Gerald Benham’s notes from diaries 1917.

Gerald Benham’s notes from diaries 1917.

15 Decr Played football for O.T.s v Ipswich School. We won 8.0. I scored 2.
Spent day with Bernard Pretty & wound up with tea and a bath at his
17 “ Col B**ter notified that he would very soon be returned.
25 “ Found three pieces of amber. (I played football for the Bn every Sat
throughout the season. We only lost one match).

George Ryan’s letter home dated 24 Dec 1914

George Ryan’s letter home dated 24 Dec 1914
“D” Company.
9th Battn Middx Regt
Victoria Barracks
24 Dec 1914

Dear M & F,

Thanks very much for your letter dated Nov 27th. I didn’t get it till Monday as the mail was late. I expect we shall have another mail this week; there ought to be a special one for Christmas. I hope it isn’t late though.

We are looking forward to a fairly decent time. Of course we’ve got a holiday to-day as usual & I suppose we shall have all day Sat. I hear we are going to get a piano from one of the other bungalows (the canteen or some other place) & some of the fellows are going to put up paper ornaments so it will seem a little like Christmas in spite of the weather. We almost took the roof off last night singing (?) carols.

We are allowed 3d a day messing allowance. We do not get the money but we get extra food, whatever we like to order. Since we came here we’ve only had butter & a few other odd things so we’ve got a fairly big balance which will be spent on Christmas fare, so we look like having a decent “spread” both for dinner & tea.

Well there doesn’t seem to be much to say this week; I suppose there will be more next week. I have not received that letter of May’s yet that dad said she was going to write but perhaps she never wrote it after all.

Hoping you are all quite well & getting on alright; I’m feeling A1.

Love to all,
Yr loving son
Thanks very much for the papers.

P.S. Dear May,

In my top right hand draw, you will find a thing that I believe was once a writing-case. Well in there you will find a photograph of yourself. Please send it to me together with a nice long letter with all the news. Fondest Love
George X X X

George Ryan’s letter home dated 17 Dec 1914

George Ryan’s letter home dated 17 Dec 1914

“D” Company.
9th Battn Middx Regt
Victoria Barracks
17 Dec 1914

Dear M & F,

I had no letter this week but I suppose I’d better write a few lines just to let you know I’m still alive. In fact I’ve had no letters at all yet except that one of yours. I ought to have had one from the office as I wrote to Mr W from Gib asking him to send me a diary, but perhaps it will arrive next Sunday. The mails seem very much delayed. I suppose they come all the way by boat.

We’ve about settled down to this place now, but I expect we shall soon get tired of it, there’s hardly anywhere to go in our spare time. Of course there are rumours about us moving shortly but I think we are here for a few months. We generally go to some soldiers’ recreation rooms in the evening about 20 min walk from here. There’s a reading room, billiards & supper rooms. The prices are as cheap if not cheaper than our own supper bar. You can have quite a good “tuck in” for 5d or 6d. There’s nothing to go in the town for. The native part is an awful place. It beyond description. It looks as if there’s been a big fire or an earthquake. The dogs don’t seem very fond of us soldiers. They all start barking directly they see any of us, and the smells & the dust are enough to choke you. I shan’t stroll round that part very often.

There’s an English Church in the English quarters about a quarter of an hour’s walk from here. We had a Church Parade Sun. morning & took our rifles, bayonets & 20 rounds of ammunition each. There were racks in front of each seat for our rifles. It’s been a rule to take them ever since the Mutiny, as a regiment of soldiers were trapped in church.

C Smith & I went to the Evening Service but of course we didn’t take rifles or anything with us then.

We are not working extra hard at present; we get the whole day off Thursdays, half a day Sat & of course Sundays. We find it very nice getting two days of rest per week.

I forgot to tell you we have a cup of tea in bed every morning. Or rather it’s a “mug” so I get about twice as much as you have, unless you have two cups. They are pint mugs & all we have to do is to walk about half a dozen yards for our mug, get our tea & sit in bed & drink it. It goes down alright as we get no breakfast till 7.45 before which we do ¾ of an hour’s drill.

Our Canteen, supper bar, library etc are run by the R.A.T.A. (Royal Army Temperance Assoc) so I have joined it, which is the same thing as signing the pledge. The sub is only 4d a month. A moderate drinker can be a member for 2d a month but of course he doesn’t get the same privileges as full members.

By all accounts we shan’t have much money to draw weekly out here. There are several compulsory stoppages, washing, sports, hair cutting etc. Evidently our grumbles on board the Dilwara were of some use; we’ve been given 3d a day messing allowance for the voyage (35 days).

