What Can We Learn From a Headmaster Who Refused to Allow His Students to Celebrate Armistice Day?

On the afternoon of 11 November 1918, my father Claud Cockburn, then aged 14, covertly threw the keys of the main gate of his school out of an upstairs window to a soldier waiting below. His purpose was to allow the soldiers being trained locally to break into Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire and thrash it in retaliation for the refusal of the headmaster, Charles Greene, to call a school holiday to celebrate the armistice, which had just been declared. Many pupils, including Claud, objected to this decision, as did the soldiers, angry at what they saw as an unpatriotic failure to celebrate victory adequately after four years of war.

But the soldiers and schoolboys were both mistaken about the headmaster’s motives: Charles Greene, whose third son was the novelist Graham Greene, supported the war, but he was acutely aware of its terrible cost, not least to former Berkhamsted pupils, of whom no less than 230 had been killed, their names commemorated by plaques outside the school chapel, while a further 1,145 were still in the armed forces as the war ended. “Most of the sixth form were wiped out year after year,” Claud recalled 60 years later. “I know when I was in the sixth form, I think that only 10 per cent of the previous year were still alive.” Greene, a liberally minded man with great force of character, had had the grim experience of seeing those whom he had just been teaching called up when they reached the age of 18 and, all too often, they were reported killed or wounded a few months later.

The end of the slaughter might have led Greene to declare a holiday, but he reached a radically different conclusion about how the peace should best be celebrated. He had time to think about this because the news that the German kaiser and crown prince had abdicated reached Berkhamsted on Sunday 10 November and the announcement of the end of the war would clearly follow shortly. When the armistice was signed at 11am the following day, Greene announced the fact to staff and pupils who sang “God Save the King” before dispersing. He did not make the expected announcement about the holiday but instructed everyone to go on working as if this was a normal day. He justified this by arguing that, with 5 million allied soldiers killed, the survivors had to work even harder to make best use of the victory for the good of civilisation and could not afford to take holidays. “We must go on,” he said. “Now is the time for effort.”

It was a decision which, however reasonable in abstract terms, was so entirely contrary to the patriotic fervour of the day and the intense sense of relief being felt by those who had the most to gain from an end to the fighting that it provoked an almost instant uprising. Those involved included soldiers training in and around Berkhamsted, most of whom belonged to the Officers Training Corps (OTC) of the Inns of Court, in addition to members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. They were highly – and soon drunkenly – relieved to find that they would not be sent to the western front where the OTC members stood a high chance of being killed or maimed. The boys at Berkhamsted, particularly the prefects and the older boys facing military call-up, also had good reason to be thankful that the fighting was over. Explaining this in an interview 60 years later, Claud told Norman Sherry, the author of the magisterial biography The Life of Graham Greene – from which much of this account of the Berkhamsted uprising is derived – said that, deeply though he admired Charles Greene, he could understand the anger of the prefects and senior boys at not being allowed to celebrate victory. He pointed out they had been living in expectation of likely death or injury in the near future “so they didn’t take much interest in the preservation of civilisation or the school spirit and they got pretty rough”.

The prefects, normally in charge of keeping tight discipline in Berkhamsted, had conspired with men from the OTC to break into the school. By chance it was Claud, though much younger than the others in the plot, who played a crucial role in what happened next. Because it was he was due to have a bath, he was allowed to enter part of the school which was beyond the Great Hall, which was the main assembly area for staff and pupils. He was therefore able to open an upstairs window and throw down the key of the heavily locked main gate, which the plotters had secured, to a sergeant major waiting below.

