Soldiers with a kangaroo mascot in Egypt during World War I. Australian War Memorial C02588

Teachers in the Great War

Ross Bell

They did their bit: hundreds of NSW teachers signed up to fight in World War I . Their lives are being painstakingly researched.

Wallace Ridley was teaching at Coonabarabran when World War I began. He wanted to join up but there was an obstacle: he was not yet 21 and needed to get the consent of his parents.

His mother agreed on February 17, 1915 and Wallace joined up shortly afterwards. He reached Gallipoli by August and was killed in the charge on Hill 60 on August 27. His body was never recovered.

Wallace Ridley was one of the hundreds of teachers of the then NSW Department of Public Instruction who enlisted in the armed forces during World War I. The teacher stories are unique because these men were closely identified with their profession.

As public servants, the teachers applied for leave to join the armed services and each received a letter granting leave on a series of conditions. I have been able to find only one of these letters in National Archives, written to John McGinnis at Kurri Kurri PS.

Some District Inspectors grumbled that the teacher might be enlisting to get out of a difficult appointment, but for most teachers the leave was granted willingly. The Department paid them an amount above their army pay so they remained on the same income they had as a teacher.

Quite a few teachers enlisted early in the war and so a number took part in the Landing on Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. One was Harry Wharton, who was teaching at Grosses Plains, near Jindabyne, before enlistment. He lay mortally wounded until found by his brother, Les. Wharton was taken to a hospital ship but died of his wounds and was buried at sea. He was 26 years old.

Aubrey Loomes, son of a teacher and a teacher himself, enlisted in August 1914 and was sent to Gallipoli as a signaller with B company, 1st Battalion. On May 2, 1915, the Turkish army began a determined attack and everyone, including the signallers, was ordered to the firing line at the top of Shrapnel Gully, the Australians’ path up to the frontline that was mercilessly shelled by the Turks. He never came back. His watch was reportedly found in the scrub. A Red Cross report states: “Killed in action 2.5.15. No burial report.”

Others, like Aubrey Loomes, who had been teaching at Paddington prior to enlistment, survived the Landing but simply disappeared in the confusion of the first few weeks of fighting.

The recently-published NSW Teacher ANZAC project holds records of almost all of these men. Their names are recorded on the honour rolls at the Education headquarters at Bridge Street, Sydney but it’s hard to know if William Bartrop is remembered at Bathurst High or James Youman’s life is remembered at Petersham PS. I certainly hope they are. Over time, schools who might have lost these connections could use the information in the NSW Teacher ANZAC project — it might help those schools discover a little of their past.

White’s great work

Among the teacher ANZACs who returned to Australia after the war was a remarkable man who became an Inspector of Schools and felt it his duty to record the service of these teachers.

Despite his own war injuries, Thomas Alexander White (1886–1962) moved round the school system documenting the men who returned from the war and ensuring the history of those who served and especially the deeds of those who died was recorded. While his hope for wide publication was not realised during his lifetime, his remarkable work is available online.

Mr White’s careful documentation and research uncovered many untold stories. It was he who was able to identify that Albert Druce, a teacher at Tirrana Creek PS, had died of disease at Cape Town — he never got to the Western Front. And he was able to report that Leslie Dinning, who taught at Mosman before enlistment had returned to Australia and remained at Randwick military hospital until his death in 1924.

When Alfred Corner, the Police Officer at Mulbring, was told that his son Claud, who had taught at Cessnock, had been killed in action, he did not know that he would conduct a long letter writing campaign to get his son’s possessions back. These few things were important to the parents and there are many letters in the National Archives begging for these precious possessions.

Following Mr. White’s work, a more recent publication by Tom Spencer has documented the efforts to build the honour rolls on the walls of the Education headquarters at Bridge Street that record the names of teachers who served in a number of conflicts. An electronic version of Spencer’s work can be viewed here.

