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Chronicles from the Archives: The Impact of the Great War on Sedbergh School

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When war was declared in July 1914, Sedberghians were encouraged to perform their duty. The Archbishop of York, speaking at the 1914 summer prize-giving, prompted boys to join the Territorial Forces. Colonel Riddell, who conducted an O.T.C inspection in the same month, commented that he hoped that each member would ‘render a man’s service to his country’.

Sedberghian leavers joined the military in large numbers – 1,258 are known to have served in the War. The Officers’ Training Corp, a precursor of the CCF, provided boys with training in trench-digging, devising routes, defensive tactics, bayonet fighting and marching. The training offered was viewed as a thorough grounding for would-be officers and enabled public schoolboys to enter the military in leadership positions.

Even before the outbreak of war, the military was a popular destination for Sedberghian school leavers. Captain Knowles, the first Sedberghian casualty, had served in the Boer War, in India and in Burma, before being posted to Belgium with the British Expeditionary Force. Knowles died within hours of the first shots of war being fired, one of the first officers of the war to be killed.

Days later, pupils returned to school, aware of the momentous change that had taken place in their absence. The Sedberghian Magazine records: “We ended last term at Peace; we begin the present one at War. Nothing more need be said; no words of ours could make more appreciable the great gulf fixed by the eight memorable weeks of the holidays, difficult though it is to realise, in these secluded dales, the horror that Germany has let loose upon the world.”

Despite the location in ‘secluded dales’ the gravity of war was felt daily. Retired masters returned to fill the voids left by able-bodied teachers joining up; Belgian refugees entered the school and numbers swelled; the brothers, uncles and fathers of boys set off to war. The school debating society discussed issues that were being discussed in adult newspapers with motions such as ‘Professional Football should be stopped during the War’ and ‘German ought no longer to be taught in schools’.

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In 1915 the War Office sanctioned a ‘Camp of Instruction’ to be held in Sedbergh for senior cadets from public schools. During July and August, pupils prepared for the military action that awaited them. Masters were attached to regiments for the holidays to train recruits and undertake clerical work for the admiralty.

When boys were not busy with lessons or military training, they were encouraged to work in the OTC workshop making munitions. By June 1916, the workshop had produced 1,127 Shrapnel discs, 500 shell bases for 18lb shells, 2,000 bullet punches – enough to make a million bullets, 200 machine parts for bullet machines and a handful of fuse sockets for 18lb shells.

Even the Wilson Run was influenced by the war. In April 1917 the Wilson Run times were not produced for the only time in the 20th century. Captain Woodhouse felt that the scarcity of paper ‘rendered its publication hardly justifiable’.

In June 1917 the Sedberghian magazine recorded the relentless losses. ‘As the British front moves forward our list of casualties grows almost daily: the war takes from us those whom we feel we cannot replace, whose steadfast loyalty to Sedbergh we had counted on for coming years.’ With casualty numbers growing, the proposal of a war memorial was raised for the first time.

In the autumn of 1917, a new role of ‘prefect of the week’ was created to replace the ‘master of the week’. With masters leaving to fight, the work of the skeleton staff was supplemented by support from the prefects to keep up with day-to-day chores around school, such as manning the library and tuck shop, taking roll call and keeping the school site tidy.

Throughout the war, the boys and masters of Sedbergh School worked the land around school to replace the labour lost by men going to war. In free time during the week, boys collected tools and sometimes walked several miles to reach the outlying farms. In the holidays of 1918, boys were billeted further afield in Wales and the north of England to take part in agricultural work camps.

Despite the cessation of fighting on November 11th 1918, Sedbergh was changed by the war. Six masters who had seen active service returned to their teaching roles and within three years of the war ending, a further 10 new masters who had fought in the conflict joined the staff. Their experiences would undoubtably have impacted upon their own physical and mental health and, in turn, would have informed their interactions with the boys they taught. Every boy would have been personally affected by the war through loss of brothers, fathers, uncles, neighbours and friends.

259 Sedberghian boys and masters are known to have died in the conflict. This total includes 12 men who died shortly after the armistice because of injury or illness on active service.

 

Katy de la Rivière
School Archivist