Former history teacher James Heasley tells the story of Foyle College and the Great War by looking at the endeavours of a young man who won plaudits on the rugby pitch and on the
battlefield before coming to a tragic end in Northern France
A month after the great war had ended Field Marshal Haig stepped ashore at Dover on his return from France and was greeted as a conquering hero.
It was Thursday, December 18, 1918 and the Londonderry Sentinel reported that he then boarded a train for London where vast crowds welcomed his carriage procession along the Mall to Buckingham Palace, where he met the King and Queen.
A day earlier a small gathering took place in the Minor Hall at Derry’s Guildhall where Foyle College held their annual prize-giving ceremony. While the first part of the ceremony accorded due recognition to those who had gained prizes, the latter part of the ceremony was much more solemn for Foyle remembered those of its boys who had not returned from France. The names of all those who had been killed were read by the Headmaster and among the list were those who had been on the teams representing Foyle in the Ulster Schools Rugby Cup competitions in the years before the start of the war.
The editor of the school magazine reported that there had been a proposal to adorn the wall of the large school room at Lawrence Hill with photographs of the Old Boys who had “fought the last fight”. He imagined that the hands of future generations of Foyle boys would be raised in salute “as the pass the long vista of heroic faces”. At the same time it was proposed that a board with their names printed in gold be hung in every room in the school, but today it is a solitary wooden memorial which bears the names of all those from the College who died in the Great War. One of the names on the memorial is that of T.S. Haslett who, interestingly, is associated with the Ulster Schools Rugby Cup as well as a communion cup resting in a Presbyterian church in Ballymena.
In his short life this schoolboy turned out in a Foyle college jersey to play in the prestigious competition in the years immediately before the Great War.
Thomas Sinclair Haslett was a son of the manse and a native of Ballymena, where he attended the Academy there before going on to board at Campbell College. On a census return of boarders at the Belfast school in 1911 he is recorded as fourteen years of age but within a year he was playing for the Foyle College first XV.
In the section titled ‘Football Notes’, the editor of the Foyle College magazine in January 1913 wrote the following: ‘More than usual interest has been centred on football this season’. He was of course referring to the anticipated success of the first XV rugby team in the Ulster Schools Cup and noted with satisfaction that Foyle had been undefeated by any school team during the season. Concluding with a critique of the Foyle team he appealed to the boys to “train and work hard and crown the season with success by carrying off the Cup.” The most positive comment in the critique of the player was reserved for T.S. Haslett, “the trickiest player on the team,” His talents were recognised when, along with others from Foyle he was selected to play for the Ulster Schools team.
Foyle had won the Schools Cup back in 1900, after extra time in a replay and had suffered defeat at the hands of Portora in the 1906 final but now in January 1914 there was great hope that success would come again as the Foyle team was under the supervision of Mr R.A. Foster, a master at the school who had been an Irish international player and who had been offered a permanent post at Foyle following the sudden death of Mr Freer at the end of the summer holidays in 1913. Nevertheless, the editor of the magazine had to acknowledge that not a little superstition followed the fortunes of the Foyle team for back in the final of 1906, the total points scored were thirteen, eight by Portora and five by Foyle. Moreover it was now thirteen seasons since Foyle had won the cup and in the final of March 1913, the score had been 10 points for Campbell College and only three for Foyle. Interestingly, during the rounds leading up to the 1913 cup final, young Haslett had played for Foyle against his old schools Ballymena and Campbell. Again in the 1913-14 Cup season, Foyle Then the score was nil-nil and there was still hope that the superstitious pundits might be proved wrong but in the second half Methodist College proved much superior and Foyle lost the match by 13 points to nil. Towards the end of the summer term of 1914 Thomas was elected captain of the school cricket team, adding another honour to his vice-captaincy of the first XV. He was now over 17 years of age and it seems that he returned home to Ballymena for in February 1915 in the second round of the Schools Cup that season Foyle College faced a formidable foe in the person of Haslett, now captain of his alma mater Ballymena Academy. Thomas Haslett, who had turned out for the top Ulster Schools in this competition in the pre-war years and had reached the final with Foyle on two successive occasions sadly did not have the satisfaction of holding the coveted railway trophy and enjoying the celebrations awaiting the Foyle team as they arrived back at the Midland Railway station in Derry that spring. In the summer of 1915 he joined the army but within a few short years his name was to be forever linked to a more meaningful cup in his home town of Ballymena.
