Bedales staff January to September 1914

Noel Michell was the only British born member of Bedales Staff to be killed in World War One; his connection with the School was brief, but he must have developed an affection for the place as he visited during a leave and wrote a letter “from the trenches” to The Bedales Chronicle (see below).

Noel was the second son of George Burgess Michell and his wife Edith Rosina née Edghill.  The Michell family was Sussex born and bred.  Noel’s paternal grandfather, another George, had been born about 1811.  He must have married before the introduction of civil registration in the autumn of 1837 so I haven’t been able to find out anything about his wife apart from her forename – Eliza; she bore him at least ten children before her death in the last months of 1859.  The 1841 and 1851 censuses saw George as a Brewer in Steyning but he must have prospered as, by 1861, a widower, he was also a Coal Merchant and a farmer.  Ten years later, still a Brewer, he was also a Farmer of 298 acres.  By 1881 this had been rounded up to 300 acres: on the farm he was employing 8 men and 4 boys and 18 men in the Brewery.  The younger George was still at home but described merely as, “Farmer’s son”.

Two years later George Burgess Michell married Edith Rosina Edghill, ten years his junior, who had been born in Georgetown, Demerara, British Guiana.  I haven’t been able to uncover anything about her background apart from the fact that she was a pupil at Highfield Ladies School in Hendon in 1881.  Their first son George Eric was born in December 1884 and, after being a pupil at a school in Great Anwell Ware, he married in 1908 and, with his wife Violet, was in Llanelly in 1911 as a Brewing student.

Possibly Noel was seen to be more academic; he was a pupil at Malvern College from 1899 to 1904, having a successful school career both academically, in sports and, as a Prefect, in the running of the School.  Gaining a Major Scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge he matriculated in 1905 and continued to excel, graduating with a First in the Classical Tripos in 1908.  The next three years are undocumented; on census day 1911 he was a boarder in Plymouth and described as “of Private Means”.  It is possible he was there because his younger brother Kenneth had entered the Royal Navy in 1904, though on census day Lieutenant Michell was away at sea.

Later that year Noel took up a career as a schoolmaster at Lancing College and remained there for seven terms.  Whilst at Lancing, on 26th June 1912 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Officers Training Corps and this was to decide his future when war broke out.  The Bedales Chronicle of December 1913 knew that he was to join the school as Classics and Modern Languages teacher in January 1914.  By February 1914 the Old Library was setting up a separate Modern Languages section to encourage the older students to read more widely in French and German – perhaps this was Noel’s influence.

Writing in September 1914 Mr Badley listed the seven members of staff, male and female, who had left to take up active service.  Noel had enlisted immediately as a private in the Public Schools Battalion and began his application for a temporary commission “for the Period of the War” on 19th September.  There seems to have been a good deal of confusion about where he should serve; mention was made of the 15th and 12th Battalions but he wrote to the War Office that he was currently with the 13th(Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and “I should like to continue”. He seems to have got his way.

I have no information about where he served at this time; his visit to Bedales early in March 1915 could have come from home service or from time with the BEF.  His medal card says he served in France from 1915 but doesn’t specify a month.  John Hamblin, the creator of the Lancing Memorial, says he was transferred to 14th (Reserve) Battalion on 7th July (which was then on Home Service) and then to the 11th (Service) Battalion on 2nd December: it would seem likely it was then he went to France for the Battalion had been there since July.  In fact he wrote a letter to The Editor of The Bedales Chronicle on 8th December from “Sommervere-en-France”. The address sets the tone of the letter – light hearted and amusing.

“This part of the line … is not one of the worst, except as far as mining goes. … Mining and counter-mining are perpetually going on, with the result that you never know when you and your men will be heaved up aloft or buried in the debris of an explosion. … Of course if you know where a mine is going off, you try not to be there, since, like hot-tempered teachers, they are apt to explode when you least expect them.”  He gives a graphic account of the mud in the trenches which “in our sector of the line are habitually knee deep in mud”.  Even more he hates the rats, “of which unpleasant animals there are hundreds”.  He is convinced that the British army is better fed and more supplied with ammunition than “the brutal Boche” and also has much more spirit, “joking and laughing all the time … from a profound lightness of heart, a sort of blessed cheeriness, which combined with their d.…d doggedness … will certainly win the war.”

I have no information about Noel’s actions until November 1916 but the 11th Battalion was heavily involved on the Somme.  On November 13th, presumably in the battle of The Ancre where tanks were first deployed, Noel was Mentioned in Despatches “for action in the field” by General Sir Douglas Haig (according to his Service Record not published in The London Gazette until 1st February 1917) and on 20th he was promoted to the rank of Captain.  In May 1917, in the aftermath of the third battle of The Scarpe, Noel was wounded and taken to No 32 Casualty Clearing Station.  From there he was despatched back to Britain.  His father had received a telegram, sent on 20th May, informing him that his son had received a severe gunshot wound to the head.  It was a severe wound and Noel’s treatment continued for several months.  By mid-August a Medical Board was reporting that the wound had healed but “He has slight deafness in left ear and complains of some tinnitus in left ear at times”. Temporarily Noel was posted to the 5th Battalion at Dover and on 24th September another Medical Board passed him “fit for General Service”.  The hearing problems persisted, as Noel told the War Office on 19th October, but at the end of the month he was ordered to rerun to the front, though it wasn’t until 27th November that he finally rejoined his regiment: he had missed the battles of Passchendaele.

During a relatively quiet period at the beginning of March 1918 Noel was sent on “Course A” for company commanders; clearly he was doing well in the regiment.  He was back at the Front by 12th March in time to face the great German Spring Offensive “Operation Michael” designed to win the war before the Americans arrived in force.  The 11th Battalion, stationed at Caiouelle, faced a heavy German bombardment (“the worst ever experienced” according to their War Diary) and then played an active part in the Allied resistance.  After several redeployments, by the early hours of 22nd March they were near Jussy, attempting to prevent the Germans from crossing the canal.  In the fierce battle that followed Noel was killed.  Like so many of the victims of the Battle of St. Quentin, Noel’s body was not recovered.  He is commemorated on Panels 19 – 21 of the Pozieres Memorial and in many places in the UK.  (Malvern School, Lancing College, Hove Public Library’s Roll of Honour, The list of the dead Trinity College Graduates and in Bay 24 of the Bedales Memorial Library.)

I think his elder brother George survived the war, serving as a private in the R.A.M.C. and his younger brother Kenneth served with distinction in the Royal Navy.

Sources: Bedales Archives: TNA @ Kew: John Hamblin of Lancing College: ancestry & findmypast sites:  military websites.  The photograph above was provided by Lancing College.