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First Published in Ad Astra January 2015 pp 46-47

‘In fields of Flanders scarr’d by war the best and worthiest lie’. - Geelong College School Song, c1925.

Contained within the old buildings of the Senior School Campus is the large bronze memorial tablet to those who served in the Great War. Upon it are engraved the names of those who ventured their lives in that savage conflict. It is a daunting list. Over 508 Collegians served during World War I. Of those, 96 are known to have died directly from their experience of war.

There is a story, recalled by an Old Collegian, of how, during a memorial service shortly after World War I, the Principal, broke down in tears at a school assembly and abruptly left Morrison Hall - the intensity of his emotional stress readily apparent. How deeply the war affected the School is hard to comprehend now but so intense was the infliction of pain, that even the School Song, ‘The School on the Hill’ penned some 10 years later still referred to the deaths on Flanders Fields. The School, to this day, still recites the names of those who sacrificed their lives at its annual Anzac Day ceremony.

For the Principal and his staff, the rollcall of the dead was a rollcall of friends; they had barracked for them on the football field, they had sat with them basking in the sun outside the northern entrance, roused them out of the ‘secret’ smoking room in the old Pavilion, and had encouraged them to strive towards worthy lives and careers. In these students they had invested their own aspirations for future greatness.

Geelong College before the War was a relatively small school by modern standards. It was the Edwardian era, a time of pride in the ascendancy of the British Empire. Australia was a new nation. Patriotism and nationalism were growing themes in the nation’s newspapers. Optimism and confidence flooded the School when, in 1908, it returned to the ownership of the Presbyterian Church and, in 1909, joined the prestigious APS group though this was tempered by Norman Morrison’s untimely death that year. By 1914, the College had a total enrolment of perhaps 180 students.

When World War I was declared there were few suspicions of the future holocaust. At Geelong College, from which a dozen or so Old Collegians had volunteered and fought during the Anglo-South African war, students were excited and supportive. A few looked forward to sagas of heroism, and epic individual combat. The impact however of the next four years on the School was to be so different and so devastating that, by war’s end, it was difficult for anyone to recall that vivid almost joyous sense of expectation that had pervaded the School in 1908.

Histories often understate the enormous impact the ‘Great War’ had on private schools particularly those that drew their students from rural areas. Many College students of that time had come from farm properties in the Western District or the Riverina. They had grown up riding and shooting, had learned to live ‘rough’ and independent. These young men were healthy, competitive, active, imbued with purpose. They were largely unaffected by the conflict over Ireland. Their parents still looked trustingly to Great Britain for leadership. Students were well-versed in the rigors and discipline of military training through the College Cadet Corps. At the outbreak of war, former College students were precisely the sort of ‘young men’ army recruiters dreamed of.

Of those who escaped death, many were injured or suffered from infectious disease during service. As we now also know, many suffered acute mental anguish that blighted their lives and those around them. In current terms the loss of life would be like losing the entire Year 12 cohort of one year killed in action and a second Year 12 cohort severely injured or medically unfit through illness. While we have no firm figures we estimate that 15% of all the students who passed through the School in the 10 or so years leading up to World War I died on active service.

Here, in front of the Principal’s doorway, the School Prefects of 1914 sit, blissfully unaware of their unfolding future. Like our students they are intent on their studies, their social lives, their sporting efforts. These are the young men who enjoyed playing cricket and football on the Main Oval, walked these same grounds, sat in these same classrooms, felt the same slights, and dreamt the same hopes that the Collegians of today do. These were the bright, enthusiastic elite of an elite School, ripe with ambition and enthusiasm for their future world.

Roy Pillow was posted to the Australian Flying Corps. His life was cut short in an aircraft crash in 1918 a week after his brother’s death on the Western Front. Gordon McArthur, wounded by shell fragments at Ypres in 1917, had his leg amputated. Lyall Richardson served in Palestine and the Western Front in 1918. Rowland Hope was severely shot, in the neck and shoulder in 1917, but survived. William Reid was awarded the Military Cross at the Somme in 1917. Ashby Hooper was awarded the Military Cross in France in June, 1918. John Birnie, the youngest, continued at School in 1915. He did not enlist, indeed was probably not permitted to. His three older brothers, George, Norman and Robert did enlist. George was wounded twice. Norman was discharged as medically unfit in 1916. One can only imagine the discussions that occurred in the Birnie home as to whether John should follow his brothers to war.

There is another side to the sadness, the randomness and futility of World War I. High numbers of Collegians demonstrated their heroism, many were decorated. Their stories of enormous courage and support for each other are replete with endurance, loyalty, and persistence. Charles Timms, a stretcher bearer, was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry under fire four times. Four staff members were awarded the Military Cross and returned to the School.

There are many stories about World War I – about the heroic pointlessness of the frontal charge at Walkers Ridge on Gallipoli; of the industrial slaughter at Fromelles on the Western Front; or the legendary Light Horse charge at Beersheba in the Middle East. At all these battles Old Geelong Collegians were conspicuously there.

Sources: Ad Astra January 2015 pp 46-47.
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