My fourteenth Birthday was just before me when my dear and highly respected Father and Mother decided that their son would benefit if given a Public School education. So, at no little financial sacrifice to themselves and after selective exploration, they delivered this rather contradictory son of theirs to face the rigours of a Public School. This was in 1915.
Thus, one wet and dismal day, in company with my esteemed parents, I was entrained at London Bridge Station, Sussex bound, a small boy with a large lump in his throat! My father noticed a young man, wearing the school cap, sitting in a compartment, and without ado asked him to be good enough to see that I arrived safely at my destination. An immediate reply was forthcoming. “Sir, it will be my pleasure, I’ll look after him.” Whistles blew, kisses exchanged and the train pulled out leaving a part of my heart behind.
“Have a sweet,” my newly found friend said and produced from one of his voluminous pockets various odds and ends, such as a piece of string, a broken pencil and a pen-knife, and after a search, a chunk of toffee, which having cleansed with his handkerchief, he handed to me. “Jolly decent Chap”, I said to myself. He was very kind to me, talking of sports, of running, swimming, fives etc., and it was not long before I was all smiles once again. Little did I know that he was one of the mighty- a PREFECT! I soon learned.
In due time the train pulled up through lashing rain at our destination and out of the train poured what seemed to be hundreds of noisy, shouting boys. I stuck to my friend, until almost immediately a voice bellowed, “Hallo, Stinky” and, on noticing me, “what on Earth is that with you?”
My friend replied, “Hallo George, it’s a beastly new boy”, and turning to me, he said, “Go away, ‘New Boy’, I’ve got you here God forgive me!” adding as an afterthought, “now go away”. As he walked away I heard him saying, “I promised the little beast’s father . . . “
I looked round and noticed some dozen other bewildered little boys- obviously new boys- so I joined them. It was still raining and could not have been more depressing. We followed behind for the three-quarters of a mile up to the School, a dozen frightened little souls. So it was that we eventually arrived at what appeared to be a fortress. (Little did I think at the time that I would come to love that school.) A Prefect met us, remarked, “Dear, dear, dear”, and directed us to ‘Call-over’. We were then sent to our respective Houses and ultimately to dormitories.
Each ‘Dorm’- as they were termed- comprised some 40 boys, controlled by three prefects whose word was law indeed! Beds were of wood, with a hair mattress and, of course, blankets and sheets. I thought I would never sleep, at least not in comfort, but the time came when we slept like the proverbial top and all my life, as a result of this ‘wooden bed’ treatment, I have been able to sleep anywhere.
The next day, all New Boys were tested by a brief exam, and appointed to their appropriate forms. We were all ushered into the presence of the Headmaster- the ‘Head’- and, for the first time treated as human beings. We were told quite clearly that we were expected to obey the rules of the School and, at all times, to uphold its honour. Each new boy was then received by his housemaster, who usually produced a chocolate or two along with sound words of advice. All our masters were ordained men and great men they were. We came to love them in a ’Brotherly’ (Christian) way. Religious belief was not the option it has become in democratic society.
Central to Public School life in those days was the O.T.C. (Officers’ Training Corps). The awful 1914/1918 War was at its height and we had to be trained. “All new boys will report on the Chapel Quad” announced the Head Prefect, a fearsome person we thought. I remember getting to the Quad to find a Sergeant, (a school prefect), waiting for us. “Fall in”, he bellowed, “Tallest on the right, shortest on the left . . . come on, come on, the term’s nearly over”. We all having done so, he viewed us for a very long minute and, looking Heavenwards said, “This isn’t fair- I’ve never seen so many idiots in all of my life- damn good mind to throw in my stripes”. However, he didn’t. Instead he said, “Anyone here know anything about arms drill?” Standing to attention, as we were, I took one step forward and boldly said, “Yes, Sergeant, I do.” He looked at me with one eye, “So”, he said, “we have one idiot here who knows it all have we?”
“No, Sergeant”, I replied, “but I have had two years in my last school’s cadet force. He seemed to go blue in the face. “Cadet corps, CADET corps” he yelled, “This gets worse and worse.” He gave me an old Boar War Carbine, and then drill, ‘Slope’, ‘Order’, ‘Port’, etc., until he realised I did know something about it.
“Never seen anything so bad in all my life- thank God I can get rid of you out of the ‘Recru-its Squad’. You will report to No. 4 Platoon.” He got out his little book and said, “What’s your name house and dorm.”
This brought forth a shouted, “What a horrible name.” When I quoted my house and dorm he said, “Well, thank God you’re not in my house. At least that is something to be thankful for- I really don’t know what the School’s coming to- gone to pieces it has.” I was dismissed, knowing that I had got on to the first rung of the ladder. He, poor fellow, was killed some three months later at the Battle of the Somme.
(Found in my mother’s bottom draw. The author, my grandmother’s brother, lived long enough to help me grow up. I have lightly edited the story, fully respecting his words. The understatement of difficulty common to his now passed generation shines through, a hundred years from the depicted events and I guess at least fifty since the writing. This story is first published here.
Written by Arthur Callum, edited by Richard Bunning).
Part two of this story will be published on November 27th. You will be able to access it here
If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, please subscribe to the blog and receive posts via email. (Sign up form in the right side bar.)