Major Thomas Barnard Sills and Spanish Flu at Bradfield
|19 Nov 2020|
In St Andrew’s Churchyard at Bradfield lies the grave of Assistant Master Major Thomas Barnard Sills who sadly contracted Spanish Flu and died on 19 November 1918 aged 41 years.
His passing was recently discussed with Tim Sills (D 55-60) to whom Thomas was a great uncle and his name is on the College War Memorial Cross, having died at Bradfield during the war period.
His gravestone inscription notes he was Major commanding the Bradfield OTC from 1913 to 1918 and he was also Housemaster of Army House before his death.
The book ‘Bradfield 1850-1975’ by Blackie notes the Bradfield contingent of the Officers’ Training Corps, commanded by Major T.B. Sills came into its own during the war years. They paraded twice a week, did much field training on Bucklebury Common and elsewhere, dug trenches around House on the Hill and organised Summer Camps for the school which in 1918 numbered 240 boys.
Spanish Flu had been an unexpected side effect of the later war years and affected many families including the College. In his obituary in the Bradfield Chronicle of the time it notes that: “Major Sills was suffering from a severe cold, to which, unfortunately, in his anxiety to avoid giving trouble to others, he refused to yield and when he was forced to take to his bed on November 16th, it was too late and the end came with startling suddenness. He succumbed to heart failure on 19th.” Only a small band of friends and colleagues could attend the services in the Chapel and Churchyard where he was buried on Friday November 22 1918.
Tim remembers when he was at Bradfield as a young OB being told by a Senior OB that the dormitory in the Sanatorium was full during the Spanish Flu epidemic and the boys were feeling rough when the door opened and there stood Headmaster Beloe in full gown and mortar board to announce “Major Sills is dead” before walking out again. Boys were said to lay quaking in their beds, thinking if it has killed Major Sills, 'what chance have the rest of us got'.
Thomas Sills came to Bradfield from Warwick School in May 1904. He had been a Second Lieutenant in the Warwick School OTC and was gazetted Lieutenant in his first term at Bradfield, Captain in 1905 and Major in 1913, when he also took over the Bradfield OTC. A photograph from 1908 below shows the Officers of the OTC including Thomas Sills (front left), E P Blake, HL Firkins, PFR Bashford, AE Drysdale and REL Wingate.
He was noted for his excellence in field work. He had natural eye for country, perfected by his experience in field sports. As an organiser of Camps, he was unsurpassed. Showing how his work was appreciated a letter was received by the Headmaster from the War Office after his death which noted “I am commanded by the Army Council to express to you the deep regret which they feel on learning of the death of the Commanding Officer of the Bradfield College Contingent, Officers’ Training Corps. I am to say that the Council desire me to state how much they appreciate the services which Major Sills rendered to the Officers’ Training Corps and that they recognise that the present state of efficiency of the Bradfield College Contingent is in large measure due to the zeal and energy with which he undertook his duties.”
This would have been just the epitaph Major Sills would have desired. Thorough in all that he undertook, as teacher, housemaster, officer, hearty in his love of sport, loyal to his friends, his colleagues and his school, he died in harness, spending himself for others and laying down his life for his country as truly as if he had fallen in the forefront of the battle. It is most fitting that his name is engraved alongside others on the College War Memorial and we remember him today.