Words by Stuart M. Archer
Batley Grammar School was small but expanding prior to the First World War. Numbers rose from 100 to 140 in the Edwardian years, and science laboratories and class-rooms had been built in January 1914. In 1909 the Old Boys’ Society had been formed, and in the same year a school magazine was produced for the first time. The new magazine appeared at the end of every term and reflected Edwardian concerns with imperialism, the cult of games, and the cultivation of ‘manly’ virtues. During the war of 1914 to 1918 it really established itself as a record of local and national interest. Old boys wrote to the magazine to tell of their wartime experiences and these letters give a vivid insight into the mentalities of soldiers in this ‘war to end all wars’.
Before the war
In the summer of 1914 a sixth former attended a vacation course at Gottingen. On the fourth of August he set off as usual for lectures, but found his German Professor in no mood for teaching. The flower of his class had gone to answer the call to arms. The old Professor, who had enthralled the young English scientists with his tales of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and with his deep interest in Ireland, gravely took them to one side:
He produced his Tagenblatt and informed us that for the proper defence of the Fatherland it had been necessary to enter Belgium, and the paper spoke of Trouble with Great Britain. He did not believe it. He could not imagine the British taking sides with the decadent French and the barbarous Muscovites against their blood brothers, but the situation was doubtful, and he strongly advised us to go home for a ‘short holiday’.
The English students took his advice and set off for Holland. Their German course was over: it had been ‘a pleasant interlude – a contact with Kultur’.
It is easy to forget how surprising to many was the decision to go to war with Germany in August, 1914. Economic and naval rivalry there may have been, but there was also great mutual esteem. As recently as April, 1912 the Headmaster of Batley Grammar School, a ‘modern’, science-based school, had announced that German was now to be the chief foreign language taught in the school. The speech day guest, Professor Priestley of Leeds University, welcomed this decision:
The message of Germany to England was an inspiration… the more Englishmen studied Germany’s industry and thought, the more they would find their appreciation of Germany growing, and the relationship between the two countries developing.
The professor ended with words which held an ominous ring:
With boys who had not shirked their duty at school and who had played fair on the field, we can leave the future of the country in safe hands.
This confidence was soon the be put to an awesome test in the crucible of war – a war which was declared reluctantly by a divided Cabinet, only united by Lloyd George’s decision to support Asquith on 3 August, 1914. The tardiness of the decision for war did enable a united call to arms, made concrete in Kitchener’s famous poster, ‘Your Country Needs You’. The pupils of Batley Grammar School responded enthusiastically.
The diversity of early military training, with its frustrations and excitements, is well captured in letters to the magazine.
I work with cable wagons, telegraph tents, flag signalling and dispatch riding…We have to learn how to ride horses and motorbikes. Yesterday I had to ride without reins and stirrups, and with arms extended.
After eight weeks in Colchester I am getting on very well… Up to now it has been mostly foot-drill and exercising the horses, we start with wooden horses at first. We are still in tents, some with sixteen men in them.
A gunner stationed in Bradford told how he had to march to Manningham Park, three miles away, six or eight times a day, for practice in gun-loading. Then:
Up at four in the morning, put on short rations and ride the horsed bareback: then they were to break and brand – they came from all over Yorkshire.
A driver complained that army life was worse than the workhouse, and he did not see why they were made to hearth-stone long flights of steps.
At the Front
Already in the autumn of 1914 there are tales of serious combat in the letters of Tony Broughton, a corporal in a Cavalry regiment. (The Broughtons were a well-known medical and later political family).
His tone is rather jolly: he is having ‘a good time’, but beneath the bravado is sombre news of the retreat from Mons, and the destruction of the superbly trained British Expeditionary Force:
My squadron lost heavily, caught in a hail of bullets from maxim and rifle… One officer and about twenty men were killed – it was a ‘real scrap’. There is not much scope here for cavalry work, so they gave us bayonets and we go into the trenches for 24 or 48 hours at a time… We have lost an awful lot of men; all the original officers but two are killed, and one day we lost a whole squadron… I have had some awfully narrow squeaks.
