2018 marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, bringing an additional poignancy to this year's act of remembrance on November 11th.
There have been conflicts before and since but we have to look back to 1918 to find the roots of our annual shared moment of observance and reflection.
Armistice day, the red poppy, the Cenotaph, the unknown soldier – so barbaric was the experience of those infamous mud daubed killing fields that our shattered and shocked country, uniquely, felt a need to grieve together through these now familiar symbols. 100 years on and we continue to do so, building on them through the wars and conflicts suffered in the years between. Yet we still particularly remember that initial terrible catalyst. This year, due to its significance, I would like to share two stories relating to those dark far away days.
The first is about a young Naval officer called Francis Banks – Rod to those who knew him. He joined up at the age of 16, right at the start, and found himself assigned to motor torpedo boats. The main reason for this was that he had a flair with the then novel technology of the internal combustion engine. Although petrol engines had been around for a while it was the military's need for a power plant combining convenience and low operator skill that saw it come to the fore. However Rod could really work with them and this, coupled to his natural leadership, saw him rise through the ranks to command his own boat.
The second is about Charles Kennedy, a Scot who was 34 at the outbreak of war. His pre-war career saw him excel in the the world of railway engineering. After serving his apprenticeship in Glasgow he went to the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway, and from there out to the Great Western of Brazil. A meteoric rise through the ranks saw him appointed to the post of Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Superintendent by the age of 30. However, when war broke out he volunteered and became an officer in the Royal Artillery.
As engineers we know how we can dramatically change the world with our work - even if only a few of us are privileged to do so.
After hostilities ceased Banks further developed his skills and ended up mixing the special “cocktail” fuels for various record breakers, winning both recognition and awards for his work. He also helped Britain win the Schneider Trophy in 1927, 1929 and 1931. During the Second World War he joined the RAF as a volunteer and again quickly rose through the ranks to Air Vice Marshal, this leading to various directorships post war and appointments at the very highest levels within the aerospace industry. A glittering career that both helped us to win WWII and significantly aided our post-war economy. Kennedy, sadly, died from the wounds he received on the Somme in 1916.
When we make our act of remembrance every year we naturally think of the direct human cost. The untimely deaths and those left behind to mourn.
Stories of the people are told and retold but, bar a few poets and musicians, there is little consideration of what might have been.
Of all the futures now forever unrealised. Who knows what paths Lieutenant Kennedy would have taken, or the impact he may have made within the railway industry? Similar considerations apply to all those who died, but as engineers we know how we can dramatically change the world with our work - even if only a few of us are privileged to do so.
Ultimately this is how the books are balanced. We know that technology leaps forward in times of war due to the additional funding and the desperate need to win, against that though are marked those who are taken before they have fully realised their potential. Of course we should always predominantly mourn those who lay down their lives but perhaps, during our silent vigil, we should also consider how some of our predecessors were denied the opportunity to change the world through their work – and how we are all the poorer for it. At the going down of the Sun...