Private Schools - 'They were first up the ladders from the trenches'

15th November 2013 at 00:00
A new book on the Great War vindicates the officer class

Old boys from Britain's great public schools who served in the First World War have often been presented as either callous and cowardly or as idealistic "hearties", leading their men into doomed attacks on the battlefield. Historians have even blamed the public school mindset of putting duty before all else for the high death toll of the Great War.

But a new book by a prominent headmaster claims that it is exactly the character traits of the public school officers - who had a strong sense of service, stoicism and selflessness - that should be taught in modern schools.

The book, Public Schools and the Great War, claims that these traditional qualities developed by public schools deserve "respect rather than derision".

Co-author Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College in Berkshire, which lost 707 former students in the 1914-18 war, said: "The book is trying to ask: what, actually, was the truth here? Were public school products guilty of callousness, carelessness, arrogance? Or were they putting their backs right into something that was unimaginably horrific?

"The war went on day after day with gas and decomposing bodies, and nothing to protect them from bullets coming at them. It doesn't stand up to castigate them for the war.

"There's quite a lot we can learn today from the public school ideal at its best. The ideals of service to fellow men, selflessness, compassion seem to be at the heart of what a good education is about. And, if these can be displayed under conditions of unimaginable horror, it should be easier to display them at 9.30 on a sunny Monday morning wherever."

The introduction to the book, which Dr Seldon wrote with another teacher, David Walsh, adds: "This book . is full of examples of admirable character traits of old boys, qualities which could well be accentuated more in schools of all kinds today.

"The importance of duty, service to others and personal responsibility, as well as courage and loyalty, grounded in classical philosophy and religious codes, are as needed today as in any age."

Using the archives of Britain's top public schools, the authors also lift the lid on the "disproportionate" impact that the Great War had on Britain's public schools, meticulously listing the losses of schools such as Eton, Harrow and Marlborough.

Public school old boys leaving to fight in the war were nearly twice as likely to die on the battlefield as other soldiers. The book says that, overall, 11 per cent of those who fought died as a direct result of the fighting, but the figure for public schoolboys was more than 18 per cent.

Dr Seldon said: "They were the junior officers leading the attacks; they were just 17, 18, 19 years old. They would leave school in summer and be at the front by autumn.

"These officers were on the front line: they were the people who blew the whistles and were first up the ladders from the trenches. The snipers and machine-gunners were going to be concentrating their fire on the officers. They were their primary targets."

Using original documents held by the schools and other archives, the book reveals the emotional impact of the war on the schools. Some headteachers had breakdowns, others died early because of the harrowing toll, Dr Seldon said. But he is keen for the book not to be seen as a "public school bleat" about feeling hard done by and misunderstood.

Whereas some public schoolboys in the war were cowardly and heartless, the "great majority" were not, he said. He also stressed that public school old boys did not have "a monopoly on excellent character".

In an interview with TES, Dr Seldon said that state schools should use the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War as an opportunity for children to engage in their own original, "emotionally engaging" historical research.

Public Schools and the Great War by Anthony Seldon and David Walsh is published by Pen and Sword Books.

Human cost

35,000 public school old boys died in the First World War (out of a total of 900,000 British military dead).

11 per cent of the population who fought died as a result; 18 per cent of public school old boys who fought died as a result.

1,157 students were lost at Eton College; 707 at Wellington College; 490 at St Paul's School; and 302 at Sydney Grammar School in Australia. Source: Public Schools and the Great War (page 278).

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