Adjacent to the College, in St Andrew’s Churchyard, lies the grave of Assistant Master Major Thomas Barnard Sills, a Bradfield Housemaster during the First World War who sadly contracted Spanish Flu and died on 19 November 1918, aged 41 years. His name is inscribed on the Collingwood Cross War Memorial having died at Bradfield during the War.
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. Thomas joined Bradfield from Warwick School in May 1904. He had been a Second Lieutenant in the Warwick 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. The photograph shows the Officers of the OTC in 1908 including Thomas Sills (front left), E P Blake, HL Firkins, PFR Bashford, AE Drysdale and REL Wingate.
In John Blackie’s Bradfield 1850-1975 the author 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, dug trenches around House-on-the-Hill and organised Summer Camps for the 240 boys attending the College at the time. He was noted for his excellence in field work and his natural eye for country was perfected by his experience in field sports. As an organiser of Camps he was unsurpassed.
Thomas’ great nephew, Tim (D 55-60), recalls a story he was told by another Bradfieldian who attended the College during the War regarding his great uncle. The Sanatorium dormitory was full during the Spanish Flu epidemic and the boys within 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 that if it had killed Major Sills then what chance did they have?
The Spanish Flu pandemic was deadly during the later War years and beyond, affecting many families including those associated with the College. His obituary in the Bradfield Chronicle reads: “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 16 it was too late and the end came with startling suddenness. He succumbed to heart failure on 19.” 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.
Following his death, the Headmaster received a letter from the War Office regarding Major Sills. It stated: “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 a teacher, Housemaster and Officer, hearty in his love of sport and loyal to his friends, 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.