Heritage: Remembering school head who endured 232 deaths

Head of the time, Charles Greene, and below current head of art at Berkhamsted School Caroline Ferguson flanked by works at the exhibition
Head of the time, Charles Greene, and below current head of art at Berkhamsted School Caroline Ferguson flanked by works at the exhibition

The principal of a Dacorum school has written a personal tribute to a former headmaster who endured the death of 232 of his pupils during the Great War.

During a week in which Berkhamsted School opened an art exhibition in the School Chapel to mark the centenary, principal Mark Steed has penned his own tribute to the head of the time, Charles Greene.

Mr Steed also began a tribute to the Old Berkhamstedians (OBs) who died by announcing, 100 years on, the deaths of OBs in the assembly following the day they fell.

A Berkhamsted School Twitter feed – @BerkhamstedWW1 – has even been set up to individually commemorate those who fell on the 100th anniversary of their death in the instances where the details are known.

Mr Steed said: “Any head teacher who has been in a school at the time of the death of a pupil or of a recent leaver will know the sense of loss and helplessness that grips the school community.

“So when I reflect on the impact of World War One on Berkhamsted School, my mind turns to what it must have been like for Charles Greene, who was Headmaster at that time …”

Greene was Headmaster of Berkhamsted School from 1910 until 1924, and is the father of celebrated author Graham Greene, who was born and educated at the School.

“He had the unenviable task of reading out to the school in chapel the names of those former pupils who had died throughout the course of the war – and indeed beyond,” Mr Steed.

“Some 232 Old Berkhamstedians died in those years. He almost certainly knew personally the majority of the boys who died, as he had been at Berkhamsted since 1889 as a teacher, housemaster of St John’s Boarding House and deputy head, prior to becoming headmaster.”

Mr Steed explains that Charles Greene annotated the Prefects’ Book, which each prefect signed on taking office, in red ink recording the military career and when each boy fell.

He said: “No one can read those words without feeling his pain and that of the community he led.”

Mr Steed also believes there is little doubt that this would have had a significant impact on Charles Greene’s home life and on the formative years of his youngest son, Graham (born in 1910), Berkhamsted’s most famous Old Boy, growing up as he did in the headmaster’s accommodation in School House.

An Art Exhibition and Act of Reflection in the School Chapel commemorates the School’s fallen during the First World War. The exhibition features works by the school’s head of art, Caroline Ferguson and sixth form art students as well as images from the school’s archives.

Mrs Ferguson explains that her work was inspired by a school history trip to the battlefields.

“The resulting artworks displayed within white frames on the walls of the School Chapel commemorate the School’s memorial of the fallen of the Great War,” she said.

“I hope this body of work can aid the School community in reflecting upon the sacrifice made by all in what I believe to be amongst one of the greatest of human tragedies.”

Berkhamsted School’s memorial plaques on the exterior walls of the Chapel list the names of all the old boys who are officially recorded as being killed, however further reading of the Berkhamstedian dispatches for 1918 reveals countless others reported as missing or wounded; even these lists represent only a fraction of the sacrifice made by the School community, including as they do only those individuals whose families had informed the School of their loss. It is thought that two girls who had attended Berkhamsted School for Girls lost their lives while serving their country during World War One.

The Exhibition also includes photos from the School Archive, including poignant images of pupils from that era, some of whom were soon to lose their lives. Photos of two of the School’s three Victoria Cross recipients, Brett Mackay Cloutman and George Randolph Pearkes, along with descriptions of how they earned the highest military honour, are also a feature of the Exhibition, which will be on display until Remembrance Sunday.