The ending of the war of movement, and the creation of trench lines stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland, with the front lines not varying by more than ten miles in either direction in the next three years, is clearly seen in letters from the front:
Sometimes we are told to take engineers’ stores, barbed wire and sand bags. A crowd of sappers gets on the back of the lorries and we go ahead to the front line trenches: then everybody helps to carry the stuff forward and start fixing up entanglements in front of the trenches… This is the most sporting game I know, as one never knows when the Germans will open fire.
The dug-outs providing shelter against artillery bombardment are vividly described:
I certainly consider my dug-out shell-proof. When I sit on the floor, my head rubs the top, and so, not having room for my cap, I tie a long handkerchief round my head and neck to keep out the sand and dust which my hair rubs loose… Our bacon we cook on a candle, and my brother, who caught two roach in the canal, has even managed to fry them for dinner… And so we keep sticking to it.
At the Sharp End
R.S. Hawkridge, a young member of staff, painted the most convincing picture of combat. He was eager to dispel any illusions about the fighting bearing any resemblance to ‘the Illustrated paper’ legends:
During bombardment, men scuttle to sand-bagged cellars, ducking and jumping at every explosion… in the trenches one is unceasingly trying to repair the damage done by the enemy’s guns… we carry only a rifle, wrapped in anything available to guard it from the mud – thick, glutinous mud. To walk a hundred yards is to be soaked in liquid mud from the waist down and plastered with dry clay from the waist up… War is a horrible thing. A man is no longer a man but must be made part of the machine.
Hawkridge was a sergeant in a Staffordshire regiment. He found his duties ‘jolly hard work – trying to make twenty me do their work, get proper rest, look after their food and water supply and try to improve the trenches a little.
His final letter of March, 1916 has the intensity and the passion of a sensitive, talented thinker, desperately trying to bring home to civilians the concrete actuality of war:
I once came over the top in daylight. It was the weirdest of all my experiences, for we crossed the scene of some of the most desperate fighting that has taken place in France.
The ground is deep-pitted with shell-holes, varying from two to six feet in diameter, and three to eight feet in depth: here and there are little tangled heaps of wreckage – twisted bicycles, broken rifles, twisted wire, German boots, broken stretchers – and now and then we found bones of horses and skulls of men.
A giant reaping machine stood rotting by the road and flung right on the top lay two men, or rather two skeletons, one a German, the other a Canadian, as we recognised by remnants of their clothing.
Hawkridge’s potential was quickly recognised. He was selected for a commission, but on July 28, 1916, only three days before he was due to leave for England for officer training, he was killed on the Somme. He was shot ‘approaching Delville Wood from Montauban; he lies buried behind Trones Wood.
Another staff member, H.G. Pearsall, gained the Military Cross. He was a Tank Commander in the first tank attack on the Somme. The official citation stated that:
He fought his tank with great military gallantry, protecting the flank of the infantry, and repulsing an enemy counter-attack. Later, when his tank was disabled, he fired a machine-gun from the trenches, displaying courage and initiative.
Pearsall had joined the army in 1914 and had been quickly promoted to Sergeant. He then gained a commission, and became a Major in the Tank Regiment. He survived the war and returned to teach at the school. However he collapsed and died in March 1919.
The difficulty of communicating a true feeling for the reality of war to a civilian audience is hinted at in the reactions of another officer who gained the Military Cross. Captain J.C. Metcalfe visited the school on leave in March 1917. He grimly warned the editor of the school magazine against any talk of the usual ‘tommy-rot’ about his decoration. Civilians, he warned, ‘knew nothing, and should not make their friends less friendly’. He obviously held strong views: he had gained a first-class degree in Medicine at Leeds University and was a House Surgeon at Leeds General Infirmary. He died in action in March 1918.
An analysis of the Roll of Honour for 1918 shows that 381 Batley Grammar School boys enlisted – 307 in the army of whom 78 won commissions. 27 joined the navy, of whom 17 were officers. 25 joined the Royal Flying Corps, of whom six became second-lieutenants.
