Modern-day pupils of Wycliffe School have lifted history off the page to commemorate the lives of Old Boys who died in the First World War. They have been astonished by their discoveries, says Gail Dixon
The pupils of Wycliffe Preparatory School in Gloucestershire uncover the lives of Old Boys who died in the First World War
A hundred years ago, as war-weary soldiers staggered through the mud of the trenches, facing the imminent threat of shelling and gas attacks, what were they thinking about? Was it their home, their mother, their sweetheart or merely the challenge of putting one foot in front of the other? This is the kind of question that history teacher Steve Arman has asked his pupils to consider, as part of an awardwinning project to commemorate the First World War.
Steve is head of history at Wycliffe Preparatory School in Gloucestershire, where the pupils are aged between two and 13 years old. He was deeply saddened to discover that 78 of the school’s former pupils lost their lives during the First World War.
“In 2014 I thought we must do something to commemorate the war and the Wycliffians who fell. I asked myself, can we change the curriculum? It turned out we could, and that was how our War Heroes project started. The children’s engagement has astonished and inspired me. Many of them have come to care deeply for the fallen Wycliffians.”
Steve says that he owes much to the book Wycliffe and the War (1923), a biography of former pupils who died during the war written by the school’s ex-headmaster WA Sibly. “It was a goldmine of information and gave us personal details about the men during their schooldays. We found out which sports they loved, the clubs they attended and even their height and weight. Wycliffe was founded on vegetarian ideals, and in 1909 the school established a separate house for non-meat-eaters. The pupils who chose to join that house had their growth measured regularly, to see how they fared in comparison with other pupils.”
Wycliffe and the War was inspiring in so many ways. “I wanted each child to write a first-person narrative as though they were one of the Old Boys who had died,” Steve explains. Encouraging 11 year olds to try to get inside the mind of a person who lived more than 100 years ago is not an easy task. But through firing their imagination with the use of powerful research tools, the project has been a huge success. “I wanted the children to keep to the facts then use their imagination to blend in experiences the men might have had. They could then flesh out the personality of the man and consider what it was like to grow up in Edwardian times, to enlist to fight and endure the rigours of the trenches.” In class, Steve provided the essential research materials, including access to census returns and military service records. “Ancestry got on-board and gave us a free subscription for a year. The children really enjoyed looking through the data and some were inspired to investigate their own family tree. It became an addiction. “The biggest challenge was to access the right records. Mistakes were made because of name changes and sometimes we simply couldn’t find the information we were looking for. If we made an error, I saw it as a good thing because it made us go back and double-check our sources. As a keen family historian, I knew it was a good introduction to research.”
Steve adds, “The parents did some research as well. It was thrilling to see how the project snowballed.”
The teacher was keen to take a leap forward and find living relatives of the Old Wycliffians who had died. “We researched a soldier called Ronald Tratt who fell at the Battle of Loos in September 1915,” he explains. “We discovered that Ron may have been related to a man called Hugh Davies. This took some old-fashioned genealogical detective work, using calculated guesses, electoral rolls and 192.com. Hugh had a business, which helped, but it was a longshot.
“I rang him at home and it turned out we were right. Next day I excitedly reported back in class that Hugh was Ronald’s 2x great nephew. Hugh knew about Ron and told us that the family was devastated when he died. He carried a diary into battle with him and it had a bullet hole through it. Sadly the diary got lost through time.
“Hugh visited for the school’s yearly remembrance service and met the pupils, who enjoyed quizzing him about Ron. It was a ‘wow’ moment.”
Through attending Wycliffe school, some of the pupils have followed in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers. During the project, Steve became curious about the name of one of his pupils, Charlie Ashton Lister.
“We found a Flight Lieutenant Edward Ashton Lister who was a pupil at Wycliffe before the war and I thought there must be a connection. Charlie asked his family and they confirmed that Edward was his 2x great uncle. This was an amazing discovery because Charlie hadn’t heard of him before we started.”
