Francis Grenfell Goes Back to the Sunlight; Julian Grenfell’s Outlook Darkens; Siegfried Sassoon Meets a Lovely Young Man


Francis and Riversdale Grenfell

This is another day to turn a page–a title page, to push the morbid analogy a bit farther.

I have quoted quite often from “Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell,” but the full title is Francis and Riversdale Grenfell: A Memoir. Buchan, a prolific writer on many subjects, is already, a century back, working on thrillers, journalism, and a history of the war. And now he will begin work on the joint memoir of the Grenfell twins. This has been my primary source on the lives of the twins, and I have been quoting occasionally from it since last spring.

Buchan today goes into the mode of a traditional military historian. He writes rousing prose, but with close attention to detail–when he can get it. When he can’t provide us with information on the doings in the very front, he writes in sweeping, broad-canvass fashion (cinematic prose, we would say). There is the brilliance of the day, the awesome misery of enduring the German attack, the heroic and bedraggled band of survivors…  Buchan is always a good reminder for us: he is a a well-connected, serious-minded, militarily-knowledgeable historian who is–always–writing literature. Being a writer of ripping yarns doesn’t really make you a good or bad historian on the facts, but it surely puts you on the road to writing compelling, strongly-shaped history. Today, however, the historian is only the advance guard for the life-writer.

The dawn of Monday, 24th May, promised a perfect summer day with cloudless skies and a light north-easterly breeze. About three a.m. the cavalry in the trenches saw a thick yellow haze, thirty feet high, rolling down from the ridge a hundred yards before them, and the air was filled with a curious pungent smell. They had had no previous experience of gas, and in twenty seconds the cloud was upon them. Then came the German guns, making a barrage behind to keep back reinforcements. Though our respirators at the time were elementary the cavalry managed to weather the gas, and held their ground through the seventeen long hours of daylight that followed. It was the last phase of the battle, and the German assault broke for good on that splendid steadfastness.

But a high price was paid for victory. In the small hours of the 25th a little party of some forty men stumbled in the half light along the Menin road, through the crumbling streets of Ypres, and out into the open country towards Vlamertinghe. Those who passed them saw figures like spectres, clothes caked with dirt, faces yellow from the poison gas. They were all that remained of the 9th Lancers. Their Brigadier, General Mullens, met them on the road, but dared not trust himself to speak to them. “Tell them,” he told the Colonel, ” that no words of mine can express my reverence for the Ninth.” Next day General Byng, who commanded the Cavalry Corps, visited the remnant. ” Put anything in orders you like,” he said. ” Nothing you can say will be adequate to my feelings for the old Ninth. Of course I knew you would stick it, but that doesn’t lessen my unbounded admiration of you all.”

With them they brought the body of Francis Grenfell. When the attack opened and the infantry on the left fell back, he was busy converting a communication trench into a fire trench, and shouting out in his old cheery way, “Who’s afraid of a few dashed Huns?”‘ He stood on rising ground behind the trench when he was shot through the back. He managed to send a message to his squadron, the true testament of the regimental officer: “Tell them I died happy, loving them all.” Then he who had once lived cheerfully in the sun, but for months had been among the fogs and shadows, went back to the sunlight.

He was buried in the churchyard of Vlamertinghe, and beside him was laid Sergeant Hussey, one of the most gallant N.C.O.’s in the Ninth. Some one said at the graveside, “How happy old Hussey would have been to know he died with Francis.”[1]

Neither Francis nor Riversdale were writers, really, although Buchan has quoted at times from their vivid letters. Nor were they intellectuals or unusual in their lives and opinions. I included them at first because they seemed to represent a certain type: the unreflective, self-assured aristocrats who have, however, the courage of their convictions–and more to spare. Orphaned, then done out of their money by an older brother’s financial mismanagement, the two–never mind their famous family, their costly educations, their lives of privilege–had come to seem like a strange sub-species of the innocent, blinkered-but-benign British boys who stumbled upon the war and embraced it as the answer to their problems.

Or does this story only resound so ringingly because Buchan–writing, with love, but also a good deal of condescension–made it that way? I don’t know his sources for today’s events, but he has taken what seems to be hearsay from combat-exhausted fellow soldiers and presented it without equivocation as Francis’s heroic last words. Is this too far for “history” to go? Can we be as confident as we would like that Francis died as he lived, a happy warrior to the end?

grenfell9thLancersIn any event it seems unfair to mark the death of the twins–Rivy was killed in September–by declaring them to be “types” who represent or “signify” some fundamental aspect of the early war experience. They were hardly ordinary officers–Francis, after all, won the Victoria Cross–and no one person’s experience (nor any pair of twins’) can be representative in any meaningful way. The point I want to make is about life-writing rather than historiography: these two will end up standing for the early war experience because that’s how their lives were written. By Buchan. Not that Buchan has traduced them, but he has shaped their stories as he chose–they, simply, did not get a chance to write their own lives. As the photo of his V.C. trading card at right vividly illustrates, one cannot control how one is remembered, nor can depth come from silence.

Because this project cleaves to the idea of being always exactly one century back, I rarely talk about the sources I’m using, not wanting to draw attention to a very likely presumption: that those who have published their stories must have survived the war (spoiler!), and those who are being written about by others (or who appear here only in contemporary documents) do not. This is a flaw in the plan, here–but worth, I hope, preserving the strange historical sensation of reading the war “in real time,” a century back. It’s true, too, that the presumption will not always be correct: some memoirs are written in the midst of the war, and do not guarantee their author’s survival; and some survivors published not a memoir but collections of letters or poems written during the war, with dates that I can seize upon.

Enough explanation. Francis Grenfell is dead, and John Buchan tells us that he lived joyfully and died, despite the cloud of his fortunes and the death of his twin, happily, in the end. His war story ends now, and his silence is absolute.


His cousin Julian, meanwhile, is still clinging to life. Lady Desborough’s diary is faintly upbeat today:

24 May  Home at 6:30. Lay down for an hour. Back to Hosp. Lister. Sargent at 11 gave us one thread of hope. We had quite given up hope. Ca & W[2] stayed there. I slept till 2. With him whole aft. Shade better. Slept there. he had fair night.[3]

Julian’s sister Monica wrote to his friend in hunting-and-innuendo Flossie Garth today, with greater medical detail–and additional positive reporting. She explains that the second operation had involved trepanning to remove pressure building up around the site of the first operation, and praises her brother’s fortitude:

He has been so wonderful and good and brave though it all–and he had been conscious almost all the time. He was talking today about you & Mr Hubert and of the happy hunting days…[4]

Conscious, but beginning to lose feeling in his extremities. According to Nicholas Mosley, who is probably drawing on Lady Desborough’s memoir,

One or other of his family were always with him… they told him of how well he had fought, and how they would cake him to get well in the forests by the sea in Normandy. They talked to him of old holidays, in Scotland or
at Panshanger; of an enormous fish he had once caught. He once clasped his mother’s hand and she said to him ‘That is what you do when you are asleep and you think I am going away’ and he said ‘No, it is only affection’. He said to his father when one of his arms began to be paralysed ‘Take my hand in your two strong hands and rub my poor arm’; and when his father did this and he groaned, he explained–‘It is only contentment’. He liked to have poetry read to him, and sometimes said poetry to himself. Of his own poems he liked to say ‘The Fighting Boar’. He also said his favourite speech from Euripides’ Hippolytus, in which Phaedra laments that she cannot be like her stepson. He prayed, mostly childhood prayers–those about which he had sometimes been ironical.[5]

Here, too, it is hard to separate reality from the stricken mother’s version–never mind the biographer’s point of view. Mosley, with that last phrase, is clearly signaling a polite disbelief of this beautiful, sad, symbolic family tableau. He is at pains to explain throughout the biography–which at times is almost a dual biography of Julian Grenfell and Ettie Fane/Grenfell/Desborough–that Lady Desborough’s most remarkable charismatic feat was to rewrite reality at her pleasure and compel others to conform to her view of the world. For many years Julian had violently and completely rejected his mother’s cult–but his letters usually show only affection. And now, paralyzed and silenced, his narrative–of their relationship and of everything else–is completely in her hands.

This isn’t history–this is a family story, and a very sad one.


There is sunlight and shadow in England today, too, but the shadow falls not yet on young Siegfried Sassoon–apologies, on “George Sherston”–living the heady life of a good regiment’s training camp.

Life in the officers’ mess was outwardly light-hearted. Only when news came from our two battalions in France were we vividly reminded of the future. Then for a brief while the War came quite close; mitigated by our inexperience of what it was like, it laid a wiry finger on the heart. There was the battle of Festubert in the middle of May. That made us think a bit. The first battalion had been in it and had lost many officers. Those who were due for the next draft were slightly more cheerful than was natural.

The next thing I knew about them was that they had gone—half a dozen of them. I went on afternoon parade, and
when I returned to the hut my fellow occupant had vanished with all his tackle. But my turn was months away yet… [Sassoon’s ellipsis]

The following day was a Sunday, and I was detailed to take a party to church. They were Baptists and there were
seven of them. I marched them to the Baptist Chapel in Bootle, wondering what on earth to do when I got them to the door. Ought I to say, “Up the aisle; quick march”? As far as I can remember we reverted to civilian methods and shuffled into the Chapel in our own time. At the end of the service the bearded minister came and conversed with me very cordially and I concealed the fact that it was my first experience of his religion. Sunday morning in the Baptist Chapel made the trenches seem very remote. What possible connection was there?

This, it hardly bears pointing out, is the “novelistic” prerogative of the memoir writer in all its glory. He foreshadows. He gives us, that is, a prospective irony of proximity that he had not yet, a century back, himself earned. We smile sadly with him, knowing, as he did not, that the trenches are very close indeed.

Sassoon will give us a carefully “factual” account of his past. The names are changed, sure, but the fiction is stretched so close to the skeleton of his own experiences that the real threat to the historically-minded reader’s sensibilities is not that he writes of “Sherston” and not “Sassoon” or that the dates might be wrong, but rather that his greatest concern as a writer is with the nature of time and memory. This is Sassoon’s “binary vision–” but one eye is always dominant. He writes what he sees in retrospect, after ruminations and reconsideration of the vanished years between. He is not trying to recapture what he saw then, or perhaps what he saw–but not how he saw it. The Sassoon of 1915 is a reporter become a character in a future report–and he doesn’t get the final edit.

