This is a busy week in many ways and for many reasons, but the main activity revolves around Graduation at the University of Sussex. There are 7 ceremonies this week altogether; my School (Mathematical and Physical Sciences) is No. 4, which takes place tomorrow morning (Thursday).
Things are going to be a bit different this year. The Chancellor of the University, Sanjeev Bhaskar, is unable to preside owing to prior commitments (filming episodes of Doctor Who in Cardiff). This is sad because his informality and sense of humour usually brings an enormous amount to such occasions. After much discussion and debate it was eventually decided (on Monday) that the normal order of ceremonies would be changed so that the Head of the graduating School would stand in the centre of the platform, where the Chancellor would normally be situated, in order to shake hands with (and generally congratulate) the graduands as their names are read out and they cross the stage. Normally the Head of School simply reads out the list of names from a podium at one side, so it will be nice to be a bit more involved, although doubt that there will be as many students wanting to take selfies with me as there would have been had Sanjeev been there!
I also have the honour to present an honorary graduate at the ceremony, but I’ll probably say more about that in a future post.
This is a special graduation week for another reason too. It’s now fifty years since the first University of Sussex graduation ceremony in 1964. The University only received its Royal Charter in 1961 and there were only 38 graduates at the first ceremony. This week about 3000 will cross the stage.
Anyway, last night there was a special Commemoration Dinner to mark the 50th Anniversary in the Dining Room of Brighton Pavilion:
The decor is a little understated for my tastes, but apart from that it was a splendid occasion. We didn’t sit at the central table, which is covered with period crockery and cutlery, and was roped off; we sat at smaller tables situated in the space around it. Owing to some sort of administrative error I was accidentally seated at a Table 1, along with a host of important people and the Vice-Chancellor. This turned out well for me as I was seated near Asa Briggs (now Lord Briggs) a famous historian who was the second Vice-Chancellor of the University. He’s now 93 years young and a bit frail but wonderfully interesting conversation ensued. The opportunity to talk to a true Sussex legend added to the fine food and wine to make for a wonderful evening.
There’s another point worth commemorating in the light of the forthcoming centenary of the start of the First World War. One thing I didn’t know before this week was that during World War 1, Brighton Pavilion was commandeered for use as a hospital for wounded soldiers, many of them from India. In fact, the first ever recipient of the Victoria Cross from the British Indian Army, Khudadad Khan, recovered there from wounds sustained in action in Belgium in 1914:
In October 1914, the Germans launched a major offensive in northern Belgium, in order to capture the vital ports of Boulogne in France and Nieuport in Belgium. In what came to be known as the First Battle of Ypres, the newly arrived 129th Baluchis were rushed to the frontline to support the hard-pressed British troops. On 31 October, two companies of the Baluchis bore the brunt of the main German attack near the village of Gheluvelt in Hollebeke Sector. The out-numbered Baluchis fought gallantly but were overwhelmed after suffering heavy casualties. Sepoy Khudadad Khan’s machine-gun team, along with one other, kept their guns in action throughout the day; preventing the Germans from making the final breakthrough. The other gun was disabled by a shell and eventually Khudadad Khan’s own team was overrun. All the men were killed by bullets or bayonets except Khudadad Khan, who despite being badly wounded, had continued working his gun. He was left for dead by the enemy but despite his wounds, he managed to crawl back to his regiment during the night. Thanks to his bravery, and that of his fellow Baluchis, the Germans were held up just long enough for Indian and British reinforcements to arrive. They strengthened the line, and prevented the German Army from reaching the vital ports. For his matchless feat of courage and gallantry, Sepoy Khudadad Khan was awarded the Victoria Cross.
We were honoured last night by the presence at dinner of Sergeant Johnson Beharry who, in 2005, became the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for over thirty years for acts of extreme courage when serving as Lance Corporal in Iraq.
On 1 May 2004, Beharry was driving a Warrior tracked armoured vehicle that had been called to the assistance of a foot patrol caught in a series of ambushes. The Warrior was hit by multiple rocket propelled grenades, causing damage and resulting in the loss of radio communications. The platoon commander, the vehicle’s gunner and a number of other soldiers in the vehicle were injured. Due to damage to his periscope optics, Pte. Beharry was forced to open his hatch to steer his vehicle, exposing his face and head to withering small arms fire. Beharry drove the crippled Warrior through the ambush, taking his own crew and leading five other Warriors to safety. He then extracted his wounded comrades from the vehicle, all the time exposed to further enemy fire. He was cited on this occasion for “valour of the highest order”.
While back on duty on 11 June 2004, Beharry was again driving the lead Warrior of his platoon through Al Amarah when his vehicle was ambushed. A rocket propelled grenade hit the vehicle six inches from Beharry’s head, and he received serious shrapnel injuries to his face and brain. Other rockets then hit the vehicle, incapacitating his commander and injuring several of the crew. Despite his life-threatening injuries, Beharry retained control of his vehicle and drove it out of the ambush area before losing consciousness. He required brain surgery for his head injuries, and he was still recovering in March 2005 when he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
It’s humbling to be in the presence of such a courageous fellow. I only wish our mendacious politicians hadn’t engineered the conflict that made his actions necessary in the first place. Resplendent in his dress uniform, I’m glad to say that Sergeant Beharry seems fully recovered from his injuries.
I had forgotten to take my Blackberry with me when I left my flat to walk to the dinner so was unable to keep up with the World Cup semi-final. This came up in the conversation at the table. Lord Briggs concurred with my prediction that Germany would win comfortably. It was only when I left the Pavilion and walked past a pub on the way to the bus-stop that I saw the scale of the thrashing that Germany had administered. It was 7-0 when I stopped to look at the screen just in time to see Brazil score. I wouldn’t even describe it as a consolation goal. This amazing result will now be forever linked in my mind with the other events of the evening.
Anyway, must finish now. I have to write my speech for tomorrow’s ceremony!