June 19th 1917

Capt. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA) still finds time to write to us and his letters are never anything but interesting.

Part of Hugh’s job in the RGA is to spend time in a front-line Observation Post (OP) identifying suitable targets for the guns and seeing the fruits of their labours. In between times there are often lulls in the action:

4/6/17. “I read a Jacobs novel in the intervals and tried to pass the novel-reader’s test. This, by the way, is recommended to anyone who wants to kill time: it is as follows.

Write down the full names of twelve characters in each of 24 novels. Most people can do eight or nine in about twenty novels without difficulty: it is the last few names and books that cause the trouble, unless, like myself,  you have a mis-spent youth behind you.”

5/6/17. “Another beautiful summer morning. Administrative convulsions are proceeding, which may result in my having to command the Battery for a day or two, or in my going elsewhere. But I have long ceased worrying.

As my late OC remarked in a moment of pardonable irritation, the Heavy Artillery only exist to be badgered about (that was not exactly the word he used): and the main thing is to take life calmly.”  

 

 

 

June 14th 1917

Regie Fletcher

Last Sunday Mr CRL Fletcher talked to the boys at our service about the war. His words were all the more powerful coming from someone who has lost two of his three sons. 2nd Lieut. Regie Fletcher was killed by shellfire in the first months of the war. 2nd Lieut. George Fletcher  was killed by sniper fire in the trenches in March 1915. Both were highly esteemed and are much missed by their Dragon friends.

First Mr Fletcher reminded us of the worries and sacrifices of parents:

George Fletcher

“We stand today – all of us – literally where Jesus stood – at the foot of a Calvary. We old ones have to learn to give up what is far dearer to us than life, the lives of our children; I wonder if you boys realise what the sight of a telegram, or even of a telegraph boy going down a road, means to half the parents in Oxford?

It may mean “Hurrah, I am coming home on leave”; it may mean we shall never see him on earth again. Really the chances, which of these two things it means, are about even.”

Much of his talk concerned the boys themselves, who have learnt they can “do their bit” by collecting eggs and grapes for the wounded, entertaining wounded soldiers and learning to shoot in the rifle range. Mr Fletcher recognises that, further to this, they are surrendering their childhood to the war.

“…You boys are learning to give up a hundred things to which you have been accustomed; I don’t in the least underrate the difficulty of giving up favourite things to eat, and I feel sure that this must be infinitely worse for you than it is for your elders, although I frankly own that I have the most horrible and continual craving for brown sugar.

But you are also learning better and greater sacrifices than this, you are learning to ‘put away childish things,’ to grow old and thoughtful before your due time, to help fathers and mothers to bear their unforgettable griefs, to harden yourselves to face a sterner life, in a poorer England, than any of which your fathers and mothers dreamed when you were born.

For the course of time has ‘swerved and crooked backwards’ in our days – probably just because we were all too comfortable and happy, (and therefore growing selfish and lazy).”

Then Mr Fletcher looked to the future and the boys should expect:

“The ship – I like to compare Britain to a ship – is scudding before a fearful hurricane, with half her sails blown away, and with jury masts very imperfectly rigged. The best and bravest of her crew have been washed away and swallowed up. Whether she will right herself in your time depends very much upon you – upon your grasping now the meaning of the words ‘duty’ and ‘sacrifice,’ and keeping them steadily in view as the only worthy ends of your lives.

You will one day have to rebuild not merely the material city of Ypres, and a few hundreds of other ruined places, but the whole fabric of European civilisation, and you must take care to lay its foundations so well and truly that such desolation as that of the last three years shall never occur again. And, even before you come to rebuild, it may very well happen to you, yes even to the youngest of you, to be called on to defend the last relics of that civilisation.

The real end of this war is yet a very long way off, and, if an inconclusive peace is now patched up, the flame will burst up again (all history is a clear proof of this) and that rekindled flame may very probably burn up your own lives…”

Mr Fletcher ended his talk thus:

“…I am not afraid of being called a visionary if I assert my belief in direct divine help and leading for the soldiers of England and France in the present war. When your turn comes, may your eyes be opened  to see the vision, but, even if you don’t see it, do not forget to feel continually for the divine hand which will sustain you in the day of battle.”

It is distressing, when looking at young innocent faces, to think they might be swallowed up in this conflict in their turn. We hope fervently this will not be the case.