We arrive now at today–a Monday, a century back:

Next day some new officers arrived, and one of them took the place of the silent civil engineer in my room. We had the use of the local cricket ground; I came in that evening feeling peaceful after batting and bowling at the nets for an hour. It seemed something to be grateful for—that the War hadn’t killed cricket yet, and already it was a relief to be in flannels and out of uniform. Coming cheerfully into the hut I saw my new companion for the first
time. He had unpacked and arranged his belongings, and was sitting on his camp-bed polishing a perfectly new pipe. He looked up at me. Twilight was falling and there was only one small window, but even in the half-light his face surprised me by its candour and freshness. He had the obvious good looks which go with fair hair and firm
features, but it was the radiant integrity of his expression which astonished me. While I was getting ready for dinner we exchanged a few remarks. His tone of voice was simple and reassuring, like his appearance. How does he manage to look like that? I thought; and for the moment I felt all my age, though the world had taught me little enough, as I knew then, and know even better now. His was the bright countenance of truth; ignorant and undoubting; incapable of concealment but strong in reticence and modesty. In fact, he was as good as gold, and everyone knew it as soon as they knew him.

Such was Dick Tiltwood,[6] who had left school six months before and had since passed through Sandhurst. He was the son of a parson with a good family living. Generations of upright country gentlemen had made Dick Tiltwood what he was, and he had arrived at manhood in the nick of time to serve his country in what he naturally assumed to be a just and glorious war. Everyone told him so; and when he came to Clitherland Camp he was a shining epitome of his unembittered generation which gladly gave itself to the German shells and machine-guns—more gladly, perhaps, than the generation which knew how much (or how little, some would say) it had to lose. Dick made all the difference to my life at Clitherland. Apart from his cheerful companionship, which was like perpetual fine weather, his Sandhurst training enabled him to help me in mine. Patiently he heard me while I went through my repetitions of the mechanism of the rifle. And in company drill, which I was slow in learning, he was equally helpful.[7]

“Dick Tiltwood” is David Cuthbert Thomas, a young Welsh officer impossible to dislike, and easy to love. “Sherston” has found a friend and model–never mind the fact that “Tiltwood” is eight years younger–a practical teacher and a comrade gifted with the sort of peaceful sunny strength that will both draw others to him and serve them all in good stead when they go together into the violent dark…

And Sassoon the memoir writer has found a symbol, an epitome, a focal point, an embodiment of a nation and a class and a generation, with no idea how much he might lose…


References and Footnotes

  1. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 233-5.
  2. I.e. Willy, Lord Desborough, and Monica, "Casie," their daughter.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 299.
  4. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 332.
  5. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 263.
  6. For my American readers, perhaps, especially, this name will seem to be a remarkably blatant bad joke, as both "dick" and "wood" are common slang terms for the penis. Given Sassoon's quondam homosexuality and his love for Thomas on the one hand and his memoir's sad seriousness on the other, it might seem to be a bizarre choice... but it is a linguistic coincidence. This is not a "dick joke."
  7. Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, 240-1. (I will use page numbers from the one-volume Complete memoirs of George Sherston throughout.)

Riversdale Grenfell’s Last Advance

Yesterday, and a century back, the 9th Lancers crossed the Aisne near Bourg-et-Comin under machine gun fire, rode up the riverside heights, and established a bridgehead, where they were eventually relieved by the 60th Rifles. The crossing had been effected, believe it or not, by the initiative of the same mad motorcycling general Hunter-Weston who had harried the Royal Welch around the Marne.

But the Germans had stopped retreating. Their withdrawal had outdistanced the British pursuit, and the few quiet rainy days of marching experienced by our soldiers were, for the Germans, days of preparation. They now occupied good trenches at the top of the ridge line that overlooked the river. Their artillery and mortars were dug in behind, able to fire at spotters’ instructions and yet remain out of sight of any British response. This was terrain very well suited for defense, and the tired British, with little in the way of firepower to support their riflemen, would be unable to break through such positions. Nor would the French armies to the left and the right.

This was, in fact, the first day on which the basic tactical conditions of most of the rest of the war obtained: the Germans, in well-sited trenches, would be able to repel any assault that was not accompanied by overwhelming artillery fire. Coincidentally, but appropriately, this was also the day that the Kaiser instructed von Moltke, his chief of the General Saff, to announce that he was sick. He had been ailing, suffering a sort of breakdown as the grand strategy for the war fell apart, the crucial mistake on the Marne was made, and the retreat began. Now he was sacked, with a bare fig leaf for his reputation–and yet today was the day the Germans held their lines, punishing British and French attempts to unseat them. The Chemin des Dames, a famous 17th century road that ran along the heights, would remain a crucial strategic position for almost the duration of the war.

But the attacking troops had, as the historians like to say, no way of knowing this.

There was no plan for this battle in the BEF–only a general directive to cross the river and a hope that they would scale the heights and keep pushing the Germans back. As the British units moved forward (and up) a series of fierce local fights broke out as each battalion ran into the entrenched Germans and dealt with them as they saw fit.

The 9th Lancers began the march from billets near the river at 3 a.m., and they soon crashed into German pickets, well before their intended objective, near the Chemin des Dames.

The regiment dismounted, while Rivy, with a section, dashed forward to a position near a haystack. He engaged the enemy picket, and enabled the regiment to regain its direction.

He seems to have been in wild spirits, and to have encouraged his little band with jokes, and with that peculiarly cheery hallo of which he had the secret. But, in his anxiety to see the effects of the shots, he exposed himself, and a German bullet cut his revolver in two and passed through the roof of his mouth. He died instantaneously. The last words which his men remember were his shout, ” Steady your firing, boys. We have got them beaten.”

The Ninth fell back, leaving his body in the enemy hands, but that afternoon the 60th advanced and recovered it. Rivy had been in the field twenty-five days days of such crowded endeavour and endurance as few campaigns in history can show. From the first hour he had been supremely happy, for he had found his true calling. He had seen his brother safe out of danger and covered with glory, and with the removal of any anxiety about Francis had gone the one thing which could dim his cheerfulness. From what I have been told by his men and his brother officers, I am certain that that last fortnight of his life had washed clean from his mind all the weary sense of reproach and futility which had been clouding it, and that he went to death as one who “finds again his twentieth year.”[1]

This is the first death of one of our writers–although the twins didn’t really write much. In fact, one of the many reasons I wanted to include them was that the book quoted above was written by their friend John Buchan, now recovering from illness but soon to take up work as a paid propagandist. So how to weigh the personality, achievements, and death of this man, while at the same time assessing him primarily through a work that is at once panegyric and history, propaganda and personal reminiscence? I’m not sure. But there will be plenty of time, and plenty of deaths, to figure it out.

The one thing that seems obvious and necessary to point out here is the short, sharp arc we’ve seen in the life of Riversdale Grenfell. In the spring he was ruined–the hapless victim/inept perpetrator of financial disaster–and at a loss. He and his brother were not shooting stars–they were, in fact, dutiful and conventional younger brothers, unreflectively traditional and, allowing for the high leisure-time expectations of their class, steady and hard-working. So we can’t pin the aimless/decandent label on Rivy, not by a long shot. Given the fact of he and his brother’s oh-so-relative poverty and their summer sense of failure and uncertainty, it’s impossible to completely misdoubt Buchan’s elegiac spin: Rivy was at a loss, and then he was an accepted member of a good regiment in a Great War, fighting for Truth and Justice and Right and England and all the rest. He died young, but he was not a boy. He acquitted himself well as a soldier, and at the moment of his death his brother was well out of danger. Perhaps it is right and just and true–and not merely inevitably weak–to write that he died happy?


Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, August 1914. The twins last saw each other on August 25th, when Francis was being evacuated


The Irish Guards had also had four days of wet but uneventful marching in pursuit of the retreating Germans. Today, however, they crossed the Aisne, either at the same spot as the 9th Lancers or slightly to the east. The situation immediately changed. The Aisne was a considerable river running in a deep, steep valley, and the cliffs that rose from the northern banks were steep, wooded, shrouded in mist, and thick with Germans. There was heavy rifle and machine gun fire, and the Irish Guards began taking casualties.

Here, too, the Battalion had its first experience of the German use of the white flag; for Lieutenant J. S. FitzGerald… found some hundred and fifty Germans sitting round haystacks and waving white flags. They went forward to take their surrender and were met by a heavy fire at thirty yards range…

A gun was lost, then recovered; at least three officers–two of them lords–and many more men were killed outright.

The Battalion bivouacked in battle-outpost formation that night on the edge of the wood, and got into touch with the 60th Rifles on their right and the 2nd Grenadiers on their left. Here, though they did not know it, the advance from the Marne was at an end. Our forces had reached the valley of the Aisne, with its bluffs on either side and deep roads half hidden by the woods that climbed them. The plateaux of the north of the river shaped themselves for the trench-warfare of the years to come; and the natural strength of the position on the high ground was increased by numberless quarries and caves that ran along it.[2]


John Lucy could tell that, after several uneventful days of marching, today they intended to fight. “The tone of the orders given us, the close inspection of our ammunition… showed that there was immediate work ahead.” Nevertheless he found time to check on his sick brother, who “was looking cheerful again, and complained only of slight cramp.”

It was a fine, fresh morning, and we moved on exhilarated by a feeling of the unexpected, down a wet leafy lane, until we came to an open space between the woods and the southern bank of the river…

The 2/Royal Irish Rifles crossed the Aisne on a narrow bridge of planks laid across the twisted superstructure of a railway bridge blown up by the Germans, under accurate shell fire which caught the company immediately behind Lucy’s. As they moved up the northern bank they too began to take casualties. Lucy’s pack was hit by a shrapnel bullet. The Germans were uphill–these were probably not the main positions, but advanced skirmishing lines of riflemen, concealed in the woods of the slope.

We must have been within a couple of hundred yards of enemy riflemen but though we looked hard through the undergrowth we could not see them. We cursed them, and relying on the luck of soldiers, we bowed our heads a little, shut our jaws, and went stubbornly on.

Lucy recalls that they had no awareness of the casualties–the men who were hit–during this advance, until they reached a little chalk bank near the top of the hill, a natural position to hold. They began to dig in, but were then recalled to reserve. Lucy’s section had advanced unscathed, but they now had the unsettling experience of resting, and then spending the night, in caves that were also being used as a dressing station, surrounded by dozens of wounded and dead men. Lucy was overwhelmed by “a great sense of misery and loss” at hearing the names of the dead, and sought out his brother “to be near him. He appeared to be absolutely calm and his bearing had the effect of putting me at ease, so I went back to my own section very soon.” The night passed uneventfully.[3]


So Rivy is dead, along with many others–this is the beginning of a wet, miserable fall that will harden into a frozen, terrible winter. And yet, in England, it’s still summer. Vera Brittain and her brother are traveling: they are in Kingswood, Surrey, where Vera had gone to school, and will soon head to London.

