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The Importance of Forgiveness

An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider the importance of forgiveness by using the story of Bess Cummings.

Preparation and materials

  • This assembly uses the moving story of Bess Cummings, who survived a terrible disaster at sea during the Second World War. You may like to familiarize yourself with her story before the assembly.

  • Note: this assembly requires sensitivity to students who may have been affected by major traumatic situations.

  • Optional: you may like to display pictures of Bess Cummings and her brother, Louis Walder, and the City of Benares cruise liner.


  1. Early in the Second World War, the British government ran an overseas evacuation scheme. By 1940, about 3,500 children had been taken to safety in the homes of volunteer host families for the duration of the war. Some children went to Canada, the USA, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

  2. Fifteen-year-old Bess Walder and her brother, Louis, were two of these evacuees. On September 13, 1940, they set sail from Liverpool for Canada on City of Benares, a pre-war cruise liner. There were about 400 people on board, including nearly 100 evacuee children and their escorts. The children were sad to leave home, but they knew that they were being sent away from the dangers of war. Most of the children had already experienced such dangers: five children in one family had been bombed out of their home only the night before.

  3. Bess and her brother quickly made friends with the other children. The weather was lovely and all sorts of games had been organized on the decks. The children hadn’t had much food to eat at home due to the rationing that had been taking place, so they were enjoying the food available on the ship. To many of the children, it felt like a holiday, and the days passed by full of fun and laughter. The passengers had all practised the lifeboat drill and knew what to do if there was an emergency.

  4. After four days at sea, the weather suddenly changed. On 17 September, a fierce gale whipped up enormous waves and most of the ships passengers retreated to their cabins due to seasickness. That night, at 10.30 p.m., when most of the children were fast asleep in their cabins, there was a terrible explosion. It caused enormous damage to the ship, particularly in the area below the cabins where the children were sleeping.

  5. The ship had been hit by a torpedo from a U-boat, U-48. German submarines had been tracking the convoy of ships and had decided to attack the largest one, City of Benares. Immediately, all the other ships in the convoy scattered, following the expected procedure to ensure that these ships were kept safe. Given the number of children on board City of Benares, many people on board the other ships were distraught at leaving the stricken ship to fend for herself, but there was nothing they could do to help. The ship began to sink very quickly. Bess managed to climb into a waterlogged lifeboat, but it soon overturned, leaving her forced to cling to a rope along its keel. Pummelled by the waves, she watched City of Benares sink.

    For 20 hours, pounded by the stormy seas, Bess clung on to the rope, until she was rescued by Hurricane, a destroyer. During this time, there were many acts of heroism. In the end, 258 lives were lost, and only 13 children survived. Miraculously, two of the children who survived were Bess and her brother, Louis.

  6. Sixty years on, Bess was asked how she coped with what had happened to her. This is what she said.

    ‘We, who were saved, have had to come to terms with a problem of forgiveness. To forgive those who did so much harm to so many people and who have left a trail of misery and horror in their wake is not easy and to obey Christ’s teaching on forgiveness when we say the Lord’s Prayer is still, for some, greatly difficult in this context.’

  7. Some time after the war, Bess spoke to the wireless operator of U-48. He told her that when the crew found out that the ship had been carrying children, many of them broke down in tears. Some of them, especially family men, left the submarine service as a result of the sinking. The operator said that many of the crew’s consciences were still troubled long after the event and they hoped that people would find it in their hearts to forgive them.

  8. Bess said, ‘Forgiveness can be very beneficial to the soul, reciprocal and helpful in healing deep wounds of the mind. It sometimes has to be a long process, one that may never quite be completed. It can continue throughout one’s life. But never does it preclude forgetting.

Time for reflection

For people who have suffered the tragedies of war or suffered at the hands of others in other ways, forgiveness has not meant forgetting. Forgiveness, as Bess said, can be ‘helpful and healing’. However, there are some things that we should never forget.

In a few moments of quiet, lets remember the following.

- Those who have died in conflicts, especially children and other innocent civilians.
- Those who have survived and who have to live with painful memories.
- Those whose memories make it difficult for them to forget the wrong they have seen and suffered.
- Ourselves, when life brings us suffering that occupies our thoughts and makes forgiveness hard.

Let us pray for the spirit of forgiveness.

Publication date: August 2020   (Vol.22 No.8)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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