June 25th 1918

The Italian Campaign has dominated our newspapers’ coverage of the War these past ten days, and today’s announcement that the Austrian attack on our Italian allies has ended in total defeat is most satisfactory.

The Austrian offensive started on June 15th with attacks on the Asiago Plateau and the Battle of Piave River. Amongst the English troops involved in the battles were the 1/4th Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI), appointed as an Aide-de-Camp at the Headquarters of 48th Division (of which the Ox & Bucks are part) at the beginning of this month, witnessed this unfolding drama. We are most grateful to him for his account of events.

“An Austrian attack was fully expected on that date, but it was not known for certain that the British front would be attacked. However, every preparation was made to receive it.

An intense bombardment started at 3 am on the 15th, and rolled along miles of the front, from our own sector eastwards…

Under cover of a thick morning mist, the enemy had penetrated our front line at more than one point; had captured one Battalion HQ and had probably captured another…  

I never saw anything so interesting as the left Battalion Sector of our Divisional front, where the fighting had been hardest. I got there with my General soon after the situation had been completely restored, and it was possible to reconstruct the whole attack. The enemy had got to within less than a hundred yards of Battalion HQ. He came on twice, and was twice repulsed by this battalion alone without any help.

The foremost of the enemy were lying just where they had dug themselves in with their entrenching tools, with their bombs and ammunition beside them. And never, in my life, shall I have so profoundly impressive an experience as that of going among our dead, (it was my own Battalion), and recognising my own friends lying just as they had fallen upon the field.

One of the finest deaths that day was that of an Orderly Room Clerk, who died literally defending his office. He had never had to fight for over three years, and when the sudden emergency came, faced it as if he had been in action all his days…

A cook, engaged in frying bacon at the Battalion HQ which was captured, suddenly saw an Austrian in his kitchen doorway. In an instant, he ran him through with a rusty old bayonet used for poking the fire.”

 

 

May 9th 1918

Lieut. Hunter Herbertson (KRRC)

Having been on the missing list since May 1917, Hunter’s death has finally been confirmed –  after a very trying period of uncertainty for family and friends.

On the night of May 16th 1917 Hunter had gone out on a patrol with two others near Cherisy (at the southern end of the Arras battlefield). None of them returned.

It was nearly a year ago that, on May 20th1917, his grandfather received a telegram stating that Hunter was missing, but noting that “this does not necessarily mean that he is either wounded or killed.”

Having heard nothing further, Mr Herbertson wrote on July 12th for news. Three days later a reply informed him that Hunter was on the list of missing officers sent to the Netherland Legation for circulation throughout German POW camps and hospitals.

There followed a further period of waiting. Then the Red Cross forwarded (on January 29th1918) a statement from a POW, Rifleman Woods, saying that Hunter had been “Killed, on patrol duty, near Reincourt.”  The Red Cross added that “this statement is unofficial and cannot in any way be considered as an absolute certainty.”

Finally, on April 12th 1918, the War Office wrote to Hunter’s grandfather to say that they had come to the conclusion that Hunter had been killed, and agreed to add his name to the official casualty lists. This duly appeared in the newspaper yesterday:

With this letter was Rifleman Woods’ full statement:

“Whilst on patrol Lieut. Herbertson attempted to return, but was caught in the barbed wire entanglement where he was killed. I was accompanying this officer. I am quite positive that this officer was killed.”

The strange thing is that this statement is dated August 30th 1917, so either the authorities had overlooked this information, or it had taken seven and a half months to reach them. Either way, an agony of waiting for the family.

The ‘Oxford Magazine’, in their tribute to Hunter, has described him as “a quiet, studious, rather reserved man, though kindly and high-minded, he was the last person one would have expected to make the keen and effective soldier he did…”

We have vivid recollections of his complete indifference to the chance of punishment, his aptitude for getting into and out of scrapes, his quick brain and obvious gift of commanding a following, and we have not been at all surprised at his successful career as a soldier.

It was what we would have expected.

 

February 25th 1918

Lieut. Pat Duff (RFA) was collared by GC (Mr Vassall) to write back from Mesopotamia – and he has now obliged. He describes his progress up the Tigris from Busra to Kut before marching on to Bagdad.

8/2/18 “Busra is a place of of quite impressive size with very good looking houses and offices facing the river. The river itself is about 500 yards broad there, and ocean-going steamers go right up against the wharves. There was such a multitude of different craft lying in the stream that I was rather reminded of the Isis by the barges at Eights Week!

At a palace called Kurnah (where the old bed of the Euphrates meets the Tigris) I was shown the Tree of Good and Evil: it was near Temptation Square!

