Balliol Writers of the First World War

To mark the centenary of the end of the First World War on 11 November 2018, Balliol Library created a display, drawn from across our Historic Collections, to commemorate the lives of Balliol members who took part in the Great War.

Over the course of four years, 900 members of College saw active service, 200 of whom were killed and a further 200 wounded.[1]

The novelist John Buchan, in his memoir Memory Hold-the-Door[2] characterised the Balliol generation which ‘flourished on the eve of the War’ as ‘a brilliant group’. We count among them poets, scholars, artists, musicians, journalists and statesmen. Their works, in such forms as poetry, drawings, reportage and letters, represent an important part of the Library’s collections and the College’s history.

The College War Memorial Book. Oxford, 1924 (Balliol Shelfmark: 88 d 13/10 and 88 d 13/11)

In addition to the War Memorial in the Chapel Passage, a two-volume book was produced by the College in 1924 to commemorate the Balliol members who died in the War. It contains an account and photograph of each, together with selections of their verse, musical notation and sketches. Among them are the poetry and sketches of Gerald Caldwell Siordet (1885–1917) who studied at Balliol from 1904–1909 and was killed near Kut, 9 February 1917. Balliol Library holds in its collection two editions of his work, which include the poems ‘Autumn 1914’ (first published in The Times, 13 November 1914) and ‘To the Dead’ (first published in The Times, 30 November 1915). The College War Memorial Book has been digitised and is available to view in full on our Flickr site.

college-war-memorial-book

The Minute Book of the Hanover Club. May 1911 — April 1913 (Institutional archives: Societies. 1.)

The Hanover Club was a University society in which many Balliol members were prominent, which aimed to ‘promote the course of good-feeling between Germany & England, by giving Englishmen and Germans in the university opportunities of meeting and discussing topics of interest & importance to both nations’ [p.1]. On the page shown we see a prophetic motion tabled for debate on 27 February 1912: ‘That under the present situation of European politics a rapprochement between England and Germany is an unrealistic ideal’. The motion was carried by 7 to 6.

Minutebook

Julian Grenfell: His Life and the Times of his Death by Nicholas Mosley. London, 1976 (Balliol Shelfmark: 81 e 25/2)

Pages from a Family Journal, 1888-1915 edited by Ethel Desborough. Eton, 1916 (Balliol Shelfmark: 81 e 25/1)

Into Battle by Julian Grenfell

The naked earth is warm with Spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s gaze glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze;

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 glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees to newer birth;
And find, when fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fulness after dearth.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their bright comradeship,
The Dog-Star, and the Sisters Seven,
Orion’s belt and sworded hip.

The woodland trees that stand together,
They stand to him each one a friend;
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridge’s end.

The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they,
As keen of ear, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him “Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing.
Sing well, for you may not sing another;
Brother, sing.”

In dreary doubtful waiting hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only Joy-of-Battle takes
Him by the throat and makes him blind,

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

Julian Grenfell’s (1888–1915, Balliol from 1906–1910) poem Into Battle features in a great many collections of WWI poetry. It was composed in April 1915 and published in The Times, 28 May 1915 (the same day his death-notice appeared in the paper). Indeed, many of the poems written by Balliol authors were first published in newspapers and biographies, written as they were by young men at the beginning of their careers. The original printing of the poem in The Times is available for Oxford University members to view via the University’s subscription to the Times Digital Archive. Also exhibited were: Julian Grenfell: His Life and the Times of his Death by Nicholas Mosley, and Pages from a Family Journal, 1888-1915 edited by Ethel Desborough, both from the Balliol Biographies Collection, which paint a picture of his time in College and at War.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart by Ronald Knox. London, 1920 (Balliol Shelfmark: 81 f 1a)

Achilles in the Trenches by Patrick Shaw-Stewart

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die:
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Against the Dardanelles;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
Shells and hells for me.

O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese:
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest and I know not—
So much the happier I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart (1888 –1917) studied at Balliol from 1907–1910.The first stanza of his poem Achilles in the Trenches (I saw a man this morning) has become a particularly resonant example of First World War writing and the poem has placed him in the canon of First World War poets, together with his friend and fellow Balliol alumnus, Julian Grenfell. It was composed on a blank page in his copy of A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (July 1915) and published for the first time in Patrick Shaw-Stewart (1920) by Ronald Knox, who was another of his Balliol contemporaries. The book, the first edition of which is in the Library’s collection, is chiefly a compilation of letters by Shaw-Stewart to his family and friends, detailing his observations of war, as well as his life and friends at Balliol.

