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 4th 1916

Following the news of the sinking of HMS Invincible, our deep concern for the well-being of Lieut. Charles Fisher continues. As always, whilst we fear the worst, we must hope for the best.

We are also aware of others who may well have been involved in this battle off Jutland. Charles’s brother, Captain William Fisher (HMS St. Vincent) is known to be part of Jellicoe’s 1st Battle Squadron.

HMS St Vincent

HMS St Vincent

Mr & Mrs CRL Fletcher have already lost two sons to the war: Regie Fletcher was killed at Ypres on October 31st 1914 (a day that claimed three OPS victims), followed in March 1915 by his brother George Fletcher. Their oldest (and only remaining son) Lieut. Leslie Fletcher is known to be serving on HMS Colossus (also part of the 1st Battle Squadron). Surely fate cannot be so cruel as to take from the Fletcher family their only remaining child.

Attached to the 5th Battle Squadron are HMS Valiant and HMS Malaya. Both have Old Dragons aboard: Commander Geoffrey Freyberg in the former and Midshipman Percy Trevelyan in the latter.

Midshipman Francis Studdy is believed to be on HMS Temeraire in the 4th Battle Squadron, Lieut-Commander John Bywater-Ward is on HMS Ajax and, lastly, we think Lieut. Desmond Stride is on HMS Conqueror.

We await news of all of them.

February 25th 1916

French close-up

Captain Robert French (Royal Welch Fusiliers)

The death of Robert French, which occurred on February 19th in the Empire Hospital for Officers in London, was announced in the Times yesterday.

We had news of his situation last month (January 5th) and understood that he had been hopeful of recovery and was quite expecting to go to a convalescent home in Roehampton up to, at any rate, a week or two before his death. And now, nearly five months after he was wounded, he has succumbed to infection.

Robert won a scholarship to Blundell’s School from the OPS and was part of the Officer Training Corps there, rising to the rank of Sergeant. In 1911 he was commissioned in to the 3rd Battalion the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a probationary second Lieutenant.  According to his father, he spent the whole of a legacy (practically all he had) on his training and outfit. This was in addition to the Government grant, which was found to be totally inadequate for the purpose.

At the outbreak of war, Robert joined the 2nd Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers (the same unit as Capt. George Fletcher, who was killed on March 20th 1915). He took part in the retreat from Mons and the battles of the Marne and Aisne and was promoted to the rank of Captain in February 1915.

 

 

March 26th 1915

 

 WG Fletcher - full

2nd Lieut. WG Fletcher (Royal Welch Fusiliers)

A seventh Old Dragon has perished in this war. George Fletcher was hit in the head by a sniper’s bullet on March 20th as he looked over the parapet of his trench.

Robin Laffan, who knew George all through the OPS, Eton and Balliol has written a heart-felt appreciation of his and our dear friend.

“The war has taken its cruel toll from a family universally beloved by all who know them. In August last, the three sons of Mr. CRL Fletcher flew to arms as a matter of course. Today Leslie, on board HMS Colossus, is the only one still with us. In November the tale of Regie’s splendid death (see November 2nd); and now the blow is renewed with the tidings of George’s similar end.

His letters from the trenches abound in the fun which kept himself and his men cheery in the midst of their hardships. Knowing his enemies, he had an intense admiration and even affection for them. Like a true patriot, he delighted in the different culture of foreign nations. Six months at Tilly’s and six months as a schoolmaster in Schwerin gave George a considerable knowledge of Germany and the Germans. He used to relieve the tedium of the trenches with friendly sarcasm shouted at the opposite lines. ‘It ain’t ‘arf a joke being in Lieut. Fletcher’s trench,’ said his men, ‘E talks to the b*****s in their own b****y language.’

Of George’s courage it is superfluous to say much. Readers of The Times will have seen how an officer described him as ‘the bravest man I ever saw.’ He was mentioned in despatches on Feb 18th and he was again recommended for distinction after his reckless feat of crawling through the German lines and recovering from a tree a captured French flag. By such deeds of daring he restored the jaded spirits of his men. But those who were lucky enough to see him in February, when at last he got his leave after six and a half months at the front, realised that the strain had told heavily on him. His light-hearted gallantry was not the result of mere animal vigour, but the triumph of spirit over bodily and mental exhaustion.”

He wrote and spoke of this desire, when in the trenches, to receive the Blessed Sacrament, of which he was able to partake at Christmas. Thinking of him as he leaves us, we feel the solid truth of the words:                                               

‘The men who drink the blood of God

Go gaily in the dark.’

RIP.”

News of George’s death was announced on page 4 of yesterday’s edition of the Times under the title of ‘An Eton Master’s Death’. Since his departure for the Front, his father, CRL Fletcher, a Fellow of Magdalen College, has been at Eton teaching his classes in his stead.

(George wrote most interesting letters which were published here on November 9th and November 23rd and he is mentioned on December 28th.)

December 28th 1914

We hear that George Fletcher (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) is making a name for himself on both sides of the front line. Apparently he taunts the Germans with any news that comes his way of Allied successes, which he chalks up on a board. The Saxons opposite then take pot shots at it, which the Tommy likes to score as if he was on the ranges at Bisley!

