March 29th 1917

It is now over a year since Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI) last visited us. His witty poem, sent to the boys before their performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ earlier this term was much appreciated, and now he writes to sing the praises of our French allies. He is quite a Francophile!

Here he describes his experience of taking over a section of the trenches from the French:

“I think that none of our party shared my excitement and joy at meeting the French army in the field. In the British area it is difficult to feel that one is in France; even Amiens and Abbeville breathe a mixed (a very mixed) atmosphere. But here, below ground (in a dug-out), we were in France at last. We got to business at once and I began my duties as Brigade Interpreter. The French Brigadier impressed us all very much…

As it was now mid-day, the Colonel suggested that we should have lunch before we came to business. We agreed, and ate one of the best lunches I ever came across. There were five courses, there was red wine, there was champagne, yet everything was simple and the meal was short. At first everyone was shy and I had to do the talking for the English side. But as time went on, both sides thawed, and by the time we had coffee everyone was talking some sort of French.

After lunch we got to business at once. The Colonel was wonderful. He had every detail that we wanted at his finger tips and scarcely ever referred to his Adjutant. After an hour in looking at maps and discussing dispositions, he took us some way forward to an O.P, from which we had a wonderful view of the German front…

The next day I returned with the Brigade Major and again called upon the French Brigadier in order to arrange the final details of the forthcoming relief…

He spoke the most exquisite French and had the most exquisitely simple manners. I am sure that he is descended from one of those French Officers of the old days, who used to call out to their men ‘Messieurs les gendarmes de la maison du Roi, veuillez assurer vos chapeaux. Nous allons avoir l’honneur de charger…’

The French fighting man is a glorious creature and the sight of him should convince any armchair pessimist that nothing can ever kill France, however full her cemeteries may be (and they are terribly full round here)…

Let there be no misunderstanding about what France is. She is, and has been for a thousand years, the most civilized country in the world and her salvation is the first and greatest object of the war, for the presence of a single German soldier on French soil is an obscene thing.

My dear Dragons, educate yourselves to love France. Learn to read and speak French well, NOW, and, after the war, get your parents, whether they can afford it or not, to take you often to France…

There is nothing un-British or decadent in this love of France; and there is something very stupid and ugly in the want of it.  Every civilized being ought to write on his heart the fine old motto, ‘Chacun a deux pays: le sien et La France.’

Clearly we must have more French lessons!

March 25th 1917

Last heard of, Lieut. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA) was in a dug-out in France, writing the Prologue for our production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’

Since then, he has been summoned back to England by the Board of Education to assist the minister, Mr HAL Fisher, with a new Education Act. Important work no doubt and, in fact, more worthy of Hugh’s extraordinary intellectual capabilities than the RGA.

Here, in a welcome contribution to the next edition of the ‘Draconian,’ he depicts himself as a “shirker” in a “funk-hole” in London.

From a Funk-hole.
                    1.
This is the song of a shirker in a funk-hole.
He has alternated, and will continue to alternate, between
      being a shirker in a funk-hole, and an over-fed hero
      intrepidly sitting at a telephone in France.
But for the time being he is a shirker in a funk-hole again.
                    2.
The men in funk-holes are acute, over-worked, and tired.
They get no leave and no potatoes.
They are insulted in the press.
They are assisted temporarily in their labours by dons,
      women, and business men.
But they stick it.
                    3.
The warmth and cleanliness of the funk-holes are pleasant 
      after France.
The shirker is glad to have interesting work to do again
Until it comes to doing it.
In France the work is not so hard.
                    4.
London is a good place compared with France.
But it involves being taken to revues.
Revues are better than violent shelling,
But moderate shelling is better than revues.
                    5.
Of course there is the moral aspect.
But moral aspects don't worry the shirkers much.
                    6.
If you consider who are really enduring the hardships of war,
There are eleven classes in order of endurance.
The first six all consist of people who go into the
      front line and get shelled, or who go about in ships, or fly.
The seventh consists of people in this country who work.
The eighth consists of Staffs, Base Censors and others,
      who sit behind the line
And have a high old time.
The ninth consists of a Railway Transport Officer, whom I know.
The tenth consists of journalists.
The eleventh consists of people who appear in the Sketch
      in full evening dress as interested in War Work.
                    7.
The shirker has belonged to Classes Four, Seven and Eight.
So he knows.
At the moment he belongs to Class Ten
If you consider the 'Draconian' a journal.
                    8.
Having concluded his song the shirker returns to his funk-hole
In the hope of persuading someone else to do the work.
Unfortunately there are no N.C.O's there.

