Almost three hundred Old Rossallians died during the course of the First World War. It is impossible for us to comprehend the monumental loss that must have been felt within our community here at Rossall. Whilst historians argue that it is an exaggeration to talk of a lost generation of young men, it certainly seemed that the war swept away many of Rossall’s finest boys. The majority of Rossallians who fell during the First World War were just starting out in life. Many had little experience of life beyond school before they enlisted. Promising careers were sacrificed to the call of King and Country. Indeed, the strong sense of duty, which compelled so many Rossallians to enlist, transcended all other earthly considerations. Lives cut short by the devastation of war leave a legacy of grief that reverberates through the generations.
As a child, I remember seeing some of the Old Contemptibles at a parade in London. These were members of the British Expeditionary Force who had fought in France in 1914. These frail old soldiers were drawing towards the close of their lives but their presence provided a tangible link with the First World War. Though I did not realise it at the time, I was witnessing one of the very last occasions upon which these comrades would gather together.
The last veteran, Harry Patch, died in 2009 at the age of 111. Since then, the responsibility to keep alive the memory of those who sacrificed their lives has fallen to us. As custodians of our school community, we have a responsibility to tell the stories of those who have gone before. Those lost in the maelstrom of war do not have a voice of their own and, in the case of most Rossallians who died, they simply did not live long enough to have children. As the custodians of their legacy. It is our duty to rehumanize their story and to ensure that they are more than faded names carved on stone memorials. Let us consider the story of one such Rossallian.
Greville Wynn Thomas was born in 1896. His father, Llewelyn, was a clergyman on the Wirral. Greville’s mother, Helen, was one of eleven children. Greville had two younger brothers called Eric and Theodore. Despite being of modest means, the 1901 census informs us that the family were able to employ two servants.
Greville won an open scholarship to Rossall in 1910 and the Rossallian Magazine observes that he was, ‘a boy of exceptionally strong character and good sound intelligence’. A member of Fleur de Lys House, Greville was an impressive sportsman and captained both Football and Hockey teams. He was Quartermaster sergeant (QMS) in the Officer Training Corps.
Greville left Rossall in 1915 and any hope that the war would be over by Christmas had long since passed. He joined the army and was sent to Quetta in Pakistan to undertake his military training. He took to military life exceptionally well and he won the sword of honour for being the best cadet overall. Greville joined the Gurkha Rifles and was sent to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).
On 18th January 1918, Greville’s younger brother Eric died. He was just nineteen years old and he had only recently left St John’s Leatherhead, where he had been an outstanding pupil. Eric served in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. His body was never recovered and he is remembered on the Arras Memorial – a memorial which commemorates 35,942 soldiers of the forces of the United Kingdom, South Africa and New Zealand, with no known grave. It is impossible for us to imagine how Greville must have felt when news of his younger brother’s death finally reached him.
Greville was an avid letter writer and the Rossallian Magazine (published 1st June, 1918) contains extracts from a number of letters written during the very last week of his life. By this stage, Greville and his regiment had been sent to Palestine where they were fighting against Turkish and German soldiers as part of the ultimately successful effort to defeat the Ottoman Empire.
29th March, 1918
I write as it were in the midst of the battle. We captured the Ridge we are on the night before last, and we have been fighting to hold it ever since. The hill I and my company took was defended by a machine gun and about ten men – all Germans we think. We tried to capture them but they got away, and as soon as we got up and began to consolidate we were immediately badly harried by shells. Poor Chester was killed almost immediately at Battalion Headquarters, so now I shall have all responsibility of D Company on my head – and it is a big responsibility. We have been fighting off and on all yesterday and today. The Germans are apparently putting up a stiff resistance. We shall be moving on in a few days I expect and then it may even be worse.
My only kit now is a blanket and notebooks and the small photos I have of you all. Well, goodbye all of you and don’t worry about me. I quite enjoy the show. One has got one’s job to do and I try to do mine to completion and yet don’t take unnecessary risks. I have got my headquarters between two rocks. It consists of my signallers and a telephone and four runners or messengers.
