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.

 

 

 

April 4th 1917

The holidays are here and we have every reason to be thankful, that during a term in which there has been a great deal of illness at many Preparatory or Public Schools, we have had nothing worse than an epidemic of mild mumps. Otherwise we have been delightfully free even from colds and coughs. Several boys have suffered from bad chilblains.

* * * * * * * *

We will remember this term particularly for the ice-skating. In the end, we had glorious skating for three weeks (Jan 27th – Feb 18th) on the University Skating Club flooded meadow. The authorities were good enough to admit us at half fees (3d a time) and, even so, got about £15 from the School!

Mr Haynes produced about 30 pairs of primeval skates that had been stowed away in the dim past, but before the skating was over many new ones had been purchased.

The morning was quite the best time to go and we took off one of the morning hours of work. Often the Caravan-Ambulance made three or four journeys with small boys and provisions for picnic lunch on the ice (once, when changing a wheel for a puncture, she went down gracefully on to her axle and was derelict for some hours).

ice-skating-6

Many boys learnt to skate quite well – Dennis Buck (who, given the opportunity, will rival his brother Geoffrey some day) and Fred Huggins could cut all forward threes and do outside edge backwards. This is G.C’s description of their performances – G.C (Mr Vassall) also gave them handsome skating prizes as rewards for their efforts.

* * * * * * * *

Miss Field’s collection of eggs for the wounded soldiers has been greatly appreciated at the hospitals. During this term 1,738 have been delivered, making a total of 3,531 since the start at Mr Fletcher’s instigation in October last.

 

Next term begins on Wednesday 2nd May.

 

Postscript. We have had word that Jack Haldane, who had recovered from his previous wound and gone out to Mesopotamia, to his intense chagrin, was wounded again the day before the fall of Kut. He was injured whilst trying to put out a fire in his camp, when a bomb exploded and wounded him in the leg.

September 14th 1916

Yesterday Oxford was honoured by a visit from His Majesty the King.

Having driven up from Windsor, the King proceeded to the Parks where he inspected a battalion of Cadets.  Captain Jack Haldane (Black Watch) also got in on the act, as he was at the time giving bombing instruction there. (Such is his fascination with bombs that in certain military circles he is known as ‘Bombo.’)

After departing the Parks, the King went on to the High St. to visit the 3rd Southern General Hospital and the RFC School of Instruction.

* * * * * * *

With Port Meadow becoming a military aerodrome for the training of pilots, maybe we can look forward to seeing some more of our Old Dragon aviators in the future.

Lieut. Geoff Buck (London Regiment and now RFC), who wired us back in July to say that he had returned home to train as a RFC pilot, has been keeping a record of his training (at Retford):

Buck, Geoff2/8/16. “We fly from 5-8 a.m., work in workshops and fly if possible 9.00 a.m – 12.30 p.m., and fly from 5.00 p.m. to dark. They give us three to four hours’ dual, and then we do about eight hours’ solo (including one cross-country). , and then (i.e after about a month, it depends on weather and machine) we go off to another station for higher instruction. Personally I have only had one flight of 35 minutes in a B.E. – but all in good time. Altogether it’s topping fun, but there is a lot of waiting about.”

5/8/16. “This is absolutely the life. I have done one hour’s dual control and can fly the bus by myself, but have never been up alone yet; they won’t send us up alone till we have done three hours dual. I simply love it! Better than skating, rugger, or even ski-ing. I want to be in the air the whole day long, but of course we have to do a lot of technical work too. Engines, motors, signalling, construction, theory, photography – and all is most interesting.”

16/8/16. “I did my first solo tonight in rather bad weather, made a perfect landing, and went to 700 ft. It was too perfect for words.”

On August 23rd Geoff moved to Narborough for further instruction.

23/8/16. I took my ticket thumbs up on the 19th. I flew to Norwich on Sunday, stopped the night, and flew back on Monday. Two machines crashed under me as I was starting to land (it was awfully windy and bumpy), and one pilot was killed, but I landed perfectly. Some game.”

We look forward to hearing more of Geoff’s exploits.