My eyes started getting bad; I suppose it’s the glare of the sun, as they ache a bit too sometimes, but now I use the ointment they seem alright.

We are still wearing our old uniforms; we’ve been measured for the new ones so I expect we shall have them shortly now.

Well I hope I shall get a little more news this Sunday. I ought to get May’s letter that you mentioned at any rate.

Hope you are all quite well & getting along alright. Has dad still got something to do?

Love to all,
Yr affec son

Narrative of the operations from November 30th – December 3rd 1917



(a) Dispositions. At 6.0 a.m. the Division was disposed as follows:-
59th Inf. Bde. Right Front Sector.
61st Inf. Bde. Left Front Sector.
60th Inf. Bde. In Reserve about FIFTEEN RAVINE and VILLERS PLOUICH.

(b) The 59th Inf. Bde. had relieved the 60th Inf. Bde. on the night of the 29th/30th.
(c) At about 7.0 a.m. the enemy opened a bombardment on the 12th and 55th Divisional fronts. Inter-communication between Battn and Coy. Headquarters on the 20th Divisional front conclusively proves that up to 7.30 a.m. no events had taken place on our front, while at 7.15 a.m. an S.O.S. GRAND (37th Inf. Bde., 12th Div.) was received. This clearly shows that the 20th Div. Front was not attacked till at least half an hour after the attack on the 12th Division. At 7.30 a.m., however, the enemy shelling appeared to spread to our front and soon intensified. Standing barrages were put down on the posts in the outpost line and another on the main line of resistance. This barrage (which included smoke) lifted later on to the valley W. of the CAMBRAI Road. A third barrage which included a proportion of “mustard gas” shells, fell on the Sunken Road leading from LA VACQUERIE to MASNIERES. The bombardment was followed at about 8 a.m. by an infantry attack on the entire Divisional front. The attack appeared to be launched in echelon from the left, the 55th Division having been attacked first; a few minutes later the 12th Div., then the 20th Div. the chief weight of the attack appeared to be thrown on the point of junction of the 12th and 55th Divisions. The outpost line of the 20th Div. was overwhelmed by a converging attack from RUE DES VIGNES and CREVECOEUR and driven back on the main line of resistance. This line was then heavily attacked by machine gun fire from low flying aeroplanes which also dropped smoke bombs thus concealing the approach of the hostile infantry who advanced, in what appeared to be Artillery formation, in successive lines (8 to 12 of these lines were counted). The leading line fired as it advanced. Partly owing to the weight of the attack, and partly to the fact that the enemy had by this time penetrated the line of the Div. on the right to such a depth that the main line of resistance was entirely out-flanked, the 59th and 61st Inf. Bdes. were forced to fall back to a line running approximately as follows:- L.34.a.5.2. – L.34.c.8.9. – L.34.d.5.7. – R.5.a.2.8. – R.4.b.8.2. – R.10.b.2.8. – R.11.c.2.9.

Machine Guns on WELSH RIDGE succeeded in holding up the enemy advancing from the N.W. from the direction of QUENET FARM while the 91st {92} F.A. Bde. in LA VACQUERIE VALLEY, (R.12.a & b) repulsed four attacks, firing at 200 yards range, but the gunners were finally overcome and forced to leave the guns after having removed the breech blocks.
The first indication that the enemy had broken through the front of the 12th Division was noted from Div. H.Q. Men could be seen retiring over the high ground about GONNELIEU. A Staff Officer was sent at once to ascertain the position about GONNELIEU and GOUZEAUCOURT and met men of various labour units and Railway Construction Coys. falling back from the direction of LA VACQUERIE, GONNELIEU, and QUINTIN RIDGE to the main GOUZEAUCOURT – VILLERS PLOUCH Road.
Most of these men were unarmed, and as none were acting under definite orders, those who were ordered to hold the bank of the GOUZEAUCOURT – VILLERS PLOUICH Road.
Meanwhile the 60th Inf. Bde. (then in Reserve) was ordered to move as follows:-
1 Battalion to LA VACQUERIE
3 Battalions to reinforce the QUINTEN RIDGE – GONNELIEU line.

When however it was reported that the 20th Div. front had been broken, 2 Battns of this Bde. were ordered to move to the HINDENBURG Line; 1 to LA VACQUERIE; and 1 to GONNELIEU.

The 2 Battns ordered to the HINDENBURG line were however by this time engaged in fighting about GONNELIEU and QUINTEN RIDGE and could not be extricated. Thus the Divisional Reserve were not available to make a counter attack on the 20th Divisional front, or to recapture the lost guns.

