Three Grenadier Lieutenants and Two Sargents: Osbert Sitwell, Bim Tennant, Harold MacMillan, Mother’s Sons All; Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton: The Written Word Never Quite Hits the Mark

Some days it’s hard to swing a cat around your head in the Pas-de-Calais without hitting a subaltern’s whose mother’s limpid, long-limbed luminously aristocratic beauty was captured by John Singer Sargent. In fact, I realize that my earlier efforts to explain exactly in what sense the Guards were an “elite” unit were rather inefficiently wordy. Please find two thousand words-worth of explanatory pictures below.

Yesterday, the ever-affectionate Bim Tennant wrote another letter to “Darling Moth’,” known to others as Lady Glenconner, one of the leading lights of the Souls.[1]


The Wyndham Sisters (Pamela, the future Lady Glenconner and beloved mother of Bim Tennant, is in the middle; Mary, the future Lady Wemyss, mother of Hugo and Ivo Charteris, is on the right). John Singer Sargent, 1899

6th September, 1915

Darling Moth’

Your precious letter made me very happy indeed. I have been thinking of old jokes also…

Yesterday, being Sunday, I played tennis with three “little thrends in pink,”—the brewer’s daughter Thérése Bellanger, Nellie and yet another Germaine, whose name I know not. We had great fun, and four very good sets. The father watched from near by, like a comatose Boer general, in a panama and a huge black beard. We then went back to a terrific tea at which we all drank toasts in champagne provided by the Brewer, of which I drank a very little so as not to appear stand-offish and to drink toasts in.

After that all the officers in the battalion played rounders, which was great fun. The Prince of Wales also came and watched for a few minutes…

Note please the casual reference to royalty. Not anything to get excited about, really, when many of one’s friends come from either considerably older branches of the English nobility or from the families that actually govern, rather than rule, Brittania. The reference to rounders does surprise, though–not cricket?

I am very sorry to see that Charles Lister is dead. I liked him very much…


Lord Ribblesdale, Charles Lister’s Father. John Singer Sargent, 1890

Bimbo is several years younger than the “Argonauts,” but his family moved in the same very tight circles–Lister’s father, Lord Ribblesdale–pictured at right (bonus Sargent!)–had married an aunt of Bimbo’s, while another aunt was Margot Tennant Asquith, the (scorned) wife of the Prime Minister and mother of Argonaut Oc, recently converted Guardsman Raymond, and Brookean pseudo-inamorata Violet.

It seems almost as if every young man of both a certain class–Bim’s father, a second-generation Scotch baronet, was a politician lately elevated to a title of his own–and a certain age–from Bim’s eighteen to Raymond Asquith’s twice that–was either already in the cavalry or the Guards or was faced with a particularly narrow version of the 1914 enlistment choice: should one go for one of the interesting, newfangled, likely-to-see-immediate-combat units, or to the Guards?

Perhaps if Bim were a year or two older he would have rushed off with Lister and Oc to join so many talented men of lesser birth–this is, actually, an excellent illustration of Raymond’s crack about his “middle class” identity–in the hip, musical, poetic, Churchillian Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division. As it was, he got a commission in the Guards and thus was “properly trained and decently treated.” And there, of course, he will find many friends and social acquaintances from Eton.

But society, for young gentlemen of Bim’s kidney, began at home, at their mothers’ knee. Julian Grenfell‘s mother, Lady Desborough, was the dominant personality in the “Souls,” and thus a sort of Regimental Sergeant Major to Bim’s mother. He would have looked up to Julian and Billy, and Julian and cousin Charles (Lister) were close friends through childhood and at Eton. There R.A. Knox and Patrick Shaw-Stewart–young men of socially decent but not exalted birth–joined their set. (And then they all trooped off to Balliol together.) Bimbo would have been an honorary little brother of the Argonauts, but he is even better-founded in the Grenadiers.

Bless you, darling Moth’, with love to Daddy from your devoted


The Sitwell Family (Osbert is in the Sailor Suit), by John Singer Sargent, 1900

The Sitwell Family, before eccentricity and scandal took their toll. Osbert, the future Grenadier, is the young fellow unprovidentially arrayed in a Sailor Suit.  John Singer Sargent, 1900

Speaking of society and friends and fellow Grenadiers, let’s get some perspective on Bimbo from a garrulous, black-sheepish member of the bunch.