The Soldier Teacher Project was able to make use of the vast amount of information now available online, and has produced information about teachers who enlisted from Aberglasslyn to Nowra to Woodburn and everywhere in between and who died on active service. Summaries of the information held can be viewed here.

The Federation Library, the Department of Education and Communities and the State Library all hold full copies of the Project.

If members are interested to see if a soldier enlisted from or was educated at their school, they can consult the linked documents. Individual files of combatants are available freely upon application.

There is an understatement in these teacher stories that is very Australian. It is in stark contrast to the flag-waving emotional nationalism that occasionally surrounds present day ANZAC Day commemorations.

In a memoriam notice by the parents of Eric Hancock, who been educated at Dungog and taught at Fort Street High before enlisting and being killed in action near Fleurbaix in 1916, it was simply and poignantly written: “He Did His Bit”

For further information: contact Ross Bell on email, (02) 8005 6218 or 0402 285 972.

Hundreds more teacher soldiers uncovered

T.A. White’s foundation research on teacher soldiers says 755 teachers joined up to fight in World War I but former TAFE head teacher Ken Stevenson, who is looking into the histories of Sydney Technical College staff who had served says he is coming across many more teacher soldiers whose names are not included on the Education honour rolls.

He is painstakingly cross-referencing war memorial records with names from Technical College exam results, and says as many as 1000-1500 teacher soldiers could have served in the Great War.

Ken is building a layered history of these men and their world. “There is a huge social history to be told and commemorated,” he said. He is working on a media display that he hopes would be set up on Anzac day in the Ultimo campus of the Sydney Institute that will develop into something very substantial and lasting.

“There is a wonderful opportunity to raise the profile of TAFE,” said Ken, a former Vietnam veteran who is Secretary Treasurer of the RSL teachers sub-branch.

“We say we know how World War I robbed Australia of a generation of young men — their potential families and their training skills — but we need a visual demonstration.”

According to research by White, a public school teacher who after serving in the war worked as principal and school inspector, teachers paid a terrible price for their patriotism in the war: almost one in six were killed. They were excellent fighters — almost one in 20 received honours — and excellent teachers — about 150 became principals.

Many of the courses taught at Sydney Technical College in 1915, such as engineering, are regarded as university courses today, and some of the soldier teachers who enlisted from there became eminent. They include Sir Samuel Barraclough, physics lecturer, who received a commendation from Churchill for the way he organised the munitions effort from England.

“Quite a lot of them were top quality,” Ken said. “What a pivotal role Sydney Technical College and tech ed played in Sydney society. This is coming through in newspaper articles at the time. It was an amazing institute, highly prized and well used.”

Ken says the details he is digging up are inspiring but also heartbreaking: a mother’s letter tells how her teacher soldier son saw a grenade falling off an officer’s rifle and threw himself over it to stifle the resulting explosion and save the lives of his men. Leonard Banfield, who had taught at Croydon Park, died on Hill 60 four days after landing at Gallipoli, leaving behind six children.

Many came back alive but were damaged all their lives, mentally or physically. White himself suffered from the effects of a poison gas attack; Ken has a letter from the quaintly-named Master of Lunacy addressed to the parents of a teacher soldier suffering from war trauma.

“Our society lost the talents of these teachers,” said Ken. “We might have won the war but we lost them.

Some resigned from the Department because of the war: One wrote: “It would not be fair to the children for me with my disfigurement to continue teaching.”

Assistant teacher of carpentry at the college, Leonard Stevenson Taylor, was one of them, says Ken.

Under the headline “Another good day at the barracks: The rush continues,” the Sydney Morning Herald reports on May 12, 1915: “At the Technical College on Friday evening last, a send-off was given to Private L.S. Taylor, who has joined the expeditionary forces by the staff and students of the woodworking classes. He was presented with a wristlet watch and a pipe.”

Taylor lasted five months, dying of his wounds after heavy fighting in Gallipoli.