(d) At 11.40 a.m. the situation was as follows:-
The Reserve Bde held a line, R.31.d.5.5. – N.W. outskirts of GONNELIEU – LA VACQUERIE, with elements of the 12th Div. between it and the right of the 59th Inf. Bde., while the 59th and 61st Inf. Bdes. held a line approximately the same as described in para.1. (c).
The enemy had by this time penetrated as far as GOUZEAUCOURT from the direction of GAUCHE WOOD, and the situation was critical.

(e) At 12 noon orders were issued for one Battn of the 60th Inf. Bde. to make good the summit of QUENTIN RIDGE about R.31.d. and R.32.a., and if the enemy were found in occupation to counter attack and drive him off. Owing to heavy M.G. fire and also to the fact that the situation on the right flank was so obscure, one Coy. from the Battn. carrying out the attack had to be sent to GOUZEAUCOURT (which was then in the hands of the enemy), and the attack was unable to gain the top of the Ridge. The Coy. detached towards GOUZEAUCOURT however did good work in mowing down the enemy retiring S. from GOUZEAUCOURT before the counter attack of one Bde. of Guards. No artillery was available to support this attack.

(f) At 4.45 p.m. the situation was as follows:-

The line ran approximately from L.34.central – R.5.a. – R.10.a. – R.17.a. – R.16.d.5.0. – LA VACQUERIE – N.W. outskirts of GONNELIEU – GOUZEAUCOURT with a gap about R.10.b&d.
As no troops were available to fill this gap, the III Corps was asked for reinforcements, and two Battns. were allotted to the Div. from the 6th Div., the C.O’s reporting at Div. H.Q. (This was not done).
One Battn. (the 2/6th Sherwood Foresters) was sent to the 59th Inf. Bde. and located in the HINDENBURG Main Line in R.10.c. and R.16.b. while the other Battn. (1st Buffs) was used by the 60th Inf. Bde. to fill a gap in R.21.

(g) The line remained more or less the same as indicated above during the remainder of the day, while the enemy made periodical attacks up the LA VACQUERIE Valley.

2. (a). At 1 a.m. the 60th Inf. Bde. (less 1 Battn. holding LA VACQUERIE), were ordered to attack from QUINTEN MILL to GONNELIEU inclusive with a view to re-establishing the line of the Ridge. The attack was met by heavy M.G. fire, and although the right pushed forward, the left encountered a hostile attack launched simultaneously with our own and failed to gain ground.

(b). At 2.10 a.m. Div. H.Q. was transferred from VILLERS PLOUICH to Q.29.central (QUEEN’S CROSS).

(c). At 7.0 a.m. the Guards Division carried out an attack and seized the high ground between QUINTEN MILL and GONNELIEU including the latter, but a hostile counter attack about 10.0 a.m. drove them from the village itself.

(d). At about 6.0 p.m. on the evening of December 1st, two Coys. of the 11th D.L.I. (Pioneers), who were then under B.G.C. 61st Inf. Bde. were placed at the disposal of the 59th Inf. Bde., who put them under the command of the O.C. 11th K.R.R.C. in the HINDENBURG Line and R.10.c.

(e). During the night of the 1st/2nd December no further attack was made by the enemy on the Divisional front. The Guards Division took over the front held by the 60th Inf. Bde. from QUINTIN RIDGE to GONNELIEU, while the 183rd Inf. Bde. 61st Div., relieved the 12th K.R.R.C. in LA VACQUERIE, thus releasing the whole of the 60th Inf. Bde. who were withdrawn to FIFTEEN RAVINE – VILLERS PLOUICH Area.

3. (a) During December 2nd the enemy confined his attacks to LA VACQUERIE where he was repulsed three times by the 183rd Inf. Bde.

(b). On the night of December 2nd/3rd the 183rd Inf. Bde. relieved the 59th and 61st Inf. Bdes., whilst the 184th Inf. Bde. went into Divl Reserve at about R.8., the command passing from G.O.C. 20th Div. to G.O.C.61st Div. at 7 a.m.

(c). At 8.0 a.m. on December 3rd the Div. was disposed as follows:-
60th Inf. Bde. SOREL
61st Inf. Bde. FINS

The line as actually handed over to the 61st Div. ran approximately as follows:-
L.35.b – R.5.a. – R.11.c. – R.17.c. – R.22.b. – R.21.b. – R.20.d. – R.20.c. –R.26.d.

