Blackadder has a lot to answer for. The image of public school generals, upper class officers and scheming aristocrats having an easy war is untrue. In the centenary year of the First World War, historian Sir Anthony Seldon, with his colleague David Walsh, examined the role of public schools in the Great War.
Seldon found that the mortality rate amongst those educated at the major public schools was twice that of the general population who enlisted. Active Officers Training Corps (OTC) endowed many leading public schools with a tradition and expectation of military service to one’s country. Eton lost the most: 1157 schoolboys fought, of whom 20.5 per cent were killed. ‘It doesn't clear public school educated soldiers as individuals of incompetence, but at the rate they died, they clearly weren’t far behind the lines, sipping claret,’ Seldon said, speaking at the Dragon School, as part of their two day commemoration of WW1. The stranglehold of public school education was in evidence at every level of decision making and cultural life: Lord Salisbury (Eton) 1895-1902 lost 5 of his 10 grandsons, Asquith (1908-16) lost his only son Raymond, and Churchill, Atlee, Eden and Macmillan all fought in the war and were all ‘changed utterly,’ by their experiences.
Anger characterised public school artists – every bit as coruscating as their fellow poet soldiers. Wyndham Lewis, Paul and John Nash, and CRW Levinson all depicted the horror of war, often with savage irony as in Paul Nash’s The Menin Road – where there is none to follow, only mortal hazard all around. Sassoon, Brooke and RC Sheriff had exposed the harsh realities of warfare. When Journey’s End was produced in 1928, with a cast including Sir Laurence Olivier, Sheriff lent him his boots from the trenches to wear on stage. All these writers, through vivid language, brought home the realities they had witnessed – the pity of war, where public school boys ran their platoons like prefects ran a house, some dying within weeks of leaving school. Seldon included a photograph of the Head Boy of Marlborough smiling cheerfully, lounging against sandbags with fellow soldiers. Within days, he was dead.
Public school educated doctors, such as WHR Rivers who treated both Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, were heroic practitioners of compassion and pity. Sir Anthony Bowlby contributed to an understanding of the mental health consequences of battle, and Charles Wilks, who became Churchill’s doctor, wrote The Anatomy of Courage, bringing insight to the intolerable binds of battle.
Lastly, the British commemoration of the dead commomorated the life of the indivudla. In the Battle of Waterloo, the dead were buried in communal pits, as were many of the German soldiers who died in WW1. Yet all the British soldiers were treated as individuals. Each had their own plot and generic headstone – the same size for every rank, private or brigadier. On it, a family message was carved, and the religion of the soldier denoted. Edwin Lutyens designed several cemeteries and monuments, while Gertrude Jekyll’s planting plan created an English garden for those buried abroad – a corner of a foreign field which is forever England.
As one of the UK’s most celebrated Headmasters, Seldon spoke movingly of the personal toll taken on individuals, who faced the horror of breaking the news, day after day, of the deaths of former pupils. ‘Coping with tragedy in a school is one of the worst aspects of being an Head Master. Announcing multiple tragedies was the most harrowing lot of war time Headmasters.’
Let no one say that the English Public School boy did not play his part.