I have no doubt that Mr Badley grieved deeply for the loss of every OB killed in the war. Nevertheless, he seems to have been touched particularly closely by the death of Oswald Horsley. For the Chief, as for some of Oswald’s contemporaries, this gentle giant seemed an embodiment of all that Bedales stood for, and his death a paradigm of the brutal waste of a generation.
Sir Victor Horsley, Oswald’s father, was an important pioneer of neurosurgery; the first person in the world to be appointed to a hospital post as a “brain surgeon”. He also confirmed the cause of rabies, and helped ensure its eradication in the United Kingdom. To his contemporaries, he was also prominent as a radical social reformer; an ardent advocate for women’s suffrage, and a champion for ethnic minorities in the professions. He repeatedly sought nomination as a Liberal MP, but seems to have been considered so avant garde as to be unelectable. His dress was equally eccentric for the time – he thought stiff collars unhealthy – and he was unusually indulgent to his children for a Victorian paterfamilias, allowing them to play noisily in his office as he worked. The family lived in some grandeur at Cavendish Square where, as in adjacent Harley Street, many distinguished physicians had their consulting rooms.1
As one courageous pioneer to another, it is easy to imagine the sympathy that Sir Victor felt for John Badley’s reforming vision, and why he and Lady Horsley chose Bedales for their two sons. Siward, the elder, joined the school in 1903; his younger brother Oswald followed in 1906. Both boys flourished at the school, and grew to love it deeply. It is a curiosity, therefore, that their sister Pamela was educated elsewhere.
Oswald’s schoolboy exploits have left many traces in the pages of the Record and the Chronicle – too many to mention them all. The overall impression is that Oswald enjoyed his time at Bedales; he made the school a place of fun and laughter for himself and his peers. He was usually at the centre of things; conspicuous not only for his vast height. He was serious about taking his share of responsibility for community life, but without ever taking himself too seriously.
His humorous contributions to many a Merry Evening were singled out for mention – such as his starring role as the Kaiser in a skit on “Changing the Guard at the Hochgewidmetungetäuchschgt-Palatz” or a memorable pantomime donkey performed with his close friend Vyv Trubshawe. His speeches to the Debating Society reveal the same self-deprecating humour, for example when he argued for the adoption of a global common language, on grounds that after five years studying French he had failed to learn any.2
Typically, he is to be found in these pages helping to organise things for the benefit of others. He achieved some distinction as a first XI cricketer, and footballer, but also seems to be making up the numbers in a half a dozen other sports. He taught swimming to younger pupils and coached the girls’ cricket team. He regularly caught and groomed the horses before breakfast, so that the riding club could go out for long expeditions.3
As a musician he made his mark both as a violinist and as a singer. He appears to have composed, or perhaps arranged, at least one part song for a school concert. Choral singing seems to have been for Oswald a powerful symbol of the camaraderie he found at Bedales. Recalling this time a few years later, he wrote that, “One of the many Bedalian institutions which we feel the loss of very keenly is the singing—over which Mr. Powell spent so much time and gained so many grey hairs in trying to produce from our voices the strains of the nightingale instead of the customary barbaric melody of the bus-accident.”4
In his final year at Bedales, Oswald was Head Boy.5 For at least one of his younger contemporaries, this must have seemed a fitting recognition of his natural leadership in the school. Marjory Gill later remembered her “great hero Oswald Horsley – always called Pump – who was one of a trio of tall, imposing young men at the head of the school. I never expected my hero to be interested in me. The fact that he existed, and confirmed my existence by an occasional smile in passing, was satisfaction enough.”6
When, in autumn 1912, Oswald went up to Christchurch, Oxford, he clearly still thought of himself as a Bedalian at heart. Oswald, his great friend Vyv Trubshawe and other OB contemporaries remained close, and formed a Bedales clique even though at different colleges. They often visited their old school together, and wrote numerous ‘Oxford Letters’ for the Bedales Chronicle. The charming and self-deprecating silliness of these reports can still be enjoyed, even if most of the jokes are now rather obscure. There’s sometimes a hint that academic work was not Oswald’s top priority, squeezed between his many successes on the river and his obsession with motorcycles. However, it would perhaps be a mistake to take jokes made at his own expense too literally.7
Besides trips to Bedales, the Oxford OBs sometimes made excursions to rendezvous with their Cambridge counterparts – burning up the Midlands on their beloved but extremely unreliable motorbikes. For the most part, they kept up a friendly rivalry with the Cambridge Bedalians, teasing them about their dismal prospects for the Boat Race and ‘Varsity matches. However, when Mr Badley visited Cambridge to address the Heretics Society on Co-Education, the rival tribes made a temporary truce and,
“turned up in force to listen to the lecture, ready to fight to the death any anti Co-educationists who might turn up; but whether it was the eloquence of Mr. Badley or our number and appearance (both the Horsleys and Trubshawe were among our company) which subdued their feelings, certain it is that no violent disturbance took place...
