In the footsteps of old boys who went to war

Have your say

King Edward VII School in Sheffield was among those whose former pupils went to fight in the First World War. Now a new book tells their story. Chris Bond spoke to its author.

HALF of them are wearing blazers, while the rest prefer their shirt sleeves rolled up ready for action.

Freddie Marrs, the star player and the first boy to score a century for the school team, clutches a cricket bat. At the other end of the row Howard Hibbert sits cross-legged, looking all mean and moody for the camera.

Most of them don’t look old enough to shave, yet within five years of this picture being taken Marrs and Hibbert were dead. So, too, were half of the players in the King Edward VII School cricket team, along with the schoolmaster John Scott and team secretary William Taylor.

The photograph was taken in the summer of 1913, but only later, once the guns of the Great War had stopped, did its dreadful poignancy become apparent.

King Edward VII School, founded in Sheffield in 1905, was an elite school set up to rival the acclaimed grammar schools of places like Bradford and Manchester. The pupils who walked through its doors were the bright young things destined for success. At least they should have been.

By the time the war was over the school had lost 90 former pupils, including 37 officers, as well as two teachers. Their stories along with the battlefield exploits of other fellow old boys have been carefully chronicled by school governor and archivist John Cornwell in a new book called Hear Their Footsteps.

He was initially drawn to the 1913 cricket team captured in the photograph, which now takes pride of place in the school’s impressive hallway, but it was only when he started cross referencing their names with those etched on the school’s memorial that he realised half of these young men had died.

“It’s an extraordinary story,” he says. “Two of them were killed on the first day of the Somme. There was another chap who would have gone to Oxford and had a place at Queen’s who was killed at Passchendaele, along with his pal. Marrs had a place at Peterhouse at Cambridge but went into the Army instead and decided to go Sandhurst. He was obviously a high-flyer but he was killed in 1917.”

Some of the young lads in the photograph survived, like Alfred Bagnall who won the Military Cross and A E Budd who received the Military Medal, one of four former pupils to do so.

In 1914, King Edward VII School already had a glowing reputation. “This was the sort of place the army looked to for its junior officers and about a third of those from the school who joined the forces would have been officers,” explains Cornwell.

“Pupils from the school were involved in virtually every front. There was a guy at the capture of Baghdad who was offered a baby for 8d, and there was a chap called Frank Mastin who was killed at Gaza. His nephew actually came up and spoke at the book launch which was very moving.”

The fate of many of the school’s head boys also makes for tragic reading with five killed during the war, including four from consecutive years. Douglas Thornton was one of them. He was the school’s champion athlete in 1915 and won a place at Magdalen College, Oxford, but joined the army, becoming a second lieutenant. He was destined for a distinguished academic career until he was felled by a sniper’s bullet having just captured a German trench at the village of Le Sars.

Not everyone was killed though. Some old boys, like John Sterndale Bennett not only survived, but became prominent figures in their chosen fields.

Bennett was studying at Cambridge when war broke out and saw action at Gallipoli and the Somme, later winning the MC (Military Cross). After the war he worked at the Foreign Office.

“By 1925 he was at the Locarno Conference so he was obviously picked out as a high flyer and continued to be a rising star in the 30s and ended up as the head of the Far Eastern desk. He also later accompanied Bevan on his visits to see Stalin as one of his main advisors.”

Harry Allen, a gunner, was another who survived. In 1917 he was injured trying to save an officer and lost a leg, but he went on to become a key figure in British art during the 1930s.

Today, the Great War is a fading memory brought flickering to life through grainy, sepia-tinged film footage and old photographs of faces long since gone. But Cornwell believes most young people around now appreciate what their predecessors went through. “For any students, and not just those from this school, who go and see all the graves and those county regiments that don’t exist any more, it’s awe-inspiring. And when they get to the Menin Gate they’re often in tears.

“War is a terrible thing and nothing shows that more clearly than the First World War because it’s almost incomprehensible, and I think people today do understand that.”

In April 1919, a memorial service was held at Sheffield Cathedral for those at the school who had died. Although the grief was still raw the survivors felt a powerful sense of solidarity with their fallen friends and comrades.

It is perhaps best summed up by the headmaster at the time, James Hichens, who wrote this moving tribute for the school magazine following the service: “We heard their footsteps as we walked to the cathedral, and in the stillness of the hush of the eleventh hour, once again they took their places with us. They, too, have returned.”

• Hear Their Footsteps costs £5, plus £1.50 p&p and can be bought from the school. Call 0114 266 2518.