In 2016, Oundle School undertook its largest ever trip, taking all 200 Fourth Form pupils and the CCF Marching Band to the Somme Battlefields for Field Weekend as part of the 100th Anniversary of World War One. It was decided to repeat the trip until the end of the centenary commemorations, and so on Saturday 23 September a fleet of minibuses with 240 pupils on board left Oundle for Dover.
The Battle of the Somme was fought from 1 July to 19 November 1916 at an almost unimaginable cost in human lives. Five former Oundle pupils (Old Oundelians) lost their lives on 1 July and a further twenty-seven made the ultimate sacrifice during the Battle. Many are buried in Cemeteries on the Somme and seventeen are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial. Overall more than 420,000 British soldiers were casualties of the Battle.
Commander of the School’s Combined Cadet Force, Major Andrew Mansergh, Royal Marines commented, “Separated from their phones and the internet for the weekend the sound of cheerful voices and card games quickly rose in the minibuses as pupils discovered how much fun it was to be children just ten years ago.”
After a smooth crossing the convoy headed north east into Belgium aiming for the city of Ypres where the CCF Band would play in the daily Last Post Ceremony. As the sun set the Band formed up and marched under the arch of the Menin Gate, halting at the western entrance in front of a crowd of more than 3,000 people. After the Last Post was sounded and as the wreath laying started the Band played ‘Nimrod’, ‘Abide with Me’, and ‘The Day thou Gavest’, transforming a sombre ceremony into a moving and memorable occasion.
After an evening journey and a night in two hostels in Albert and Amiens, the group set off in different directions, visiting battlefield sites, memorials and cemeteries across the Somme Battlefields. Two ceremonies marked the most sombre and moving moments of the trip. The first occurred in seventeen different cemeteries between Serre and Mametz, where each group laid a wreath on the grave of an Old Oundelian (OO). Their citation was read and during the silence many pondered the similarities between their time at Oundle and that of the OOs: games of rugby for the 1st XV, plays, choirs and a place at a good university. But for 101 years, it could have been them lying beneath the headstones.
At the end of the day the group gathered again at the Thiepval Memorial, the largest British War Memorial anywhere in the world, with 72,000 names upon it. With the cadets and the band forming a hollow square between the memorial and the cemetery, and a Drumhead altar built by the Corps of Drums at the centre, cadets gathered to remember all 256 OOs killed in WW1.
Andrew concluded, “Once again it was the presence of the CCF Marching Band that transformed the experience for all. ‘Scipio’, ‘I vow to thee my country’, ‘Nimrod’ and ‘Last Post’ all echoed beneath the memorial's mighty arches. Under a clear evening sky the sun sank in the west over the fields of the Ancre Valley, where 101 years earlier so many had laid down their lives for others. It was a moving ceremony and a scene of tranquil beauty which none who were there will forget.”
The pupils were accompanied by Oundle’s Deputy Head, Daviona Watt, who commented, “The trip was unforgettable. Sorrow and gratitude for all those former pupils who died was mixed with pride in the pupils of today who behaved with such maturity in registering the sacrifice of their predecessors, many not much older than them.”
The group returned to Calais via Vimy Ridge, the site of a successful Canadian attack in 1917, during which many of the lessons of the Somme were employed. It was a positive but sombre end to an emotional and memorable weekend.
Background Information on Oundle School
Oundle School is situated in the quintessentially English market town of Oundle, about 90 miles north of London. The School’s buildings, dating from the 17th to the 21st centuries, are dispersed throughout the town, which is, to a large extent, its campus.
The School’s history dates back to 1556, when Sir William Laxton, Master of the Worshipful Company of Grocers and Lord Mayor of London, endowed and re-founded the original Oundle Grammar School, of which he was a former pupil. In 1876, the Grocer’s Company divided the School into two parts; Laxton Grammar School, primarily for the inhabitants of the town, and Oundle School, primarily for pupils from further afield. In 2000, the Grocers’ Company reunited the two schools under the common name of Oundle School and retained the name of Laxton for the day House.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Oundle was put firmly on the map of leading English public schools by its most famous headmaster, F W Sanderson, who established Oundle’s reputation as one of the great science and engineering schools, a reputation still renowned today. In 2016, the School completed its ambitious SciTec project, uniting Science, Mathematics, Design, Technology and Engineering both physically and philosophically, enabling pupils to move seamlessly from theory to practice and from pure science to the achievement of a workable technology. The development includes the ground-breaking Patrick Engineering Centre, a new Mathematics department and an extension to its sixteen state-of-the-art Science laboratories. Oundle has now embarked on a detailed Sports MasterPlan which will significantly upgrade sporting facilities across the School by 2020, incorporating the building of a new Sports Centre housing a fifty metre swimming pool and an eight court sports hall.
There are currently 1110 pupils on roll at Oundle School, with 860 boarders and 250 day pupils. Also within the Corporation of Oundle School is Laxton Junior School, a day school for children aged 4 to 11.