Lincoln Christ's Hospital School

Lincoln Christ's Hospital School
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William Harrison Crowder DSO

From the Garton Archive at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School

Occasional Paper No 39

compiled by

Peter Harrod

And dedicated to Mr Freddie White

 

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Corporal William Harrison Crowder of the Lincolnshire Yeomanry

Many readers will have seen the poignant and moving film, ‘Tell Them of Us’, shown at Stanhope Hall in Horncastle, The Collection in Lincoln and elsewhere in the county. The film is set during the Great War, and is the story of the Crowder family of Thimbleby, owners of the Crowder Nurseries in Horncastle. It is told from the perspective of those members of the family who were at home waiting for news of their two sons, William and Robert, who fought on the front line for their King and Country. The title of the film was taken from the iconic epitaph in the Kohima Allied War Cemetery, attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds.

This article focuses in particular on William Harrison Crowder, the eldest of the two sons of Ann and William Ashley Crowder. William was a pupil at Lincoln Grammar School, and the Garton Archive at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School (LCHS) contains a number of records which provide an insight into his time at the School. The article also draws heavily on an unpublished booklet, Family, War and Captivity, dated 2007, which is the copyright of the Crowder family. The booklet contains letters, photographs, war records and other memorabilia, described by archivist Peter Liddle as an ‘archival treasure trove’. Particular use has been made of the extensive and illuminating correspondence between William Crowder and Peter Liddle*.

Born in Thimbleby, Lincolnshire, in 1894, William Harrison Crowder attended Horncastle Grammar School as a day boy, but was later sent to Lincoln Grammar School (re-named Lincoln School in 1912) as a boarder in 1907 at the age of thirteen (see Appendix One). In a letter to Peter Liddle, William confides that he was ‘badly ragged and bullied’ at first because of his red hair. As a sensitive and self-conscious boy he was ‘frightfully unhappy’, but having been involved in a fight behind the ‘Fives’ court at the School, he attained some measure of self-respect, and began to enjoy life. He described the ‘wonderful masters’ including the Headmaster Chambers, who was given the soubriquet ‘Jerry’ for reasons that our generation will understand!

 

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Family Photo at Thimbleby Villa in 1896

Describing himself as ‘a very shy and nervous boy’, William took solace in acting, completely losing himself in the roles and becoming a ‘different person’. He also confided in the same letter that he would have liked to have been an actor, but such a thing would never have been allowed in those days, and his father’s word was law. He would never have thought of questioning his father’s decisions, or of being in the slightest rebellious. How reminiscent that is of a certain John Vincent Hurt, who was a boarder at Lincoln School half a century later, and who found similar opposition to his ambitions by his father and Headmaster ‘George’ Franklin. John, an equally sensitive boy, also suffered bullying at Lincoln School, not least because of his ‘posh’ accent.

In another uncanny similarity to John Hurt’s stage career at Lincoln School (he played the part of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of being Earnest’), William took on the demanding role of Lucinde in Molière’s comedy, Le Médecin Malgré Lui. In a boys’ school, of course, female parts are necessarily played by ‘willing’ males!

William’s musical talents were apparently welcomed at Lincoln Grammar School, as suggested by an entry in The Lincolnian magazine, July 1907. In an article about the School Boarding House, WH Crowder was described as ‘the new musical prodigy’. However, I am informed by the Crowder family that it was his brother Robert who was the musical one, so that reference is something of a mystery. In a reference to his fighting prowess behind the ‘Fives’ court, it was also recorded, perhaps with heavy irony, that he had not done great things at running or cricket, but had ‘shewn (note spelling) great promise as a pugilist’! Clearly a DSO was on the cards even at that early age!

Later references to William in The Lincolnian magazine are few and far between, largely because the magazine was not published between July 1908 and December 1911 for financial reasons. Since the ‘tug of war’ caused him to volunteer several years later, it is perhaps appropriate that he was in the Tug of War team that won the event at the Athletic Sports in1908. His team, led by N Curtis, consisted of William himself, FR Mehew, G Jackson, W Whittle and LE Read, who was sadly killed in action during the Great War. When the magazine was reinstated, it was recorded that he attended the Old Linconians’ Annual Dinner at the White Hart Hotel on 15th December 1914.

