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Roll of Honour: Schooling and the Great War, 1914-1919

Barry Blades

The production of Roll of Honour began nearly two decades ago. At that time I was undertaking doctoral research at the Institute of Education in London and needed contextual information on British schools during the Great War. Amazingly, I found that there was very little material on the topic, especially for the thousands of maintained schools which educated the great majority of British children in 1914. Even the histories of the elite public schools tended to say very little about the impact of the war on the schools themselves and on the pupils living and studying within their walls. Most concentrated instead on their Old Boys – and very occasionally Old Girls – serving on the battle fronts. The history of schooling during the conflict of 1914 to 1919 appeared to be yet another ‘hidden history’, a topic neglected by both historians of education and of the Great War itself – until now.

Roll of Honour both shifts and widens our gaze. It examines the conflict as it was experienced and viewed from Britain, and by ‘forgotten’ groups who served their country in wartime in myriad ways. It investigates the impact of the Great War on British schools and, conversely, the impact of schools and their communities on the British war effort 1914-1919. Pupils and teachers – male and female – take centre stage in this detailed account of the wartime experience and contribution of schools of all kinds. The experiences of local authority elementary schools sit alongside those of ancient grammar school foundations, new Edwardian secondary and technical institutions, private schools of all sizes, reputation and status, and even military and reformatory schools. ‘Tommy’ was not the only one to serve in the Great War. Millions of British citizens – including schoolchildren and their teachers – served on the home front. School ‘campaigns’ helped raise the New Armies, bolstered troop morale, provided munitions, countered the enemy U-boats and raised millions of pounds for the government’s war chest. Total war created new battle fronts on which the schoolchildren of Britain faced new and terrifying weapons of war and became casualties.

Roll of HonourRoll of Honour also challenges some of the persistent and pervasive myths about the Great War. The reaction of school communities to the British declaration of war against Germany – as depicted in school logbooks, annual reports and other documentary evidence – indicates that the citizens of 1914 were not universally carried away by ‘war fever’. The reaction of teachers to Lord Kitchener’s call for recruits to serve on the battlefronts – and to the demands of the conflict more generally – covered a wide spectrum, ranging from outright support and direct involvement to conscientious objection and sustained anti-war campaigning. Analysis of the military ranks held by the products of the many different types of school reinforces previous research on social and educational hierarchies, but also undermines many of the stereotypes of the period. Roll of Honour demonstrates, for example, that the majority of junior officers in the Great War were not the products of the public schools. Two thirds of all subalterns, in fact, had been educated in other types of school. The British officer corps included many thousands of men who had attended elementary schools or had won scholarships to the new secondary schools established after 1902. They, and a great number of the teachers who had taught them, became ‘Temporary Officers’ – and, by default, ‘Temporary Gentlemen’ – for the duration of the war only. Many schools suffered casualties, but the much-lauded ‘Lost Generation’ from the elite public schools is but one part of a much larger ‘Lost Citizenry’. The former have been justly remembered for their heroic sacrifices. The crucial contribution of their 685,000 fellow fallen citizens who had been educated in Britain’s other schools has often been marginalised. Roll of Honour reminds us of how even some decorated war heroes have simply been forgotten, victims of the condescension of posterity.

 

Roll of Honour is the first in a trilogy of books by Barry Blades on schooling and the Great War to be published by Pen & Sword Books over the next few years. The other titles are: Temporary Gentlemen: Teachers and the Great War, 1914-1919, and Little Soldiers: the Militarisation of Childhood and the Great War.

More details are available on the Schooling and the Great War website www.ww1schools.com