Feature Articles - The Most Popular War in History - Hard Schools of Endurance

To members of the Grenfell family who fell in the Great War (and other conflicts).

Hard Schools of Endurance

Britain at this time was a fascinating place in being as we have seen a curious mixture of remnants of the feudal system contrasted with (and sometimes in conflict with) the emergence of today's more egalitarian and also more cynical society.  If you look at the period preceding the Great War from the point of view of industry, trade unions and developments in social legislation, it is hard to see how such an apparently level-headed people could ever have got themselves caught up in the romance of war and of death in battle.

Part of the reason - in my father's view, one of the most important reasons - lies in this country's education system at the time.  The pictures on the left show two memorials to ex-pupils who attended Eton College, Britain's leading public school, and died in the Great War.  The sheer number of memorials devoted to this war (more than three-quarters of all the memorials in Eton's Cloisters) indicates that the Great War must have been especially traumatic.

Eton and the rest were at the apex of their power and influence and were responsible for educating almost all the country's ruling elite.  Even those who came up from below, so to speak, often made sure their sons went there.  An example cited by my father is the first Lord Leverhulme.  He started as plain Harold Lever, son of a small-scale soap wholesaler in Bolton, Lancashire.  Later on he was able to cash in on the new mass-market for soap and expand his father's business to Lever Brothers, the builders of Port Sunlight and the fore-runners of Unilever, and, as a sign he had 'arrived', send his sons to a public school.

The core of the public-school ethos was self-denial (even self-effacement), duty (to House, to the School and by extension to country), fortitude or endurance, and physical courage.  It was also made clear that the pupils were being taught or trained as leaders.  Anyone making the ultimate sacrifice, therefore, would be held in high esteem.

The emphasis on 'character' rather than intellect, much satirised and criticised later, was taken extremely seriously at the time.  Put another way, it was morally far better to be able to hold your ground without flinching as a 12-stone opposing rugby forward charged towards you than to be a potential Michael Faraday, Bertrand Russell or even an Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

This highly disciplined regime was a comparatively recent development.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the public schools were fewer in number and fairly loosely organised.  Activities out of school hours were often not closely supervised and the boys could get seriously out of hand - for instance the militia (in the modern age, police with riot shields would probably have been used) had to be called to quell a rebellion at Winchester in 1818.  At the best of times the boys would probably be a considerable annoyance to the locals through poaching, drinking, womanising and so on.

To 2nd Lt. Walter Williams Wynn Godman who died in battle aged just 19.In the 1830s Thomas Arnold took this in hand at Rugby by making the most senior boys (the 'sixth form') into prefects and therefore agents of adult authority.  He tightened up the choice of assistant masters by trying to ensure that they were men of good character whom the boys might naturally emulate, or identify with.

He also improved academic standards by using exams as a spur to competition and therefore effort.  More controversially, he made Rugby more homogenous by weeding out, so to speak, pupils of the wrong social class.  His eventual concept of the School as a socially homogenous community galvanised by the active preaching of the Christian faith, competition and leadership of the sixth form proved a powerful model which would quickly be imitated elsewhere.

The next major change was the development of organised sport, or (less kindly) the worship of compulsory team games at the expense of more educational or cultural activities, for instance science, art or music.  Arnold himself was only moderately interested in sport: the real impetus for this development was to come much later, starting probably with developments at Marlborough College (itself a new foundation) in the 1850s and 1860s.

Some commentators including my father may have been a little hard on the games enthusiasts, particularly the earlier ones.  In 1852, Dr Cotton was appointed as Head Master at Marlborough, which because of lack of firmness and poor administration under the previous Head, had practically fallen apart.  He was faced with a serious discipline problem, and he had to do something.

Prompted by requests from the pupils themselves, he saw that one way of canalising the natural energy and aggressiveness of teenaged boys would be to organise team games (even though he himself was not a natural games player!).  Anyone who has had to deal with adolescent males can have some sympathy with Dr Cotton's predicament, and with his reasons for choosing this way out of it.  In addition to prefects and other Arnold-style reforms he brought in masters who would share these enthusiasms.  Similar developments in other schools saw the games cult rise rapidly in popularity.

However, by the 1890s and 1900s the games had acquired an enormous moral, almost religious significance whose echoes would reverberate until the 1960s.  Here are 'compulsory games' (itself an interesting contradiction in terms), being favourably compared with more intellectual pursuits at Clifton College in Bristol:

'It is almost unnecessary to remark that the system of compulsory games is in full swing at Clifton, to the enormous benefit of all, especially of the physically indolent and the morally soft, and certainly too in most cases of those precious tender plants, the boys of precocious intellect, who... used to be seen on half-holidays walking round and round the school-close, arm-in-arm, discussing their mutual confidences whilst the games went on'.

From the article on Clifton College in Great Public Schools p211, exact date uncertain but will be pre-1914

There is more than a hint here that encouraging the intellect leads to effeminacy or at least preciosity (the 'mutual confidences') as well as physical inadequacy.  Note also the moral overtones in the phrase 'physically indolent and morally soft', and the contempt expressed in the phrase 'those precious tender plants'.  And here is Henry Newbolt (who attended Clifton College) making an explicit link between sportsmanship and war (from Vitai Lampada, the 'Lamp of Life'):

...his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote -
Play up! Play up! And play the game!

And then, in a subsequent verse:

...the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
"Play up! Play up! And play the game!" 