“The lecture was open to the general public and proved to be so in two senses, for during the whole time a line of people were standing outside the doors trying to hear what was being said. After the lecture the Bedalians present (21 in all), apparently still fearful of some outrage on their Chief, formed a guard of honour and conducted Mr. Badley to his house…
“Perhaps it may have been gathered by this time that a certain well-known company had also chosen this week-end for a visit from Oxford to Cambridge. We have tried to dwell on the higher and finer side of the week-end, but now, alas, find that we have to descend from our lofty pedestal. The fact is that the two Horsleys and Trubshawe were able to spend very nearly three whole days at Cambridge; and there is no doubt that quite a large section of this University was aware of the fact … Poor Brown is still trying to pacify his neighbours and is forced to encamp in the market place, while his rooms are being refurnished; while Lawrence is mourning over the funeral pyre of his hat. Time and space prevents us from giving more interesting details of their visit. Let us hope that next term will provide an opportunity for ‘reciprocity.’”8
If the rowdiness seems all too typical of pre-war public schoolboys, the commitment to co-education is surely not. Although treated lightly here, I’m certain that the belief was wholly sincere. Other letters to the Chronicle make it clear that the Oxford OB clique included both men and women, and that they continued to enjoy the same close and equal friendships to which Bedales had accustomed them. For example, the elder Horsley, in one such letter, reports that
“Lucy [Thompson] is in for finals this term, and has probably done more work than any three of us; but will she be granted a degree when she has passed? Oh, no! The University cannot sanction such an awful idea. Why, it would give her a Vote! Absurd!”9
Oswald too was denied the chance to take his degree, but in his case the obstacle was the outbreak of war, after he had completed only two years at Oxford. Both the Horsley brothers, like so many of their contemporaries hastened to sign up in August 1914. Siward and Oswald enlisted as Privates in the socially exclusive Artists Rifles. The life of an infantry Private wasn’t wholly to Oswald’s liking, and he and Vyv had dreams of capitalising on their motorcycling skills by mounting machine guns on motorbikes, which he thought would be “a great rag.”10 If this suggests that Oswald lacked a realistic picture of the trench warfare that lay ahead of him, he was hardly unique in that respect in Autumn 1914. In any case, he remained in the Artists Rifles, and on 26 October he sailed for France with the 1st Battalion.11
Hardly before he had a chance to get used to conditions at the Front, he faced a new challenge. Officer casualties were so heavy, that a number of Privates in the Artists Rifles were called upon to take up immediate commissions in other Battalions.12 So it was that on 13 November Oswald was appointed 2nd Lieutenant in the Gordon Highlanders, on a month’s probation.13 After less than three weeks experience with the Expeditionary Force, he was in command of men, experiencing what must have been a somewhat sketchy and vertiginous on-the-job training. A week later, he occupied front line trenches for the first time, at Sailly-sur-la-Lys, about ten miles south of Ypres, in heavy snow.14
Oswald was in the front line during the famous Christmas 1914 truce. The 2nd Gordons War Diary records,
“Not a shot fired on either side. By agreement with the Germans the dead of both sides between the trenches were collected and buried side by side.”15
But it was not allowed to continue for long. On 4th January, the War Diary notes that,
“A sort of informal truce with the enemy during Christmas and the New Year having taken place, stricter orders were issued that it must cease. All Germans above ground to be shot at.”16
Any problems caused by cold and snow were as nothing compared to the following thaw. Constantly up to their knees in water, many men were left unshod when their boots were sucked off their feet by the clinging mud, never to be seen again. In January, the Battalion gave up trying to drain the whole section of the line they occupied. Instead, they concentrated the men in isolated strong point, 50 yards apart. At each point, the trench was dammed up on either side, and the water pumped out in between.17
On 9th January, Oswald was wounded for the first time, presumably by a sniper. He was lucky that the bullet passed through the flesh of his torso, underneath his left arm, without hitting any bones, arteries or major nerves. Nevertheless, he was evacuated to England for treatment, and remained unfit for service for two months. Much of this period was spent under his father’s medical care at home in Cavendish Square.18 Oswald also spent a happy weekend at Bedales, together with his friend George Murray, then training with the Cambridge University OTC.19
Once he was passed fit for general service, Oswald was posted to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion in Aberdeen, pending a return to France.20 It was here that he received news of his great friend Vyv Trubshawe.
