The novel predates the Just William books and Molesworth stories, but begins in a similar fashion to these books, describing the school lives of Rupert Ray and his friends at their public school, Kensingstowe. The author describes the pranks they play on the masters (teachers) from Ray's perspective. Raymond spends much of the novel setting up the characters and their relationships in this way.
Rupert himself is a shy boy lacking in courage and in need of moral guidance in the absence of a father figure. Edgar, nicknamed the "Grey Doe" is equally shy, but is more sensitive and inclined to fall in love with older men such as their strict master Radley. Both boys are heavily influenced by the older Archibald, "Penny", who enjoys wielding youthful power over others by stirring up acts of mischief. The first half of the book relates Rupert's most dramatic incidents as Kensingtowe, including an ongoing "war" with his Housemaster, the so-called "Carpet Slippers", receiving beatings and punishments, learning to do what is right, and his greatest hour - winning the school relay swimming race, only to be disqualified, then made a prefect on account of his maturity in dealing with the disappointment. Radley is a heavy influence in all this, because he offers Rupert advice and encouragement to make the right choices. In one memorable episode, the entire class has been cheating in Carpet Slippers' history lessons, only for Rupert to admit his guilt by recording a mark of zero after Radley's prompting. The book repeatedly makes dark suggestions as to the boys' future after school. For example, at the end of a triumphant cricket match the masters at Kensingstowe consider what England will do with the young men they are molding. Radley himself is a weary, beaten figure when he learns that his favourite pupils, Ray and Doe, are off to war.
When the war breaks out it is treated with much excitement and the boys leave school to join the army as officers. Where others have blamed the attitude of sending England's finest (their boys) to war for the mass slaughter that resulted, Raymond's portrayal justifies the thinking of the time. The attitude is embodied by their new commanding officer, the Colonel;
The boys go forward to Gallipoli and despite Ray's pain at leaving his mother, and his clear worry that he will never see her again, they are still optimistic and eager to head off to war. The news that Penny died on the Western Front and that their house captain, their school's most promising cricketer (a sure bet for a future England side) and Rupert's relay-team captain all died in April in Gallipoli depresses Edgar and Rupert somewhat. There is a bitter irony in this passage, for all three were such promising lives that were snuffed out the moment they landed on the beaches of Gallipoli by Turkish guns.
A major theme of the novel is religious redemption, and in the second half of the book Padre Monty becomes to Ray and Doe what Radley was at Kensingtowe. He teaches them about the communion and about confession, and achieves the unlikely feat of drawing confessions from both boys. Padre Monty views the pair as his greatest triumph, and is happy to be sending them out to battle "white" and pure. Still, both boys have their doubts about the approaching war as their ship draws nearer to Gallipoli. Doe is the enthusiast, with high aspirations but a sensitive heart. Ray is slightly heavier of spirits, but Padre Monty encourages him to seek beauty in everything.
At Gallipoli, the boys spend months waiting in a camp for any action, but are finally sent to the Helles, where they are up against "Asiatic Annie", a 7-mile ranging Turk gun, and a well-placed Turkish gun that kills many of their friends. Doe accepts the promotion to Bombing Officer with characteristic enthusiasm. Ray is promoted to Captain. They are both junior subalterns, the rank that suffered the greatest losses in the Great War, owing to their courage and visibility as leaders of the front line. As the Germans break through Servia and British and French troops at Gallipoli begin to withdraw, it is Doe and Ray's unit that is required to attack as a diversion. Doe breaks over the top of the line and is shot in the shoulder. He falls, but manages to get up and blow up the offending Turkish gun. He is then shot four more times in the waist. Padre Monty rushes out to bring him out of No Man's Land.
Doe subsequently dies, but not before Ray has a tearful final farewell with his best friend. The entire duration of the novel up to that point is a romantic ode to their friendship - painting Rupert's love for Edgar in classical hues as Orestes who loved Pylades. There is an underlying homosexual flavour to the novel, with vivid descriptions of boys as magnificent creatures, God's highest form of creation and Britain's greatest accomplishment. The reader never feels that Rupert's feelings for Edgar are sexual, but there are intimations in Edgar's unwillingness to confess to Padre Monty and his admission that he has done "everything", that Doe himself was homosexual.
At the end of the novel when leaving Gallipoli Ray is charged by Padre Monty to tell England about what has happened, "You must write a book and tell 'em, Rupert, about the dead schoolboys of your generation".
Originally published by Cassell and Company, Tell England was most recently reprinted in 2005, when it was republished by IndyPublish.com (ISBN 1-4219-4612-2).
The book's name might be inspired by the famous epitaph to King Leonidas and his men, erected at Thermopylae :Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by/ That here, obedient to their laws, we lie. The name comes from a poem that is inscribed on the grave of one of Edgar and Ray's friends, and is presumably also inscribed on Edgar Doe's, given that he asked Ray to do so. The quote reads:
"Tell England, ye who pass this monument, We died for her, and here we rest content."
One of the final messages in the book is given by Padre Monty to Rupert Ray as a means of consoling him to Edgar's death. He says that Rupert and Edgar's friendship is more perfect because of Edgar's death. Had they simply been school friends who went their separate ways, they would eventually have lost trace of one another. Instead, Edgar will forever be inscribed upon Ray's memory as the war held them in deepening intimacy until the end.
The end of the novel is written from a trench on the Western Front in 1918, just as England is about to defeat Germany and end the Great War. Rupert intimates that he has finished his story in time, but does not say whether he survives the final passage of war. We are asked to believe that he is happy because he has lived, experienced beauty, known the purest of friendships and had twenty wonderful years. The book ends on that note.
We will never forget them.