Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Gerald William (“Billy) Grenfell (1890 – 1915) – British soldier poet.

With thanks to Poet/Historian Becky Bishop for all her help 

The Honourable Gerald William Grenfell, known as Billy, was born in London on 29th March 1890. His parents were William Henry Grenfell, who became first Baron Desborough, and his wife, Ethel Anne Priscilla, nee Fane, daughter of the diplomat and poet The Hon. Julian Henry Charles Fane.  Billy and his elder brother Julian (1888 - 1915) had a sister, Monica (1893 – 1972), a brother, Ivo George Grenfell (1898 - 1926) and a sister, Alexandra Imogen Clare (1905 – 1969).

Educated at Eton College, Billy went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he won the Craven scholarship and was awarded his 'Blue' for tennis.

Although he had planned a legal career, Billy volunteered for service shortly after the outbreak of war and was gazetted as a Second Lieutenant into the 8th Rifle Brigade on 12th September 1914.  He was posted to France in May 1915.

As an officer, Billy was able to inspire his men and also to remain popular with all ranks.  He was killed at Hooge, West Flanders, Belgium on 30th July 1915, leading a counter attack in the face of heavy machine gun fire. His body was buried where he fell and Billy has no known grave but is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres. It was reported that in that particular battle the battalion lost 20 officers and more than 500 men in fourteen hours.

Billy’s  elder brother, The Hon. Julian Henry Francis Grenfell DSO, died after being wounded on 26th May 1915 and his younger brother, Ivo George Winfred Grenfell, who served in the Grenadier Guards during WW1, died after a car accident in 1926. Their sister, Monica, was a Red Cross nurse in France and Britain during WW1. Their cousins, the twins Francis Octavius Grenfell VC and Riversdale Nonus Grenfell, were both killed during the war in 1915 and 1914 respectively.

According to several sources, this is the only poem that Billy wrote:

“To John” * by William Grenfell

O heart-and-soul and careless played

Our little band of brothers,

And never recked the time would come

To change our games for others.

It's joy for those who played with you

To picture now what grace

Was in your mind and single heart

And in your radiant face.

Your light-foot strength by flood and field

For England keener glowed;

To whatsoever things are fair

We know, through you, the road;

Nor is our grief the less thereby;

O swift and strong and dear, good-bye.

* (The Hon. John Manners)

From “The Muse in Arms a collection of war poems for the most part written in the field of action” Edited by Edward Bolland Osborn (1867-1938) was published by John Murray, London in 1917.

Sources: Dictionary of National Biography 1901 - 1911 and De Ruvigny's Roll of Honour 1914-1918.



The photograph is reproduced from: Cameos of the Western Front; Salient Points Four by Tony Spagnoly & Ted Smith. Leo Cooper, publisher