“My dear old Vyv,
“I saw on April 1st (all fools day) that a certain Trubshawe W.V. 2nd Lieut. The Kings Liverpool Regt. had been wounded. I heard later that it was through the wrist, I hope not bad. Well we’ve all had a go of being chipped now and it will give you much deserved leave. At present I am up at this hole, waiting for my return to the front but just at present there is not much in the vacancy line for officers. I am not having such a bad time tho’ as I am in command of a company who are jolly good fellows and I like the work of attempting to train them as it gives me a lot of valuable training at the same time. Still I’m getting fed and wish I was back in France as taking it all in all it’s not a bad little do.”21
Oswald was determined to make the most of their being wounded at the same time, and the letter continues with arrangements for meeting. It seems they did manage at least one reunion, but almost immediately Oswald was transferred to the 1st Gordons, in the line near Ypres. However, they made a solemn pact to arrange things better next time. “You keep your wound going, till after OB meeting and I’ll get a new one by that time.”22
Pump’s wound is another hole through his shoulder … It’s in the other shoulder this time too, so that he will be symmetrically punctured
Having passed through many dangers during the next few months, Oswald got his new wound punctually enough on 19th July. A large mine was exploded underneath the German trenches at Hooge, followed up by an attack by the Middlesex Regiment. After three hours of heavy fighting, the grenadiers, machine gunners and – under Oswald’s command – the snipers of the 1st Gordons were rushed in to join the attack. The operation was a success, with the mine crater plus 80 yards of the German line being captured, but the casualties were heavy. The supporting elements of the 1st Gordons alone lost nine killed and 34 wounded. Oswald suffered a gunshot wound through his right shoulder.23
Once again he was lucky that the bullet passed through him without causing extensive damage.24 As Konni Ziliacus, another Bedales contemporary, put it, “Pump’s wound is another hole through his shoulder …It’s in the other shoulder this time too, so that he will be symmetrically punctured.”25
The 1915 Bedales Record reported with approval that “Horsley minor kept to a promise he had made, and got wounded just in time to be with us” at the summer OB meeting held at Bedales.26 Konni described his delight when “I turned up … and found the school watching the cricket match. An enormous umpire with a black sling and a flaming proboscis turned out, of course, to be O. Horsley.”27
But Vyv had already returned to active service. Oswald was not impressed.
“I would remind you of a certain compact sealed, signed and shaken hands on on the 10th April 1915… I keep my part of the bargain, you don’t keep yours, my part of the bargain being infinitely harder than yours as I might have stopped it through the head. However, I was jolly disappointed at not seeing you … Don’t get killed, as I refuse to. I missed you old fool frightfully at meeting but we’ll have to be there at the next one in force.”28
This disappointment was partly assuaged by seeing George ‘Slug’ Murray, and many other contemporaries, at the OB reunion. He also enjoyed the company of Marjory Gill, whose hero worship of Oswald has already been mentioned, and who had by now grown up into a confident and outgoing Head Girl. She was “the most ripping girl I’ve ever met.” But as for an engagement, “she probably wouldn’t have me” and “I wouldn’t dare ask.” One can’t help wondering whether either Marjorie or Oswald ever realised that the attraction was mutual. It’s painful to think that they may never have known.29
Oswald once again embarked for France and once again returned a casualty. He expressed his frustration in a letter to Vyv.
