Reigate Grammar School for Boys and its Officer Training Corps

Cover of 'The Pilgrim', Reigate Boys Grammar School magazine

Title: Cover of 'The Pilgrim', Reigate Boys Grammar School magazine
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Written by Marion Edwards

Reigate Grammar School for Boys produced a magazine three times a year, titled ‘The Pilgrim’, and magazines for the years of the Great War can be viewed on the website World War 1 School Archives.  The issues of the war years from 1915 generally include ‘Old Boys’ Notes’ and a Roll of Honour, which list those ex-members of the school serving, wounded, missing or killed.  Amid the form and sports reports, the emphasis on the activities of the school’s Officer Training Corps is very striking.  For the headmaster the OTC embodied all the values the school was seeking to imbue in its students and he took every opportunity to urge the boys to join the Corps.  The following extracts from the magazine give a flavour of the school’s response to the rigours of war.

The October 1914 magazine editorial begins with the fact that, when the first issue of ‘The Pilgrim’ was issued in April 1900, three ‘old boys’ were already ‘serving with the colours in South Africa’, and that since 1906 the school Officer Training Corps (OTC) ‘has been at work’ producing qualifiers for service with the army.  By October 1914, the number had ‘increased to more than fifty names, eight of whom are qualified by Certificate “A” for Commissions’.  The magazine notes proudly that the ‘sound military training’ provided by the school Corps ‘is so well appreciated that we hear of promotions taking place … on every hand.  If every School Corps has done as well for its size in the time, there is no reason to be surprised that our Army has so soon established “moral” superiority over the much-famed German troops’.

Officer Training Corps outside the school (‘The Pilgrim’, March 1917)

The magazine also notes that the school’s OTC ‘night-guards’, while ‘doing good work for the Empire’, discovered one morning an old man wandering in a corridor and thought him a German spy, out to steal the OTC’s rifles; fortunately, it was just the milkman looking for the caretaker. So zealous were the ‘night-guards that ‘A well-known Headmaster returning from a quite possibly perilous sea voyage was met at his own gate by the fixed bayonet of an unknown sentry. ‘Twas hard, after running the gauntlet of foreign shells abroad, to be greeted by English cold steel at home’.

The magazine reports on that year’s OTC camp at ‘Tidworth Pennings’ (including a lengthy ‘sketch [of] a day’s work in Camp’) where ‘popular songs gave way to patriotic ones’ during ‘Sing-Song’, lists Officers ‘known to us’ who have been killed or wounded, and closes with a short play entitled ‘Between you and me, and the Tent-pole’ which describes the camp thus: ‘Tents are arranged like houses in streets, but opening only into one side of the street. There seems to be the usual objection by the inhabitants to their dwellings being known by a mere number. The names given, however, are not of the villa type. Tent 3, for example, who spent their time between canteen and cook-house, and were always eating, became known, much to their own disgust, as The Cannibals.” Tent 2 were always at each other’s throats, constantly quarrelling and in bad tempers; this is the only reason that can be assigned for their being called “The Saints.” … ’ etc.

The February’s 1915 editorial states proudly that ‘The War is growing on us as a School’ and notes that the OTC’s ‘serviceable rifles’ have been commandeered, that Belgians have ‘found … quiet days of, routine work in our midst’ and that pieces of shell, ‘amongst the first shell ever to be fired by an enemy upon an English town’, have been exhibited.  For the first first time the magazine includes an extensive Roll of Honour of all those connected to the school who are serving and the first death is reported.  There are four lengthy reports from the ‘War Budget’ abroad: ‘With the London Scottish in France and Belgium’; ‘From the Land of the Huns to Albion’; ‘A Signal Section in Flanders’; and an extract from a letter entitled ‘Territorials Transposed’. On the lighter side is a poem beginning ‘Fritz at first was a German waiter/Played the spy while he passed potater/No one ever suspected him/He the waiter so neat and trim’.

The school today

The July 1915 editorial considers that the phrase ‘Owing to the War’ now ‘justifies and accounts for all those changes to which our lives at School have been subjected’, even explaining why portions of pocket money are no longer spent in the tuck shop, but set aside for ‘patriotic funds’.  Also included in the issue are a report on the Whit-Monday ‘Field Operations’ of the Reigate and Redhill OTC and Volunteer Training Corps on the Reigate Hills and Walton Heath; extracts from letters from the front in the ‘War Budget’; and an essay entitled ‘Modern Explosives’. November’s issue includes reports on OTC field operations on Headley Heath and on the adventures of four OTC members with the Territorials at Windsor, cites the mention in despatches for Captain D Figg, awarded the DSO ‘For conspicuous and continuous gallantry … at Givenchy’.  A play of several pages, entitled ‘Zeppelins!’ and describing the appearance of several near ‘Harton’ demonstrates the grip of the war on students’ imaginations, which would have been further stimulated by accounts by C H Rayner, serving with 5th Queen’s in India and by Laurence Kennard, with the 4th Motor Ambulance Convoy.

