From the Archives: Beaumont College and the First World War

POST BY MAllen

Beaumont College War Memorial

Next month alumni of Beaumont College will travel to the battlefield of Verdun to commemorate the Beaumont Old Boys who fought and died in the First World War. Beaumont College in Old Windsor, Berkshire, was run by the Society of Jesus from 1861 until its closure in 1967. Over 600 Old Beaumont boys (OBs) are known to have served during the course of the war. The final casualty figure stands at 132 OBs – for a comparatively small school this figure is thought to be among the highest of any English public school.

The Jesuits in Britain Archives holds the records of Beaumont College, including a complete run of the Beaumont Review (1894-1967) chronicling events and news from the school. From as early as November 1914 the editor of the Beaumont Review made an impassioned request for information concerning any OBs in active service and particularly undertook to publish letters from OBs or their families documenting the course of the war:

It will prove gratifying to O.B’s. to know that the eyes of the present day Beaumont are upon them, that we are proud of their achievements, that we are stirred up by their example to prepare ourselves when our time comes to uphold with honour even as they now do the name and fame of Beaumont. [Beaumont Review LXXXI, Nov 1914, p. 3]

Appeals for information were also placed in various newspapers. The Beaumont Review went on to publish lists of those OBs in service (a feature called ‘OBs at the War’) including those killed in action, those wounded, and those mentioned in dispatches. These lists, which appear in every issue up to December 1919, make sober reading and reflect an almost compulsive desire to create as complete a record as possible of the contribution played by Beaumont College in the First World War. The lists reveal OBs participating in all theatres of the war, on the Western Front but also further afield in Italy, Mesopotamia, Palestine and parts of Africa, in the army and navy, and across all ranks.

The youngest OB to die in the First World War was fifteen-year-old Midshipman Geoffrey Harold who drowned in the North Sea in September 1914 after the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hogue was torpedoed by a German submarine. Geoffrey (an old boy of 1911) had only been posted to the Hogue six weeks earlier after a fast-tracked cadetship. The Beaumont Review published a letter from the chaplain of HMS Hogue which detailed Geoffrey’s heroic last actions in tying together two boards for another midshipman who could not swim before following orders to jump into the sea.

Geoffrey’s brother, Bevan Harold (an old boy of 1912), was also to go on to die in the war after his plane was attacked during a reconnaissance mission in February 1918. The Harold brothers were among seven sets of Beaumont brothers to die in the course of the First World War. A father and son were also among the OB casualties – Lieutenant Basil Bicknell (an old boy of 1916) was killed in action in May 1918 at the age of nineteen less than a year after the death of his father, Captain Herman Bicknell (an old boy of 1893), who died from heat stroke in July 1917 while serving in Baghdad.

Among the accounts of casualties, broken family bonds and painstakingly researched lists of those in active service, the Beaumont Review managed to maintain an underlying sense of cheerfulness and hope. Examples of this stoical spirit can most readily be found in the letters from OBs published in the journal. Lieutenant H. E. Bridgland (an old boy of 1915), for example, wrote in December 1917 after losing both legs in combat earlier in the war:

I had my right leg practically blown off and got gas poisoning in the other, so when I became conscious four days later, I found both legs off! It was a bit of a shock at first, but on looking back on it I was fortunate in coming through with my life … I must come down to Beaumont again as soon as I get my new legs! [Beaumont Review XCII, Dec 1917, p. 338]

The practice of commemorating the war dead of Beaumont, begun so diligently in the pages of the Beaumont Review, culminated in the construction of a poignant war memorial unveiled in the grounds of the College in November 1921. Today, a full fifty years after the closure of the College, the old boys of Beaumont faithfully continue this practice of commemoration.

The Beaumont Union has undertaken a great deal of research on the fate of individual OBs in the course of the First World War, the full details of which can be found on the Beaumont Union website. If you are interested in any of the holdings relating to Beaumont College at the Jesuit in Britain Archives, please do contact us for further information.

Sally Kent, Assistant Archivist