War was a constant background then. Senior School, some two hundred boys, dined together in the Hall; if dining it could be called. Some mornings, too many alas, after breakfast, the Head had a dreadful ritual to perform. In cap and gown he would march up to the top table, turn to face us all, and say, “Let us stand in loving memory, of the following old boys who have given their lives for their Country. “ He would read the casualty list and, with tears rolling down his face, retire from the Hall midst silence befitting so sad a moment. Time after time this sad ceremony! We youngsters were left stunned, but with a peculiar feeling of pride and love for those who had fallen, for our School, our Country and, perhaps above all, our Head. He was a wonderful man, a Gentleman.
One’s first term at a Public School was grim to say the least. It did teach us to ‘take it’ like a man. Tough though it was, the rule was generally fair. I cannot remember a single boy ‘running-away’ in his first term. As was normal in most schools there were some tough traditions. For us, there was that awful ‘New Boys Concert’. Each dorm assembled in its own common room and all new boys had to perform; either sing, act, dance, recite or something. Whatever any individual did, however good, he would finish amid shouts of “horrible”, “beastly”, “caddish” etc. etc., augmented with showers of books hurled at him. My turn came. I said I couldn’t do anything but offered to fight anyone present. I think this was a crass reaction to home sickness. “Like that, is it?” said someone. “Well, you’ve asked for it. Go into the next room. You will see a hen in a cage. Let it free into the Quad.”
I could hardly refuse. Little did I know that this bird was a price specimen, brought especially by our house prefect and intended as a present to the School Farmer. I went to the next room, released the hen and returned to our common room. About two minutes later, the door burst open and a senior prefect, very red faced, shouted, “Who let my hen go?” I admitted doing so. “Follow me”, he said and took me to his study. “Bend over”, I got three of the best. “But for the fact that you are a beastly little new boy, I’d give you six.” Three was enough! My shine of newness was being rubbed off.
Food was grim in those days. We had enough bread and a bit of butter, ‘grease’, but only one egg a week. But for our tuckboxes, I cannot think how we would have survived. But there was a war and this we knew only too well. Nobody really grumbled. Long route marches in the O.T.C. and school runs (once a week in the winter and spring terms over a distance of no less than 6 miles), made us very hungry. Bread and the inevitable plum jam, and potatoes soon filled our tummies. Anyway there was nothing else!
We had a lot of Chapel- a bit too much for me. We went twice a day, with two long services on Sundays. The Wednesday Communion was always very well attended, because any boy attending this extra service was excused Wednesday ‘prep’. This abbreviated word, was short for preparation, being the equivalent of homework for day school children.
Parents were permitted to visit us during term. One visit was welcome, but a second was rather frowned upon. We had to get a pass from the Housemaster, if we wished to meet our parents at the Station, which was out of bounds. And of course, except on Sundays, we had to get written permission to be excused class. Having made ourselves presentable we reported to the Housemaster. He having inspected us, produced the necessary pass, and wished us a happy day, or, rather afternoon. Off we went to the Station, as fast as our little legs would carry us. Happy indeed were those brief days; to see our parents again, and to enjoy a few hours of freedom, including a ‘bumper’ tea of ‘x’ buttered buns and cakes. Time flew by. Then back to school- to the Housemaster, “Please, Sir, thank you, Sir.”
Our parents always left us with parcels of food for our tuckboxes, which we would share with our immediate friends.
I remember our O.T.C. – in accordance with War Office instructions, I believe, provided a guard each night for the School Gates. This was, of course, to train us for “things to come” in France! It was very formal. Each night, a corporal and four other ranks formed the Guard, thus providing a total of 35 ‘men’ per week. We were given specific instructions not to admit anyone without the password. One night, or rather one morning, at perhaps 01:30 hours, our French master, who was in fact, French, had been up to London and returned on the last train. He had to walk to the school and, on arriving at the Gates, was duly challenged. “Halt, who goes there?” cried a sentry.
“Friend” was the reply.
“Advance friend and give the password.” The dear old chap couldn’t remember it, so we arrested him and kept him in the Guard Room all night!
The next day the Head called an enquiry. “You boys knew very well that Mr. ‘X’ did not present a security risk, so why did you arrest him?”
“It was our duty, Sir, as he did not give the password.”
The Head turned away; I’m sure he was grinning. The French master, perhaps glad that he hadn’t got treatment that we may well have metered out to the Bosch, gave us a large pot of jam.
On another occasion, in Hall, the Head came in and announced, “I wish to see all members of the School Guard in the Armoury, immediately after breakfast.” We paraded in single file, some 35 ‘men’. The Head came in. “I have reason to believe that certain members of the Guard have been smoking wretched cigarettes whilst on duty- all those who have offended will take one step forward.” All thirty five took that pace forward immediately. The Head’s cheeks reddened. He looked as proud as taken aback. There followed a long pause, and then he said, “Please do not smoke again”, and marched out. We didn’t smoke again, at least not during duty. We were “honour bound”, and in those days that was enough. In fact, of the thirty-five, possibly as few as a dozen had smoked.
(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 three of this story will be published on November 29th. You will be able to access it here
If you missed part one of this story you can access it here
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