Yorkshire school remembers the ‘lost generation’ of 1913

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FRESH-FACED and full of hope for the future, they were the “lost generation” who came of age during the First World War.

In June 1913, 11 scholars aged sixteen were preparing to leave Ackworth School, an independent Quaker school near Pontefract, when they were photographed for a leaving picture.

It was just over a year before the outbreak of a war that was to have serious repercussions for every one of them.

A century later the school’s pupils are bringing to life the stories of the 11 with help from the school’s archivist, Celia Wolfe, and head of drama, Richard Vergette, who is writing a play based on their often tragic stories.

Of the 11, two of the boys were to lose their lives and one, Philip Radley, was imprisoned for over three years as a conscientious objector - later becoming headmaster at Ackworth during the Second World War.

Archivist Mrs Wolfe, who has pieced together the stories over the last six months, said: “The 1913 photo shows 11 fresh-faced handsome and hopeful youngsters who were leavers in that year.

“Two of the boys were killed; Edward Brown became a 2nd Lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and lost his life at Passchendaele. John Coy joined the Royal Fusiliers and lost his life in the later stages of the Battle of the Somme.

“At the bottom of John Coy’s headstone in the military cemetery at Heilly Station are the words ‘Non Sibi, Sed Omnibus’ (‘Not for oneself, but for all’), the school’s motto.

“I visited the grave in August last year and put a poppy cross by the headstone and noticed the school motto. I was quite moved by that; I guess his parents must have chosen it.

“The young people really lived up to this motto and deserve to the remembered.”

Two boys of the class of 1913 followed the Quaker belief in pacifism, serving with a special group of frontline volunteers, the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, and pupil Bernice Lester went to France in 1915 with the Friends’ War Victims Relief Corps and served at the Children’s Hospital at Chalons-sur-Marne alongside other Ackworth girls.

The only missing link is former pupil Hannah Winifred Ellis, the daughter of Walter Ellis of Gedham, Ossett, about which little is known other than the fact that her brother Edgar served with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit.

“It would be good to fit the last piece of the jigsaw by knowing what happened to Hannah after 1913,” says Mrs Wolfe.

The school’s Roll of Honour for the Great War commemorates 74 former pupils and one teacher who were killed, including three who died while serving in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit.

To honour the 75, and to mark the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak, Ackworth School pupils and teachers are taking part in a 75-mile sponsored relay run in September. Money raised will be donated to a project promoting peace.

And a special Great War exhibition will be taking place at the school’s open day on July 5.

In the meantime, head of drama Richard Vergette is working on a play about the class of 1913.

He said: “Inevitably there are some stories that are distinct from other schools because of the strong tradition of pacifism. On the photo, the smallest man is Philip Radley, who refused to fight or join up. He was imprisoned and later became headmaster during the Second World War. There is a sense of drama in his story.”

The story of the long-serving headteacher at the time of the Great War, Frederick Andrews, is also worth telling as many of his former pupils who signed up to fight felt compelled to write to apologise to him for doing so.

“It is quite a sad story as the apologies really upset him,” says Mr Vergette.

“He said that all he had tried to do was encourage young people to make decisions in good conscience. He didn’t feel they owed him an apology.”

andrew.robinson1@ypn.co.uk