In April 1916 the editorial thanks Providence that due to the ‘far-sighted noble patriot, Lord Roberts’, Public Schools have shown that ‘there is a reservoir of sound, self-sacrificing feeling in the youth of the nation. The OTC has quietly and on the whole efficiently been doing an excellent patriotic work and … showing self-sacrifice and patriotism’ even to the extent of preparing its members ‘to defend those ignoble people who would hamper our efforts to make ourselves efficient and would profit by our sacrifices, and live secure hiding behind our backs’.  Particular opprobrium is reserved for ‘those despicable people who are opposed to national military service’.  However, the OTC reports on the debt incurred by the Corps, which it considers is ‘largely due ‘to the inadequacy ‘of the War Office grant and the greatly increased cost of equipment since the outbreak of war’, and mentions the results of several appeals for funds, to which the boys themselves contributed £6:10s.  Other articles contributed include a description of ten weeks with the Draft Training Company of the 3rd Battalion The Queen’s Special Reserve, ‘under canvas near a certain town, somewhere in England’; ‘Registration 1915’, about the task of introducing national registration of every adult person in England and the collection of the ‘blue and white forms’; and extracts from the letters of O H Apted, serving ‘Somewhere in France’ with the 10th Royal Fusiliers.

July’s report on the activities of the OTC expresses ‘hearty thanks’ to all the subscribers (who are listed by name) to Corps funds, whose efforts enabled the clearance of the ‘heavy debt’. Further on the OTC is a poem entitled ‘Our OTC’ (to the tune of ‘There is a Happy Land’) which begins ‘There is a nice playground/Not far away/Where an officer drills the OTC/On a fine day’. The issue’s ‘War Budget’ includes several letters from soldiers at the Front, and there is also a lengthy report on the celebration of Empire Day at Redgate House, Reigate, by Reigate Grammar School, the County School for Girls, Boy Scouts from the Borough, Chipstead, Leigh and Merstham Girl Guides, local companies of the Boys’ Brigade and Church Lads’ Brigade, and pupils of various private schools, in the presence of the Earl and Countess of Meath. November’s editorial looks forward to the end of the war, though ‘unfortunately not yet in sight’: ‘Enormous efforts will be necessary from all members of the nation to retain or extend British influence and trade, if only to help to clear … the tremendous debt. 

Potato harvesting during camp (‘The Pilgrim’, December 1917)

The March 1917 issue opens with a photograph of the school buildings with the OTC in front, while the editorial notes that ‘We have not yet dug up the playground in order to plant potatoes, but we see that our future football field at Reigate Lodge is rapidly being converted into a set of allotment gardens’. The report on OTC activities describes the ‘unofficial’ though ‘thorough’ Inspection of the Corps, on Speech Day, by General Sir Josceline Wodeheuse, KCH, mentioning that ‘The famous general won all hearts by his kindly remarks and the individual interest he showed in practically every cadet’. July sees a letter of several pages from Philip Michiner, surgeon specialist with the Salonika forces in Macedonia, and the OTC report notes preparations for the annual inspection and the results of several ‘field days’ (during which the signallers have progressed and ‘musketry has greatly improved’), although ‘The cost of uniforms and equipment is continually rising, and it is difficult to make the grant and the fees cover this increased expenditure’.  The main piece in the December issue is a lengthy anonymous essay, ‘A Meander in Macedonia’, which describes life in an army camp sited near the Russian Supply Columns.  The OTC report talks of a July invitation to Brockham Warren, where they were entertained by Sir Benjamin and the Misses Brodie, a Farm Camp near Exeter, a combined Field Day with Guildford OTC and the Surrey Cadets and a joint Field Training with Purley in October.  The account of the OTC Farm Camp at Heavitree, Exeter, is accompanied by several hand drawn cartoons of the delights of potato picking, rat catching, riding hay wains and boating.

The March 1918 issue includes a by now lengthy Roll of Honour and a section entitled ‘War Experiences!’, describing several experiences in the field.  Sadly, the July issue is missing, but December includes an amusing story relating the difficulties of obtaining 12 pounds of margarine from the local Food Control Office and a report on Farm Camp.  However, the OTC suffered a ‘disastrous’ term due to the ‘ravages of influenza’.  The first magazine after the Armistice, April 1919, opens its editorial ‘The War is now, we hope, really over’ and considers ‘how is reconstruction going to affect us?’. The section ‘Surrey and the War’ notes the award of the Distinguished Service Order to Acting Major F Gordon Gill, and the Debating Society’s mock trial of the Kaiser, at which the members took dressed parts and startled the audience, is reported at length. For the OTC, there is a letter of thanks from the War Office.  The final count of 48 dead among the 320 Old Boys who served is recorded, and they are commemorated both in the Roll of Honour and by the Headmaster’s oration at the year’s Speech Day.  In fact 53 names are recorded on the school’s war memorial.  The names and a photograph of the memorial with its inscription “Sons of this school let this of you be said – that you who live are worthy of your dead these gave their lives that you who live may reap a richer harvest ere you fall asleep” can be viewed here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly enthusiasm among the boys for the OTC waned in the immediate aftermath of the war. Only 30 signed up for the annual camp at Mytchett which the headmaster attributed to a ‘lack of the sense of duty and a spirit of selfishness’.  In December 1919 a further appeal was made for members: ‘Every boy should make it his own personal business and duty to stem the spirit of selfishness which is abroad, for it, with the lack of a proper sense of duty and patriotism, leads in plain English, to Bolshevism – that bloodstained monstrosity which befouls Russia at the present time, and of which evil symptoms can be seen even in this country’.

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