Public Schools and the Great War

The Generation Lost

By Anthony Seldon & David Walsh

Pen & Sword, 2013

public-schools-the-great-warThe authors estimate that 35,000 ex-public school boys were killed during the First World War; 18% of those who enlisted compared to a national average of 11%. Many of these old boys of course became the junior officers who played such an important role in the BEF, living and breathing the values instilled in them during their education. The book is keen to demonstrate that these men were not the officers portrayed in ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ and ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’, but were more complex than simple stereotypes portray.

Like men from other walks of life and professions, public school boys clamoured to join up as soon as war broke out, leading to the formation of battalions such as the Public Schools battalion (16th Middlesex). Many officers inspired devotion in their men. Stoicism and loyalty, rooted in the classics, sport, and the Officer Training Corps, had fostered a desire to show courage in the face of adversity.

The book follows a chronological narrative interspersed with short vignettes, with the stories of many individuals woven into the narrative.

In addition to looking at those who served, the authors also examine school life during the war – bombing, reaction to war news (and news of deaths), contributions to the war effort; and the impact of anti-German sentiment. They highlight that support for the war was not universal, and the section on anti-war dissenters makes for interesting reading.

As well as the pupils the war of course also affected the headmasters and teachers. Many enlisted too, as well as school staff, and some became casualties. This impacted on the very running of the schools, but perhaps the biggest impact was that which the death of former pupils had on the headmasters who had nurtured and encouraged them during their school days.

An analysis of Generals shows a high level of ‘old boys among them’. Some schools escaped lightly in the opening stages of the conflict, as it was the officers of the Regular army who became casualties. Many public schoolboys found their way into the ranks, and casualty lists, of the Territorial Force, they were so eager to fight.

After a brief look at the commemoration and memorials, how the war was remembered and taught at public schools is explored, in particular the growth of anti-war movement and how notable anniversaries of the war (e.g. 10 years, 50 years) were reported in schools and how time changed attitudes towards the war.

The book ends with a chapter on the ‘lost generation’, with an analysis of losses, public school VC winners, and importantly the impact of the war on those who survived is also considered, for example the future Prime Ministers who had served and the impact this had on interwar politics

The abiding messages from the book are the ethos and values instilled in pupils, making them ‘perfect’ for the battlefield, and the promising lives cut short by the war; like many writers before them, lamenting what these boys could have gone on to achieve had the war not occurred. However, an important acknowledgement is that their lives were not worth any more (or less) than other casualties.

An index of schools is helpful, particularly as it includes the alumni who are mentioned in the book. As well as describing the role of public schools in the war, the book provides a valuable insight into the operation of the schools and life for the pupils during this period.

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Public Schools and the Great War

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