“Eton Boys” may have signed up for death in the trenches when they signed up for public school

Public school officers during World War I did not quite get the attention of the media. They were often depicted as nice yet hiding miles from the critical war zones. However, their chances of surviving were often undermined and their bravery evident, comments John Lewis-Stempel.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the martial and patriotic “ethos” of Eton and other public schools of Britain were as much as in demand as the soldiers in the front lines. The British boys who were brave, patriotic and selfless from 120 elite schools were able to withstand the highly drilled militarism required of the Kaiser’s army.

They were far from the products of modern schools. But, the training provided by the public schools of Britain in terms of Darwinian survival were very rigid because of the values of courage, country and self sacrifice was embedded deep into their subconscious. The generation of boys that were molded to be military leaders were mostly the young gentlemen from Eton and the Edwardian public schools. However, these schools also paid a terrible price for this duty. It was often believed that during the World War I, signing up for exclusive schooling would mean signing up for an early death.

The Express News reports that 20% of public school boys who enlisted to fight in the war died. This is notably higher than 13% of those overall who served. Eton’s Memorial to the fallen during the Great War lists 1, 157 names. Most of them were, in the absence of a conflict, at a young age.

The mortality rate was so high that historians refer to the deaths of soldiers from public schools as “surplus deaths”. They were even placed on a different category from the general rate of mortality.

The “surplus deaths” of public school boys were high because they were more likely to be junior officers during the Great War. The young lieutenants and captains were assigned in the bloody trenches. While the image of military officials often depict men sipping sherry in a headquarters far off from the trenches, the junior officers debunks these myths. It is the rule of the British Army that the junior officers be the first “over the top” yet the last to retreat.

The junior officers were indeed very young and it is apparent that they were first timers to the war. Some were only 17. Young as they were they stood their ground and did the orders whether they were facing Germans or Turks. They took command of their men with a revolver in one hand and a cigarette in the other. And they died clutching both. The trenches was one of the worst places to be during the World War I and it was a graveyard for the living. A second lieutenant was expected to last six weeks before falling to death’s grip.

It was reported that the public school boys were easy mark for the Germans and Turks. They were physically better than the men from the working class. And they were five inches, on the average. Some even claim that the public school boys were built physically to end up as targets for the German or Turkish marksmen.

The Duke of Wellington said that school sports was crucial in the preparation of the young boys to the physical and mental strains of war. The public schools of Britain were said to have a fitness regime to produce a man equal to that of a Spartan. These training include rugby, wall game, long and arduous cross-country runs and cold showers. Sedbergh’s school even has a song that tells its athletes to “laugh at pain”.

Sports was intended not only to make the boys physically tough. It was meant to prop the boys with military skills such as discipline. Most of the sports were of military origins. Cricket, for example, teaches the boys the effective way to shield oneself from a projectile.

Among Eton’s listed casualties are three members of the first VIII rowing team of 1913.  The boys died in action. Another id their diminutive cox, Esmond Elliot, who was killed at Passchendaele.

Sports were also taught in the schools because it helps develop character, leadership skills and loyalty. A boy who is loyal to his alma mater was said to also be loyal to his family. One of the Eton boys, Lionel Sotheby, wrote in his last letter before being killed in action in 1915, “Eton will be to the last the same as my parents and dear friends are to me… To die for one’s school is an honour.”

The schools believe that loyalty is encompassing. If a boy would be taught to be loyal to his “house” or his school, he could easily be taught to be loyal to his country.

Sports is one of the effective methods of the Holy Quartet used by the schools to prepare the young boys for war. The sport of Wellington was one key to produce junior officers and gentlemen. The other three of the Quartet were curriculum, chapel and very rigid military training.

The boys of Eton in 1913 were schooled at Latin and Greek classics. Aside from playing sports in the field, they would spend half of the week studying these which were not as philosophical as Plato’s Republic. Instead of ideologies, they were more mentally-trained by these classics to aspire for heroism and find immortality in a heroic death. Such were taught by classics such as Homer’s Odyssey.

An Old Etonian and future prime minister Harold Macmillan displayed this fondness of classics. When he was injured by machine gun bullets at Ginchy on the Western Front, he was found lying in a shell-hole and reading the pocket edition of Aeschylus’s play Prometheus, which tell of the suffering of the Titan when bound to a rock. Macmillan took his time in reading the tragedy in Ancient Greek given it was appropriate reading for someone searching for fortitude. 

Not all public school boys were highly intellectuals such as Macmillan. He was after all a descendant of a publishing dynasty. Some were not as intelligent such as Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie) in Blackadder Goes Forth. Stupidity was treated as a sin in school. So the schools expected the future leaders of the empire to be very efficient and educated.

After education, the next of the Quartet was chapel. The public school boys were expected to be in attendance in religious services every morning and in boarding schools thrice on a Sunday. The teachings of the Church of England filled the boys with ethics and not so on the doctrine. The boys lining in the pews would be hearing homilies and readings about leading a life of service and sacrifice and about following the footprints of Jesus.

After church, there was military training. The boys were prepared for the military duties that lay ahead their future. The Officers’ Training Corps was established in 1908 by Lord Haldane. Almost all of the public schools had the OTC training the boys to lead a platoon of 50 men. Some of the schools even considered OTC with extreme seriousness. The Uppingham School in Rutland, for example, requires the boys to pass a rifle marksmanship exam before receiving a school prize or holding a house position.

Everything about the public school training was all about preparing a boy for war. It was not surprising when many of the public school boys were quick to respond to Lord Kitchener’s call to become officers of the expanded British Army in 1914. They had the virtues of manliness, duty, love of country and stiff upper-lip denial inculcated in them.

The Express News reports that John Lewis-Stempel, author of Six Weeks about junior officers in the trenches, found in his research that the boys volunteered knowing full well that they had high chances of dying.

The author asked school archivists, “How many of your old boys served in the Great War?” The reply was always, “We think almost everybody.”

On one snapshot, there were 51 boys who left the Newick House, Cheltenham College in 1910. 50 of them donned khaki. They volunteered to go even when the school magazine listed on every issue the deaths of those who chose to leave and head for the trenches. 

The death toll of boys from the public schools was constantly increasing. King Edward VII School, Lytham claimed the most number of losses. 32.4% of the boys who enlisted in the British Army were killed in action.

The sacrifice of the men was not all in vain, so the country concludes. The young men who turned junior officers, boys as they were, helped much in the victories at Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele. They were also known to have led their men well.

Bernard Adams of Malvern College explained to a fellow downy-lipped officer on the Somme: “The only way to run a company is by love.” By leading the men and looking after them in the trenches. They lead the men well that life in trenches a little bearable and their morale high. 

Some of the public school boys, however, were seen as arrogant and selfish unlike the likes of Bernard Adams. But in the end, they did their role as junior officers remarkably.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE