The Boys of Shakespeare's School: In the First World War

The Boys of Shakespeare's School: In the First World War

by Richard Pearson


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The tragic account of the schoolboys who volunteered to fight in the Great War, illustrated with archive photographs and documents

Like many young men of the time, the boys of King Edward VI School saw the outbreak of World War I as an opportunity for bravery and excitement. By the time the Armistice was signed in late 1918, 31 alumni and one master had been killed. For such a small grammar school the cost was significant, as too were the number of awards for gallantry, including a Victoria Cross. Set against Stratford-upon-Avon and the boys' schooldays, this intriguing book details the boys' war and their involvement in the major battles on the Western Front, in Italy, Salonika, Macedonia, Gallipoli, Bulgaria, and Russia. Ultimately a tragic and moving account, it captures the heart of a small community and represents the sense of adventure with which young men went to war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752455105
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 07/01/2010
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.70(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Richard Pearson is the former head of history at King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon. After retiring in 2004, he established the school archive and wrote the History and Alumni which was published in 2008. He has also worked for the Royal Shakespeare Co.

Read an Excerpt

The Boys of Shakespeare's School in the First World War

By Richard Pearson

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Richard Pearson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5647-5


John Harold Savage

    I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
    The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
    And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
    And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

    (A.E. Housman)

At the start of the new school term at King Edward VI, the boys were reluctant to let the summer slip by. There was the harvest to gather and time for one final swim in the Avon before the boys returned to school in late September. By then, wrote Vera Brittain, the days of 'unruffled peace of mind' were over, and the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald was writing its weekly 'War Jottings', noting that 'a thick blanket of silence has spread over the entire theatre of war [that] encourages the belief that serious events are occurring.'

One Old Boy of the school was already in France and directly involved with the British Expeditionary Force. John Harold Savage was born on 4 October 1887 and lived with his mother, Mrs Davis, at 24 Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon. Due to retail development, the house is no longer there. Admitted to KES as a choral scholar on a Guild Foundation, and as a boarder in November 1897 aged ten, there are no surviving records or references to him in the school magazine, The Stratfordian. However, in an account of his funeral in 1914 the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald recorded that at school 'his bright and genial disposition made him a favourite with all.' In the Admission Register, there were other boys who entered as choral scholars at the same time as John, and written against his name in the column headed Date of Removal is 'Left', and added to the name of a boy who arrived with John is the year 1902. A choral scholar received a scholarship paid for by the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, the Revd George Arbuthnot, providing an entirely free education in return for their singing at Holy Trinity Church. Whether John – as others did – withdrew from the church choir before he was fifteen or when his voice broke, and therefore lost his scholarship, we do not know. Some time after leaving King Edward VI School, John moved to Waterloo Road in Kings Heath, where he lived in a small, late Victorian terraced house with his wife Grace Maud (née Hewins) and their daughter Grace.

He became a conductor on the busy Moseley Road route of the Birmingham Corporation electric trams. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he was already in the reserves with the rank of sergeant in the 1st Battalion, South Wales Borderers, which was a unit of the Regular Army stationed at Bordon in north-east Hampshire. As a part of 3 Brigade in 1 Division, it was quickly ready for action and crossed from Southampton to Le Havre on 13 August on the SS Gloucester Castle. This ship was a passenger vessel built in 1911; it was later sunk by a Japanese raider in 1942. As part of the British Expeditionary Force, and heavily overloaded with kit, they headed through 'the wooded slopes and watered valleys' (Nigel Jones, The War Walk) towards the distant Germans who were still advancing through Belgium. By 21 August, Savage was close to the Belgian border and could clearly hear the roar of the approaching guns of the German Second Army. The following day at Maubeuge, the tidal wave of blue-grey German columns was streaming down from the north as part of the Schlieffen Plan.

Following reconnaissance reports that strong German forces were moving towards Mons, some sections of the BEF marched north to support the French Army, whilst others, including 1st Battalion South Wales Borderers, remained to set up the beginnings of a defensive line at Givry. Moving on to high ground at Villers-le-Sec, they encountered German prisoners of war being hustled away from the action. Over to their left the Battle of Mons was taking place, and the 1st Battalion went to relieve the Welsh Regiment at Peissant. They were appalled at what they found; the position was 'horrible', with no field of fire, and a front covered by woods, said to be full of Germans. Although they expected the worst, they had suffered no casualties when the orders came on 24 August for a general retirement in order to 'lead the Germans on'.