Monday September 14th

Edward & I spent a delightful lazy day, rambling about these lanes, the hedges of which are covered now with blackberries & scarlet hawthorn berries & hips & haws. Late this afternoon there was one of the loveliest skies I have ever seen – warm & glowing in the west, with tiny rosy clouds floating above the horizon, while in the east was a heavy black cloud, & just below it a long streak of the purest silvery blue, against which the tall elm trees on the sky-line stood up dark. To raise one’s eyes heavenward from the cold & gloomy lane was like gazing out of earth into Paradise.[4]


***A reminder, too, that I added, yesterday, a new page to the site–dramatis personae–which gives short bios of the most important writers referred to in the daily posts. Hopefully it will be a good quick reference when a reminder is needed as to who exactly is now back in the conversation after that long letterless absence…

References and Footnotes

  1. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 204-6.
  2. Kipling, The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 44.
  3. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 166-74.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 108-9.

Wilfred Owen Dines with Tailhade, Edward Thomas Remains Uncertain

When a young man, clean-cut and Victorian-mothered, shakes off academic disappointment and a faith-bruising stint as a curate’s assistant and heads off to France to teach English, he might hope to make some new French friends. And so Wilfred Owen did, counting a number of his early pupils, both teenagers and adults, as friends–one young student even went on a sort of exchange visit with Owen’s family.

And then Madame Léger hired Owen away from the Berlitz school to serve as the tutor to her daughter. And then she encouraged his friendship with a sixty-year-old poet and local celebrity well-known for his political and sexual non-conformity. And soon the plot will further thicken.

This evening, a century back, Owen went to dine with Laurent Tailhade, his brand new French poetry mentor, at his hotel in Bagnères-de-Bigorre. It was probably an interesting evening: Tailhade was melodramatic and sickly, and, even if we adjust Owen’s account for the effect of flattery, he was clearly enamoured of the young Englishmen. Plus, he had stories.

They don’t make erotic poets like they used to: Tailhade was not merely a mildly political poet, but an anarchist of a fairly grim stamp. Like many on the right, he enthused in the approved late-19th century bomb-throwing manner over the beneficial effects of mass violence. Tailhade had even lost an eye to a bomb and several fingers in a duel. Whether he delved deeply into political matters of which Owen could have known little is doubtful–but they certainly talked of literature. Naturally, it was the best French books that the English ingenue had yet to read which occupied Tailhade the most: gifts of Renan and Flaubert will soon be coming.[1]


Edward Thomas, traveling alone to take the pulse of rural England for a series of war articles, wrote to Eleanor Farjeon, sending her the words to a few old songs they had sung together during the idyllic August holidays.

[Postmark] 4 September 1914, Coventry

My dear Eleanor,

Here are the songs. I am too full up with the ales of Birmingham and Coventry consumed since I left that I can
hardly do more. It hasn’t been quite fruitless, but that is all I can say…

…Goodbye and give my love to Bertie.[2] I hope he has got what he wanted. My own plans are more uncertain. It is obvious for one thing that I can’t go away for an indefinite long time and have others to look after the family.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas
P.S. I should be very grateful for any war poems you come across…[3]


Francis and Riversdale Grenfell turned thirty-four today, a century back, in quick succession. Francis was recovering from his wounds in England. Rivy was with the 9th Lancers on the Marne, and about to be engulfed in a new battle.

References and Footnotes

  1. See Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 135-6.
  2. Farjeon's brother Herbert, who had just enlisted in the infantry.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 95.

The Royal Welch Bathe With Some Nuns; Vera Plans For Self Sacrifice; Edward Thomas Glances About

Thursday September 3rd

To-day is the Kaiser’s birthday, which he said he should spend in Paris. He has not done so, but at the same time he is not very far out of his calculations. The German army is now only 30 miles from the capital. One wonders if there is not some decisive plan up the sleeve of [our] Government; this gradual but decided retreat seems hardly in keeping with the brains at the head of affairs. Meanwhile Paris is preparing for siege, men & women are leaving it for small towns outside the fighting area, and the French Government has moved to Bordeaux.

This, though dependent on harried and censored newspaper accounts, is a quite accurate precis of the situation. Within the next few days we will see the allied armies stand, rally, and counter-attack.

With this account of British losses, & the call for 500,000 men to arms, any British subjects possibly available, should be. E. is feeling depressed & miserable because Daddy withholds him from doing his duty but being only 18 can do nothing without Daddy’s consent.

I’m not sure that this is true–perhaps Vera and Edward are mistaken, or perhaps there is a unit-specific rule. It may be that Edward would need parental permission for a particular sort of commission–perhaps the OTC at Uppingham or his intended Oxford college, or perhaps it’s the rule of a local regiment. But it sounds incredible, does it not? “You will be given command of several dozen grown men, almost immediately, at age 18… but only if Daddy signs off.”

…Edward after dinner definitely asked again if he might go & they had a conversation about it. Daddy was distinctly hostile, saying that if Edward went it would be the death of him, that he thought E. very unkind after the education he had etc. etc. Both Mother and I however talked it over & tried to make him see it from the point of view of honour. At present he is still on the refusal side, but has promised to consult Dr Hannah about Edward’s health & general physical stamina.

Daddy is beginning to sound a bit like the parent who wants extra assurances from the school authorities that his sensitive boy will be looked after–because school can be so stressful! Then again, Vera’s lack of sympathy with him–appropriate given both that she is his teenage daughter, and, more specifically, that he has been obstructing her most dearly held ambition–shouldn’t blind us to something else that is going on here.

Kipling may be willing to put his son where his patriotic poem is, and whether this is a forgivable act is an open question. Many prominent members of the generation of poetical young subalterns will soon be famous for their anger at these fathers–the men who talked about sacrifice while younger men died. Is it so terrible, Vera, that daddy is dragging his feet about putting his son in harm’s way?

An age-appropriate blind-spot. But what will Vera do, if her brother and best friend gets his honorable wish?

So there is after all a chance of his going. I will not say anything but that I am glad, but I cannot pretend not to be sorry. Oxford will not be the same if he is not there. It is strange how the very fact of going to Oxford, which I thought so hard a thing to be able to do, so full of just the kind of happiness – that of work & companionship – which I most love, instead of preserving the glory that I saw in the vision of it, is transformed by the same grey despondent mist that alters everything now. “Despondent” is not quite the word, for we are too proud to be really that. So it seems that “that sad word, Joy” must be banished from our vocabularies, & that if it is ever reinstated it will be sadder than ever because of the toll of lives that will have been paid for it.

This is no longer a time to see how much enjoyment one can get out of life, but to see how much courage & strength one can give to it. Not self-satisfaction, but self-sacrifice, is the order of the day. And I am determined to give up the now futile attempt to see what happiness I can get for myself out of Oxford, & instead to see what use I can be both to it & the world in general–by acting directly on behalf of war claims when I can do so, & when I cannot, by helping in the more indirect way of advising the perplexed & comforting the distressed.

This is rather vague, but it does seem to be a more serious plan that desultory bandaging and comforter-knitting.

There are only two things possible now–to act when that can be done–& to endure–to endure grief & disappointment with patience & courage, & with a brave cheerfulness which will make other people’s burdens seem more bearable to them. All this is what I say I will try to do, but as I am very selfish, & very fond of having things ordered just in the way most convenient to me, I expect there will be a great deal more resolution than success to begin with.

Roland Leighton telephoned tonight. [He] is very busy just now, having obtained the temporary post of assistant recruiting officer. I spoke to him a few minutes & he said he would go to Oxford, unless the unlikely happened & something military turned up in which his defective eyesight would not matter. He has done his utmost to serve his country & is really free from responsibility in that direction. I told him to-night that of the three undergraduates I expected to be specially interested in he would probably be the only one left, so that he would have to make up for the other two. I would gladly give up a good many things if he could be at Oxford at the same time as I am.[1]


The 2/Royal Welch had been marching, now, for more than two weeks. First up to Mons, and now as far south as Lagny-sur-Marne, a town on the outskirts of Paris and the banks of a soon-to-be-significant river. They had halted at Longperrier the afternoon before, but, after a brief rest,

About 1 ‘o’clock we we hit the road again. That hours that followed were, I think, the most exhausting I have ever experienced. We had already had a fairly tiring day, and marching by night is always the most tiring, there is no change in the landscape to keep one interested. All I can remember of this night is a seemingly endless ribbon of straight white road with an occasional village, and passing the usual crowd of fleeing villagers who were to be met at any hour of the day or night. When the whistle blew for each halt officers and men fell down in the road and slept like logs until it sounded again. Whoever was keeping the time must have had an iron will to keep himself awake…

We finally struggled into Lagny about 9 a.m.,having covered 26 miles in 26 hours. Ordinarily speaking, that was not a great feat, but quite an achievement if our previous exertions are taken into account. When we were half-way through the town a halt was called in a pleasant, wide road shaded by trees: substantial houses lay back from it. A bold explorer soon discovered a convent opposite and, best of all, a fountain playing in a basin. Soon relays of us, all ranks, were having the first real wash we has has for eleven days. It is to be hoped that the Sisters were not scandalized. They were more than kind, providing us with towels and soap, and racing off to buy tooth-brushes, hair-brushes, tooth-powder, and the like for those who had lost their all on August 26th. We contribute to the upkeep of the orphan school of which they were in charge, and parted with mutual expressions of esteem. After a halt which must have lasted three hours, we pushed on to some meadows on high ground. Word filtered through that we could take a long rest. Blankets and waterproof sheets had been replaced; they were got out, and, as soon as I was able, I lay down for a sleep which lasted about eighteen hours.[2]


Riversdale Grenfell, still riding hard on the rearguard of the retreat, found a moment today to send a postcard to his wounded brother in England.[3]


When last we saw Edward Thomas, he was staggering off, arm-in-arm with Robert Frost, overloaded with Mrs. Farmer’s rough cider.

But the party is over. Thomas is increasingly preoccupied with the war and the implicit decision before him. Despite his lifelong struggles with melancholy (i.e. severe depression) Thomas has always been a generous friend, and a fair-minded and independent critic. But now he finds himself avidly following any news of his friends’ enlistments and commissions. He gossips and soul-searches in several letters today. In one, he writes:

‘Hodgson is guarding the Chelsea Gas Works. Rupert Brooke I hear has joined the army. The Blast poets I hear have not. If this war goes on I believe I shall find myself a sort of Englishman, tho neither poet nor soldier. If I could earn anything worthwhile as a soldier I think I should go.”

