A small box in the Abingdon School archives contains a poignant collection of letters and photographs of young men in uniform – young men from Abingdon School who were killed or died in service during the Great War 1914-1918. To mark the centenary of the war that claimed them, this collection, together with the wartime editions of the school magazine and a detailed roll of service, have been put online at www.abingdon.org.uk/1ww, demonstrating the impact this global conflict had on one small school in one small English country town.
Speaking about the WW1 archive, Sarah Wearne, the Abingdon School archivist, said: “My aim has been to show people the raw material of history, a counterbalance to the big published histories of the war. This is one school’s war in its own contemporary words together with those of the families of the bereaved.”
The collection is the result of a letter the headmaster, William Grundy, wrote in April 1919 to the families of the dead, asking if they would send him a photograph of their relative together with a record of his war service. The School had 75 former pupils whose deaths between September 1914 and February 1919 could be attributed to their war service; the families of only 30 replied.
The photographs include that of an underage soldier, posed incongruously on a rustic bench, seemingly in a woodland setting but actually in a Birmingham photographer’s studio. The soldier, Geoffrey Tinegate, was to die within a year of the photograph being taken; his body never found among the hostile cliffs and gullies of Gallipoli and, at 17 and 5 months, still underage.
There are four photographs of Bernard Marshall who, newly commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps, is proudly modeling his uniform in his parent’s garden in South Wales. A volunteer of September 1914, Marshall served with the South Wales Borderers. In May 1916 he was wounded in an action in which he won the Military Cross. On his recovery, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and was shot down on 7 June 1917, one week after his return to the front.
Leonard Burge’s father regretted that he had nothing but a blurred enlargement from a much smaller photograph, which he sent together with a donation of two guineas for the war memorial fund, “in loving memory of my dear boy”.
Canon J F and Mrs Berry of The Rectory, Galway, compiled a handsome 28-page booklet as ‘A Tribute to the dear Memory’ of their son, Captain Edward Fleetwood Berry, MC, 9th Gurkha Rifles, killed in Mesopotamia in April 1916. Berry’s photograph shows him in the splendid full dress uniform of the Gurkha Rifles complete with elaborate frogging on his jacket, gold chains on his chest and a sword in his hand.
Abingdon was a very small school in 1914; there were 75 boys on the school roll that September. It was not only the town’s grammar school, known as Roysse’s School, but also an independent boarding school taking boys from all over Britain and the world.
Among the casualties, Thomas Leach lived just round the corner from the School in Ock Street, Harry Burkett’s parents lived in the Fulham Road, South Kensington, whilst George Layng’s lived in Swatow in China.
In addition to the photographs and the accompanying letters, the online collection includes the wartime editions of The Abingdonian, the school magazine. These provide a fascinating contemporary narrative of the progress of the war from the School’s perspective, fascinating because of course the Editor did not know what was going to happen. His jaunty optimism in September 1914 had given way by December 1915 to a rugged determination to ‘carry on’; by March 1917 he is conceding that the nation is engaged in a desperate struggle and by April 1918 he is afraid, “All England must share in the strain and anxiety of the critical happenings on the Western Front.”
The online collection also includes a copy of the printed Roll of Service published in April 1919 and heavily amended by the Second Master, Edgar Ross Barker. This graphically illustrates the difficulty the School had in getting accurate information on both those who served as well as those who died, a difficulty highlighted in April 2014 when the School learnt that Arthur Pelham Webb, OA 1898, had been killed in action during the Battle of Arras in April 1918.