June 20th 1916

Wright EGE

2nd Lieut. George Wright (Somerset Light Infantry)

George Wright is dead. He was not killed in battle, but was a victim of one of the many shells that fall on Ypres daily. He was walking down a street when a shell fell and killed him outright.

He went out to France in July 1915 and was wounded soon after.  In November 1915 George won the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry:

“Hearing that a Sergeant had been buried in the fall of a gallery, he went down and along the gallery to rescue him, but, getting entangled in wire, got back only with great difficulty. Later he went down again with a mining officer and recovered the Sergeant’s body.”

He was a regular visitor to the OPS, attending three dinners before the war. His frequent visits are full of the most delightful memories and we will miss his cheery wit and humour.

The shock to us is all the greater as George was engaged to be married and was here watching games on the School Field with his fiancée when on leave, just a week before he was killed.

May 27th 1916

Raymond Drew

Sergeant Raymond Drew (Royal Fusiliers)

Raymond Drew has been killed in an action that was not intended. He was in the trenches between Givency and Souchez near Vimy Ridge.

On May 23rd his Battalion was due to attack, along with the Battalions to their left and right. The attack was then cancelled and re-scheduled. However, this attack was also cancelled, as one of the flanking Battalions  was unable to advance, due to a heavy German barrage.

It appears that the message did not reach Raymond’s Company, which advanced and took the German trench, remaining in it for an hour and half until recalled.  It is likely that Raymond was one of the seven members of this Company killed in the attack.

Raymond came from an academic background, as his father was an assistant master at Eton College. He attended the OPS from 1893 till 1897 and won a Classical Scholarship to Rossall.  Thereafter he worked for the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation.

In 1914 he returned from India to join up as a private soldier in the 22nd (Kensington) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, and was subsequently promoted to the rank of sergeant.

 

 

May 18th 1916

2nd Lieut. George Wright (Somerset Light Infantry) wrote to us last month – he went out to the Western Front in July 1915.

Wright EGE16/4/16 “How is the school going along? Oxford must be very different in war time. The school must be the least changed thing there.

We are not having a very jolly time here, as we are in the wrong place for amusement as the musical accompaniment is too pronounced for my aesthetic ear.

The weather is simply topping here now, blazing sun and not a cloud in the sky.

Yesterday I had some splendid sport: we fished with bombs – that is to say  we chucked bombs into the canal and then waited till the fish floated down to the next bridge. I’m afraid we should be ostracised for such an illegitimate type of sport in England, but perhaps we may be excused out here.

You know, I rather envy the fellows out in the East in spite of their hardships. They do get a chance of some real open fighting instead of going into the same old trenches time after time.

I’m afraid you will think this is a very ‘grousy’ letter. As a matter of fact, I am as cheery as anything. This old war has been absolutely the chance of a lifetime to most of us, and will be the making of such of us as come out intact. I think most people out here realise that they will never have another chance to make good like this. And there are extraordinarily few failures out here – and most of them are excusable.

But, all the same, we won’t be sorry when we can all come back again and think it all over quietly, and see all the old places again. One will get much more enjoyment out of life after the war than one did before.”

* * * * * * *

George’s comment as to how things must have changed in Oxford draws my attention to the fact that the deeds of our local parents have gone largely unrecorded thus far. In fact, a number of them are doing their bit for the war effort locally:

Mrs Grundy (mother of  Leslie Grundy) has been instrumental in the organisation of the food for the 3rd South General Hospital, catering for several hundred patients.

Mrs Poulton (mother of the late Ronald Poulton Palmer) is involved with the Union Jack Club, which provides time and place for mothers and wives of serving soldiers to meet and comfort each other.

Lady Osler (whose son Revere Osler is with the RFA) has been organising a group making bandages and other medical necessities.

Mrs Gamlen (mother of Jack Gamlen) started a branch of the Needlework Guild devoted to war work.

Mrs Kingerlee (mother of Cyril & John Kingerlee) started the idea of having Flag days to raise money in Oxford to finance the war.

Mrs Vinogradoff, whose son Igor has only just left the OPS (and is only the second Russian boy we have had in the school), is raising money for Russian POWs.

