Part 5: Rugby’s schools in the First World War

Murray School's war garden
Murray School's war garden
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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 1,400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.

Part 5: Rugby’s schools in the First World War

From playing fields to battlefields

It was claimed that the 1815 Battle of Waterloo was ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’, but in the war of 1914-1918, the playing fields of Rugby School played an important part. Generations of British public schoolboys were hardened by the game of Rugby football invented on The Close at Rugby School. The school also produced hundreds of ‘old boys’, known as Rugbeians or ORs, who served in the First World War, mainly as commissioned officers. Rugby School had long fostered military values as part of the education of boarders, and of some boys from the town. The school’s Rifle Corps was the country’s first school cadet force, formed in 1860. A new Officer Training Corps (OTC) was formed in 1908 and was active before the War, with most boys volunteering to join. The Close at Rugby School was the scene of much parading, drilling, and firing of blank artillery. King Edward VII inspected Rugby School’s OTC in 1909. As war-clouds loomed up to 1914, the OTC often joined Rugby’s TA units in mock skirmishes in nearby countryside.

On the outbreak of war in August 1914, many old boys volunteered for military service, and others who had just left school in the summer of 1914 now changed their educational or career plans and joined the armed forces. In all, over 3,000 ORs served in the First World War, mostly as volunteers. Several masters also volunteered, and three were killed early in the war. The losses of old boys started immediately. Some had left decades earlier and were now pursuing high-powered careers. Others had left recently, and some went straight from the playing fields of Rugby School to army training and on to the battlefields of the war, mostly as officers. Lists of casualties were read out in Chapel and regularly published in a magazine called The Monitor. At noon each day, there was a minute’s silence while the school’s Peace Bell (also known as the Boomer), new in 1914, rang as a reminder of old boys and countrymen away at war.

By the end of the war, Rugby School had lost over 680 ORs killed, including hundreds of officers, several of high rank. Major Abell was one of the first British officers killed, on 23rd August 1914. OR sportsmen who fell in the war included tennis player Lt Kenneth Powell, Lt R W Poulton-Palmer, who had played Rugby football for England, and 14 other international Rugby players. The most famous casualty was Rupert Brooke in 1915. The oldest British war casualty was Lt Col J. M. Richardson, a former barrister who had attended Rugby School in the 1860s, and who died of wounds in 1918, aged 68. Over 1,100 Old Rugbeians were wounded in the war. Four ORs won the Victoria Cross, and 720 won other high honours for bravery, such as the DSO, DSC or MC. Rugby School’s Memorial Chapel on Dunchurch Road was designed by Charles Nicholson to commemorate the school’s huge losses, and opened in 1922. The sombre but moving atmosphere of this quiet, private chapel reflects the scale of Rugby School’s sacrifices in the war.

Smaller schools playing their part

The war had dramatic impacts on local schools and children. Amongst prep schools, Bilton Grange lost 155 old boys, mostly as commissioned officers, including two winners of the Victoria Cross. Oakfield School lost over 40. Amongst day schools, Lawrence Sheriff lost 65 old boys, and the Rugby Advertiser reported Murray School’s heavy losses. In elementary (primary) schools, where the school leaving age was 12, many children lost fathers, uncles or brothers.

Many children had soldiers billeted in their homes and came into close contact with the war. Some children were presented with British Empire mugs, to remind them partly what Britain was fighting for, and lessons started at St Matthew’s School on “the love of empire”. At Sheriff, headmaster Hart drilled the school on the field twice a week. Education sometimes suffered academically. From 1916, schoolmasters could be conscripted, and some were replaced by less well-qualified women teachers. At Sheriff, shortage of writing paper was also a problem.

In terms of community spirit and service, the war had some benefits. At Arnold High School (which became Rugby High School), in Elsee Road, girls raised money for war-time charities. Many schools knitted clothes for troops and for Belgian refugees in Rugby. It was often difficult for grocers to supply the town and Rugby School with enough food in term-time, and many pupils in Rugby gave useful help to local farmers, and in distant counties of England on harvest-camps. Sheriff boys often cycled miles to help by lifting potatoes, pulling up thistles, and thinning root vegetables. Murray School had its own garden allotment in the school grounds, and was proud of its vegetable production. Many village schools such as Clifton sent out children to collect blackberries for jam. In Pailton, children gave fruit, eggs, and flowers to troops in the village’s Red Cross hospital. Overall, the part played in the war by Britain’s smaller schools should not be forgotten. The playing fields of public schools such as Rugby had produced a spirit of valour, but most troops who fought in the war, and most women who kept the country going, had been toughened in cities, towns and villages around the country, on smaller and harder playgrounds.