There is no evidence in the letters for the war in the air, but there are two interesting letters describing the unnerving experience of ‘being torpedoed at sea’. J.H. Winder, a young artificer who had only left school in 1913, gave a moving account of a ‘wreckage-strewn sea’. A more vivid picture comes from a letter by Second Lieutenant Leslie Moreton, whose ship was torpedoed as he was coming home from Ireland on leave. Most British soldiers referred to Fritz, Jerry or the Hun with grudging respect. Perhaps it was the feeling that submarine attack was ‘unchivalrous’ that led to a rare expression of hatred for the Germans?
Dublin Castle Hospital. October 13, 1918. Sunday.
Have been here since Thursday. Thank God I am amongst the survivors. I was two and a half hours in the water, clinging to a raft. Went down in the suction of the vessel. Sights were too awful to remember. Have a scalp wound, badly bruised, exposure and shock. My chest got congested with sea-water. This beats anything in France and is equal to one year on the front. Was saved by a Destroyer and treated grandly by them – all on board were splendid. Just British. Lost everything. I saw all the devilry of the Hun U-Boat man with my own eyes and felt it; and I say ‘an eye for an eye’ because they understand nothing less. They are fiends incarnate.
Despite the horrors of a war of attrition, many soldiers actually enjoyed many aspects of war. When on reserve behind the lines they may have lived more comfortably, have been better fed, better clothed and better paid than in peacetime. Infant mortality, now seen as a crucial indicator of living standards, remained stubbornly high in northern industrial towns such as Batley before 1914.
There is some support for this view of the war in the letters to the school magazine. A private in a motor transport unit wrote:
The nights used to be ripping. If there was a little estaminet, so much the better; we would have a little fire in an old petrol tin and sit round telling yarns about Mons and the retreat. Somebody would play the mouth-organ and a sing-song followed.
Escape from the intensity of the front-line was essential, but time had to filled and a network of entertainment developed. Football and cricket were popular, and shows copied the music-halls. An officer in the Ambulance corps wrote:
Attached to my column is a concert party called ‘The Follies’. They give a show every night to the troops who have returned from the trenches and are resting a few miles back from the front lines. They are really excellent, and the entertainments are quite as good as one sees in a music-hall at home… The soldiers appreciate them very much.
Correspondents often boat of belonging to the ‘happiest, chummiest’ sections, and many stress their new-found health and vigour. Open air training improved their endurance and made them ‘fitter than ever before’. A private claimed:
The army life has set me up in health, and I ca rough it like a boy scout now, sleep on a wet floor and stay out in the rain without fear of a cold.
The Home Front
In our first war time magazine the Headmaster, Norman Lewis Frazer, wrote of ‘Business as usual’, but the pressures of war were quickly felt. The price of chemicals and scientific apparatus rose so quickly that rigid economy had to be practised in the laboratories. Batley’s mills were booming due to demand for uniforms, and the Debating Society argued the propriety of taxing war profits.
An old boy studying chemistry at Leeds University proudly reported that his department had provided over 70 types of antiseptics for use in the Field Hospitals in France. He also paid tribute to the work of Professor Proctor on the chrome-tanning of leather: a natural process which took three months was now cut to sixteen hours, thus hastening the supply of boots and leather equipment to the Allied armies.
By March 1916 paper was so expensive that school exercise books were dispensed with and school war-work diversified: paper collecting, fruit picking, weeding paths, tidying borders, collecting eggs for the wounded, and making dummy cartridges were organised.
In December 1916, after the punitive casualty rates on the Somme, ‘Big School’, the present Old Library, was turned into a recreation room for convalescing soldiers from the adjacent hospital. It contained a billiard table, lots of easy chairs, and games and books ‘to amuse our wounded Tommies’.
By the spring of 1917 the German submarine campaign threatened to starve Britain out of the war. The concept of ‘total war’ was born – the victory would go to the country which mobilised its economy and economy behind the war effort. Batley boys began to dig for victory:
The energies of the school have effected a change in the Birstall end of the new buildings… Gangs of boys have been busy digging in the turf and exploring subsoil… The nature of the ground leaves much to be desired, for the bulk of it is cold, shaly stuff, but at any rate it has had deep working… The crop of potatoes is to be used for school dinners.
By March 1917, the hopes of post-war ‘reconstruction’ were enthusiastically voiced. At Speech Day, H.L. Paton, High Master of Manchester Grammar School, expressed these hopes of a new social harmony:
After the war there will be a great reconstruction of things, but in all this wreck of ideals the school stands out as a peak.
When we set out after the war to reconstruct our national life, I trust we shall begin with our educational system, and that there will be opened a glorious chapter of inspiration and development… It is for us all to work together for those great ideals that shine ahead of us more brightly than ever, and to live worthily of the sacrifices made for us everyday on the battlefields.
Armistice Day was greeted poetically by a young scholar:
Up turning from my books, I heard
A buzzing and a singing
Which drowned the twitters of the birds,
And set the echoes ringing.
Then sudden on our minds it dawned
That Peace was drawing nigh;
For we had long since been forewarned –
Good-bye to sob and sigh.
Laughter and cheers rang through the room,
Until the air grew thunder;
And every desk went Boom! Boom! Boom!
While nurses stared in wonder.
The reality of peace took time to sink in:
Gone are the transcendental beings in Blue and Khaki who came in such swarms last term! True, we have had visitors, but oh! How times have changed! They tell us no more about adventures in a strange and wonderful tongue. They are one of us again; their interests are ours; they are demobilised.
By the spring of 1918 minds were turning to the finding of fitting ways to commemorate the dead. Two stained glass windows were given, one by the Earl of Wilton, and one by the architect, Walter Hanstock. These windows are still in their original places at the entrance to the Old Library.
The Wilton window displays the family coat of arms, the emblems of England, Scotland and Wales, and the motto ‘Virtutis non armis fido’ (Be truthful to virtue not weapons).
The Hanstock window states: ‘In loving and lasting memory of John Walter Hanstock of this school, Second Lieutenant Royal Engineers, who died for his King and Country in the Great War, October 30, 1918. This window was placed here by his father’.
The figure of England’s patron saint, St George, is balanced by the figure of a realistic Royal Engineer, underneath whom is the message, ‘For Right and Justice’. Oak leaves and acorns symbols of strength, fill the border.
Walter Hanstock was a well-known Batley architect and he had designed the new school buildings. His son, John, died only twelve days before the end of the war.
Governors, Staff and Old Boys set up a fund ‘to commemorate our lost friends, and all who died on active service’. It reached £900 before it was closed in July 1921. A local mason was commissioned to make a marble shield with the inscription: ‘In memory of the sacrifice and service of our old boys, 1914 – 1918’. This was placed high on the wall of the Old Library.
A Birmingham firm made a bronze tablet bearing the names of the 62 old boys and staff who had died. Beneath the school crest is the message: ‘In grateful memory of our old boys who died in the war’. This was at first placed in the Old Library but later moved to its present position outside the new Graves Hall in 1938.
These losses were very high – in the order of one in six of all who had fought. The great public schools whose volunteers were more frequently the extremely vulnerable junior officers suffered even higher losses of one in five: Harrow lost 27% of all its volunteers.
Such devastating losses created a ‘grey veil of doubt and longing’ in civilian England and led to the powerful myth of a lost generation. Quality as well as quantity has to be analysed. Asquith and Kipling both lost sons. In Batley, Hawkridge and Pearsall were brilliant teachers probably destined for Headships. Metcalfe was setting out on a distinguished medical career, as was Broughton. Edward Irish, School Captain in 1910, was an able post-graduate chemist at Leeds University. He was commissioned in a Yorkshire regiment in 1914 but after only four months he was ‘shot in the head while superintending the mending of wire in front of his post’. It was the loss of men of such talents which damaged the network which would have bound together the future and ‘natural’ leaders of the country. Less talented men, perhaps like Stanley Baldwin, must have felt that they were stepping into dead men’s shoes.
