June 17th 1918

The first few months of this year have seen considerable activity on the Western Front, with a series of attacks made on our positions by the Germans. Three Old Dragons have lost their lives in these battles, together with two more members of the newly formed RAF.

Thankfully, as a school we have had no more losses in May, or indeed so far this month. Nor have we heard much news of our Old Dragons there. This may be due to the fact that, with the considerable movement of the front line and greater confusion (as testified by the extraordinarily long lists of those declared ‘Missing’) there has been less time for our scribes to record the events (Philip Frere being an honourable exception).

* * * * * * *

In the meanwhile, warfare of a different nature has been taking place here: the annual Fathers v Sons cricket match. I am grateful to Capt. Fyle for this account:

“I have a distinct recollection that the Fathers won, which in retrospect is unaccountable. It was mainly due, I think, to the staff work and sound cricket of Skipper Mallalieu, and to the steady offensive of a bearded bowler, who was in action continuously without relief. Also the side included more cricketers than was quite fair. One of them wore a cricket cap and batting gloves.

Then there was Mr Wallace*. True the appearance of Richard Wallace justified his inclusion in the side, but I hardly think it was the proper place for the author of the remark that ‘Parents are the sort of people who ought never to have children.’

Also the side included an obvious golfer, who, if I remember rightly, hit six successive full shots for six apiece and nearly caused enough casualties among the spectators to strike a war correspondent dumb…

Nor must I omit to record the stand made by Col. Stenning and Capt. Wylie, which according to the expert commentator would have produced considerably more than three runs, had not the latter been brilliantly caught off a shot which looked like a late cut to square leg, while the former encountered that unconscionable anomaly, a straight long-hop.

But the dissolution of this partnership was probably due to the guile of Skipper, who seeing them getting their eyes a little less out, tripped on the field with a telegram containing news of three Winchester scholarships.

Of the school’s innings, I do not feel qualified to speak. It seemed to me that they all played brilliantly and would certainly have beaten any but a quite first-class team. They were not well supported by their umpires, one of whom gave ‘run out’ against a boy who would certainly have reached the crease in another two or three minutes. Umpires ought to remember which side they are on.”

For the record the Fathers totalled 115 and the boys were bowled out for 102. More important were the three scholarships won by F Huggins (3rd), R Alford (12th), E Slater (15th). Well done boys!

Daily Telegraph, June 17th 1918

 

*This, of course, is our returned soldier cum OPS schoolmaster,’Pug‘ – a sportsman of some note.

June 13th 1918

We are delighted to hear from Capt. Maurice Campbell (RAMC), who has written up his nine day journey (without maps) along the Bagdad – Persian Road (March 23rd – 31st.) for publication in the ‘Draconian.’

“This 200 miles through the hills still remains after thousands of years one of the worst and most difficult main roads in the world.

27/3/18. “We had only come 20 miles of our 120 (not counting of course the 80 I had done by car). Except for army mules for the Lewis guns and ammunition, our transport was entirely Persian mules, which are larger animals, supposed to carry 300 lbs…

The mules were looked after by a weird crew, dressed rather like the pirates in Peter Pan – especially the head man, who wore a bright blue coat and bright yellow trousers and looked the biggest villain I have ever seen…”

To prove the point, the following day, this ‘head man’ demonstrated his capacity for villainy on his own men:

“…it seemed as though they would never get loaded but finally the head man went up to various mules he thought underloaded, beat the driver over the head and tipped the whole load on the ground. The man then loaded again with another 100 lbs.”

Once underway,  even these hardy animals found the going tough:

“We started about six down a narrow lane, which got rougher and rougher. Even the mules could hardly stand and one was overbalanced by its load into a stream at the side. Several loads came off…”

Their resilience, however, is remarkable:

“Their saddles were kept on day and night and during the day even when we stopped for an hour their loads were never touched. But in spite of this they were ready to go on all day, grazing as they went. The one trouble was their speed – about two miles an hour, which made the day’s march a long one, although they never halted when we did.”

Of all the difficulties Maurice encountered on his journey, this is perhaps the strangest:

30/3/18 “In the morning we were greeted by the news that one of the mules had been eaten by a lion. On enquiry, it turned out to be a wretched creature which had been too lame to carry a load at all, so we suspected this was only the first stage in the manufacture of some circumstantial evidence so they might claim compensation.”

