To Sir, with love. The 'Band of Brothers' who wrote to teacher from the trenches
PUBLISHED: 18:00 29 December 2018
They were bootmakers, farmers, railway clerks... Then war came − and teacher Alfred made sure they weren't forgotten
You never forget great teachers – the ones who inspire you, build your confidence and have a twinkle in their eye. Kindly Alfred Harriss must have been like that, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for showing us what it was like in the mud of the trenches, the gritty deserts, a hospital bed or a military training camp.
Alfred had a strong and enduring rapport with many of the lads he’d taught. This “band of brothers” sent him letters about life on the front line of The Great War – an experience so dramatically and terrifyingly different to the largely-rural life they’d known.
He could have left it there, but didn’t. The teacher got those letters into the local paper. Week after week, in a regular column. So people who knew “The Hadleigh Boys” learned how they were faring.
Among those who reported back to Suffolk was Arthur “Spoony” Girling, son of the landlady at the White Horse Inn, Hadleigh.
Before he joined the 2nd Gordon Highlanders in 1904, Spoony had been a star of the town’s football team. Headmaster Mr Harriss called him “one of the cleverest players who ever donned local colours”, adding “As a forward player he was strongest in attack – just the sort of attacking force for the enemy at the Front.”
By the time war broke out, Spoony was a sergeant. He got special leave to come back to Hadleigh for his wedding to Lily Bulmer – cutting a dash in his Highland uniform. His bride (whose father had not long died) had a dress of grey silk, and a grey hat adorned with an ostrich feather.
Another correspondent was George Hynard. He was a fearless adventurer, was “Mouky”, and life in quiet Suffolk was never going to be enough. So Mouky joined the army at 17. Ten years later, the agricultural labourer’s son found himself in the thick of the action on the other side of the Channel – with a growing reputation as sniper, military scout and a nifty catcher of rabbits to supplement rations.
He might write in a poem that “If it came to the pinch, no-one would flinch/If he had to go through it all again”, but it was clear life at the sharp end was without parallel.
A letter to his wife in May, 1916, tells of a German bombardment. “They put 3,020 shells at us in three hours and 20 minutes, and we only counted the big ones. We could not count those of smaller size because we could not hear them, as there was so much noise from the big ones.
“I shall never forget it, for it was something terrible, but I am pleased to say we did not have many casualties, and the Germans got a shock when they started to come after us. I suppose they thought they had hit all of us, but there were enough left to get our own back…
“However I got through I don’t know. It is a marvel, as it was almost as bad as Hill 60 for a time, although it didn’t last anything near so long.
“I thank God I got through that little lot without a scratch and there were plenty of shells burst within ten and some within five yards of me. After what I have gone through I don’t think the Germans have a bullet made for me.”
It’s Marian Thornley who’s unearthed these compelling accounts and given them a fresh airing, a century or so on.
Nearly four years ago she helped mum Jean Keevil produce book Ipswich Lives. Jean’s father, Ipswich man Jim Jordan, was a Suffolk Regiment soldier.
“For many years as a family we knew nothing about Jim’s war service, as after the war his health deteriorated and he died when mum was two years old,” says Marian.
A few years ago a newspaper appeal brought forth an unknown second-cousin… with news that Jim had received the Military Medal for bravery in battle. He’d been wounded several times, too.
“Since then I have been trying to put the pieces of the jigsaw together: when was Jim wounded, how long was he out of action, which battles was he in?”
Trawling through papers from 1917, looking for mentions of Jim, Marian noticed the same names popping up: Mouky Hynard, Spoony Girling, Spot Oxford, and others.
“Some interesting stories began to catch my eye. I couldn’t help but read them. They described the experiences of ordinary young men caught up in something unprecedented in history. The more I read, the more my interest grew.”
They appeared in the Suffolk & Essex Free Press. It became clear the provider of these regular columns was Mr Harriss, headteacher of Hadleigh’s Bridge Street School.
“After a while, I began to feel that I knew these young men personally. The fact they were not related to me in any way no longer mattered – I could feel for them when they pined for the Suffolk countryside, when they wondered what was happening at home, when they described their excitement at visiting new lands.
“Slowly, individuals’ characters began to emerge: Mouky Hynard the daredevil – I laughed when I found an account of him in the pre-war years. He had been caught on a neighbour’s allotment, poaching, but the judge let him off. That figured: I’m sure Mouky could have talked himself out of any situation. He certainly managed to survive the trenches.
“Cecil Leeks was a sweet young man who trained as a cook after enduring the rigours of the Dardanelles. He wrote regularly to his mother, telling her that if and when he got home he would be able to cook the Sunday dinner, and that he kept the others’ spirits up at night by singing.
“I felt worried when I read that Cecil was invalided home near the end of the war, but relieved that he had survived. When I read the article on his death after the war had ended, I felt as sad as if he had been my own grandfather. He was only 24.
