in the centre of the country.
The National Arboretum is a focus of memorial for people who have given their lives in service of the country. Fifty thousand trees and a number of commissioned memorials represent not only military personnel, but also those working for the police and emergency services or involved in rescue or support services overseas, who have lost their lives doing their duty. This memorial landscape attracts visitors from around the world, and provides a centre for contemplation and an opportunity for people who wish to pay their respects to those who have died, both known and unknown.
Across Europe this year there have been many events organised to commemorate 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War. Today at the National Arboretum, Prince William will unveil the latest memorial which will recall a significant event during that terrible time. At Christmas 1914, English and German soldiers who had been facing each other from their trenches across a battlefield, put down their arms, declared a truce and crossed into “no-man’s land” to exchange gifts. In the midst of this temporary cessation of hostilities, a number of the soldiers from opposing armies produced a football and proceeded to enjoy a spontaneous game. This event has been variously reported in newspapers and history books and through theatrical and media productions over the intervening years, but particularly this year at the centenary of the event.
As a permanent means to commemorate this makeshift football match, the Football Association and the British Council organised a competition for school children to design an appropriate memorial to be located at the National Arboretum. Children up to the age of sixteen were invited to submit their designs and there was a huge response. Ten year old Spencer Turner, who featured on the radio this morning, won this competition and along with others from his school will be present at its unveiling today.
This in itself is a touching story of enabling children to participate in a practical way in commemorating the tragedy of a dreadful war. But rather than the event, it was the interview with young Spencer that I found most moving this morning. To their great credit, the Today Programme, a daily news magazine on BBC Radio 4 gave Spenser time to explain his inspiration for the design and to express his feelings about the finished bronze sculpture and his involvement in the day.
Spenser through his articulate and straightforward account of his experiences and emotions painted a vivid picture of what this day means to him. He described how he started with a design featuring a footballer with a ball, but then realised that most of the children entering this competition would be making similar images. Eventually he opted to produce a drawing that shows English and German hands, clasped in friendship within the cage of a ball. This he stated represented these two groups of men coming together through an image of peace that shows that you “can actually stop war.” Having won the competition he says he was shocked and proud, but it was evident from his interview on this morning’s programme that he was also moved by what the memorial that he has designed represents. He talked about knowing little about the First World War until a pack of information arrived in school. From this he had clearly learned much and this shaped his work for the competition.
There are always dangers that commemorations of war can become jingoistic or simply a token gesture which has impact for a short time, and is then forgotten. I am quite sure that in this instance Spencer Turner and many other school children who entered this competition will have learned much about the horror and futility of war. I also hope that the many thousands of people who listened to Spenser on the radio this morning will have noted the eloquence with which he expressed his ideas and the reasoning behind his process of design.
Coming at the end of a week in which the news has been dominated by the extent of the brutality that has become a feature of modern warfare, and in particular the inhumane means of interrogation used to extract information from prisoners, it is opportune to reflect upon different perspectives of war that were reported on this morning’s news. In particular I feel we should stop for a while to consider the contrasting straightforward and honest expressions used by a ten year old school boy who was obviously moved and thoughtful about what he had learned, with those mischievous terms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “coercive methods,” used by adults in positions of power as a denial of torture, which were heard in an earlier news item.
It is only fitting that we should remember the suffering endured by servicemen and civilians during times of war. But it is to be hoped that we can learn lessons from children like Spenser that may govern the ways in which we behave in the future.