Public Schools and the Great War

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This is a book to warm the shrunken diseased walnut that passes for Michael Gove's heart. It is very much a sign of the times: our rulers feel absolutely on top, the country is once again run by public schoolboys, the rich are getting richer, and the living standards of the hoi polloi are being cut.

Everything is how it should be. Indeed so confident are our rulers that they are more prepared to celebrate themselves, to tell the rest of us how lucky we are to have them, than they have been for years, and what better subject for a celebration of the public schools than the First World War.

Seldon and Marsh insist that the country should be proud of the part the public schools played in the War. Far from the average public school officer being the callous bungling oaf of leftie mythology, he was a brave, conscientious, young man who really cared for the people under his command, just like the men running the country today in fact. And large numbers, 37,000 of them, died.

The book actually has an appendix totalling the dead for every public school. The unwritten assumption here is, without any doubt, that being superior people their loss was somehow greater than that of 860,000 odd members of "the lower classes" who died.

These schools absolutely dominated the officer corps in Britain throughout the 20th century with the domination becoming more pronounced the further up the chain of command you went. Over half the senior officers in the Expeditionary Force sent to France in 1914 went to just ten schools.

Indeed the preparation of the upper classes for war was one of the crucial roles performed by the public schools. What is missing from this book is any serious discussion of public school militarism.

Old Etonians, as everyone knows, always celebrate the 4 June, George III's birthday. For some reason the 1917 celebration by serving officers at the Lord Roberts' Memorial Hall goes unremarked.

There were 300 chaps present including a number of senior generals, Lord Cavan made "a very good speech in Latin", the Coldstream Guards band played and then after the meal they wrecked the place.

As one participant observed, "Everything in the room was broken; all the plates, all the glass, all the tables, the chandeliers, the windows, the doors... A bomb raid was nothing to it". Everyone had a jolly good time. For these people war was just an extension of their routine privileged hooliganism.

What to do about the public schools? George Bernard Shaw argued that the only sensible solution was a Carthaginian solution -- they should be burned to the ground and the land sown with salt.

Public Schools and the Great War, by Anthony Seldon and David Walsh. Published by Pen and Sword.