From St John’s College to WW1 cemeteries in France

Students remember former-pupils turned WW1 soldiers

Students of St John’s College in Southsea have been learning about former students who gave their lives fighting in World War One.

Over the past few months, students and staff from the College have helped Ruth Ross uncover the effects of World War One in the local community. As a member of the College’s Politics Society, Ruth was already familiar with school, and so decided to use their records as the basis of a research project she was undertaking.

After identifying names of fallen soldiers on the St John’s Roll of Honour and by delving into the College’s records, Ruth decided to focus her research on two former pupils of St John’s College: Basil Jones and Thomas McCormack. 

Basil Jones was born in 1898 and attended St John’s College from January 21, 1911 to July 13, 1914 as the 67th student number to enrol. After gaining several qualifications, he left to work in a bank but the next year he joined the services as a motorcycle dispatch rider. Later, Ruth discovered, Basil transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and served for three years. In this time he gained multiple promotions, resulting in being awarded the rank of Lieutenant. Lieutenant Basil Jones died aged 20 years old.

Thomas Gerald McCormack was born on September 22, 1899 in a large Irish Catholic family who moved to Southsea where he attended St John’s College from June 16, 1913 to March 3, 1914. Ruth discovered he had signed up with an Irish Regiment in 1917 but died on the second day of the Battle of Messines in June 1917, shortly after enlisting. 

The Junior School pupils learnt about Basil and Thomas during their WW1 Week, organised by Year 5 Teacher, Ms Wells, so Ruth invited them to hand-write a message onto poppy crosses which she would later lay upon their graves. Ms Wells commented, “As the children had learnt about our specific OJs who died in the war it made the task more meaningful; it gave it purpose.”

In the spring of 2015, Ruth travelled to France and visited Basil Jones’ grave in La Kreule Military Cemetery, Hazebrouck, and Thomas McCormack’s in Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension.

Melissa Riggs, Year 5, who was chosen to write on a cross, said, “I wanted to do it; I didn’t want the crosses to go to France without a message written on them. I think it’s important to remember them because they were very brave.”

Dr Goodlad, Head of Government and Politics and Teacher of History at St John’s, said: “The College is delighted and honoured that Ruth Ross involved us in her decision to commemorate the St John’s pupils who gave their lives in the First World War. Ruth is a long-standing member of our Politics Society and we hugely value our association with her. The sense of connection across the generations, which the crosses on these graves give us, reminds us at a deep level of the debt we owe those who gave their lives a century ago.” 

Ruth commented: “It makes you realise that a name on an honours board was somebody’s son, somebody’s student. It’s deeply satisfying because it’s like completing two ends of one line to make a circle, from finding their name and entry in the register to seeing their grave. It’s nice to think that as we sit here today, those St John’s poppy crosses with hand-written messages are still on those boys’ graves, for others to see, showing they are not forgotten.” 

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