Monday, 29 December 2014

Contents of the old oak chest revealed - Part 1

Diana and I are staying with my parents in their lovely home in Criccieth, north Wales. I'm in the sitting room with a stunning view of the sunrise, looking out over Tremadog Bay towards the Rhinog mountains. Yesterday we took a drive around Snowdonia National Park, lunching in Beddgelert before returning at dusk to see this amazing sunset, silhouetting Criccieth castle which was built in the 1300s. This is a beautiful but little known part of Britain. My mother's parents built a holiday home not far from here in the 1930s which we visited every summer when I was growing up. When my father took early retirement in 1978 he and my mother moved to the farm Rhosgyll Fawr (meaning big rough pasture) which they'd bought some years earlier and restored to working order. Finally they settled in the town, building themselves this house where they are seeing out their closing years.
Christmas brought with it the usual slew of presents, including the book Blood and Thunder by Alexandra Churchill. It's the story of World War I seen through the eyes and experiences of Old Etonians who fought in the war. To quote the dust jacket, "Thousands of Old Etonians flocked to the front, with many of them stepping out of the classroom, into the army and onto the battlefields before they had left their teenage years behind. Over 1 200 of them would not return."

Among them were three brothers - Roger, Hugh and Eustace Chance - the first two surviving the war, the last falling just six weeks before the Armistice. Roger was my father's father, Hugh my mother's - yes, my parents are first cousins. (My family have a history of in-breeding - see our abbreviated family tree on my website here. Two of my cousins are first, second and third cousins through various unlikely connections).

Roger, a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Dragoon Guards, gets a mention early in Churchill's book, galloping into battle, sword draw, at the First Battle of Mons in September 1914. He was promoted to Captain and Regimental Adjutant in 1916 and later transferred to the Rifle Brigade. He was awarded the Military Cross and was twice mentioned in dispatches. In April 1917 he was badly wounded under mortar fire, losing his right leg below the knee so saw no further action.

This photograph comes from Hugh's collection and shows, seated, his father George and mother Kathleen, Roger (standing left), sister Katharine and Eustace. They sent it to him as a Christmas card while he was a POW in Germany.

Hugh, three years younger, trained as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and knotched up over 30 hours flying time in Martinsyde G100 "Elephant" bi-planes before going down behind German lines in 1916, spending the rest of the war as a POW. He made the best of this time, picking up some German and Russian, feeding his naughty sense of humour by collecting a bagful of rude jokes which he enjoyed retelling to his grandchildren years later.

Eustace had only been on the front a few weeks, an officer in the Coldstream Guards, before he was killed in action, a devastating blow to his mother who wore black for many years afterwards.

Roused by this moving account of war I've been rummaging through an old oak chest packed full of memorabilia, scrap books and writings belonging to the three brothers and other deceased members of my family. There's Hugh's monograph, Subaltern's Saga, written in two parts. Part 1 describes his training as a pilot, enrollment into the Royal Flying Corps and early scrapes in the air before he was shot down and captured. The shortage of pilots meant he flew solo after only two and a half hours training duo. Part 2 deals with his time in the German POW camp. You can read them both here, on my cousin Henry Chance's blog.

Deeper down in the oak chest there's the very poignant telegram to my grandmother with news of Eustace's death, killed in action on the Western Front. Then the transcriptions of Roger's diary, starting with a holiday in Scotland in a house rented by JM Barrie (author of Peter Pan) for his adopted sons, the Llewellyn Davies's and their friends, before moving to his volunteering for active service.

Amongst Roger's possessions is an Eton school list from the Michaelmas term, 1908. He would have been fifteen then. Being a clever boy he was in the top form, alongside all the Kings Scholars of his year, including Aldous Huxley, and his best friend George Llewellyn Davies. Many years later, in his own handwriting, he noted who had died, and in which year, in 'the war to end all wars'. It makes for terrifying reading: 11 out of 35 boys were killed in action on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918.

Look no further for evidence that Britain lost the flower of its youth in this war. Young men from across the country fought and died for a cause - freedom from the German yoke - but at huge cost. Over 800 000 were killed. It was the same for Germany, too, and France, and Belgium, Austria and a host of European countries. The destructive power of war brought to an abrupt end to 100 years of relative peace (if you ignore the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars) in Europe. This year we commemorate its outbreak with a renewed determination to avoid the same fate.

Of course just 21 years after the Armistice Europe faced another even more evil enemy within - Hitler's Nazi Germany. As I continued rummaging through the oak chest I came across Roger's ring-side account of how this "diabolical genius" was allowed first to take over his country then get close to exerting his will over the entire continent. Chapter VI of his unpublished memoir, Some Men of my Time, From War to War, describes his meeting with Hitler while Chapter VIII recounts his time as Press Attache to the British embassy in Berlin at the time of the Munich agreement, which gave Britain false hope of avoiding another war with Germany.

Roger and his wife, Mary, spent several summer months in the early 1930s in the Bavarian Alps, lured by the medical skills of a certain Professor Franz Gerl who successfully treated Mary's troublesome thyroid. Another of Gerl's patients was Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler's deputy in the Nazi party. Though Roger was a socialist pacifist he and Hess got to know each other well and it was through Hess's efforts that Roger secured an audience with Hitler in September 1934 in Nuremberg.

Hitler saw some value in the meeting due to Roger's London connections which included Conservative Party leader and former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin - Roger was best man to Baldwin's son Oliver. He had only been elected Chancellor just over a year earlier and was trying to find ways of getting his views on the imperative of German expansion through to a wider audience. Roger could be a useful go between.

End of Part 1.

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