A Virginia school remembers a life lived on the knife’s edge

John Kelly
Columnist January 21, 2013

The Fairbairn-Sykes dagger has one purpose: to kill. Issued to British commandos, it has a thin, exceptionally sharp blade that will open an artery with a quick flick.

That’s the story behind the knife in the fancy vitrine shown to students at Founder’s Day ceremonies at the Flint Hill School in Oakton last week. Here’s the story behind the man behind the knife.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

His name was Alan Ferguson-Warren, and he was a Royal Marine. In the 1920s, he flew over the China Sea in a biplane looking for pirates. After the British retreat at Dunkirk in World War II, Colonel Warren, as he was later known, was sent on a secret mission to rescue stragglers left behind. His team found none. When the Royal Navy vessel that was supposed to pick him up failed to materialize, he purchased a rowboat from a sympathetic Frenchman and rowed it back to England.

The British government next sent Colonel Warren to Singapore to organize a guerilla force. He eventually wound up at Padang in Sumatra, from whence he was to make his escape. But he encountered some 800 British enlisted men and junior officers who had been abandoned by their superiors. Discipline had broken down as they nervously awaited the Japanese. Colonel Warren feared they would be executed.

And so he decided to stay behind, take command, whip them into shape and then oversee an orderly surrender to the Japanese. That’s what he did, giving his seat aboard the last boat out of Padang to a young Welsh artillery officer named Geoffrey Rowley-Conwy.

After their surrender, Colonel Warren and the others were sent by the Japanese to a prisoner-of-war camp in Thailand on the River Kwai. (He had more than a passing interest in a certain 1958 Alec Guinness movie.)

“In the camps, he acquired an almost religious appreciation for literature,” said Jerry Jasper last week at Flint Hill. “Books there were precious things.”

Jerry — Flint Hill Class of 1962 — knew Colonel Warren not as a commando, but as a teacher. In 1957, the former Royal Marine joined the staff at the Fairfax County private school teaching English. For a while, he drove a school bus, too.

Colonel Warren was 6 foot 2, with an erect carriage and a steely gaze. Jerry remembers thinking, “This is the first person I’ve ever met who could kill a man.”

At Flint Hill, the enemy was flabby language. It was grammatical errors. A poorly written essay would be returned covered in red ink. As Colonel Warren handed it back, he would thunder, “A perfect bull’s foot!”

No one was sure what a bull’s foot was, but they knew it wasn’t good.

Colonel Warren drilled vocabulary words into his students, illustrating them with examples from his exploits. The word “sheepish”? It described how he felt after he had dived into the Yangtze River to retrieve a sea plane that had come loose in a storm and was floating away, only to be told it was a particularly gutsy move, considering the crocodiles that were nearby.

The colonel hadn’t known about the crocodiles.

As with all great teachers, Colonel Warren’s lessons went beyond what was in the books. Judith Shoemaker, Class of ’73, would stop by his classroom for lunch nearly every day. “It was amazing, just talking about life,” she said. He was a person of character and courage, and he let his students know they could aspire to the same qualities.

His influence was important when Judith became a veterinarian and decided to specialize in alternative medicine.

“I got called a quack,” she said.

“But you had an infusion of Warren courage,” Jerry pointed out.

In 1974, Colonel Warren learned he had cancer. He retired from Flint Hill and returned to England. There he met Ian Skidmore, a veteran journalist who wound up writing a biography of the colonel.

Skidmore introduced Warren to another veteran of his acquaintance, Lord Langford, the 9th Baron Langford of Summerhill. This turned out to be Rowley-Conwy, the Welsh officer to whom Warren had given his seat on the last boat out of Sumatra. Reacquainted and knowing he was near death, Colonel Warren gave Lord Langford his ceremonial Fairbairn-Sykes commando dagger.

Lord Langford is now 100 years old. When he learned that Flint Hill graduates had created the Anglo-American Ferguson-Warren Society to honor the memory of their teacher, he sent the school the dagger.

Last week, it was unveiled at Flint Hill — a sharp and steely reminder of a sharp and steely man.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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