Horace Waller was the only Batley Grammar School boy to win the Victoria Cross posthumously. He was a quiet, unassuming lad from Purlwell His role in repulsing two German attacks was described as ‘one of conspicuous bravery and utmost valour’ in the official citation. A letter from his Company Officer to his father spoke of a ‘glorious fight’ in violent hand to hand combat. Waller was ‘the bravest boy I ever knew… so fine, so courageous, so British a man… the glory of his deeds will never die’.
Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori
Official citations and letters of condolence were clearly intended to comfort the bereaved by sanctifying the memory of the dead. Ninety years later less explicit mentalities may be analysed. Military valour was praised as a national, racial virtue. The emphasis in British public school education on the formation of ‘manly’ character through a cult of games paid a dreadful dividend. And after 1918 our heroes must not be allowed to have died in vain. The memory of the dead must hallow the present and sanctify the future – to promote a ‘brave new world’ of national strength, national unity and social harmony.
The focus on the memory of the dead also diverted criticism of the conduct of the war. In the Batley records there is never a hint of any objective appraisal of military strategy, tactics and leadership. Our politicians escape unscathed from challenge – Asquith emerges as the man who took a united country into war, and Lloyd George who replaced him is simply remembered as ‘the man who won the war’. Later, the legend of ‘lions led by donkeys’ led to bitter recrimination, but in 1920 the fight between the ‘brass hats’ and the ‘frocks’ went unmentioned. Squabbling over the past would have been seen as degrading to the memory of the sacrificed.
On 11 November 1919, a memorial service was held at Batley Parish Church. The congregation was asked to remember with pride the ‘nobility and magnificence’ of the sacrifice of those who had ‘laid down their lives that the liberties of the world might be preserved’. (No distinction was made between volunteers and conscripts). The sermon was delivered by the Vicar of Batley, the Reverend F.E. Lowe. He emphasised the moral lessons. These deaths inspired’ the finest feelings and the most heroic self-sacrifices of which the race was capable’. Their memory would help ‘to mould the character and arouse the emulation of those who had to take their places’.
Despite ‘the lights put out in thousands of homes’, despite ‘the bravest and the best now lying I untimely graves there was something very beautiful in thinking of a soldier’s death… the best way to honour the dead is to care for the living’. No doubt similar sentiments were delivered form countless pulpits and at the unveiling of innumerable memorials. These were feelings deeply felt. The rhetoric did play an important part in healing the wounds of war for survivors and civilians and in preventing those wounds from festering into bitterness which could threaten the stability of post-war society in the same way as the terrible outbreaks of influenza in 1920 threatened its physical health. After all, Russia had fallen to the Bolsheviks and the Fed Flag had flown from Glasgow Town Hall.
On a less rhetorical note, the magazine for December 1918 gave an anecdote. Two Batley Grammar School soldiers were on leave in a Surrey hotel. Their talk was overheard by a Colonel’s wife. She came over to talk to them:
My husband had [a] Captain… on his staff, and I have heard so much about his tenacity and devotion that I want to have a chat with boys from his school, for they must be an uncommon set of lads.
And thus the theme of noble behaviour and selfless sacrifice persists, cementing social unity and promoting national pride.
As a symbol of the school record in war, the words of Edwin Barraclough, a prominent local businessman whose son Alan was a Governor for many years, may be a fitting conclusion:
I was only twenty when the war ended. I’d run away from Batley Grammar School to join the army. I’d been captain of the school at football and cricket. I was a young, volunteer athletic recruit. I couldn’t see the seriousness of life. I still couldn’t when I came out. I was never brought up as a toff. I could mix with the officers, but I didn’t want to be one. I ran off to look smart. We were getting white feathers every day. After the war I could have gone to Leeds University, but I went into business instead.
For Barraclough, as for most Batley boys, the experience of war was something best forgotten. As for the poet David Jones, it was a time in their lives which they placed firmly ‘in parenthesis’.