A war hero to inspire today's school heroes
These days sporting icons are held up for children to emulate. But, as Kurt Barling writes, for the past seven years Croydon's Elmwood Junior School has chosen to reward two outstanding pupils for different qualities exemplified by a former pupil.
By BBC London's special correspondent Kurt Barling
Brenda Newman (née Knowland) was an orphan but remained close to her siblings as she was growing up thanks to the care and persistence of her older brother George. Although living apart in different children’s homes she remembers the attention he paid to her letters and the concern he showed for how well she was doing at school even though he was only a teenager himself.
When George went off to war he wrote to say when it was all over he would come and get her and raise her himself so that the remaining family of siblings could be together. For the rest of their lives the younger siblings remained close. Unfortunately George didn’t survive the war.
Instead the qualities he exuded as a young man seem to have followed him onto the battlefield. His courage and selflessness in a fierce battle against the Japanese in the Burma campaign are recorded as one of the most outstanding feats of bravery by a Commando.
On 31st January 1945 Lt George Knowland was part of a Commando force that came under sustained attack by the Japanese army. The Commandos job was to defend what was identified as the strategically important Hill 170 which would protect the surrounding area from being overrun by the Japanese.
As his soldier comrades fell wounded or dying around him, Knowland continued to fight on with whatever weaponry he could lay his hands on. At times the opposing Japanese troops were only yards away. He fought in the open and unprotected whilst reinforcement troops struggled to get through.
His selflessness and courage in adversity, it is recorded, meant the battlefront held. For this he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the British Army’s highest award for gallantry.
A plaque for the school
About eight years ago the local British Legion in Croydon approached Elmwood School to ask if a plaque could be unveiled as a way for schoolchildren to remember what sacrifices were made by previous generations to guarantee their liberties. In 2002 the Countess Mountbatten duly unveiled the memorial which now sits in the main school hall.
Each year the School hold a memorial service on the school day closest to the day George Knowland died. This year it was attended by ex-servicemen, current serving soldiers, George’s sister Brenda and other descendants of the VC hero.
The occasion is also a way for staff and pupils to recognise two pupils who are considered to have throughout the year demonstrated outstanding acts of citizenship. For this they are awarded the George Knowland prize.
The George Knowland Prize
VC citations are lengthy affairs and express in great detail the endeavours of the individual in their moment of adversity. This year, as in others, a citation of the winning child’s conduct is read out in front of the school. They too are lengthy affairs.
A pupil given the George Knowland Award
Judging by the reaction from pupils and staff when this year’s winners were announced it’s quite easy to identify these leading characters in the school community. It is a genuine record of respect.
Sitting in as an outsider, I was struck by the unusual focus not on the military successes of George Knowland, but on the self-less and courageous qualities that led him to behave in the way he did.
The school prize is clearly aiming to foster those self-less qualities whilst at the same time drawing the children’s attention to the sacrifices of previous generations. Brenda Newman is rightly proud of her brother and the fact that his unique legacy should be preserved in this way.
A unique legacy
Of course the ethnic diversity of children at Elmwood Junior School would make it unrecognisable from the school Knowland would have attended eighty years ago but that is perhaps what makes this particular legacy so unique.
Of the two recipients one was from Afro-Caribbean and the other Sri Lankan heritage. Of course both these communities provided many servicemen and women who contributed to Britain prevailing in WWII.
It is a reminder that often the social glue that binds our kaleidoscope city is the recognition of past sacrifice, but in a way that fosters mutual respect amongst younger generations of Londoners.
last updated: 16/02/2009 at 16:32
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