by David Walsh (CR 72-09) & Anthony Seldon (CR 89-92)
|14 Oct 2020|
|History & Politics|
|Why we must not overlook the role of public schools in the Second World War |
A new book argues that far from being a 'People's War' Britain's role in the Second World War was dominated by public schoolboys.
The book is available from bookshops, online sellers including Amazon and direct from the publishers 'Pen and Sword'. Profits from the book will go to Leonard Cheshire Disability to celebrate an icon of that generation.
Article from The Telegraph. By Anthony Seldon. 27 September 2020, 7:00am
May 28, 1940 was to prove the most vital day in the entirety of the Second World War. Britain’s War Cabinet had assembled to take the decision whether to fight on against Hitler’s Germany. It was the decisive moment the nation rallied together as one. But what history did not record at that crucial meeting is more than three-quarters of those present came from public schools - thirteen from Eton alone.
Wellington College boys heading to the air raid shelters 1940 CREDIT: Wellington College archive
That day Winston Churchill (ex Harrow) stood up to Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Eton), who wanted to negotiate with Germany at a moment when the Dunkirk evacuation hung in the balance. Churchill won the day, arguing defiantly: 'I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender’.
The ‘People’s War’, the phrase coined by public school communist Tom Wintringham in 1940, has framed our entire understanding of the Second World War. In contrast to the First World War which is often categorised as ‘the public-school war’, the Second World War has largely been presented as an apparently unified and classless nation working as one in common purpose.
It fits in with the narrative of the public schools and their ethos being responsible for so much that has gone wrong in British history since 1900, including national decline and downplaying of the importance of science and technology since 1945. But is this reading of history correct?
Co-author David Walsh and I have written two books on the public schools in the world wars, not to defend them, but to ascertain the true picture. The latest, Public Schools and the Second World War, published to coincide with the anniversary of the start of the war, concludes that it was just as much of a ‘public-school war’ as the Great War, with the political and military leadership continuing to dominate.
Many of us are familiar with the heroism of figures like RAF ace Douglas Bader (St Edward’s Oxford) and principal organiser of the ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III, Roger Bushell (Wellington College), but we discovered the influence of public school alumni went far wider.
In the civil service, the intelligence services, military high command, and the officer corps of all three services, the public-school influence was out of all proportion to the size of the sector. In a war dominated by machines and firepower, it was the public schools, too, which provided most of the top scientists. Code-breaker and mathematician Alan Turing was an alumni of Sherborne, and bouncing bomb inventor Barnes Wallis attended Christ’s Hospital. Even Eton, where in 1936 there were thirty-nine teachers of classics and just nine taught science, produced a significant cohort of top scientists including Julian Huxley and J.B.S. Haldane.
Our earlier book on the public schools in the Great War revealed that the slaughter on the Western Front saw uniquely high public-school casualties, at twice the rate of deaths overall in the war. The ethos of service and sacrifice instilled by the schools was as evident in the Second War as in the First, with the example from the junior officers as widely admired by the men they led. British military deaths in 1939-45 were less than half those of 1914-18, but the honour rolls of leading public schools showed that their death rates were close to or higher than in the First, and again almost twice the national percentage of those who served. The toll of lives in the RAF is in part responsible. Tonbridge School’s 301 war dead includes 144 from the RAF, 85 of them killed serving in Bomber Command.
The British Army may not have fought the intensive land battles of the Western Front, but the daily casualty rate in Normandy in 1944 exceeded Passchendaele in 1917, and such attrition was the norm in Italy and Burma, where the public-school dominated cadre of junior officers again suffered as high casualties.
Forty-six pupils can be seen sitting with their housemaster in one Eton photograph in 1937; thirteen were killed, nearly thirty per cent, a figure comparable to 1914-18, and many others were wounded. One Etonian, Dwin Bramall, landing in Normandy on D Day plus one, won an immediate MC in Belgium, and went on to a glittering military career reaching the rank of Field Marshal, though his last days were besmirched by baseless accusations of abuse. He wrote the foreword to the book.
In 1914-18 public schoolboys were given commissions purely on a recommendation from their headmaster, but by the 1930s all candidates had to spend time in the ranks and then in Officer Training. Some never made it out, including Alex Bowlby from Radley. Bowlby served his war as a rifleman in Italy, his fellow soldiers suggesting the money spent on his education had been badly wasted. But he went on to write one of the classic war memoirs, The Recollections of Rifleman Bowlby.
In the RAF, Malvern-educated actor Denholm Elliott served as a sergeant wireless-operator found himself ‘mixing for the first time with many different types of men from different strata of society and I found that I was getting on really quite well with them’.
Bill Deedes, future editor of the Daily Telegraph, was stationed before D Day with his battalion near Ampleforth, the leading Roman Catholic school, where the headmaster opportunely arranged discussions on current events between senior boys and the battalion sergeants.
Discussions ended with the sergeants declaring they were fighting the war so that places like Ampleforth could survive, while the pupils thought it was about making it possible for the sons of the sergeants to enter the school. This highlights the first serious airing of the ‘public school question’, the role they would play in a more inclusive post-war Britain.
Rab Butler, President of the Board of Education, duly set up the Fleming Committee, to examine ways in which public schools and state education could be brought closer together. Winston Churchill, speaking at Harrow in December 1940, offered this vision: ‘When the war is won by this nation …. it must be one of our aims to establish a state of society where the advantage and privilege which have hitherto only been enjoyed by the few shall be far more widely shared by the many’.
Such thoughts chimed with the zeitgeist of the New Jerusalem vision outlined by Charterhouse-educated William Beveridge in 1942 and Old Etonian, J M Keynes, the two principal architects of the welfare state.
We will never know if the Second World War would have been prosecuted better if it had not been so dominated by the public school alumni and emphasis on character. But, for better or worse, the schools irrevocably shaped the war, and the post-war settlement that followed.
Labour came to power with a huge majority in 1945 with a programme for progressive change, overseen by Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who had been inspired by Christianity and the ethos of service at his alma mater Haileybury. But his passion for radical change did not extend to public schools. John Bew, his biographer, argues that traditions meant much to a man ‘who never questioned the institutions which formed him’. Ernest Bevin, whose education had ended at eleven, was the key member of the government.
As recorded by Tommy Lascelles, the King’s Private Secretary, Bevin said: ‘Various ministers started a round of old-school-tie chaff. Ernie fetched a gargantuan sigh and said in my ear, ‘I always wish I had been at one of them places’.
Public Schools and the Second World War, by David Walsh and Anthony Seldon, published by Pen & Sword Military
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