Julian Grenfell: Oarsman, Poet, Soldier

During Remembrance Week in the U.K., which has just passed, among the poems that are read you will find the famous ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen and ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae, but rarely Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’, which nowadays is totally ignored, although it can still be found in anthologies of war poetry. The two first stanzas of ‘Into Battle’ read:

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 the 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 fullness after dearth.

The problem that scholars and ordinary readers of poetry have these days with Grenfell is also what he wrote in a letter in October 1914 about the Great War: “I adore war. It is like a big picnic but without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I have never been more well or more happy.” Seven months later, on 13 May 1915, Grenfell was wounded by a shell-splinter. He died on 26 May with his parents and his sister Monica at his bedside. The following day, his poem ‘Into Battle’ was published in The Times together with the announcement of his death. Two months later, on 30 July, Julian’s younger brother Billy was killed in action one mile away from where Julian had been wounded.

Julian Grenfell, who was born on 30 March 1888, was the eldest son of William Henry Grenfell (on the left) later Lord Desborough, a famous oarsman and sportsman. Julian was educated at Eton and then went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he proved to be a happy-go-lucky chap, who excelled at writing poetry and essays, and at different sports, including rowing. It is said that he was a ‘golden boy’ who socialised with friends and dons alike, but also that he could be a bully. However, at the end of his studies Julius had a breakdown, which led to a poor degree. After Oxford, Julius joined the 1st Royal Dragoons, stationed in India and later South Africa.

The information about his rowing career at Balliol College is sparse, and if you find any it is confusing: “[Julian was] rowing in the college eight, which won the Wyfold cup at Henley in 1909”. At the time when Julius was rowing, the Wyfold Challenge Cup at Henley was rowed in coxless fours. Looking into if he was in fact rowing at Henley in 1909, Sir Theodore Cook shed some light in his Henley Races (1919). Julius’s Balliol four rowed in the second heat of the Visitors’ Challenge Cup against First Trinity, Cambridge. The Balliol crew, which was stroked and steered by M.B. Higgins, had problems with their course and went into the piles within their first rowed minute. First Trinity was already far ahead, when the Balliol boat got clear. However, the Oxford crew continued to steer badly and came over to the Berks station. The Cambridge crew won easily in 8 min. 4 sec.

Harry Blackstaffe of Vesta RC

The Balliol crew was also rowing in the Wyfold Challenge Cup, where the crew – in addition to Julius in the bow-seat and Higgins on stroke were V.A Barrington-Kennett in second-seat and J.W. Heinemann in third-seat – did not have any difficulties defeating Vestra RC; on the second-seat in the metropolitan crew was the 40-year-old veteran Harry Blackstaffe, who the previous year had become the Olympic champion in the single sculls. In their next heat, the Balliol crew, although again steering poorly, managed to get a lead at the Island against Molesey BC. At Fawley, the Oxford boat had a lead of a length and a half and won easily in 8 min. 3 sec. In the final heat, Balliol met another Oxford college crew, Christ Church. Both boats got a good start and were level at the quarter-mile post. At one point, Balliol was close to the booms, but was quickly back on the right course. At Fawley, both crews were in midstream, almost clashing oars. “The race was a good one to watch, the crews being dead level at the three-quarter-mile signal”, Sir Theodore writes. When Balliol put on a spurt, Christ Church tried to follow, but made some steering errors which led to falling behind and getting Balliol’s wash. Having another race later in the day, Christ Church gave up, and Balliol won easily in 7 min. 44 sec.

After joining the Army, Julius continued to write poems. In the summer of 1914, he was toying with the idea of leaving the Army, but when the war broke out in August the same year, he decided to stay and two months later he was in France. Julius was promoted to the rank of Captain, was mentioned in dispatches, and won the DSO. He declined a job as aide-de-camp as his regiment was short of front-line officers. From his hands came a light poem, ‘Prayer for Those on the Staff’ which reveals his humour:

Fighting in mud, we turn to Thee
In these dread times of battle, Lord,
To keep us safe, if so may be,
From shrapnel snipers, shell and sword.

Yet not on us – (for we are men
Of meaner clay, who fight in clay) –
But on the Staff, the Upper Ten,
Depends the issue of the day.

The Staff is working with its brains
While we are sitting in the trench;
The Staff the universe ordains
(Subject to Thee and General French).

God, help the Staff – especially
The young ones, many of them sprung
From our high aristocracy;
Their task is hard, and they are young.

O lord, who mad’st all things to be
And madest some things very good
Please keep the extra ADC
From horrid scenes, and sights of blood…

He was buried in the military cemetery on the hills above Boulogne in France. Go to Julian Grenfell’s War Diary here. See also HTBS’s War Memorials.

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