Some would argue that there are certain morals or values that are eternal. Few would contend that the Ten Commandments depend upon prevailing societal norms or are only applicable in certain contexts. However, we are living through a period of seismic social change and as new challenges and priorities emerge, some values seem to have been discarded.
The concept of honour is beginning to sound a little old-fashioned and is in danger of becoming parodied or memorialised in grainy black and white images from war films. Of course, collectively, our values do appear to change over time. Monty Python derided the resolve demonstrated by the Black Knight and his brave refrain of ‘tis but a scratch’ sounded increasingly absurd as he parted company with various of his limbs. Of course, the line sounds entirely different when the volatile Mercutio dermurs ‘Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch’ in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Context is everything.
It is right that we should be critically reflective and not simply embrace values that might be outdated or simply unkind. Few now would subscribe to imperialist values or seek to celebrate the values that governed patriarchal structures, for these have been progressively challenged since the 1960s. The causes of gender equality and social justice, alongside the challenges presented by environmental issues and the global pandemic have contributed to the abandonment or recalibration of many of the values that were long considered immutable.
Arguably, society appears more atomised for we place great emphasis on personal wellbeing and devote considerably less energy to collective activities. Despite a proliferation of self-help books, it appears to me that the more we focus upon ourselves, the unhappier we become. By contrast, the more we dedicate ourselves to the collective good, the more fulfilled we seem to become. It is difficult for us to truly flourish if we are constantly engaging in omphaloskepsis or navel-gazing as it is more commonly known.
Captain Robert Campbell
I was moved by two compelling examples of selflessness this week. Captain Robert Campbell had been taken prisoner during the opening weeks of the First World War and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Magdeburg. In 1916, he received news that his mother Louise was dying from cancer. In despair he wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II and asked for a period of leave so that he could return to England to make one last visit to his adored mother.
Moved by the request, Kaiser Wilhelm II granted him two weeks of leave with two days added at either end to allow for travel. The Kaiser’s only condition was that Captain Campbell should give his word that he would return. How easy would it have been after two years in captivity for Captain Campbell to simply remain in the United Kingdom once his period of leave had expired. However, like a true gentleman, he kept his word and returned to Germany as he had promised the Kaiser.
It is an extraordinary story insomuch as it involves trust, compassion and a belief in the sacrosanct nature of honour. Upon returning to his prisoner-of-war camp, Campbell took part in an escape bid and was captured near the Dutch border and subsequently returned to camp. Just as he had honoured his word to return to Germany as the Kaiser had demanded, he had believed it to be the duty of all prisoners-of-war to attempt to escape.
During the Second World War, Campbell became the Chief Observer of the Royal Observer Corps on the Isle of Wight and he lived on until the late 1960s. The macabre and industrial spectre of total war sat alongside what might be considered old-fashioned values and so we have incidents such as the Christmas Day Truce of 1915 and Captain Campbell’s period of compassionate leave. Such episodes are unthinkable in the twenty-first century but they do reflect values that are worth cherishing.
Simon Reeve and Angus
The other evening Fiona and I watched an episode of Simon Reeve’s documentary about the Lake District. It featured Angus who at the age of just eighteen had assumed control of his family’s 1,500 acre sheep farm high up in the fells. Tragically, his parents had both passed away in the previous eighteen months and he was left juggling college and the demands of the farm. Simon Reeve said:
“I was so struck when I was with them, in their lambing shed.”
“There was life and death happening there and this lad, Angus, was dealing with it so calmly, stoically, and maturely.”
“And his friends were cracking on with their roles as well.”
“I was so impressed.”
“It made me think back to when I was his age and how impossible handling that situation would have been for me and what a credit he was to his family – he gave me real hope for the future.”
“We denigrate the young; we fail to give them opportunities and responsibilities so often, but my goodness, they are capable of such amazing feats.”
The selflessness and bravery demonstrated by both Angus and Captain Campbell is utterly inspiring. The sight of Angus’ friends working alongside him in the lambing shed was desperately moving. In the absence of his parents, his school friends had rolled up their sleeves and were supporting him with more than platitudes or sentimental comments on social media. There is little doubt that they were deriving some satisfaction and sense of purpose from assisting on the farm.
Captain Campbell returned to Germany because if he had failed to do so then it is highly unlikely that any leeway would have been extended to other officers in similar circumstances. Angus carries on running his farm because despite the tragedy encompassing him, he recognised that ‘life has to go on’ and there is always work to be done.
In different ways, the courage, stoicism, integrity and resilience demonstrated by both Angus and Captain Campbell can teach us a good deal about duty and the importance of thinking of others. As for Angus’ friends, their response to their friend’s desperate situation should fill us with hope for the future. Their kindness is both beautiful and affirming. Who would not feel inspired by such love and kindness?
Headmaster of Rossall School