When we decided to research the histories of the men on our war memorial it seemed a fairly simple task. Collect the information, write it up and publish it. However, there is one solders story that deserves a wider audience - Nicholas Herbert Todd.
As the son of the Rector of Occold he would have had a privileged upbringing as indeed it was.
He was educated firstly at Felsted, Essex and then gaining an MA at Keble College Oxford. After leaving Oxford in 1901 he devoted his life to education and became an exceptional schoolmaster first at Balham in London and finally at Sedbergh Preparatory School in North Yorkshire.
He was a poet and a playwright. In keeping with the self-effacing man that he was. He never intended that his poems and plays should be published beyond the school, but after his death his school collected and published them as a tribute to a man small in stature but large in talent and love of children. When NHT enlisted in the summer of 1916 his headmaster wrote:
“We have also lost a very good friend in Mr Todd, who had felt it his duty to join the army and was at Winchester training for something that he entirely unfitted”.
His life ended tragically young on the Somme in the winter of 1916.
Sedbergh Prep School Pupils c1895
Here and there in the world is found a man who seems to bear a mysterious passport to the intimacy of children. For him the barrier of age does not exist: consciously or unconsciously he is as though in his own passage through the house of childhood he had hit on some hidden door that opened upon a garden of rare delight: and whilst his companions had passed ere noonday far beyond the walls of that fair place, evening had found him still wandering there, content to ask no other home for all his days, if only the happiness be his of welcoming to the wonders of that garden some few fortunates at least of that daily succession of children.
Such a one was Nicholas Herbert Todd. What his life had been before he came to Sedbergh - save that he wore on his blazer the arms of Keble College, and spoke of Suffolk as a native - we did not know, nor did it occur to us to wonder; It was scarcely conceivable that he could ever have done other than teach small boys to call wild flowers by their names, to write painful Latin elegiacs, to love the becks and the fells, birds and beast, the satire of Gilbert and Sullivan, the human sympathy of Dickens.
For all this was something more to him than a profession, a thing to be laid aside in leisure hours. His long days work was devoted to boys; how much they claimed of his idle thoughts will appear in these pages: for this whimsical little play was conceived, that naïve little verse was scribbled down, in the odd moment before a French lesson, or in the brief hour of freedom after lights out.
So when in his eleventh year at Sedbergh, the war claimed this gentle and vivacious little figure, with the merest shrug of the shoulders he gave a Childs uncomprehending obedience to that authority which banished him from his comrades of a lifetime. After a few months training at Winchester he crossed to France in the autumn of 1916 and fell on October 7th, a rifleman in the Queens Westminsters.
I think there must be strange delightful stir
Along the flower-girl ways of Paradise
As each hour brings another sojourner
Earth-dusty still and redolent with sighs.
All breathless with a gratified surprise.
So surely in the moment that you died,
There must have passed a flicker of the news
Along the stirring sun-swept avenues;
And as you came, with quick and impulsive stride
And deprecating smile, wild to deride
The fluttering acclamations that would rise
From all the waving trees, and nodding grass,
I fancy through the shade the word would pass
“This man knew joy and grief, was wise
Where others stumbled, loved the fragrant earth
And flowers and winds and quiet Autumnal skies;
He gave men laughter, nursed the frailest birth
Of fancy-joyed in comradeship: his mind
Was quick in mystery, pondered in the shade,
Loathed war and cruelty - was unafraid.”
And as the whisper passed, the dreaming ways,
Perchance, awoke as magic; all your days
Came hurrying with phantom feet, to bind
A wreath of flowers on your reluctant head.
I like to think how you, who loved not praise,
Endured the welcome of the clear-eyed dead.
IN VERY LOVING MEMORY OF
HERBERT NICOLAS TODD M.A. OXON.
PRIVATE IN THE QUEENS WESTMINSTERS
BORN AT OCCOLD RECTORY SEPT 21 1878
KILLED IN ACTION NEAR BAPAUME FRANCE
OCTOBER 7TH 1916
DULCE ET DECORUM PRO PATRIA MORI (1)
LUX PERPETUAL LUCEAT EC (2)
(1) It is sweet and right to die for your country
"The old lie" according to Wilfred Owen's poem DULCE ET DECORUM.
(2) Everlasting light shine upon him
Taken from the Catholic Requiem Mass which is used in remembrance of the dead.
During his time of training at Hazeley Down, Winchester he still found time to write his poetry
Dear Geoff I wonder if you'd like to be
A soldier of King George, the same as me.
To live in Huts arranged in long straight rows,
Or if you'd rather, call them Bungalows.
Your bed, three boards, on which you rest at night,
Which you're required by order to keep white.
To rise at six-or usually much later
And wash, and dress, and shave at such a rate, a
Bedroom at the P.S.S. would hardly equal,
Then marching; about for hours as a sequel.
To listen to advice from N.C.O's
How to stick bayonets inside your foes,
And many other military jaws,
And all the mysteries of forming fours.
A change indeed from that old room I sat in
Trying to teach the elements of Latin,
And bringing boys, whose names I will not mention,
In army parlance " to strict attention."
I hope when I return, if e'er I do,
You'll know your Latin Grammar all right through!
And have no trouble, when I am a civvy,
In reading off at sight a page Livy.
Meanwhile I wander sometimes up and down,
Along the ridges circling, Winton Town
Finding the orchids bending to the breeze,
Or lying on the wild thyme at my ease,
Or hearing ill the Minster's giant pile,
The throb of glory thrilling up the aisle,
And Dreaming of the Princess Who, years past,
Built their memorials, and only asked
Those who came after just one prayer to say
For those who went into the eternal day
For ever, where the tracery of I heaven
Lets in the light from all file planets seven.
And so farewell much love, and may we meet,
Where the swift Rawthey splashes round the feet
Of laughing boys, and Winder's dear old crest
Catches the sunlight dying in the West.
And laden with the spoils, the P.S.S.
Return with shouting in the usual mess.
NHT August 1916
Now I am a Tommy, a soldier of the King,
I find my muse, my rhythmic muse, most disinclined to sing,
It doesn't foster poetry, this everlasting drill,
Nor can I write a single line when doubling up a hill.
If you've slept between rough blankets in an army “bungalow”
And hear each morn at 6 O'clock the beastly bugles blow
And get ticked off on parade for spots upon your belt,
You certainly enjoy some things the poets never felt.
I cannot well Imagine Old Homer forming fours,
Nor Vergil at his post all night Guarding, the O.S. stores,
Nor Tennyson or Swinburne writing a pretty trifle
Upon the various beauties of the new Service Rifle.
If Hood had cleaned a boiler out or spent three hours in scrubbing
Or Shakespeare had to do his boots with special army dubbing,
I know that they'd have found their muse exceedingly retiring
Horace had never made a name for verse at rapid firing!
There is no Inspiration in the peeling onion "stunt",
Nor can you feel poetic when "looking to your front"
A heavy pack, a dusty road, a burning summer sun
Suggest my course to Helicon is very nearly run.
But if at last the day will dawn, when I can wear a tie,
And in the dust of memory my jagged putties lie,
When I return to civil things and have a decent meal
Perhaps I shall be able to write down all the things I feel.
NHT August 1916
In the last verse of his poem Memories he looks forward to a time when he will be able to return to his life and write what he was feeling. He never returned and he never wrote of his feelings.
He is commemorated on our memorial but his time at Sedbergh and his influence on the boys there will also be his memorial.
What follows are entries in the school magazine through the years showing his influence and interest in giving the boys at Sedbergh a full and rounded education.