Roedean during WW1 - An Anniversary Chapel
As part of the School marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, Sixth Form students looked into the School's archives to see the role Old Rodeanians played in the war effort.
One of the best sources of information about what Old Roedeanians did during the Great War can be found in the termly Roedean School Magazines which had a section entitled ‘News from Friends’. In this chapter, the names of former students involved in war work, and the details of what this war work involved, is quite staggering. Numerous Old Roedeanians joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, the Red Cross, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, the Women’s National Land Service Corps and other similar organisations; whilst many others were computers, in local police forces, and involved in administrative work for Home Office or War Office departments.
Many Old Roedeanians received accolades for their work during the war, indicating how important it was considered. For example, Miss Michaelis (Former Staff 1900 - 04) received an MBE for her food economy campaign in Staffordshire, and C. J. Gaskell (No.3, 1893 – 99) received an MBE for her work as commandant of St Chad’s hospital, Cambridge.
The chapters also contain lengthy descriptions of those who were going up to Cambridge or Oxford and the degree results of others, there were a large number involved in teaching and a surprising number studying gardening or music. There are also detailed accounts of stories of those who came into contact with the famous of the time. Such as Beatrice Briscoe (No.1, 1908 – 14), who, in her work as a driver during the war, delivered chairs to Number 10, Downing Street to be greeted by a very pleased Lloyd George, the Prime Minister at the time. There is a whole paragraph on this exchange and how thankful Beatrice was for his offer of a cup of hot tea from the kitchen! And Miss Codd (Former Staff), who was the personal assistant to Charlie Chaplin in Los Angeles, USA, producing all of his correspondence and publicity.
In stark contrast to the light-hearted, positive extracts in ‘News from Friends’ in 1918 and 1919, 1918 saw the publication of Old Roedeanian Helen Parry Eden’s (Parry, No.4, 1901 - 03) poetry anthology “Coal and Candlelight”. It contains the poem “A Volunteer”, which is about a soldier and his motivation for enlisting in the Great War. In this poem, Helen Parry Eden’s soldier enlists not because he was excited about the war or because he wants to seek gain for Britain. Instead, he became a soldier because he wanted to protect the people who lived in Britain, in this case children, from enemy attack.
He had no heart for war, its ways and means,
Its train of machinations and machines,
Its murky provenance, its flagrant ends;
His soul, unpledged for his own dividends,
He had not ventured for a nation’s spoils.
So had he sighed for England and her toils
Of greed, was’t like his pulse would beat less blithe
To see the Teuton shells on Rotherhithe
And Mayfair – so each body had ‘scaped its niche,
The wretched poor, the still more wretched rich?
Why had he sought the struggle and its pain?
Lest little girls with linked hands in the lane
Should look “You did not shield us!” as they wended
Across his window when the war ended.
What is also really interesting is the level of detail given about each Old Roedeanian mentioned in ‘News from Friends’, as well as the sheer number who are written about. In a world where social media did not exist, the strong connections these girls must have felt to each other to provide such a detailed account of their lives after Roedean, indicates that the community feel at Roedean was extremely strong. There are many references to old Roedeanians popping down to Brighton to play in a lacrosse match and then returning to carry on their war work, for example.
One account which really stands out in terms of how strong the sense of community was at Roedean 100 years ago is of three sisters who returned to Belgium after the war ended: Lina, Jeanne and Mimi Renis (1915 - 16) They returned to what was described as ‘ruin and devastation’, and they had to collect their possessions and borrow furniture from many different friends who had looked after their things whilst they had been at school in Roedean.
Mimi Renis wrote: ‘It is really only now that we realise how much of a home England has become to us, and how happy we have been there. We are so glad now to have had news from England, and specially from Roedean, which is the most happy little corner thereof.’
We might never face the same challenges brought by war but we can still be inspired by the example of members of our Roedeanian community who played different roles in making the world a better place 100 years ago.