Video & Review: 749 Lecture

Over 300 parents, OMs and pupils enjoyed a fascination talk by retired beak David Walsh (C1 1960-65), who is also a much respected author. Last year David published a book, co-authored with Sir Anthony Seldon, and titled “Public Schools and the Second World War”.

David’s talk discusses the wider context of the contribution of public schools to the Second World War, with particular reference to Marlborough, and how their experience differed from 1914-18.

The talk is organised by the 749 Society, which is made up of those who kindly supported the magnificent restoration of the Memorial Hall, and would normally take place in the Mem.



749 Lecture: Public Schools and the Second World War

The recent 749 Society Lecture was held via Zoom on Tuesday 16th March. The guest speaker was Old Marlburian David Walsh (C1 1960-65). David was, until recently, Second Master at Tonbridge and last year published a book, co-written with Anthony Seldon, entitled ‘Public Schools and the Second World War’. This interesting and informative talk considered the contribution of public schools to the Second World War, with particular reference to Marlborough, and the influence of the conflict left on these institutions.

David focused on two main themes: what characterised the Second World War for public schools and how experiences differed from those of World War I; and the Second World War as a watershed for public schools, bringing them more into the political arena and forcing acknowledgment of social responsibility.

The cultural legacy of 1914-18 is of a “bad war”, portrayed in the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon (CO 1902-04); the musical ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ and the sitcom ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’. Much of this interpretation emerged in the 1960s, the decade in which Walsh was at Marlborough, when anti-establishment and anti-war attitudes prevailed. It has remained an emotional issue and, as he described it, largely a “literary war”.

By contrast Walsh described World War II as the “good war”. A war fought for national survival, a manifestly just conflict, where Britain stood alone in 1940 – the most heroic moment in British history. He said that these perceptions have never been challenged and that the scale of British loss is regarded as acceptable. The dominant media theme is film, such as the ‘Dambusters’. The humour of Dad’s Army against the satire of Blackadder shows the contrast in culture. The character traits of the public school boy in the Second World War are not the buffoonery of General Melchett, but the suppression of emotion, acceptance of sacrifice and the cool bravado of confident men. Public school boys are portrayed in a much more favourable light.

Walsh told some poignant stories from a range of schools. These included preparations for defence at home, at Tonbridge, Merchant Taylor’s and Charterhouse; and references of Blitz damage suffered through bombing raids at Harrow, St Paul’s Girls, Dulwich, Bablake in Coventry, Bristol Grammar School and even Sherborne. Perhaps most heart-breaking was the story of a lone German pilot returning from a raid in October 1940, jettisoning bombs over Wellington College and killing The Master, Bobby Longden, as he stood on his front porch.

Reference was made to the war’s enormous disruption to normal school life, including the requisitioning of school buildings at Malvern and Wycombe Abbey; and the evacuation of schools in the south east, including Roedean to the Lake District and King’s Canterbury to Cornwall.

Marlborough was not on the front line, but hosted the evacuated City of London School between September 1939 and March 1944. They shared College classrooms and sports facilities and were billeted in the town. One former old boy of the City of London School recalled his cottage on the Bath Road being so cold that the contents of his chamber pot froze. The talk referred to the German lawyer and Jewish refugee Richard Fuchs who taught at Marlborough. Another anecdote told of boys collecting souvenirs from the ammunition dump in the Savernake Forest. The Master, Francis Heywood (1939-52), called an amnesty to recover them, and as a result his study floor was covered in live grenades, mortar bombs and anti-tank shells.

Walsh provided some thought-provoking statistics relating to OMs who died during the conflict. The Memorial Hall has panels at the west entrance with the 415 names of OMs killed in World War II. This number is exceeded only by Eton and Wellington. 13% of Marlburians who served in the conflict perished, which is more than double the figure for the nation as a whole. 55% were in the army, 115 were killed serving in the RAF, 60 of these were in Bomber Command. In the College entry of 1934, 38% died, including Lionel Queripel (B3 1934-38) who died at Arnhem in September 1944. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, as was John Randle (1931-36) at Kohima in August 1944. 12 Marlburians perished in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps. The Memorial Hall contains the names of three fathers and sons killed in the respective world wars; the Burdetts, the Dills and the Richmonds.

Marlborough was particularly well represented at Bletchley Park, accounting for six of the leading code breakers, including Gordon Welchman (C3 1920-25), second only to Alan Turing in his contribution. Incidentally, Turing’s elder brother had been at Marlborough, but so disliked it that he advised his parents to send Alan to Sherborne.

David also indicated that the war saw a change in the relationship between public school and state education, as the former gradually became an issue that continues to divide society today. The opportunity to change the relationship was squandered by successive post war governments including Clement Attlee’s 1945 landslide winning administration. This contained several public school boys, including one of the biggest critics of public schools, John Parker (B1 1920-25), who served as a Labour MP for 47 years.

The legacy of World War II was one of social mobility, as public schools began to acknowledge their social responsibility. Master John Dancy (1961-72) developed this at Marlborough with initiatives to further integrate the state and private sectors.

In 1940 on a visit to Harrow, Churchill expressed a vision that opportunities hitherto enjoyed by the few should be shared among the many. Perhaps the origins of the responsibility of independent schools to support their communities, including Marlborough’s current Bursary Campaign, lie in the conflict of 80 years ago?

We thank David Walsh for taking the time to deliver this fascinating lecture, and the many OMs and current pupils who attended and asked insightful questions. A rare opportunity to discuss the Second World War in the context of public schools in general, against the backdrop of the familiar environment of the College.

Review by Mike Bush (TU 1993-98 and CR 2011-)

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