Harrowing tale of cricket team on the front line

The 1913 KES Cricket Team''Picture taken from "Hear Their Footsteps" - King Edward VII School and the old Edwardians in the Great War 1914-1918 by John Cornwell
The 1913 KES Cricket Team''Picture taken from "Hear Their Footsteps" - King Edward VII School and the old Edwardians in the Great War 1914-1918 by John Cornwell

In the entrance hall of a Sheffield school hangs a faded photo.

The school is King Edward VII and the portrait is of its proud cricket team, taken in the summer of 1913.

Former Chair of Governors John Cornwell and school archivist had often wondered what became of those young men in the terrible years that followed, as the nation was plunged into the horrors of the Great War.

To mark the centenary of the outbreak of the conflict this month, he resolved to find out.

John’s research became the spark for a book telling one school’s experiences of the period, Hear Their Footsteps. “The story behind the photo turned out to be harrowingly sad and poignant,” he said.

“Half the people – seven out of 14 – had been killed in the war, including the teacher in charge of the team.

“Two were killed on the first day of the Somme, two others went to Sandhurst and both later died. Of the survivors, one won the Military Cross and one the Military Medal.”

King Edwards was still a new school then, having been created through a merger in 1905.

It was fee-paying and took in boys from some of the city’s top families, many with professional, commercial and industrial backgrounds.

The school had no military traditions – but by the end of 1914 96 ex-pupils had already joined the forces and 19 were already commissioned junior officers.

Most joined local regiments, especially the York and Lancaster which recruited solely in South Yorkshire.

And from there many would serve in the 12th (City of Sheffield) Battalion, which aimed to recruit from the university and the city’s young professionals.

Many of the older boys that autumn would eventually volunteer or be called up – and some would be among the school’s final death toll of 92.

Other pupils would still be behind their desks as late as July 1917, but would be killed in German offensives of spring 1918 or the final battles which brought the conflict to an end.

“By the time of the Armistice the war had claimed the lives of more than 10 per cent of all the boys at King Edwards between 1905 and 1917,” John said.

“It was a death toll perhaps only comparable to the Black Death of the 14th century.”

The school’s first fatalities came in the early months of 1915, when junior officers Donald Henderson and Christopher Turnbull both lost their lives on the Western Front.

Another old boy Charles Hanforth never even left Yorkshire – he died from pneumonia contracted while training at Redmires with the City Battalion.

Others found themselves fighting at Gallipoli, a campaign which claimed the life of Leonard Bennett, who had left school and emigrated to Australia.

The introduction of conscription in 1916 saw a flood of 130 Old Edwardians joining the forces, though some volunteered before getting their call up.

Many were soon winning medals for bravery in action – 23 ex-pupils would win the Military Cross, an honour for officers created to be one rung lower than the Victoria Cross. Five won Miliary Medals, awarded to lower ranks.

The nation’s darkest hour would come on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Somme – costing the British Army 60,000 casualties, including 20,000 dead.

It also saw the greatest loss of life ever sustained by King Edwards in a single day – at least 13 in the City Battalion were killed that morning while many others died in other units.

Three of the dead lived less than a quarter of a mile away from each other in Nether Edge – John Thorpe on Montgomery Road and brothers Frank and William Gunstone, of the well-known bakery family from nearby Ashland Road.

James Shearer, the school’s registrar, who was there, said: “It was the saddest day of my life, when I spent that afternoon covering with earth the bodies of a number of Old Edwardians who had been killed that morning on the slopes below the village of Serre.”

John said: “It’s become a cliché of the times that the ‘golden generation’ of Edwardian England was sacrificed during the four years of carnage.

“One indicator is that by 1916 there had been nine Head Prefects at King Edwards – five would be killed in the war while another was interned in Germany for the duration.”

The youngest ex-pupil to die was Marcus Preston, who had just passed his 19th birthday when he was killed by a shell in September 1918.

The final casualty was 2nd Lt Francis Burton, who was killed in the war’s final month.

n Hear Their Footsteps is available from the school and costs £5.