“I adore war. It is like a picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy. No one grumbles at one for being dirty. I’ve only had my boots off once in the last ten days, and only washed twice.”
Captain the Hon. Julian Grenfell, writing to his mother, 27 October 1914
That’s the trouble with history: it’s so easy to project our own modernity into our subjects. We forget that in an era unredeemed by antibiotics and widespread vaccination, death ran rampant through the pattern of one’s ordinary life, accepted and acceptable; we can’t quite grasp that, to men like Julian Grenfell, the onset of war represented a breaking-free from the conventions and hypocrisies of civilized Edwardian society, into the animal purity of battle. Before the muddy stalemate of trench warfare, before the pitiless slaughter of the Somme, war meant escape.
Not that Grenfell was particularly conventional. His true nature lurked behind a thicket of contradictions: he was born the eldest son of a blue-blooded family, but his father’s title was newly-made and the family could scarcely make ends meet. He was tall, good-looking, vigorous; yet he often fell dangerously ill with some inscrutable malady or another, and experienced a profound nervous breakdown near the end of his Oxford career. He swaggered with his parents through the highest social circles, but remained essentially a loner, and a rebellious one at that.
He was funny. Having left home for boarding school at the usual age of ten, he had mastered the art of entertainment-by-letter, and the surviving examples are stuffed with droll little gems. Describing a 1912 regimental visit by the feckless Crown Prince of Germany, Grenfell observes, “We are all quite weary with bowing and scraping… my democratic feelings arouse themselves at 11pm; by 12 I am a socialist and by 1am an anarchist.” Later, narrating a trip to the cinema with a boneheaded companion: “Booth could not understand, the words being by the nature of the performance left for the intelligence of the audience to supply. So I kept up a running commentary: Booth – What are they doing now, eh? Self – Well you see, they are trying to kill him; the cowboys are not sitting on him to try to keep him warm. Booth – Why have they put that rope around his neck, eh what? Self – They are going to hang him with the rope. That is why they have put it round his neck.”
Though he pursued his fair share of girls, aristocratic and otherwise, he had only one full-blown affair, with a ravishing married countess who seems to have seduced him in classic style the year before his departure for India. He doubtless made a frustrating lover in any case, with his restlessness and private sensitivities and his passion for brutal outdoor sports that necessarily excluded women: stalking deer and shooting birds and pigsticking (don’t ask). The modern aversion to killing things would have been incomprehensible to Grenfell. Death was an inescapable part of nature; he loved nature, and never felt closer to it than when he was engaged in its primeval cycle of destruction and rebirth. His most famous poem, Into Battle, captures this sensibility with exquisite precision:
“…And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.
The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees a newer birth;
And when his fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fullness after dearth…
The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they –
As keen of sound, as swift of sight.
The blackbird sings to him ‘Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you will not sing another;
Grenfell wrote those lines on Tuesday, 29 April 1915; on 13 May, near Ypres, he took a shell splinter in the skull while prowling the battlefield for signs of enemy movement. He died two weeks later in a field hospital in Boulogne, surrounded by his family, and was buried in the damp earth overlooking the town. The Times ran his death announcement the next day, along with Into Battle, which duly found itself a quiet corner of the Western literary canon in which to slumber the decades away.
There are no more Julian Grenfells alive today; for good or ill, they have been squashed into extinction under the ironic weight of the twentieth century. It’s now impossible, or nearly so, to be both a man of thought and sentiment and a man of action: a first-rate poet and a first-rate cavalry officer. Grenfell had his faults, but he had keen perception, and thoughtless courage, and the brash humility to revel in the notion of dying for an obscure and ephemeral ideal – the more ephemeral, one suspects, the better. He died a hero, as men of his age were raised to do.
Note: I am particularly indebted to Nicholas Mosley’s classic 1976 biography Julian Grenfell: His Life and the Times of His Death for its insight into Grenfell’s elusive character.