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Feather's Miscellany: John Trefusis

John Waddington-Feather recalls his time in the Army, and also the military career of John Trefusis who was in action in the Boer war.

If nothing else, being conscripted into National Service for two years to serve in the forces, which was compulsory for my generation, helped break down social barriers and eventually in the 1960s an outmoded class-system in Britain which was based on wealth, privilege and birth. As a result, wealth became more widely and justly spread; but, alas, another class-system evolved over the following decades based entirely on wealth. The nouveau riche now rule the roost with their own new brands of vulgarity and brashness. The current banking debacle is proof of the greed which beset the West in the dying years of the twentieth century.

Once more, to be poor is to be looked down upon, as in Victorian times, and social status is gauged by the size of your wallet. And this new class is heartless, lacking compassion for the failures of the new order. Wealth has divided the country. By and large, the wealthy have become as ignorant of the lifestyle of the poor as much as the aristocrats of the old order.

Entering the army as a National Serviceman came as a shock, but once I’d recovered I found the experience fulfilling. I know others didn’t, but I did. It added a new dimension to my life, meeting new people I’d otherwise never have met, and going to places I’d have never gone to. I was transformed from a rather smug, young graduate into a man. Entering the army, I grew up rapidly and my growing up at that time was influenced by the people I shared my life with in the army.

When I said I grew up in the army, it wasn’t in the horrible way my mentor, J. B. Priestley, did when he entered the army as a youngster in September 1914. His horrific experience of carnage in the trenches in Belgium and France was in no way the lot of the National Serviceman, even those who saw action in Korea, Malaya and elsewhere. There were skirmishes going on throughout the globe all during my army service as the old British Empire geared down, but not on the scale of the World Wars. By comparison with Priestley’s army experience mine was genteel, almost civilised.

Mine began one fine September morning in 1954, exactly forty years after Priestley’s entering the army. I’d received my calling-up papers some months earlier and had graduated from Leeds University in June. To fill in the time between graduation and going into the army, I did a spell as a ward orderly in a T.B. sanatorium on the hillside above Ilkley. The experience there opened my eyes to life. Nursing the very ill and dying was also part of my growing-up. There were youngsters my own age, twenty one, coughing away their lives before they’d hardly started living. Nursing them, then laying out their bodies after death was a sickening but salutary experience. I began to value my own life and youth more and to count my blessings.

Army life started at Waterloo Station in London as I waited clutching my ticket for the train to Aldershot to begin basic training in the Royal Army Service Corps. I’d stayed overnight at a Y.M.C.A hostel then made my way to Waterloo Station not knowing what was in store for me. Even crossing London was an adventure for a provincial like myself. What it must have been like for recruits coming to the capital for the first time from the valleys of Wales, the Scottish Highlands or the remoter parts of Northern Ireland I can’t begin to imagine.

Commuters swarmed past us like ants, heedless and uncaring of the apprehensive little knots of recruits gathered forlornly in the station forecourt. All looked bewildered and many spoke with thick Glaswegian accents. But what puzzled me was their appearance. They wore the Teddy Boy outfits then in vogue – knee-length coats with velvet-trimmed collars, suede, thick-soled shoes and boot-lace ties. Yet they didn’t have the flambuoyant Teddy Boy hair-do and quiff. They’d been cropped! Later, in my billet I learned why. They’d been newly released from borstal (youth prison) and they came from the Gorbals Estate in Glasgow, then a notorious slum. I barely understood what they said at first but gradually their accents changed. They had to to make themselves understood and to understand what the Liverpudlian lance-corporal attached to our billet said.

When we left the train we were herded into trucks by screaming NCOs, then driven to Willems Barracks, which was to be our home for the next few weeks. Though very disparate, we clung to each other for mutual support against the system which was licking us into shape right from the start. Our civilian clothes were packed up and posted home, and we were given drab, grey denims to wear. Later we were measured for battledress uniforms which we wore on leave and shown how to press them and clean the rest of our kit by the lance corporal allocated to our billet.

Complete strangers at first, we soon began helping each other in many ways. Some of my intake were illiterate and I wrote letters home for them, while in return they cleaned my kit. They also let me listen to classical music on the barrack radio once in a while, instead of Radio Luxembourg which spewed out endless pop. Soon, a gelling took place with those Glaswegian recruits who came from backgrounds very different from mine. We became a kind of family giving each other mutual support against bawling drill sergeants and chivvying NCOs. We became comrades. After some weeks I left them suddenly, being transferred to the Intelligence Corps in which I spent the rest of my time in the army, eventually being commissioned as a paratrooper in an airborne unit.