The poet W.N. Hodgson was indeed in uniform by this date. As for Rupert, rumor seems to run ahead of him, here. It’s funny and appropriate, after reading so many letters in which Brooke reports on his various efforts to find a job, to discover that people thought he had succeeded before he had. But soon enough: at some point this week Winston Churchill will obtain a commission for him–in the navy, not the army, although as a sort of temporary infantry officer. The Brooke biographies I’ve read are squirrelly on the date Churchill got him the job, so it is probably not precisely known. Brooke will not formally apply until the 15th (he will be “gazetted” on the 18th) but, while he surely knew that he had the commission before then, he did not yet know today. In a letter to Cathleen Nesbitt, a century back, he chatted about seeing a bad play and then announced “no other tidings.”[4]

But back to Edward Thomas. The over-the-shoulder worries about what other writers are doing are not characteristic; striving seriously to assess his feelings and weighing his desires against his family responsibilities are much more so.

In another letter of today, a century back, “I shall find myself a sort of Englishman” is improved into the announcement that he was “slowly growing into a conscious Englishman.” Not, that is, a man of letters, or a European, or a mostly-a-Welshman, or even a Londoner or  a chronciler of the shires, but simply an Englishman, with a sense of duty toward England itself, and a willingness, therefore, to follow its leaders.

Except that money was still a problem–sacrificing one’s individual freedom for the cause is a complicated gesture if one is supporting a wife and three children.

The market for non-war writing was tanking. He had obtained a commission to write a series of pieces on how the war was affecting the countryside, but if that dried up, an officer’s salary might be too tempting to refuse.

Not quite yet, though: “I don’t quite know what will happen. The obvious thing is to join the Territorials but I can’t leave other people to keep my family till I know I can’t do it myself.’ [5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 102-3.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 45-6.
  3. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 204.
  4. Collected Letters of Rupert Brooke, 613.
  5. See Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 161, 166.

The Great Men of Letters are Summoned to a Meeting; Henry Williamson and Phillip Maddison Differ On Socks (and Dates)

September 2. To London in obedience to a summons by Mr. Masterman, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, at the instance of the cabinet, for the organization of public statements of the strength of the British case and principles in the war by well-known men of letters.

This is how Thomas Hardy described, with just a touch of rue, the very British matter of inviting a large group of major popular writers to discuss their contributions to the war effort. An informal invitation–nothing so ungentlemanly or unparliamentary as an order, you understand, or, for most of them, a salaried position–but an invitation that, nevertheless, no gentleman could refuse with honor and standing intact. So Hardy went–and so did Kipling, J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan), Henry Newbolt (“Vitai Lampada”), John Galsworthy (The Forsyte Saga), Arnold Bennett (many novels, much read then, less so now), G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown and much else), John Masefield, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G. Wells.

The meeting was conducted by the writer and politician C. F. G. Masterman, not in his capacity as a member of the cabinet, but as the head of the brand new, and still secret, war propaganda bureau (in fact, I’m not sure when, if ever, it was formalized enough to merit capital letters). The bureau was amateur and ad hoc: it was formed in high retaliatory dudgeon at the outpouring of German propaganda at the beginning of the war, and its headquarters was at Wellington House because this was the headquarters of the National Insurance Commission, which Masterman also headed.

It should be noted that “propaganda,” in these pre-Soviet days, did not have quite the sinister sense it was to acquire. This is to say both that honorable public figures could be permitted to understand that they were being asked to stand up for the cause, but not to spread outright falsehoods. Soon the bureau’s attention would be devoted largely to the turning of American public opinion toward Britain and against Germany, and several of the writers present at today’s meeting will eventually undertake lecture tours in the States.

For now, though, the propaganda bureau wanted simply to control the English-language narrative. This sounds too contemporary, but it’s only the terminology that is really anachronistic. The end was the same, even if the means were almost entirely printed, and recently-post-Edwardian Britain saw, in this world as yet innocent of totalitarianism, no conflict between (limited) democracy, a (mostly) free press, and semi-formal government influence on journalism and publishing.

Articles were suggested, poems were requested, and two of our writers–Conan Doyle and Buchan, began enormous “histories” of the war, to be written in the immediate aftermath of events and swiftly published. Buchan’s history, published by Nelsons, the firm at which he worked as an editor, was directly commissioned by Masterman, and swung into action almost immediately–the first of twenty-four bound volumes, totaling over a million words, will come out in February.

So, much that will be of interest to us will spring–at least in part, at least indirectly–from today’s meeting. Some writers, Buchan among the foremost, became full-time, salaried propagandists (in, again, the not-so-sinister sense: but then again they were writing history with not even the primary goal of fidelity to the good old eigentlich gewesen/just-the-facts-ma’am code of ethics).

Others produced work that bore no overt stamp of government direction, leaving us to wonder what they thought of the meeting, of the question of patriotic of pro-war literary output, and of their own integrity under the secret “organizing” influence of the government. Some, like Ford Madox Ford, produced both outright propaganda and, later on, literary work that included sharp criticism of army and government.

Here’s Mrs. Hardy on Hardy:

In recalling it Hardy said that the yellow September sun shone in from the dusty street with a tragic cast upon them as they sat round the large blue table, full of misgivings, yet unforeseeing in all their completeness the tremendous events that were to follow. The same evening Hardy left London – “the streets hot and sad, and bustling with soldiers and recruits” to set about some contribution to the various forms of manifesto that had been discussed.[1]

There’s not much evidence that Hardy had thought about writing on the war in its first few weeks (nor much evidence against). But he will now produce a major war poem–Men Who March Away–in a few short days. This will not cure him of the misgivings.


Henry Williamson wrote home today, from his battalion’s training camp at Bisley.


Dear Mother,

Thanks very much for the socks. But really, I have four pairs, and I daren’t wear the pair you sent me for marching, because the seams in them would blister my feet terribly. But I shall sleep in the last pair, but please don’t trouble to make anymore–five pairs are really enough. Can you send me my woollen sweater when you can, I an very cold at night. My throat is very raw, I shall see the Doctor tomorrow, but military hospital is to be avoided when possible–they are neither as tender or considerate as civilian hospitals.

If one were to change “military hospital” to “shoddy camp infirmary” it would be hard to distinguish this letter from that of any other spoiled son off at summer camp. It continues, however, with a strange mix of war gossip and mom-baiting:

A rumour is current that we are off to Egypt soon, but we are fed up with similar rumours, and don’t believe…  I don’t like the photo you sent me: it is the worst you have ever taken. The hat is like a flower garden. Send me a nice one, as for instance the one taken at Aspley…  Do arrange that I have a shoal of letters from all kinds and classes of people. I should like at least a half dozen each post…

Don’t forget the sweater and letters. Ask father to write. Give my love to Grandpa…

Love from you affectionate son, Harry. Don’t forget to nail up and repair the birds nest boxes before Jan or Feb. Ever see the hawks now? Tell me if so or not. HWW.[2]

There is something very strange here. The easiest read, I suppose, is that young Williamson somehow blames his mother for what his larkish enlistment in the Territorials has turned into. Or, better, I suppose, he doesn’t want to face his own regrets over the decision and would rather stimulate his mother into expressing regrets. Still, insulting her socks and her photograph is a bit much, especially because, as you, oh spectacularly assiduous and retentive reader, will remember, he specifically asked for those socks–“one thick pair made by yourself, which I shall treasure highly”–four days ago.

Well, Williamson’s feet are a mess–after obsessing over and at-long-last-obtaining a pair of “campaign clumps” with inch-thick soles, he realized that these were awful for his feet, sent them home, bought used rubber-sided shoes, and had to cover his blistered feet with “second skin” to keep up with the training marches. So maybe mom should have taken care to, oh I don’t know, make thick, seamless, but not-too-thick socks?

Still, his letters give the impression that his relationship with his parents was as central to his well-being as feet are to an infantryman–and just as bloody a mess.

This haplessness is raised and buttressed by the architecture of the novel until Phillip Maddison becomes less a callow boy whose relative friendlessness curdles his letters home than a 20th century version of the Innocent Undergoing Trial. He’s a real live boy, not a hero or allegorical knight of innocence (or Isaac, or Bunyan’s Christian), and so from one of the limitations of Williamson’s gigantic novel (i.e. the minute focus on a minor and tentative personality–even if it is the author’s own) comes one of its strengths, at least as a meditation on the war: Phillip Maddison is a lamb being trained for the slaughter, yet he has a voice–and it’s often the voice of a bewildered, immature, aggrieved schlemiel.

But at the same time the thoughtlessness (or deliberate cruelty) of Williamson’s letters home stands all the more because we have only his half of the correspondence. In How Dear is Life, Williamson makes room for mother and father to respond.

Much of today’s letter appears in the novel in a letter dated August 30th (Williamson has his reasons for accelerating the timeline of training, which we will get to in good time).


Camp Hill Camp, Ashdown Forest

Crowborough, Sussex

30 August 1914

Dear Father,

Will you please send me two one-ounce packets of Hignett’s Cavalier [pipe tobacco] once a week as I can’t get any in this hole. The hardships of this life are awful. It takes a lot to exhaust me, as it does you, but after a 20-mile march without food and full kit and rifle in the brazen sun, one flops down and gasps for water and breath…

I have posted you the brogues [alias “the campaign clumps,” with their inch-thick soles], as they might come in useful for your special constabulary work…

The next few lengthy paragraphs can be swiftly cut down to a few choice phrases. The much older Williamson-the-novelist has Phillip write a good deal better than his young self (no string of “but” clauses) but he doesn’t soft-pedal his carping and boyish bravado.

Here we sleep like pigs…  the food is… coarse and badly cooked… undrinkable tea…  Luckily, I can stand it, and damp and hunger, and hardship do not affect me… the life is hell itself. We have nowhere to wash… nothing to do at night… I can’t stand these conditions.

The it’s-awful-but-I’m-tough section over, Phillip announces his battalion’s readiness:

The Terriers [i.e. the Territorial Army] are for relieving regulars but the L.H. [the fictional London Highlanders, closely modeled on the London Scottish, a regiment/battalion of the all-Territorial London Regiment] and a few crack regiments will fight in France…

Be sure that if I go abroad, I will fight like a devil and a Maddison against the Barbarians who are doing the Fiend’s own hellish work in wrecking the peace of Europe, and causing grief and anguish in millions of homes. If ever there is a bayonet charge I will be one of the first to stab and thrust at them.

Don’t forget to put up the bird-boxes in the elm tree by February…

I’m cutting down a windy section of epistolary novel into a few short chunks, but note the absence of an ellipsis between those last two paragraphs: Williamson does nicely here to make his young protagonist spout the war prose of those weeks, conducting the temperature of the war to his readers through Phillip, while also showing Phillip;s innocence and youth in a rounder light than Williamson’s actual letters home do.