(Quoted by my father in At Duty's Call p97)

And, finally, here is the Old Etonian Bishop Welldon of Calcutta addressing a Japanese audience in 1906.  (He had previously been Head Master of Dulwich College and then of Harrow).  This is perhaps the best example of the various expositions of the cult of team games quoted by my father.  Interesting also that it was addressed to a Japanese audience - in the light of some aspects of their culture one suspects this must have gone down well.  (I wonder incidentally if that rather nice anecdote about Outram and Havelock at the end is actually true!):

'... I think, that in the training of an English gentleman, the games are more important than the studies.  You will understand that I speak of the games, not as physical exercises, but as moral disciplines. ... The spirit of subordination and co-operation, the complete authority, the ready obedience, the self-respect and self-sacrifice of the playing-field enter largely into life. ... There is no cricketer worthy of the name .. who would not be glad to sacrifice himself if he could so win the victory for his side.

Nay, the true sportsman, the true gentleman, will be careful, at whatever cost, to let others have the credit rather than himself.  He will, if need be, take the second place, as that noble English soldier, Sir James Outram, did in the Indian Mutiny, when he generously surrendered to his junior officer, Sir Henry Havelock, the honour of relieving Lucknow, and he himself served in a civil capacity under him.'

Thus developed the powerful ideal of loyalty to the team, and the subservience of self to the team ('team spirit'), which came to be seen as ideal training for warfare.  A cricket or rugby captain and his 'XI' or 'XV' translated readily to 2nd Lt. X and his platoon, something reinforced by the greater social stratification of the time.  Notions such as 'fair play' and even the distinction 'this is just not cricket' developed in parallel, and provided more reasons for idealising combat.

Games also heightened tribal feelings so that it was an easy transition from School House vs Southgate House at rugger or cricket to British Empire vs German Empire when war broke out in 1914.

Other activities reinforced this sense of discipline still further.  The major subject of academic study was the Classics, which for many was appallingly dull and mentally backbreaking.  (Click on this link for a demonstration of how pupils might go about Latin translation - it was hard work, as the linked document demonstrates).

The very dullness and toughness of the classics was deemed to hold moral value in instilling endurance and perseverance, and an ability to put up with things one did not like doing.  Like the team games it fostered self-denial, dove-tailing very smoothly with the self-denying puritanical Christianity frequently preached from the school chapel pulpit.

In both Latin and Greek the subject-matter included stories which worked their way into the folklore of the public-school educated, and many were military or heroic.  For instance, the Battle of Marathon where a small Greek army held a much larger Persian army at bay, the whole of the Greece-Sparta war, the Punic Wars (Rome v. Carthage - Hannibal crossing the Alps, Scipio Africanus...), and Julius Caesar's adventures in Gaul.

For the high achievers there was also acquaintance with the teachings of Plato (whose Republic further reinforced notions of social superiority and, to be fair, of duty and public service also), Aristotle and other philosophers.  For politics there were the models of Periclean Athens and, intriguingly, Sparta which as far as archaeology and the study of written sources has been able to establish, was like one large, tough, strict boarding school.  This republic emphasised the martial virtues and general physical toughness (babies for instance were exposed at birth to see who would be tough enough to survive!).

Finally, there were the living conditions themselves which at the lower end of the school particularly could be extremely tough.  Not even their strongest critics could accuse the upper classes of the time of pampering their young, especially between the ages of about 8 (prep school entry) and 16 (after 16 pupils entered the sixth form and living conditions became somewhat easier, occasionally much easier).

Boys would be accommodated on rudimentary beds in dormitories housing ten or twenty or more occupants, school food was often inadequate or badly cooked, and pupils would nearly always be cold or otherwise uncomfortable.  The scope for bullying was considerable, and the regime could be very harsh and unforgiving on those unable to cope, or who would not go along with it (for instance the compulsory games).

The public schools therefore represented a powerful incentive to notions of self-denial and self-sacrifice.  Also, the intensely communal living conditions inhibited showing-off and overt emotionalism, contributing further to the fashioning of the unemotional and somewhat distant officer type.

To be fair, an ability to repress emotional displays would have helped to conceal expressions of panic or fear, essential in war and perhaps useful in other walks of life.  An impersonal sense of public duty would be reinforced by classical philosophy as well as the obligations of prefect-hood and of team-oriented behaviour.

The power of the public school system and its predisposing to military values or military service derives as far as I can see from the way its components chimed so well together.  That is to say, the subordination of self to team in the games so celebrated by Bishop Welldon, the self-denying, puritanical interpretation of the Christian faith, the sense of duty and superiority probably fostered in part by the Classics.  Finally, there was the emphasis on physical courage and fortitude (the Classics, team games and tough living conditions).

With the schools being all-male and fully-boarding, much play is made by some sources of the prevalence of homosexuality. Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy suggests that romantic homosexual experience was fairly widespread as a sort of 'samizdat' activity, and often very intense - a genuine 'first love'.  If so, it would have added considerable extra piquancy to the experience of school.  However, I cannot find evidence that, say, a crush on the 'captain of footer' fanned the games/team spirit cult any further than it was being fostered already, but for a note on this subject, and also its darker side, click here.

Next - Public School Ideals

Article and photographs contributed by Humphrey Reader.

Flak was a term used to describe anti-aircraft fire.

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Minor Powers