“My dad knew a little about his great uncle,” Charlie explains. “Edward’s father died young so there was just him and his mum. We discovered that he was awarded a scholarship to attend Wycliffe and excelled in academic subjects, mastering the German language. The records revealed that Edward died in an accident but we don’t know any more details. I’m keen to find out what happened to him.”
The project has touched Charlie’s life in
The War Heroes project began to attract the interest of the media
a way that he could never have imagined. “I knew that lots of people died during the war, but I didn’t understand what they went through – the rats, the mud, the disease. I’ll always remember it now, because my family was involved.”
The War Heroes project began to attract the interest of the media, and Charlie and Steve were asked to share their experiences in a programme on BBC Radio Gloucestershire. Steve was also asked to deliver a talk to 60 teachers at the Imperial War Museum.
In addition, pupil Brendan Ind wrote a story about fallen hero Leonard Gammidge and won a competition run by Squaducation, which produces digital resources for teachers. He recorded a narrative with fellow pupil Ben Matthews, and My Epic Hero was adapted into six short films that can be viewed at squaducation.com/epic- era.
Many Wycliffians fought at the Battle of the Somme, including Leonard Tregaskis. Pupil Nicole Yessimova wrote her narrative of Leonard in the form of a diary, capturing the horror and fear of the morning of 7 July.
“Dear diary, I’m writing to inform you that I’m going into the battle with my brother Arthur. The village we are going to fight in is defended by experienced German troops. It might be my last time I write to you. I’m very scared, because in our last battles we lost so many men. Oh God, save me please.”
Both Leonard and Arthur died that day – they were only in their early thirties. The brothers are buried side-by-side in the cemetery at Mametz.
A number of pupils became fascinated by the life of Reginald William Bird (known as Rex), a popular boy whose family lived in Somerset. He joined Wycliffe in 1902 at the age of nine and became a head of school.
Rex and his brother Eric joined the 12th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment in 1914 and Rex later became a captain. The pupils tried to imagine the impossible – life in the trenches, with the fear of no-man’sland “chipping away in your head until it grows to the point where it drives you mad”. The maturity of the children’s observations is startling and their poignancy will move many to tears.
Rex Bird died on 24 August 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, after a shrapnel shell exploded in his trench. He was posthumously recommended for a Distinguished Service Order and his name is listed on the memorial at Thiepval. He was only 23 years old.
The terrible sacrifice of Rex and his fellow men became all the more tangible on a visit to the battlefield sites in Belgium. “I wanted the children to gain a real sense of the war,” Steve explains. “To almost touch and feel it.” The trip took place in October 2016 and 24 pupils and four teachers attended, with Jon Cooksey from the Western Front Association acting as a useful guide.
Visiting the battleground
“We decided to focus on Rex Bird and Leonard Tregaskis,” Steve continues. “We were able to stand on the ground where they fought, and sense how and why they died. The pupils wore gas masks which steamed up as they walked across the field. I asked them to imagine what it was like to carry a heavy backpack through muddy trenches, with firing all around.
“Each pupil was given the task of remembering one of the 19 Wycliffians who died in 1916. We visited their memorials and read a poem or gave a comment about their life. It was a moving experience and a fitting way to commemorate the tragic events of that year. The highlight was one of the services at the Menin Gate, where pupils George Tomblin and Freya Roe presented a wreath after the Last Post had been played.”
The whole experience has been unforgettable for all those who took part. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I’m amazed at how personally it has affected the children and their families,” Steve says. “It has also sparked topical debate on the idea of ‘ doing one’s duty’ and the futility of war. We’re planning another battlefield trip for 2018 and a tanks feature this year.”
The pupils’ podcasts, which you can hear at wycliffe.podbean.com, eulogise the men beautifully. As Holly Keyse and Izzy Small, creators of a podcast about Rex Bird, say, “No man should have gone through what you and the other soldiers went through, but it’s over now and thanks to you and all your mates our country remains safe. You are remembered here at Wycliffe, not forgotten.”
Rex Bird died during the Battle of the Somme
The Medal Index Card for Rex Bird. MICs were one of the resources used by the pupils
A scene from one of the short films created by pupils Brendan Ind ( left) and Ben Matthews