The real Eton Rifles: the heroism of public school boys in the First World War

Public school alumni fought bravely and suffered disproportionately heavy losses during the Great War.

Officers in training: pupils at Eton College on parade as they prepare for military service. Photo: Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library.

They died at nearly twice the rate of other British soldiers who fought in the First World War. Yet today, the common view is that deluded public school alumni were responsible both for the folly of taking the country into the war and fighting it with shocking callousness towards the ordinary soldier. The rank and file, drawn from cities, towns and villages across Britain, put their trust in their public school-educated officers, only to be mown down in their hundreds of thousands while the officers sipped sherry and claret in chateau headquarters comfortably behind the front line. In short, while the working-class man at the front spilled his blood and his bereaved wife and children suffered deprivation, poverty and worse, the public school boy came out of it all right, having had a rather spiffing time.

While the politicians and generals were criticised by contemporary poets and artists, the castigation of the public schools began in the 1960s. The publication in 1961 of Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, a study of the Western Front in 1915, was one of the earliest portrayals of public school generals as callous fools. Clark, himself educated at Eton, drew the title from the popular expression “lions led by donkeys”, contrasting the heroism and sacrifice of ordinary British soldiers with the doltish commanders who led them. The book inspired the 1963 musical Oh! What a Lovely War, directed by Joan Littlewood, and its 1969 film adaptation directed by Richard Attenborough. Their savage attack on the political and military elites harmonised perfectly with the anti-establishment zeitgeist of the decade and gained added authenticity by the use of songs from the period.

Blackadder Goes Forth, the fourth and final series of the BBC comedy, was first screened 20 years later, in the autumn of 1989. As a parody of public school boy behaviour and language, it is perfection. The final epi­sode, which culminates in the characters played by Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and Tony Robinson going over the top, has achieved cult status as representing the defining truth about the war and is regularly shown in schools. As the historian Richard Holmes writes, “Blackadder’s aphorisms have become fact ... A well-turned line of script can sometimes carry more weight than all the scholarly footnotes in the world.”

The role of public schools in instilling a culture that resulted in the slaughter on the Western Front was given a powerful endorsement in Peter Parker’s book The Old Lie: the Great War and the Public School Ethos, first published in 1987. “It is no dis­respect to the dead to regret that many of them fought and died for all the wrong reasons,” he writes. “That men dribbled footballs towards the enemy trenches does not mean that the war was a game. That men died for an ethos does not mean that the ethos was worth dying for.” The Victorian and Edwardian public schools, Parker argues, have a serious case to answer.

Twenty years later, in a new edition of his book, he writes that he would not alter his thesis in any way. Parker’s anger spills out on every page, so affected is he by the multiple stories of “those blown to irrecoverable bits by explosives, or left to die slowly in the mud and filth of no-man’s-land”.

Public schools are firmly in the dock, accused of the contradictory positions of utilising clinical efficiency in killing and of amateur incompetence and other-worldliness. Their emphasis on Christianity and patriotism, it is said, bred unquestioning minds that were ready – indeed, avid – to give all in their service to God and country. Few in positions of power or influence over the past 50 years have been prepared to say much in defence of public schools, while choosing them overwhelmingly as the places to educate their children.

The time has come for a fresh look. Were the top commanders as uniformly inept and callous as widely believed? Were the generals acting out some public school fantasy, or were their decisions coloured more by their prolonged exposure to the uncompromising military strategies of the time? Were the junior officers, whose thinking was powerfully shaped by their recent experience of school, shallow and unfeeling? Were the schools homogeneous authoritarian factories, or did some produce sensitive and rebellious young minds? Was the “public school ethos” as sinister as it has been portrayed?

A public school education provided young officers with many of the qualities required to survive the horror of the trenches. The discipline may have been strict, the living conditions spartan, the punishments severe and the sport overpowering, but from these came the ability to endure, a sense of duty, service and responsibility, team spirit, loyalty, courage, self-confidence and patriotism and the need to set an example – qualities that all proved useful on the battlefield, as did the training received in the officers’ training corps. If you were an ordinary private, scared and disorientated, you appreciated an officer who had those traits and background experience.

As George Orwell, who was educated briefly at Wellington and then Eton, argued, the “middle classes are trained for war ... not technically but morally”. Their tragedy was that they assumed this role in a new “industrial war”, which could not be won by courage and self-sacrifice alone. The senior commanders can be accused with some justification of exploiting the goodwill and character of the public school junior officers, who inspired their men to go over the top to die in numberless thousands.

