Kingham Hill in the Great War

Armistice Day Drumhead Service 2020

Today we remember those who took part in the First World War, the Second World War and wars since then. We give thanks for the freedom we enjoy because of the personal sacrifices made by those who have gone before us - some of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice - they died in the course of doing their duty. It is also important not to forget those who did not die. During the First World War, for example, the startling statistic is that 89% of men in the British Army came home. Nearly 900,000 British men died fighting the First World War. Many died, most came back - but who can say in what state they came back? They all gave and did not count the cost: ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances.

On our war memorial in chapel are the names of 63 men, each of them with their own story to tell. They are not "just names and nothing more" to us, the Kingham Hill of 2020. As we stand here now, we are part of a School which takes its history very seriously: almost every pupil in the Fourth Form and above have been part of successive Third Forms who have been to the battlefields of the First World War.

In normal times, today's Third Form would have just returned from the Western Front. We pray that we may still yet have the opportunity to take you on what most pupils will tell you is the most life-changing school tour you will ever go on. Next term, we will start up our amazing digital literacy projects, researching the lives and service of these men, bringing them back to life through the pages of records in the National Archives. It is pleasing that progressively we are all learning more and more about what these men did; how these ordinary men lived in extraordinary circumstances. But let us remember that these ordinary men, when they lived on Kingham Hill, were ordinary boys.

One such boy was Charles Ernest Dutch. He entered Durham House, over there, at the age of 5 in September 1896. Before coming to Kingham Hill he had lived with his parents in Bermondsey, south east London. His father was an assistant at a fishmonger's shop and was a respectable man, but Charles's mother was a drunkard and ill-treated her children. The Founder's diary states that she had been in prison 35 times for beating her children and at the time when Charles came to the Hill, his mother was serving a three-month stretch on a similar charge.

The Battle of the Somme - An episode we thought we knew

I have been guiding groups around the fields and byways of the Somme for twenty years. Over the years I have taken hundreds of battlefield tourists to Devonshire Cemetery in Mansel Copse, just overlooking the village of Mametz. Before I came to work at Kingham Hill, it was simply an interesting place to stop: the cemetery has a special story related to the fact that a sign next to the graves once declared "The Devonshires held this trench; the Devonshire hold it still". This stemmed from the fact that men from the 8th and 9th Battalions of the Devonshire Regiment who had gone over the top in the attack on the first day of the Battle of the Somme were later buried in the trenches from which they had advanced. In total there are 163 men buried there, all but two of whom were killed on 1st July 1916.

The cemetery took on a special significance for me when researching the first Kingham Hill tour which I led in 2012. One of the men on our war memorial, Sidney Collier, is buried there. Since that discovery, I have been trying to nail down the details of Sidney's last hours for inclusion in my latest book, Kingham Hill in the Great War. For those of us who know the site, there are some oft-peddled vignettes relating to some of the men buried in Devonshire Cemetery. One of these is an episode revolving around the Company Commander, Captain Duncan Martin and his contoured plasticine model of the battlefield.

Traditionally, the story is told that, having made such a splendid model, Martin went to his superiors to say that the attack from Mansel Copse would amount to nothing short of suicide and that he and his men would be despatched in short order by a machine gun in the "Shrine" (supposedly at the foot of a crucifix in the civilian cemetery in Mametz). The story carries on that his superior officers told him to "shut up" and so the Devons went over the top at Zero Hour on 1st July 1916 and were wiped out immediately: another case of "lions led by donkeys".

As far as I can ascertain, the story was first related in Martin Middlebrook's celebrated book, First Day on the Somme, first published in 1971. Middlebrook had unearthed an account from the 9th Devons' chaplain, Ernest Crosse in the 1930s: "Having made the model [Duncan Martin] came to the conclusion that there must be a concentration of enemy fire just in front of Mansel Copse. This is what happened. Capt. Martin & most of his company fell just here."1 Now, over the years the story has become embroidered and the dig at British high command was easy to insert into the narrative for it to become the well-known yarn I first heard as a teenager on my first trip to the trenches. It became established into the folklore of the Somme. I will hold my hands up to confess that I, too, have dipped my hands in Caesar's blood, so to speak, on countless occasions in Devonshire Cemetery. I have even been recorded on video relating the same story in The Somme: The School Boys on the Line, a documentary created by one of our former pupils, James Tanner, for his Extended Project Qualification a few years ago.

A link to the documentary can be found on this webpage: it is a splendid piece of work, showcasing James's talent as a researcher and a filmmaker. When I recently happened to review the documentary, I was horrified by what I heard myself say. In the course of my continuing research into Sidney Collier, I happened upon a book which covers the attack of the 9th Devons at Mansel Copse in considerable detail. Charlotte Zeepvat's Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, published in 2015 has caused me to reconsider the truth behind the story of Duncan Martin and his plasticine model. She has turned up evidence which, on the contrary, shows Martin's superiors were keen that all officers in 8th and 9th Devons and 2nd Border Regiment should see the model2. She has also cast doubt on the assertion that it was one machine-gunner who was responsible for such heavy losses from the companies of the 9th Devons as they attacked through Mansel Copse. The evidence from the battlefield, the war diaries and the personal diaries of survivors of the attack all points to the deadly fire actually coming from a combination of German strongpoints closer to the action, near the railway line and the Albert-Péronne road at the site of the Halt (a small station which served Mametz). In addition, German artillery shellfire was particularly accurate on the day: they had already taken out the front line trenches in Mansel Copse, meaning that the advance had to set off three minutes earlier than planned from the British second line trenches. Many accounts point out that Captain Martin was the first man up over the top and he was the first man killed, falling even before he got to his own front line trench.

