The Long Winding Trail

Posted on: November 4th 2018School News

James Lyons


The following was written by our archivist, Jeremy Ward, and looks at just some of the MGS pupils who gave their lives during World War 1, and how The Great War affected the School:


A young man was walking through a field in France. Suddenly something caught his eye -  something familiar. Lying on the ground was the unmistakable cover of his old school’s magazine Ulula.  He picked it up and read it. It brought back memories, mostly happy. He was not on holiday, he was not on a hiking trip, he was a Private in the 8th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers on active service near the front line in August 1917.  

Ernest Schofield (MGS 1910-12) recorded his strange find in one of the many letters he sent home to his parents in Patricroft during his period of service. Initially trained in Tunbridge Wells (where better?!), then at the base in Colchester, he arrived in France in January 1917, saw action, recorded shell and gas attacks and wrote his final letter on October 3. The following day, he was reported missing in action. His parents and beloved young sister suffered the all too familiar ritual of hope was he a prisoner? Would he turn up wounded in a hospital? etc - and then despair. His death was finally confirmed months later in March 1918, and his final letter did not reach home until 1920 ,with a brief apology from the War Ministry.

A year before Ernest Schofield joined MGS, two other boys entered the School they were very different from each other, but neither was to survive the conflict that shortly consumed the nation. Eric Betley (MGS 1909-15), from Didsbury, was a classic high achiever, beloved by all who knew him. Described as "warm-hearted and spontaneous"  he became Captain of the School, Captain of the Lacrosse team and holder of an open scholarship in Classics at Hertford College, Oxford. He gave up his academic career to join the Royal Artillery, from where he transferred to the RAF. Flying over the front lines carrying out vital reconnaissance work was one of the most dangerous jobs of the war and Eric was shot down and killed on 21 March 1918, as the Allied forces desperately tried to hold back the great German Spring Offensive which had begun the day before. 

James Lyons (MGS 1909-14), born just six days after Ernest Schofield, was not cut out for war. A quiet and somewhat introverted boy he suffered from persistent ill-health, but was still determined to "do his bit". He lived in Winton and displayed an unusually creative talent for writing. From the age of ten or so, he was busy writing poems and stories, and may lay claim to being the School’s only published war poet. Far less known than the likes of Sassoon, Owen, Graves and Blunden for example, some of his work is very moving and beautifully written. Two volumes of his poems were published (one posthumously) and recently a Complete Works has been produced thanks to the hard work of Robert Cochrane. While at school, he had stories published in boys magazines and was awarded the Manchester Poetry Society Prize in 1916 for his poem War. Unable to cope with active service, he joined the RAMC as a medical orderly and worked tirelessly in a military hospital through most of 1917-18. It was too much for his delicate health and he was discharged on medical grounds, only to catch the dreaded Spanish flu which killed him on 8 August, 1918.

These are only three examples of the vast number of OMs who died either in the fighting or of a consequence of it. In 1918 alone, at least 130 died mostly during the ferocious battles that followed the German attack on 20 March. At last the stalemate of trench warfare was ended. The Germans advanced so rapidly that Paris itself might have fallen.The fighting was chaotic and unpredictable, but the Allies rallied as American troops and supplies stiffened their resistance. From July onwards, they counter-attacked but suffered huge casualties as the Germans defended their territory vigorously. In particular, October was a terrible month  with large numbers of OMs killed and wounded just a few weeks short of the Armistice, as the Allies were making their final push for victory.

Even today it is impossible to know exactly how many OMs died as a result of the war, but a figure of at least 550 of the 3500 or so who served is not unreasonable and, of course, hundreds more were physically and mentally wounded. They ranged from grizzled veterans like Major Louis Demetriadi (MGS 1873 1876) who was well over 50 as he battled to save lives as a surgeon on the front lines from 1914 until he died in 1918, to the barely 18-year-old RAF cadet Edward Lloyd (MGS 1915-18), killed as he trained to fly in October 1918. In 1918, 10 teenage OMs were killed and at least 70 of the dead were under 25-years-old. Lieutenants and 2nd Lieutenants had the least chance of survival. Then there were the hundreds of family members, wives, mothers and children who had lost their loved ones, not to mention the thousands whose husband, son, brother or father had served in acute danger. 