“I came out to the blessed land of France in the middle of March and having been a few days at Rouen I went up to the 1st Batt. who were in the Ypres salient at St Eloi. We went into those captured trenches for 4 days then were in a supporting static, mud up to the knees and in places a good deal deeper. One fine day when we were relieved and the Batt. were going out for a month’s rest I got TRENCH FOOT of all poxy complaints. I went to the … hospital and they had the cheek to tell me I’d got em severe and would be sent back to England. I naturally remonstrated but the Doctor fellow said I should probably be lucky if I was fit again in 2 months, so here I am in bed where I’ve been since that memorable all fools day. Can’t you get wounded or sick or summat and come home for a spell. I’m sure it’s about time you were fed up with the war and had a month or so rest.”32
In the event, it was more than three months before Oswald was passed fit for service. Shortly before the end of his convalescence, Oswald submitted a report prepared by the distinguished Harley Street surgeon Wilfred Trotter – a neurosurgeon like his father and also a pioneering social psychologist, who first introduced the concept of the ‘herd instinct’. This seems like a curious choice of doctor for a commonplace case of trench foot. Perhaps it is explained simply by Trotter’s being a former pupil of Sir Victor Horsley, but perhaps it indicates that Oswald was wheeling out the big guns to ensure he was passed fit to resume his war service.33
As always when released from duty, while he waited for his Medical Board, Oswald took every opportunity to return to Bedales, visiting twice more in this interlude.34 Deemed once again fit for General Service on 6 July 1916, Oswald made the now familiar journey to the Reserve Battalion in Aberdeen, pending his return to France.35
On 17 July, Oswald’s father died on active service in Mesopotamia. Although already in his late fifties, Sir Victor has volunteered at the outbreak of war. He had already served as an RAMC Officer in France and Egypt, before dying of heat exhaustion as a field surgeon in what is now Iraq.36
I don’t know whether this news had reached Oswald by the time when, on 20 July, he rejoined the 1st Gordons on the Somme, finding them in a desperate condition. Following the capture of Langueval, during the early stages of what would become known as the Battle of Delville Wood, the Battalion lost around a third of its officers and men in a single day, struggling to hold on to captured ground against fierce counter attack. This elevated position was key to securing the British right flank of the Somme Offensive, and both sides were willing to pay almost any price to hold it. Oswald took command of a Company, and the following day they were flung back into the centre of the action. Occupying horribly exposed positions to the East of the village, they clung on to them through four days of sustained shelling, gas and machine gun attacks. In his report on the action, the Commanding Officer wrote,
“The conditions obtaining in the wood were very bad. Friend and foe, living and dead, lying practically side by side in many cases. A rough attempt at burial was made where possible but only shell holes could be used for the purpose. In some cases, bodies were disinterred by shell fire after burial, and throughout the wood and along the trenches in places exposed to shell fire bodies still lay unburied from the fighting of ten days before.”37
After three weeks’ reorganisation and training, the Battalion took part in another major attack on August 18, intended to capture further ground to the south of Delville Wood. This action strongly evokes our stereotypical image of warfare on the Western Front, with disciplined lines of troops advancing stoically into impossible opposition, their neat lines cut to pieces with savage inevitability as they walk over the bodies that still litter the ground from several failed attempts on the same objective.
The 1st Gordons’ goal was to capture a section of the road between Guillemont and Maltz Horn Ravine, but so obliterated was it by previous assaults that they could only guess its approximate location. Oswald, now one of the most experienced officers in the Battalion, was in command of two companies, on their exposed right flank. According to the Battalion Commander’s report,
“The first two companies went over in perfect order, as if on parade, and this advance elicited very favourable comments from the French.
“As soon as the advance started, heavy machine gun fire was opened on the assaulting line… There was also a good deal of sniping from shell holes in front.
“C Company on the right flank suffered very heavy casualties, losing eventually nearly 90 men out of a total of 110.”38
Every one of the Officers in these two companies was killed, with the exception of Oswald.39 It was in the midst of this that he won the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry in action”. His MC citation continues the story.
