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Embrace. laugh. learn (and Remember)

1 poppy

On November 4th, 2017 Oakwood Avenue Community Primary School participated in a truly remarkable and incredibly emotional memorial service for one of its former pupils who was tragically killed during the Second World War. He was Gilbert Henry (known as Harry) Kenwright  of number 3 Troop of the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards. He died on the 2nd April, 1945 and is named on the War Memorial at Bennett’s Recreation Ground, Padgate.

The service was made special with the laying of a poppy wreath by 91 year old John Bent, who not only fought with Harry, but had the onerous task of burying him in the heat of battle. It was an occasion of the like nobody present had ever witnessed before or was likely to again. Honoured guest speakers included the Mayor of Warrington, Emma Hutchinson (MD of Livewire & Culture Warrington) who spoke of the history and heritage of Warrington’s war memorials, Chris Bent (John’s son) told Harry’s story, Gary Cunningham (our Headmaster), Captain Robbie Wilmont of the Irish Guards together with his brother in law (an ex Guard who read Sassoon’s “At the Cenotaph”) and the Reverend Neil Shaw from Christ Church who delivered a closing prayer. A very personal note was read out from John Kenwright, Harry’s youngest brother, who was not well enough to travel.  Gary gave a speech full of emotion and pride saying that it was an honour to be at the service and that he was proud of the fantastic people at the school today but equally was so proud of previous pupils such as Harry. He remembered fondly the day that Chris Bent walked into the school asking if he could do some research on an ex pupil and how touched he was by Harry’s story.

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Wreaths from John Bent, Oakwood Ave & Irish Guards

5 Arms of the Angel

A wonderful rendition of “In the Arms of an Angel”

The last words from the service are from our Headteacher Gary Cunningham who said that “This is not the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. Our pupils have been enthralled, they have a thirst for learning and really want to know about Harry. This young man is a hero. We want to make learning real and relevant, so Harry Kenwright will be alive today, next week and next year. The curriculum will reflect Harry’s life and we are proud to be associated with today and to be associated with Harry in the future”.

After the memorial service Gary Cunningham invited everyone back to Oakwood Avenue School for tea, coffee and biscuits. It was a great opportunity for people to meet up and talk with John. Old school records dating back to Harry’s time were on display and much appreciated by all.

7 John in memory of Harry

John Bent proudly bowing his head in memory of Harry.

2 Harry Kenwright

Harry Kenwright  (2720100)                      

The most amazing words were inevitably delivered by John Bent who remembered “the best of times and the worst of times” with Harry and his fellow soldiers. He said:-

“I was rather at a loss what to say when my son Chris asked if I would say a few words and then I thought what better way than to quote the opening lines of Charles Dickens novel "The Tale of Two Cities " which many of you will know. It says "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. It was indeed the worst of times on that day in April 1945 when Harry was killed. He was in the leading tank and I was following up behind. Fortunately I did not witness his death but together with other fellow comrades I was called upon to bury him rather than wait for the following up burial parties. It was in a green field with a gentle rise to a tree on top and the surprise was that there was an army chaplain that we had never seen before waiting for us! He said a few prayers and then we had to move on. It was even more poignant when we recalled that after Harry had been granted a short home leave, he had the premonition that he would be saying farewell for the last time. It didn’t happen very often, only the odd one was allowed home every now and then. Whilst he looked forward to seeing his family, he told me “I have a fear that if I go home when I come back I’ll get seen off”. Yes that was indeed the worst of times. You will be wondering what then was the best of times. Well they were the times when we could share his company. Harry was the sort of person who from the moment you met him you knew this was a very special person. He was a friend to all, a man who could bring light into the darkest of circumstances. Harry Kenwright, brave soldier, real gentleman, true friend. Rest in peace Harry, Rest in peace”.

A real highlight was provided by our schoolchildren who sang “In the Arms of an Angel” and “Amazing Grace”. There were very few dry eyes around after the lovely renditions and the crowd showed their approval with a heart warming round of applause. All the practice that the children and music teacher, Fran SixSmith from Melody Music, had gone through in the preceding weeks was well worth it.

4 Gary's speech

Headteacher, Gary Cunningham, giving his speech at the Memorial Service

A few days after the service all the pupils and teachers from Year 5 decided to visit the War Memorial that carries Harry’s name. Everyone had been so moved by the story of Harry and John and the true meaning of Remembrance had suddenly become very personal.  John Bent’s son Chris joined everyone in the walk to the monument, where John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Field” was recited by the children and a lovely respectful period of silence was observed. This was another deeply moving occasion and one that will undoubtedly become a tradition in the years ahead for Oakwood Avenue School.

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Head Girl, Caitlin Bold, lays a wreath from Oakwood Avenue

John Bent (Irish Guard – 2723982)

9 John Bent

Just before Christmas, John Bent and his son Chris visited our school for a questions and answers session. There were so many interesting questions for John and his responses were insightful and very often humorous (we will never forget his telling of missing breakfast the day he was captured or of eating dry powdered milk that had come in the Red Cross Parcel!). The key message coming from feedback with the children after the talk was just how humble John was. He may be a war hero in our eyes, but you would never know it listening to him.

Testimonials from the service

Gary Cunningham (Headteacher)

 I am honoured to have been involved. All the staff were so appreciative and John is a true gentleman and hero. Everything about today was just perfect and the right mix of regiment, family, local historians, dignitaries and of course school.