Although she was reading The Times (and was a much better writer) while he echoes the more Boy’s Own/John Bullish portions of the press–Kipling and some of the others who are at Wellington House today will be improving the quality of such perorations without much altering the tone–Phillip’s (fictional) letters have much in common with Vera Brittain‘s diary entries, in which youthful complaint and general self-centeredness are dutifully and daily bracketed by notes on the larger context of the war.

Will father drag out his tools and put up the new bird boxes, or will the semi-wild birds that fascinated young Phillip/Henry no longer come home to roost?

And then, war prose spouted, it’s back to homely nagging, in the manner of Williamson’s actual letters. Phillip’s letter reverses course again, as he gives his father his opinion of the war’s length and outcome: England will be victorious, but ruined.

This is not all that far off, but it’s not a cheap back-write-the-prophecy gimmick: Maddison also predicts that France will be destroyed while Russia will stand up to everything Germany throws at her–odds-on-best if one were reading contemporary reports of Russian success in the English papers. In reality an entire Russian army of 200,000 men had just been annihilated at the Battle of Tannenberg.

Anyway: after finishing his prophecy, Williamson puts his own youthful bêtises in Maddison’s mouth:

Tell mother I don’t like the photo she sent me: it is one of the worst she has ever had taken. The huge hat on her head is like a beehive with a flower garden…

Do ask her to arrange a shoal of letters here…  Give my love to Mother…

Love from your affectionate son,


So, of this ordinary boy’s ordinary letter home, much abides, but much is added or changed. The biggest difference between the letter and its fictional doppelganger, of course, is the addressee. Most of our young soldiers, Williamson included, rarely if ever wrote to their fathers even as they wrote regularly to their mothers. So why “change” this one?

I think Williamson makes his young alter-ego write to Father so that he (older, novel-writing Williamson) can imagine Father (WIlliamson) softening these silly little blows for Mother, while at the same time displaying the personality that keeps he and his son at odds: Father (Maddison) likes the bravado. The whingeing is a familiar shortcoming of his boy, and he overlooks it because the style of the letter and the naked effort to please him with soldierly bluster are unexpected “improvements.” Never mind that the pose is so obviously hollow. Father reads the letter and informs mother that:

“He has a graphic style, but I fancy he has exaggerated at times. It is odd, too, how he contradicts what he has written almost in the same breath. Almost he seems to be in two minds at times. Well, read it for yourself. Only I ought to warn you first–he does not apparently take to a certain hat.”

The text of the letter follows–perhaps we are to imagine Father re-reading it, or hearing it again as mother reads it aloud–and by the time we-the-readers have read Phillip’s ramblings, Father, having done his duty as literary critic of the obvious, has seemingly forgotten the dubious bits in order to indulge his paternal pride in the style and the swagger.

“Well, we’ve had our orders,” said Richard [Father], with a laugh. You must get another hat, that resembles neither a bee-hive nor garden…

He was really pleased with the new directness apparent in the letter. “He is like his grandfather in that, I fancy; my father wrote a forceful style.”


Riversdale Grenfell managed a short note to an older sister, today, but the letter doesn’t appear to survive.[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. F.E. Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy, 366-7.
  2. Williamson, Anne. Henry Williamson and the First World War, 16-17.
  3. Williamson, How Dear is Life, 176-9.
  4. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 204.

Henry Williamson Has (Nearly) Enough Socks; Riversdale Grenfell has Lost Everything

P Company, London Rifle Brigade, Bisley, Surrey

Dear Mother,

Thanks very much for the things you sent me. The cap is very nice at night. There is a big YMCA Marquee erected here, and writing materials and tables etc where one can write letters and sit for free. I have got my kit bag tonight, and I now have four pairs of socks, so don’t trouble to send me a lot, except one thick pair made by yourself, which I shall treasure highly. The LRB has volunteered as a Battalion for foreign service.

So much for the brief panic of eleven days ago, when young Henry Williamson and his fictional alter-ego worried over the surprising fact that, after an episcopal exhortation, he had volunteered for danger and found that most –but not all–of his battalion had done so as well. But times have changed: Mons, and The Retreat, and the near collapse of the allies in Belgium and northern France. The Territorial Army must get ready for combat, and the rules will change under the feet of ready volunteers and those-who-will-have-been-deemed-to-have-volunteered alike.

We are having hard training tonight, but I am quite fit…  We are all to be vaccinated soon, a nasty and unhealthy business. An airship sailed over the camp last night and lighted it up with a searchlight. Great excitement, and we nearly shelled it, but an officer rushed up in time and pointed out that it was an english type…

This is a common tale, an archetype of early war jitters. It’s like a combination of the real friendly fire incident involving the Royal Welch and the 19th Hussars and Francis Grenfell’s anecdote of the same day, in which gendarmes in the rear fire wildly at a distant German airplane. Williamson, who seem to fill his letters quickly and artlessly with whatever is on his mind, will shortly shift subjects.

A narrow escape for the ship, as we were loading and an aeroplane gun was finding the range. Please don’t join the Ladies Rifle Club, as the kick and recoil would hurt you. It is possible for you to get a pass to see me one day, but I expect I shall have leave soon, so don’t bother to come…

And here’s where it gets very strange.

You must not mind my going abroad. It is not probable that we shall relieve regulars at Malta etc, because the colonel said we should, if needed (when trained) go to Belgium to guard the lines of communication etc. It is probable that if the LRB does go (and we shall be needed against those never ending masses) abroad, that about one fifth will return alive. The others will join their comrades in the deep, deep sleep. Still, I must not alarm you: I have volunteered because I know you want me to help the allies in my best manner… It is very hard to leave home and friends and have only the memory of them left. I wonder if I shall ever see Holwood Park again, and play tennis on the Hill? And tame jackdaws and owls? I wonder, but it is in Higher Hands than mine. I must close now, with great love to yourself and all the others.

Your loving son. Harry.

It’s difficult to tell what is meant by all this. Is Williamson just letting his thoughts run away with him? Is he safely releasing some of his terror at the thought of battle by pretending to reassure his mother? Or is he a boy scrawling various Deep Thoughts in incongruous proximity to each other because someone else wants to use the Red Cross writing station? But why in the world would you pass on bizarre and terrible rumors of 80% fatalities to your mother? She’s not there to comfort you, lad, and it would be hard to imagine that this confidence relieves as much on your end as it will hang heavy on hers.

We’ll read a few more of Williamson’s letters from camp, and watch as he borrows from them to create Phillip Maddison’s letters home. It’s hard to resist the feeling that by fleshing out his own letters (and changing important details–he will give Maddison a somewhat different trajectory of combat experience) he is working through his own experience in the same way as Sassoon, and producing not a rumination in two time signatures but something like the work of an unscrupulous archaeologist: he excavates his younger self and sits there, regarding the innocent article–no masterpiece, really, however authentic–before taking up brush and chisel to restore and, well, aesthetically-speaking, let’s say, to improve.

As literature this is all well and good and highly traditional, but as history it’s pretty sketchy. We step away from pure fact, but we remain within a mind that underwent that experience and seeks to understand it. The fictionalized letters shed more light on the young soldier’s experience of the early war, not least because the novelist can also, as we will shortly see, describe the reception of Phillip’s letters at home.


Rivy Grenfell remained in very active active service with his new regiment. Although he had transferred to the lancers in order to be with his brother Francis, and Francis was now gloriously wounded and headed to England. Rivy’s conduct while serving as “galloper” on the 24th had been, if not as ostentatiously heroic, more than steady and capable enough to win him the respect of  his brother’s regular brothers-in-arms. And he seems to have been enjoying himself. Although he presumably had his hands rather full during the retreat, the officers and men of the  BEF had already learned that best way to obtain things was simply to write to England.

On 29th August there was a short note to Francis telling him that both had lost all their belongings and begging him to bring out a new outfit. “An infernal trooper has bagged my horse with all my kit on it, and has got lost himself.”[1]

References and Footnotes

  1. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 204.

Battle: John Lucy is in the Thick of It, the Grenfell Twins are Confused, and Conan Doyle Overdoes It; The Duchess of Sutherland Endures a Heavier Bombardment

Today, a century back, being the British Army’s first day of real combat,[1] we should have a brief word about military history, specifically that breed of military history known as the “Battle Piece.”

Actually, a very brief word: I am not going to try to write the battles from a strategic or grand tactical perspective, or to give the generals’ point of view and assess their actions in detail. There is plenty of that, by good writers and careful writers and traditionalists and revisionists… and in such a big battle nothing on that scale is terribly relevant to the experience of the men on the ground.

The Battle of Mons was not atypical, either, in that the British, French, and German commanders were all gravely mistaken about the numbers and intent of their enemy, that each was pursuing strategies ranging from poor to suicidally disastrous, and that the side that made the worst decisions (the Allies) probably came out of it best. So please do read up elsewhere on the Schlieffen Plan and Von Kluck’s mistake and Lanrezac’s run for the rear and the impeccable incompetence of Sir John French (commander, confusingly, of the British Expeditionary Force–but don’t worry, the Germans also had a General von François).

Here we need only the broadest picture: some twenty miles of East-West frontage for the BEF, along the Mons-Condé canal, with an unlovely view into the industrial towns and mining district away north, where German armies were massing, their spotter planes droning overhead.[2]

Now, how to describe an aircraft overhead, in the first fledgling weeks of motorized military air-power? J.F. Lucy, in yesterday’s post, was matter-of-fact–a tiny bit poetical, but, really, a plane was little more than a novelty. Aircraft, in this war, rarely posed a significant threat to men on the ground. Primitive bombers and effective strafing lay in the future.

A lone Taube was a scout, a spotter, a lone horseman who might summon the enemy hosts or, worse, call down the long-range guns–or trundle slowly on, its purposes inscrutable. So, hey–a plane!

Here’s another way to do it:

High in the van a Taube aeroplane, like an embodiment of that black eagle which is the fitting emblem of a warlike and rapacious race, pointed the path for the German hordes.


But now an ill-omened bird flew over the British lines. Far aloft across the deep blue sky skimmed the dark Taube, curved, turned, and sail northwards again. It had marked the shells bursting beyond the trenches. In an instant, by some devilish cantrip of signal or wireless, it had set the range right. A rain of shells roared and crashed along the lines of the shallow trenches. The injuries were not yet numerous, but they were inexpressibly ghastly…[3]

These small purple apocalypses have spilled from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, once a writer of admirable precision. He spent much of the war working on installments of an easy-bake history, based on many conversations with participants and wide reading of the utterly unreliable newspaper reports and produced rather too quickly. Ah, there’s was a writer’s market in those days, there was!

