In 2002, the BBC compiled a list of the hundred greatest Britons of all time. Sir Winston Churchill emerged at the greatest, with the engineer Brunel second, and Diana, Princess of Wales third. Charles Darwin was fourth, William Shakespeare fifth, Isaac Newton was sixth. Does one person in that list seem out of place to you? If not, let us move onto the person in 33rd place: the footballer, David Beckham. Just below him, in 34th place, is Thomas Paine, who can claim to be the Father of the American Revolution, as well as a pivotal figure in the French Revolution, too. Now I’ve got nothing against David Beckham, but what is his claim to be greater than Thomas Paine? Also below Beckham are Boudica, Sir Thomas More, William Blake, Henry VIII, Nye Bevan, founder of the Welfare State, Sir Francis Drake, Florence Nightingale, Geoffrey Chaucer, and also the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.
Where do such bizarre judgments come from? I am neither an historian nor a psychologist, but I suspect it relates to something known as “dynamic inconsistency”, or “present-bias”: put simply, we make judgments which favour, or weigh more heavily, the recent over the more distant. Of the 100 greatest Britons, no fewer than sixty were from the last 100 years. That cannot be right, but we can’t help it: the present tense is king; we over-discount the value of things which are in the future, just as we under-value things which are in the past.
So let me tell you about a young OL by the name of Holloway, a boarder in North A. He was one of five brothers who passed through the school; his father, Sir Henry, was a Governor. Holloway Junior was an outstanding sportsman at The Leys. He captained the 1st XI cricket team for two years. He also played 1st XV Rugby and later, when he went on to Jesus College, Cambridge, he got not one but two Blues for Rugby, as well as one for lacrosse. In his final year at School, he was Senior Prefect. He later played lacrosse for England, and also represented the MCC at cricket, touring the West Indies, so he played international level sport in two different sports. After University, he trained to be a solicitor. All in all, you will agree that he sounds like one of those sickening people who is good at just about everything he turns his hand to. And yet the Chaplain at the time described him as ‘the most popular person I think I have ever known’.
Last week, when we stood together (and wasn’t it great to do something together, as a whole school?) for our Act of Remembrance, beautifully observed by the way, this young man by the name of Holloway was present.
He wasn’t there in the flesh, but his name was one of the hundreds on the War Memorial in front of which our Senior Prefects, his successors, placed the wreaths on Wednesday. You may not be able to make it out, but there he is, it is halfway up the column between Matt and Archie.
Bernard Henry Holloway, was a pupil in North A from 1900-1907. The Holloways were members of the largest Methodist family group ever to attend The Leys: over one hundred of the extended family passing through the School over the decades; evidence of the exceptional Methodist network that helped to establish The Leys.
When war broke out, Bernard was training as a solicitor. He joined up, and became a captain in the Ninth Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment. Posted to the Western Front in 1915, he had only been in France three weeks when, in September, his regiment was called forward into the disastrous and ultimately indecisive Battle of Loos, the biggest British offensive of that year. It started on September 25th – Bernard was killed the next day, on the 26th. Twenty of the thirty officers and 362 of the thousand men were killed inside those three days, before the Battalion withdrew from the trenches. Holloway’s was one of twelve attacking battalions which sent 10,000 soldiers to attack the German line; of those ten thousand men, 8,000 casualties were sustained in just four hours.With the sort of understatement which was typical of those days, the Battalion War Diary for the Royal Sussex Regiment includes this sentence: “It is regretted that, before being launched into such a desperate action, steps had not been taken to accustom the men to war conditions”.
These days, the press would no doubt describe them as ‘lambs to the slaughter’. They weren’t battle hardened, they weren’t ready, and the plan of offensive was horribly flawed. They didn’t stand a chance.When I am in Chapel, I often think of Bernard Henry Holloway. I have met several members of his family in recent years – they remain proud of him and his sacrifice, as I do, vicariously, a century later. As well as having his name on the War Memorial, there is a plaque to his memory inside the Chapel, on the South side, not very far from where I sit. I glance at it often, to remind myself of him – just one of the hundreds whose loss is memorialised within that wonderful Chapel of ours.
No survivors of that conflict, in which around sixteen million people died, remain alive. Other wars have happened since. Some have taken millions of equally young and untried lives. Some have been fought in conditions—whether Middle Eastern desert, African jungle or Vietnamese swamp—that have been as trying and as terrible.
Yet still the First World War, the Great War, remains, over one hundred years later, powerfully central to our common consciousness, its brutality and mass sacrifice setting a bloody and terrible high-water mark for all the wars that followed. The appalling irony, of course, is that it was meant at the time to be the war to end all wars, the last time we would perpetrate the outdated and barbaric practice of resolving international disputes by soaking the ground with blood. It is easy, despite the powerful and evocative iconography of this Remembrance season, to lose sight at this distance in time of the individual stories, the stories of flesh and blood, which lie behind these horrific aggregate numbers. That’s what ‘dynamic inconsistency’ does. We discount the humanity, or perhaps I should say the inhumanity, of what happened. Yes, of course, we know intellectually that they suffered. But somewhere deep within us, that deep-rooted and powerful bias persists: somehow, it seems less real than what is happening to us, now. But Bernard Henry Holloway was like you. He had a family who loved him. How they must have mourned his loss at the devastatingly young age of 27. He had ambitions, he had huge potential, he had a career, he had passions. I am sure he had flaws too – he was flesh and blood, like all of us. But if he had been in the years above you at school, you would have looked up to him. Had he been in your year, you might have been a bit envious of him: the Golden Boy: Cambridge graduate, Blues Rugby player, Senior Prefect, international sportsman and also the most popular person that the Chaplain had ever known – a comment made when he was in the
Upper Sixth, not a consolatory remark after he was killed, just eight years later.
We all struggle to resist that in-built, unconscious reflex, as a result of which we tend to underestimate the humanity of those who lived and died in that terrible conflict over 100 years ago. And just as certain is the fact that future generations of Leysians will look back 100 years from now, will leaf through the archives – digital by then, or possibly whatever comes after digital – and they in turn will look at your clothes and smirk at how old-fashioned and archaic we all looked.
So thank you for your efforts to remember. To remember is important for so many reasons; it enhances our humanity, it promotes understanding and, in the words of the Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana, who lived through both the First and Second World Wars, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Conscious, mindful remembrance here, as part of the Leysian community, enriches us all, by binding us to those who were here in the past, and to those who will follow in the future.