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And We Were Young. Oundle School and the Great War

And We Were Young. Oundle School and the Great War

ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Every once in a while, a great opportunity arises. The chance to review a book by an old school teacher of mine – and finally to have my revenge for all those school reports along the lines of “moderate/might do better” and “C/B borderline” – was too good to miss, particularly since I could combine it with plenty of amusing references to the Trinity Tiddlers and Operation “Certain Death”, and to Tomkinson’s Schooldays, and perhaps even to Aces High. You’ll imagine my initial disappointment, therefore, when the book arrives and I quickly realise it’s really rather good, thoroughly researched and comprehensive.

The book is a record in honour of the boys and masters of Oundle School who lost their lives during the Great War. Framed along the lines of a school sports year by year fixture list with chapters alternately covering “home” and “away”: Oundle daily life, during the war, including the development of agriculture and the contribution of the engineering workshops, and the experiences of war on the frontline of the 1,200 who fought across the globe, on the Western front, in East Africa, Italy, Mesopotamia, in Russia (in the Russian Civil War) and at sea at Jutland, and focusing primarily on the 263 who died. As part of a larger Remembrance Day and Centenary Commemoration project, it is beautifully laid out, with more than 300 photos, and many letters from school and the front. Seeing their faces in war and peace is intended to bring their stories to life, that we more fully remember each of them.

It doesn’t, of course, make for happy reading. The letters home – both to family and as bereavement letters – illuminate events at the front, and do indeed succeed in bringing the stories to life so that we may remember them. The average age of those killed was 23. John Savage of the Royal Flying Corps, the youngest Oundelian to die, was killed at 17, shot down by Max Immelman, the German air ace. And many died looking out for and helping others. Douglas Greenway had already made two journeys out through three separate barbed wire entanglements to reach the wounded, before being killed the third time out. Hugh Hopkinson, who in happier times had taken 7 for 7 against Dryden, was killed, shot bandaging a wounded man. And so on, sadly, many, many times. To quote one of the bereavement letters, ‘your son faced the music like a man’.

Though the book is rich in photos of individuals, it is the group photos that are especially arresting. If the photo of the masters in 1899 could have been the model for Ronald Searle’s sketches of school masters for Molesworth, the others simultaneously give real atmosphere and indicate the scale of the impact of the war on the school. A 1910 photo of 10 boys from Dryden (my own house, as it happens) was taken as a memento for all ten to have as a keepsake to remind them of their friends and school years in times to come. Seven of them were killed. The photo on the book’s front cover is one of the 1912 Dryden OTC: 11 of the 34 boys in it were killed (as were another 3 who were not in the photo).

Importantly, the author does a good job of taking the reader back in time in proper historical style. It deliberately echoes the style of the 1920 school memorial book on which it explicitly builds. But this is not just about the young officers cultivating splendid lip weasels, posthumously being “noticed by the Brigadier”, robust attitudes to corporal punishment at school, and “annoying the Bosch”. And the book does have its Aces High moments: Captain Vickers, freshly awarded the VC, returned to the school in 1915 to regale the boys with his experiences, and was presented with a silver flask on behalf of the school.

But it also describes well – without mawkishness or anachronistic judgment – a life that is scarcely imaginable now, whether in terms of the scale of the imperial war effort, the groups who fought (including the Artists Rifles), and in terms of the individual’s approach to life and society: the last words of one mortally wounded young officer were ‘tell my school I did all right’. All of this atmosphere flows throughout the book.

Even if the book could do with a slightly stricter edit to remove some repetition, generally it’s written well enough that I kept turning the pages as I was drawn into the lives and sad destinies of these young men. It’s also true that the chapters dealing with “home life” provide only very brief respite from the unremitting roll call of death. But it’s hardly the author’s fault that it is not an easy read (he does his best: deep in the text, in writing of one particularly sacrificial advance, he even manages a reference to Operation Certain Death). Nevertheless, if Pendrill occasionally mentions some news of promotions, awards and decorations, it might have been interesting to hear some more stories of the destinies of those boys who survived.

I’d have wanted Pendrill – perhaps in a postscript or appendix – to dig deeper into some of the language used in the letters and the short pen sketches of the boys that occasionally come across as rather euphemistic. Just two examples will suffice. John Rhodes was, for instance, a ‘useful bowler, albeit in the fourth game [so – not very good at all then] while in the rugby third game he was criticised in the school magazine for being too interested in the social side of the game’. And, in a letter home from the front to his widowed mother, Arthur Platts, killed a week after his 25thbirthday, was considered ‘one of the best fellows who ever lived. I always knew that whatever job had to be done at the front, I could rely on your boy to do it and do it well, no matter how nasty the job could be’.

Recommended, for sure. Given it's narrow lens, it won’t be for everyone, of course but, it’s a fine book weaving together of life and history, and deserves a decent readership, all the more so since all profits from sales go to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

“Pendrill has produced a good term’s work. A”.

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Reginald Brope
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