It is worth citing my father’s account, as retailed to Sherry, at length since it gives a tangible sense of the rapidly unfolding events: “I can remember now sitting there – it was one of those foggy nights in Berkhamsted, fog rising from the canal and so on, and suddenly, we heard the roar of the distant troops coming up the road. Everybody was quite content because they couldn’t get in. And then in they burst and we were all sitting at prep in the Great Hall at about 7pm. So suddenly all these drunken troops and women came surging in and were planning to throw Charles Greene into the canal … and Greene and the second master Cox appeared at the end of that little passage, and defended the door, and Greene was persuaded to retire to his study. Cox stood at the door, and drunken troops joined in with the students, and we surged out of the school, and marched through the streets of Berkhamsted, and I can remember to this day walking down Berkhamsted High Street and I took off my shoes in order to beat on the drum with them. We then occupied the local cinema and we sprang onto the stage and sang songs and yelled and shouted. And at last the troops retired, and we, rather bedraggled, returned after this enormous elation, this tremendous night, and suddenly realised that we had to face reality. And that reality was Charles Greene who was sitting at the big desk on the Great Hall, and said ‘you’re expelled, you’re expelled’ one after another. He expelled 122 of us…”

The rioters went to bed deeply worried. Claud in particular was anxious because he knew that his father, Henry Cockburn, a former Foreign Office diplomat of high principle and seriousness of purpose, would take the dimmest of views of his expulsion. The following morning, he and the other expellees were brought back to the Great Hall and given a great lecture by Greene, his denunciation of their action delivered with all the force and rolling periods of which Victorian rhetoric was capable. He linked the previous day’s riot to the revolutionary upsurge spreading everywhere since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917: “This is one more exhibition of the spirit of Bolshevism which is spreading across Europe. Over there in Moscow, there sits Lenin, there sits Trotsky, there they are. The spirit of Bolshevism and atheism is creeping across Europe. It is breaking out all over. Look at Lenin, look at Trotsky and look at you.” Fortunately for his by now thoroughly rattled listeners, Greene in his rage had expelled more of his pupils than could really be purged in one go, so all were reinstated aside from two whom, Claud recalled, had “tried to get the soldiers to break into Charles Greene’s study and tear up his books – a really rather shitty thing to do”.

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The uprising at Berkhamsted School was symptomatic in a small way of what was happening all over Europe in the wake of the German defeat. Momentous questions had to be rapidly addressed and answered: what had been achieved by the great sacrifice in human lives? How far should peace to be used to restore the old pre-war world, or was this an opportunity to build a new one? These were not abstract debating points and getting the answers wrong might provoke an immediate and violent challenge to authority, as rulers all over the continent – in a similar fashion to Charles Greene – were finding out to their cost. Where there was no revolutionary atmosphere, there was a mood of militancy. In Central and Eastern Europe, Ireland and the Middle East, the armistice did not even bring peace, but new wars as old states broke up and new states and nations sought to establish themselves. Most menacing of all to the established order, as Greene had warned his pupils, were the Bolsheviks in Moscow with their promise of a total revolutionary transformation of the world. Other less obvious threats were present on Armistice Day, though they were not yet apparent either to the euphoric soldiers and schoolboys celebrating victory in Berkhamsted High Street or to the politicians and diplomats soon to gather in Versailles to work for what they claimed would be a fairer and more stable future. The armistice was not unconditional surrender by the defeated side: Germany might have lost the war, but no British or French troops had crossed the German frontier by 11 November, so the allied victory was not as complete as that over Germany in 1945. Any attempt to pretend otherwise by the triumphant allies was likely to prove disastrous, and what used to be called a Carthaginian peace – the losing country forced to accept the harshest of terms because it had no option – could only be enforced by the continuing and credible threat of military force by the allies. Such determination was always likely to ebb with time.

Patriotic liberals like Charles Green could see early on that the negotiations at Versailles would produce more violence and war. The conflict had been a great calamity for liberalism, not only because of the mass slaughter, but because it had washed away traditional liberal values such as moderation and compromise in pursuit of progress, and opposition to the relentless use of force in the interests of militarism and imperialism. While the war was still going on, Greene had personally witnessed ominous signs that merciless and excessive force had become the norm. One day he had arrived excited and distraught at Henry Cockburn’s house in Berkhamsted – he and his wife had moved there so Claud could attend the school as a dayboy. Charles and Henry were friends, although he disapproved of the former diplomat’s imperialist views. Greene told him that “the most appalling thing had happened”. He had gone down to the school playing fields where the OTC was training, and he had seen or listened to the sergeant major who was training the recruits. To his horror, he had heard him saying to them, “Well now, when the enemy come out of trenches and surrender and raise their hands, remember not to take your fingers off [the trigger of] your machine guns.” Describing his experience in the Cockburn household, Charles concluded: “My God – we must all protest against the army becoming as barbaric as those fellows.”

