Today, Sunday, 8 November 2015 is Remembrance Sunday in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. It is a day ‘to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts’. Over the years, several contributors to Hear The Boat Sing have written about oarsmen who have died in war and the tag ‘war memorials’ will bring up many of these posts, each one different, all of them moving. While all these deaths are tragic, the poignancy seems to be increased (if that is possible) when the fallen are little more than boys. Those who attended the ‘Procession of Boats’ at the ‘Fourth of June’ celebrations at Eton College last May had a stirring reminder of some young rowers who, between 1914 and 1918, went straight from school to war, many to die before their teenage years ended.
Eton College (actually a school for boys aged 13 to 18) is arguably the most famous fee-paying school in the world. Sited just over the river from Windsor, it was established by Henry VI in 1440 and has educated, amongst others, nineteen British Prime Ministers. It also has a claim that it invented rowing as an amateur sport and its boys were certainly boating in the 1790s, if not before. The ‘Fourth of June’ is the birthday of Eton’s greatest patron, King George III (1738-1820), and is the school’s equivalent of parents’ day or open day. In modern times, it is actually held at the end of May. There are exhibitions, speeches, sporting events and, most famously, the Procession of Boats. I attended the 2011 Procession and my report on that memorable occasion is here.
The Procession of Boats is a ‘row past’ in front of the parents and the masters assembled in one of the school fields that rolls down to the Thames. It starts with the most senior boys’ boats and ends with the youngest. This does not sound particularly special – but there are several ‘Etonian Twists’.
Firstly, the boats are mostly Victorian, all fixed seat, most with ‘fixed pin’ gates (i.e. no swivel rowlocks) and the leading boat is a ‘ten-oar’. The oars have ‘needle’ spoons and, naturally, boats and blades are all made from wood. The next oddity is that the rowers are dressed in the uniform of eighteenth-century midshipmen, with the cox dressed as an admiral or other senior naval officer. Most strikingly, the oarsmen wear straw boaters extravagantly decorated with fresh flowers. Finally, at a certain point in the row past, each boat stops in turn and the entire crew and the cox stand up. Those in boats with open fixed pin gates then hold their oars erect. This is not easy, but they are assisted by the fact that Victorian eights are more stable than modern racing boats. They then face Windsor Castle, remove their hats and cheer the Queen and the memory of George III, shaking the flowers from their boaters into the water. The crew then resume their seats and row off out of sight. Film evidence from 1938 of these unlikely happenings is on the ever reliable Pathé Newsreel site here.
The order of the Procession of Boats reflects the way that rowing at Eton is organised. Seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds row in ‘Upper Boats’. They are led by Monarch, the ten-oar stroked by the Captain of Boats who, historically at least, invites the Captain of the First XI cricket team to join in the row. Monarch is followed by Victory (First VIII), Prince of Wales (2nd VIII) and Britannia (3rd VIII). Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are called ‘Colts’ and they follow behind the Upper Boats in Thetis, Hibernia and St George. Finally, fifteen-year-olds are called ‘Junior Colts’ and they bring up the rear in Alexandra, Defiance and Dreadnought.
For the 2014 Procession of Boats, the intention was to include with that year’s printed programme, a copy of the 1914 programme with the names of the boys who were killed in the First World War highlighted in bold. Unfortunately, the 2014 row past had to be cancelled because of unsafe water conditions so this was eventually done for the 2015 Procession.
While the loss of a young man educated at Eton is no greater and no lesser a tragedy than the death of someone from an ordinary background, it is ironic that the First World War was one of the very few times when the privileged position enjoyed by young men from public (which in Britain means ‘private’) schools was actually detrimental to them.
John Lewis-Stempel, the author of the 2010 book Six Weeks – The Short & Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), wrote in the Daily Express newspaper on 9 February 2014 that:
The young gentlemen from Eton and the Edwardian public schools paid a terrible price for (their sense of) duty. It was a funny old world war, the First World War, but there was one unassailable, and surprising, truth about it. The more exclusive your education, the more likely you were to die. As a rule of thumb 20 percent of public school boys who fought in the war died, against 13 per cent of those overall who served…… Historians have a horrible phrase for this difference between the war’s general mortality rate and the public school rate: “surplus deaths”. The reason for the “surplus deaths” of public school boys is simple: They were more likely to be junior officers, lieutenants and captains…… By the rule of the British Army, junior officers were the first “over the top” and the last to retreat.
Lewis-Stempel says that the two most junior officer ranks often suffered a casualty rate twice that of private soldiers and that their average life expectancy on the front line was six weeks. At one time on the Western Front, officer deaths were one in seven and officer casualties were one in two.
In his Express article, Lewis-Stempel suggests another reason for the high casualty rate amongst officers:
Of course, public school boys were easier for the Germans and Turks to hit. Due to their better diet and general physical fitness they were, on average, five inches taller than their working-class contemporaries in 1914.
As the war went on, the ‘officer class’ was rapidly decimated and by 1917 ‘temporary gentlemen’ from middle and working class backgrounds had to be recruited to fill the void.
The Eton War Memorial records 1,157 Old Etonians (OEs) killed between 1914 and 1918. The worst single day for the school was on 14 September 1914 when 15 OEs died within 24 hours of each other. To spite many days like this, the sense of noblesse oblige among Etonians and others of their kind remained amazingly strong. In his book, Lewis-Stempel holds that:
The public schools would be the last bastion of the volunteering impulse. Long after the desire to freely serve had departed the rest of Britain, boys from the public schools carried on queuing for commissions. In Autumn 1915 (no one from the public school, Winchester College) went up to Oxford for the first time in 500 years.
Legend has it that when the victor of the Battle of Waterloo, Old Etonian, the First Duke of Wellington, was visiting his sons at the school, he observed a cricket match and remarked that ‘The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton’. Some hold that he may have actually said ‘There grows the stuff that won Waterloo’ meaning that the public school stress on all sport built ‘manly character’ and was a key part in preparing the boys as incipient warriors. This idea was also encapsulated in the poem Vitae Lampada which was incredibly popular until the idea that war was some sort of extension of a game of cricket died on the Somme, if not before. Wellington’s OE great-grandson was killed in action in 1914, three months after the war started.
The Eton polo players of 1914 could well have remained mounted when they went to war. The Long, Long Trail, a website about the British Army in the First World War says this:
…..the cavalry is the subject of one of the Great War myths – that they were the first love of High Command who were all cavalrymen but were an expensive waste that did nothing to help the poor footsloggers. The reality is that on the Western Front they rarely had a chance to act as a mounted mobile force but often fought dismounted as infantry. On the few occasions when they were sent into action on horseback, they often suffered appalling losses. Without them, the crucial First Battle of Ypres – and arguably the war – would probably have been lost. In Egypt and Palestine, the cavalry was the mainstay and battle-winner.
* ‘Eton Does Not Forget’