“He led the first line of the advance, capturing and consolidating his objective. Though wounded and put into a shell-hole he continued to direct operations and refused to be moved back till the position was safe.”40
You know this war, I think, has definitely proved war to be a thing of the past and one that must not recur. It will tho! if we are not jolly careful
He later wrote that he took some satisfaction in this gallantry award only for two reasons: “that it is one more for Bedales, and secondly that it was the men of my company who recommended me for it.”41
The action had been a success, but at a dreadful cost. Oswald himself had received his worst wound yet, a bullet tearing away part of his abdominal muscles and the crest of his hipbone.42
This, of course, meant another long and painful recovery at home. At least this enabled him to catch up with Old Bedalian friends although, as one contemporary laconically remarked, “Poor old Horsley won’t be one of the [football] eleven I’m afraid”.43 He was also one of a group of OBs who organised the foundation of a Bedales Club in London, with rooms near the Strand.44
His long convalescence also gave Oswald plenty of time to ponder the wider significance of the war, and his hopes and fears about what may come afterwards.
“I’m dining at the Russells tonight and am meeting Lowes Dickinson as I read his pamphlet the other day ‘The War and the Way Out’ and was very struck with it and wanted to know more about it and this is the upshot thereof. I don’t believe the war has woken anybody up. We don’t seem nearer to women suffrage or total prohibition. It is awful rot.”45
The news that Vyv’s younger brother Eric had been killed lent further impetus to his doubts.
“Apart from the horror and beastliness of it all I do feel exactly like you what a gross injustice poor old Eric’s death was. This is our war not his. Why should he be chosen out?
“The fact that he was killed in action is about the finest death a chap can have – cold comfort tho –
“You know this war, I think, has definitely proved war to be a thing of the past and one that must not recur. It will tho! if we are not jolly careful. People still seem to think of their stomachs more than anything else. I wish you’d return with all convenient speed as there is a lot to talk about.”46
In a long letter to The Chief written in the Spring, Oswald tried to explain the growing political conscience that the war had awoken in him. The most important factor had been the experience of living and working so closely with comrades of all social classes, whom he had come to respect deeply.
“It is an awful tragedy that these fellows who fight so well and are the best of comrades, and who die with a smile, should hardly know what they are fighting for, most of them having been spoonfed from some rag like the Daily Mail. It’s the lack of education which is at the base of the whole thing … these are the men who are saving the principles of freedom and democracy and they are the very salt of the earth. As they have saved us in the war, so, when we have gained [it] … must they save us in the peace. There must be a sort of social upheaval which will very largely determine the direction that reconstruction in social affairs will take.”47
If he survived the war, he said, he would like to return to Oxford and study Philosophy and Economics, prior to work as a teacher or social worker.
“I believe we are on the threshold of an entirely new era in the world and that one of the reasons why we went to war was, that the peace we had was an intolerable peace. Most fellows out here are thoroughly determined to see the war through to its end, but they are equally determined it shall be the last war.”48
I believe we are on the threshold of an entirely new era in the world
At the end of February 1917, more than six months after being wounded, he was at last fit enough to be posted to the Reserve Battalion. According to a letter written (probably) in May, he still hoped to re-join the 1st Battalion at the front,49 but by July he seems to have accepted that his hat-trick of gunshot wounds had finally brought his infantry career to an end. This doesn’t mean that he was ready to rest on his laurels. Instead, he applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps as a trainee pilot.50
Oswald’s friends were not going to miss this opportunity to tease him about his 6’4’’ frame, and the excess strain this would put on the aircraft.
“OH … has got a transfer to the RFC!!! (16 stone!)”51
The same thought appears to have troubled the RFC’s medical examiner, who found Oswald’s vision and fitness to be satisfactory, but commented, “The Board considers that this Officer’s height is likely to be a serious handicap.” The Board’s reservations were put aside, and Oswald got his way.52
Henceforth, flying was the centre of Oswald’s world, and he poured into it all the youthful enthusiasm that he had previously lavished on motorcycling. With that mixture of affection and lèse-majesté that is proper to a younger sister, Pamela Horsley wrote that,
“He has become very much the little Flying man, talks about stunt-machines and buses, and Huns – the latter apparently being a pilot who hasn’t got his wings, because he smashes so many machines: jolly! – and will soon be developing an aeronautical roll.”53
After initial training in August and September 1917, at No. 1 School of Military Aeronautics in Reading, Oswald was fortunate to be posted to the School of Special Flying in Gosport, and not only because it was so convenient for excursions to Bedales.54 The ‘Gosport System’ was the creation of its visionary Commanding Officer, Colonel Robert Smith-Barry, and represented a huge stride forward in the training of military pilots. Had Oswald attended any other flying school at this time, he would have been taught how to avoid spins and stalls by safe, steady flying. Hitherto, a spin had been thought of as an emergency from which it was virtually impossible to recover. Smith-Barry realised that this was not remotely adequate as training for combat. Instead, he taught his pilots to get into these situations and how to get out of them. Once this approach became generally accepted, the mortality for new pilots was dramatically reduced.55
Nevertheless, Oswald’s new profession was far from safe. If he was in any doubt of this, it was vividly demonstrated on 4 November when he was involved in a mid-air collision which cost the other trainee pilot his life. At the inquest, both Coroner and jury took pains to stress that no blame attached to Oswald, but it must have been an extremely painful incident for him nonetheless.56
Oswald’s first operational posting was to 40 Squadron, whom he joined in France on 28th November 1917.57 Among his new comrades he was given the inevitable nickname: ‘Shorty’. A long letter printed in the Bedales Record best describes his new job.
