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2015 · issuE 4

11

sKiPPEr’s War

The Skipper was revered by all the staff who

served under him and the boys (and later,

girls) who attended the school. He built life-

long friendships with many of the families

whose children attended the school and his

Old Boys wrote back to him from all the

theatres of war. They in turn were pleased to

receive their copies of the School magazine

even when in the trenches, containing their

letters and articles, alongside details of the

wartime life of their old school.

Ronnie Poulton (OD 1903)

1915 was to bring both bitter and sweet

moments for Skipper: the death of Ronnie

Poulton (captain of the England rugby team) on

the one hand and Jack Smyth’s VC on the other.

On May 6th 1915, in a telegram received

at 6.12pm, Professor and Mrs Poulton at

Wykeham House, Banbury Road received

the news dreaded by all parents: “Regret your

son killed last night. Death instantaneous.

Colonel Serocold.”

Their grief was not restricted to the family,

for their son was the 1914 England Rugby

captain, Lieut. Ronald Poulton Palmer. In

today’s terms, it would be the equivalent of

Johnny Wilkinson being killed the year after

England’s World Cup triumph.

It was not long before further news came

– from Jack Conybeare, an Old Dragon

friend and a Captain in the Ox & Bucks Light

Infantry. “Apparently Ronnie was standing

on top of the parapet last night, directing a

working party, when he was hit. Of course,

by day, anyone who shows his head above

the parapet is courting disaster, in fact if one

is caught doing so one is threatened with

court-martial. At night, on the other hand, we

perpetually have working parties of one kind

or another out, either wiring, repairing the

parapet, or doing something which involves

coming from under cover, and one simply

takes the risk of stray bullets.”

The Dragon School had lost one of its

finest. Skipper proclaimed him “the best

all-round athlete who we have ever had at the

school.” From Rugby he went to Balliol College

and young Dragons with the editor of the

Draconian were there to see him in

the Varsity Match of 1909.

“This year’s Inter-Varsity

match will always be remembered

as Poulton’s match. After much

discussion and a vast amount of

‘newspaper’ criticism, Poulton was

given his Blue as a wing three-

quarter and proceeded to silence

his detractors by scoring five of the

nine tries in the record score which

was piled up against the unhappy

Cambridge team….

His trick of holding the ball with

both hands at the full extremity of

his reach, his swaying for the feint,

his masked pace, and his swerve

fascinated everybody, and with it all

he was rarely tackled.”

A Memorial Service, which was

attended by the Skipper with some

of the OPS staff and boys, was held

in St Giles’ Church, Oxford on May

29th. William Temple, (a mentor

and friend from his time at Rugby

School, later to be Archbishop

of Canterbury) gave the address.

Commenting on Ronnie’s ready

sympathy, his utter freedom from

selfishness and his courage to follow

what he saw to be right, he added

“There are many of us who, if asked to point

to a life without blemish, would have pointed

to Ronald Poulton.”

Jack Smyth (OD 1908)

If Ronnie’s luck had run out all too quickly,

another who would have qualified as one of

Skipper’s favourites, Jack Smyth, was blessed

with better fortune, as he was very happy to

admit. The men in his regiment thought he

led a charmed life, having had his cap blown

off by shells five times, had bullets through

his clothes, and, while lighting a cigarette, the

match was taken out of his fingers by a bullet.

Skipper received a letter from Jack,

dated May 23rd 1915. “We had the most

extraordinary luck as a regiment up till the

end of April, as, although we had had several

officers wounded, we had not one killed, but

during the last three weeks we have had six

hit and out of these five were killed, which is

real bad luck. Losing five officers makes an

awful gap in a small community like ours,

where we all mess together…

The situation there was perfectly

extraordinary, as we were holding what they

called the horse-shoe to protect Ypres and

so were shelled from all sides. It was a most

extraordinary sight at night from our trench,

as the German flares came from every side.

We have just been in a very nasty bit of trench

which was captured from the Huns, and we

and the Huns were in the same trench with a

barrier of earth in between. Most unpleasant!”

What he failed to mention was his own

heroism that led to him being awarded the

Victoria Cross, the details of which were

provided by a fellow (anonymous) officer for

the Draconian:

Ronnie Poulton

“On the night of May 17th, a company

of the 15th Sikhs under Captain K.

Hyde-Cates relieved a portion of the 1st

Battalion Highland Light Infantry in a

section of a trench known as the ‘Glory

Hole,’ near the Ferme du Bois, on the right

of the Indian Army Corps front. Furious

fighting had been in progress here for

some time, the position at the moment

of the relief being that we had taken and

occupied a section of the German trench,

a portion of the same trench on our left

being still held by the enemy, who had

succeeded in erecting a barricade between

themselves and our men.

In the early morning Captain Cates

observed that attempts were being made

to reinforce the enemy in the trench. A

short time afterwards the attack began by

heavy bombing, to which the 15th replied

vigorously and succeeded in holding their

own until noon, when the position became

critical, as all our dry bombs had been

expended and those that had become wet

from rain were found to be useless. It was

then decided to attempt to relieve the

situation by sending up a bombing party

from the reserve trenches. Two previous

attempts had been made by the Highland

Light Infantry, but had both failed.

The position was desperate and

Lieutenant Smyth, a young officer who,

in spite of his years – only numbering

twenty-one – had already been brought

to notice for his gallantry, was ordered to

take command of the party.