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.

 

 

 

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 a 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.

 

 

April 13th 1917

The Times and the Daily Telegraph have announced that our VC winner, Capt. William Leefe Robinson (RFC) is “missing.” Yesterday’s Telegraph added that “he was believed to have been killed.”

He is the second Old Dragon airman to have suffered this fate since the start of the month.  News has reached us that 2nd Lieut. Peter Warren (RFC) is also missing. He has been at the Front barely a month.

Peter was up at Magdalen in 1914 (where his uncle, Sir Herbert Warren, is President) and being only 17 yrs old was not then eligible for service, although he did join the University OTC.

He received his commission last July and trained as an Observer with 57 Squadron. He transferred to 34 Squadron in November to train as a pilot, graduating in early February. At the end of the month he was sent to the front to join 43 Squadron.

The Warrens have close connections with the OPS. Peter’s grandmother, Mrs Morrell, lives at Black Hall (No 21, St Giles) doors away from where the OPS started.

Peter’s uncle is Philip Morrell, who was a Dragon under Mr Clarke from 1878 until 1880, when the school consisted of a few rooms at No 26 St Giles. He now lives at Garsington Manor with his wife, Lady Ottoline, and is the Liberal MP for Burnley.

 

Both the Leefe Robinson and Warren families and friends will be enduring a period of great strain until further news is received about their loved ones. Certainly it is perfectly possible that, if they came down over enemy held territory, they are prisoners of war. We will live in hope that this is the case.

January 10th 1916

Over the past weeks we have been anxiously awaiting news from those of our old boys involved in the Gallipoli campaign.  We  can at least account for Capt. Geoffrey Smyth (6th Loyal North Lancs. Regiment), who wrote from on board the ‘Hunts Green’ (a captured German ship being used to evacuate his men) following the evacuation from the Anzac and Suvla bridgeheads, which took place on 18th/19th December.

GM Smyth

Capt. GM Smyth

22/12/15. “I suppose by the time you get this the evacuation of Suvla will be old news. I really believe we did deceive the enemy this time – anyway, about five divisions got away without leaving anyone behind; and in our brigade there wasn’t a casualty.

For two weeks before, all the spare equipment and baggage was sent away and also the postal service, hence the reason why no letter for a fortnight. I marched the last party but two of our battalion to the beach, starting at 8 p.m., the last party leaving the trenches at 1.30 a.m.

They say everything was normal up till the last. The night before, half the troops were evacuated, and all the last day the line was pretty thinly held. Everything was excellently planned and worked without a hitch…”

* * * * * * *

Sub-Lieut. Dick Sergent (RNVR) has also made a successful escape from Gallipoli and has written to provide further information as to how this was achieved with so few casualties:

2/1/16. “We are now in Imbros again after having left Anzac, the whole bunch of us. This is to let you know something of the way we did it… We got some wind of it about a week, or perhaps more, before the evacuation (we were instructed only to speak of it as ‘embarkation’).

Our men set some automatic rifles when they left, and some mines and barbed wire in the trenches. The rifles were managed by way of billy-cans on the triggers with water dripping into them so they went off when the cans were heavy enough; they were set to go off raggedly, as if we were firing normally, for about 1½ hours after our men had gone.

We were to have boarded the Colne, but she was not to be found, so we picked up the first destroyer we came across, the Basilisk.. I went up into the W/T cabin and put on a pair of phones to hear the stations at Suvla and Anzac give their ‘dismantling’ signals. We heard the two at Suvla do so, but not our own.

Finally we got a bunting signal that all stragglers etc had been picked up, including the last field hospital which was to have stayed on to look after the wounded in case we had to fight for it…

We had the supreme pleasure of seeing John Turk shelling our first line trenches at 6.30 a.m. at Suvla and Anzac, and the beach at Anzac also.”