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

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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.”

In­spi­ra­tional sto­ries

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.”

Lo­cat­ing de­scen­dants

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 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 squa­d­u­ca­ 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.pod­, 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

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