“My usual good fortune attends me. I was sent straight out to this squadron without hanging about at the base, which is the usual case with new pilots. This squadron is most happily situated just on the outskirts of quite a fair-sized town, a long way (by land) from the line, "fitted up with every modern convenience," such as hot baths, electric light in one's hut, and shops to get any necessaries, as well as being within easy hail of other larger towns, where one can foregather at the various Army clubs and meet the less fortunate in other branches of the Army. After the infantry, this job is, on the whole, very soft. Comparison, in a way, is not easy, for though you have every bodily comfort and relaxation in "off" hours, when you are on your job, you are really working at a fairly high pressure.
“This front, from the point of view of enemy machines, is very quiet, and they seem to hold in great respect our type of scout, and will not attack unless you are well over their side of the lines and they have a very decided numerical advantage. Their artillery and photographic machines, however, steal over, and they need very cute tactics in stalking them, as they drive away for home if they spot you miles away.
“When you leave the ground for an offensive patrol, you spend your time in making for the lines in getting height. If the clouds don't interfere we don't cross the lines below 10,000 ft. You have, of course, to keep as close a formation as possible, keeping your eye on the various gauges to see that the engine is running well, adjust the mixture for differences in height, keep the gear of your gun working to prevent it from freezing, adjust the heat regulator, and at the same time keep a very sharp look-out for any Hun above, below, in front, behind—especially behind. Then possibly you see your leader's wings waggle, which is a sign that he has seen a Hun, and as a general rule it is a two-seater doing an artillery shoot. These are very hard to see, and very often very skilfully camouflaged on their top planes, and it is very easy to lose them against the ground if they are below. Down you go in a dive, getting up a speed of 200 m.p.h and over. Then you get the enemy machine in your sight, which is very like a telescope, and open fire, trying to correct for his speed by your sight and also by tracer bullets, which look like little balls of fire, as they have magnesium in them.
“The show is generally over in 2 or 3 dives, but it is after that the real strafe begins, as “Archie," the anti-aircraft guns start shooting at you, and sometimes most uncomfortably close, too; it is quite a science working out where the next one will burst, and endeavouring to spoof the gunners. I hate Archie and hold him in the highest respect.
“It is an awfully interesting job. Unfortunately lately I have been getting awfully deaf, which a heavy cold in the head has not improved. I think it is caused by diving from a great height at a tremendous pace, down to within 1,000 ft. or so of the ground; this, with attendant headache, is not very nice, but I think it is getting better now.
“It seems almost unbelievable at times to think that at one moment you are endeavouring to kill someone at, say, 10,000 ft. the other side of the line somewhere, and in perhaps a quarter of an hour you are sitting in front of a large fire in an easy chair, discussing the various cures for the squadron puppy's distemper.”58
One thing that Oswald fails to mention is the constant danger inherent in the unreliability of the aircraft. 40 Squadron was flying the SE5, which was arguably the best Allied fighter of World War 1, but still prone to sudden and catastrophic failure like other aircraft in these early days of aeronautical engineering. For example, during a training flight on 19 January 1918, Oswald’s engine cut out and he was forced to crash land. The aircraft was smashed beyond repair. “Pilot OK”, added as an afterthought in the margin of the report, is the only comment on how Oswald fared. Later in 1918, when Oswald’s friend Vyv Trubshawe had joined the same squadron, Vyv experienced two crash landings due to engine failure within a week.59
Something else that Oswald rather underplays in his report for the Bedales Record is his own growing prowess as a pilot. Already by the time it was printed, he had at least two aerial combat victories to his name; eventually claiming four enemy aircraft ‘driven down out of control’ and two ‘forced to land’.60 By some people’s reckoning this qualifies him as an ‘Ace’. At any rate the authorities were satisfied that he merited a second award of the Military Cross, “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.” In addition to his combat ‘kills’, the citation records that “He has carried out accurate and valuable reconnaissances, and has set a magnificent example of determined gallantry and skill whilst leading low-flying and bombing patrols.”61
Each aerial combat was written up in a detailed report. Oswald’s report of 3 February 1918 will serve as an example:
“[An offensive patrol flying at 13,000 feet] was dived on by seven Albatross Scouts. The … patrol turned on Enemy Aircraft and general engagement followed.
