The events leading up to the outbreak of war in August 1914 went relatively unnoticed in Marlborough as indeed they did generally in the country. When the crisis broke, the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, was bird-watching in Scotland!
The rise of Germany as a great nation upset the balance of power in Europe but Britain did not concern itself unduly until the Kaiser started to expand the German Navy and acquire colonies displaying imperial ambition in wishing to emulate Britain’s sea power and gain for Germany her own “place in the sun”. The launching of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 heralded a new breed of powerful ironclads. With the empire apparently under threat the British government had done the unthinkable and made alliances with the old enemies of France and Russia. In 1909 the Royal Navy wanted six more dreadnoughts. The government said they could only afford four. Compromise was reached with the agreement to build eight! “We want eight and we won’t wait” became a popular slogan.
There is little doubt that if the Kaiser had not embarked on a naval arms race Britain would not have been a participant in the 1914 war. His former chancellor, Bismarck, had warned him not to get involved in imperial adventures and thereby alienate Britain. He once impatiently said, “Here’s your map of Africa; France is on the left, Russia is on the right and we are in between!” Kaiser Wilhelm did not listen and sacked his iron chancellor. The German militarist Count Alfred von Schlieffen had developed a plan to defeat both France and Russia by a rapid overwhelming advance on Paris followed by use of the European railway network to then confront the Russian army on the Eastern Front. The plan relied on two things: Britain’s neutrality and defeat of France in six weeks, the time it was calculated that the Russian Army would mobilise.
The assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on 28th June in Sarajevo resulted in an Austrian ultimatum to Serbia which was blamed as the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a member of the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist organization. Rejection of the ultimatum set in motion a chain-reaction which made a European war inevitable: Russia backed Serbia and Germany backed Austria. The Tsar’s order to mobilise on 29th July precipitated Germany’s declaration of war on Russia on 1st August and on France on the 3rd.
The German attack on France was launched through Belgium as this was considered an easier route through the flat Flanders terrain. However, it gave Britain the excuse it needed: Belgium was neutral and its independence was guaranteed by a treaty of 1839. On 4th August Britain declared war on Germany ostensibly for violating Belgian neutrality.
The Marlborough College boy, Charles Hamilton Sorley, left Marlborough in December 1913 for a gap year in Germany before intending to take up his place at University College Oxford. Charles was born in 1895, the son of William Ritchie Sorley, the professor of moral philosophy at Aberdeen University. In 1900 the family moved to Cambridge. Charles went to Marlborough College in September 1908 where he embraced the healthy life he discovered there, particularly enjoying cross-country running reflected by his poem, “The Song of the Ungirt Runners”,
We swing ungirded hips,
And lightened are our eyes,
The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
We know not whom we trust
Nor whitherward we fare,
But we run because we must
Through the great wide air.
He also loved long distance walking and often cut short his train journey back to college after the holidays to do the final leg on foot across the Downs. His longest walk was from Cambridge to Marlborough which he accomplished in four days! Academically he was gifted excelling in the College debating society. In 1913 he won a scholarship to University College but deferred it for a year in order to live and study in Germany.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Charles Sorley was that after developing a love of Germany and German culture he was to die in a war against Germany that he considered foolish. He spent little more than six months in Germany; first in Schwerin in Mecklenburg and then at the University of Jena. At the declaration of war he was typically on a walking holiday in the Moselle region. He was briefly interned in Trier but released with orders to leave the country. His poem “To Germany” shows how he saw the war as an act of stupidity with the blind fighting the blind,
You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other’s truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.
