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Public Schools and The Great War (Hardback)

Military P&S History > Social History WWI

By Sir Anthony Seldon, David Walsh
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9781781593080
Published: 30th October 2013



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In this pioneering and original book, Anthony Seldon and David Walsh study the impact that the public schools had on the conduct of the Great War, and vice versa. Drawing on fresh evidence from 200 leading public schools and other archives, they challenge the conventional wisdom that it was the public school ethos that caused needless suffering on the Western Front and elsewhere. They distinguish between the younger front-line officers with recent school experience and the older 'top brass' whose mental outlook was shaped more by military background than by memories of school.

The Authors argue that, in general, the young officers' public school education imbued them with idealism, stoicism and a sense of service. While this helped them care selflessly for the men under their command in conditions of extreme danger, it resulted in their death rate being nearly twice the national average.

This poignant and thought-provoking work covers not just those who made the final sacrifice, but also those who returned, and
whose lives were shattered as a result of their physical and psychological wounds. It contains a wealth of unpublished detail about public school life before and during the War, and how these establishments and the country at large coped with the devastating loss of so many of the brightest and best. Seldon and Walsh conclude that, 100 years on, public school values and character training, far from being concepts to be mocked, remain relevant and that the present generation would benefit from studying them and the example of their predecessors.

Those who read Public Schools and the Great War will have their prevailing assumptions about the role and image of public schools, as popularised in Blackadder, challenged and perhaps changed.

In this fascinating analysis of the impact that public schools had on the conduct of the Great War and vica versa the authors conclude that the values of idealism, stoicism and duty imparted to their pupils remain as relevant today as one hundred years ago. These public school educated young officers’ paid a very heavy price for the way in which they cared for the men under their command under circumstances of extreme danger and suffered a death rate almost twice the national average. This thought provoking book by authors who are eminently well qualified in their subject does much to overturn the popular “lions led by donkeys” misperception and should be mandatory reading for all students of the British officer corps through the ages.

Military Historical Society

This book rests on a remarkable archival effort. [It is] especially pioneering in its treatment of headmasters, showing how they took the lead in the mourning of communities which became used to daily tragic news from the Front.

History - The Journal of the Historical Association

A really excellent book. Very readable and both heart breaking (in terms of the individual stories told) and thought provoking. If you feel like you are having a bad day, reading a few pages of this book puts ones trivial modern worries into their true perspective and makes one feel simultaneously both very sad and yet so grateful to have missed the carnage of 100 years ago. The authors are to be commended on their in depth research and for writing such a gripping and thoughtful book. They should be very proud. Well worth the money. I would encourgae anyone to buy it.

Amazon Reviewer

This is a very thought-provoking book, beautifully written, and a fitting testimonial to the Lost Generation.

Journal of the Victoria Cross Society

Seldon and Walsh offer a more detailed and distinctly more nuanced description of how these schools operated, handily knocking down a few clichés on the way.

The New Criterion

A very good book.

Professor Kathleen Burk, Radio 4 Today

A sweeping riveting history that manages to capture the essence of the conflict, as well as the contributions of particular schools and individuals....a compelling book for anyone interested in the conflict, as well as the role of public schools within it.

HMC Insight Magazine

Fascinating and impeccably researched - the sheer breadth of research involved is impressive.

Society of Friends of the National Army Museum

I cannot help think of the young men a century ago with thoughts of university, suddenly finding themselves fighting on the Western Front or storming ashore at Gallipoli, their sacrifice highlighted in this brilliant and most poignant book.

Bulletin - Military Historical Society

Recommended in the Foreign Office Ministerial Reading List - Summer 2014

Foreign Office Ministerial Reading List - Summer 2014

The reader is left with a vivid impression of the impact of the war on the life of the schools and the moving stories of many individual officers.

Character Scotland

This year's centenary of the start of the Great War has undoubtedly prompted the timing of this fascinating and disturbing account of young affluent men lost in a terrible and ultimately futile conflict... This book explores fresh ground in the story, drawing on new evidence from 200 leading public schools and other archives. In particular, it calls into question the claim that the public schools ethos caused needless suffering during the Great War.

Limited Edition Kendal

A remarkable analysis of the public school ethos and how it manifested itself before, during and after the battles of the First World War.

This England

Seldon and Walsh bring alive the human stories. It is not all statistics about how many served and where, but they take the opportunity to use first hand accounts and the real experiences, which make the scale of the loss all the more apparent and tragic.

Mid Wales Journal

This is a pioneering work and an excellent piece of research which does not venture down the paths of prejudice and cliché, but has a refreshingly open-minded approach.

Shropshire Star

The debate over the 'Blackadder Effect' on our perception of officers' conduct in the First World War is brilliantly dissected in 'Public Schools and the Great War'. This poignant and thought-provoking work covers not just those who made the final sacrifice, but also those who returned, and whose lives were shattered as a result of their physical and psychological wounds.

Buckinghamshire Life

One of the very best of the new books on the war.

The House Magazine

Not only an inspiring piece of social history, but a deeply felt work of piety.

The Oldie

An immensely detailed tribute.

Church Times

This book, written by the Master of Wellington and a former master at Tonbridge, is sympathetic to the schools, though by no means uncritical. It's main achievement, however, is to set out the facts and tell the story clearly.

The Telegraph

Using original documents held by the schools and other archives, the book reveals the emotional impact of the war on the schools.

Times Educational Supplement
Sir Anthony Seldon

About Sir Anthony Seldon

Sir Anthony Seldon is Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University having previously been the inspirational Master of Wellington College and Headmaster of Brighton College. He has written or edited over 35 books including the standard works on Prime Ministers Major, Blair and Brown. He is the authorised historian to 10 Downing Street. He was knighted in 2014. His wife Joanna died of cancer in 2016.

About David Walsh

David Walsh is former Deputy Head of Tonbridge School and has taught in Australia. He co-authored Public Schools and The Great War (Pen and Sword Military 2013) with Anthony Seldon.
He leads battlefield tours. He is married and lives at Oxted, Surrey.

Perfect Partner

Public Schools and the Second World War (Hardback)

Following their ground-breaking book on Public Schools and the Great War, David Walsh and Anthony Seldon now examine how those same schools fared in the Second World War. They use eye-witness testimony to recount stories of resilience and improvisation in 1940 as the likelihood of invasion and the terrors of the Blitz threatened the very survival of public schools, and they assess the giant impact that public school alumni contributed to every aspect of the war effort. The authors examine how the ‘People’s War’ brought social cohesion, with the opportunity to end public school exclusiveness…

By Sir Anthony Seldon, David Walsh

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