Skipper’s War | A Review

Apr 7, 2021

‘The Skipper’s War’ by Desmond Devitt tells the story of the emergence of the Dragon under a charismatic headmaster and a remarkable generation that experienced the First World War. The preface is specially written by Rory Stewart (OD 1986), telling the story behind the ‘Skipper’s War’ blog of the special relationship between the Skipper and the war generation of Dragons (1877-1920).


A Review by William Fiennes (OD 1983)

Charles “Skipper” Lynam, headmaster of the Dragon School in Oxford from 1886 to 1920, was a pipe-smoking sailor often seen with one of his two parrots perched on his shoulder during meals in the Dining Room. An advocate of co-education, strongly opposed to the stifling formality of other private schools, and committed to the original potential in every human being, the man at the centre of Desmond Devitt’s The Skipper’s War emerges as a truly significant and inspiring educationalist, whose address to a gathering of fellow headmasters in 1908 contains this rousing declaration:

“We have failed in proportion to our apparent success, unless we have helped a boy to develop his mind and his capacities in his own way, unless we have given him full scope for all of imagination and originality that is in him, unless we have let him know the causes of the sin and suffering in the world, unless we have made his heart beat with the heart of mankind, unless we have made him scorn to do what others do because they do it, unless we have shown him the falseness of all the gods of society: gold, sham religion, conventionality, the sham patriotism which assumes that one’s country must be in the right and that one Briton is worth two foreigners merely because he happens to be a Briton…”

Alongside Lynam, The Skipper’s War evokes the early years of the school he did so much to establish and mould: here are teachers called Hum, Cheese, Pug and Tortoise, leading bicycle expeditions to surrounding villages, and a world of Latin, Greek, rugby, cricket, a Shakespeare play every year, Macauley’s poems off by heart, morning dips in the lead-lined plunge-pool and ice-skating on the flooded Thames meadows. Among the many originalities of the Oxford Preparatory School (it wouldn’t officially become “The Dragon” until 1920) was its school magazine, The Draconian, whose first edition appeared in 1889, featured not just the usual reports on sports matches and reviews of school plays but also an abundance of letters and dispatches from former pupils.

The Draconian archive turns out to be a treasure trove. Marshalling this material with remarkable tact and clarity, Devitt follows a whole generation of Dragons from school into the armed forces and to the Western Front. Imbued with the school tradition of summer holiday diaries, former pupils even sent their war diaries to the Skipper for publication in The Draconian, which means eye-witness glimpses of Mons, Ypres and the Somme – squashed frogs underfoot in the trenches, the stench of dead cows and sheep, the “delirious shrieks of those half-gassed” – and then Gallipoli, the naval battles of Heligoland Bight and Jutland, the cockpits of Handley Page bombers and Sopwith Dolphins.

We catch glimpses too of Oxford during the war – Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves recovering from injuries at Somerville College, “officer cadets with white bands on their caps learning semaphore in the Parks”. As the losses mount (425 former pupils from the Dragon School fought in the First World War, of which 87 were killed) the book gathers the weight of a threnody. It is itself a kind of war memorial; these young soldiers remembered not just through their own words but in painstakingly sourced photographs and Devitt’s own elegant pen-portraits. The contrast between Lynam’s loving, humanist hopes for his pupils and the nihilism of the Somme is deeply moving. Here is former pupil David Brown, writing from the trenches: “I don’t want to die. I want to live and tell how I was in the War, how I was a fighter in it, not merely a server; but, if I do get killed, I want you and everyone to know that I knew of the possibility, that I was ready for it, and facing it, and not shirking and dodging the thought of it.” He was killed at Bazentin Ridge in July 1916.


Click here to buy: ‘The Skipper’s War’ published on 14 June 2021. 

Read Desmond’s article ‘The End of the Skipper Era (1886-1920) & the birth of the ‘Dragon’ School’ published in The OD 2020

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