                                            17th March 1917

Class Ten? Needless to say, Hugh was never in anything but the top forms in his time at the OPS!

February 28th 1917

Rev. Robin Laffan, who was elected a Fellow and Chaplain of Queen’s College Cambridge in 1912, has been appointed as padre to the Mechanical Transport Companies, who are supplying the Serbs in the mountains of Western Macedonia, from where he writes:

laffan-29/2/17 “A short time ago there arrived a most fascinating number of the ‘Draconian’ (which, I may say, moved everyone’s admiration out here, when I said it was the magazine of a Preparatory School). So I felt that, although I hate letter-writing, it is my part to send a letter for the ‘Draconian,’ if it be thought worthy…

The language difficulty is a nuisance. It prevents our knowing the Serbs as we would like and occasionally gives rise to disasters.

For instance, a doctor in one of our hospitals for Serbs, thinking that he was beginning to get on well with the language, went round his ward asking each patient ‘Imate li jenu?’ (which means, though he was after something quite different: ‘Have you a wife?’) Those who replied ‘yes’ were left in peace. When any patient replied ‘no,’ the doctor told the nurse to give him a dose of castor oil.

The next day all the patients asserted they were married. As they did so again the third day, the doctor asked a further question. ‘Koliko imate jene?’ (How many wives have you?) At this they thought he was being insulting and an unpleasant situation was only saved by calling in an interpreter, who explained that the ‘gospodin doktor’ was really inquiring after bowel movements, not families.”

December 27th 1916

Whilst it is to be very much hoped that everyone is enjoying their Christmas holiday, there is one task that the VIth Form must not forget to complete.

As is the tradition, they spent the second half of term getting to know a Shakespeare play – in this case ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ The parts have been assigned and must be known absolutely pat. Boys should get their sisters etc to improve their acting during these holidays.

Normally, that most faithful of Old Dragons, Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI), would attend a performance to review it, but he has written to say he is otherwise engaged on the Western Front and he tells us that he will instead, “dream mid-winter nights’ dreams” about us all.

The boys will enjoy this witty poem, written for them by Jack, whilst on active service in France:

TO THE CAST OF 'A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.'
Dear Players, take from one who used,
Each year, to be your faithful critic - 
A task he'd never have refused,
Though deaf or blind, or paralytic -

A tribute to your former skill,
Good wishes for your next excursion
In plays which universal Will
Devised for his and your diversion.

I mind the day, in 'ninety-eight,
When I myself appeared as Theseus,
(At two days' notice, let me state,)
Expecting hisses loud as geese use.

And, I can tell you from my heart,
To have such memories to remember,
Helps me to play the harder part
Of fighting Germans in December.

          J.G., France, Dec., 1916

December 5th 1916

Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI) was last in touch back in October, to tell us the story of his regiment’s involvement in the Somme battle in August. He said then that the Somme trenches were “very horrible.” His latest letter tells that, for the time being at least, he has escaped them:

23.11.16. “When you have been wet through for a week, have just come out of the trenches and are standing in the main street of a horrible and historic village, looking through glasses at the German lines, it is pleasant suddenly to have your elbow jogged by your Commanding Officer and to be told that you are to report forthwith at the Brigade Headquarters. Every so often a subaltern is detailed for attachment for instruction in staff duties…

As I approached Brigade Headquarters, I remembered that I had neither washed nor shaved for a week and felt very much ashamed of my appearance…

I was conducted into the presence of the Brigadier, a young and very handsome man with many medals. He was reading the ‘Times’ and told me to sit down and eat.

After a pause he put down his newspaper, looked long at me and in a mild, tired voice said, ‘Soaked through I suppose!’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And the men?’

‘Soaked through all the time, Sir.’

Then he gave a very refined groan and went on reading the paper.

It was not long before I learnt that this Brigadier was as ready to be soaked through as any of the men, but, at the time, he seemed an exquisite being, remote from war, and mud, and hardship.

I made myself presentable by lunch, when we were joined by the OC Machine Gun Company, no less a person than L Grundy OD. He is my junior by many years and we had never met before. Now we meet nearly every day, but have not yet found time to talk much about the School…

By night I was mostly at Headquarters, but by day I often went out with the Brigadier on his visits to the various Battalion Headquarters. We were frequently shelled and once or twice had quite narrow escapes, but the Brigadier’s personality is such that I think no shell would dare to come too close to him…

My chief job was to write the daily Brigade Intelligence Report, which goes on to the Division. To do so sometimes made me shiver at the cold-bloodedness of my task. It is one thing to put down, ‘The right-half Battalion sent out a patrol between 2 and 4 a.m. which did so and so,’ and a very different thing to go on patrol oneself. The same is true of ration-carrying parties. How well I know them! One must see the game oneself in order to realize how much hardship, danger and often heroism, is compressed into six cold lines of an Intelligence Report.”

