In the late winter of 1916, as the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Brigade headed for France without him, Will Grummett began Officer’s Training. I wonder if he tried to reverse the whole process? Knowing what he did about the military, I am sure that, while he may have thought about it, he thought better of it, and simply got on with the business of trying to become an officer in the British Army.
By February of 1916, officer candidates in the British Army were being assigned to Training Battalions as part of a new program. The duration of the training was four and one half months. Details regarding the curriculum could not be found nor could the exact training location. It would seem Will entered the program as one of the first of the Officer Training Battalion classes just as they began in February of 1916 (The Long, Long Trail: The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918 website). Upon graduation, four and one half months later, Will was given a probationary commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. This last fact was duly recorded in the London Gazette on July 7, 1916.
During this period, from the time his former commander, Captain E.L. Knight annotated his letter providing permission for him to apply for a commission (See Post #3, February) to October of 1916, there is a perplexing gap in Will’s personal records. In subsequent installments of this narrative, I will make reference to training notebooks, order sheets and, of course, the photos to piece the story together. Of his time in training, there is no documentation of any kind. Add to this that the purchase of the camera had not yet taken place and the available information about the military aspects of this period in England becomes quite thin. The only wartime photos are studio portraits Will had taken in his uniform as a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant (two poses, one with hat on (see above), one with hat off (see below)) which he must have sent to his parents. Fortunately, insight into this period comes to us from photos and letters received after the war from a very special family.
While he was training, Will formed a friendship with a fellow would be officer named Grantley Le Chavetois. Le Chavetois had been working as a School Master at St. Olaves Grammar School, London, prior to enlisting. He was three years older (born 1888) than Will and probably seemed older since he had his career well underway. Le Chavetois was keenly interested in tales of pioneering and upon finding out that Will was a farmer from Ontario, it is likely that he saw an opportunity for some first hand information. I imagine, that through conversations about Will’s home and life, they got to know one another and became friends. On at least one occasion Will stayed with the Le Chavetois’ in their London home. He met, and spent some time with Grantley’s family, his mother, Mrs. Minnie Le Chavetois, his sister Ida, and a group of close family, friends and relatives.
Following their training and probationary commissions, Will was assigned to the 10th division of the Norfolk Regiment and posted to a base at Harwich, Essex, to await deployment. His friend, Le Chavetois, was assigned to the 22nd battalion London Regiment and was posted to active duty in Palestine.
Sadly, Le Chavetois was wounded by an enemy sniper’s bullet on November 7 of 1917 and eventually succumbed to the wound, dying in January of 1918. At the time he was wounded, Le Chavetois’ Brigade was pinned down by enemy fire, and he had volunteered to try to get a message through the lines to Battalion command in an effort to prevent remaining units from suffering a similar fate. Le Chavetois had recently been promoted in the field to the rank of Captain: no small achievement in so short a period of time on active service. His body was returned to England and is interred at Camberwell Old Cemetery, London. He is remembered to this day at St. Olaves Grammar School (he was both student and teacher there) through the student community service programme, The Le Chavetois Society.
Despite Grantley Le Chavetois death, or perhaps at least partly because of it, Will kept in touch with his family following the War. Yearly, and sometimes twice in a year, for over a decade, Will and Mrs. Le Chavetois corresponded with a card or letter. It’s fairly clear that the Le Chavetois family made a lasting impression on Will and in turn, he made a very similar impression on them; becoming almost part of the family in a very short period of time. The terms of endearment used by Mrs. Le Chavetois when referring to Will in her letters, are testimony to what must have been a very significant emotional bond. For example, in the response of June 16, 1921 Mrs. Le Chavetois opens with,
“Dear Will, you never need think I, “have given you up”, for that will never happen and I shall not think you have forgotten me if you do not write, but only that you are busy.”
And, from January, 15 of 1923
…I did not think you had forgotten me or that you will ever stop thinking of the three of us, you are not that sort.”
By 1928 Mrs. Le Chavetois writes that,
“It is so nice to keep in touch with old friends, and I think I may call you that now. You seem a link between dear Grantley and myself.”
The relationship appears to have been founded on a fortnight’s stay at the Le Chavetois home in London, either during or directly following Will and Grantley’s officer training. By this time, Will had been away from home for over a year and entirely in military surroundings. It’s not hard to see why this respite would have meant so much to him. The Le Chavetois family were to a person engaging, intelligent and educated. Mrs. Le Chavetois was a school teacher whose first language was French and both Grantley and Ida had Masters degrees in the Arts. I can imagine Will enjoying the change in conversation and the family atmosphere.
In a letter of January 6 of 1928, Mrs. Le Chavetois refers longingly to that period of furlough, when her son and his friend were with her at the family home, “49, The Gardens” in the London suburb of East Dulwich,
“It is just ten years since those happy days when Grantley was home, and my imagination re-lives all of that wonderful fortnight.”
