Tribute to the Beaumont Old Boys of Verdun
Alumni of Beaumont College, the Jesuit school in Berkshire from 1861 until 1967, are planning a trip to the Verdun Battlefield in May 2017, thereby completing their homage to the Old Beaumont boys (OBs) who fought and gave their lives in France during the First World War.
Beaumont was probably the only school founded in the 19th century specifically to educate sons of the Diplomatic Corps and others posted to London. It attracted a following from all over the world but especially from France and Spain from parents who wanted a Catholic and Public school education for their sons.
"We believe that between 40 and 50 French OBs were engaged at Verdun, either fighting, waiting for the breakthrough (the cavalry) or on the Staff," explains Robert Wilkinson of the Beaumont Union. "This covered not only the main battle through 1916 but the subsequent battles to Armistice Day."
The Balloon Bursting Ace
Among those who served at Verdun was André de Gennes who had left Beaumont College in 1906, and had, by family tradition, joined the cavalry. He was commissioned in the 7th Cuirassiers before transferring to the fledgling Allied Flying Corps. He was one of the volunteers who took part in the first use of rockets during an attack in May 1916 on the fort at Douamont. It had been captured by the Germans in the early stages of Verdun and the French attempted to recapture it in May. The ground assault ended in failure but the air attack was a complete success despite being engaged themselves by Fokker fighters. André de Gennes was one of the most successful French fighter pilots and was known as 'the Balloon Bursting Ace'. He was forced down and captured in July 1916.
Another French OB was Corporal Edgar Guillet (pictured left) of the 412nd Régiment d'Infanterie. He was a member of the Rouyer-Guillet Cognac family and joined the army at the age of 17. Corporal Guillet was known as 'L'Anglais' (the Englishman) and he served on several sectors at L'Aisne and Verdun, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He was killed in action on 23 July 1918 and was posthumously awarded France's highest bravery decoration - Medaille Militaire. His brother Albert - also an OB - was the first French Irish Guards officer.
Of almost 600 OBs eligible to serve in the First World War, 132 gave their lives. These include a father and son, seven sets of brothers and numerous cousins. There were six Frenchmen and two from the United States, including Harry Butters, the first American to join the British army to fight in the conflict; his sword was made into a crucifix for the Lady Chapel of Beaumont College. "Beaumont's casualties were among the highest of any school - 22% - which was worse than Eton, so we have good cause to 'remember them'," says Mr Wilkinson. Last year, members of the Beaumont Union had the special privilege of laying a wreath in the Crypt of the Unknown Soldiers at the National Shrine at Notre Dame de Lorette.
More details about the trip to Verdun in May are available on the Beaumont Union website.