So now, being fully appraised of the evidence, I will now no longer trot out the lazy, duff history of the received version of the story. The true story is by far the better one and it deserves to be told. I am pleased to include James Tanner's documentary on our page, but I felt we could not put it up without the correction to my own mistake. Of course, it is a salutary warning of the dangers of accepting something as true without checking the evidence first. So often, we think we know what the First World War is about, but the more we discover about the conflict, the more we realise that the old hackneyed narrative of blundering generals and heroic Tommies is a simplistic cliché which blinds us to the depth and fascinating complexity of what really happened.

With that in mind, I have changed the way I have taught the First World War from my first days as a guide in my early twenties. I am sure that I shall have plenty more to change in the next twenty years. 1 Ernest Crosse in a letter to Brigadier General Sir James Edmond, compiling the British Official History, History of the Great War, in papers from CAB45/132 f.673-674 (with thanks to Charlotte Zeepvat, Mark Banning and Paul Reed). 2 Brigade Major Foss's order of 21st June 1916, quoted in Aggett W.J.P., The Bloody Eleventh, The Devon and Dorset Regiment, Wyvern Barracks, Exeter, 1995, vol.III.p.44; in turn quoted in Zeepvat, Charlotte. Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons; a Story of the Great War. Pen & Sword Military, 2015.

The Somme, The Schoolboys on the Line - James Tanner

This documentary, The Somme: The School Boys on the Line, is a one-hour piece created by Hillian, James Tanner. It was made as a submission for James's Extended Project Qualification in 2018. In the documentary, James retraces the footsteps of four boys from Kingham Hill and four from Rugby School who were killed in the Battle of the Somme. It is a very-well researched piece of work which features interviews with experts, footage and pieces to camera recorded on location and an analysis of historical sources. The Imperial War Museum kindly gave permission for James to include excerpts from Geoffrey Malins's 1916 film The Battle of the Somme in order to give perspective and context to his documentary.

The research which James carried out and the documentary which resulted from it were instrumental in securing James a post as intern with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the summer and autumn immediately after he finished his time at Kingham Hill. As well as being the youngest intern the Commission had appointed, James was particularly fortunate to secure the post to coincide with the events to mark the centenary of the Armistice in November 1918. His work was based at the British Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, welcoming and guiding visitors around the site. He had the honour of escorting the Prime Minister, Theresa May and the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, around the site when they visited for the official centenary ceremonies.

Click here to view the video

Annual Battlefields Tour

All pupils in the Third Form participate in the annual Battlefields Tour to northern France and Belgium. This five-day trip is included in the fees since it forms an essential part of the Third Form curriculum. In partnership with the trusted tour company, NST, our pupils are given a bespoke experience by the team led by Mr Williams, our Head of Languages, who is also a respected military historian in his own right.

A time to learn

We teach the vast majority of the First World War curriculum in the field rather than in the classroom. We walk the ground to give a much clearer insight into the soldiers' experience, spending one day each on the Somme, in the Arras sector and in the Ypres Salient. We attach particular importance to evidence-based learning when it comes to a conflict that we think we know well: we go beyond the received clichés to find the truth behind a war which is still part of our national consciousness. We look at tactics and geology to show their influence on over three years of trench warfare whilst not forgetting the major effect of industrialisation and innovation to change the way wars were fought forever.

A time to research

We run a unique Digital Literacy project to coincide with the Battlefields Tour. During the Michaelmas Term, each pupil will research the life and service behind one of the names on our war memorial. Using online research sites, the pupils access original documents held by the National Archives in Kew and Library Archives Canada to construct a presentation on their chosen soldier. These former pupils walk off the pages of census returns, service records and war diaries and become real people again as today's pupils uncover the treasures hidden in these amazing documents. At the end of the Michaelmas Term, pupils present to a panel of teachers. The best ones are selected to give their presentations to a group of experts from the Western Front Association: a nerve-wracking prospect at first, but a teenager could not ask for a more encouraging and supportive audience.

A time to remember

We make a point of visiting sites of particular importance to the history of the School. Each day involves one Act of Remembrance at the grave or memorial of a former pupil. This gives the pupils a chance to reflect at a deep level. Where possible, we will try to visit sites of family significance as well and we encourage the pupils to discover their own family's links with the First World War before we go to France.

A time to experience

To complement the history, pupils spend one day immersing themselves in French culture on a day in Arras. We encourage all pupils, whether they are studying French or not, to enjoy themselves speaking French. They will buy the ingredients for their own picnic lunch from the market. In the afternoon there is a treasure hunt and photo challenge to complete with prizes for the best performances. And in the evening, there is the challenge of making the perfect crêpe.

A time to grow

The Battlefields Tour comes at an important point for the Third Form. It allows new pupils to spend time away with those who have been at the School for the two previous years, bonding them together with shared experiences. We believe the pupils go away to France as children but they come back as young men and women.