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‘They were boys just the same as we were’
2:00pm Monday 5th May 2014 in News
The fears, hopes and bravery of young men killed in action from 1914 to 1918 are being pieced together by a former pupil at their old school.
Simon Coxall has tracked down surviving relatives of the soldiers, seamen and airmen who studied at Bancroft’s School in Woodford Green High Road before going to war.
Mr Coxall, 55, from Chelmsford, now Detective Chief Superintendent for Essex Police, is aiming to preserve the memory of the former pupils, known as Bancroftians, who lost their lives.
He said: “People speak of a huge debt to a ‘lost generation’ who were killed in the Great War and without reservation my research shows this.
“As a schoolboy, I like many of my contemporaries imagined these names represented grown men, hard and tough and somewhat removed from our world.
“The truth is entirely the opposite – they were boys just like ourselves.
“They universally went through great privations and were by turns brave, modest, caring, optimistic, cheerful, dour, questioning and scared by what they had to go through.
“They left behind lovers, wives, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers.”
He said the project, which has so far been running for 18 months, had been “absolutely fascinating as well as emotive and greatly humbling.”
Two boys researched as part of the project are cousins Harry Douglas Blake and Robert Dunham Tibbs.
Private Blake, of the 10th Royal Fusiliers, was 23 when he was killed in action on December 8 1915.
He lived with his family in Stag Lane, Buckhurst Hill, and had played inside right for the school’s football team.
He was killed in Foncquevillers, in the northern part of the battlegrounds of the Somme, during a large planned assault on the enemy.
In a letter sent to the school after his death, his uncle wrote: “On one of the last occasions he came to see me before he went out, we were discussing the various brutalities, enacted by the Huns since the war began and I said I was a firm believer in reprisals.
“His reply was: ‘No, uncle, I don’t agree with you; let us be able to say at the finish we fought clean’.
“Now that was absolutely characteristic of the boy. It was not cricket to him to do anything else.
“He lived clean and he fought clean and died clean.
“What better example could past and present Bancroftians have to live up to than to be able to say at the finish ‘I fought clean’.”
Pte Blake’s cousin, Second Lieutenant Tibbs, died shortly afterwards on December 30 1915 at the age of 22.
He lived at Home Farm in High Road, Chigwell, with his parents, four brothers and two sisters and played cricket and athletics for the school.
2nd Lt Tibbs was on board the P&O liner SS Persia, heading towards Egypt, when it was torpedoed without warning by a German U-boat 71 miles south east of Crete.
The boat sank within minutes and 343 passengers and crew were drowned. Their bodies were never recovered.
2nd Lt Tibbs’ brothers all served in the Royal Field Artillery and survived the war, though not unscathed.
Mr Coxall, who attended the school from 1970 to 1977, said: “I have been in contact with surviving family members of our boys in Britain, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and South Africa.
“They are all immensely supportive of their ancestors being so remembered and honoured.
“Overnight in that August of 1914, these boys’ worlds were turned upside down.
“Without hesitation, they served a cause they believed to be right and were loyal to their comrades who suffered like them.
“They never flinched from doing so and I feel we indeed owe them and thousands of others like them a huge debt, which is too little understood.”
The school is planning a series of events to mark the centenary of the war and the project will be published when it is finished later this year.
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