Within a few months of the start of the Great War a regular feature of the Foyle College magazine was the inclusion of a Roll of Honour, a list of the names of all former boys serving in the armed forces. Over half of the victorious first XV of 1915 joined the forces and the October edition listed 163 names of former pupils within their ranks and regiments and by January 1916 the list had extended to 216. In August 1916, over 250 names were listed and by then, sadly they were prefixed by the names of 19 boys who had been killed in action. The exploits and gallantry of former pupils were of course reported in the magazine and in November 1916 it proudly displayed a photograph of Lieutenant Thomas Haslett who had been awarded the Military Cross.
Over 400 names were on the Foyle College Roll of Honour in 1917, the year of its Tercentenary, but the death toll had now exceeded 50, prompting the following in the magazine in a piece entitled ‘In Memory of the Fallen’.
“Celebrations are somewhat out of place but in this year it is fitting to pause in reverence and pay our silent homage to those of our old boys who have laid down their lives in the Great War. Most of them fell in the very morning of promise, while life was still a challenge to adventure and high deeds...”
Just before Christmas 1917 when Foyle College marked its Tercentenary at the prize distribution in the Guildhall, the Headmaster Mr Dill reported that in the previous month three former pupils had been killed in the war, McCarter, McCay and Haslett. McCay and Haslett were the respective Captain and vice-Captain of the 1913-14 Schools Cup team, and by a strange irony of fate, their deaths had been announced on the same date. It seems that Haslett was killed when going to the aid of a severely wounded fellow officer from the Royal Irish Rifles on November 22, 1917, only two days after the start of the Cambrai battle. According to the Headmaster, young Haslett was able to speak to this comrade a little while before he died and Haslett himself was killed only a few moments later. The Headmaster commented: “So fell the good sportsman and good comrade that he always was.”
The January 1918 issue of the College magazine was able to reveal that the young officer Haslett had gone to help was Second Lieutenant Atkinson and now inscribed on the Cambrai memorials to the missing, the name of Hugh Atkinson is now found just a little below that of Thomas Haslett. Near their names on this massive monument to those who have no known grave is that of T.F. McCay, the Foyle captain of the 1913-14 team.
Thomas Sinclair’s endeavours with the Foyle team to regain the schools cup in the years before 1914 dud not bring him success but his father in Ballymena, presented in memory of his eldest son a communion cup to his congregation.
The Reverend Haslett served his congregation for many more years and was at one time Moderator of the Presbyterian Church. Another Moderator of the Presbyterian Church with an even closer association to Foyle was the Reverend James Gilbert Paton, an old boy of the school who served as chaplain to the forces.
He saw at first hand the trauma of trench life, and in 1917 was awarded the Military Cross for carrying wounded men under fire. His exemplary conduct led to the addition of two bars to his medal and of course he bore the very heavy and sad responsibility of writing to the relatives of those injured and killed.
He had the distinction of being the first Presbyterian Minister to take up YMCA work with the troops when the war broke out and in 1935, the year before he died, the Very Reverend Paton held the office of President of Foyle College Old Boys Association.
Hundreds of past pupils had served in the war but over 70 had not returned and it is their names which are recorded on the memorial in the assembly hall.
Alongside the name of Thomas Haslett, one finds many sons of established Derry families.
Haslett did no hail from Derry, nor did he receive the glittering prizes given to other boys for academic excellence but in his association with three Ulster towns and, considering his undoubted sporting talents, he in a very real sense can be said to represent the lost youth of that era.