Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Unusual Heroes

Wellington College has a hall dedicated to the memory of all the former pupils who fell in the two World Wars. Their names are all inscribed there, together with the year when they entered the college. The list for the first World War is dauntingly long. Once when I was having to supervise a particularly boring exam there, I filled in the time doing a rapid survey of the names, and from the dates of entry I calculated that about a hundred of them did not live to pass the age of 20. They would have gone directly into the front line of the trenches as junior officers, who suffered the most appalling casualty-rates: no less than 75% on the first day of the Somme offensive. One name that stood out was John Kipling.

He was the son of the great writer Rudyard Kipling. He should not have been in the army at all, because he had extremely poor eyesight, but he was determined to serve, and his father pulled strings to get him into the Irish Guards. He was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915: his body was never identified. Not surprisingly, Rudyard Kipling was always haunted by the death of his son; his whole attitude to the war changed; and afterwards he attempted to exorcise the memory by his work on war graves and war memorials and a history of his son's regiment, and by writing a short story called “The Gardener”, which is clearly about his son and which is the strangest and most moving short story I have ever read.

A name from the dead of the Second World War is Roger Bushell. Hardly anyone will recognise this name, but everyone will know the context, because he was the model for the Richard Attenborough character in the film “The Great Escape”. Bushell was a barrister before the war; he did actually plan and lead the mass breakout from the prison-camp, and was shot by the Gestapo after recapture. We were told of this in a talk by Sidney Dowse, one of the survivors of the “great escape”, who amazed us with his stories of the hazards of tunnelling through sand, of trying to cross enemy territory with inadequate German, and of eventually being brought before Kaltenbrunner, Himmler’s deputy, who decided not to shoot him. But alas, it turned out that the Steve McQueen character in the film was entirely imaginary: there were no Americans in the “great escape”, but it was decided that the movie needed a big-name American star to ensure success!

The oddest story from the Second World War concerns Esmond Romilly, a scion of the traditional upper classes. After three years at Wellington he decided he’d had enough and he ran away; but instead of simply going home he joined friends in London, where they produced an anti-public-school magazine called “Out of Bounds”. This was smuggled into Wellington and other establishments and inserted between the pages of the hymn books in chapel, in the hope of spreading subversion. All this created quite a stir nationally, since Romilly was the nephew of Winston Churchill! Romilly announced that he was a communist, and went off to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He then married another upper-class left-winger, Jessica Mitford, and they spent the next few years in the U.S.A. and Canada. They had a child who unfortunately died. When the war came, Esmond Romilly joined the Canadian Air Force, and in 1943 he was shot down and killed. He was 23 years old: a short life, but an eventful one. He is the most atypical of the Wellington College heroes.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Whenever I see a war monument, I wish there was enough time/space for there to be a story about every name listed.

    I like the way you think about things - definitely following this blog.