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‘All the best are killed’

Features | December Issue

Rev King with pupils and staff, Abbeylands House, Sherborne, summer 1916

In 1914, Sherborne housemaster the Rev Henry King was recording the fine weather in his diary. By 1918, he was mourning 220 dead old boys. His great-grandson Benedict King recalls a real-life Mr Chips

When the First World War began, my great-grandfather the Rev Henry Robinson King, a housemaster at Sherborne School, dutifully noted it down in his diary.

On 29th June 1914 – the day after the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which sparked the war – he wrote, ‘The heir to Austrian throne and his wife assassinated in Bosnia.’

What took precedence in his diary that day, though, was the fine British summer weather – and the appendicitis of one of his pupils, Alastair Milligan, a 16-year-old Scot in his house, Abbeylands: ‘Very fine and warm. Holy Communion at 7.15. Milligan was, at a few hours’ notice, operated on for appendicitis. He was cheerful both before and after.’

By the end of the war – a century ago this November – everything at Sherborne had changed. Around 220 Shirburnians were killed during the war, almost exactly one a week for its entire duration.

A year after his appendicitis, Milligan left school and, still not 18, was commissioned into the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He was sent to France in January 1917. On 3rd May that year, his old housemaster, my great-grandfather, recorded, ‘Alastair Milligan dead of wounds. Four old Abbeylanders within eight days.’ A few days later, he notes that another boy, ‘the House’s youngest’, has ‘gone the way of all Lieutenants in France. The parents are heartbroken.’

As the war progressed, the list of the dead grew longer and increasingly agonising for my great-grandfather.

While boys were under his charge, Henry is very rude about their capabilities: ‘The Greek of the school is past revival’; ‘the Sherborne XI collapsed utterly, as usual’.

But he is generous in his tributes when they die. On 8th February 1917, he records, ‘Death of Barnes... The best boy I ever had and most affectionate.’

In September 1918, Henry receives a letter saying, ‘The gallant and happy Grierson has been killed. It is grievous. All the best are killed.’

Henry King was born in 1855 and taught at Sherborne from 1882 until his retirement in 1925. He had been a boy at Clifton under its first headmaster, John Percival, later Headmaster of Rugby and the Bishop of Hereford.

Among Henry’s near-contemporaries at school were the poet Henry Newbolt, the writer-explorer Francis Younghusband and Field Marshal Douglas Haig. He read Greats at Oxford and spent his career at Sherborne teaching classics and upholding the moral ideals laid down by Rugby headmaster and educationalist Thomas Arnold.

Henry kept a diary all his life (he died in 1935, aged 80), but the fullest and most frequent entries are from the war.

On 3rd August 1914, he notes that Germany has declared war on France and that ‘we shall certainly join’, adding, ‘No one seems to be able to conceive the issue. It is like a bad dream...’

The diary is a vivid record of how that 'bad dream' turned progressively into a desperately traumatic reality.

Early on, as many did, he sees the regenerative possibilities of the war. At the end of 1914 he looks back: ‘So ends this disastrous year… and yet, morally, England is better than before the war by far.’ Even later on, he sees the war improving former pupils, where Sherborne had failed. In 1917 one old boy, Wright, comes back to see him, ‘infinitely improved by war. Military Cross, manly, gentlemanly, brave and straightforward’. The Arnoldian ideal.

These are small spots of brightness in an increasingly dark world. Largely, the diary is a record of constant anxiety about the news and a sad record of the slaughter. On 9th July 1916, during the Somme Offensive, he records, ‘Poor Jack McGowan killed, the only son of his mother, on 1st July.’ Several days later, he writes, ‘One is constantly hearing of battalions nearly wiped out by these infernal machine guns.’

In 1917, the radicalisation of the Russian Revolution is recorded with increasing horror. At home, every strike is seen as the thin end of the revolutionary wedge. In August 1917, Henry writes, ‘The awful expense of the war is likely to ruin all countries.’

His mood is not improved in October 1917. He learns that Alec Waugh (Evelyn Waugh’s older brother) – expelled from the school in 1915 for what Henry calls ‘filthiness’ or ‘the usual thing’ – has published The Loom of Youth, a roman à clef, detailing Sherborne’s homoerotic culture.

‘Can impudence go further?’ Henry asks. ‘No one knows what harm this filthy, malignant baboon with his book has done here.’

On the last day of 1917, there is none of the moral uplift of 1914: ‘There is no sign whatever of Hun collapse; they are confident, insolent, cruel, treacherous and mendacious, as always. It is difficult to persuade our spoiled and rather conceited and stupid working-class leaders that the war must go on. What will follow the war, one dares hardly to think.’

In early 1918, Henry maintains some of his old pleasures – ‘Catullus is delightful and had not Germans to bother him.’ Still, by March, he is ‘convinced we will lose’. But he never wavers in his support for the war, or his contempt for pacifists, strikers and the Kaiser.

By June 1918, Russell, another old boy back from the front, tells Henry, ‘The stock of gentleman officers (excl. a small supply from public schools) is now worked out.’

The Allied victories in the second half of 1918 come as a huge surprise. On 10th November, he describes the change of fortunes as ‘the most dramatic change in all history… our lines were broken, Channel ports threatened, Paris in danger.’

On Armistice Day, a century ago, he writes, ‘Villages all beflagged, church bells ringing, rather forlorn processions.’ The following day, the school lets its hair down: ‘Whole holiday. Sports and football in the afternoon. I was asked to play soccer for masters vs school. Evening concert. Boys fantastically dressed. Supper and boys – fancy-dress dance in the schoolroom. A great day.’

But there is only brief respite. In the entry for the 30th January 1919, you can almost see the seeds of the Second World War springing to life: ‘The news is that the Bolshevists are doing well in Russia. On the Clyde, the Bolshevists are doing well in their strikes. The Germans, having been let off annihilation on 14th Nov last, are again getting insolent. They have not changed.’

Blackadder tend to assume that the First World War was a grotesquely pointless waste of life. But Henry’s diaries offer a vivid sense of why it was ‘The Great War’.

It was not just, like Waterloo, a damn close-run thing. By the end, what had started as a bad dream had become a terrible reality with everything at stake.

Henry’s world did not collapse completely. But what if the German successes of early 1918 had proved decisive? Britain would have imploded just as Germany, Austria, Turkey and Russia did.

That was certainly Henry’s assumption. On 9th December 1918, he shudders, ‘How near we came to disaster and defeat in the war!’

Disaster and defeat were the same thing. If we’re to understand the length and depth of the slaughter, we should remember that, along with the glorious dead. For most people, at the time, the slaughter was far from mindless.


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