06 November 2013
Christopher Arnander, grandson of Lord Crawford, the only Cabinet-level politician to serve in the ranks in World War One, tells the story of his ancestor's war service and his engrossing wartime diaries. ...
World War One was an appalling experience for all those involved, combatants and civilians alike. Yet for many, despite the horror of it all, it had its satisfying side. People felt that they were doing something important in the ‘war to end all wars’, as they saw it – wrongly as it turned out. People readily adapted themselves and did great work in an unfamiliar environment. Mary Brandon, an American novelist, who ran a hospital in France, spoke of her real happiness in trying to save the lives of horribly wounded soldiers. The publisher and future Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, loved the army’s camaraderie and teamship. At the other end of society, for Private Percy Calkwell, a stretcher bearer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, it was ‘the adventure of a lifetime and I am all the better for it’.
Similar emotions affected Scotland’s premier earl, the 27th Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, who referred to his service in the RAMC as a ‘grim experience upon which I look back with infinite tenderness’ – a service which was in stark contrast to his life in the highest echelons of British social, industrial and political life. However, what is clear is how comfortable he felt with his comrades, all of a much different social class than his, and how happy and fulfilled he felt in his fairly humble, yet vital, work in the RAMC.
An unusual aspect of his war service was that he was the first peer to join the army in the ranks, rather than as an officer – almost unheard of in the stratified society of the time. He was also, at 43, well over the age for conscription. After 15 months service as a medical orderly in Hazebrouck, Flanders, in northern France, just behind the lines, he was recalled to London to resume his interrupted political career and join the cabinet as Minister of Agriculture in July 1916. It was a time of tremendous threat to Britain’s food supplies, because of the German submarine campaign, a disastrous wheat crop in America and the abandonment of tilling the land by farm workers enlisting in the British Army.
As Crawford was the only senior politician to serve ‘in the ranks’ during the conflict, he uniquely brought the values and experiences of Tommy, the average soldier, to the cabinet table.
Crawford was a considerable man of letters and culture. His published diaries, The Crawford Papers, covering most of his adult life from 1892 to his death in 1940, are regarded as among the most important sources for the political, cultural and social life of his era. However, they skimmed over his war service in Flanders, which were not central to the main themes of his civilian life. He was on the governing body of more than twenty cultural and and intelletual bodies, such as the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait gallery and others. He also chaired the committee that established the BBC as a public service, but declined its chairmanship.
His war diaries were written in very adverse circumstances. They are often hasty and incomplete jottings between his arduous duties of maintaining two operating theatres, fetching and caring for ill or wounded soldiers as they poured in, often 200 or 300 in a day. However, in the lulls between his work, his exhaustion, the socialising with his comrades and the avoidance of enemy action from the air, he sometimes had the opportunity to make more extensive entries in his diary. Of particular interest are his observations on the officers and nurses under whom he served, the political and military conduct of the war, the medical services and life in wartime France. It helped that he was a fluent French speaker, unlike most British officers and men who – no less than their descendants today – were disinclined to learn foreign languages.
His base was casualty clearing station number 12, a form of temporary hospital, about ten miles behind the front line. Here, ill or wounded soldiers received treatment before either being sent back to the front or being sent to a base hospital in France or – as Crawford makes clear they nearly all longed for – being sent home to UK or ‘Blighty’, as it was known to average soldiers, of whom Crawford was proud to be one.
Lord Crawford's war service diaries have recently been edited by a grandson, Christopher Arnander, and published by Pen & Sword Books under the title Private Lord Crawford’s Great War Diaries.