The Diary of a Dead Officer: Being the Posthumous Papers of Arthur Graeme West. London, 1919 (Balliol Shelfmark: 81 f 6/3)

The Diary of a Dead Officer: Linocuts, Text Selection and Afterword by John Abell. Llandogo, 2014 (Balliol Shelfmark: 81 f 6/3a)

Arthur Graeme West (1891–1917) studied at Balliol from 1910–1914. He is particularly known for the posthumously published book, The Diary of a Dead Officer (1919), which consists of an introduction by the editor, Cyril Joad, extracts from West’s 1915–17 diary, and a handful of essays and poems. Poems like God, how I hate you, whose ‘prevailing mood is bitter, satirical’[3] provide a sharp contrast to works like Grenfell’s Into Battle seen earlier: ‘a paean celebrating the sensations and joys of the soldier about to enter combat’.[4] West’s pacifism has been further interpreted by the artist John Abell in a modern special edition with linocuts, numbered and signed by the artist. A copy was recently purchased by the Library as part of our continuing commitment to collect and make accessible the intellectual heritage of the College.

diary-of-a-dead-officer-14

diary-of-a-dead-officer-13
Linocut images by John Abell from Arthur Graeme West’s The Diary of a Dead Officer published by The Old Stile Press www.oldstilepress.com. Reproduced with their kind permission.

A Scholar’s Letters from the Front by Stephen Henry Hewett. London, 1918 (Balliol Shelfmark: 81 f 8)

The title of this work serves as a reminder of how recently some of these writers had left their academic lives at Balliol. Stephen Henry Philip Hewett (1893–1916) studied at Balliol from 1911–1914 and was then commissioned part-way into his fourth year. Balliol remains a strong presence in his letters, particularly in those addressed to the Tutors and friends he made here, such as the legendary Dean F. F. ‘Sligger’ Urquhart, who also wrote the foreword to the book, in which he remembers Hewett as a talented man of independent thought and creativity. He was reported missing and killed near High Wood, July 22, 1916.

Charles Lister: Letters and Recollections with a Memoir by his Father, Lord Ribblesdale. London, 1917 (Balliol Shelfmark: 81 e 27)

Charles Lister (1887-1915) studied at Balliol from 1906-1909 and was part of the circle including Shaw-Stewart and Grenfell. At Balliol he was known for ‘his generous enthusiasms, his reckless fun, his nervous breeziness of manner, his embarrassing conviction that every second person he met was a “good chap”, his bewildering organisations, his despairing jeremiads, his inexhaustible vitality’[5], the product of some of which resulted in him being rusticated.[6] Aside from this though, he was known for his practical Socialism during his time in Oxford: founding the Oxford branch of the Fabian Society and supporting a strike by women at the Clarendon Press. The exhibition included a volume of his letters and remembrances by others, published in 1917, now held in the Balliol Biographies Collection.

 

Disenchantment by C. E. Montague. London, 1968 (first published 1922) (Balliol Shelfmark: 1 f 31/3)

The Attack and Other Papers by R H Tawney. London, 1953 (Balliol Shelfmark: 81 e 16/3A)

The documents in this display convey a variety of sentiments towards the war, from enthusiasm to stoicism to dissension. Charles Edward Montague (1867–1928), journalist, novelist and essayist, studied at Balliol from 1885–1889. Montague was opposed to the First World War prior to its commencement. Once it started, however, he came to believe that it was right to support the war effort in the hope of a swift resolution. In 1914, Montague was 47, which was well over the age for enlistment. Yet in order to enlist, he dyed his white hair black to fool the Army into accepting him. The essay collection Disenchantment (1922), the 1968 edition of which is displayed here, was one of the first prose works to strongly criticise the manner in which the First World War was fought. A pivotal text in the development of literature concerning the War, it criticises the British press’ coverage of the war, and the conduct of British generals.

R H Tawney (1880-1962), historian and political thinker, who matriculated to Balliol in 1899 and was elected to a Balliol Fellowship in 1918, was another voice to raise objections to the War. In an essay entitled ‘Some Reflections of a Soldier’ first published in 1916 in The Nation and later reprinted in his book The Attack, a copy of which was in the exhibition, he debunked the myth of the glorified soldier which had been popularised in the press.

