Teachers at the Front, 1914-1919

Review by Peter L. Belmonte

Publisher’s summary: This book tells the story of teachers who served in British forces during World War I. It recalls the decisions made by men who were united by their training, occupation and imperial connections, but were divided by social and geographical contexts, personal beliefs and considered actions. It follows these teacher-soldiers as they landed on the beaches of Gallipoli, attacked across no man’s land in Flanders, on the Somme and at Passchendaele, and finally broke through the Hindenburg Line and secured victory. Many did not survive the carnage of what became known as the Great War. For those who did, wartime officers and men who had been proud to call themselves Tommies, Anzacs, Enzeds and Canucks, returning home presented further challenges and adjustments.

Author Dr. Barry Blades is a historian with thirty years experience teaching and serving in senior leadership positions in English schools. As such, he is interested in the history of Commonwealth teachers who served in the military during the Great War. This book:

Tells the story of these teacher-soldiers…. Individuals take centre stage; their early lives, teaching careers and military histories are set within the greater context of the time and place in which they lived and the disruption caused by war. [p. xv]

To do this, Blades had to limit his focus to several selected men; he chose three men from London, England, three men from Perth, Australia, three men from Auckland, New Zealand, and three men from Toronto, Canada. In recounting their stories, “[i]ndividuals take centre stage; their early lives, teaching careers and military histories are set within the greater context of the time and place in which they lived and the disruption caused by war” (p. xv). It is interesting to note that at least three of the men were of comparatively recent German ancestry, and one man was Jewish.

Covering the topic based upon the men from each country, Blades provides a biographical overview for each man including his family background, schooling, teaching experience, and military training. He then follows each man through his deployment to France and his combat experience. This approach enables us to understand the social, educational, and occupational background of each man while at the same time placing his experience within the context of his country’s and Great Britain’s war efforts.

The men he describes served mostly in infantry units; one man served initially in the medical corps, another served in a signals unit, and yet another was a pilot. They experienced varying fates while fighting in places from Gallipoli to Amiens. Eight of the “main characters” were killed during the war. While this is not an operational or a tactical history of any unit or army, the author provides enough background on the various campaigns and battles to allow the reader to understand the overall situation for each man.

Throughout the narrative, Blades provides summaries of other men, and a few women, from various teachers colleges who also served during the war. One chapter also records the postwar life of some of the men. Some resumed teaching or studying; sometimes returning teachers struggled with the effects of their wartime service:

Limbs lost in action, nerves shattered by repeated exposure to danger and minds and behaviour conditioned by military discipline attracted the attention of disconcerted pupils and colleagues alike. [p. 181]

All things considered, however, the “majority of the teachers returning home did so directly, and resumed their careers without undue fuss or ceremony” (p. 181). Blades also describes how various schools, towns, and countries chose, throughout the years, to memorialize these men and others who served, including those who gave their lives in service during the war.

Blades includes eight helpful maps and forty photographs to compliment the narrative. Endnotes and a fifteen-page bibliography attest to the depth and breadth of Blades’ research. This book is more than a military history of a handful of teachers; Blades has basically produced a concise overview of each applicable country’s education system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in the specific subject as well as those who wish to learn more about the social and educational make up of British and Commonwealth forces in the Great War.

Peter L. Belmonte is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, author, and historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he holds a master’s degree in history from California State University, Stanislaus. He has published articles, book chapters, reviews, and papers about immigration and military history. Pete’s books include: Italian Americans in World War II (Arcadia, 2001), Days of Perfect Hell: The U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November, 1918 (Schiffer, 2015), Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys (with Alexander F. Barnes, Schiffer, 2018), Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball during the Great War (with co-authors Alexander F. Barnes and Samuel O. Barnes, Schiffer Books, 2019), and Chicago-Area Italians in World War I: A Case Study of Calabrians (Fonthill Media/Arcadia Publishing, 2019). He is also working on a multi-volume history of Italian Americans in World War I. You may see his books at his webpage: https://www.amazon.com/author/peter.belmonte.

Below: Book cover from Amazon.