Global call to arms answered by school’s former pupils

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Research by a former detective sheds light on how Yorkshire-born grammar school boys responded to the call to arms in 1914. Andrew Robinson reports.

SOME were barely out of their Batley Grammar School uniforms when they signed up, others were ‘old boys’ in their late 30s living Canada, the United States and Australia.

Wherever they found themselves, old Batelians answered the call with patriotic enthusiasm.

A century on, the story of the West Riding school’s sacrifices is being uncovered, thanks to research work by ex-Scotland Yard detective Philip Wheeler, formerly of Drighlington, in West Yorkshire.

The records show that of the 381 old boys who enlisted, 63 died, including two staff.

The youngest were two 18-year-olds, infantryman Robert Ramsden, a cinema projectionist who died of flu in an army camp and John Taylor, a Household Cavalryman who died after being taken prisoner by the Germans.

At 51, Louis Joseph Fox was the eldest of those who died. Flu claimed him in 1918 while he was serving with an anti-aircraft unit.

Mr Wheeler, who is lead researcher with the Heritage Lottery Fund-backed project, has discovered that old boys signed up from far flung places right across the globe.

George Herbert Wood was nearly 40, married and living in Canada when he volunteered for the infantry after the outbreak of war. In parts of North America the sense of ‘duty’ was very strong and around two-thirds of Canadian volunteers in 1914 were British-born.

Wood was sent to Europe in January 1915 after spending a few days in England. By April that year Wood was dead, killed during a night working task. Wood’s son Harry, 16 at the time of his father’s death, joined up soon after.

“Sixteen was too young to serve the colours and go to Europe. However, by examining Harry’s attestation papers one can only conclude that Harry T Wood lied about his age in order to get into the fighting in Europe and follow in his father’s footsteps. Perhaps there was an element of revenge in his enlisting in the Canadian army at the young age of 16.”

Mercifully, Harry survived the war, unlike others of a similar age. Records show at least 14 Canadian soldiers were killed aged 15.

“The phenomena of the under-age recruit to the First World War armies has been well researched, especially in the Canadian army,” says Mr Wheeler.

“As many as 20,000 under-age Canadian soldiers served overseas in the First World War. It would have been a compelling thing for Harry Thornton Wood to do, to go to war to fight the enemy who had killed his father.”

Batley old boy Percy Crowther was married and living in Australia when he enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force in December 1914 – aged 39.

He sailed for Gallipoli and survived the landing at Anzac Cove in April 1915 but was killed in action in ‘Shrapnel Valley’ just six weeks later.

Teacher Robert Stuart Hawcridge, killed at Delville Wood in July 1916, was remembered in the school magazine which said: “He was a lovable character and it makes his loss the harder when we know that he was offered a commission for gallantry and that he was due to arrive in England to begin his training three days after he was killed.”

Herbert Pearsall was a maths teacher who won the Military Cross for bravery while commanding a tank. He later died of flu and it is hoped that his name can now be added to the school’s roll of honour.

Mr Wheeler, now living near St Albans, says that one former pupil, Horace Waller, a private in the C King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, is deserving of special mention.

“He died on April 10 1917, fighting off a German attack with bombs and grenades until he was wounded and killed. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously, so the school has a real hero on its roll.”