Tragically for Charles Sorley he knew no more peace. His love of Germany did not diminish his patriotism and keen sense of duty. On return to England he enlisted as second lieutenant in the Suffolk regiment. As a Marlburian he could honourably do little else. After a period of training, Sorley arrived in France on 30th May 1915 as a full lieutenant. Serving in the trenches around Ploegsteert he was promoted to captain in August 1915. He regularly sent letters home to his parents and also to Dr Wynne Willson, the Master of Marlborough College. On the 4th August, the anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war, he wrote to Dr Wynne Willson comparing his part of the Western Front to the Marlborough Downs,
On our weekly march from the trenches back to our old farmhouse a mile or two behind, we leave the communication-trench for a road, hedged on one side only, with open ploughland to the right. It runs a little down hill till the road branches. Then half left over open country goes our track, with the ground shelving away to right of us. Can you see it? The Toll House to the First Post on Trainers Down (old finishing point of A House sweats) on a small scale. There is something in the way that at the end of the hedge the road leaps up to the left into the beyond that puts me in mind of trainers down (as C House called it).
The “Toll House” mentioned was the one that used to be at the end of Free’s Avenue on the Rockley Road. The stretch from there over the by-way towards Fyfield Down does indeed have ground shelving away to the right. In walking this landscape today, we can connect with Sorley’s love of the countryside. Sorley concluded his letter by expressing his belief that 4th August 1914 had been the beginning of the insanity, “A year ago today – but that way madness lies.” In the autumn of 1915 his battalion was moved south to take part in the battle of Loos. On October 13th he was killed instantly by a sniper’s bullet in the head. His last poem, “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead” was found in his kit. It reveals the horror and futility of war,
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the overcrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all this for evermore.
Sorley’s work “Marlborough and other Poems” was published posthumously by Cambridge University Press in January 1916. Later that year, his old friend Dr Wynne Willson resigned as Master after suffering unbearable distress from reading the names of the College boys who had fallen in battle. Sorley had known Wynne Willson since he had succeeded Flank Fletcher as Master in 1911. The Poet Laureate, John Masefield, later referred to Sorley as the biggest loss of all the poets killed in action.
Siegfried Sassoon, because he survived the war, is better known than Charles Sorley. The two never met as Sassoon was nine years older and had left Marlborough College before Sorley started. Nevertheless it needs to be remembered that, with the possible exception of Wilfrid Owen, Sassoon portrayed the most vivid and horrific indictment of war on the Western Front. He was nevertheless an incredibly brave man who on one occasion captured single-handed a German trench on the Hindenburg Line. He also threw his Military Cross into the River Mersey and was a mental patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh as a result of shell-shock.
Sassoon’s poetry is not as connected with Marlborough as Sorley’s was, but occasionally there is a reminder. The “balls and bats” in his “Dreamers” could very well hark back to activities on the College playing fields,
Soldiers are dreamers when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
Sassoon was frequently blasé about death. The final verse in his poem “Wirers” about a party going out at night to mend the damaged barbed wire is a classic example,
Young Hughes was badly hit; I heard him carried away,
Moaning at every lurch; no doubt he’ll die today.
But we can say the front-line wire’s been safely mended.
“Suicide in the Trenches” reveals the pointlessness of it all,
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain,
No-one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
His opinion of the High Command is expressed in “The General”,
“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Like Sorley, Sassoon rightly has a street named after him on College Fields. Both men spent their formative years in Marlborough and, as such, Marlborough has a connection with awareness of the inhumanity of trench warfare and exposure of the appalling manner in which the war was conducted.
Dr Wynne Willson’s resignation in 1916 signalled the end of the road to war which had begun with the indoctrination of boys with the imperial dream so avidly taken up by the “Boy’s Own” paper and reinforced by imperialist adventurers as Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling. Muscular Christianity, so powerfully pushed by Dr Cotton in the 1850s and continued by Bradley, Farrar, Bell, Fletcher, and finally Wynne Willson himself, had proved to be more than just a method of managing a public school but also a misleading way of life. The Victorian wars of the 19th century, directed largely against colonial rebels armed with primitive weapons, had almost always had a successful outcome for the British Army. The shock of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 had resulted in more enlightened rule aided by Dr Cotton as the new Bishop of Calcutta. Cotton had helped to pacify India in the same way that he had pacified the college that had rebelled in November 1851. But sermons alone would not be good enough for the wars of the 20th century. In the entrance to the college chapel is a memorial to the boys who died during the Boer War of 1899-1902, almost a foretaste of what was to come. Bodley and Garner’s Chapel of St Michael and All Angels, completed in 1886, is festooned with images of winged boys wearing armour: winged as angels showing they are dead and wearing armour showing they died fighting. There could not be a more poignant representation of the glorification of falling in battle. In this sense muscular Christianity was misleading but while success in war was manifest it didn’t really matter.
