Chapter 12 - War

In the Summer Term my Grandmother (Father’s Mother) came to see me at school on her way to Germany.  She was short and dumpy with a considerable beam.  We were naturally curious about each others' parents and other relations.  I was surprised at some of them; anything less like my idea of a parent I couldn’t imagine.  There were loud and hearty ones, overdressed and flamboyant.  They came in large cars.  There were hard and calculating pale creatures who I could not imagine having any domestic life at all.  Some of the boys were excellent mimics and while undressing in the dormitory at night they gave of their best and experiments were tried out.

There were several members of the female staff besides the Headmaster’s wife, who were beamy.  They all looked rather like ships’ figureheads emerging from a rotund hull as they leaned forward. Or such was the effect as they walked.  My Grandmother was another one to add to the collection and several bright spirits speculated on the progress of these ships when negotiating the narrow passage past the Headmaster’s study.  These sparks then stuffed pillows and garments into their pyjamas fore and aft and waddled down the dormitory like a number of ducks.  My neighbouring friend also invented things that 'Katy Did' at home and at school.  

The satirist was gaining on the poet, for in discussions during the past year we had talked about our future. I said I was going to be a doctor and he went one better by saying he was going to be a medical missionary.  But now I had ideas of being an artist.  The pattern forecast was correct for he became a poet on themes of nature and birds which gave way to satirical moods.

We talked over our plans for the holidays and counted the days left at school.  I can hardly remember anything more joyous than seeing my own cabin trunk coming out of store and the matron starting to pack.  But I was dismayed to hear from Mother that we were all going away for a month on holiday.  I only wanted to get home and see Bradford and its landscape and all the familiar things.  The trees and hedges of Hertfordshire oppressed me.  They looked overblown and weary, the hedges were dusty and the houses looked more like cheap dolls’ houses than ever.  The journey home was exhilarating and Little and Humphries escorted me and actually bought me a meat pie at Melton Mowbray where they always sold them on the railway platform.

The holiday near the sea in Lancashire was overcast by all sort of rumours after war was declared.  Mother taught us some new hymns and Father was worried about his Mother in Germany.  When we got back to Bradford recruiting for the Bradford Pals Battalion was in full swing and those already enlisted marched up Manningham Lane in civilian clothes but perhaps wearing a belt or puttees to show they were in the army.  Stationers’ shops were full of postcards of the King and Queen and Kitchener.   Gradually they expanded to include Generals French and Allenby and others.

When I got back to school there was a new feeling in the air and not a good one either.  That I had German relatives was well known.  Two cousins were in the German army.  It was hinted by boys that they didn’t know why I was allowed to be at school.  They fastened on my second name which was Ernst as proving the fact of my being really German, if my surname hadn’t done so already.  If I pronounced the name of German composers correctly I was looked at with great suspicion.  Small boys argued among themselves about the status of the fathers and uncles as officers in the army.  They also thought they were quite strong enough to go and fight too.  They collected military buttons and cap badges and organised pitched battles with acorns as ammunition.  Wild stories were bandied about and thought to be true, such as the train load of Russian soldiers coming to our assistance with the snow still on their boots.  The death of Kitchener at sea led to all sorts of speculations about his really being in enemy hands.

Atrocity stories were encouraged, so it seemed, as members of the staff were drawn into conversations of this sort in lessons and at mealtimes.  The Headmaster fancied himself as a master tactician and at morning prayers would drag in some argument of his own concerning military tactics.  Even the dreaded Headmaster's Scripture became a discourse on strategy.  He also informed us as to how the strangely spelt Russian and Polish names should be pronounced, often incorrectly as I subsequently found out.

Boys of twelve and over were expected to join the Cadet Corps and I remember a sergeant major from some local regiment coming to give instructions to these boys in bayonet practice.  With charming humour he demonstrated how 'once you’ve got your bayonet in, you have got to get it out again' which apparently was not too easy unless you had got it in as instructed by a man of experience like himself.

Then the Belgian refugees came.   The Headmaster had a bright idea that if we had a 'starvation dinner' once a week the funds saved would go to their relief.  So we had to have dry bread and cheese.  Whether our parents, who paid for our keep (which was scanty enough) were asked for their approval I very much doubt.

One day in assembly the Headmaster gave a stirring account of heroism on the field of battle.  When he had left us all standing and waiting to be dismissed, an unheard of incident occurred.  A housemaster who bore a German name, walked from his place among the rest of the staff and mounted the dais and in simple words told of the heroism of a German soldier.  'Remember,' he finished, 'heroism is not confined to one side.'

© Richard Eurich Paintings

Zeppelin and Sinking Ship (1915)
Drawing of a Zeppelin and a sinking ship done at boarding school to impress his fellow pupils

I found there was one way in which I could make my fellows forget their antagonisms.  It was generally acknowledged that I could draw so I entertained the uncritical rabble with extravagant battle pictures, often of a murderous nature, and in their appreciation of these works they lost sight of my German antecedents.  Father too was subjected to all kinds of petty persecutions at the hands, not only of the public, but of his colleagues as well.  He disregarded it whenever possible and did not even consider changing his name as so many had done.  But he had no idea that small boys might be behaving as badly as their adult counterparts and, as gradually those members of the staff who had known me before war broke out were called to the forces, life became even more desolate.

I found some solitude in a music room where I did my violin practice.  The piano in this room led me to start playing simple tunes like Handel’s Dead March, and hymns which I worked at hard on my violin.  It seems incredible that there was not a single boy in the school who played the piano so that there was no accompanist for the Handel and Corelli I loved so much.  Even my violin teachers could not play the piano so that I had only a very sketchy idea as to what a Handel violin sonata sounded like.

Planes over the Fleet (c1915)
Drawing of planes over the Fleet which helped distract the boys’ attention away from his German name

© National Maritime Museum

Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940 (1940)
Richard's boyhood battle pictures link forward to the 1940 painting of the 'Withdrawal from Dunkirk' and his other paintings of WWII.

I also joined a class on Saturday mornings called Extra Drawing.  There were only two older boys and about half-a dozen girls in this class.  We did what we liked and I tried in the absence of a model to paint landscape from the windows.  (It was never suggested that we ought to go out and paint).  But I also began a series of marine subjects with battleships on a very small scale, these being the tentative preludes to the Admiralty Artist in the Second World War.  They were pretty poor and I got no help or guidance.  The artist who came from the village to take these classes was a genial man.  He tried us out on lettering (which we did not take to with enthusiasm) and wood engraving.  I think he must have felt that he had not been as helpful as he might have been where I was concerned when I told him that I was leaving.  He looked at me very hard from behind his spectacles and beard and then asked 'Ever heard of Turner?'  I could not say that I had.  'Would you like me to show you how to paint with oil paints?' he continued.  I said 'Yes, very much', and then he asked permission for me to go outside the school grounds to his home and there asked his wife for his sketching box which I carried most proudly back to the school as though it was my own.  He then proceeded to demonstrate, with one of the girls sitting as model, how to mix white pigment with the other colours to vary their tone.  'Put your paint on and LEAVE IT!' he said and that was the first of the only two painting lessons I ever received.  My second one was about two years later in Bradford.