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World War One continued

Blog Nov 6th 2014

 

Last night to a talk on Public Schools & the Great War, by David Walsh, co-author of a Pen & Sword book of the same name. David was Second Master and head of History at Tonbridge, and the subject was clearly very close to his heart. As too, I presume, for his co-author Sir Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington, a school with strong military connections.

 

Walsh’s sonorous voice, with repetitive intonation, took me straight back to the classrooms of my youth. However I paid rather more attention last night than I remember doing in my teens! Walsh had a very strong grip of his subject, and beseeched the current generation of history teachers to take their pupils back to the original sources, particularly the autobiographies penned in the immediate aftermath of the war, in order to escape the nihilistic and simplistic interpretations of Blackadder and Joan Littlewood (Oh What a Lovely War), which coloured the Sixties, and linger still.

 

As any student of WW1 knows, the public schools (and in particular their CCFs) provided the bulk of the junior officer cadre in the war. And this cohort suffered far more casualties than the ranks. Indeed whilst  the level of fatalities for British participants was 10% of those who served, it was double that for public schoolboys. I hate to bang the drum for Eton, but Walsh pointed out that Slough Grammar provided far more than its fair share of generals: something like 30 were invited to their post-war commemoration (only 18 showed up).

 

I was moved that Walsh’s last slide, left lingering through a vigorous Q&A session, was of one of the old boys from my alma mater, Douglas Gillespie. His story is typically moving. Moved too, that Walsh rated the cloisters through which I trekked to class every day, as the best war memorial of the public schools. Best though to leave it to the inscription on Walsh’s own Tonbridge memorial:

 

“By their warfare they have given us peace; with their death they gave us life.”

Cold Feet

 

When in the Mess we chatter round the Hock

And bold young blades some idle talk repeat,

With obvious relish but an air of shock,

That Smith or somebody ‘has got cold feet’.

 

I wonder what exactly is

This pest of the extremities,

And whether mine, perhaps, like his,

Are not the proper heat.

 

For if it means the fellow shrinks from shells,

And little loves to see his comrades bleed,,

Has learned too well the way a dead man smells,

And in what pasturing  the green flies feed,

Or that he feels he’d like to cry,

When tons of lead go tumbling by,

And, frankly, does not want to die –

My feet are cold, indeed.

 

Or if it means he does not like the dark,

When tired men slumber and the trench is stilled,

When it is his pace, and peep, and hark,

And he has time to think of being killed,

Of tangled wire that tears and twines,

Of mangling bombs and leaping mines,

Of getting left between the lines –

My feet are fairly chilled.

 

And if he has no taste for sleeping out,

For lice and maggots in his bed begot,

For bucket-washes and the gnawing doubt

If dinner will occur today or not,

But loves a life of ordered ease,

Not dust, not digging, not disease,

Not sunstruck eyes, and palsied knees –

My feet are far from hot.

 

Or, if it means that blood is in his dreams,

And shattered jaws, and heads precisely holed;

And quiet midnights shot with sudden screams,

And snatched Field-Dressings ne’er to be unrolled,

Or that at times he awakes in tears

With ‘STRETCHER-BEARERS!’ in his ears,

And knows those stretchers will be biers –

Ah me, my feet are cold.

 

But if it means he does not in his soul,

Whatever filthiness the fight may send,

Whate’er the torment and whate’er the toll,

Long to go back and be beside his friend,

But, knowing all, would liefer lurk,

In some soft specious barrack work,

That see it out with Johnny Turk –

My feet do not offend.  

 

AP Herbert, July 1916

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