The following day, although still not at his final destination, Maurice was at least over the worst of it:

31/3/18. “This was the end of our journey on the Bagdad –  Persian road. From here to the Caspian it is good military road built by the Russians. From Bagdad to Qizil Roht, where I was camped, it passes over absolutely flat plains.”

Meanwhile, Maurice’s youngest brother 2nd Lieut. Pat Campbell (RFA) is serving in France.

We still remember the pain of awaiting news of the middle brother, 2nd Lieut. Percy Campbell, who was the second of our Old Boys to be killed, in October 1914.

The Roll now stands at sixty-six Old Boys, who have given their lives in this struggle against German aggression.

June 7th 1918

Lieut. St. John Backhouse (RAF)

Another loss – as recorded in yesterday’s edition of the Times –  has to be recorded from the springtime fighting, this time in Salonica. Jack Backhouse was apparently declared missing, but probably killed (although I saw no notice in the newspapers to that effect).

The details supplied by Jack’s commanding officer made it clear that it was unlikely he would have survived being shot down:

“Lieut. Backhouse was doing an army reconnaissance about sixty miles beyond the lines… and was attacked by three hostile Scouts. One of these three dived on the tail of Lieut. Backhouse’s machine and shot him through the neck. The machine fell from 8,000 to 10,000 ft.”

However, we have to thank the chivalry of German airmen for confirmation of his death. This note was dropped from one of their planes recently:

“On 3rd April at 3pm one of your two-seaters was brought down… after a brave fight in the air. The pilot, Lieut. Backhouse, was killed by a bullet through the head, the Observer, Lieut. Still, was killed by the fall. The burial was carried out with full military honours. Signed June 1st. The German Airmen.”

Having first joined the First Sportsman Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers, as a Private and then in 1916 taking up a commission in the East Lancashire Regiment, Jack transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in September 1917.

 

June 1st 1918

There is news that 2nd Lieut. Adrian Raleigh (Leics) and 2nd. Lieut. William Dyson (Devons) went missing in recent fighting at the Front.

Adrian is the son of Sir Walter Raleigh, Oxford’s Professor of English Literature. (Professor Raleigh is a familiar figure, along with the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, training with the Oxford Volunteer Corps – known to some as ‘Godley’s Own’ – around the town).

Adrian was wounded on March 24th and captured along with a significant proportion of his unit the following day. News that he was a prisoner of war was noted in the newspapers on May 3rd.

The Devons were enveloped by a German attack on Villers Bretonneux, near Amiens, on April 24th and William Dyson is one of many whose fate is unknown. He is listed as “missing,” but in the circumstances there is every chance that he has become a prisoner of war.

May 28th 1918

Although it was clear to his family and friends nearly six months ago that 2nd Lieut. Willie Wells-Cole (Lincs) had been killed, the official notification has only this last week been published in the newspapers:

This delay (since we published our notification of his death on December 19th) is explained by the fact that the authorities required official statements from the two eye witnesses, who are both prisoners of war. These have now been secured and Willie’s uncle (and next-of-kin) has finally received this confirmation on May 10th:

“In the view of the statements by these Non-Commissioned Officers the Council are now constrained to conclude that 2ndLieut. Wells-Cole was killed in action on 31stJuly, 1917. I am to express their sympathy with the relatives in their loss and to add that publication will be made in the official casualty list.”

This now enables Willie’s uncle to wind up his nephew’s affairs.

 

 

May 19th 1918

M A Y    1 8 t h    –    V C   D A Y

 

In honour of Capt. Jack Smyth (Sikhs, Indian Army) winning the Victoria Cross on this day in 1915, we have enjoyed a day off, and what a perfect day it turned out to be.

There was a great river picnic on the Upper River, with lunch and tea at the point where Wytham Wood comes nearest the river, just below Eynsham Bridge. The School House maids drove out and joined the party for tea and changed places with some of the juniors for the journey home.

The racing, the blisters, the bathe (Chell’s especially), the sun (Percival), the fruit salad, the big spoon (2 members of Staff), the walk home (Cecil and A.N. Other) and the frequent attempts to drown her crew (another member of the Staff) will long live in the memory.