30th March 1918
We have had a much better time today. We are in the same spot as when I wrote yesterday…..I am afraid that one regiment had rather a bad time as the Germans and Turks here are evidently starting to put up a fight and their machine guns are rotten things. I hope in our next attack we shall get on a higher hill than we are now. I’ve now three days beard and haven’t had a wash for some time, and my only food has been water, bread and jam; but today I was lucky enough to get a bit of meat. We are in full view of the Turks from our right, so we cannot cook, but have to hide behind the rocks to save ourselves from the shells and machine guns. It is all exceedingly interesting and I can say quite honestly that I haven’t yet felt frightened. The machine guns are at it again, I must rush off.
2nd April, 1918
A mail arrived yesterday, and two parcels – they were welcome. They came just at the right time. My food for the last week has been only water, cold meat, bread and jam, so you can imagine my change of menu today. I haven’t had a wash or a shave for the same period as water is only sufficient for drinking purposes. The Turks and Germans haven’t been bothering us today and I think they must have retired a bit, but we have had rather a worrying week and rather a lot of casualties.
Shells and bombs were falling like rain on several occasions, not to speak of machine gun fire. We are in rather a nasty spot at the end of the line, with the enemy to our front and on our right flank But our guns have been giving splendid support…..it is a lovely country. We are now well up in the hills, fairly high rocky hills, they are covered with big sharp rocks, but there is lots of green and olive groves add to the beauty of it all.
Greville’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Shaw explains what happened next.
On April 9th orders came for an advance on the 10th……
As one of the preliminary moves of the day, we were to take the hill I have marked 6.
Your son’s company was detailed for the job and, after a preliminary bombardment by our guns, he rushed the will with practically no casualties.
At about 10 a.m. the real advance began.
The General sent me orders to rush from the direction of Hill 6 with the company holding that hill. I passed on these orders to your son, and we had a long talk on the telephone, discussing the matter and arranging for artillery cooperation. He was absolutely confident about it, though he knew the attack would involve loss, across the open as it was. His last words on the telephone were a very cheery ‘Very well sir, goodbye’ and I answered ‘Good luck, old boy’. We shut down the telephone.
The attack failed completely, though most gallantly made. The attack was simply swept away. The two leading platoons were shot away to a man, and the support platoon practically shared the same fate.
Greville fell while leading this platoon in its dash across the open land. He died instantaneously with three machine-gun bullets in his chest.
Just two days before Greville had sent a final letter to his parents which was full of reassurance and trepidation.
Just a short line today as I am very busy. I take my Company into the attack tomorrow. It’s not a very big show and mine is the only Company in the Battalion doing it, but one never knows what opposition there will be….’
Lieutenant-Colonel Shaw explains that:
The following day I started negotiations under the Red Cross flag with the Germans and Turks with a view to a mutual burying of the dead. As a result, his body was buried by our Medical Officer on April 17th. The position of the grave has been registered and marked with a cross of stones alongside.
The grave of Greville Thomas is to be found alongside the bodies of almost four thousand other men in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Ramleh War Cemetery – some forty miles north of the Gaza Strip. Lamenting his death, his uncle, (who was the headmaster of the Dragon School in Oxford) observed that, ‘Greville’s chief characteristics were an intense love for the home circle, and an unremitting devotion to hard work and duty, with a keen sense of humour’.
The story of the First World War is not just the story of those who died but it is also the story of those who were left behind; the grieving parents and the brothers and sisters who found themselves forced to pick up the pieces of their fractured lives and endure the eternal loss of their loved ones.
Eric died at the age of nineteen and Greville died at the age of twenty one. Their younger brother Theodore lived on for another fifty eight years. There cannot have been a day when he did not mourn the loss of his two brothers. He may well have thought it was his responsibility to live on behalf of them. Theodore went on to become headmaster of Repton School (1944-1961) where he is fondly remembered to this day.
The suffering endured by the Thomas family is both unique and commonplace. The human cost of military conflict is incalculable and it is to our eternal shame that we have not yet realised that what binds us together will always be more powerful than what tears us apart. We hope for a time when, as the Book of Isaiah tells us, ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ Until that time, we pray for an end to conflict and we commit ourselves to becoming beacons of light and agents of peace within our own lives.
Headmaster of Rossall School