November 22nd 1917

Earlier this month we entertained about 100 wounded soldiers to a performance of  “HMS Pinafore” and judging from their remarks it gave them real pleasure. At the request of Sister Wilkinson we put on a special performance at Somerville College for those who were unable to attend.

We are delighted to have received these kind words of appreciation:

“The crew of the saucy ship dropped anchor at Somerville Hospital on Thursday evening, Nov. 15th, 1917, at 5pm. It was with feelings of curious anticipation that we wended our way to listen to the delightful strains of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Pinafore.’

The performance was an undoubted success, the audience was in the happiest of moods and many of the numbers were received with well merited applause. The juvenile buoyancy of the crew together with the nautical stage settings were worthy of the very best ‘official’ recognition. The boys worked in true Jack Tar spirit, combined with a breezy cheerfulness, and all contributed in full measure to the evening’s enjoyment…

The performance was greatly appreciated and did quite a lot to brighten and cheer the wounded who are back in Oxford from the great adventure overseas.”

July 11th 1917

With mild mumps and some German measles prevalent, it has not been possible to arrange cricket matches against other schools this term.

The situation has been saved by our old friend Nurse, now Sister Wilkinson, who left us in 1914 to work in the Base Hospital and is now working at Somerville College. (The college, being next door to the Radcliffe Infirmary was taken over by the military in 1915 to provide accommodation for wounded officers).

We were visited a couple of years ago by groups of wounded soldiers, who bowled and batted in the nets and now, thanks to Sister Wilkinson, teams of wounded officers from Somerville have been regular visitors.

As Chris Jacques (who is leaving us at the end of this term to go to Repton) has recorded:

“An experimental match was played against ‘Sister Wilkinson’s XI,’ who was in charge of Dragon boarders before the war. Some of the visiting batsmen needed a runner, some of their bowlers had to dispense with a run-up, and they were suitably handicapped in the field – and the game was so much enjoyed by both sides that it was repeated each week for the rest of the term, with the visitors bringing, wheeling and even carrying more and more supporters with them each time.

In the evening bathe that followed each match, we were joined by those of our opponents who had Sister Wilkinson’s permission, and by one or two more who had arranged for her attention to be distracted.”

As popular as the cricket matches were, the teas were perhaps even more enjoyed – particularly by me and the macaws:

Bath-chair cases were very grateful to Mrs Vassall and her lady helpers. Instead of being wheeled along dusty streets, obtaining in the process parched throats and having to swallow mouthfuls of ‘petrofine,’ several have been able to sit in comfortable surroundings, watch the cricket and enjoy themselves thoroughly.

I think that the matches have been at least as good for the boys, and in many ways more enjoyable, than the usual matches with other schools.

 

Hum Lynam (top right) with young Dragons and old soldiers…

September 23rd 1914

Skipper cropped Dragons. Welcome back to the OPS for the Christmas Term.

At a time when our country’s needs are greater than ours, a number of your masters have answered the call of duty and are now serving in His Majesty’s forces. Of the staff, all of military age have enlisted or received commissions straight off, taking it for granted that whatever views the Board of Education might have, their first duty was to their country.

Mr. Eastwood has joined the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment,

Mr. Watson, the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry,

Mr. Higginson, the Shropshire Light Infantry

and Mr. Bye the U.P.S. Royal Fusiliers.

There are many Old Boys and Masters who have not yet gone to the front; these have been undergoing strenuous and trying training, and their time will come. While they are still in England we are delighted to see them. Nurse Wilkinson has also left us to work at the Base Hospital, where she has been in charge of some very trying cases, chiefly the dreaded tetanus. Her place in the boarding house has been taken by an old friend, Nurse Todhunter.

Two boys who were holidaying in Austria when war broke out have yet to return. We must all help out as best we can and we are welcoming into the school several American boys, whose parents ordinarily would have been travelling on the continent;  but owing to the war have come for a short time to reside in Oxford., and one boy who is a Belgian refugee. His father is a Professor at Louvain. We are also offering to take on, as a boarder entirely free of charge, the son of a British officer killed in the war.

