Magdalen College School and The Great War
DAVID BEBBINGTON | Pen and Sword Books
The centenary of the First World War has prompted a paradox, a local response on a European and even global scale. In Britain, as elsewhere, communities are establishing links with their predecessors who in 1914 went forth to fight, from villages and towns, from farms and factories. Schools are at the heart of these acts of commemoration. Today many still bear one obvious manifestation of the war, a roll of honour listing those who died. Some others continue to benefit in less obvious ways from the determination of interlocking groups to remember their losses. In the war's immediate aftermath, memorials could take more 'useful' guises, from scholarships to chapels, from libraries to assembly halls. These were investments in the future, as much as manifestations of who had been lost. Today we are urged once again to 'remember them'. But nobody does: not because of neglect, but because of the passage of time. None of us was alive (or very few of us were) when they were, or when the debates about how best to commemorate them raged back and forth, from mourning to triumphalism.
So, for any old boy, teacher, parent or pupil of Magdalen College School, what the centenary promises is not remembrance but discovery. David Bebbington's book will ensure that that is possible. His determination to uncover the lives of those who were at the school before 1914, and who died in the war or as a consequence of it, is a labour of love: a war memorial in its own right.
One of those young men, Noel Chavasse, has not been forgotten, and is still venerated far beyond his old school. But most of the fifty recorded here will be unfamiliar. Roughly half of the boys who entered the school between 1888 and 1916 joined up, and 20 percent of them died. That is a loss rate higher than the national average (which was 12 percent of all who served), and comparable with that of the college which is the school's parent institution. For those who left major public schools or matriculated at Oxford or Cambridge colleges in the three or so years before the war's outbreak the chances of not surviving until 1918 rose to about one in three.
In this respect Magdalen College School is typical of comparable educational establishments, but in others it is not. None of the fifty named here came from a military family. Their fathers were academics, clergymen and local businessmen, and most of their sons probably planned to follow in their parents' footsteps. That presumption is reinforced by another striking difference between the school and most others. In 1908 Richard Burdon Haldane had overseen the creation of the Territorial Army and established as part of it the Officers Training Corps, with a Senior Division in universities and a Junior in schools. Magdalen College School was exceptional in not having an OTC in 1914. The notion, that young, middle-class men joined up because they had been 'militarised' before the war, does not look sustainable in the case of Mr Brownrigg's boys.
All those from the school who died served in the Army (and the Royal Flying Corps, which was part of it), none in the Royal Navy, and 39 were killed on the western front in France and Flanders. Only five fell in theatres further afield, at Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia and Palestine. Four died at home, two of them after the armistice. Magdalen College School therefore captures - probably more than most - the archetypical experience of the infantry subaltern's war. How true that generalisation is depends on the career profiles not only of those who did not come back but also of those who did, who were, after all, at 80 percent the overwhelming majority.
David Bebbington has written about a cohort whose experience fits into a broader national narrative, but its power lies in its recounting of individual stories. Here is the pathos: promise denied and parents bereaved. In recognising the wastefulness of this war, we need to remember that that does not - sadly- necessarily distinguish it from other wars. What makes it different is that the pupils of Magdalen College School, and of many other schools, responded as they did. They thought that Britain was fighting a necessary war, a conviction that those they left behind clung to, not least in pursuit of consolation.

Hew Strachan, June 2014