How a north Norfolk school cricket match turned into snapshot of horrors of First World War

07:00 16 July 2014


Gresham's 1914 cricket team. Back row, from left: C D Wells, R A Fitzgerald, J A Nicholson, D W Jacques, C A Hill, J Jefferson. Front - C R H Farmer, J H C Wooldridge, A H Graves, J F Laverack, C H Steven. Six of these young men did not return from the First World War.


As the nation marks the centenary of the First World War, Richard Batson looks at how an innocent north Norfolk school cricket match brings into sharp focus the horror and tragedy of conflict.

Gresham's present First XI: Back row from left, Mark Sorell (visiting cricket coach), Will Wright, Jack Webster, Tom Hancock, Olly Flux, Tom Sheridan, Tom Perry-Warnes, Kieron Peters, Al Horsley (First XI coach).Gresham's present First XI: Back row from left, Mark Sorell (visiting cricket coach), Will Wright, Jack Webster, Tom Hancock, Olly Flux, Tom Sheridan, Tom Perry-Warnes, Kieron Peters, Al Horsley (First XI coach).

It was just an end-of-year school cricket match during a sun-baked idyllic summer.

But it turned into a snapshot of the horrors of the First World War.

A picture of the Gresham’s school first team from July 18, 1914 shows 11 smart boys in spotless white trousers and dapper blazers looking forward to batting, bowling and fruitful lives ahead of them.

Cuthbert Hill's letter home from HMS Invincible - just before he died.Cuthbert Hill's letter home from HMS Invincible - just before he died.

But within months the teenagers would be pitched into the bloodbath of trench warfare - many as officers because of their school officer cadet training - leading their men “over the top” into a deathly barrage of German bullets.

Six of them would not return and now lie buried in battlefields across the Channel.

Five of the old boys’ opposition team also perished, meaning half the players in the match of July 18, 1914 never bowled, batted or breathed again.

The match still takes place every year and is being staged on July 18 this year to mark the poignant centenary.

Mark Hill's letter after the news of the death of his brother.Mark Hill's letter after the news of the death of his brother.

Because it falls after the end of the school term, and most of the pupils have gone home for summer, this year’s match will be a school versus invitation clash.

Organiser, deputy head Simon Kinder, said the cricket fixture dated back to Edwardian times. This year’s game marked the start of a series of events marking the centenary of the outbreak of the war.

Mr Kinder said the school did annual trips to the war battlefields and graveyards, but the most poignant moments were researching the stories of fallen former pupils and seeing the names on memorials,

“You can talk about the loss of 20,000 lives on the first day of the Somme but the students’ stories bring home the reality of war,” he added.

The match

The match happened on July 18, 1914 - sandwiched between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28 and Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on August 4.

The 1914 clash was a triumph for the Old Greshamian side, who amassed 232 for 5, while the school could only muster 202 before the last wicket fell.

It was played during a perfect sunny summer, which had baked the wicket, and the school team’s woeful record that year was put down to the lack of good fast bowler to make the most of the conditions.

Head at the time George Howson was not interested in the cricket or result - seeing the sport as part of the boys’ development rather than “an end in itself.”

Mr Howson died in January 1919, with friends saying the loss of so many pupils’ lives led to his demise.

Looking at the 1914 picture was a sobering reminder of “futures snuffed out” by the conflict.

“As a teacher you see pupils’ hopes and aspirations - so a school losing a fifth of those that served is very powerful.”

Among the guests at this year’s match will be Richard Jefferson whose father Julian played for the school.

Mr Kinder said: “He should have been going to see the test match against India at Lords but he is coming to see our match instead.”

Heart-rending letters from boys at war

Cuthbert Hill, playing for the school, was out for 49, one short of his half-century. He was bowled by Barker - one of the old boys killed in action.

He was 16 at the time, and died aged 18 in the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, as HMS Invincible sank in 90 seconds with 1,000 men on board.

Elder brother Mark Hill, 20 at the time, was not out on 11 when his old boys’ team triumphed. He was killed on the Somme two months later in July 1916.

Letters from the brothers are heart-rending memorabilia in the school archive.

Cuthbert’s final letter talks of the “most extraordinary” sea mists, the loss of a friend on a submarine, requests a new writing pad and signs off “heaps and heaps of love from your loving son.”

Mark replies to his mother, who had written to inform him of his brother’s death. The youngster says: “It seems incredible that so much embodied love and affection, such bright and limitless possibilities, such expressions of fact and speech, such marked individuality should at one blow cease to be a factor in our lives and become an intangible memory.”

The match starts at 1.30pm on Friday, July 18, at Gresham’s School, Holt, and the public is welcome. It will raise funds for two charities - Walking with the Wounded and Holt Young Carers.

• The match and centenary has also triggered a republishing of the book When Heroes Die, telling the stories of the 108 Gresham’s pupils and three staff who died in the First World War.

It was first released by former Gresham’s history teacher Sue Smart in 2001 but new research has thrown up more stories to update it. It will be launched in September.

The school is also holding a special service on October 15 to mark the anniversary of the first of Gresham’s boys to killed. It will be held in the school chapel which is dedicated as a memorial to the fallen pupils, whose names are on a roll of honour and on seats.


Gresham’s School XI

James Wooldridge (then 16): Went to Sandhurst, captain in the Indian army - survived.

Robert Fitzgerald (18): Lieutenant in Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry - survived.

David Jacques (17): Killed by sniper’s bullet in northern France, December 1916 aged 19.

Julian Jefferson (15): Sandhurst and served in both world wars - father of Richard, who will attend the centenary match as a guest of honour.

Charles Farmer (16): Sandhurst and Lieutenant in Hussars - survived.

Cuthbert Hill (16): Killed at the Battle of Jutland, May 1916, aged 18.

John Nicholson (16): Lieutenant Royal Field Artillery, died of wounds October 1918 aged 20 (brother of artist Ben Nicholson).

Clement (known as Neill) Newsum (17): Died in September 1917 by heavy shell fire near Ypres, aged 20, just a week before his 21st birthday.

Adrian Graves (17): Died commanding machine-gunners under heavy fire March 1918, aged 21.

John Laverack (17): Lieutenant Royal Field Artillery - survived.

Colin Steven(s) (17): Lieutenant Royal Army Service Corps - survived.

Douglas Wells (17): Killed in 1918 as observer in the Royal Flying Corps, aged 21.

Old Boys XI

Heathfield Walter Partridge (26): schoolmaster at Gresham’s 1909-1924.

Robert Partridge (24): Died accidentally on active service in Gaza, Palestine in 1917, aged 27.

Berkeley John Cadge (26): Lieutenant East Lancs Regiment - survived.

Henry Neill Newsum (20): Captain Lincolnshire Regiment - survived - brother of Neill.

Alfred Godfrey Wright (18): Captain Royal Army Service Corps - survived.

Mark Hill (20): Killed on the Somme July 1916, aged 22 - older brother of Cuthbert above.

Leslie Davies (21): Died of malaria at Aleppo, Syria, November 1918 aged 25 one day before the Armistice.

William James Spurrell (21): Major Royal Norfolk Regiment - survived (younger brother Fred killed in action 1915).

Marlborough Crosse (20): Died from sniper’s bullet March 1915 (his younger brother died two months later).

Cecil (known as Noel) Barker (19): Died on the Somme 19 November, 1916 aged 21.

Frederic Jacques (23): Surgeon in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (brother of David in school team).

Claude Vernon Rouse (20): Lieutenant County of London Regiment - survived.

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