The “public school type” was in truth far from homogeneous. The image of the bluff, unquestioning, anti-intellectual hearty, motivated by simple ideals of loyalty, duty and patriotism, is certainly true of some. Many of them died gallantly on the battlefield, revolver in one hand, whistle in the other. But at the other end of the spectrum were those who questioned the war but saw the futility of such questioning. These were men of the calibre of the poet Charles Sorley (Marlborough) and the musician George Butterworth (Eton), intellectuals and artists, deeply cultured young men whose lives had been enriched by their contact with excellent teachers and who themselves enriched the intellectual life of their school. The public school dead of 1914-18 did not die and inspire others to die for a sentimental ethos but for a country and a cause they had been taught to believe in. These character values should not be mocked: they have much to offer the young in schools across Britain today.

Public school alumni suffered disproportionately heavy losses during the Great War. Whereas some 11 per cent of all those who served in the war died as a direct result of the fighting, the figure for public school boys was over 18 per cent. Those who left school between 1908 and 1915 died at even higher rates, serving on the front line as junior officers or as pilots in the Royal Flying Corps. The losses sustained by the upper and middle classes were heavy. Lord Salisbury, who was prime minister until 1902, was not untypical in losing five of his ten grandsons. Whatever else, the products of public schools were not shirkers. The vast majority could not have been more different to Captain Blackadder.

Contrast Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder with the portrayal of public school officers in a piece of writing that much more faithfully reflects the multi-textured truths of the war, R C Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, first produced in December 1928. Nowhere in Oh! What a Lovely War or Blackadder can be found characters like Captain Stanhope, the hero of Journey’s End. Despite being ground down by the pressures of war and its losses, he remains highly professional and caring of his men. Nor are there characters in the other two productions who compare with the young subaltern Raleigh, who follows Stanhope, his hero from his boarding house at his public school, out to his company on the Western Front. And there is no figure akin to Lieutenant Osborne, the avuncular public school master who cares devotedly for the soldiers under his command, as he does for his much younger company commander, Stanhope. It is hard to imagine a play more imbued with the ethos of public schools than Journey’s End. It is War and Peace compared to the comic-book japes of Blackadder.

Stanhope, drawing on his public school codes of honour, challenges his colonel head on, when he pressures him to conduct a raid that Stanhope believes to be foolhardy and needlessly risky for his men. The colonel, taking his stance from the military code book, brushes off Stanhope’s protestations. The raid goes ahead with predictable results and Osborne, who holds Stanhope and the company together, is killed.

The senior commanders had improved in quality by the later stages of the war. Six officers – Generals Horne, Plumer, Byng, Rawlinson, Birdwood and Monash, all of whom were public school educated – oversaw the defeat of the German army in the final months of the war. As the military historian Michael Howard has argued, there was no shortcut to creating the professional army that eventually won the war and without the sacrifice and leadership of the officers from public schools from 1914 onwards, the British army might have mutinied, as the French and Russian armies did.

Neither is the suggestion that British generals all remained in chateaux safely behind the lines true. Fifty-eight officers of the rank of brigadier general and above were killed during the war and some 200 were wounded. All those who died succumbed to either shrapnel or bullets, evidence of their proximity to the front line.

Looking after subordinates was an integral part of the experience of the public school boy. Those at boarding schools lived in “houses” run, in effect, by the older pupils. The training in leadership gained running houses and teams segued naturally across to the front line. It was said of Lieutenant Colonel John Maxwell (Marlborough): “He was the servant, as well as the leader, of his men: at all times and in all places they came first in his thoughts, and until they were made as comfortable as circumstances permitted, he gave no thought to himself.”

Captain Graham Greenwell (Winchester), was in command of 200 soldiers in the battle of the Somme, despite being only 20 years old. He said that he was entirely confident in looking after and caring for the needs of his men because he had learned about serving selflessly at school. Lionel Cohen (Eton) promised his platoon sergeant, badly wounded at the battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, that he would “look after his wife and child if he were not to get better”.

Not all public school officers were so selfless. Some were snobs, lazy or cowards. Captain Eric Whitworth (Radley) was appalled at the behaviour of two platoon officers who collapsed on the ground during each break on a route march: “They paid no attention to the men, nor talked to them ... I pointed out that it is the essence of leadership never to show oneself done in ... [Officers] learnt ... in leading his house or team ... In spite of the general criticism that public schools foster class feeling, he has learnt to really care for his men.”

Some public school boys elected specifically to look after their fellow soldiers by serving in the ranks: Sergeant Major Frederick Keeling (Winchester), an assistant editor of the New Statesman, was one who chose this course before being killed on the Somme. R H Tawney (Rugby), the economic historian and Christian socialist, was another who chose to fight in the ranks.