I wish we could hear more from Osbert Sitwell–he rarely fails to entertain, after all. He just fails to date his reminiscences, even for long stretches at the front. The son of very strange and troubled parents–his father was a crazed baronet, his mother a victim/perpetrator of fraud who was jailed this year, to the prurient fascination of society–Sitwell moved in much the same circles. He and Bim Tennant were already friendly, but it seems as if their time together this month was the foundation for a more intense friendship. Sitwell had been in the trenches over the winter, then had a long spell in London, which, after all, served as garrison town for the Guards. Now he has returned to France, where the Grenadier Guards have been concentrated together in their own Division. In a few short weeks Sitwell will be transferred from the second battalion to Tennant’s, the fourth–and into his very company. Sitwell, a prickly and rebellious sort, nevertheless loved the mother-pleasing, poetically flirtatious Tennant:

Bimbo was a compact of energy as a firecracker. To be in his company was like having an electric battery in the room, invigorating without being in the least tiring. Literary expression was as easy to him as talk to other people…

This is a young man seen from the same level, by an admiring peer. Sitwell, of course, is very much aware that a child writing to a parent is a different being than a friend remembered:

His conduct always delighted–though it may have dismayed–his friends; for we belonged to the same epoch, that strongest of all links: whereas the members of the circle–rather precious, it may be, though many of them were truly distinguished in mind–which surrounded his mother, Lady Glenconner, belonged to an earlier age, were dyed in the wool with pale pre-Raphaelite colors.

Although he himself will come to frequent Lady Glenconner’s house, Sitwell can’t resist taking another shot at the aesthetic old guard–we first met Osbert at the Ballets Russesremember, and he will not stand for what, from a Modernist point of view, is not only old-fashioned by a lamentable divagation of English artistic energies. Lady Glenconner’s salon often contained, Sitwell cracks, amongst “various relics of pre-Raphaelitism,” the not-quite-elderly son of Edward Burne-Jones, most prominent of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

All of this is a comment on personality and memory, but it’s also a reminder of Sitwell’s artistic commitments. Being painted by Sargent is, perhaps, acceptable, but even though the pre-Raphaelites remain for so many of our writers an ideal of English craftsmanship and aesthetic achievement, Sitwell is keen to cast them as old-fashioned, prettily irrelevant, and, essentially, foolish. The beautiful Sargent mothers he will still compliment, but not the artists who would have immortalized their mothers. (Although, come to think of it, the pre-Raphaelite beauties are not long and languid society women but fleshier, earthier types from other social realms–the lovers of the painters, not their patrons. Perhaps there is a social foundation to Sitwell’s aesthetic snobbery…)

More to the point of our commentary on Tennant’s remarkably effusive letters is another telling aside of Sitwell’s–this one on what we might term Lady Glenconner’s “parenting style:”

(She loved them, it seemed to me, in a French and not an English way: she wished to be with her children throughout the day–the last thing, as a rule, that an English parent of her kind would desire–and to regulate absolutely their lives.)

There’s a brief comment to conjure with.


And it brings us at last to today, a century back, when Bim Tennant wrote to his “exquisitely pretty sister, Clare.”[2] And look who turns up:

Tuesday, 7th September, 1915

My Darling Clare,

Thank you so much for your delightful letter which I loved getting…

Last night I rode over and had dinner with George Villiers at Wizernes, where the 1st Battalion are. Harold Macmillan came with me, he rides much better than I do.

Which, of course, is unusual, because Tennant is to the manor born and Macmillan is nouveau riche–the great-grandson of a Scottish crofter, the grandson of the founder of the eponymous publishing house. Macmillan’s mother was–would you believe it?–born in Indiana. Still, they had overlapped at Eton (before Macmillan left due to ill health, to be tutored by R.A. Knox) and now renewed their friendship.

It is about three miles away and it was in the dark both ways, we couldn’t get horses at first, so were rather late, as we had to get transport horses. We expected to find snorting Generals and Majors cursing us for being late and were consequently delighted to find only George Villiers, all the rest of his Company being on leave in England! We had a delightful evening a trois and had one good laugh after another, being all blessed with the same sense of humour, and unhampered by any shadow of militarism. I suppose we shall start fighting soon. I’m very contented to stay here, but I want to get the first hooroosh over, as I expect I shall be very frightened…

So, yes, fear and bon-bons. In a letter to his father Tennant reported “rumours of an Allied attack involving over a million men at the beginning of next week,” but when writing to his mother he does tend to make France with the Grenadiers sound like a combination of scouting and a weekend in the country.

With Macmillan it could hardly be more different. His mother, too, was an artist and a socialite, with enough wealth and influence to have maneuvered her son out of the Royal Rifles and into the Grenadier Guards. (But, still–not a Soul, not a Sargent.) But her son’s epistolary endearments are restrained, and his subject matter as down to earth as possible.

macmillan trench map

Macmillan’s map from a practice attack, sent home with today’s letter (From Downing Street to the Trenches)

I spent the morning with No. 3 Coy. in a practice attack. My duty was to organise (or devise rather) a system for bringing up parties of bomb-throwers in a frontal attack.