Claud was at this stage of his life a strong Conservative, in keeping with his father’s views, but he was beginning to be influenced by Greene’s vigorous liberalism. Claud knew him much better than most students get to know their headmasters because he was the best chess player in the school and Greene had a passion for the game. When this craving came on him, which was often, he would invite his young pupil to play lengthy games of chess at a table beside the roaring fire in his study, much to Claud’s enjoyment since he was free for hours from school rules, routines and regulations. He was impressed by the explosive intensity that Greene brought, not only to the chessboard, but to every aspect of life. “He was a man of powerful and vivid reactions,” my father wrote in his autobiography In Time of Trouble. “Certain events, sometimes important, sometimes quite trivial, seemed to strike his mind with the heat and force of a branding iron.” Greene’s history lessons would shift swiftly from the past to the present and usually took the form of comments on contemporary politics, using analogies from Pericles to the Boer War to illustrate the way in which disastrous treaty-making and other political errors were driving Europe towards general ruin.Claud Cockburn (seventh boy from left, second row from back) with his fellow pupils in 1919 Charles Greene must have forgiven Claud for his part in the Armistice Day uprising when, at the age of 16, he became a boarder rather than a semi-detached dayboy at Berkhamsted. Greene liked to talk politics during mealtimes at high table in the Great Hall, choosing my father as an interlocutor since, young though he was, he could hold his own in a serious political discussion. As a Conservative, Claud provided a satisfactory adversary and a sounding board for his headmaster’s own passionately held liberal views, which were often expressed in sonorous and memorable sentences. “When I gaze,” Claud decades later recalled Greene saying, “upon the activities of Mr Lloyd George, when I consider the political consequences of Mr Clemenceau, my mind, abdicating its intellectual function, shrinks, half-paralysed, from the very attempt to contemplate the abyss which opens, inevitable but unregarded, before us.” Claud gently but affectionately mocked the florid way in which his headmaster proclaimed his forebodings, but the abyss he predicted was all too real and Claud was soon to get a closer look at it.

He had become a boarder at Berkhamsted in 1920 when his father was appointed head of a financial committee in Hungary, established by the allies to oversee compensation due to their nationals as a result of the war. Henry had asked mandarins in Whitehall who appointed him if his knowing little about Hungary and nothing about finance would be an obstacle to him taking the job and was told that they would not. As a result of this move, Claud spent his school holidays and university vacations in Hungary, which was one of the big losers in the war, having to give up 72 per cent of its territory and experiencing a brief communist revolution and counter-revolution the previous year. At the moment that people of Claud’s generation in England were beginning to feel disillusioned about the outcome of the war, he was getting a double dosage of anti-war feeling as he met and talked daily with Hungarians, Germans and Austrians for whom the war was a hideous calamity.

He found Budapest to be a city where many had come to a bad end and the survivors lived in a state of permanent fear of being murdered, arrested or just ruined. He was sympathetic – too sympathetic he was to feel in later years – to the complaints of Hungarian landowners and businessmen who talked endlessly about how they were being unfairly treated by the allies. Denunciations of Versailles by British liberals like John Maynard Keynes, whose Economic Consequences of the Peace was being widely read, seemed to confirm that they were right. Claud wrote later that “the curious alliance between the British liberal thinker [Keynes] and the most extreme of Central European nationalists, who cheerfully would have chopped his ears off had they seen the slightest profit to themselves in so doing, was one of the grotesque ironies of the period, but it was an irony which escaped people like myself”.