Another object of Biblical interest was Ezra’s tomb, somewhat further up the Tigris: can’t quite make out why he should have come back this way to die because, when last heard of, he was leading an expedition from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem…

I travelled most of the way up to Kut by river. At Kut I got hitched on to an echelon of about 600 horses and mules with transport, and had to march it to Baghdad. Was about 15 days doing this, as we got stuck in the mud owing to rains and all movement was impossible…

Baghdad, although the guide books would say it ‘presents no special features,’ was worth a guinea a minute to me, because of the miscellaneous crowd that inhabit it…

The bazaars are like an endless series of transformation scenes at Drury Lane: it was in such a place as the coppersmith’s quarter where Aladdin must have got his lamps, and, although I didn’t recognise Ali Barba, I could see the Forty Thieves wherever I liked to look.

From the river, Baghdad looks very handsome: the buildings facing the river on the left bank are good, and there are two boat bridges over the river.

The boats on the river rather fascinated me: some are like gondolas, others like wherries on the Norfolk Broads. But there is no wood in this country, and consequently a lot of river transport is done by coracles made of wickerwork and hides and bitumen. (Incidentally, Herodotus in his book on Mesopotamia says, ‘after the city of Babylon itself, what struck me most was the coracles’!  It is interesting to see them functioning to this day.”

Pat ends his letter by saying, “If any enterprising young Dragon would be a pioneer or a ‘builder of empire,’ he need look no further than Mesopotamia for a country that will pay a thousandfold all the labour that is put into it.

I hope you are all flourishing, and often am thinking of ‘the School House afar on the banks of the Cher.'”

January 17th 1918

E A S T E R   T E R M   1 9 1 8

Yesterday saw the start of a new term. The School Roll numbers 141, of which 84 are boarders. Our Junior Department has a further 26 – the majority being 7 and 8 yr. olds.

Let us hope for a healthy term, free of illness. It will no doubt become even more difficult to keep everyone well fed. Yesterday’s announcement in the newspapers of compulsory rationing of butter and margarine (with other items undoubtedly to follow), allows us only 4 oz per person per week. Meat continues to be in short supply, although the importation of Argentinian beef is helping make up the difference.

* * * * * * *

It was a great pleasure to be able to share with our returning pupils the news of honours recently won in the war – particularly that of the DSO by one of their former teachers.

One of the more prestigious orders of chivalry is the Order of the Bath – founded by King George I in 1725. In the honours list announced in the New Year, Captain. WW Fisher (RN) and Temp. Brigadier-Gen. BG Price (Royal Fusiliers) were made Companions (CB).

The Distinguished Service Order (DSO) has been awarded to Temp. Major LD Luard (ASC), Acting Maj. JAA Pickard (RE, Special Reserve) and, although not an Old Dragon but a much admired member of the Dragon staff before the war, Temp. Capt. WRG Bye (Royal West Surreys & General List).

No fewer than six have been awarded the Military Cross (MC): Acting Capt. FS Low (RFA), Acting Major VLS Cowley (Irish Rifles, attached to MGC), Temp. Captain WT Collier (RAMC), Capt. EH Evans (RWF), Temp. Lieut. GH Moberly (MGC), Captain. GF Thuillier (Devons).

* * * * * * *

Readers of The Times of 14/1/18 may have noticed this article on Capt. William Fisher (RN). For those who read other newspapers, here it is:

Director of Anti-Submarine Division

“Capt. WW Fisher commanded a battleship at Jutland, and was commended for his services in that action. He has received a CB. He had held several Staff appointments before the war, having served as flag commander to the Commander-in-Chief  of the Home Fleet at Devonport, while in the summer of 1912 he was selected to act as Assistant Umpire for the Grand Naval Manoeuvres.

He is a gunnery specialist and a French interpreter, and was commander of the ‘Indomitable‘ when that vessel made her record run across the Atlantic with King George, then Prince of Wales, on board in 1908.

He has been for some months the Director of the anti-Submarine Division of the Naval Staff.”

January 1st 1918

As we move into a New Year, I look back with a mixture of pride and extreme sadness at the achievements and sacrifice made by so many in 1917.

Since July, 13 Old Boys have been wounded, one has received the DSO, three the Military Cross, one a special promotion, one a Croix de Guerre, one an Egyptian distinction, one a Belgian, one an Italian and one a Royal Red Cross award. There have been 13 ‘Mentions in Despatches’ (Bat Price for the 5th, Tyrrell Brooks the 4th and Jocelyn Pickard the 3rd time).