I thought I would drop Conan Doyle in here not just to give a vivid example of the “older guy who hasn’t seen battle renders it more dramatically than no-nonsense serving soldier” truism but also to sound an early warning on the genesis of the most dramatic/least accurate of “battle pieces.” They come from this sort of writing, where stray facts–especially highly visible ones–take on massive payloads of strategic and symbolic meaning before they are located in any tactical matrix or pinpointed in any chain of causation.

And also because I can’t help but have some sympathy with the quick-response popular writer willing to triple-load his metaphorical riffs. Is the plane a bird of ill-omened Prussian expansionism, or a reminder of the evil magic (“devilish cantrip”) that seems, to soldiers, to work the Death Unseen that so often strikes them down. Or is it a spotter plane that makes effective use of nascent technology to direct artillery fire supporting the German advance? Sure!


But back to business. J.F. Lucy was in one of those shallow trenches. He had had a long night, awakened at midnight to escort an ammunition resupply. He and his men remained on their feet through the morning, when they moved forward into a village that had just been raided by German cavalry. By the early afternoon they had moved forward another mile and dug a shallow “kneeling trench” as a temporary firing position, the idea being to attack once the enemy was located. Now they awaited contact.

Lucy was unaware that his battalion was now holding part of a suspected “weak point,” just behind where the canal’s course changed as it reached Mons. Tacticians always like to go after angles. He and the rest of the 2/Royal Irish realized that they were involved in a real battle only when the German shells began to fall.

Lucy’s account, written years later by a man who experienced much of the worst of trench warfare, notices several age-old elements of the experience of battle that will soon become obsolete and strange. They realize that the German infantry are attacking when they hear the “conch-like sounds” of their bugles, and they meet the densely-packed advancing troops with rifle volleys directed by officers’ whistles. Massed advances met by drill-quickened rifle fire resulted in terrible casualties.

Our rapid fire was appalling even to us, and the worst marksman could not miss, as he had only to fire into the ‘brown’ of the masses of the unfortunate enemy, who on the fronts of two of our companies were continually and uselessly reinforced at the short range of three hundred yards. Such tactics amazed us…[4]


Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, were, with the rest of the 9th Lancers, behind the center of the British line, near the village of Thulin. Alas, the prospect of battle in one of Northern Europe’s most industrial districts was a bit of a disappointment:

Francis and Rivy were much perplexed by this strange kind of battlefield. As cavalrymen they had hoped for the wide rolling downs which had been predicted as the terrain of any continental war. Instead they found themselves in a land full of little smoky villages, coal mines, railway embankments, endless wire, and a population that seemed as dense as that of a London suburb. They were puzzled to know how cavalry could operate, and they were still more puzzled to understand what was the plan of campaign an uncertainty they shared with a million or so other soldiers. On that hot Sunday morning firing began early to the north-east and grew heavier as the day advanced. In the afternoon the Colonel sent for the squadron leaders and told them that six German cavalry and three infantry divisions were advancing, and that their business was to retire slowly, fighting a rearguard action. The rest of the day was spent in deep mystification, with no knowledge of the fall of Namur, or of Lanrezac’s defeat at Charleroi, or the other calamities which were to compel Sir John French to retreat. But at 11.30 came definite orders. They were instructed to entrench at the railway station south of Thulin for an attack at dawn. Spades were procured with difficulty, and they were about to begin when another order came not to entrench but to barricade, and to hold Thulin station and the road to the south of it. This was done, and the position was occupied during the darkness, while the wretched inhabitants straggled down the south road, and the guns in the north grew steadily nearer.[5]

So no death or glory charges today, although, with more than a few rolling downs and wide-open fields behind them, there would be a chance, upon retirement. John Buchan, author of the above paragraph, is surely trying to give us a strong sense of just how confusing it is to be behind a battle which even its participants and presiding officers have failed to understand.

And yet: there are more than a few ways, amidst all of the very bright young things and precocious writers we will be studying, to indicate that these particular brave boys are dim bulbs. “Perplexed… puzzled… still more puzzled… deep mystification:” all fair in war, but there does seem to be a literary running of the colors here, between the fog of war and the unrealistic expectations and stolidity of two young officers.

In any event, confusion. And withdrawal. This was a good-sized battle, and although the excellent musketry of the British regulars (and their excellent rifles) caused thousands of German casualties, several British battalions were hard hit as well. It is notoriously difficult to withdraw in the face of an undefeated enemy, and, as this is is next on the menu for the BEF, the Grenfells will soon see more action.


The Duchess of Sutherland, however, was fifty miles further east in besieged and overrun Namur:

Sunday 23 August.

There is a dreadful bombardment going on. Some of our wounded who can walk wrap themselves in blankets and go to the cellars. Luckily we are in a new fire-proof building, and I must stay with my sick men who cannot move.The shells sing over the convent from the deep booming German guns–a long singing scream and then an explosion which seems only a stone’s throw away. The man who received extreme unction the night before is mad with terror. I do not believe that he is after all so badly wounded. He has a bullet in his shoulder, and it is not serious. He has lost all power of speech, but I believe that he is an example of what I have read of and what I had never seen–a man dying of sheer fright.

Two things, here. Yes, this sounds like our first case of shell-shock, brutal neanderthal ancestor of modern PTSD. It would be recognized later in the war and, famously, treated with widely varying understanding, and with methods both brutal and humane.

Second, there is another looming rabbit hole for any comparative study of war prose, namely the danger of trying to re-translate language into some sort of objective measure of suffering (or other emotional response).

Descriptions of enduring bombardment are a primary example of this. Many soldiers (and nurses) will write of how terrible a first bombardment seemed, and how laughable that terror seemed in retrospect, once they had acclimated to the constant presence of artillery and learned what the big guns did.

The big point here is that we have to read each experience for what it tells us of the author’s state of mind, not to ascertain the “actual” (i.e. historical) weight and effectiveness of that bombardment. That said, the guns at the Battle of Mons were probably all field guns or medium howitzers; Namur was being shelled by some of the largest guns ever built, crane-loaded monstrosities whose thousand-pound shells brought down entire buildings at a time, and pounded the new forts into rubble. The cellar would not have been much safer, if these guns reached their part of the town.

The nurses and one or two of the nuns are most courageous and refuse to take shelter in the cellars, which are full of novices and schoolchildren. The electric and gas supplies have been cut off. The only lights we have to use are a few hand lanterns and night-lights…

There is some rapid fusilading through the streets and two frightened old Belgian officers ran into the Convent to ask for Red Cross bands, throwing down their arms and maps. In a few minutes, however, they regained self control and went out in the streets without the Red Cross bands.

Now the German troops are fairly marching in. I hear them singing as they march. It seems almost cowardly to write this, but for a few minutes there was relief to see them coming and to feel that this awful firing would soon cease. On they march! Fine well-set-up men with grey uniforms.They have stopped shooting now… I see them streaming into the market-place. A lot of stampeding artillery horses gallop by with Belgian guns. On one of the limbers still lay all that was left of a man. It is too terrible.

What can these brave little people do against this mighty force? Some of the Germans have fallen out and are talking to the people in the streets. These are so utterly relieved at the cessation of the bombardment that in their fear they are actually welcoming the Germans. I saw some women press forward and wave their handkerchiefs.

Suddenly upon this scene the most fearful shelling begins again…We rush back into the convent, and there are fifteen minutes of intense and fearful excitement while the shells are crashing into the market-place. We see German soldiers running for dear life … Women half fainting, and wounded, old men and boys are struggling in.Their screams are dreadful. They had all gone into the Grande Place to watch the German soldiers marching, and were caught in this sudden firing. A civilian wounded by a shell in the stomach was brought into the Ambulance. He died in 20 minutes. We can only gather incoherent accounts from these people as to what had happened.The Germans sounded the retreat and the shelling seemed to stop. At last it leaks out that the German troops on the other side of the town did not know that their own troops had crossed the Meuse on the opposite side…  It seems a horrible story, but absolutely true.

Now it is quiet again, save for the sighs of the suffering. All night long we hear the tramp, cramp, tramp of German infantry in the streets, their words of command, their perpetual deep-throated songs.They are full of swagger, and they are very anxious to make an impression upon the Belgians…

Where are the English and the big French troops? That is what I am wondering.[6]


This has been a long post, and so I will postpone an uncertainty: One Sunday in late August–either today, a century back, or a week hence, The Dymock poets, and Edward Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon, dined together in the farmhouse of a rustic, nineteenth century couple. It was a merry, literary occasion, with little or no mention of the war–could it possibly have been the same day as Mons? I don’t know, and two letters that might mention it and fix it on the 23rd I can’t get my hands on just now–so let’s say it was on the 30th, and wait a week for the end of August 1914, and a final bit of Last Summer literary pastoralism…

References and Footnotes

  1. There were two skirmishes between cavalry patrols the day before, and scout aircraft had been in action.
  2. Douglas Haig, then commanding I Corps, was on the right, in and beyond Mons, and thus more aware of the crucial strategic problem: that the French armies on the British right, east of Mons, were withdrawing, so that further heroic holding actions would only result in the British being cut off and destroyed,
  3. Conan Doyle, A History of the Great War, Vol. I, 65-66.
  4. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 103-115.
  5. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 191-2.
  6. From Women in the War Zone, 38-39.

Chorus: War!

August 4th, 1914[1]

So today is the big day: As Germany invades Belgium, Britain declares war.

Rather than presenting any lengthy, informative, or thoughtful excerpts, today–everyone was too excited for solid information or deep thought, anyway–I thought a panoramic post might be in order. So, let’s check briefly in on the memories and whereabouts of many different writers–such an archive it will be when we fondly look back!