I do not intend to dwell on this matter with the boys and shall speak to them further accordingly. My instincts tell me we should keep on as much as possible “as normal,” and the boys should not worry themselves about the more distant future and its possibilities.

As the war approaches the end of its third year, most of the boys now have only a faint memory of the normality of peacetime existence. How sad a thought that is.

 

 

 

June 11th 1917

2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA)

The onset of a major battle such as the one recently started at Messines prepares us for bad news, but in Humphrey’s case, when we were reading his final letter (as it turns out) only a few days ago, it is still a terrible shock.

The information his parents have received is that he was killed on June 6th during the artillery build-up to the battle that commenced the following day:

“During the last few days your boy was really great. The Battery had been under heavy shell fire and we had a large number of casualties. Humphrey was amongst them…

He was taken to Bailleul, but died of his wounds, which were severe…”

Humphrey’s parents have passed on comments from the letters of his fellow officers:

“I should like to tell you how splendid he has been out here, how absolutely brave, simple, unassuming, and unselfish, and how we miss him…”

“Though he never won honours, he has deserved them time and again – and I know he was recommended on three different occasions. But he never coveted them…”

“His loss is our greatest calamity. We had grown to look up to him for advice and it was an open secret between us that he had always been the pillar on which our splendid Battery had been built. He had the confidence, esteem, respect and devotion of every officer and man in the Battery.” 

Humphrey was one of those whose lives gave promise of a brilliant future. A Cambridge man, a great athlete, a musician of no mean promise, one who exercised extraordinary influence on his fellow men, a lover of all the arts and of everything beautiful.

As the obituary in The TImes & Daily Telegraph today reminds us, he was intending to take up holy orders.

 

June 8th 1917

Another of our valiant airmen has been listed as missing – the third since the beginning of April.  Capt. Aubrey de Selincourt (RFC) went down on May 28th 1917.

According to information received,  he was on a photographic reconnaissance in his FE2d aircraft with three others near Douai (where there is a German aerodrome).  They were attacked by German planes and Aubrey was shot down.

The FE2d aircraft

The FE2d is a strange aircraft, where the pilot has the observer/gunner in front of him and the propeller behind him. It is said to be rather slow when compared with the German aeroplanes.

There is as yet no information to say that Aubrey survived his crash, but with both Capt. William Leefe Robinson and 2nd Lieut. Peter Warren in captivity, we can hope that Aubrey may have joined them in a prisoner of war camp.

When war broke out Aubrey, along with many of his contemporaries, joined the army. He served with the North Staffs Regiment in Gallipoli, where he contracted jaundice and had to return home. Once fit again, he asked to transfer to the RFC and trained as a pilot. He joined 25 Squadron in France in April 1917.

Aubrey is the younger brother of 2nd Lieut. Leslie de Selincourt (OBLI), who was badly wounded helping to relieve Kut last year.

June 5th 1917

Last year 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) gave us a gunner’s view from the Somme and now he has been in the thick of it again – presumably at Arras. His latest letter recounts events “of just over a month ago.”

30/5/17. “There was to be a big attack and certain objectives were, as usual, laid down. We were ordered to push forward our OP by stages to a point a few hundred yards behind the final objective, following up the attack and keeping up communication, sending back information and reporting and dealing with counter attacks and so on. It all sounds very easy.

At Zero hour I was at the regular OP with a drum of cable ready to go forward. The attack began while it was still dark and the usual hideous inferno of noise reached perhaps the greatest intensity of the whole war…

About an hour after it was light the wounded began to straggle back, but they could give me no information, having been hit at the outset…

Programmes are always arranged on the assumption that everything goes well. Accordingly I set out with my signaller, laying the line as we went. When we reached the valley below our hill I realised that it was absolutely thick with machine gun and rifle bullets, besides the usual shells. We therefore rushed from shell hole to shell hole, a few yards at a time, till we reached the first spot indicated on the programme.

Finding a roomy hole nearby, we settled down in it to consider the situation and fix up the phone. Watching over the top a few minutes later, I was surprised to see our infantry go over the top from the original front line, and they were met by such a concentrated fury of machine guns and shells that I knew they had not been able to advance at all in the first attack.