“[I] saw an Enemy Aircraft obtain a position on tail of … Lieut. Wolff, so dived on [it] from behind, firing a drum of Lewis and about 100 rounds of Vickers from a range varying from 30 yards down to 8 yards.
“Tracers were seen to enter the hostile aircraft in the part occupied by the pilot’s seat, and [I] almost stalled in effort to avoid crashing into the enemy.
“The Enemy Aircraft fell slowly down completely out of control, doing a couple of turns of a spin, and then commencing to go down first on one wing tip, then on the other.
“[I] turned and attacked three other Enemy Aircraft, and drove them off East after a short engagement….”62
Oswald’s letters to Vyv written during his 40 Squadron service still show his usual cheerful stoicism about his personal circumstances. “Very nice fellow and a damned good flight and squadron commander. Everything about as good as it could be.” “I’m having an awfully good time out here. It’s an absolute cinch after the P.B.I. [the poor bloody infantry]”63 At the same time, he is quite open about his longing for peace.
“It is high time however that the war was stopped and the nearer the front I get the more I feel positive of this.”64
He also continues to look beyond the hoped-for victory, towards the social and political changes which might help give meaning to the sacrifice.
“I’m beginning to feel more bucked with things after the Labour declaration and Lloyd George’s speech it does seem as though something really permanent may come yet.”65
After six months’ active service as a pilot, Oswald’s health broke down in a mysterious way. A comrade in the squadron, Gwilym Lewis, described what happened in a letter home.
“Tragic to relate Shorty has cracked up…. the poor old fellow went all wrong in the air. His legs sort of paralysed and his hands swelled up to a tremendous size. He was really very lucky to get down – a horrible experience…. I last saw him at a base hospital, quite recovered, but he is sure to be sent home. He was miles and away the finest fellow in the Squadron… I really don’t know how we shall get on without him; I don’t know how I shall.”66
Oswald was indeed sent home, and treated at the Central Hospital, Hampstead. Gwilym Lewis’s parents invited him to visit them at their London home. He replied,
“I should like to come and see you very much. I am afraid though my tennis is a disgrace to the R.A.F. and that my horticultural experience has hitherto run to nothing more ambitious then mustard and cress on damp flannel, but the flesh and spirit are both willing for encouragement in either of the above acts.
“I am enjoying five weeks’ leave at the present moment and the medical authorities can find nothing wrong with me, and as far as I can see from the point of view of an invalid I am a complete fraud.
“I feel extremely guilty being at home in these days, especially when the leeches insist that I am perfectly well, which verdict coincides exactly with my own feelings.”67
You have come back to us again, and so
Like you, we’ll not forget.
Oswald was also able to enjoy a walking holiday in the Lake District with his brother, who by this time had been invalided out of the army. After some strenuous days on the fells in all weathers, they “called on the Miss Badleys looking two of the worst tramps you could wish for. However they didn't seem to see anything strange and we got a very good tea.”68
At the end of his five weeks’ leave, Oswald joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment as a test pilot. A letter from his brother Siward explains what happened on 18 August 1918.
“… Oswald was doing a test flight when the left wing collapsed and the machine came down like a stone from 5,000 feet. Both Os and his observer were instantly killed and there was no sign of fire. They say that, though the machine was hopelessly out of control, yet they heard the engine going almost to the last, when it was shut off, showing that he was doing everything he could. I saw him afterwards – his face was as calm and as peaceful as I have so often seen him asleep. He was the bravest man I knew and one of the best, and to me, in spite of his size and abilities he was always my little brother to me. He is going to be buried at Steep tomorrow near Tommy Scott’s grave and the Chief is going to read part of the service.
