On the afternoon of 11 November 1918, my father Claud Cockburn, then aged 14, covertly threw the keys of the main gate of his school out of an upstairs window to a soldier waiting below. His purpose was to allow the soldiers being trained locally to break into Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire and thrash it in retaliation for the refusal of the headmaster, Charles Greene, to call a school holiday to celebrate the armistice, which had just been declared. Many pupils, including Claud, objected to this decision, as did the soldiers, angry at what they saw as an unpatriotic failure to celebrate victory adequately after four years of war.
But the soldiers and schoolboys were both mistaken about the headmaster’s motives: Charles Greene, whose third son was the novelist Graham Greene, supported the war, but he was acutely aware of its terrible cost, not least to former Berkhamsted pupils, of whom no less than 230 had been killed, their names commemorated by plaques outside the school chapel, while a further 1,145 were still in the armed forces as the war ended. “Most of the sixth form were wiped out year after year,” Claud recalled 60 years later. “I know when I was in the sixth form, I think that only 10 per cent of the previous year were still alive.” Greene, a liberally minded man with great force of character, had had the grim experience of seeing those whom he had just been teaching called up when they reached the age of 18 and, all too often, they were reported killed or wounded a few months later.
The end of the slaughter might have led Greene to declare a holiday, but he reached a radically different conclusion about how the peace should best be celebrated. He had time to think about this because the news that the German kaiser and crown prince had abdicated reached Berkhamsted on Sunday 10 November and the announcement of the end of the war would clearly follow shortly. When the armistice was signed at 11am the following day, Greene announced the fact to staff and pupils who sang “God Save the King” before dispersing. He did not make the expected announcement about the holiday but instructed everyone to go on working as if this was a normal day. He justified this by arguing that, with 5 million allied soldiers killed, the survivors had to work even harder to make best use of the victory for the good of civilisation and could not afford to take holidays. “We must go on,” he said. “Now is the time for effort.”
It was a decision which, however reasonable in abstract terms, was so entirely contrary to the patriotic fervour of the day and the intense sense of relief being felt by those who had the most to gain from an end to the fighting that it provoked an almost instant uprising. Those involved included soldiers training in and around Berkhamsted, most of whom belonged to the Officers Training Corps (OTC) of the Inns of Court, in addition to members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. They were highly – and soon drunkenly – relieved to find that they would not be sent to the western front where the OTC members stood a high chance of being killed or maimed. The boys at Berkhamsted, particularly the prefects and the older boys facing military call-up, also had good reason to be thankful that the fighting was over. Explaining this in an interview 60 years later, Claud told Norman Sherry, the author of the magisterial biography The Life of Graham Greene – from which much of this account of the Berkhamsted uprising is derived – said that, deeply though he admired Charles Greene, he could understand the anger of the prefects and senior boys at not being allowed to celebrate victory. He pointed out they had been living in expectation of likely death or injury in the near future “so they didn’t take much interest in the preservation of civilisation or the school spirit and they got pretty rough”.
The prefects, normally in charge of keeping tight discipline in Berkhamsted, had conspired with men from the OTC to break into the school. By chance it was Claud, though much younger than the others in the plot, who played a crucial role in what happened next. Because it was he was due to have a bath, he was allowed to enter part of the school which was beyond the Great Hall, which was the main assembly area for staff and pupils. He was therefore able to open an upstairs window and throw down the key of the heavily locked main gate, which the plotters had secured, to a sergeant major waiting below.
It is worth citing my father’s account, as retailed to Sherry, at length since it gives a tangible sense of the rapidly unfolding events: “I can remember now sitting there – it was one of those foggy nights in Berkhamsted, fog rising from the canal and so on, and suddenly, we heard the roar of the distant troops coming up the road. Everybody was quite content because they couldn’t get in. And then in they burst and we were all sitting at prep in the Great Hall at about 7pm. So suddenly all these drunken troops and women came surging in and were planning to throw Charles Greene into the canal … and Greene and the second master Cox appeared at the end of that little passage, and defended the door, and Greene was persuaded to retire to his study. Cox stood at the door, and drunken troops joined in with the students, and we surged out of the school, and marched through the streets of Berkhamsted, and I can remember to this day walking down Berkhamsted High Street and I took off my shoes in order to beat on the drum with them. We then occupied the local cinema and we sprang onto the stage and sang songs and yelled and shouted. And at last the troops retired, and we, rather bedraggled, returned after this enormous elation, this tremendous night, and suddenly realised that we had to face reality. And that reality was Charles Greene who was sitting at the big desk on the Great Hall, and said ‘you’re expelled, you’re expelled’ one after another. He expelled 122 of us…”
The rioters went to bed deeply worried. Claud in particular was anxious because he knew that his father, Henry Cockburn, a former Foreign Office diplomat of high principle and seriousness of purpose, would take the dimmest of views of his expulsion. The following morning, he and the other expellees were brought back to the Great Hall and given a great lecture by Greene, his denunciation of their action delivered with all the force and rolling periods of which Victorian rhetoric was capable. He linked the previous day’s riot to the revolutionary upsurge spreading everywhere since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917: “This is one more exhibition of the spirit of Bolshevism which is spreading across Europe. Over there in Moscow, there sits Lenin, there sits Trotsky, there they are. The spirit of Bolshevism and atheism is creeping across Europe. It is breaking out all over. Look at Lenin, look at Trotsky and look at you.” Fortunately for his by now thoroughly rattled listeners, Greene in his rage had expelled more of his pupils than could really be purged in one go, so all were reinstated aside from two whom, Claud recalled, had “tried to get the soldiers to break into Charles Greene’s study and tear up his books – a really rather shitty thing to do”.
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