Remembrance Day 2020

11th November 2020

News, Student news, Alumni news

Marking Armistice Day, Fellow Jane Garnett reviews the WW1 correspondence between the Warden and members of the Wadham community on active service, exploring the emotional context then with the uncertainty of life under lockdown today.

  • Poppies

A man on leave and in Oxford for 24 hours asked for nothing but to be left to sit in the quiet of Wadham garden and to drink in its beauty. Oxford is in France, at Salonica, on the Suez Canal, in Mesopotamia, on the High Seas; we who are left at home have to keep up the old framework for their return.

Warden Wells

"During the First World War, the Warden of Wadham, Joseph Wells, corresponded with all the Wadham students, staff and alumni on active service. He built a strong network built on recollection of shared experience, affection for Wadham and concern for each other, which was reinforced by the distribution of the college Gazette which he continued to edit throughout the war. The accounts of college life carrying on, and of the maintenance of a culture of shared values proved enormously important to those who were living through a nightmarishly different reality. Letters back to Wells consistently express a warmth of connection expressed in delight in being reminded of familiar routines and patterns. In this way indirectly articulated, both emotion and gratitude for recognition of emotion run through the correspondence in a man to man idiom.

"Strikingly, some letters also survive to Wells’s wife, Frances, in which the correspondents were more explicit in expressing and worrying over their feelings. One Wadham man who had just been through the Battle of the Somme, wrote to her:
 
'The extremest thing is that everyone is so callous to it all. I hope it does not mean a permanent deadening of the senses. I should be very distressed to feel that under normal circumstances I could gaze on some of the sights I have recently witnessed without any emotions of any kind.'
 
"I want to talk this evening about emotions in the context of community, and of our own current situation, as we live through a very different world historical crisis. Without of course simple-mindedly equating our experience of the Covid-19 pandemic with the fighting of a world war, there are some affinities which may help to bridge the imaginative gap of a hundred years and to deepen both our engagement with our history and our understanding of ourselves.
 
"We gather every year to listen to the reading of the names of those members of the college who died in the First and Second World Wars. The seemingly endless list has its own emotional impact. But there is a larger challenge of remembrance, which is not a thing of the past but a present responsibility - an occasion for remaking connections and rethinking emotions. When the memorial plaques to those who had died were unveiled in their initial setting of the Cloister in 1923, and after the Warden had read the litany of names, Justice A.A. Roche asked that the men be remembered as representatives of a wider whole, of which the college was a microcosm. Wells’s Michaelmas Term 1916 editorial in the Gazette had already brought that point to the heart of the college’s self-understanding:
 
'In view of the great sacrifices they have made, our life here seems very small and petty; yet we are sure that they and the thousands of Oxford men still at the Front, would have us keep things going. A man on leave and in Oxford for 24 hours asked for nothing but to be left to sit in the quiet of Wadham garden and to drink in its beauty. Oxford is in France, at Salonica, on the Suez Canal, in Mesopotamia, on the High Seas; we who are left at home have to keep up the old framework for their return.'

Lockdown meant different things to different people. There were manifold forms of anxiety, as we all moved into unfamiliar territory. But it was clear that what was felt in common was the sudden rupture with college and university life.

Jane Garnett

"Last term, during the first pandemic lockdown, when everyone was widely dispersed across the country and internationally, Wadham historians, art historians and artists created an email exchange – to maintain community, to reflect on history, and to exchange thoughts in words and images about the experience we were living through. This conversation began as a response to a sense of loss and disorientation.

"Lockdown meant different things to different people. There were manifold forms of anxiety, as we all moved into unfamiliar territory. But it was clear that what was felt in common was the sudden rupture with college and university life. This meant sadness and regret for everyone – and particularly for those final-year students deprived of the chance to spend a last term with friends, in the place where those friendships had been forged. Yet it was equally clear that guilt and uncertainty were attached to the expression of that emotion, in such a globally catastrophic context of personal loss and bereavement. We all found ourselves lurching from regrets about the ordinary, habitual things which we were prevented from doing - to remorse at letting apparently trivial feelings surface – to struggling to retain a sensibility to the individual human tragedies within the rising tide of statistics - to profound concern about huge existential questions which we found it impossible to get a handle on. We really struggled to keep the microcosmic and the macrocosmic in a productive interrelationship. The development of the online conversation helped that process in permitting – indeed encouraging - different registers of emotional expression. It validated the everydayness of the languages of friendship, at the same time as it offered discursive space within which to test out ways of thinking about the state of the world, for which the language barely yet seemed to exist. Being able to move from one register to the other itself reinforced emotional connection and trust – just as the letters to and from Wells did.
 
"Wells and his correspondents dwelt on the significance of the college maintaining its framework and its integrity as the world around was exploding in self-destruction. This framework was in part bound up in a continuity of physical place – the garden acting as a microcosm of the college in reviving the spirits of the man on leave in 1916. But, just as gardens are endlessly renewed over time, the college as a whole is a dynamic entity. Its integrity is bound up in the maintenance of that energy. In that respect, whilst sentiment focuses on moments frozen in time, return is never to exactly the same place – but rather to a history held in common. History carries with it a commitment to understanding the past in its own terms, but always in conversation with the present and in recognition of the implications of that conversation for the future. It builds on emotional connection as a driver of change.
 
"This term has already felt strange, as the place we think of as familiar is in so many respects unfamiliar. And yet an impressive level of solidarity and care have been manifested to maintain what is recognized to be fundamental about community. As we go into a second lockdown, the strains will increase. This crisis is especially emotionally challenging in part as there is no obvious trajectory: nobody knows when it will end, so it is hard to pace ourselves and to envisage how to cope. But, with an eye to our history and in an active and emotionally engaged spirit of remembrance, we can think about our part in the future.
 
"The Indian writer Arundhati Roy* expressed this beautifully in a powerfully felt piece written this past spring:
 
'Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.'
 
"As we remember those young men from this college who died fighting in two world wars, let us not think of that as a detached past. We need to embed that memory and that emotional connection in our own determination to conceive and fight for a better world."
 
Jane Garnett, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History
 
* Copyright ©️ Arundhati Roy 2020 Financial Times 3.04.20: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
 

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