Joanne Reilly (Deputy Head)

 I cannot believe how powerful and emotional Saturday was. It did the memory of Harry and his family proud as did John who was amazing! I have since spoken to many children from year 5 who are so in awe of John’s story from his son’s talk, one boy said to me ‘oh Miss, it was so emotional!’ I believe this is only the beginning of something very educational and a relevant and meaningful life experience for our children so thanks to Chris for getting in touch all those months ago. I thank Harry’s mum, too, for sending him to our school as a pupil. His legacy and memory will never be forgotten and that will be what his life was worth, even in his death he is enthralling and educating children – his best of times and worse of times live on.

Liz Thombs (John’s niece)

What a very special occasion John, we felt privileged to be there, and will certainly never forget it.  I was so pleased my grandchildren were there too. They have some knowledge, both from school and of course their parents, of the Second World War, but the ceremony made it so much more personal, it is real now, not just a story.  It is so important that all generations appreciate the sacrifices that your generation made for us to enjoy the freedom that we have today. Your contribution gave us all that personal perspective. Well done to Chris for all his research, an enormous task and then the dedication and personality to co-ordinate such a memorable event. I do hope he will be able to continue to input into the curriculum of Oakwood Avenue School.  As a retired teacher I know how special that will be for both the children and staff.

Justyna Ciszewska (friend of Chris)  

Thank you for inviting us Chris. It was so beautiful. I just spoke to Konrad about it and he cried. Everything was just perfect. I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m so proud of you and your Dad. It was so emotional and beautiful. Your Dad is a hero!

Rachel (friend of John’s daughter Pauline)

 I’m so glad it went well. It was a lovely service and John was amazing. Chris has obviously worked so hard and it is a really worthwhile story and so great that he can continue to bring it to life through the school.

Ian Bradley (friend of Chris)

 It is brilliant that the kids have taken Harry’s story to their hearts and it must give you some sense of pride and achievement having been instrumental in bringing this to them. John must be pleased that his buddy is remembered so long and fondly after his death, the ultimate sacrifice for all our benefit.

Mike Brown(John’s nephew)

 What a marvellous tribute to Harry, starring John. Great contributions from all, especially the school. A wonderful memory for all that attended. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I really got the feeling from John that he appreciated it so much. While conceding that the service was for Harry, I believe he was touched by the turnout that came to pay tribute to both Harry AND him. I’m sure it brought back memories both happy and sad of his mate. Very emotional.

Kath Kenwright (wife to Harry’s nephew) 

Amazing and so beautiful. It was a wonderful thing. Watching the video it really brought tears to my eyes. I wish with all my heart that my husband Dave was alive to witness this.

Geoff Painter (friend of Chris) 

Really enjoyed it. Think everything was just about the right length and flowed really well. Hope John really enjoyed it and didn’t get too cold. Thought the children did really well and the headmaster is keen to make the story very real. The children will remember today for the rest of their lives which means they’ll always remember John too.

Pete Mills (friend of Chris)

That was absolutely wonderful. I was privileged to share it, thank you. I have thought about it a lot since the Memorial Event. Speaking as a dad and grandad, I cannot think of anything that would make me as proud of, and grateful to, my offspring than what you have done for your Dad.

Ruth Ingram (cousin of Harry’s)

 I have just finished watching the video from which it was clear how much John thought of Harry, and obviously still does. I hope he was pleased with how the day went and I hope he didn’t find it too much of a strain. I shall try to pass on the photos and video link to members of the family who would be interested. Thank you so much for all your hard work and perseverance and thanks, once again, to John for all he did and for igniting your curiosity which has revealed so much. I am sure the children at the local school have had their studies enhanced enormously and I’m certain others will also benefit in the years to come.

Maureen Banner (Culture Warrington Board Chair and ex teacher at Oakwood Avenue)

The story is quite special and moving.

Nicc Hardman (friend of Chris)

 I would like to say that we both felt you created an unbelievably special day for John today. You must be immensely proud of him as he should be of you for creating such a unique historical moment that touched many families lives. It was beautiful to witness the event.

Robbie Wilmont (Irish Guard)

You did a fantastic job organising everything last Saturday Chris and both Jim and I were honoured to have been part of it. I will include an article about it in our next Regimental Journal which gets collated in Jan/ Feb ready for printing and publishing in Mar / Apr.

Pete Phoenix(John’s nephew)

Just a quick message about today Uncle Jack. You must have been so proud to see so many people attending today's service. It was indeed a very powerful and moving occasion. You must also be so proud of how much effort Chris has put into making it all so special. I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. I felt proud and honoured to be amongst so many special people. Also really nice to see so many young people involved.   

 Dave Phoenix(John’s nephew)

Just a line to thank you again for this morning's ceremony. It really was not only a tribute to Uncle jack and those like him, but testimony to your research and organisational prowess Chris. All those contributing were obviously proud to be there; including the schoolchildren. The staff were so welcoming; all enthused by your good self. It was a pleasure to be there.

John Kenwright (Harry’s brother)

Thanks a million for the report on the event at Padgate Cenotaph. You must have really gone out of your way Chris to bring about this very special occasion. May I thank you from the bottom of my heart. To bring about such an event in respect of those two very brave and valiant soldiers. I am so glad that the weather was ok and that things turned out so well.

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