Part 1: Corners of foreign fields

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In this series of 12 articles, Rugby historian Nigel Stanley traces the part played by thousands of Rugby’s men, women and children in the Great War, saluting over 1400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.

Part 1: Corners of foreign fields

In August 1914 the outbreak of the Great War inspired Rupert Brooke’s greatest poetry. Brilliantly capturing the patriotic mood of the day, the Rugby-born poet proclaimed, in his sonnet “The Soldier”: “If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England.” Brooke was indeed to die in the war, but he could hardly have imagined in 1914 that over a million from Britain and its Empire would lose their lives, amongst a total of over ten million on all sides. Thousands of men from Rugby would serve in the armed forces, and over 700 from the Rugby area would die in the conflict, mostly in ‘corners of foreign fields’, but some at home - in Brooke’s words, “under an English heaven”. Over a thousand men from the Rugby area would be wounded. Rugby School, the community in which Rupert Brooke was raised, would also suffer heavy losses, with nearly 700 old boys killed in the war.

War-clouds on the horizon

Preparations for a possible war against Germany had started in Britain and Rugby well before 1914. These included re-organisation of the army in 1908. Rugby men had traditionally joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (RWR), whose 1st and 2nd Battalions of regular (professional) soldiers would be amongst the first infantry battalions into battle in a land-war. The 1908 army reforms set up a new Territorial Army (TA) of part-time volunteers, training in evenings, at week-ends and an annual summer-camp, ready to be called up to support the regular forces. Four new TA battalions were created in Warwickshire. As part of the new RWR 7th Battalion, Rugby was the home of ‘E’ Company, containing around 140 local men, commanded by Captain Claude Seabroke. Their new drill hall was built in 1912 on Park Road in Rugby, in the corner of Caldecott Park, where it still stands today. A new TA artillery unit was also set up in 1908: the 5th Warwickshire Battery of the RFA (Royal Field Artillery). The unit’s fire-power consisted of four Howitzer field-guns, lending the battery its other name, the 5th Howitzers. By 1914 the Howitzers had around 200 men and 70 horses, with their HQ off Rowland Street, New Bilton, under Captain C P Nickalls.

A third TA unit with over 20 Rugby members was the Warwickshire Yeomanry, a cavalry force whose horses and men could be seen on manoeuvres around Warwickshire in the years before 1914. The scout movement started in 1907, partly to prepare boys for military service, and was soon strong in Rugby, while from 1911 Rugby women volunteered as Red Cross nurses, and trained in first aid in case of invasion. As war-clouds loomed, military preparations became more urgent. In Hillmorton, an airfield was already in military use by 1913 on the later site of Rugby Radio Station. In May 1914, Rugby’s TA units were joined by 400 members of Rugby School’s Officer Training Corps in mock skirmishes near Draycote, watched by crowds of spectators, in the valley now under the reservoir. War-games would soon become reality.

August 1914

Saturday 1st August 1914 was the start of a Bank Holiday week-end, during a long hot summer. In many ways it was a normal summer Saturday in Rugby. The Rugby Advertiser appeared on sale in its Saturday edition, full of adverts and local news of cattle markets and village meetings. Rugby Cricket Club was playing the old boys of Warwick School, in a match which Rugby lost heavily, scoring a “miserable total” and losing by 10 wickets. However, in other ways, 1st August was far from usual. Tucked away in the Advertiser was a short item on the military and diplomatic crisis looming in Europe. Headed “Precautions within the Empire”, it announced that “naval and military measures of a precautionary and defensive character are being carried out quietly and calmly throughout the British Empire.”

In reality, events in Europe were far from quiet and calm. In June, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was shot dead by a Bosnian Serb terrorist in Sarajevo. In July, Germany’s leaders secretly encouraged Austria, their ally, to attack Serbia in retaliation, fully aware that this might provoke war between powers supporting Austria (such as Germany and Turkey), and those supporting Serbia (such as Russia and France). British involvement was not inevitable, but Britain stood ready to defend France and Belgium. Events in the Balkans had sucked in most European powers. On 1st August, Germany declared war on Russia, claiming to act defensively, and on 4th August, German armies invaded Belgium on their way to France. Britain declared war on Germany the same day, citing the need to defend Belgium against German attack. On Saturday 8th August, the Rugby Advertiser announced the outbreak of “The Great Continental War.” The Rector of Rugby perceptively reminded his congregation in St Andrew’s church that the British argument was not with the German people as a whole, only with German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm and his military chiefs in Berlin, who had imposed their aggressive intentions on the German population. The European powers were now at war, and many of Rugby’s men, along with Rupert Brooke, would soon be sent into action in corners of foreign fields.

IF I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.