George was trying to persuade the Germans to join in a beer, sausage and plum pudding evening on Christmas Day but his C.O was not impressed. Nonetheless, the Germans did provide two barrels of beer and there was general fraternization and exchanging of food and cigarettes.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Greville Drew (Capt. R.E.) was able to enjoy a more relaxed time well behind the front line.

Greville DrewXmas Day.  “We are very glad to be out for Xmas and a few days’ rest. We are in an extremely comfortable billet with a dining room, sitting room, kitchen, and two bedrooms for the four of us that there are now – three officers and an interpreter – or interrupter as the Indians all insist on calling them.

We have decided to have a real day off today and are leaving the men to their own devices for the first time since we have been in the country. Tomorrow we shall start getting them really straightened out. All the same, we are not to be caught napping today. We have orders to stand by in case the enemy should consider Xmas Day a suitable opportunity for a little devilry, so we are all ready to move at a moment’s notice.

The King’s Xmas cards to all ranks have just arrived.

I am glad to see from the ‘Daily Mail’ that they are at last publishing in the papers the fact that all the troops are amply provided with clothing and comforts. Really since we got a mention in despatches, the things sent to us have become a positive nuisance. For instance someone sent us 300 cardigan jackets (for about 150 men we have left in the Company). We don’t know what to do with them, and we have been fully occupied with more important duties than sorting out what we do want and what we don’t, and sending them back again. What is wanted is a central depot in London for each corps, or division, and then when a unit wants something it can write and ask for it.”

November 23rd 1914

The arrival of winter weather has put an end, at least for the time being, to the fighting at Ypres. Both sides have suffered most horribly and there have been times when British troops have risked their lives to help the enemy wounded. George Fletcher (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) describes an incident in which he was involved.

George Fletcher

“We were fortunate in being able to rescue one wretched man. He was one of the advanced party in the charge, and had seven bullets in him. He stopped for a day in front of us shouting, but we were getting such a peppering from snipers all that day that we were not allowed to fetch him. At night I got two volunteers to come and fetch him, and just as we were getting out such a hail of bullets came that we nipped back.

I kept up a conversation (shouted) with him next day – he told me the Germans had been practically up to him in the night, but had refused to help him. I told him to hang on till night, and we would try and rescue him again. So at dusk I got two volunteers again, and we pulled him in successfully, and doctors say he will live in spite of his seven wounds. Funny thing, war.”

 * * * * * *

Whilst the war takes up the thoughts of us adults, it is important that life at the OPS continues as smoothly as possible for our young Dragons.

rugger

The beautiful weather which held for the first month of term made rugger impossible. In the first match, against Eagle House on November 4th, considering all things, although the team lost 0-22, they made a good show and look as they might develop into a good side.

I am not convinced of the desirability of keeping each boy to play in a particular place practically always. To know the game properly, a boy ought to be prepared to play half or forward or three-quarters as he may happen to be asked.

There seems to me nowadays a sort of prevalent fear of doing the wrong thing, and not enough initiative, not enough determination to get through and to score against the opponents…

I must say I think criticism of an individual’s play, sometimes very emphatic and loud-tongued, should be entirely abolished during the progress of the game; and nothing but encouragement allowed. Personally I know what the effect on myself would be if I were yelled at as a slacker or funk in the middle of a match!

Why, oh why do not Winchester, Charterhouse, Repton and Shrewsbury play rugby instead of the disgraced ‘soccer’? Malvern, Radley and Rossall have abandoned the professional game and joined the Rugger ranks…

 * * * * * *

The boys have sent stamps to the Base Hospital, and indeed have made a very large money collection considering their small incomes! The ‘Blue Dragon’ gramophone with its lovely old records and many new ones has delighted the inmates of Medical Ward V, where it is guarded jealously from the raids of other wards.

Hum Lynam

Hum Lynam

‘Hum’ has been almoner-in-chief and has installed and looked after Belgian refugees at the Lodge and elsewhere. He has also collected and forwarded sweaters, pipes, pencils and writing books, subscribed for by the boys, to various quarters, including HMS Colossus, HMS St. Vincent and HMS Russell.

 

We have had the following replies:

H.M.S. St Vincent

First Battle Squadron

November 20th 1914.

My Dear Dragons,

Pipes very much appreciated – now smoked by His Majesty’s Jollies.

Pipe 1
Who owned?                         

 

 

And the other one that might have been made by Krupp?

Pipe 2

 

It was a kind thought and entailing some sacrifice I’ve no doubt – parting with old friends – Censor allows no news.

William Fisher (Capt. R.N.)

H.M.S Russell

21/11/14

Dear Dragons,

A line to thank you all for sending us that generous supply of briar pipes. The men are no end pleased, and wish me to thank you for your kind thought for them. I only wish I could come and thank you all personally for them! But I shan’t be able to do that until they become Pipes of Peace.

 Lance Freyberg (Lieut-Commander R.N)

November 9th 1914

One of the first Old Dragons to volunteer was George Fletcher, an older brother of Regie, whose death we recently reported.  He is known to some young Old Dragons as a ‘beak’ at Eton. He was summoned to join the Intelligence Corps, as he is a fluent German-speaker. He was last seen departing London for Southampton on a motorbike! He has somehow now found his way into the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

This letter was written by George Fletcher to colleagues on the staff at Eton and has been passed on to us. It describes life in the trenches and his experiences in the battle still being waged at Ypres:

2/11/14. “The rule of existence in trenches is, on the whole, this: – 5.30 a.m., daybreak – nothing much visible in front – except certain groups of grey-clad figures and a few spades appearing and re-appearing above the earth 300 yards away. When the grey figures are moving about I am at a loophole in the trench with field-glasses.

‘No. 15 section! Three hundred yards! At the Germans moving three fingers right of sloping apple tree! Five rounds! Fire!’

Then a shindy, and the grey figures either squat or fall down.

‘Now, you silly asses, don’t waste ammunition when you can’t see them!’ – and so on.

Probably now for the rest of the morning the Germans do not appear again, but they dig and dig, sticking out snipers and Maxim guns in houses or on haystacks, so that they sweep the trenches and plough the brain of anyone who puts his head above the trench  the whole day.

About 7 I go off down the trench to a little hole where the Captain is, and eat anything there is. There is probably some bread and jam or sardines, and very likely some rum. The rations are procured at dusk, when sniping has ceased and the attack is not going on.

Then are seen figures flitting to our rear with great biscuit tins on their backs, or mackintosh sheets full of water bottles. Sometimes, however, these loads never get into the lines, for the store where they are kept has been shelled and the rations wiped out – once, anyhow, for forty-eight hours the men had to exist on what they carried in their pockets. The ration party also bring back our letters, and the reception of letters in the trench was the one thing that kept us alive…

Sniping till evening, then there is a hush; then just after dusk a Maxim rings out and a great fusillade starts from the enemy’s side. There are attacks every night, but there was one particularly big one when, as a wounded German told me, they hoped to take the trenches but failed.

There began on this occasion, soon after dark, a terrible musketry outburst on our right. It rolled along, and soon the enemy began firing from in front of us. There was a continual rattle of pellets on our parapet, and on looking out, or rather, bobbing the head up for a moment, one could see the flashes from their rifles. Then we got the order to answer it, and we did so. All through the night this went on, fiercer and fiercer, and the artillery took it up from both sides, the flash after the exploding shrapnel lighting up the battlefield at intervals. Not only that, but the enemy, who had hidden some bold spirits in rifle pits thirty yards ahead of us, with wire cutters, began by means of these to throw up bright green flashlights to illuminate our trenches – also illuminating themselves for our benefit. All this time I was crawling about among the men and saying, “Don’t fire in the air, you ass. Fire occasionally. Rapid fire. Slow fire,” etc., etc.

At about 2 a.m., the fire slackened, and there were rustlings in the turnips ahead, and callings, and rallyings among the Deutschers.

‘The rally for the charge,’ said I to myself. And it was.

There were hoarse captains crying,

‘Erste Compagnie, hierber! Wurst! Schweinhund! Einhundertzweiundzwanzigstes Regiment!’ and so on.

Then a pause again, and suddenly, ‘Alle Fertig! Vorwarrts! – Los!!’ and they came on. They got as far as the open ground and near our wire, thirty yards away, and then fell face-forward on the ground with heads to the enemy like the good men they are. Of course, it is a terrible thing to attack a strong entrenchment full of thoroughly armed defenders, and they never got nearer than thirty yards.

One poor devil did, however, and I pointed him out to my next man, who shot him. Unfortunately the poor devil had wanted to give himself up – being sick of the war (of course he deserved to be shot for this). We took him into the trench, and he lay till 4 p.m. next day in my dug-out, when he died. Only yesterday did I wipe his blood off my hands – which were a crust of this and of mud!

Well, this attack waned again at dawn, and ‘in the morning they were all dead corpses,’ like Sennacherib. We saw 200 in front of our Company. Add to those the number of dead in the turnips which we did not see, perhaps 200 more = 400. Add to these the number of wounded which must have been removed (six wounded to one dead) = 2,400 + 400 dead = nearly 3,000 out of action in front of our Company, if such calculations are worth anything…

Imagine the conditions: trench just wide enough for two men to squeeze by: parapet just high enough to fire over comfortably, and so necessitates continual crouching while walking along. Perfect quagmire whenever rain falls, as it did in torrents for several hours one or two nights, drenching wet clothes, of course, and covering you with a perfect plaster layer of yellow mud, especially about the hands. Squashed frogs underfoot, and all around stinks. Let me enumerate the (printable) stinks.

Carcases

(a) of cows which were killed in an early morning attack the first day I got there. They came browsing within thirty yards of us, and the Germans fired at them on purpose, as I believe, to leave them there and stink us out.

(b) Of men; after every attack more dead men, some within thirty yards of the trench, and some of these, by now, a week or more old. Of course, whenever we attempt to remove them they fire on the parties, even those bearing the Red Cross, so I believe it is also part of their object to stink us out with the dead bodies of their own brothers and comrades.

(c) Of sheep; same case as the cows.

(d) Tins of old beef, sardines etc.”