A similar sudden maturing must have happened to John Trefusis when he volunteered for the Yeomanry, an auxiliary military force like the modern Territorial Army, on the outbreak of the Boer War in 1900. John was born into a landed, aristocratic family with large estates in Devon and the West Country. The Rolles, the Clintons, the Northcotes and their ilk were the great families of the region and John Trefusis had their blood in his veins, and more. For centuries his family had inter-married with local aristocracy and others as far away as Scotland.

He was educated at Eton, where he excelled at sport, particularly cricket, before enlisting in the Imperial Yeomanry on the outbreak of war in South Africa. Up to that point in his life he’d mixed only with aristocrats, the uppermost crust of the upper-crustians. Every other person he met was a servant or tenant on his family estates.

He was not exceptional. Most of his class went through life never mixing with, so never understanding the labouring and middle classes of their fellow countrymen. They were there simply to do their bidding. They were generally not unkind to their servants; quite the contrary. But they didn’t know them or understand them – nor did they want to by and large. They were a race apart, ruling Britain as an autocracy as they had done for centuries. One class was born to rule and the rest to serve and obey; and the nation was run like that until the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century; and in 20th century it was the First World War which accelerated the dismantling of the old social system, not only in Britain but right across Europe. In the process, millions of young men were butchered in a war in which Europe’s leaders lost control of; a war which became simply mindless attrition.

John Frederick Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes Trefusis, third son of Baron Clinton, joined the Special Corps of the imperial Yeomanry, the Duke of Cambridge’s Own, on the outbreak of the Boer war in 1900; and for the first time in his life found himself rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi. Like many of those who joined up in the first flush of chauvinist enthusiasm, he wasn’t a trained soldier nor was he commissioned. The commissioned officers in the army sent out to fight the Boers were fully trained regulars with years of experience.

Volunteers like John Trefusis were raw recruits and were soon beaten by their Boer opponents who were experts at guerrilla warfare.

Though a trooper, the lowest ranking soldier, John Trefusis had money to pay for a private cabin on board the troopship out and he bought his own horse and equipment. He also makes it quite clear in his letters home how much he looks down on his fellow troopers who came from a lower class; how much at odds he is with their habits and way of life.

It took some time to adjust his new social environment, and he learned more about his fellow countrymen, when he was captured and impounded with them. In a letter home he writes about the battle being fought just before he was captured at Lindley in May/June 1900 shortly after he reached South Africa:
“I have just heard that Captain Keith, our captain, has been killed and I am most distressed. It does dishearten one so. I can’t write any more.

2 days later No relief has come so far and our biscuits have run out. We are living on sheep which we kill. We have not really had many casualties so far regarding the amount of firing which is going on. In the regiment there have been four killed, 2 of these being in the D.C. O., Captain Keith and Corporal Galpin. We have not had many wounded, but the Irish have had a few….The bullets have been whistling over our heads all day, some of them too close to be pleasant.

Yesterday I helped with the cooking for some of our fallen on some of the Kopfes. We commandeered some mealies out of a farmhouse and made some porridge, and then in the evening we sent them up some mutton and potatoes, onions and a pumpkin….I am writing this lying in the bed of Sand River. I have been here all day and shall not move till dark….
Thursday We have been subject to rather heavy shell- fire which was remarkably unpleasant. I have just picked up a piece of shrapnel which fell within 6 yards of me. The Dublins under Longford have just taken a hill at the point of the bayonet with very few casualties. Longford himself was slightly wounded. The D.C.O’s had another poor fellow killed yesterday, Corporal de Laune. I used to ride next to him in the ranks….I may as well tell you we are completely surrounded by Boers now, but we can’t tell their strength.”

As it turned out, relief never came and the Boers overran Trefusis’ position and he was captured. As prisoners the men were segregated: officers moved to separate quarters from the rest. John Trefusis now had to live cheek by jowl with the men he’d looked down on before. He survived as a prisoner, buckling to and taking his turn at cooking and cleaning; and he also nursed the wounded. Experiences he’d never had before, which gave him more understanding of the common lot.

He remained a prisoner for almost two years till in 1902 the Treaty of Vereenigning was signed which ended the war. John Trefusis returned to England a wiser and more mature man. He never married and seems to have been a shy man, leading a rather lonely life apart from going up to London to his clubs and managing his land. In 1914 at the age of 36, he volunteered again to join the army on the outbreak of war. This time he was commissioned into the Irish Guards and was killed at Givenchy in France in 1915.

John Waddington-Feather ©

(I’m very grateful for the information given me about John Trefusis by my brother, George, a local historian and researcher in Devon)


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