Public school alumni also served their fellow men as doctors and chaplains. Many doctors died while tending to the wounded. Others made pioneering contributions, such as Geoffrey Keynes (Rugby) – the younger brother of John Maynard and a close friend of Rupert Brooke – whose innovations in portable blood transfusion saved the lives of many. W H R Rivers (Tonbridge), who tended to both Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, advanced the understanding of emotional and psychological distress among combat soldiers. Anthony Bowlby (Durham), meanwhile, was responsible for moving mobile surgical teams much closer to the front line, saving the lives of thousands who would otherwise have bled to death on stretchers before they reached help.

No single doctor was more heroic, perhaps, than Noel Chavasse (Liverpool College and Magdalen College), the only man to be awarded two Victoria Crosses during the First World War. Killed at Passchendaele, he had earlier said: “I can’t bear to think of my boys lying out there needing me.”

Chaplains offered comfort to the wounded and dying, often putting themselves in great danger. Julian Bickersteth (Rugby), a public school chaplain, was present at the death of some of the 300 British soldiers executed for cowardice or desertion. He wrote in December 1917 of a young man, aged only 19, who had been broken by three years at the front: “It was my privilege to comfort and help him all I could ... and to stand by his side until the very end ... There are very few deaths I have witnessed which have so wrung my heartstrings as this one ... As they bound him, I held his arm tight to reassure him ... then he turned his blindfolded face to mine and said in a voice which wrung my heart, ‘Kiss me, sir, kiss me,’ and with my kiss on his lips and ‘God has you in his keeping’ whispered in his ear, he passed on into that great unseen.”

Attacks on public schools tend to omit that their former students were often in the vanguard of criticism of the war. Some of the most savage images of the conflict came from artists. Few were more shocking than the painting We Are Making a New World by Paul Nash (St Paul’s); Over the Top by his brother, John Nash (Wellington); and the work of C R W Nevinson (Uppingham), above all his biting Paths of Glory. Paul Nash wrote to his wife: “I am no longer an artist [but] a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.” Among the poets, few were harder hitting in their satire than Siegfried Sassoon, who had been a schoolboy at Marlborough.

Ignored, too, have been the voices of criticism from within the public schools. At Repton School, Victor Gollancz, who went on to become a writer and publisher, ran current affairs classes and a magazine that were critical of the war. Opposition from the old guard in the school drove Gollancz and his coterie of boys, like the Robin Williams character in the film Dead Poets Society, to even greater heights of rebellion, resulting in complaints from the War Office and the eventual departure of Gollancz from the school.

Shortly after Alec Waugh left Sherborne, he published his semi-autobiographical book The Loom of Youth, which was heavily critical of the ethos of the school. It led to a furious row and the headmaster having lunch with Waugh’s father in a London club, suggesting that the younger son look for another school. Thus did Evelyn Waugh end up at Lancing, to his lifelong chagrin.

Most significant of all was the stance taken by the holiest of holies, the then headmaster of Eton, Edward Lyttelton. He had already created a stir by inviting a deputation of unemployed men to address the boys at the school. In March 1915, he preached a sermon urging caution before the entire German population was condemned and asking Britain to act compassionately in any final peace settlement with it. This was mainstream Christianity and I admire him greatly for his stance. The old boys and governors of Eton thought differently and a year later he was, in effect, drummed out of office.

Many headmasters and teachers had similar thoughts and not only in Quaker schools such as Bootham in York and Leighton Park in Reading. The alumni from these schools often worked in non-combatant roles and several were sent to prison or sentenced to hard labour for refusing involvement of any kind in the fighting.

My grandfather Wilfred Willett (St Paul’s) was shot in the head at Ypres. His dream of becoming a medic shattered, he instead wrote nature articles for the Daily Worker and became a communist in response to the suffering he had seen. He didn’t have a spiffing time in the war. Neither did tens of thousands of other public school alumni.

Second Lieutenant Douglas Gillespie (Winchester) attempted to make sense of the horror by proposing a tree-shaded via sacra to run between the trench lines from Switzerland to the English Channel. Of this imaginary 450-mile memorial, he wrote: “I would like to send every man, woman and child in western Europe on pilgrimage along that via sacra, so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.” Gillespie did not live to discover that his proposal would come to nothing: he was killed in action at the battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.

Anthony Seldon is the master of Wellington College. His book “Public Schools and the Great War” (Pen and Sword Military, £25), co-written with David Walsh, is out now.

Next Article