Sir Walter Raleigh (father of Adrian Raleigh) who, apart from being Oxford’s Professor of English Literature, is prominent in the Oxford Volunteer Corps (sometimes referred to as ‘Godley’s Own’). Here is a delightful picture of him with Igor Vinodradoff’s mother. The picture is taken by Lady Ottoline Morrell, the wife of Philip Morrell, who was at the OPS (1878-80) and currently is the Liberal MP for Burnley.

Raleigh & Vinagradoff

As for other changes, George might like to know that street lighting is almost non-existent and ‘Great Tom’ at Christ Church has been silenced for the duration.

 

June 15th 1915

JBS Haldane

Lieut. JBS Haldane (Black Watch)

If anyone could be said to be enjoying the war, it is Jack Haldane. For him, life in the trenches is apparently “an enjoyable experience.”

Having joined the Black Watch, he has discovered the joys of bomb-throwing. His detachment have been allowed to roam along the line, firing off trench mortars and experimental devices at will. Such visits are not always popular with those around them at the time, as Charlie Childe, now a lieutenant in the Gloucestershire Regiment, told me.

“These trench mortar people are a little tribe of pariahs, who stalk up and down other people’s trenches, drink their whiskey, and make themselves quite pleasant. Meanwhile their satellites stealthily fire the beastly things, knock in some Hun dug-outs, put out a few of their cook-houses (you can see the smoke coming out of their trenches here and there), and thoroughly annoy the Hun over his lunch – a most ungentlemanly thing to do. Fritz then urgently telephones to his gunners, and the creators of all the fuss have meanwhile gone away somewhere else.”

Jack’s previous experiences helping his father, John Scott Haldane, understand the dangers of gases in mines, have turned out to be of particular help to our war effort.

When on April 22nd 1915, the Germans released a gas attack allied troops at Ypres, it was not surprising that Lord Kitchener should turn to the good Dr. for advice. JS Haldane went straight over to France to investigate the situation personally, returning with the lung of one of the dead to investigate in the laboratory at his home, ‘Cherwell’. It was imperative to confirm the exact nature of the gas and develop an effective respirator as soon as possible. Here, aided by a long-standing family friend, Aldous Huxley, taking notes for him, he carried out numerous tests on the effects of chlorine gas on himself and other volunteers.

Last month JS Haldane was back in France, where he set up a laboratory in St Omer. Jack was summoned from his bombing duties to assist him. The Professor could think of no-one better than his son to have in his gas chamber, reporting on the effects of the gas he was inhaling.

“We had to compare the effects on ourselves of various quantities, with and without respirators. It stung the eyes and produced a tendency to gasp and cough when breathed. For this reason trained physiologists had to be employed.”

But why did it have to be him in the gas chamber? Jack continued:

“An ordinary soldier would probably restrain his tendency to gasp, cough and throw himself about if he were working a machine-gun in battle, but could not do so in a laboratory experiment with nothing to take his mind off his own feelings. An experienced physiologist has more self-control.

It was also necessary to see if one could run or work hard in the respirators, so we had a wheel of some kind to turn by hand in the gas chamber, not to mention doing 50 yard sprints in respirators outside. As each of us got sufficiently affected by gas to render his lungs duly irritable, another would take his place. None of us was much the worse for the gas, or in any real danger, as we knew where to stop, but some had to go to bed for a few days, and I was very short of breath and incapable of running for a month or so.”

Jack, on learning that his troops were about to go into an attack, returned to the trenches. Here he suffered wounds from shell fire and found himself being given a lift by the Prince of Wales to the Casualty Clearing Station. “Oh, it’s you.” The Prince is reputed to have said. They had met in Oxford before the war, where one of the Prince’s tutors was another OPS Old Boy– Lionel Smith.

Jack’s wounds were “blighty” ones and he is now back here in Oxford at ‘Cherwell’, recovering from an operation to remove a shell splinter.

The sounds of our old colleague Blair Watson, firing off blanks from his revolver on the school fields for the boys benefit, were resoundingly defeated by Jack exploding German bombs along the road at Cherwell.  He is clearly on the mend!

Indeed, together with his sister (Naomi) he is now going to set this term’s General Paper, to be undertaken shortly by our 5th and 6th forms.