Ford Madox Ford–then and throughout the war still known as Ford Madox Hueffer–was at a “literary country-house party” in the north of England, hobnobbing with Wyndham Lewis and E.M. Forster, among others.[2] He was, in fact, quite near the Berwick-on-Tweed station from which his heroic/shambolic alter-ego, Christopher Tietjens, had departed yesterday, shepherding the perfidious Mrs. Duchemin through the “rout” to London… Ford himself would soon hustle back to the capital and turn his prolific pen to war-writing…

Francis and Riversdale Grenfell were together at Tidworth, where Francis–the career officer–was stationed. Rivy, whose financial career had recently ended in disaster, immediately moved to get his reserve commission transferred into his twin’s unit, the 9th Lancers.[3]

Cousin Julian was with his regiment in South Africa, but his mother, Lady Desborough, was dining in London, and–lest we think that the Great Soul was losing her touch, none other than Lord Kitchener dropped by to say hello, on his way to Whitehall to be made Minister of War.[4]

Edward Thomas was sitting with Robert Frost “on an orchard stile near Little Iddens when word came that the firing had started. They wondered whether they might be able to hear the guns from their corner of Gloucestershire…

At Cley-next-the-Sea on the north coast of Norfolk, Rupert Brooke woke from a nightmare about impending war to find that it had begun,” while deep in the Pyrenees, Wilfred Owen “climbed to the top of a hill and gazed both north to where he supposed the fighting might be, and south over the Pyrenees[5] to the safety of Spain, wondering in which direction his future lay.”[6]

Our bellwether of aged literary wisdom, Thomas Hardy, was discussing the rumours of war over lunch at Athelhampton Hall, Dorsetshire

when a telegram came announcing the rumour to be fact. A discussion arose about food, and there was almost a panic at the table, nobody having any stock… The whole news and what it involved burst upon Hardy’s mind next morning, for though most people were saying the war would be over by Christmas he felt it might be a matter of years and untold disaster.[7]

George Bernard Shaw, who will remain a voice of liberal/socialist/international reason (or nauseating pro-German treasonous rot, depending on your point of view) gave the traces a reassuringly firm kick by wiring his German translator: “you and I at war [;] can absurdity go further [;] my friendliest wishes go with you under all circumstances.”[8]

That same afternoon, Charles Carrington took a long Hampshire walk with his uncle,

round by Crondall and Crookham to discuss my future in a mood of great unreality. Presently a sweating soldier on a bicycle stopped us to ask the way to Colonel So-and-So’s house, and told us outright that he was carrying the mobilization order, an announcement that seemed fatal to our conversation. Late that night, after my usual bedtime, I rode down to the village street for news, to find three or four people staring blankly at a notice in the window of the post office: ‘War declared.'[9]

We have yet to meet Alfred Hale, the greatest of Paul Fussell’s discoveries (and we will not get to know him well for years, as he dodges service until 1917) but his monumentally aggrieved and solipsistically woeful memoir–a fascinating book most unlike any other–hits full stride in four sentences:

Rake. Night of 4 August, 1914. Out in the garden of my house at 11pm, listening to what I imagined to be a War signal : a gun fired at Portsmouth, very faint in the distance, the whole thing a climax to my various personal troubles. These troubles had chiefly to do with domestic servants. I had engaged a housekeeper…[10]

Ever so slightly less inclined to whingeing was Frank Richards, reservist of the Royal Welsh and current timberman’s assistant in a Welsh mine. Richards spent the evening of the fourth in Blaina, Monmouthshire, “having a drink at the Castle Hotel with a few of my cronies, all old soldiers and the majority of them reservists” and telling tall tales of their exploits as colonial soldiers when news came that “the Sergeant of Police was hanging up a notice by the post office, calling all reservists to the Colours. This caused a bit of excitement and language, but it was too late in the evening for any of us to proceed to our depots so we kept on drinking and yarning until stop-tap.”[11] Richards will be in France within the week.

Osbert Sitwell “arrived in London at six in the morning, and reported to the Reserve Battalion, already in course of formation. In the afternoon I went to say good-by to many friends, who, as it happened, were never to return to England. Two or three of the most confident I heard instructing their servants to pack their evening clothes, since they would need them in a week or two in Berlin…” later, near the palace, he “heard the great crowd roar for its own death. It cheered and cried and howled…”[12] By the evening he was moving between private clubs, and writing to his father of the big news.[13]

As word of the ultimatum and the likelihood of a declaration of war late in the day spread through the capital, thousands converged on Buckingham Palace, where the King and Queen and Prince of Wales appeared on the balcony to acknowledge the cheers of their subjects. I don’t know if any of our writers were in the crowd, but Henry Williamson’s Phillip Maddison was.[14]

A mile away, in Piccadilly, the modernist poet and philosopher T.E. Hulme was “sitting in the Café Royal with David Bromberg when news broke of the declaration of war on Germany…”[15]

Lady Diana Manners (Cooper) (i.e., née Manners, but best known as Lady Cooper, following a post-war marriage), a central figure of the “Coterie” and sister of the once-beloved of Julian Grenfell, was at The Woodhose, Rowsley, “playing the war game, then very much in fashion, elaborated by Winston Churchill into a pastime for strategists and involving hundreds of tin soldiers.” While the young men played on with their tin soldiers, she began to consider the mildly rebellious step of becoming a nurse.[16]

As for fictional future propaganda, Lord Dunsany’s Boer War veteran remains steadfast to his (dis)inclination: “Then came August 4th, and England true to her destiny, and then Lord Kitchener’s appeal for men. Sergeant Cane had a family to look after and a nice little house: he had left the army ten years…”[17]

Now, one of several exceptions to the Standard of Recruitment for this project’s protagonists–we generally follow writers prolific or professional who (will) either see active service or treat the recently wounded–is that I’ve admitted some interesting non-combatant writers provided that they 1) are active in war writing during the war; 2) are too old to fight themselves; and 3) have sons in uniform. One writer-you-may-have heard-of who fits this profile is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, aged 55 and semi-retired (from Holmes, at least, save that Last Bow) in Sussex.

On August 4, when war seemed assured, I had a note from Mr Goldsmith, a plumber in the village: “There is a feeling in Crowborough, that something should be done.” This made me laugh at first, but presently I thought more seriously of it. After all, Crowborough was one of a thousand villages, and we might be planning and acting for all. Therefore I had notices rapidly printed. I distributed them and put them at road corners, and the same evening (August 4) we held a village meeting, and started the Volunteers…[18]

The old gents would continue to drill for some time–even in Britain, with its semi-official Eccentric Amateur mascot, the War Office was a bit bemused about what to do with such middle-aged enthusiasm. But they could get into little trouble marching around Sussex and being very proud of themselves… thank God for the Royal Navy.

Receiving the same exemption in order to appear here will be Rudyard Kipling, the prolific and polarizing semi-unofficial Storyteller-in-Chief of the British Empire. Today he was brief, writing three words in his wife Carrie’s diary, and choosing, we should note, the same Biblical noun that Vera Brittain had deployed yesterday: “Incidentally armageddon begins.”[19]


But let’s finish in Buxton, which Vera Brittain has made the indispensable check-point of the Last Summer. Her teenaged brother, Edward, had a sense of what the British army might need that was markedly more realistic than Doyle’s–and he even guessed, a bit, at what it might come to demand. Vera stayed up late to write at great length in her diary:

Tuesday August 4th

Late as it is & almost too excited to write as I am, I must make some effort to chronicle the stupendous events of this remarkable day. The situation is absolutely unparalleled in the history of the world. Never before has the war strength of each individual nation been of such great extent, even though all the nations of Europe, the dominant continent, have been armed before. It is estimated that when the war begins 14 millions of men will be engaged in the conflict. Attack is possible by earth, water & air, & the destruction attainable by the modern war machines used by the armies is unthinkable & past imagination.

This morning at breakfast we learnt that war is formally declared between France & Germany…

All day long rumours kept coming that a naval engagement had been fought off the coast of Yorkshire. I went up to the tennis club this afternoon, more to see if I could hear anything than to play, as it kept on pouring with rain. No one knew any further definite news, but we all discussed the situation. I mentioned Edward’s & Maurice’s keenness to do something definite & Bertram Spafford said they ought either to apply to Mr Heathcote or Mr Goodman, who were the chief Territorials here, or to go to the Territorial headquarters in Manchester. I told him yesterday that the fact of a strong healthy man like himself being absolutely ignorant of military tactics was a proof that our military system was at fault somewhere. He said that at the Manchester Grammar School, where he went, they had no corps, & that many men were in the same case as himself.

The war will alter everything &, even if I pass my exam., there would probably be no means to send both Edward & me to Oxford at the same time. There is nothing to do now but wait. When I got in I found Edward had procured an evening paper with the startling news that England had sent an ultimatum to Germany, to expire at midnight to-night, demanding the immediate withdrawal of her troops from Belgium…

Immediately after dinner I had to go to a meeting of the University Extension Lectures Committee. Small groups of people, especially men, were standing about talking, & in front of the Town Hall was quite a large crowd, as on the door was posted up the mobilisation order, in large black letters, ordering all army recruits to take up the colours & all Territorials to go to their headquarters. Edward has been reading the papers carefully & says that at present only the trained army & the Territorials are wanted & there is no demand for untrained volunteers. Though anxious to fight he says he will wait until he hears that people like himself are needed; he is of course very young & not overexperienced…

Stupendous events come so thick & fast after one another that it is impossible to realise to any extent their full import. One feels as if one were dreaming, or reading a chapter out of one of H. G. Wells’ books like The War of the Worlds. To me, who have never known the meaning of war, as I can scarcely remember the South African even, it is incredible to think that there can be fighting off the coast of Yorkshire…

To sum up the situation in any way is impossible, every hour brings fresh & momentous events & one must stand still & await catastrophes each even more terrible than the last. All the nations of this continent are ready with their swords drawn…[20]

References and Footnotes

  1. "The Fourth of August" is also the title of a poem by Binyon which does an excellent job of representing the cliched thoughts, images, and vocabulary of heroic war poetry at the war's outset. In twenty-eight lines we get splendour, purification, dilating hearts, "the grandeur of our fate," the glorious dead, nobility, heritage, immortal stars, hope, seed, flower, purgation, and divine suffering. It sounds old fashioned now, but then again that is (one of) the whole point(s) of this project: it will take time to find a way to write what war is really like, especially in verse.
  2. Ford, War Prose, 2.
  3. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell,187.
  4. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 235.
  5. Not through the mountains, but over? A penetrating, or rather a lofty, arcing poetic vision?
  6. Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 151-2. Hollis cites Hassall for the Brooke information, and a 1917 letter to mum for Owen's romantic whereabouts (which sounds a little different in Hibberd's reference to it, but anyway; you can't see through the Pyrenees, and mountainous as Bagnères-de-Bigorre is, it's a valley town--the start of climbs to the border passes and not within any easy hike of Spanish vistas. Brooke, incidentally, was staying with Frances Cornford, whose poem Charles Sorley recently misattributed to Laurence Housman! Small world! Good times!
  7. E.H. Hardy, The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 365.
  8. McLeod, The Last Summer, 111, 134.
  9. Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning, 47. Almost identical, not-interestingly-enough, to his earlier account in A Subaltern's War, 16. What is the significance of the first memoir's "roasting afternoon" and the later account's "sultry afternoon?" Dissertation to follow.
  10. Fussell, ed., The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 27.
  11. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 9.
  12. Sitwell, Great Morning, 327; both ellipses are his...
  13. Philip Ziegler, Obsert Sitwell, 51-3, has Osbert packing evening clothes as well, although on what additional evidence I'm not sure. It would be like Osbert to pack evening clothes and mention that "friends" did so, and also like a biographer to slew the "friends" detail back into Osbert without perfect authority. And why is he writing chatty letters to dad? Tune in tomorrow.
  14. Williamson, How Dear Is Life, 135.
  15. Another spoiling book title...  Ferguson, The Short, Sharp Life of T.E. Hulme, 182.
  16. Cooper, Autobiography, 113. I'm not sure what this game is--perhaps the H.G. Wells thing? Well, Churchill had other fish to fry that weekend.
  17. Dunsany, Tales of War, 92.
  18. This quote, from chapter 27 of Doyle's autobiography, I have shamelessly cribbed from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War website--an admirably thorough site with details on many authors that I don't have the resources to include here... do check it out, especially if your literary interests shade fantastic.
  19. Carrington, Rudyard Kipling, 492. Hundreds of others, no doubt, wrote of Armageddon. But this is not a bad time to note that a century changes the emphasis of a word even if its meaning stays more or less fixed. Indeed, "armageddon" may be a weak example of a common phenomenon, in which this war introduces specific phrases into a general associative meaning. American footballers, surely, did not labor "in the trenches" yet, and "lousy" was an insectiform reference. Armageddon will come to mean "disastrous conflict," but Vera and Rudyard were, if I may address my readership with statistical generalities and all apologies to individual outliers, better and more frequent bible readers than you. That unholy meaning was then, therefore, very much more to the fore. Of course, by tomorrow it will also be an ill-timed jest...
  20. Chronicle of Youth, 85-7.