During the long march back, they were startled by shots from all directions and scattered for cover along the hedges, believing they were under attack from a large number of Prussian lancers (Uhlans). Rumours spread quickly and the troops grew disheartened and exhausted by the constant retreat, marching twenty-six miles in one particular day. 'The country was covered with standing crops,' reported a contemporary magazine, 'which would have limited the field of fire of our troops had they entrenched there.' Towards the end of August, with the late French summer becoming very hot, the battalion crossed the River Aisne as the Royal Engineers blew up the bridges behind them. The retreat from Mons ended for the South Wales Borderers on 5 September at Mouroux, only thirty-three miles from the centre of Paris. It was at this time that the German Kaiser issued the order to 'exterminate the contemptible little army'. To assist in a great counter-offensive, the South Wales Borderers moved towards Aix-la-Chapelle. Leading the advance guard at the head of the main body, they were aware of German aircraft actively scouting above them. Expecting to meet the German advance, they arrived at Aix-la-Chapelle to find no sign of them and to learn that they had retired. The following day the British advance continued, with the cavalry ahead of them already in action on the Marne. Once again the South Wales Borderers found the Germans had retired with more French villages liberated.

The Anglo-French plan had been to surround three German corps, but when there was again no engagement, rumours spread in the battalion that the Germans were demoralised and already beaten. The British soldiers began to believe the thought expressed by Ernest Raymond and echoed by many that the war would be over by Christmas.

Savage and the South Wales Borderers crossed the River Marne on an undefended bridge at Nogent. They continued north to bivouac at Le Thoulet on 9 September. By this time, special packages from Smith & Spencer, tobacconists in Greenhill Street, were reaching soldiers in France – one pipe and pipe cleaner, one pouch, one packet of tobacco, one packet of cigarettes – neatly boxed 'for our boys fighting for liberty for us.'

Halted by bombardment at Priez, the battalion reached Villeneuvre on 11 September and by 14 September had advanced across the Aisne in spite of blown bridges and heavy bombardment. What followed was reported in the War Diary of the 1st Battalion South Wales Borderers. During 'a ghastly twenty-four hours', the battalion was fighting at the head of the brigade amidst heavy shelling from 8 a.m. at Moulins. As they moved to high ground they were hit with shrapnel and rifle fire from Germans commanding the ridge, 'bullets ricocheting from the trees'. A mile away, British artillery opened up in support. Struggling up the valley under heavy fire – some from their own artillery – the battalion secured a defensible position and received orders 'to hold at all costs.' By the end of 16 September, two officers and eighteen men had been killed, seventy-six wounded and 122 were missing. The War Diary describes a scene of 'desolation and carnage,' with constant sniping and shelling as the heavy rain began to fill the trenches.

John Savage was wounded in the knee during the withdrawal from the ridge on September, 'during a desperate combat in which men actually fought with fists and one even used a table fork to defend himself', wrote Jack Adams in The South Wales Borderers. Lying for hours in the drenching rain and the dark before being found and moved, John was taken thirty-two miles by lorry and a further sixty hours by train and boat before reaching England. The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald reported that 'on the homeward journey Sergeant Savage and other wounded comrades received many gifts of tobacco and cigarettes from kindly disposed persons as they passed through the different stations.' Taken to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham and operated on to remove the shrapnel on 25 September, he was reported to be 'going on very comfortably', but died of his wounds in the Bourn Brook Military Hospital on Wednesday 7 October, the first of the King Edward VI boys.