I have scrutinised successive issues of The Lincolnian during the Great War, but I can find only one reference to William’s war record. The School Notes for 1918 celebrated the fact that Lieutenant WH Crowder RFA was the Forward Observation Officer referred to in The Times as ‘…having heroically stuck to his post, and telephoned the first rush of the Germans in their Spring offensive’. According to the article, he was reported as having been killed, but this was later rescinded, and he had in fact been taken as a prisoner of war. The report concluded by predicting that ‘Reuben’ would be ‘…overwhelmed when he reads all the splendid things said of him’. The soubriquet Reuben is apparently something of a mystery to the Crowder family.

 

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William Harrison Crowder’s Admission to Lincoln Grammar School in 1907

We are fortunate, however, to have detailed accounts of William’s war record in the Crowder family booklet, Family, War and Captivity, including extracts from letters some of which were featured in the film. RMC Holland, William’s grandson and the family archivist who complied and produced the booklet, provides more details of William’s heroic actions in the Foreword. Describing what turned out to be the prelude to the last great battle of the Great War (‘The Kaiser’s Battle’), Robert Holland, whose mother Roberta Crowder attended Lincoln Christ’s Hospital Girls High School during the 1930s, painted a picture of the German artillery and gas bombardment, involving thousands of guns and mortars, which began at 5.00 am on the morning of Thursday 21st March 1918. He went on to write that Lieutenant Crowder, aged 24, was in command of Gosling Observation Post, and from this forward position he and his men were able to keep HQ advised by telephone of the magnitude of the German advance. “They’re coming over in thousands,” was the message, relayed to HQ before they were captured. For his role in that action, William was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), which he received from King George V at Buckingham Palace in 1920 (See Appendix below).

William, or ‘Will’ as he came to be addressed in the correspondence with archivist Peter Liddle, has described his memories of the Great War in graphic detail in the booklet, and what follows is a summary of his memoir. I take full responsibility for the selection and the paraphrasing. As depicted in the film, Will eventually decided to join up in the spring of 1915 at the age of 21. He had been unhappy about not being in the forces, especially when the names of young fellows he knew, or knew of, began to appear in the ever-lengthening casualty list. Lincoln Grammar School sadly figured on that list of names and details are given later in this article. He had no encouragement from his parents, who never expressed themselves in favour, and he knew that he risked a rebuke from his mother if he did volunteer. However, he could bear it no longer when the Lincolnshire Yeomanry advertised for one thousand men, and he ‘slipped off and enlisted’, drawing a veil over the uproar that it caused in the family.

During his training Will found that it was some, but not all of the Sergeant Majors and Sergeants who were the worst people they had to contend with, and who allowed authority to go to their heads. He used to enjoy the ‘spit and polish parades’, which afforded the opportunity ‘to feast our eyes on a pretty daughter or two’. The changing of the guard was quite a ceremony, and there were bugle calls for routines such as reveille, lights out and cookhouse. There were frequent rumours of ‘drafts’, and soldiers were often placed on pre-embarkation leave, but without the ensuing call. This process of waiting is beautifully captured in the film, as Will eventually decided that he had to go out to the Front, and put in for a commission. Nothing happened, however, and he later found out that his papers had been lost in a pile in the Orderly Room. Nevertheless he was eventually interviewed by a ‘charming General’, and to cut a long story short was sent on a six month course as an officer cadet and stationed at the Lord’s Cricket Ground. Will found the training to be very formidable, both from the practical side of the field artillery work to which he had been assigned, and from the academic input which included the maths and trigonometry of gunnery.

Following further training on Salisbury Plain and at Catterick Camp in Yorkshire, Will at last received instructions to proceed to Southampton in preparation for embarkation. “At last I was on French soil and on my way to the Front Line,” he wrote. It was at this time that the Crowder family were beginning to worry about Will’s younger brother, Robert, who was in the Artists’ Rifles, and whose regular letters home had ceased to arrive. Once again those desperate times were poignantly portrayed in the film. Will knew at the time that the Artists had been ‘very badly cut up in those dreadful battles of Passchendaele’, and he feared the worst. His broken-hearted parents received the letter announcing the news of Robert’s death on the very day that Will had sailed for France. Will never blamed or hated the German soldiers. In fact he admitted that he did not know who to blame for those casualties.

