Great war took so many from our playing fields

Great war took so many from our playing fields

Charles Brownrigg, Usher for 12 years and Master for 30 years

The portrait of Charles Brownrigg which hangs in Magdalen College School

First published in News Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by , Education Reporter, also covering West Oxford. Call me on (01865) 425437

NOT only did many pupils and teachers head off to the battlefields, many never to return, but children too young to sign up or left behind by brothers, fathers and teachers saw their schools undergo major changes during the First World War.

As male teachers joined the war effort, older men, and many women, were brought in to fill the gap.

At Cowley St John Boys’ School, the headteacher noted in 1916 that “the entire assistant staff now consists of lady teachers” and by the end of the war the school faced its 120th change of staff over the four years, according to Oxford historian Malcolm Graham.

Oxford Mail:

  • Malcolm Graham

Mr Graham, whose book Oxford in the Great War is due to be published in the autumn, said there was a boost to patriotism, which included an Empire Day at Cowley St John Girls’ School.

A pageant took place in the playground and featured the National Anthem with each child saluting the Union Flag on May 24, 1917.

He added: “Staff changes and shortages led to a restricted curriculum – manual classes ceased at St Frideswide’s and no male teachers meant no swimming for the boys of Cowley St John School.

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“The loss of experienced male teachers was blamed in some quarters for the breakdown in juvenile discipline which led to regular instances of vandalism at Cowley St John Boys’ School.

“For example, on March 15, 1918, one youth ‘committed a nuisance outside the door and inside the premises’ and two others damaged a teacher’s bike.

“In the case of a 12-year-old boy punished severely for truanting, lying and stealing from his mother in March 1917, the headmaster of St Frideswide’s School noted that his father was at the front and ‘the mother seems to have let the boy get out of control’.”

From the county’s public schools, 457 pupils were killed, about 20 per cent of those signing up.

Magdalen College School (MCS) at that time lost 50 current and former pupils.

Schools were much smaller a century ago and the death of so many would have devastated the community.

Fee-paying schools like Abingdon School, Radley College, MCS, St Edward’s and Kingham Hill School, produced the highest number of higher-ranked soldiers who were at greater risk of death on the front line by the nature of their position in the Army.

The number of deaths among infantry officers at the fronts was initially higher than other ranks because German snipers picked them off by identifying their more distinctive uniforms.

Oxford Mail:

  • Captain Noel Chavasse

And there is one name which is immediately synonymous with Oxford, MCS and the Royal Army Medical Corps’ – Captain Noel Chavasse; the only man to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration, twice during the First World War.

Oxford Mail:

  • The blue plaque recording Capt Noel Chavasse's honours, which is at MCS

In 1916, the doctor was hit by shell splinters while rescuing men in ‘No Man’s Land’, then performing similar acts of heroism at Passchendaele, Belgium, in 1917, but dying from his wounds just two days later.

Oxford Mail:

  • David Bebbington with the school's war list

Magdalen chemistry teacher David Bebbington, who has written a book about those MCS pupils who were killed, said: “They were targeted by the Germans. But they were also at extraordinary risk. We have all seen the images of them leading the troops; they had to show a stiff upper lip.”

Mr Bebbington soon discovered a remarkable link between all those pupils – they were all taught by the same teacher, Charles Brownrigg.

Mr Bebbington said: “It soon became apparent that all the boys had him as a teacher, apart from one who was just before his time.”

Mr Brownrigg came to the school in 1888 as deputy headteacher for 12 years, before taking over as Master until his retirement in 1930.

Mr Bebbington said: “For many of the boys entering the Army for officer training, as many of these would, they needed him to vouch for their good education, so he would be the one signing their forms before they left.

“But ultimately, he would be the one reading their names out in the chapel when they were killed. It must have been quite a harrowing experience.

“He was a father figure to so many.”

The outbreak of war coincided with a contingent from the Officer Training Corps at Summertown’s St Edward’s School heading off to the annual summer camp in Tidworth, Hampshire.

Over the next four years, more than 670 members of the school’s community served in the war with 121 giving their lives.

The Warden, the Reverend Thomas Ferguson, saw most of his staff and senior pupils enlist, leaving him to manage the curriculum and maintain discipline with so many authoritative figures gone.

However, replacements were found and during those years the school grew, with pupil numbers increasing by 40 per cent.

Sibford School, in Sibford Ferris, west of Banbury, appears to be one of those least affected by war.

A teacher at the time, Theodora Sheppard, wrote in a 1935 article: “Now and again rumours were afloat that soldiers would commandeer the school and that we would have just twenty-four hours to clear out – I’m afraid this appeared to be wishful thinking.

“We were disappointed, probably because the school was too far from a town with no easy access in those days.

“I remember returning to school after one holiday when I saw a lot of disconsolate conscripts having their names called out at the railway station, and I remember our parents being upset at seeing a trainload of fine young men departing, perhaps to never return.”

Teachers like James Thorpe and Roland Herbert, were conscientious objectors and joined the Friends Ambulance Unit instead.

The war ended with tragedy when the Spanish Influenza outbreak hit in 1918. Sibford’s Nellie Millard contracted the virus and died along with a pupil and two mothers with 55 Frideswide pupils absent on one day alone.

  • Mr Bebbington’s book, Mr Brownrigg’s Boys, will be available later this year.

One family's tragic story

Oxford Mail:

  • The Ussher family

THE Reverend Richard and Mary Ussher were particularly struck by tragedy as the parents of six sons and three daughters saw their family decimated by illness, accident and the Great War.

By 1922 all six sons had died, including the three who attended St Edward’s, Oxford.

Beverley Ussher was an “exceptional” student between 1891-98, especially on the sports field and went on to Wadham College before joining the Leinster Regiment as a regular soldier to fight in the Boer War, India, Ireland and the West Indies.

Stephen Ussher, three years younger than Beverley, was at the school from 1895 to 1899 and considered by his father as the brightest intellectually of his sons.

He left for Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1900, joining the Buffs in Poona, India, before transferring to the Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis in 1904.

Richard Ussher was only at the school for one term before starting a Naval career and leaving for HMS Britannia as a cadet.

All three brothers were immediately in action and by December 1914 Stephen Ussher had been killed at Givenchy.

Oxford Mail:

  • Beverley Ussher

Beverley was killed six months later during the ill-fated Dardanelles Campaign while acting in a liaison capacity in the thick of the action.

Richard Ussher survived the war with a distinguished Royal Navy career, a DSO to his name as well as being mentioned in Despatches.

Yet he suffered debilitating health problems after being switched from Zanzibar to the North Sea during the war. He died in 1922.

The parents, of Westbury Vicarage, Brackley, Northamptonshire, were sustained by their Christian faith.

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