John Savage was buried with full military honours on Saturday 10 October at Birmingham Lodge Hill Cemetery. The coffin, covered by the Union flag, was conveyed on a gun carriage drawn by men of the Royal Army Medical Corps, several from a detachment of the 8th Royal Warwickshire Regiment Territorial Force and ex-tramway men. The coffin was followed by forty tramway men in uniform and forty ex-tramway men who had joined the 8th Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Following a service conducted by the vicar of St Mary's Church, Selly Oak, the 'Last Post' was sounded. The cemetery contains 498 First World War burials, most of them in a Commonwealth War Graves plot in Section B10. The names of those buried in the plot are inscribed on a screen wall. That evening, the Headmaster of King Edward VI School, the Revd Cecil Knight, remembered John Savage during prayers in the Guild Chapel attached to the school, where John had worshipped each morning as a boarder.

John Savage is commemorated on the Stratford-upon-Avon War Memorial in the Garden of Remembrance, on the memorial screen and reredos in Holy Trinity Church, and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.

Out of the mist they stepped – into the mist.

(Katharine Tynan)


Victor William Hyatt

    Life to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
    But young men think it is, and we were young.

    (A.E. Housman)

In 1886, the actor-manager Sir Frank Benson established an annual Shakespeare Festival at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Following his appearance at the celebrations in the school quadrangle for Empire Day on 24 May 1910, he began a happy association with King Edward VI School. In 1913, he invited the school to present a special production of Henry V in the Memorial Theatre as part of the festival between 21 April and 14 May. It was reviewed enthusiastically in both the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald and the Morning Post. The boys 'scored a triumph, far exceeding previous rumour and expectation' and threw themselves heartily into the production, which was 'a blaze of colour, with variegated pennons and flashing swords and shields.' The captain of the school, Raymond Meadows, gave 'a remarkable performance ... admirable beyond his years.'

They were indeed a noble 'band of brothers,' for seventeen of the main cast of twenty-five boys were to enlist in the armed forces following the outbreak of war in 1914. Playing 'the blunt soldier Williams', Victor William Hyatt became one of the lads who would 'die in their glory and never grow old.' He had flourished at King Edward VI School as a boarder between 1905 and 1913. Joining the 1st XI in 1911, he was appointed a monitor in 1912, and became captain of cricket in 1913, in addition to winning the fives and gymnasium challenge cups.

Following the declaration of war on 4 August, Benson's company gave a special performance of Henry V – 'now all the youth of England are on fire' – and within a matter of weeks the war dominated every activity in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Picture House in Greenhill Street screened the latest war news with an appeal to 'The Common Cause'. Already food shortages were apparent, popularly blamed on unscrupulous hoarding, and there was fear that a prolonged war would result in starvation. Stratford was contributing more men to the war effort than other towns in the county that were three times its size. A euphoric meeting was held on Wednesday 16 September at the American Fountain in Rother Street with demands for even more recruits. Desperate for men, the recruiting office in Sheep Street announced that the minimum height had been reduced to 5ft. The Town Hall became a hospital with forty beds filled by wounded Belgian soldiers, and there was a roll of honour of local recruits. A 'Belgian House' was opened in Guild Street for refugees, and a badge day held for it in October that collected £63. The vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Canon Melville, lent the parish parlour to a new company of Territorial Rifles as its temporary headquarters. The first commander was the twenty-six-year-old Captain Bruce Bairnsfather of Bishopton, who would later devise an iconic image of the war with his cartoon character 'Old Bill'.

Victor Hyatt was the eighteen-year-old son of a Wood Street saddler and harness maker. He enlisted in 1915 with two of his friends from school, Ronald Newland (a boarder from 1907-1913) and John Picket (1908-1914). Newland became a lieutenant in the Public Schools Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) and was wounded in the arm whilst leading a patrol. He was repatriated to hospital in Oxford. Picket was wounded in August 1916 and survived the conflict as a prisoner of war.

Victor himself became a private in 'D' Company, 18 Battalion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), and in June 1915 moved to Clipstone Camp in Nottinghamshire. Taken over by the War Office the following month, the battalion moved to Wiltshire for intensive training in preparation for action on the Western Front. In August he moved to Tidworth and, on 8 November, Victor was with the battalion inspected by Queen Mary before it embarked from Folkstone a week later. German mines at the entrance to the harbour delayed their arrival at Boulogne. Moving to the area around Bethune, the men were billeted in a tobacco factory and the Ecole Michelet in the town. Victor entered the trenches for the first time at Vermelles, before moving in severe weather and hard frost to Le Plantin, north-west of Givenchy. His reported 'bright and energetic disposition' won him many friends. When not frozen, the trenches were desperately wet and badly drained, the parapets old and broken, and most of the shelters were inadequate and quite unsafe. With no communication trenches between the support and the firing lines, movement during the day was totally impossible and any relief could only take place at night. Men lost their rifles, their equipment and even their boots in the thick mud, whilst the Germans shelled them remorselessly. Victor needed every ounce of reserve to maintain his humour.