Will continued to describe his wartime experiences in some detail to Peter Liddle. Most of the officers he encountered were honourable men, but he told stories of officers who neglected their duties, drank whisky during the night, and faked their reports. One was even described as a ‘pompous ass’! He also recalls a padré who was rather too fond of indulging in smutty stories! One enjoyable interlude occurred when he was detailed to attend an artillery course at Christmas time in a château near Abbeville. The authorities made the occasion as festive as possible, and L du Garde Peach, a celebrated English author and playwright, was on the course and wrote an hilarious play called ‘The Worst Woman in Prospect’. Will happened to be cast as the ‘worst woman’, and was thus able to practise his dormant thespian skills in front of a large audience which included all the ‘brass hats’!

 

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William’s younger brother Robert

I will conclude by summarising Will’s own account of the scenes at the Gosling Observation Post, and of his subsequent imprisonment. The 21st March 1918 was described by him as ‘a very long and hot day’. Life had apparently become ‘somewhat boring’, during the spring of 1918, and he was wishing that something would happen. The film captures his feelings by quoting from a letter describing the monotony of drills, parades and other routines. However, he didn’t have long to wait for action. Following a false alarm in early March, rumours were rife that the Germans would attack on the 21st of the month. Will had little sleep the night before, having been informed that he would be manning Gosling Observation Post.

Will had thought of the possibility of being killed or wounded, but it never crossed his mind that he might be taken prisoner. He spent most of the night talking his three ‘delightful’ Scottish telephonists, trying his best to understand their broad Glaswegian accents! Early in the morning, a heavy bombardment began which grew in intensity, and all hell was let loose. Will described it as being like hundreds of glasshouses crashing around them. Strangely he felt no fear, but only a sense of elation. Once during the bombardment he had to answer a call of nature, and was forced to manage as best he could between the dugouts, armed with a spade. In the midst of the inferno of battle, he remembered thinking how undignified it would be if he were to be caught with his trousers down! Nothing went according to plan during those few hours except that they managed to stay alive, and to communicate with the CO.

In the fog of war (literally as it happened), the thinly held trenches were soon overcome by the encroaching Germans, and Will and his men were caught like ‘rats in a trap’, and yet continued to report back for as long as possible. Will wrote that he was told to report back for as long as possible, but that if anything occurred to prevent that happening, he was to cut the telephone wire and surrender. It was not part of a Forward Observation Officer’s duty to be killed! Such gallant men were prime targets for the German army. When sticks bombs were hurled down the OP steps they decided that it was time to surrender. One of William’s men spoke a little German so they filed out to face the music. It was a relief to Will that the Germans were Bavarians, and he believed it would have been a different story had they been Prussians**. ‘Flushed with an easy victory’, as Will put it, the Germans who spoke to them believed that the war was as good as won. They thought it was all over, to paraphrase Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary on another ‘battle’ between England and Germany in 1966!

William Crowder’s account of the tortuous journey from his capture to the prison at Graudenz, where he spent most of his captivity, captured the conditions in graphic imagery. Train journeys were long and tedious, with lengthy stops, and the rank and file travelled in cattle trucks. Food was scarce and included a ration of some ‘foul stuff called sauerkraut…and some substitute coffee made from acorns’. Will recalls how generous the Belgians were during train stops. They would come across the fields with jugs of coffee, and on one occasion a warm omelette was pressed into his hand. Accommodation in huts was cramped and primitive, and the beds were made of straw mattresses. There was no proper sanitation, although carts would empty the latrines fairly regularly. On one occasion Will looked up to the sky and saw that the clouds formed an almost perfect map of the British Isles. That was taken as a good omen!

