TONBRIDGE SCHOOL AND THE GREAT WAR
It is Saturday 25 July 1914 – Skinners’ Day. The Captain of the School George
Cressey delivers to the Governors the welcoming address in Latin. In the afternoon
prize-giving headmaster Charles Lowry speaks of parochial matters with no hint of
what was to come.
Within nine days all those at Skinners’ Day had been swept up into the maelstrom of
war. Charles Lowry immediately had to cope with all the problems and tragedies war
brought. His health worsened with news of the deaths of boys he had known. One
Old Tonbridgian remembered being told by Lowry of the OTs killed in the summer
holidays: ‘The way in which he spoke, with the glitter of tears in his eyes, telling us
about the school life of many of them, is one of my most moving memories of
Tonbridge.’ In 1917 Lowry had a serious breakdown; he never properly recovered
and died in 1922 soon after he had resigned his headmastership, a casualty of the
war alongside his pupils. George Cressey, Captain of the School and prospective
Cambridge scholar, volunteered at once for the army, and went to France with the 2nd
Yorkshires in late August 1915. Four weeks later he was killed on the second day of
the Battle of Loos, 26 September 1915.
We know much about Tonbridgians in the war because of the remarkable work of
Henry Stokoe, housemaster of Park House for 41 years from 1890 until 1931. He
kept records of the war service of every known Tonbridgian, and brought them
together after the war in his book, Tonbridge School and the Great War. One whose
obituary is recorded is his own son, Bertram Stokoe, who left school in 1913 and was
killed in October 1915. The book was an immense labour of love for Stokoe, a fitting
memorial not only to his son but all those other boys he had known, 40 of the dead
coming from Park House. To be both a housemaster and a parent in the war brought a
double burden of sorrow.
By the end of the war 415 Tonbridgians had died, roughly the size of the school at
that time. The Tonbridge death rate of one in five of those who served is the average
across all public schools; the overall national death rate is one in ten. Death fell
disproportionately on the young. About half of Tonbridgians killed were 24 years of
age or under and half of them were aged 20 or under. Most of them were junior
officers in the Army.
R C Sherriff, author of Journey’s End, wrote about young public school officers as
‘simple unquestioning men who fought the war because it seemed the only right and
proper thing to do’; he might have been thinking of the 19 year old Tonbridgian,
Gerard Bower, killed on the Somme, about whom it was said that ‘his platoon was
the first to go over, and he led his men splendidly, they all in line following him in the
face of heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. He had that devotion to duty, and love and
care for his men, which is the hallmark of an English officer’. It is the gallantry, sense
of duty and sacrifice of Gerard Bower and his generation that we remember here.