 

The Souvenir ‘A’ Coy, No. 6 Officers’ Cadet Battalion, Balliol College, Oxford, 1917-1918 (Balliol Shelfmark: 1 d 11)

Record of ‘A’ Company No. 6 Officers’ Cadet Battalion

souvenir

Although the numbers of students at Balliol were greatly reduced in the War years, the College was far from empty. Between 1914-1918 around 3,000 members of the armed forces passed through, quartered here or on short training courses

The Balliol Authors Collection holds two numbers of The Souvenir, a journal produced by ‘A’ Company No. 6 Officers’ Cadet Battalion. While none of the officer cadets who resided and trained at Balliol during WWI matriculated into the college, these journals – which contain poetry, visual caricatures and illustrations, anecdotes, articles and group photographs conjure a real sense of College life in the First World War, a unique period during which a small body of Fellows and students would have been rubbing shoulders with the soldiery.

Also displayed was a record of ‘A’ Company No. 6 Officers’ Cadet Battalion, which contains invaluable details concerning the officers’ training regimes, accommodation, mealtimes, chapel services etc. while they resided and trained at the College. You can find more images from ‘The Souvenir’ on our Flickr pages.

No Patched-Up Peace by Herbert Henry Asquith (Privately printed, Ely, 1916) (Balliol Shelfmark: 1 a 5)

The Volunteer and Other Poems by Herbert Dixon Asquith (London, 1917) (Balliol Shelfmark: 1 b 174)

Herbert Henry Asquith (1852–1928), British Prime Minister 1908-1916, studied at Balliol from 1870–1874, and was a Fellow at the College from 1874–1882. In August 1914, Asquith took the United Kingdom into the First World War, but resigned amid political conflict in December 1916, and was succeeded by his War Secretary, David Lloyd George. Various speeches and writings presented to Balliol College Library can be found in the Balliol Authors Collection such as No Patched-Up Peace, a reproduction of a speech given in the House of Commons in October 1916 in which he states a resolve to see through stated policies.

H H Asquith’s son, Herbert Dixon Asquith (1881–1947), a poet and novelist, also studied at Balliol from 1900–1904. Asquith was greatly affected by his service with the Royal Artillery in World War One, as can be inferred from his powerful war poetry and fiction such as The Volunteer, the second edition of which was on display.

Herbert Dixon survived the War, but his older brother, Raymond Asquith, was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

 

Wheels, 1919 edited by Edith Sitwell, Osbert Sitwell and Sacheverell Sitwell (Oxford, 1919) (Balliol Shelfmark: 1 b 165/31)

Another important piece of WWI literature with a Balliol connection is the 1919 edition of the modernist poetry anthology, Wheels. It is in this issue that several of Wilfred Owen’s poems were published together for the first time, having been requested by the editors several months before. In the time between request and publication, Owen was killed in action, a week before the Armistice was signed[7]. The issue is dedicated to his memory. Owen himself did not attend a university, but the editor and writer Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988) was up at Balliol in Hilary and Trinity terms 1919 and the Library holds a collection of his works, including an exciting recent donation by the family of Sitwell scholar Gordon W. Bennett, to be catalogued by the Library in a project next year.

Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”

 

Items in this display have been drawn primarily from two rich Library collections: The Balliol Biographies Collection (housed at the Historic Collections Centre at St Cross Church) and the Balliol Authors’ Collection (housed in the Library Stack at Broad Street), as well as the College’s institutional archive and main collections.

For more photographs and information on Balliol in the War, see also our Flickr album. Please contact the Library if you would like to consult any of this material further.

Text by Lauren Dolman (Assistant Librarian) and Alexander Blaney (3rd year, English Language and Literature).

References

Poems by Julian Grenfell, Patrick Shaw-Stewart and Wilfred Owen: Public Domain

[1] John Jones, Balliol College: A History, 2nd ed. revised (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 247.

[2] John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1941), 52.

[3] I. M. Parsons (ed.), Men who March Away: Poems of the First World War (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968), 20.

[4] John H. Johnston, English Poetry of the First World War: A Study in the Evolution of Lyric and Narrative Form (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964), 38.

[5] Ronald Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart (London: William Collins Sons & Co, 1920), 41.

[6] John Jones, Balliol College: A History, 2nd ed. revised (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 231.

[7] “Poems of Wilfred Owen, published in Wheels,” British Library, accessed November 8, 2018, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/~/link.aspx?_id=FFB06D8190B34E8EAC588E65C3C7B02B&_z=z

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