We start the school year with 119 boys in the school in 8 classes, with another 20 in the Junior Department (aged 5-8 yrs).

 

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We have further news from Lieut. Victor Cowley (Royal Irish Rifles). The retreat from Mons finally came to an end on the River Marne, with the British then supporting a French counter-attack on the Germans.

V Cowley“On 5th September we found ourselves south of the forest of Crecy, having enticed the Germans far enough. From then onwards began our advance on their heels, capturing prisoners and transport every day. Plenty of fighting, especially crossing the Marne, but we were advancing, so what did it matter to us? …

It was here we made a big haul of prisoners, all of whom were only too glad to be captured. On being questioned they said they had been marched off their legs and been given no food. They had certainly had enough drink as one was able to trace where they had been the night before by the hundreds of bottles they left empty. The first remark one of them made on being captured was ‘Thank God, at last I am amongst friends.’ On being questioned as to the reason of this thankfulness he told us that he was a waiter at the Criterion, having lived at Bethnal Green till he was called upon to serve his country. He had been bullied about by his officers, given no food, and altogether was ‘fed up’ with it, and was delighted when he got the opportunity of being made a prisoner…

The 13th September saw us at Braisne waiting for the Sappers to throw a pontoon bridge across the Aisne to enable us to cross and turn the enemy out of the heights commanding the approaches to the river. They had destroyed all the bridges and most completely and their guns shelled every attempt to build temporary ones. During the night they put the pontoons in the river and some planks across on the debris of the railway bridge, over which we started to cross in single file. Only a few had got over when they opened a terrific fire on us which literally churned up the water all around us, and we were lucky in not having many hit. After crossing the river we had to cover 400 yards of open (ground) which was ploughed up by shells, there being a regular canopy of them overhead; a fragment of one of them got me on the arm but did no more damage than cut it a little. 

Next morning I went down to the temporary dressing stations, but as these seemed the butt for every shell, I thought the trenches we had dug on the heights were safer. I returned there to find we had suffered terribly in capturing one of their trenches, two officers being killed and seven wounded. The Germans were entrenched 500 yards away and a battery of their artillery 1200 yards. They kept up an incessant bombardment all day and it was a perfect inferno. Their ‘John Willies’ used to sing overhead, followed by the most awful explosion which very seldom did much damage except churning up the ground. However they affected the men’s nerves a little, which was a good thing as they had got rather callous about other shells and it made them keep under cover more. 

We were allowed to light no fires at all and no matches at night, and as it rained in deluges most part of the first few days, making everything into a quagmire, it was not at all comfortable, especially as we were on short rations of bully beef and biscuits.

The postman managed to get up to us one day, which made us forget all the attendant discomforts of shells and rain. One’s letters were very precious possessions as they whiled away many a weary hour in the trenches.

The worst day was the 19th September, as they had the range to an inch and we cringed in our trenches while the shells shrieked and burst around us, in the parapet, knocking down trees in the wood just behind us, trying to frighten us into submission, but so well had we entrenched ourselves that very few got hit. Unfortunately the Colonel and Adjutant were both very badly hit, but that was about all. They kept it up from dawn till about 6.30, when hordes of infantry were launched at us. We were just the reverse side of a slope so could not fire at them till they got within about 50 yards of us. I worked one of my machine-guns and they went down like corn cut by a reaper. I got through 1200 rounds before a bullet picked me off through the neck, a most horrid sensation!

The three days getting to St Mazaire in a cattle truck which was disguised as a hospital train, words fail me to describe, or the horrors of the jolting over side lines. It was heavenly to be carried on board one of the Union Castle boats, the ‘Carisbrooke Castle,’ and so home to England. It was hard to believe that one had been one of the actors in the world’s greatest tragedy, and the whole experience seems like one gigantic nightmare.

Whatever the result may be, what success can recompense one for the loss of those good friends and comrades who fell never to rise again?”

 

This is what the soldiers refer to as a “blighty one”– a wound serious enough to necessitate evacuation back to England. We are all delighted to hear that Victor has made back to England safely and agree entirely with the sentiments expressed above.