HAWCRIDGE, Corporal Robert Stuart

Robert Stuart Hawcridge was the first of the two masters of Batley Grammar School to die as a result of the Great War. He was born in June 1887, the son of Thomas (‘Arthur’) and Emma Hawcridge, who lived at 37 Windsor Street, Barrow. Robert Hawcridge’s father was a School Board Inspector in Barrow in Furness. He climbed the ladder in educational circles to School Board Superintendent in 1901, and then became the Director of Education for the Borough of Barrow in Furness. It was this career path which no doubt led him by 1901 to send his son Robert to live with his own mother, Mary Ann, in Salford, so that Robert could study at the renowned Manchester Grammar School.

An obituary in the Batley News for August of 1916 tells a little of Robert Hawcridge’s life after he went to school in Manchester. It read:

A son of the Director of Education at Barrow-in-Furness he was educated at Manchester Grammar School and St John’s College, Cambridge, where he took his M.A. degree.  He was assistant master for four years at Manchester Preparatory School.  At the same time Mr. R. L. Ager, the present headmaster of Batley Grammar School, was teaching at Manchester Grammar School and yet the two never met.

After a distinguished career at Manchester Grammar School, he read for a degree in Classics at Cambridge University and taught Classics and Art at the North Manchester Preparatory School.  He was appointed to the staff of Batley Grammar School in the autumn term of 1913. His career at the school was short lived, and he was actually at the school for barely a year and a term before he joined the Colours.

Unfortunately Robert Hawcridge’s army records do not survive, but his medal record card is held at the National Archive. From his obituary in the Batley News it seems that he joined the 24th Royal Fusiliers in January 1915.The medal record shows that he went to France with his regiment on 15 November 1915. This battalion was better known as the 2nd Sportsman’s Battalion. It was founded in London on 20th November by a lady, E. Cunliffe-Owen. The Sportsman’s Battalion was a special example of the ‘Pals’ Battalions formed by interests rather than locality.  It included several first class cricketers, among them Ernie Hayes, Bill Hitch, and Andy Sandham of Surrey County Cricket Club, and the lightweight boxing champion of England.  The Battalion landed at Boulogne in November, 1915 and saw action at Vimy Ridge, the Somme and the battle for Delville Wood.

Hawcridge wrote vivid letters to the school magazine from the front and extracts from them were printed. They evoke the horrors of war as effectively as anything written by the more celebrated Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen:

The day before yesterday I had the liveliest ten minutes of my life.  While I was waiting with a working party at a busy corner of the road, a German gun got the range and dropped between twenty or thirty shells round us.  Ragged chunks of metal and bricks flew all over the place, men scuttled to sand – bagged cellars, ducking and jumping at every explosion.  One shell took the corner clean off a big house. The next fell through the roof and exploded inside, bursting a wall outwards.   Most of the others fell all but harmlessly on the road or open ground near, with great fussy explosions and columns of black smoke and splashing of earth.  But of the hundred men standing near there not one was touched.

After that little episode it felt very safe to get into the trenches again; and indeed it is safe there.  This particular bit of trench was formerly occupied by the French, and I recognised a road named by Tony Broughton [another old boy of Batley Grammar School] of the Guards as his position for a time.

His letters stressed the more mundane aspects of trench warfare – the need for working parties, and the persistence of mud and flooding:

For three days we have been sending up working parties to the trenches.  I’d better explain at once that there is practically nothing of the fighting of the illustrated paper type going on here.  During one’s period in the trenches one is unceasingly trying to repair the damage done by the enemy’s guns and to improve the fire trenches.  On these parties we carry simply a rifle, an anti-gas helmet and so many rounds of ammunition, the rifle being wrapped in everything available to guard it from the mud.

Never have I seen such a picture of desolation and senseless chaos as just behind the trenches. The houses are loop-holed for street fighting, sand-bagged, and every hundred or two yards a communication trench begins.  The mess begins when you turn down one of these.  Six inches of mud first, thick glutinous mud; then a foot of it – then eighteen inches of water or more, then more and worse mud of every consistency everywhere.

Hawcridge’s letters to the school were realistic in tone, almost as if he were trying to show to the boys that he had taught that war was no schoolboy jape: ‘I’ve been in the firing line.  It was not till we came out at night that I began to realise the real horror of war.  A march over ground full of holes, puddles and wire, deep in mud, in absolute blind darkness, with certainty of being wiped out if the enemy guns observed us’. He was very eager to explain the reality of war to a civilian audience unaware of true conditions on the front.

Robert Hawcridge was promoted to Corporal.  He wrote that he found his duties ‘jolly hard work – trying to make twenty men do their work’. 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, or rather two skeletons, one a German, the other a Canadian, as we recognised by remnants of their clothing.

Hawcridge’s potential was quickly recognised.  He was selected for a commission, but on 28 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 leading his platoon into Delville Wood, a key point from which the artillery fire could be directed or further attacks could be launched. Hawcridge was killed by shrapnel approaching Delville Wood from Montauban.

The war diary for the 24th Royal Fusiliers shows that the battalion was in Trones Wood, near to Delville Wood, when they relieved the 17th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. It notes that it was: “A very hard day, several casualties”. One of those casualties was Robert Stuart Hawcridge. His name was added to the list of casualties appended to the July copy of the war diary itself, along with many of his battalion colleagues who were either killed or missing on 28 and 29 July 1916.

In the best journalistic traditions the short obituary in the Batley News contained several inaccuracies, including mentioning that his rank was ‘Sub Lieutenant’ and then ‘Second Lieutenant’. He did not live to be commissioned unfortunately.

The December 1916 issue of the Batley Grammar School Magazine carried several tributes to Robert Stuart Hawcridge.  The Classics master at Manchester Grammar School remembered him as a ‘bright, cheerful, ‘sunshiny’ boy who was always interested in his work. He had become a lecturer for the Workers’ Educational Association and was grateful to the Batley workers for their enthusiasm for his lectures on industrial history.

The December 1916 edition of the Batley Grammar School Magazine. Image supplied by Stuart Archer.

The December 1916 edition of the Batley Grammar School Magazine. Image supplied by Stuart Archer.

Frazer, the Headmaster who appointed him to teach at Batley, remembered his ‘keen, eager face and quick, clear answers’ at interview, and the unanimity of the selection panel. He was a dedicated and devoted teacher with wide interests in sport and culture.  He was certainly bound for greater achievements in education, keeping up the family traditions in that sphere.

The magazine included a paragraph explaining the death as well as a picture of Robert Hawcridge:

It is with the deepest sorrow that we have to record the death in action of Mr. Hawcridge. He was a lovable character and it makes his loss the harder when we know that he was offered a commission for gallantry and that he was due to arrive in England to begin his training three days after he was killed. His father, to whom we extend our sympathy has very kindly presented the school with a photo of Mr. Hawcridge.

Robert Hawcridge’s body was never found and his name is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the missing. His name features on the St John’s College, Cambridge, Roll of Honour as well as being of course on the Roll of Honour at Batley Grammar School, where he was a popular master.