During those two weeks, based on Mrs. Le Chavetois familiar treatment of both people and places throughout her letters, the family, with Will very tightly in tow, engaged in a lot of visiting, probably dinner parties and get-togethers, and short trips to friends and relatives in the country. In the letters, Mrs Le Chavetois frequently updates Will – without a thought for preamble or background – on the doings of Grantley’s friends and colleagues from St. Olaves: Mr Kingdom and Mr. Pearse, both fellow teaching masters and Mr. Rushbrooke the Head Master. We are introduced to Mrs. Huxley and Miss Huxley, mother and daughter, both friends of Mrs. Le Chavetois and are updated in the letters at intervals on their health and fortunes.
From Mrs. Le Chavetois letter of June 16, 1921,
“Mr. Kingdom, who has left St. Olaves and is now headmaster of the Wyggerston Grammar School, the most important school in Leicester…”
“Mr. Pearse has bought a plot of land in the country, and has a hut there. So, as Miss Huxley could not join me, I went alone and spent the week-end there. It was quite a new experience, lighting my fire in the open, and boiling the kettle out-of-doors, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
“Next year Miss Huxley will have retired, so she will be able to take her holidays when she wishes.”
January 15, 1923
“Mr Rushbrooke has given up the Headmastership of St. Olaves and is now travelling in Spain and Algeria. I have missed him this Christmas as I usually have my Christmas dinner with him…”
“Mrs. Huxley will be 92 if she lives till next month.”
“Miss Huxley retired from school and so has been able to nurse her mother , but it has been a great strain for her.”
January 6, 1927
“Mr. Pearse is still at St. Olaves. Very few of the Staff now remain and it is altered since Mr. Rushbrooke’s time..
“I wonder if you know that our good and dear friend Mr. Rushbrooke passed away last January. We do miss him so much…Such a lot of sunshine passed out of many lives when he went. I love to think of the meeting between him and his boys. So many were killed in the war, and he grieved for everyone.”
At times the people and reported events seem to have come straight from the pages of a novel by Trollope or E.M. Forster. This sense is a product of the time, I suppose, but more so of Mrs. Le Chavetois wonderful prose with which she creates these fulsome little vignettes. Rarely are we given much more than a passing reference to any one of the persons mentioned and yet those snippets seem to be enough to give us a complete picture of the people Will met and got to know.
Will came to know and to care for Grantley’s sister Ida as well, and with each letter to Mrs. Le Chavetois following the war, he asks how she is coping and what she is up to. Ida appears to have been very close to her brother and his death must have had a profound impact upon her. Certainly, Grantley was deeply grieved by Mrs. Le Chavetois, as the letters testify, with a sense of loss so significant that her view of it seems never to alter from the first letter to the last.
From her letter of January, 1923
“…as time goes on, I miss Grantley more. It doesn’t seem possible that 5 years can have gone since he went. I so long to see him and to hear his voice.
and January, 1927
“It does not seem possible that our Grantley can have been away nine years…This was just the time he was home and I am living it all over again. I console myself that it is nine years nearer the grand meeting.”
It is not unrealistic to suggest that the effect of Grantley’s death on his sister, Ida, could have been as profound or perhaps more so, particularly if it was combined with the loss of other young men that she may have known, to the War. This might help to explain why, as Mrs Le Chavetois informs us in the letter of July of 1921, that Ida has taken vows and become a Nun. It would seem that Will already knew this since Mrs Le Chavetois doesn’t see any reason to provide the background with this revelation. What she does provide is her feeling of loss and surprise at her daughter’s decision and a description of her changing personality as she commits herself to her new life. From her letter of May 1921 Mrs. Le Chavetois writes telling Will of Ida’s new life,
“Their life is such and their sentiments and vows such that they do not display much of themselves, as to what they like or not. They seem to have given up free will and thought entirely. It is strange and I cannot completely realise it, and am continually coming up against it, and in my letters, putting my foot into it. It seems so unnatural, and I often feel, though loving her still as her mother, as if I have now no child.”
From the first to the last letter Mrs. Le Chavetois includes a brief report on Ida’s situation and well-being.
“Ida is not over strong, very thin. They work hard, and I do not think, take enough rest.”
“She (Ida) was not very well when she came home, and her thinness distressed me, but she says she is better”
Mrs. Le Chavetois explains that Ida’s life is completely regimented, allowing just three weeks in any year when she could leave the religious community. In one instance, in the letter of May of 1928, Mrs. Le Chavetois tells Will of a recent visit,
“At the beginning of April I went to stay near her at Warminster. As it was Easter holidays the Mother set her free to be with me when possible.”