Thus the contribution of Old Mancunians and their families matches that of any school in the country.  Many had received medals and other honours Major Richard Holme (MGS  1889-94) was mentioned in dispatches no less than four times (including in Field Marshal Haig’s very last dispatch) and was awarded the Portuguese Military Order, while in addition to one VC, large numbers of MCs, MMs, DFCs, DSOs etc were won. There were several Croix de Guerres and foreign awards from Belgium, Italy, Greece and Romania. Of particular distinction was Brigadier General G D Goodman, (MGS 1883-5) commander of the 21st Infantry Brigade, who was awarded DSO and the Cross of St Michael and St George, while Captain William Kay of the Manchester Regiment gained the DSO and the MC, plus two bars.

As I have written before on the Home Front, MGS put in a remarkable effort. Individual ideas were encouraged and supported. James Fenton (MGS 1916-18), then aged 14, gained High Master J L Paton’s backing for an idea that was to prove most valuable and somewhat unusual. He noticed that Salford trams and trolley buses were short of conductors as the men had nearly all been called up and the women were busy in the factories. He proposed that MGS boys should take over the task and, int hose pre-Health and Safety Executive and child protection days, his offer was welcomed. Thus, for the last two years of the war, boyish voices called out the names of the stops and rang the bells to start and stop the vehicles among other duties. Meanwhile, the older and stronger boys continued their labours at the Lancashire  and Yorkshire Railway’s Newton Heath Depot. This was dangerous and physically demanding work, loading and unloading wagons and digging an enormous pit for waste disposal purposes. At least one boy, 16-year-old old James Hall (MGS 1915-18), died in an accident there. During the Whit and Summer holidays of 1918, work camps continued in some far flung locations 380 boys were weeding and picking flax in Dorset and Lincolnshire, while potato lifting in Shropshire, Cheshire and Lancashire provided enjoyment nearer home. Even the juniors at the Alderley Camp offered their services as weeders. Again, it is impossible to make an exact tally of the School’s war effort, but it amounted to many thousands of hours of valuable work. At no point in its history did MGS contribute more the nation’s well-being.

The consequences of the war were long-lasting. As letters of thanks poured in from the likes of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and the Salford Tram Company praising the boys’ work, and the Ministry of War sent a German machine gun as a reward to the OTC for its efforts, Paton and the School governors determined that the cramped site in Long Millgate was no longer fit for purpose and that a new location in green and sunny Rusholme should be acquired. Part of the Birch Hall estate was bought and plans drawn up for an expansive new school, the centrepiece of which would be a vast Memorial Hall to be a fitting monument to those who had given their lives. For various reasons, the new school was not to open until 1931 but still operates today. Although MGS is much changed and expanded since 1931, the Memorial Hall remains its centre, and on its wall are inscribed the names of the OMs and the two members of staff who died. In addition, and uniquely in British schools, a member of the German armed forces appears Bernard Neuendorff, a much-loved teacher at MGS, who died fighting on the Eastern Front. In the entrance hall on the left hand side as you enter is a small plinth on top of which rests the Memorial Book, listing those who gave their lives.

Thus ended the most terrible experience the country and the school had endured, and it is sad to relate that lessons were not learned and, barely 20 years later, the call to arms was repeated. The Second World War was equally traumatic, although fewer lost their lives this time the School itself was in the front line and suffered quite severe bomb damage. Thankfully since 1945, no such call has been repeated, but 100 years on we continue to remember those who gave their lives. Here are the moving words of James Lyons, written a few months before his own death, of those who gave their lives:

Sleepers all, down the future days,

Live in the hearts of men you must,

For a realm of nobler, wider ways,

Shall spring to life from your splendid dust.

(from To The Fallen, 1916)