King Edward VI High School for Girls, Edgbaston has staged a moving Armistice Centenary Commemoration, focussing on the role of women and schoolgirls, particularly from the Birmingham area, in World War I. Most of the staff and pupils dressed in contemporary costume and experienced typical school activities of the period. Some did Swedish drill in place of PE and danced to ragtime music or sang the stirring songs of the time, including ‘Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. Others recreated the Western Front in a drama session with authentic-looking trenches, barbed wire, flares, darkness and ‘the fog of war’.
Groups studied the History and Literature of the War and its aftermath, from the patriotic poetry of the day to the bleak disillusion of the War poets such as Siegried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen. The school’s Poet Laureate Nandini Bulchandani performed a thought-provoking poem specially commissioned for the occasion and groups of girls wrote their own sonnets reflecting their own impressions of the War. The high point of the morning was an Armistice ceremony at which staff member Gemma Hargraves, a former captain in the Royal Artillery, shared her experiences as an officer on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan and linked these to the actions and emotions of her predecessors serving in the Great War.
Lunch took the form of a street party at long tables in the dining hall with poppy bunting and typical posters of the period, urging women ‘Waste not Want not’ and ‘Make do and Mend’. Even the menu was drawn from recipes developed by the renowned King Edward’s cookery teacher Florence George who in 1917 wrote an influential wartime cookery book, amending her original recipes because of food shortages caused by the blockades.
“It’s been a fascinating day,” said Lower Sixth former Scarlett Brunning, 16, “sombre, naturally but acknowledging how the War and its immediate aftermath and remembrance shaped modern times and affected future generations. I hope this sort of commemoration happens in another hundred years as if a cataclysmic event like this is not remembered, it becomes futile.”
“This has been a haunting but wonderful experience,” added KEHS Principal Ann Clark. “Everyone joined in whole-heartedly and the day provided extraordinary moments of reflection about what the War meant to all sections of society particularly on the home front and in Birmingham.” As a poignant reminder, a large commemorative mural was unveiled, painted by recent school leavers and showing the different roles undertaken by women in Birmingham, from bus drivers to scientists, while most of the men of fighting age were away at the Front. Among the local landmarks represented were the Birmingham University clock tower, Steelhouse Lane and the imposing building which 100 years ago housed the school in New Street at the heart of the city.
“I wanted this day to be a landmark in the school’s history, representing the past, present and future,” said historian Cas Britton, the event’s organiser. “It’s the culmination of four years of commemorative events and I feel it’s beholden on us as a prestigious girls’ school to mark this extraordinary event in a truly striking way. In place of the roll of honour that so many boys’ schools have, our extraordinary Art mural will be a permanent memorial that we can view and reflect on for decades to come.”