I think the choice of the phrase “set her free” sums up Mrs. Le Chavetois perspective on the institution to which her daughter had committed herself.
I tried to find out anything I could about Ida (middle name Marie), beyond what the letters relate, but found only a few facts. She received her BA in 1907 and her MA in 1910 from Kings College London. Her thesis, submitted for the MA is entitled, “A Study of Gawayne Douglas’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.” To me, these pieces of information suggest a couple of things about her character. First, it is no small accomplishment to get an MA but to get it in the early 1900’s she would have had to have had the brains, the drive and the ability to put up with turn of the century attitudes and the institutional barriers put in the way of women in a largely male dominated world.
Ida’s choice of the Aeneid as the focus of her Master’s work may serve to support these speculations. The Aeneid is a Roman epic poem in the manner of the Iliad and the Odyssey, written by Publius Virgilius Maro, or simply, Virgil. In that poem, among other things, are important female characters portrayed as the equals of men, possessing heroic qualities similar to the central hero, Aeneas. Dido, Queen of Carthage, is a strong, intelligent and independent leader of her city. She begins to fall in love with Aeneas but it is a love on equal terms not a submission. And there is, Camilla, a warrior woman, quite similar in character to Perseus or Achilles, who squares off in battle with the Trojans (Aeneas is a Trojan). In the face of Camilla’s armed prowess, the Trojans area at a loss and must make use of subterfuge to finally defeat her. I am guessing that Ida admired these portrayals and they were an important counterpoint to her likely circumstances: an antidote to the prevailing attitude of English society which recognized few rights for women to fashion their own lives and even less should they marry.
Finally, the Aeneid, whatever else it is, is a romance. You only need to read a brief passage from the poem to get what I mean, (In this passage Dido, Queen of Carthage speaks to her sister about her growing feelings for Aneas)
“Much did she muse on the hero’s nobility, and much on his family’s fame. His look, his words had gone to her heart and lodged there: she could get no peace from love’s disquiet. The morrow’s morn had chased from heaven the dewy darkness, was carrying the sun’s torch far and wide over the earth. When almost beside herself, she spoke to her sister, her confidante: Anna, sister, why do these nerve wracking dreams haunt me? This man, this stranger I’ve welcomed into my house – what of him? How gallantly he looks, how powerful in chest and shoulders! I really do think, and have reason to think that he is heaven born.”
You don’t willingly spend a year or two with that heady stuff and remain unaffected. When you take all of this into consideration, and with what the letters say about her mother’s character, you can easily imagine Ida as an intelligent, highly independent, and even slightly romantic person.
Mrs. Le Chavetois is not forthcoming with reasons for Ida’s decision to take holy vows, but her personal reaction and description of her daughter at the time suggests that Ida’s reasons were not simply because she wanted to “serve God”. I say this because the change was so startling to Mrs. Le Chavetois, so seemingly unlike the daughter she knew. Why then, this radical departure from the lively, intelligent, independent woman who spent years studying an epic romantic poem? I can only surmise that it was a way to try to live with the anguish, and quite possibly the guilt (I imagine Ida as the kind of person who would question why she was still alive when so many had died) at the loss of her brother, and, I am guessing here, many friends and acquaintances in the war. By turning off those things that made her Ida, and focusing much of her being on others, perhaps she found some distance from the things that caused her torment.
The casualties of this total war were many and varied.
Mrs. Le Chavetois mourned the loss of her son for twenty seven years and struggled with her separation from her daughter. In her own words, from the next to final letter from 1928,
“…I am keeping fairly well, considering that I am in my 70th year. I visit a good deal, my friends are very kind, but I do not like living alone, and miss my family every day. I try to be content, and am generally so, but there are times when I repine a bit. I know it is wrong, and try not to do it and the phase soon passes. I think I miss my children more and more as time goes on…I will close now, dear Will. Thank you for your letter and the photos. I like to imagine the children. My kind regards to the good little mother, and love to the three Graces and yourself.”
Mrs Le Chavetois died in 1945. Although the letters to Will seem to cease at the end of the 1920’s my guess is that this was because Mrs. Le Chavetois responses were lost or, perhaps, because she was unable to respond. I am willing to bet that she received a note from Will at regular intervals up until the day she died.
Ida Le Chavetois died in 1972. She remained a Nun to her death.
It i estimated that 25 million people died in the War including both civilians and soldiers. By 1925 most countries that fought had restored their economies to levels of production beyond those achieved pre-war, and the material destruction from the war had been all but cleared away. Battlegrounds were fading away under the work of builders and farmers. The historian, A.J.P. Taylor, has suggested that on the whole the war left no significant, lasting scar, despite the loss of so many. This conclusion is, of course, only possible when one looks at a tragedy from a very great distance.
Next installment coming in April, A Passage to India