“What a wonderfully peaceful evening it is. Peace is what Os always longed and fought for – and now he has attained it.”69
An inquest held six days later was unable to determine the cause of the crash, beyond the fact that there had been a sudden and unexplained failure of the wing, leaving Oswald no chance of bringing the plane down safely. The medical evidence was to the effect that Oswald suffered a broken neck, among other injuries, and that he must have died instantaneously when the plane struck the ground.70
On the day before his death, Oswald had made one final visit to Bedales, the last of so many which had brought him comfort during the gruelling years of War. Bedales was still a second home, in Oswald’s eyes, to the very end of his life, and so his family directed that he should be buried there, in the Steep parish churchyard.
This provided the theme of a poem written by The Chief on the day of Oswald’s burial.
Aug 23rd 1918
At parting, five short days ago
“This time it’s not for long” you said;
“You’ll see me back within the week.” And lo,
Your comrades bring you dead.
Their task done, each in token how
They prized their sunniest, bravest, best,
Advancing, gives the last salute; and now
They leave you here, to rest,
Where, by the old grey church, the view
Of half a county, weald and hill —
Wide almost as your vision from the blue —
Lies round you silent, still.
Rest, then, where you so loved to be,
Living, and, dead, be with us yet.
You have come back to us again, and so
Like you, we’ll not forget.
Mr Badley preserved some of the letters that he received from Oswald’s friends and family. As well as expressing their searing grief at Oswald’s death, these letters also bear witness to the profound sense of vocation that these early Bedalians shared, the solemn responsibility that they felt for living out Mr Badley’s ideals in the wider world, and the profound shock that their idealism had suffered from the war. Vyv wrote,
“We have indeed lost our very best. Of the personal loss I cannot write.
“I’m very glad he was buried in the old Steep Churchyard near Tommy Scott. Often we have wondered up there together, thinking of Tommy, loving the peaceful gaze of the Wheatham hills, the sense of quiet rest, and the nearness to Bedales, and stayed there to talk of the past and the future, and our own hopes of making the world more Bedalian.
“Now he lies there too. The war has taken almost all those who most seemed to breathe the cheerful spirit of Bedales; it is very hard, and yet I know that they have proved their worth by their service and their death.
“Still, one longs that the world might have known them better and that they might have lived to help us after the war.”70
Margaret Murray wrote,
“I think perhaps I know more than any one else what this terrible thing means to you … I feel I know because he has so often talked to me of all his splendid ideals and I think somehow that you felt that he was the pillar of strength on which the great spirit of Bedales might someday rest. Perhaps I am wrong but I also know that you loved him as a son and still do.”71
Lady Horsley wanted, most of all, to express her gratitude to Mr Badley,
“My very kind friend,
“Thank you - not only for your letter but for what you have been to Oswald through yourself and through what you have built up by a great ideal for him and for hundreds of others.
“It is a crushing blow. When Victor went he left a great life behind him. Oswald - I keep thinking of the Unfinished Symphony…”72
Referring to the close-knit group of young friends, she wrote,
“That was what the School meant to him, a band of comrades absolutely trusted that made the warmth and colour of his life ... As for yourself, you know what he felt, what they all feel about you…”73
Nearly three years later, in July 1921, Lady Horsley was the guest of honour at the formal opening of the Bedales Memorial Library. By this time, she was grieving for both her sons as well as her husband, for Siward too had died, in 1920, after a short post-war career as a Bedales science teacher.74 At the opening ceremony, Mr Badley expressed the wish that the library would be,
“a place where both body and mind might find restful quiet, a place where thoughts could germinate and purposes grow strong and duties shape themselves in lives that were to be, … helped by … heartfelt remembrance of those whose names were on record there…. To open it they had asked one who for long had been a close and true friend of the school, and one whose two sons would ever be remembered there, who lived their lives and faced death with in the same spirit of glad and fearless and high-hearted devotion to all that they held to be best and highest. It was in every way fitting … that Lady Horsley should open that memorial to so many who memories, like theirs, were treasured in the school where they spent many years of their lives, the school which was treasured in their hearts as they were in the hearts of those present."75
By Ian Douglas