Aftershocks from the City

May 20, 1914

Chaplin, Milne, Grenfell & Co., outside brokers, announce that Arthur Grenfell ceased to be a Director of their company from Feb. 17 last.

This has given publicity to the fact that Mr. Grenfell was the outside operator whose heavy commitments in Canadian securities created so much uneasiness on the Stock Exchange a fortnight ago.[1]

So it goes with the stock exchange. The firm insisted (at least for a while) that they could contain the damage wrought by Mr. Grenfell’s losses, but these were already sufficient to wipe out “every penny” of the fortunes of his two youngest brothers.  Rivy, the younger of these by some minutes and a junior partner in the firm, was also responsible for the debacle: after Arthur was injured in a riding accident, he “had to deal on his own initiative with matters he probably never understood, for his business training had always been sketchy and inadequate.”

This was no renegade trader or hotshot proto-quant, then, but an aristocratic dabbler to the manor born, at Eton undereducated, and head-over-keel into the treacherous shoal-waters of financial speculation sailed… plus ca change?  Only a troubled firm and a tremor in the market, but for Francis Octavius Grenfell and Riversdale Nonus Grenfell this was “the true tragedy of their lives,” and it “meant that Rivy was a broken man in his profession, and that Francis must give up most of his ambitions.” It would be tiresome and otiose to point out that, you know, nobody died, or that the two young men had neither dependents nor future-destroying debt, or that they did have plenty of wealthy friends and myriad ways to soldier on. This not the last time that we will pine for a cutting aside from an onlooking cockney-in-the-street about the troubles of the upper classes (and I haven’t even gotten to the ponies!)

Francis’s ambitions, by the by, were military. When the inseparable twins, orphans and heirs to a dwindled portion of fortune, had come of age, the duo had chosen to support each other by separating: Francis would go off to win fame in the army and Rivy to renewed fortune in the City. Like any young officer, Francis was dreaming of the VC from the get-go, but he had lately begun to work steadily toward peacetime advancement, aiming for the Staff. This sort of career, in the pre-war Army, required money (as well as pedigree and some hard work). Although they had known of the financial disaster for months, today’s publicity surely brought it home, and it would be unfair not to realize that, through no tremendously wicked flaws of their own, the twins were at a loss indeed.

It made one’s heart ache to seem them, stunned, puzzled, yet struggling to keep a brave front, and clamouring to take other people’s loads on their backs. Uncomplainingly they played what they decided was their last game of polo, and sold their ponies… They neither broke nor bent under calamity, but simply stood still and wondered… they grieved about everybody’s loss more than their own.[2]

As friends and family tried to rescue something of the twins’ fortune later in the summer, it does not quite break our century-back-so-no-flash-forwarding rule (since the war, and thus August, is the subject presumptive of the whole project, and May is essentially prequel) to note how the financial disaster gave the twins a head start on the world crisis. Most businessmen will be slower off the mark in August than either their employees or their idle friends–but not Rivy.

To most of us the dividing line between the old and the news world was drawn in the first week of August 1914.  But for the Twins it came earlier. Three months before the cataclysm of the nations they felt their own foundations crumbling…

…What to most people was like the drawing in of a dark curtain was to the Twins an opening of barred doors into daylight. For Francis the career which seemed at an end was to be resumed upon an august stage, and for Rivy the chance had come to redeem private failure in public service.”[3]

The precipitous fall from grace makes a nice chapter-closer for the biographer, and it is no less a boon to a writer trying to trot out a few members of a vast ensemble cast for a curtain-raiser before the Great August Frenetic.

And now for a defense-of-tone. First, I want to note that the above-quoted judgment on Rivy’s competence is from that sympathetic biographer (and family friend) and, second, that the twins themselves lamented how little they had learnt at Eton. Yet it still may feel as if I am shooting fish in a barrel here, taking advantage of a century’s worth of social change to take the piss out of a pair of upper class twits. I don’t mean to do this–or not too much.

They seem to have had ingenuous, winning personalities, the sort of golden boys who are kind and oblivious and charm their way into being let off the hook (as we might see it) for just how much they are oblivious about–and perhaps this charm has staying power, a century on. It says as much about them and the assumptions of their times that their biographer sees no need to excise the racist and anti-semitic slurs from their letters as it does that they tossed such words around so casually–then again, the biographer also chose to gratuitously heap blame on “The Jew” even in his fiction. (Writing frequently of “jewboys” or “the nosy brigade,” as Francis and Rivy do, reveals a basic prejudice that should not be simply excused by “their times” or because it was unreflective and not particularly rancid or virulent. Numerous contemporaries had figured out that knee-jerk anti-semitism was embarrassingly stupid, but not Francis and Rivy. They, like too many Great War soldiers, also used the paramount figure of hate speech to refer to people of color. This word was less poisonous in British usage than it is and was in an American context, but it was still ugly and derogatory, and thus an example, at the very least, of limited empathy for people different from themselves.)

They seem like gangly, foolish adolescents–Francis cramming for exams but pursuing an army career that left long stretches of time free for hunting, racing, and polo, Rivy in over his head like a gambling-addicted university boy–and yet they were thirty-three. There is beginning to be a pattern of striking immaturity, which will be echoed in future posts on Sitwell, Sassoon, and Williamson. I hope that I’m not already falling victim to the most basic historiographical distortion of reading their youth through the prism of the war (for all this must stop, come August!) or falling into the easy stereotyping of all the scholarly fellows as prematurely wise and all the jocks idiots. It is surely more complicated than that… and we will surely have time to ponder, for youth is yet young.

In any event, the twins are fascinating historical specimens, and something of a fudge to our ground-rules here, in that they were hardly writers (although many letters survive). Let us nevertheless treat them as we do authors, weighing their words and deeds and acknowledging that while we value what we read we find in the men themselves despicable things and admirable things all in a hopeless muddle.  There is much to loathe or scoff at in what they said and did–to say nothing of what we choose to have them represent–but there are things to respect as well. So let’s trot out some of the admirable, which we will see more of shortly.

For one thing, they took heroism seriously, and did not flinch when “service” suddenly meant less polo and more going foremost into mortal danger. All this ran in the family, along with a level of achievement that can’t be absolutely and completely attributed to privilege: forebears had taken Spanish flagships, lost legs at Waterloo, possibly traded buffets with Cromwell, and presumably sucker-punched Saxons at Hastings; their father’s brother (and their guardian, for they were orphaned in their teens) was a field marshal and their mother’s brother (also a Grenfell–their parents were cousins) was an admiral, “a British sailor after the eighteenth-century pattern;” one elder brother “fell gloriously in the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman” and, as careful contemplation of their middle names will reveal (and their four older sisters are not, of course, enumerated!) their mother was both heroic and enormously accomplished, within the sphere permitted her.  Their cousin Julian will be sending along his first letter next month.

But let us get back to that eighteenth-centuryish uncle and gloriously fallen brother for a moment.  The twins are a bit older than most of our subjects, and, while as young men they seem unusually youthful, as social or historical specimens they are entirely too old. It is as if they belonged to the heyday of Victorian imperialism and not its Edwardian or Georgian after-image. After all, if their sailor uncle–whose stories included knocking down a cockney Turk in a Constantinople boxing match and befriending a missionary-munching island chieftain–seems like a character out of Defoe or Sterne or Voltaire (this is a stretch!) then they themselves should be thrown back as far as Thackeray. They were only in their early thirties, but both of their parents were born before Dickens had written a novel–these were belated Victorian chaps indeed. That an elder brother died in an actual cavalry charge with an actual lance[4] in a famous colonial battle bears witness to their generational age, and that he “fell gloriously” bears witness to how completely they belonged to the chivalric prewar worldview, the outlook and word-hoard that saw more continuity with the Middle Ages than the Age of Reason, that brought up Lancers before Maxim guns.[5]

So naturally they got a head start on the cataclysm, since they were too old-fashioned and Victorian for the new world, even before its bloody dawn. These are young men who were/would become junior officers, yet they belonged more to the cohort of the battalion, rather than platoon, commanders (four of their brothers would hold the rank of lieutenant-colonel or higher), the generation of fusty scribblers who propagandized and eulogized, not the poets would express misery and rage. There is a great deal to loathe about this world, and it will come in for a great deal of loathing. And yet… I’m not sure what it means to go to a famous old school but only seem to care about games and hounds, to kick around for fifteen years of early adulthood achieving distinction only as amateur athletes… and then go willingly to war. Perhaps they really did “learn” the “gift of leadership” at Eton, or, perhaps, like Sarpedon and Glaukos, they understood without thinking what the price of their lofty social position should be, and that it was bad form to hesitate when the bill came due. We will see them in action soon enough.

References and Footnotes

  2. I am so ashamed of the Seinfeldian allusion to their internal emigration from the pony-owning to the non-pony owning classes that I am placing it here. See below for the actual reference.
  3. Buchan, John. Francis and Riversdale Grenfell,  182-4.
  4. Well, he may not have carried a lance, as officers often took pride in not carrying the weapons assigned to their men, but lances were carried.
  5. See the discussion of Paul Fussell's influence here and elsewhere.