“I started to get to know whole families. Walter Whymark, a bootmaker on George Street, Hadleigh, had four sons – William, Ernest, Stanley and Ben. Stanley worked as a butcher in the Army Service Corps from April 1916 until the end of the war. He wrote long letters to his old headteacher, usually in a cheerful frame of mind.
“Sadly, the youngest brother, Ben, died during the Battle of the Somme. His body was never found. And then Ernest died in hospital in 1917.
“Stuck out in Salonica, it must have been a while before Stanley heard the news of the deaths of his brothers. It was heartbreaking to read his cheerful letters home, knowing that he had not yet heard the awful news.
“Although he usually wrote in an upbeat manner, in a letter to Mr Harriss at the end of the war, Stanley displayed a rare moment of sadness but even then was philosophical. ‘It will not be the home-coming to which I had so often looked forward,’ he wrote, ‘as too many faces will be missing, but we must look on the bright side of things and hope for a better future.’ What heartbreak did these words disguise?”
Marian also found herself worrying for the womenfolk.
“I had particular sympathy for Maud Durrant, whose husband Fred was captured during the first action in the Dardanelles in which his regiment was engaged; it was months before she heard he was a prisoner of war in the Taurus mountains. How did she keep up her spirits and those of her six little children?
“Minnie Whatling, daughter of the Inspector of Police, had become engaged to choirmaster Frederick Hockey some time before the war. She must have been distraught when he enlisted after playing the organ for the last time at Christmas 1914.
“After Fred’s death in the summer of 1915 Minnie commissioned a pair of 5ft-tall wooden candlesticks, engraved with Fred’s name, which were placed behind the altar of St Mary’s. Minnie never married; I imagine she never got over the death of her fiancé.”
Alfred Harriss’s columns started a month or two into the war and continued on a weekly basis, with a few exceptions.
“When the war finished there were still many men abroad and so Mr Harriss changed the title of his column from ‘War Items’ to ‘News of Our Boys’, and this continued up to the New Year of 1919.”
Marian thinks the headmaster “saw his role as that of keeping the whole town abreast of what was happening to its young men. I am also sure that Mr Harriss helped various of the wives to find out what had happened to their husbands when no information was forthcoming from the War Office.”
Alfred and wife Elizabeth had moved to Hadleigh from London years before peace was shattered. She taught music. By the time war broke out Mr Harriss was the headteacher and Elizabeth no longer worked. They had a son, Jessie, who also served, and survived.
“I guess the school was typical of the voluntary schools at the time, taking children from about five to 12. What is remarkable with all the men is the high level of literacy, despite the fact that most would have left school at this age! Testament, perhaps, to Mr Harriss’s professionalism.”
Marian adds: “What I found most moving was the evident relationship between all these young men and their old teacher. I would have said that in those days teachers were stern and unapproachable. Well, this certainly wasn’t the case with Mr Harriss. The way in which the men wrote to him demonstrated their love and respect for the person who had in all probability been the most influential person in their life up to that time.
“They told him how they had appreciated his lessons and how surprised they now were to be seeing first hand the places they had learned about at school – the Holy Land, the desert, the pyramids.
“Mr Harriss must have had an interesting little museum at the school as many of the ex-pupils were determined to bring back souvenirs for it. Some collected fragments of stained glass, others sent photographs, and yet another was determined to send home a snake he had found in his bed, only needing to find a jar and some spirits to preserve it in!”
Marian points out that, in general, most first-hand accounts of the conflict were written by officers. “Yet, I had accidentally found here, hidden in some newspaper columns, a treasure trove written by young men who, before the war, had been bootmakers, farmers and railway clerks. They described not only their various experiences but their emotions too.
“I’m sure the men put a brave face on things. They knew these letters would appear in the local press and be talked about on street corners in Hadleigh and in the local pub. So, we have to be cautious in thinking they are a true reflection of their thoughts and feelings.
“Having said that, it is surprising to see just how cheerful these young men managed to be in the face of terrible adversity. They were absolutely convinced victory would be theirs, in the end. There was no doubt and certainly no self-pity. It is this that has given me a different view of the ordinary soldier’s experience of the First World War.”
Marian’s turned her findings into a book: The Hadleigh Boys.
During her research, she called at the church of St Mary’s.
“It was very moving to see those candlesticks behind the altar, placed there in memory of Frederick Hockey.” She decided then to send the church a copy of her completed writings.
“When I received a letter from the rector, asking me if she could read some passages from it during the Remembrance Day service, I was thrilled.
“So many of the young men had found comfort in church services during the war, and nearly all of them had been members of the church. It seemed right and fitting that their words would be echoing around this particular place 100 years later. For me, that was reward enough for the effort of researching and writing the book.”
The Hadleigh Boys can be obtained from Amazon as a hard copy (£9.99) or on Kindle (£4.99).