 

November 30th 1916

2nd Lieut. Maurice Jacks (KRRC) has returned wounded from the Front. He was involved in the attacks that took place around the River Ancre earlier this month.

jacks-ml3“The preliminary bombardment was in full swing, and our guns were giving the Germans beans; we were in the middle of them, so the noise was pretty terrific. The censor will not allow me to tell you how many there were, but I believe in this battle there were more than in any other of the Somme offensive.

It was the night of November 12th when we swam into our tents; we had to be up early the next morning ready to support the Division who were attacking. At 5.40 a.m. the guns loosed off ‘five minutes intense,’ and at 5.45 the infantry went over the top.

Shortly afterwards we moved up close behind them and halted in a valley to await orders. Bunches of ‘kamerads’ were coming in, many of them wounded and all more or less sullen; even our witticisms failed to cheer them up. Absurdly exaggerated reports of the success of the attack were current.

It was not until late in the afternoon that our orders arrived; and it was dark when, heavily laden with every conceivable form of tool and weapon, we went over the top. The guns showed amazing excitement, and their flashes were even more brilliant and alarming than Skipper’s lighting in ‘Macbeth.’

Our job was to clear out the first three German lines, which in their haste the attacking troops had not properly dealt with in the morning. There were any number of Huns, especially in the fourth line, where we finally settled down; all were reduced more or less to the Kamerad stage, with the exception of a few rash Prussians, and all night long we were coming across large dug-outs full of prisoners.

The trench was about one foot deep, having been battered out of recognition by our artillery. All the hours of darkness we had to spend in trying to make some cover, and when the foggy morning came we had it about four feet deep.

beaucourt-2We were not more than 70 yards from Beaucourt – or what was left of it; and at 7 a.m. we were to attack and take it. About 6.30 the Boches clearly ‘got the wind up,’ and bombarded us vigorously; a large chunk of shell hit me in the shoulder, but the wound was not bad; I was buried four times, and the fifth burial, which was complete, finally laid me out – leaving me with nine bits of shell in the head and face.

Somebody dug me out and bandaged me; and for the next half-hour I was busy digging out my Company Commander, who had been buried by the same shell, and tying up badly wounded men. Then feeling rather ‘groggy’ I decided to try to get out; by this time the trench had been nearly filled in, and the Germans were active with their M.G’s; so the journey was not altogether a safe one.

I came across a wounded Hun (a Prussian) hit in the foot and walking with difficulty; I gave him a hand – he was in a terrible funk, and full of ‘Kameradie’ (a very technical term), and altogether rather beastly! He thought that we would win the war but ‘would not need many ships to take our men home.’ This, I must say, is a very prevalent idea among the German privates.

On the way down, I met a man I knew escorting a bunch of prisoners, among whom were two officers; the latter, he said, had complained to him at being put under the escort of a private soldier – they expected English officers to escort them!

At the dressing-station I was patched up, and from there my progress to Blighty was slow and painful, but sure.”

Maurice arrived back in England on November 20th and has now been granted 8 weeks sick leave. Not surprisingly, he is still suffering from headaches. We wish him a speedy recovery.

October 8th 1916

Lieut. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA) is proving a prolific correspondent.  Being currently under-employed behind the lines on the Somme, he apparently has plenty of time for both reading and writing.

sidgwick-ah-226/9/16. “I was in the most forward of our batteries the other day just at ‘zero’ time – i.e. the prearranged moment when the final bombardment begins. The noise was really appalling. Our own howitzers were comparatively mild members of the orchestra: the high velocity guns easily out-topped them: now and then came the roar of the really big guns far behind: while the rumble of field guns was practically continuous. If you don’t stop to think, it is something of an experience: if you do, you want to sit down and cry.

Generally, I feel a complete fraud and quite unworthy of print in the ‘Draconian’.  I have only been a combatant for about six weeks and am now a petty clerk. So this is my last contribution to the war columns. Veni, vidi, Vick-E: I came, I saw a little of it and it was all over. Any telephonist will explain the joke to you. It is the first I have made since 1902.

The modern Pepys and Shane Leslie book are much appreciated here. Leslie is quite interesting, but what right has he to be compiling memoirs and summing up an epoch at his age (31)?

Besides, I am not at all so certain that the epoch is over yet. Everyone I meet out here appears to wish to live after the war pretty much as he did before, though all agree that other people ought to reform their ways and show signs of spiritual uplift.

I hope all goes well with the OPS.”