The First World War changed all that and precipitated a crisis for the college and indeed the country. Sorley was one of 742 old boys killed. The imperial dream had shattered and it is perhaps no coincidence that that disillusionment was expressed so powerfully by one of Marlborough’s own: Siegfried Sassoon. Cyril Norwood replaced Wynne Willson as Master. As former head of Bristol Grammar School the appointment was a radical break with tradition. Norwood had to fight hard to establish himself as he did not have a public school background. He also had the task of taking the College into the post-war world and initiate in the construction of a War Memorial.
The town had not suffered as badly as the College but had nevertheless lost 105 men. In 1919 a bronze memorial tablet was placed on the north side of the Town Hall. The same year a War Memorial raised by the 7th battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment to its 360 fallen was placed at the junction of Salisbury Road and London Road. The battalion trained in Marlborough from November 1914 to April 1915. The site was chosen partly because all who travelled through Marlborough whether along the London to Bath road or the Salisbury to Swindon road would see it. Its position at the start of Salisbury Road could also be seen as the gateway to Salisbury Plain. A window was later placed in St Peter’s Church in memory of the battalion commander Colonel Rocke.
There had been many troop movements thorough Marlborough as it was en route to the British Army’s main training ground on Salisbury Plain. The war brought a new lease of life to the Midland South Western Junction Railway as it connected the Midlands with its stations at Ludgershall and Tidworth.
The College, however, had seen the cream of a generation of boys killed. A garden of remembrance had originally been planned but it soon became clear that that was not going to be good enough. Some kind of permanent hall or temple of remembrance was required. In 1921 building started on the College Memorial Hall. It was, in fact, a scaled down version as its position on soft ground meant a concrete raft had to be built first to serve as a foundation. The original plan was for the hall to be capable of seating the entire college but the building would have been too heavy for the location. The hall was completed in 1925: the names of all of the fallen are inscribed all along the curve of its back, now sadly obscured by seating. The Memorial Hall was described by Pevsner as coming,
…as near to the American campus style of the same years as anything this side of the Atlantic.
The town could not compete with such a project but its memorial tablet out of direct site on the north side of the Town Hall was becoming an embarrassment and fell notably behind the efforts other towns had made. Things came to a head at the Town Council meeting on 1st April 1931 when the decision was made to take the tablet down and re-erect it within a purpose-built memorial on the Green opposite Mr Leaf’s house at number 1. A full report of the Town Council meeting was printed in the Marlborough Times on April 3rd,
Councillor SIMONS who is Chairman of the Marlborough and District Branch of the British Legion moved that permission be granted for the War Memorial on the Town Hall to be removed and re-erected on a site on The Green in accordance with sketch plans produced and prepared by Councillor Hughes. He said it had been felt by a long time that they should have a more suitable place for the memorial. In other towns they saw memorials on much better positions than the one now on the Town Hall, and he thought The Green would be a suitable spot.
Alderman CROSBY seconded. Many of the townsmen knew, he said, that the Memorial plate on the Town Hall was not in the most suitable position, and out of respect to those who stood by them in time of trouble, they should find a better place for the Memorial.
Councillor HUGHES said he had great pleasure in supporting the proposition. The matter had been for some time in the minds of the members of the British Legion. It was to be understood that there would be no cost on the rates. The whole thing would be carried out by the British Legion, provided that the Town Council gave permission for the new site. A number of sites had been considered, and the one on the Green had been thought to be the most suitable.
In reply to Alderman FREE, Councillor HUGHES stated that it been proposed to put the Memorial on a part of the Green just opposite Mr Leaf’s house.