They are to come (I think) in the second line. In the fourth or fifth line (after the trench is taken come men with sand-bags (empty) and shovels.

The attack will then be something like in the diagram [at right]. We did it today with one platoon at a time (The bombers going with the second platoon. Only the frontage of one platoon is attacked…)

When the bombers get in to the trench, they must immediately begin to work, each party separately. One party goes along the main fire trench to the right, one to the left. Others go down the communication trenches leading to the enemy second line…

The idea is that the main body of the infantry will thus be able unmolested to consolidate the line which has been won. When night comes, a communication trench (or several trenches) would be dug back to the line A-B, so that we can next safely bring up reinforcements of men and ammunition.

Macmillan continues on for several more paragraphs before checking himself slightly. As the editor of this correspondence, Mike Webb, points out, these are less private letters to mum than letters for the family, intended to be passed on to his brother, who might be presumed (presumptuously, but with reasonable confidence) to have a greater interest in bombing tactics. Still, it seems safe to conclude that Nellie Belles Macmillan is rather different from Lady Glenconner.[3]


So that’s the Guards. Briefly, then, today, the sensitive middle classes:

France, 7 September 1915

I hope it is not a sign of too volatile a temperament to be much affected by one’s immediate surroundings. I am very much so. The places I happen to be in, the clothes I am wearing, whether the day is wet or fine; these are the things that regulate my moods.

There are some people who would say that, not being a woman, I have no business to have moods: but let that pass.

That, I believe, was a feminist statement? This is Roland Leighton, of course, struggling against himself. Let it go! Reach for the pastoral!

This afternoon is glowing with the languorous warmth of the dying Summer; the sun is a shield of burnished gold in a sea of turquoise; the bees are in the clover that overhangs the trench–and my superficial, beauty-loving self is condescending to be very conscious of the joy of living. It is a pity to kill people on a day like this. In a way,
I suppose, it is a pity to kill people on any kind of day, but opinions–even my own–differ on this subject.

Oh, very good! Cleverly cynical–but his heart is not in it. Inevitably, Roland begins quoting from The Story of An African Farm.

Like Waldo I love to sit in the sun, and like him I have no Lyndall to sit with. But it was the last verse of his poem: it is only the first of mine.

For, hand in hand just as we used to do,
We two shall live our passionate poem through
On some serene tomorrow

I wonder sometimes which I am born to be, a man of action with lapses into the artistic, or an artist with military sympathies. Mother has asked me once or twice lately whether I should like to go into the Regular Army as a profession. I say no because I foresee the atrophy of my artistic side. On the other hand a literary life would give no scope for the adventurous & administrative facet of my temperament. What am I to do? …

Roland has been in this sort of mood for a few days–which means that Vera Brittain‘s letter to him, today, reads like part of the same conversation. Just think if these two could have stayed up late chatting on the phone, from billets to home…

Buxton, 7 September 1915

I remember well enough the letter you complain of as ‘icy & cynical’. I was feeling very bitter that afternoon, but why you
should get the benefit of it I don’t know. I am sorry; I always feel very repentant after sending anything like that. You are right that in such a case conversation is better than correspondence. Some things can be said quite easily which are better not written. The written word never quite hits the mark; it always implies so much more or so much less than you really mean. And there is of course a certain amount of what I might almost call ‘anachronism’ in a close correspondence in which each letter takes 2 or 3 days to come. I may come across something in a letter you have written in a ‘perverse’ mood which rouses me into icy & cynical remarks, and you may happen (as in this case) to get this outburst of frigidity just after you have sent me the most delightful letter in the world. The only remedy, I suppose,
would be to write nothing either cynical or perverse. But all the same… We can’t help being ourselves–at any rate in

Do these letters really mean so much? . . . For me too it means so much to hear at least something every day…

Yes, we are more like our real selves in letters. I at any rate am so foolishly reserved & ‘difficile’ when I meet you, that it is a physical, let alone mental, impossibility to say & do the things I want to say & do. And afterwards, when You have gone away, and I think to myself that I may never get the chance to say & do those things again, I feel so angry with myself, and so impatient. . .

Mother says our entire intimacy is one of correspondence. I don’t quite think that; there must have been something to start the correspondence and to inspire the keeping of it! But whenever we do meet it is never long enough to give us time to get used to each other properly . . . it is all so tantalising.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Although not the leading light, which would be Julian Grenfell's mother, Lady Desborough, who, despite her steely grip on high society, did not, perhaps, at least at the turn of the century, have Sargent-level money.
  2. Laughter in the Next Room, 108-10.
  3. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 23-24, 133-4.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 161-3.