He had been in France for just under a month when, on 5 December, during a period of intense shelling and as a result of the rain and severe wetness, Victor's dugout had become dangerously unsafe – the term at the time was 'cranky' – causing the wooden posts and sandbags to fall and crush him. He lies buried at Brown's Road Military Cemetery at Festubert, five miles northeast of Bethune.

In a letter to Victor's mother, his school friend Ronald Newland wrote that, 'It is the greatest sorrow I have ever had, for after all he was the greatest friend I ever had. The only possible consolation I can hold out to you is that he suffered no pain and death was practically instantaneous.' Victor is commemorated on the memorial and reredos in Holy Trinity Church, on the war memorial in the Garden of Remembrance, and in the Memorial Library at his old school.

18 Battalion had a comparatively light introduction to warfare, for it was disbanded on 24 April 1916 and most of these well-educated young men were commissioned and dispersed to other battalions and regiments.

    And two things have altered not
    Since first the world began –
    The beauty of the wild green earth
    And the bravery of man.

    (T.P. Cameron Wilson)


Excerpted from The Boys of Shakespeare's School in the First World War by Richard Pearson. Copyright © 2013 Richard Pearson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


'Passing Bells',
Preface 'A Precious Immortality',
Introduction 'Far I Hear the Steady Drummer',
One John Harold Savage (7 October 1914),
Two Victor William Hyatt (5 December 1915),
Three Alan Moray Brown (12 March 1915),
Four Duncan MacDonald O'Callaghan (14 March 1915),
Five John Albert Berry (13 May 1915),
Six Herbert Cavis Brown (25 May 1915),
Seven Reginald Arthur Warneford (17 June 1915),
Eight Henry Arthur Jennings (30 April 1916),
Nine Cyril Hoskins (1 July 1916),
Ten Adrian Hamilton Barrett (10 July 1916),
Eleven Geoffrey Boles Donaldson (19 July 1916),
Twelve Frank Byrd (30 July 1916),
Thirteen John Dunlop Lambert (7 September 1916),
Fourteen Percy Watkiss Fisher (12 September 1916),
Fifteen Raymond Wadhams Fisher (13 September 1916),
Sixteen George Ball (21 February 1917),
Seventeen Edward Rupert Clarke (9 April 1917),
Eighteen Arnold Grayson Bloomer (3 August 1917),
Nineteen Cecil Clive Bryan (11 August 1917),
Twenty Alfred Bennett Smith (14 August 1917),
Twenty-One James Harbidge Yelf (21 August 1917),
Twenty-Two Bertie Ellis (5 February 1918),
Twenty-Three James Alwyne Wilkes (24 March 1918),
Twenty-Four Reginald Charles Chapple (12 April 1918),
Twenty-Five Frederick Butcher (22 May 1918),
Twenty-Six Henry Bernard Wilson (15 August 1918),
Twenty-Seven Herbert Howard Jennings (19 September 1918),
Twenty-Eight William John Board (22 September 1918),
Twenty-Nine Frank Eliot Burt (3 October 1918),
Thirty Gordon Henderson Barber (20 October 1918),
Thirty-One Albert Gordon Burt (4 September 1919),
Thirty-Two Albert Whateley (25 December 1919),
Afterword 'They were the condemned generation',
Appendix One King Edward VI School Stratford-upon-Avon Memorial Library and Tablet,
Appendix Two List of Regiments,
Appendix Three Medals Awarded,
Appendix Four 'Let us remember them',
Appendix Five The Cemeteries,
Appendix Six The Commonwealth War Graves Commission,
Appendix Seven A Brief Chronology of the First World War,
Appendix Eight Glossary,
Appendix Nine Life in the Trenches,

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