Alderman HEAD said he had no doubt that the Marlborough Branch of the British Legion had considered the matter well but it seemed to him that the Green was rather “off the map” from the point of view of the general public. Personally he would like to see the Memorial in the High-street. Most towns seemed to adopt the principal street for their Memorials. He was not against the removal of the Memorial to another place at all, but he thought such a question should be considered at a representative town’s meeting. He moved an amendment that the matter of a new site should be left to a town’s meeting with power to act. The parents and friends concerned ought to have some say in the matter, and he said that with all due respect to Colonel Hughes and the British legion generally.
Councillor COOPER said he supported the motion. He believed he was right in saying that the ex-Servicemen of the Borough were well represented on the Marlborough branch of the British legion and the question had been considered in all its aspects. In view of the fact that the memorial of the 7th Wilts was at the junction of London Road and George Lane, he did not know that they particularly wanted it in the High-street. Then the placing of the Memorial on the Green would tend to keep that spot in better order.
Alderman FREE said he did not object to the tablet being placed on the Green, but he wondered whether it would not be more suitable to have it closer to the path which ran through the middle of the Green.
The MAYOR said he thought the position recommended by the General Purposes Committee was the best, as a Memorial in the vicinity of trees quickly got tarnished and unsightly, and it would need constant attention.
The recommendation was adopted.
The report is interesting because on the face of it, it was illogical for the Green to be selected rather than the High Street. Councillor Cooper’s expectation that it would, “tend to keep that spot in better order” reveals how untidy the Green was in the early 1930s. At that time the Green had not acquired its “picturesque” image and was still largely working class. Alderman Head’s view of the Green being, “off the map” was entirely relevant and it can only be wondered why he was the only member of the Town Council who wanted the memorial in the High Street. The editorial in the paper the following week seemed to answer some of these questions,
We think the Town Council has acted wisely in approving of the removal of the Town War Memorial from its present position on the north wall of the Town Hall to a site on the Green. As the Marlborough Branch of the British Legion has undertaken to defray the cost of the work, this will not fall on the rates. We are sure that most of the inhabitants of Marlborough will agree that the present position is neither prominent nor convenient. A War memorial should be placed where everyone can see it easily, and where large bodies of people can assemble on special occasions such as Armistice Day. It is of course open to question whether so many memorials should have been erected with one purpose in view in a small town; but it is too late to reconsider this, the least that should be done is to place the Town Memorial in the most suitable position that can be found. No doubt some would like to see it in the centre of the High Street but the cost of a Cenotaph would be too great and for ourselves we think that the more secluded position on the Green is more in keeping with the solemn purpose of the Memorial.
Interestingly the reference to “many memorials” showed chagrin that the town should feel the need to compete. There were in fact only three memorials; those to the town, the College, and the 7th battalion. The College memorial was effectively out of town at its western end and the 7th battalion was also outside the town centre. There was no need for any feeling of competition as the Town Council had, at that moment, its memorial in the town centre albeit on the wrong side of the Town Hall for clear display from the High Street. It is curious that any High Street memorial would have to be in the form of a Cenotaph: the High Street was never Whitehall! It has to be asked why a “secluded position” was seen to be “more in keeping with the solemn purpose of the Memorial” Surely memorials are meant to be seen as constant reminders of the gallant sacrifices made by the fallen; not hidden away around a corner somewhere.
The move to the Green, however, did not happen as two months later the Mayor, H V L Kelham, had acquired number 22 the Green, which then had a large garden running down to the junction of New Road and Barn Street. In a gesture of apparent public benevolence he offered part of his land to the Council as a site for the memorial at a Town Council meeting on June 3rd. The Marlborough Times of June 5th reported,
The MAYOR said he had an offer to make to the Council. As they knew, it was decided some time ago to remove the town’s War Memorial to a site on the Green. Since then a site at the bottom of Barn Street and New Road had come into the market, and he had bought it, together with the house. He now made an offer to the Council of approximately 80 feet in depth, the ground to be used for the War Memorial. The back of the War memorial might be planted with flowering shrubs, and he thought it would be a great advantage if the wall on the Barn Street side were brought down in height to about 2 feet and the same thing done on the New Road side, and top it with some posts and chains and make a little enclosure in front of the Memorial. He could guarantee during his lifetime – he could not do more – to keep the grass cut and so forth. He thought it would be a great advantage and make for the safety of the public to do that. It would not only add to the safety, but it would improve the entrance to the town. He did not want them to think that this was a disinterested gift on his part because if what had been projected had been built on that plot of land – a super cinema – it would be a great blot to their Wesleyan friends and it would not improve the view from his own house. He made the offer to the Council with his best wishes. (applause)
Alderman FREE said there could be no better place for the War Memorial, and he was sure they thanked the Mayor very much for his gift. He proposed that they accept the offer with their very best thanks.