Unfortunately, I had to attend a meeting in London and missed all the fun!

It has been some time since we last heard from Jack. As far as we know, he is doing a staff job in Bombay – safely away from the Western Front at least.

May 17th 1918

Capt. Philip Frere (KRRC), who visited us last term, was caught up in the Spring Offensive launched by the Boche on March 21st. His record of events, which we have now received, makes the most gripping reading and shows how desperately hard pressed our troops were at that time:

28/3/18. “It all started on the 22nd, as far as we were concerned. We were in Corps Reserve, and had been standing by to move at an hour’s notice.

We were just drinking our port after an early dinner, when we were interrupted by a burst of M.G. fire from about 500 yards, sweeping the village. It was a patrol that had pushed right through. Of course, this was rather sudden when we thought we were six miles at least from the battle. We turned out at once, got the Companies into a trench outside the village and kept off the Boche. We managed to get in touch with the people on the right and left and to form some sort of line…

On the morning of the 23rd, we started scrapping; eventually we saw that the Boche had got right through on our right and were coming round, so we had to hook it, and jolly quick too. He shelled us very heavily with whizz-bangs at point blank range for a time. Our guns behaved as at a military tournament, coming into action at a gallop. We left a platoon to cover our retirement, and then got back as best we could to a line facing South instead of East.

We had a horrid time there; I have never been under such heavy fire in my life. The Boche was streaming over the ridge opposite and we fired as much as we could, husbanding our ammunition; his advance was covered with M.G. fire most awfully well directed, and eventually the people on the left went and we had to swing back N.W…

The first two days I had nothing but a cup of cocoa and a slice of biscuit and marmalade which we found; but then food doesn’t matter and I was hardly hungry. The awful part was thirst, and it was not until the eve of the 24th that we came upon a water point and managed to fill up just before the Boche arrived. I did not know what thirst was till then.

But even this was not so bad as the fatigue and awful depression. What was happening? When would it all end? How long were we to continue this unending fighting? We had not the least idea where the rest of our Brigade and Division were, we had no orders what to do, and were left to gloomy speculation how on earth we were going to subsist.

At Ytres on the 23rd, we managed to hold on till about 4 p.m. when we found that the Boche had crossed the canal, so we fixed up a line behind with the people on our right and retired to it.

Soon after we got into position the Boche started to shell us with a H.V. gun (11”). How on earth he got them up I do not know, there must have been about six of them. I then spent the most unpleasant two hours I have known. We cowered down in the bottom of a shallow trench with these huge shells falling all about the place and four German aeroplanes flying round and round fifty feet above us; not one of ours was to be seen, and we had no ammunition left to fire at them…

Next morning, the 24th, at dawn, we found that we were at the point of the salient about three miles deep and about a mile across at the base. I never thought that we should extricate ourselves, but we did.

All that day the same thing went on, the men were absolutely done, parched with thirst, and with no spirit left at all. That evening we reached Le Sars and dropped where we stood; however, we had fallen on our feet, for we found the Transport and got food and water. That night I got a little sleep, but the cold was ghastly.

Next morning, the 25th, we started with a very heavy action in front of Le Sars; my Assistant Adjutant was killed and the second in command saved me by stopping a bullet in front of me. That day we fought three actions and came to rest in the evening near Beaucourt.

The night was better, the Boche did not molest us and we managed to get hot food from the Transport; I found a tarpaulin which kept me moderately warm, though I was too tired to sleep.”

It is difficult to find a good map on which one can place such events, but this one from the newspapers is the best I can do. Philip’s line of retreat is just south of Bertincourt (Ytres) going due west to Le Sars.

Whilst we have read a lot about the German casualties being enormous, this account, along with the never ending lists of fallen officers in the newspapers, show that our losses have been very considerable as well:

“You could put what is left of the Battalion into a drawing room. I have had a great piece of luck coming through it and I don’t know how I managed it.”

Philip’s sang-froid is truly remarkable; he and his troops must have been driven right to the very limits of their powers of endurance. I fear that the horror of it all will live with them for quite some time.

So much for this. It is an episode about which one could easily write a book, but I have neither the time nor the inclination. I hope to be able to sleep tonight. Last night I had nothing but nightmares.”