French troops enter Essen during the Ruhr occupation in 1923The anguish of the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians – whose basic though unspoken complaint, he was to feel subsequently, was that they had lost the war – was receiving an increasingly sympathetic hearing in the circles in which Claud moved when he went to Oxford in 1922. Young men who had been taught during the war that the Kaiser, the Huns and the U-boats were the source of all evil, found fresh demons in the shape of Lloyd George, French prime minister Henri Poincare and post-war treaty makers in general as the true villains of the piece. “No doubt,” he wrote later, “this reaction was strongest among people who, like myself, lived in Central Europe at the time, and were exposed to the well-organised lamentations of Hungarian landowners, German steel barons in the Ruhr and ulcerated international bankers.” Claud describes with sympathy how his diplomat father found this revulsion of feeling among the younger generation about the war incomprehensible. He admitted in later years that Henry had a much better case than his idealistic son could accept at the time: Henry had seen a war between Germany and Britain as inevitable for decades before it happened and he had always expected it to be terrible. He was, so to speak, protected from any shock effect by this foreknowledge. He never took seriously the high-minded slogans about Britain and France fighting for democracy and civilisation and could not appreciate the rage of who had done so and now felt themselves cheated and betrayed.Support free-thinking journalism and subscribe to Independent MindsClaud was a little hard on himself retrospectively, because there was nothing unreasonable about his sympathy for the underdogs – as the defeated central powers certainly were after the armistice – or his anger at the unjust treaties that really did prepare the ground for another war. His disillusionment with his father’s more traditional conservatism may have been developing during his last two years at Berkhamsted, because he began to teach himself German which was not on the curriculum. He could soon read the language, but because nobody had taught him the correct pronunciation, his spoken German was both fluent and entirely incomprehensible to anybody else. He went up to Keble College in Oxford in 1922 along with Graham Greene, also born in 1904 and only a few months younger than himself, who went to Balliol. They knew each other from Berkhamsted and were both radically opposed to attempts – in this case by France – to compel the payment of reparations by Germany by force. Failure of the Germans to do so had led the French to set up a separatist state in the Rhineland, including the Ruhr, nicknamed “the Revolver Republic”, where French troops were backing separatist German gunmen. The occupation was resisted by striking workers in the Ruhr and a campaign of shooting and kidnapping officials who collaborated with the occupiers.

Graham and Claud were indignant about this state of affairs and, though still only 19-years old and without any money, they decided that they must do something about it. Both were instinctive activists. “Graham’s a real crusader for the underdog,” Claud was to tell Norman Sherry in 1977. “If a man’s having a raw deal, Graham would honestly rush into the street and get killed.” He approved of the way that Graham never dawdled and was always keen to put any plan of action into operation the following day. In this case, their plan was to go to the Rhineland to investigate reports of atrocities against the German population and write about them for the papers. To get around the problem of being entirely without funds to pay for their travels, Graham wrote to the German embassy in London and asked for help. They received £100, handed over in a theatre by an emissary with a comic opera attempt at secrecy.

Their arrival in the Rhineland in April 1924 was noted critically by a British military intelligence officer. It is the first report in my father’s MI5 file, which eventually totalled 24 thick folders now in the National Archives at Kew. The officer noted suspiciously that Claud and Graham had not obtained visas and were carrying a letter of introduction from the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin to the local German authorities. “Both [men] appear to be authors,” wrote the officer dubiously. They visited Cologne, Essen Bonn, Trier and Mainz, an itinerary that was more dangerous than it looked because there were regular killings and beatings carried out by both sides. In his account of the journey, Claud portrays himself as the prudent one of the pair, while Graham was much more intrepid in courting danger, walking through the streets of Essen at night despite the presence of trigger-happy French troops and separatist gunmen. According to Graham: “Everybody glowered at us and there was a very delightful sensation of being hated by everybody… all foreigners were taken for French officials.” In the event, they returned safely from Germany and the French withdrew from the Rhineland in 1925 as Europe finally appeared to be settling down after the First World War cataclysm. These appearances turned out to be horribly misleading, as the way soon began to open for an even more savage conflict than the one just finished. Charles Greene could have claimed with some justice that his refusal to allow Berkhamsted School to celebrate peace prematurely had been justified by events.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).