When Will and the other prisoners finally reached their destination at Graudenz Barracks on the banks of the River Vistula, conditions were little better. The food ration consisted of ‘so-called’ bread, which was the only solid food they had during the week. The rest was two helpings of thin, watery soup each day, with a few chunks of potato and turnip floating in it. The Germans themselves were so short of rations themselves that they couldn’t expect much more. When at long last parcels started to arrive from home on an open cart drawn by oxen, Will was surprised that there was seldom anything missing. Perhaps there was some honour among soldiers? However, when a whole new kit arrived from home, all Will received was a coat, breeches and one boot! Those of you who have seen the film will recall this story, and also the bottle of wine which provided a poor exchange for the loss of the clothing! The winter scene below captures the bleak and forbidding nature of Graudenz, and William Crowder is standing on the far left of the photograph, taken at the camp in 1918.

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Some of the descriptions of the camp put me in mind of the television series Colditz; the escape plans, the tunnels, and the dramatic societies that were formed. Moreover, ‘very noisy’ cricket was played in the compound, which was beyond the comprehension of the Germans, who used to get very annoyed about it. Simply not cricket, old chap!

Then came the time when rumours were rife that the end of the war was in sight. The most worrying time of all was apparently when the camp heard of the Armistice, as the prisoners had no idea what their fate might be. In the event, some high-ranking naval officers appeared and told them that a getaway was being arranged by sea, and eventually they were told that the camp was to be cleared, and they would be proceeding to the Baltic sea port of Danzig (now Gdansk). Following the train journey, they arrived at the port, and found that they were to travel on a Danish Red Cross boat, from which they had spectacular views of the spires of Copenhagen. When eventually they arrived in Leith, excitement was beginning to run high, and following the journey to London on a hospital train, and the subsequent medical examination and release, Will made his way home to Thimbleby. It was a week or two before Christmas, and perhaps there was a little poetic licence in the film, which had Will arriving home late on Christmas Eve. However, that emotional tear-jerking scene will remain long in the memory. The war was over, wrote Will, and ‘the old order had changed giving way to new’. Things would never be the same again.

In researching the story of William Harrison Crowder for this article I have been struck how modest and unassuming the man clearly was, more especially in the matter-of-fact way in which he described the hours leading up to his capture. The truth is that Will and his men had stayed at the telephone until the last, even while being bombed***. That is surely a lesson for us all to learn from a soldier who was awarded the DSO for his gallantry at that moment in time, during the ‘war to end all wars’.

Will was one of almost fifty former pupils of Lincoln Grammar School (renamed Lincoln School in 1912) who lost their lives during the Great War. There was also a teacher from Lincoln Christ’s Hospital Girls’ High School, Miss Edith Fowle, who was killed when a Hampden bomber crashed on Greestone Stairs on 22nd July 1941. The photograph (below) of the War Memorial, recently refurbished and restored to its original site in the cloisters at LCHS, is a fitting tribute to those brave young men.

When you go home, tell them of us and say

            For their tomorrow, we gave our today

(from the iconic epitaph in the Kohima Allied War Cemetery,

attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds)

 

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The War Memorial in the Cloisters at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School

*  Peter Liddle was Senior Lecturer in History and Head of the Archives at Sunderland Polytechnic at the time of the correspondence in 1976.

** In the The Kaiser’s Battle by Martin Middlebrook (Penguin Books, 1978) it was revealed that  Will’s captors were in fact men of the 119th Division, and of Polish rather than Bavarian origin. It was apparently a common error to regard all Germans as either Prussians or Bavarians during the Great War.

*** From The History of the 51st (Highland) Division 1914-1918, by Major FW Bewsher (The Naval & Military Press, 2001)

Appendix

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William Harrison Crowder relaxing in later years in his lounge at Thimbleby

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A Grateful King George V

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The Investiture of the DSO

Acknowledgements

Grateful thanks are due to Robert Crowder and to Robert Matthew Crowder Holland for their permission to use the Crowder family archives, and to reproduce some of the original photographs and documents,

References

RMC Holland (2007)   Family, War & Captivity Unpublished Booklet Printed by Press Masters, Birmingham

Extracts from The Lincolnian Magazines referred to in the text

Tell Them of Us   A Film about the Crowder brothers, William and Robert during the Great War

Directed by Nick Loven   WAG Screen (Washingborough Archeology Group), Lincoln UK

About the author

Peter Harrod is assistant archivist at LCHS responsible for the pre-1974 archives. He is also a Foundation Governor at the School, and was a pupil at Lincoln School in the 1950s.