Councillor HUGHES said he would like to extend his thanks also, and he hoped that after this magnificent offer the subscriptions connected with the removal of the Memorial would increase… Alderman Free’s proposition was carried with acclamation.
The Mayor’s motive for giving up part of his land can be seen as a small price to pay for thwarting plans for a large cinema. The town cinema in the High Street was built originally as a Corn Exchange in the mid-19th century and was barely adequate for its use. Nevertheless, it is odd that the planned move to the Green was abandoned so soon after it seemed to have been settled. It is interesting that Mr Kelham mentioned the view from his house as one of the benefits of moving the memorial to the Green was to tidy the place up. In recent years the area around the War Memorial, which was in 1931 in Mr Kelham’s garden, became an eye-sore when Dobson’s garage closed down and the wall behind the memorial fell into disrepair. Heavy traffic around it also seemed to have made the site less attractive. A proposal made then to move the memorial to the Green was actually objected to by people living on the Green on the grounds that it would sully their view of the Green! In 70 years a total reversal had taken place from the 1931 view that a war memorial would keep the Green tidy and a more recent view that a memorial would make the Green effectively untidy! The same phenomenon can be seen in the red public telephone box. Introduced into the villages in 1936 by a grateful king following his silver jubilee, these red “jubilee” boxes were objected to by the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England on the grounds that their garish colour would conflict and be discordant with England’s green and pleasant land. Now the CPRE are campaigning to keep these same boxes because of their “traditional” place as part of the village scene.
A wine shop and Carphone Warehouse have now replaced Dobson’s garage and the wall has been sensitively restored by the London developers who now own the site. The developers paid for the rebuilding of the wall despite the Town Council’s agreeing in December 1931 to bear the cost of its maintenance. The developers clearly did not visit the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office. If they had they might have come across a letter from the Town Clerk to Mr Kelham’s solicitors Ravenscroft, Woodward and Coy, which stated,
In reply to your letter of 1st inst. The Council are prepared to accept the conditions that the land which Mr Kelham kindly proposes to convey to them shall be used solely for the purpose of erecting a War Memorial or as an open ornamental space.
The Council also agree to maintain the Wall which divided the land proposed to be conveyed from the remainder of Mr Kelham’s property. There is no doubt that the scheme for the erector of a War memorial on the site will eventually be carried out in accordance with a plan with which Mr Kelham is conversant.
As the British Legion had agreed to pay for the Memorial, a fund-raising campaign was started. By November 1932 it had raised enough money to pay for the Memorial and a surplus sufficient to have flood-lighting installed. The memorial had, by then, been unveiled on 25th September. On November 11th the Marlborough Times reported on the completion of the War memorial project,
All who worked so hard to promote the scheme for a worthy War Memorial in Marlborough are to be warmly congratulated on the ensuing result of their efforts. For some years it was widely felt that the wall on the north side of the Town Hall was far from being a suitable place for so important a feature of the life of the town and the generosity of Mr Kelham has made possible the selection of a really good site. We are glad to know that all the necessary funds have been subscribed, and indeed more than subscribed, so that the installation of flood lighting has been made possible. The thanks of the community are due to Mr Kelham for the site, to Col. Hughes for the design, and to Mr Kitchen for his work as architect and surveyor, but above all, as was pointed out at the meeting last week, to the ex-Mayor for his unsparing efforts to carry the project through successfully.