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4.5 out of 5 stars
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on 22 September 2015
The subaltern was the bedrock onto which the British Army emerged victorious from the Great War. By sheer chance, the public school system had moulded generations of young men to lead men and to take the strain of total war. Their contribution due to class hatred has been denigrated until recent years. This is one of a number of books attempting to set the record straight.

It starts of as all books on this subject do, by prostrating itself upon the floor whilst imploring you to understand that these public school boys are only as special as those from other schools so please don't feel like we are trying to say how superior they are to non public school soldiers who died. Thankfully it moves past this demonstration of humility and guilt and for the most part is a reasonable book. It is most at home when discussing the boys and teachers but i have deducted stars because the authors are very clearly not historians of the British Empire or Military historians and as such, when they come to make comments on them, they display the lazy stereotypical opinions of those lacking thorough historical knowledge.

The book suffers again because there are other books written even on this small historical area - public schools and the first world war - and the others are infinitely superior when it comes to the boys involvement. Most notably "Six Weeks by John Lewis-Stempel" and "Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-18 by Christopher Moore-Bick" both deal with the boys involvement more substantially and in either a more engaging (Lewis-Stempel) or more scholarly (Moore-Bick) way. In addition Eton has its own book ("Blood and Thunder: The Boys of Eton College and the First World War by Alexandra Churchill") on this very subject, and the authors for obvious reasons (Eton provided more men and lost more men than any other school) use Etonian examples frequently.

In many ways one central criticism of the book is that all too often we hear repeatedly about the same boy, often summarising what we were told the first time. This feels like filler There are so many public school boys who served there is no reason to use the same examples repeatedly. Furthermore more examples of boys who survived need to be used in all these books. To reinforce the 'tragedy' of the Great War these books often use almost exclusively the stories of those who died, even though roughly 80% survived.

This book does have its merits. It includes teachers involvement as equal to the boys, something that other books on the subject often fail to do. It also uses the very broadest definition of a public school, meaning that many schools are included, notably schools from the Dominions and even some girls schools (girl's schools have never been considered public schools) that are often ignored. The book also has a good appendix setting out the number of boys who served, and died from each school. Finally, they are strong when it comes to how the schools dealt with the war in the post war world. The book is about 260 pages and around 60 pages are devoted to after the war.

The authors are clearly passionate about their subject, however it is a shame that they are clearly amateur historians when it comes to military history. Nevertheless, it is a worthy book and i recommend it for any former public school boy to understand those who went before them or anyone interested in the Great War more generally.
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on 17 February 2014
The pedigree of the authors guarantees that this is a scholarly and sympathetic view of the role that public school boys played in the Great War, and a useful balancing antidote to Peter Parker's harsher 'Old Lie'. In a Britain that, unlike France and Germany, eschewed military conscription, the most obvious source of junior officers once those of the Regular Army had been all but wiped out in 1914, was the public school system. The values and the rudimentary military training of OTCs and Rifle Corps were better than nothing in a national emergency. Those boys hardened by abrupt experience who commanded men up to twice their age and on the far side of a social divide were not all perfect, but their genuine care and compassion for their men sustained the struggle through horrors until the victory. They paid a disproportionate share of the butcher's bill; in reading this book, you are never far from a staggeringly large number.
The book balances statistical fact and human anecdote neatly and does not venture into matters of strategy or international politics, which are best left to academic historians. In so doing, it avoids the dryness of academe, and is very readable. A personal thread is subtly stitched through the pages, and when the full facts are revealed they are no less dramatic and poignant for it.
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on 9 April 2014
A lot of painstaking research has gone into this book and the end result is a wide-ranging subject broken down into easily manageable and compelling chapters. Drawing on recent correspondence with 200 leading public schools, and delving into historical archives and contemporary publications, the authors bring to life what, for many, is an all-too-familiar catalogue of lives cut short and promises left unfulfilled. More than this, the impact of officer casualties - and of course, it is mainly officers whose often all too brief lives are documented - is movingly re-told. As the war progressed and the casualties increased, the loss of former pupils and teachers was felt deeply not only by their immediate families but by their schools as well. Indeed, after the Somme offensive, the weekly ritual of reading out the names of fallen former pupils in some public school halls and assemblies was abandoned altogether; simply too much for the resolutely stiff upper lips to bear. Unlike a lot of First World War studies, this book does not end in November 1918 but continues beyond the war, dealing with commemoration and remembrance in the decades since 1914-1918, the war as history and the lost generation.

Extensive notes, a thorough index, comprehensive bibliography and a roll call of public schools detailing the number of pupils in 1914, the number of pupils who served, the number killed and the percentage of students killed round off this meticulous study. There is something for everyone here; a book that can just as happily be read from cover to cover as it can be dipped into for salutary lessons from a century ago. This is a lovely book to own and its production is up to the usual high standards one has come to expect of Pen and Sword.
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on 9 December 2013
This is definitely not just a book for posh people who went to posh schools! It is a brilliant and readable analysis of the effect of the Great War on society (with the emphasis not surprisingly on public schools)and the effect of public school old boys on the War. Dr Seldon can be relied on to be informed, authoritative and thought-provoking and this book is no exception. The slaughter of a generation of young men who generally speaking led from the front makes sobering and humbling reading. Not to be missed. A lot of worthwhile knowledge well presented for £16!
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on 13 April 2015
The book is good in parts. It clearly favours certain schools. Some very random areas that I struggled with, that don't appear to be related to the Great War. But the narrative portrays the sacrifice that many establishments made. Young Officers leaving these schools simply don't appear to have been trained for the enormity of the task and brutality of war that lay ahead of them. To this purpose the book sets out the issues in a constructive manner.
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on 16 April 2015
A very moving book ,from a very different time and code of behavior . Although it's not wise to turn the clock back , I cannot but admire their absolute belief of King and country and the absolute must " to play the game "
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on 22 April 2014
Most interesting. I think the book relies rather too much on the albeit fascinating individual stories without sufficient emphasis on a more analytical approach. A lot of questions which I think might have been addressed were hardly touched upon, if at all. However, a good read with a lively engaging style.
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on 31 December 2013
Unexpectedly fascinating read. This book was a Christmas present to a relative which I picked up out of curiosity and became completely engrossed by. The research is mind boggling though the authors do tell us that they received a very large response to their request for information from the many public schools they approached. I strongly recommend this book; don't be put off by the title which makes the subject seem more narrow than it is.
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on 8 December 2013
I'm not sure why I wanted to read this book; I did not go to a fee-paying school, and am lower middle class, born in 1946, but I thought the subject sounded interesting. The amount of research, and its presentation, are very impressive, and the subject held my interest in parts; however, I did find myself skipping large parts of it as I lost interest in the details which piled one on top of the other. I'm glad I read it, but wouldn't do so again, so it's gone to Oxfam.
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on 20 May 2015
As commemoration of the Great War continues, more and more interest is being shown in the contributions made by schools all over the world and the loss of so many young men who had left school to go straight into the fighting forces. Sheldon's book focuses primarily on schools in Britain but Commonwealth schools are also included. It is an excellent study of attitudes to service and an account of extraordinary sacrifice.
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