The Roll of Old Boys that have fallen includes some of my best, and best-loved, friends. Their lives cannot and must not have been given in vain: and the thought that has come down the ages, that the souls of the brave and righteous still live on, cannot lie.

None do we mourn more greatly than Hugh Sidgwick. His family has passed to me this tribute from his old employer, Sir Amherst Selby-Bigge, Permanent Secretary to the Board of Education, reflecting on Hugh’s abilities:

“He was not only a perfect Private Secretary, but a very dear friend who could be trusted with anything. His loyalty, sincerity and candour were perfect and I never found in him the slightest touch of vanity or self-seeking…

His mind was singularly cool and well balanced and his exposition of intricate problems admirably clear and logical. His knowledge of Mathematics and power of handling figures were invaluable…

He had the gift of writing straight ahead in good proportion and with clear expression and articulation of argument, almost as quickly as another man could dictate…

When he was in doubt about coherence and lucidity of an important paper for publication he used to test it by turning it into Greek, and I have in my possession an admirable Greek version of a letter addressed by the President of the Board (HAL Fisher) to teachers, concerning their duties in regard to military service…”

Hugh was one of 18 Old Dragons to perish in 1917, 9 of whom were involved with the third and grimmest of struggles at Ypres. The fates of Edmund Gay,  John Dowson and Hunter Herbertson remain unknown.

          Capt. E Gay            Capt. OJ Dowson     Lieut. H Herbertson

Is it too much to expect, or even suggest, that 1918 might see the end of this terrible conflict?

 

October 15th 1917

2nd Lieut. Walter Moberly (Ox & Bucks Light Infantry), has felt moved to contribute a piece in memory of Hugh Sidgwick, his contemporary at the OPS:

2nd Lt. W Moberly

“When my generation entered VIa in September 1894, we found him, though a year younger than the rest of us, already there, the only survivor of the previous year, amongst whom he had been the first…

With Hum (Lynam) to teach us and Sidgwick to set us a standard we had a most stimulating time; and I remember nothing to compare with it until I reached Senior Sixth Book at Winchester under Dr. Fearon…

I have never known any other case of a boy being so completely on a pinnacle by himself, though I have been told that ten years later Jack Haldane approached something of the same position…

In those days, Mr Lang of Magdalen, now Archbishop of York, used to teach us Divinity. I remember his describing to us one day the characteristics of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees respectively, and his asking us each in turn which we thought we should have been. Sidgwick, who was of course at the top, led off with proclaiming himself a Sadducee. The future Archbishop told him he had judged rightly, and so he certainly had…”

Walter further recalls Hugh speaking at an Old Dragon Dinner:

“He (Hugh) went on to ask what the distinctive character of the School and its training is. He found it in the Skipper’s refusal to force his boys into one or other of two or three conventional moulds, in his positive encouragement of originality, in the opportunity given to boys to discover their own peculiar interests and gifts; so that, if you were to collect a number of Old Boys in after-life and to ask what was the common stamp that the School had set on them, you would be able to point to no single machine-made quality, but you might observe that every one was very much himself.”

I have never believed that our boys are clay to be shaped as potters will, all much in the same way, and our way. To have tried to mould a Hugh Sidgwick was unthinkable. What if the chisel had slipped, what irretrievable damage might have been done?

Finally, few concerned with the School would disagree with Walter’s conclusion:

“If I were asked to illustrate the contribution of the OPS to English life, and now to England’s sacrifice, I should be content to couple his name to that of Ronald Poulton and let the OPS be judged by them.”

Capt. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA)

 

October 6th 1917

The ‘Oxford Magazine’ has published an appreciation of the life of Capt. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA), who died of his wounds on September 17th:

“Another of the veriest sons of Oxford, and of the Morning, gone! And one of the brightest and best… he had such obvious qualities for true friendship – intelligence far above the average, wit and humour and a capacity for deep affection, and endless interests in many directions, the open road, or even more the open hills, music, mathematics, history, scholarship, education, social service and what not.

After a brilliant course at Winchester and Balliol – his was a case of double First Class Honours in Mathematics and Classics, something of a rarity nowadays with rising and specialist standards…

During his life he returned to the College the greater proportion of his stipend as Fellow to be applied to the support of necessitous students, and by his will he directed that the whole balance should be repaid to the Master and Fellows, leaving them free to allocate it in the same way, or in any manner they may approve…

Hugh has also left the OPS £100 in his will, which will aid our Leaving Exhibition Fund. This fund has, since 1908, been allowing me to give leaving exhibitions to help boys whose parents are not very well off to go to a good public school. (The first such award I gave to a young Jack Smyth, later to win the VC).