Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915
In Devizes, the small yet vibrant market town from where I live, the First World War has always held a great deal of importance. Our War Memorial, unveiled in 1922, is the most sombre landmark in the town, with the names of fallen soldiers from both world wars on display. Every year our remembrance service allows hundreds of people to pay their respects to those that have died as well as those who are currently serving. My school has held its own remembrance ceremony annually, during which every student and staff member congregate on the quad to observe the Last Post Bugle Call and the traditional two-minute silence.
In my final year at secondary school, I was selected to read the Ode of Remembrance at the service, which I will always look back on with great pride and will remain forever thankful to the teacher who asked me to do it. I also made a trip with school to the battlefields of France and Belgium. Whilst there we observed the nightly remembrance ceremony at Menin Gate, where I was astounded at the scale of what remembrance means to a community that was affected by the First World War. The Menin Gate also stood out because one of the several thousand names engraved was my name, Shah, a sign of the hundreds of Indian men who fought and died in the war.
I cannot claim to have had relatives that have died in WWI. My great-grandfather was a Chief Petty Officer for the Royal Navy and sailed on the HMS Dainty and survived its sinking during the Second World War. My Grandfather fought in the Polish Army when the Nazis invaded in September 1939 before making his way to Britain. However, I know plenty of people who did have relatives who fought and died in the Great War. One of my school friends left a wreath at a memorial in which a relative of his is remembered in France on our Battlefields trip, in many ways making it personal to all of us. Remembrance remains a way to pay tribute to these men who made the ultimate sacrifice when choosing to fight for their country.
For these reasons, I must express my disappointment and anger towards the events that have occurred this week surrounding members of our Student Union and the Rothenstein Mural in the University Senate Room. The argument that the mural should represent diversity is not only irrelevant in this case, but also represents the danger of attempting to rewrite history. Whilst no-one would disagree with the argument that women and ethnic minorities should be remembered for their roles in the First World War, one must accept that the mural in question is an accurate historical portrait of those who fought and attended University at the time. Defacing the mural would seemingly discredit those students portrayed in the artwork due to the fact they are white.
The fact that these men fought for us has in turn given us the opportunity to create a diverse and multicultural society which we live in today. I do not condone some of the treatment that has gone the way of the SU President who originally voiced their opposition to the mural, but I do not believe that someone who holds such views can in any way represent our University when their opinions disrespect those who died fighting for their country. Many of these men were students like us, but unlike many of us, they were never able to receive their degree.
This mural (that our university must continue to champion) is a sign that the act of remembrance is a part of our lives, no matter how long ago these conflicts were fought. We should not question the memories of these men, even if it does not suit what we believe to be a just and fair way to show remembrance. There are many opportunities for the university to show its additional respect to the women and minorities who served in the Great War, and the fact that this mural does not show their contribution does not belittle its position as a memorial to those who left university to fight in the war.