September 19th 1917

Capt. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA)

Today I should have been concentrating on the start of a new school year, but the most calamitous news came to me from Mrs Sidgwick. Hugh has been killed.

At this time, I feel able only to share with you my response to his mother:

My dear Mrs Sidgwick,

No words can express my sorrow and feeling of personal loss – it is too too cruel a fate – such a glorious intellect & so noble a character, with so splendid a future before him.

There must be some future reunion with these noble souls – or we all are in the hands of a fiendish force which drives us & jibes at our hopes – I have just told the boys of the severest loss we have yet suffered. With the exception of Frank (& that possibly because I have seen more of him) Hugh was of all my old boys the best beloved and most proudly looked upon by me – and this does not express

my very deep feeling of sympathy with you & Frank & his sisters. His father is I hope spared the full knowledge of the loss he has suffered, but I do mourn with you all and sympathise most deeply.

Yours ever,

His old Skipper

 

 

 

Hugh’s father’s illness renders it unlikely that the family will share this news with him.

 

September 6th 1917

Thank goodness for some good news this time.

Hugh is now CAPTAIN Hugh Sidgwick (RGA)!

30/8/17. “They have promoted me to Captain, and I have spent money heavily on new spots to cover myself with.

I am also in a quite different part of the country, and not nearly so pleasant a one. Still, I have been very lucky for most of the summer and so I ought not to grouse.

At present I hope you are all getting some sort of holiday. Most people at home seem to be more sensible on the subject of holidays this year, and I hear that even the Civil Service are going to get them.

For a purely restful and irresponsible holiday I can recommend active service, provided you choose your front carefully. Charming scenery, cheerful company, unlimited food and drink, corps intelligence supplied daily and shelling on alternate Tuesdays…”

I can think of better alternatives for the last two weeks of the summer holiday, so, tempting – but no thank you, Hugh!

 

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 to what 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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

May 24th 1917

Every day I open the morning newspaper to read on the ‘Roll of Honour’ of large numbers of officers killed and wounded, always in fear that I shall see the name of one of our Old Boys.

I am also confronted by an increasing number of those who are pronounced as ‘Missing’. This gives hope, but the families of these men are condemned to months of uncertainty as to whether their loved ones are dead, wounded or captured. In the case of the family of Capt. Edmund Gay (Norfolk Regiment) it has been nearly two years; he has been missing since August 1915.

Now two more of our Old Dragons have joined this list.

On May 20th, Mr Herbertson received a telegram stating that his grandson, Lieut. Hunter Herbertson (King’s Royal Rifle Corps) was reported as missing, but he understands that this does not necessarily mean that he is either wounded or killed.

On the night of May 16th he went out on a patrol with two others near Cherisy (at the southern end of the Arras battlefield). None of them returned. Enquiries will be made in the hope that he was captured and is a prisoner of war.

Hunter had done two years at Balliol (reading History) when war was declared. He joined up, but whilst training he suffered a double tragedy. His father (Oxford’s first Professor of Geography) died in July 1915, followed two weeks later by his mother. Both are buried in the Holywell Cemetery.

 

Mr & Mrs Dowson have also been informed that their son, Captain John Dowson (Royal Berkshire Regiment) has been notified as “missing.”

Like Morice Thompson, he was involved in the attacks that took place on May 3rd in the Arras district, but as yet we have no further information as to the circumstances of his disappearance.

John has been a regular visitor to the school in recent times. When home on leave he was always about, ready to take a form or a game.

It is at times like this that you are glad to have a photograph that captures happier times and places to have in front of you. This is John, as the boys will remember him, and hopefully he will return to us in the fullness of time.

 

Better news was to be found on a list headed ‘Previously reported missing, now reported prisoners of war in German hands.’ Included on it was the name of 2nd Lieut. Peter Warren, whose fate has been unknown these past seven weeks.

His squadron was returning to their base on April 2nd when they were set upon by German squadron. It seems that Peter’s plane was singled one and forced to ditch behind enemy lines.

 

 

May 9th 1917

No-one went off to war with a heavier heart than our own Pug – Lieut. Lindsay Wallace (OBLI) – being a Dragon, man and boy.

Since he left our Staff he has managed a number of visits, much to the delight of the boys. Last term he talked to them on the subject “With the troops in training” and they were intrigued by his description of the workings of the Mills bomb.

Pug has now returned to active service and even if , dare I say it, the OPS is not always the tidiest of places, the contrast between home and the Front is a stark one.

28/4/17 “We started off yesterday from the base and were told we would take about two days to reach our division.

Three of us had a first-class compartment to ourselves. We managed to get some tea and cake before leaving the station and then started on our journey very slowly indeed at about 4 p.m.

I have never seen such a sight as the sides of the line, in some places they are layers deep in tins of all descriptions thrown out of the carriages. This doesn’t apply to one particular spot but all along the line: without exaggeration there must have been millions of tins.

Also all along the line were kids who kept shouting ‘bisceet,’ and they generally got one. In many places there were German prisoners, who got cigarettes thrown to them…

After quite a good meal, which was helped on very much by heating up a meat tin over my cooker, we all settled down to sleep and I was very glad to have quite a good night.

Then all of a sudden we were woken up, about 5.30, and all told to get out. We got up and packed our various belongings and turned out, and there we were, right in it: almost every house is blown to bits, some have the walls standing and a few have the roof left in places.

It was a bit of a shock getting out of the train into a sort of shattered world.”

 

I have picked out this picture to remind us all of happier times.

It was taken by our VC hero, Jack Smyth outside The Lodge a few years before the war, and shows three stalwarts of my Staff: my brother Hum (AE Lynam), Pug (WJL Wallace) and Cheese (GC Vassall).

It seems a long time ago and from a different world now.