UK

WW1: Tragic Tale Of Headmaster, Who Lost 100 Boys To The Battlefields, Is Revealed

24/02/2014 15:17 GMT | Updated 25/02/2014 08:59 GMT

George Howson was the most idealistic of headmasters. When he took the helm at Gresham's School in Norfolk, he wanted to reinvent the standards of education at the famous boarding school; he overhauled the buildings, and had ambitions to make it one of the country's elite.

He took great pride in the boys he sent out into the world, many to Oxford or Cambridge, believing they had had the best chance to become the finest, most accomplished adults.

Except many of them never made it to adulthood.

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Headmaster George Howson with some of his pupils

More than 100 boys that Howson mentored as headmaster died in the First World War, many just months after leaving school. After the armistice in 1918, Howson died, just a few weeks after peace came. Obituaries called him the last casualty of the war, broken by so much sorrow.

The story of George Howson is one of 1,400 tales from across Britain that will make up the BBC’s project, World War One At Home. The project, launched for the centenary year, tells individual tales of the international conflict, in partnership with Imperial War Museum.

Sue Smart, a governor of Gresham’s and the author of "When Heroes Die" about the school during the war, told HuffPost UK that Howson felt all his hopes and ideals, everything he had devoted himself to, was mowed down on the battlefields of France, by events beyond his control.

"It shattered him, he was unmarried, many of the boys whose parents lived abroad saw him more than their own fathers. People at the time described him as being utterly distraught, having died of a broken heart," she said.

The Times called him "a notable headmaster", saying that: "Under him the school made rapid progress, especially in science teaching", continuing "He has been called away, as he would have wished, while in the faithful discharge of his duty. His death has left a gap which it will be well-nigh impossible to fill."

The stories of the boys will also feature in the programme. Smart recalled one story that particularly struck her during her research, of brothers Mark and Cuthbert Hill.

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An officer training corps opened at the school

"Mark was captain of the rugby team and had left school to study at Cambridge. He was a particularly promising student, set on a career in the church. Cuthbert was the joker of the family, a real light-hearted boy, and when war was declared he went straight to the navy, aged just 18. He had been serving just three or four days when his ship went down. I found that particularly profound, that he was so young, that he had had no opportunity to do anything at all.

"Mark, who was the elder, had left Cambridge to join the army. And he wrote an extraordinary letter home to his mother, about the loss of his brother, the pain he felt, and because he was such an intelligent boy, he writes absolutely beautifully. And six weeks later he was killed in France. His mother lost her two boys in just six weeks."

A documentary on Gresham’s will be aired on BBC Radio Norfolk and BBC Look East on Friday 28 February as part of the BBC’s World War One At Home project