We tried to send information back to this effect, but of course our line was broken. Out we got to mend it, which we did successfully, and we were just about 20 yards from our shell hole when ‘pht pht pht’ came a sniper’s bullets, so close that I knew he had spotted us. We dived into a hole and completed our 20 yards about a yard at a time, just diving to earth as the ‘pht’ of the bullet arrived. I got my information back , but for the moment could do no more as the sniper had seen where we disappeared, and every few minutes he would send one over the lip of the crater on the chance of catching one of us…

A little later, thinking that the Hun would surely have forgotten us, I decided to make another attempt to get forward… I got out of the hole, but hadn’t gone 5 yards before ‘pht pht pht’ came the bullets again. Down I went into a hole – not nearly such a nice one, as it was near to the carcass of a horse. I had no sooner got into this when a great 8-inch shell came right down beside the carcass and threw the whole horse bodily about 15 feet into the air, right over my head, and it landed the other side of me about 15 yards away. A great jagged piece of this shell hit me hard on the helmet, but I hardly felt it.”

With some difficulty by mid afternoon Humphrey had got his line through to the second location on the programme, but thereafter could get no further, as the infantry had not reached their objectives.

His job done, he and his signaller returned to the battery. It does not sound as if this “big attack” met with great success, despite their considerable efforts.

It is a sobering thought, but if it wasn’t for the dead horse, Humphrey must surely have perished.

June 1st 1917

Following the news last week of John’s disappearance on the battlefield of Arras, Mr & Mrs Dowson have received a letter from his Company Commander, Captain Green of 1st Royal Berkshires.

Capt. OJ Dowson

28/5/17 “…As you perhaps know, my Company, to which your son belonged, attacked on April 28th, and he got back safely.

Then at dawn on May 3rd the remnants again attacked. The attack was successful in that we gained our objective, but no supplies were sent us and we had to evacuate the captured trench, lie in shell holes close by till dark and then get back.

John was quite fit after we entered the Boche line, and was so when last seen a few minutes before our withdrawal.

I have carefully questioned all the survivors, but from this time onwards nothing has been seen or heard of him.”

From what one can deduce from the above, the fighting was heavy and there were many casualties.  It is nearly a month ago now, and with each passing day the likelihood – I fear – of John having survived, grows more remote.

May 28th 1917

Lieut. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA) has replied to Fluff Taylor’s proposal that the School should have a War Memorial for Old Dragons who lay down their lives in this war.

He accepts that the building of a chapel might be the “normal” thing for a school to do…

15/5/17 “But we are not an ordinary school, and our tradition has always been cast in the opposite extreme. Routine, orthodoxy, ritual, unreasoning compliance with comme il faut – all these we have deliberately avoided. Some would say we have gone too far and undoubtedly our tradition, like the others, has its dangers. But freedom and sincerity and spontaneity and genuineness, and the mistrust of the second-rate and the second-hand, are things worth a good deal of risk to obtain and it is my firm belief that the best part of our school tradition is marked with just these characteristics.”

Hugh fears that a chapel would have to be under diocesan supervision and that school services on our present lines (with the staff and boys running them) would be impossible.

“If so, I can only say that the prospect fills me with fear. I fear… the apathy of routine: I fear the wrong kind of parent coming and saying ‘how nice and proper’ : I fear the right kind of parent coming and saying ‘After all, there’s not much in it between this and other schools’…

I am not thinking merely of those whose parents and upbringing are of some other specific creed: and I leave out of account the French and other non-British boys who have been such a strength to the School. I am thinking rather of the numbers in whom religious sensibility develops late, or takes some other form than participation in a uniform code of outward worship. Cannot we find some way of commemorating our common sacrifice which does not leave them out in the cold, and which does really link together all Dragons, past, present and to come?

My own feeling is that the War Memorial should be a building habitually and freely used by all Dragons, where the whole school meets occasionally for certain purposes and where at other times any boy can go at any hour of the day to read or write or reflect, with the names and records and memorials of the honoured dead visibly before him.”

In short, Hugh would rather we thought in terms of “a library, assembly hall, reading room, museum, concert hall or any mixture of these.”

 

Lieut. Martin Collier (RN) has also written. He supports the idea of a chapel:

“Provided, of course, that the School services remain exactly as they are at present, conducted by the boys themselves…”

 

I hope others will contribute their views to this debate and I look forward to hearing them.