4. Div. H.Q. moved from Q.29.central to SOREL, and was established at SOREL at 7 a.m. December 3rd.

20th Division. 8 December 1917

20th Div. No. G.179.
The Division has now between withdrawn from the line to re-organize and re-equip. This is the first time since the active participation in the heavy fighting in Flanders in August that the Division has been billeted in the Back Area. From August up to the present time the Division has had practically no rest, and has been engaged in active operations during the whole period except for about 6 weeks when it was holding trenches with three Brigades in the line on the Third Army front.
On the 16th August the 60th and 61st Inf. Bdes. captured LANGEMARCK and ground to the North and East of it; the forcing of the STEENBEEK preparatory to this operation being undertaken by the 59th Inf. Bde. The Division on this occasion took all its objectives, with the exception of a small portion of EAGLE TRENCH, and many prisoners and machine guns. The Division received the thanks and praise of the Army and Corps Commanders, and added fresh honours to its name.
On the 20th September the Division again took the field and captured strong German positions on the XIV Corps front. EAGLE TRENCH at the conclusion of the days’ operations still held out, but two days later it was in our hands after a stiff fight, and nearly 200 prisoners were captured; again the Army and Corps Commanders were loud in praise of the gallantry and tenacity displayed by all ranks of the Division. The captured ground was handed over to another Division.
The 20th Division was on 30th September sent off to the South to join the Third Army and take over a portion of that line.
On the 20th November the great offensive in front of CAMBRAI began, and the 20th Division gained all its objectives, displaying all its well-known courage and fighting qualities. Although the Division had been holding the line previous to this operation, and had no opportunity of training or rest such as other Divisions in the back area enjoyed, it carried out its task without a hitch and added another victory to its long roll.
In the subsequent operations during the German counter-attack the units lost heavily, but the enemy’s advance was checked for the time being in the HINDENBURG LINE, and at LA VACQUERIE.
I wish all ranks, and especially the reinforcements of the Division, to realise the important part their units have played in the hard fighting which has driven the Germans over and over again out of their strongly prepared positions, and especially the HINDENBURG LINE which the enemy looked upon as impregnable.
The Division has a grand record behind it, second to none, and I feel confident that when called upon again to take the field, everyone will strive to live up to its reputation of which all, are rightly, so proud. Our rest may be a short one, and every day must be utilised to get the Division into fighting trim.

W. Douglas Smith Major General,
Commanding 20th Division.
8th December, 1917.
Copies to all Units.

George Ryan’s letter home dated 8 Dec 1914

George Ryan’s letter home dated 8 Dec 1914
“D” Company.
9th Battn Middx Regt
Victoria Barracks
8 Dec 1914

Dear Mother & F,

Thanks very much for yr letter dated 12 Nov also for the W. Chronicle. I said in my last letter you need not send me any papers but you can send me the W. Chron now & again when there’s anything in it.

Well, as you see we’ve got here at last. We had 3 days in the train, reaching here at 5.0 p.m. Sunday (6 Dec). It wasn’t a corridor train; but there was only 3 or 4 compartments to a carriage so there was about 18 in each compartment. They are very similar to the old N.L. minus the adverts. We got out at stations for washing & food, which was better than what we had on board the “old tub”, tea, dry bread, & stew (meat, cauliflower & potatoes). I slept on the floor.

The country we passed was very wild. A few mud hut villages here & there, but we saw nothing dangerous; only a few monkeys & wild birds, parrots etc.

I think we’re in for a jolly fine time here. There’s only 5 Companies, 1 other is a few miles away & the other 3 are at Dum-dum 300 miles away. The whole barracks cover about ½ square mile; I should think, they are quite open; there’s no wall or fence. Each building is in one long line, not square; only the ground floor, which is very lofty – quite as high as your house. The beds are quite far apart & we’ve each got a fair-sized trunk & proper rack for our rifle, equipment, helmet etc. The beds are made of corrugated iron, not round of course, but like this -. Then there’s a thing supposed to be a mattress, but it’s not very thick; & 1 blanket is all we’ve got at present. I think we get another blanket & a couple of sheets. We want them too, it’s jolly cold here at night. The buildings are so constructed so that the sun does not shine in, so it keeps nice & cool during the day, but we get plenty of air; there are big double doors between every two beds.

There’s a fine canteen, it seems a sort of general store & by what we’ve seen so far things are very cheap. We had a good tuck in there directly we got here Sunday night (10.0). We had 3 meat rissoles, potatoes, fried onions, cauliflower, bread & a small jug of tea for 5 annas (5d). It was jolly fine & went down A 1 I can tell you.

We are not allowed to do our own washing; we are stopped 14 annas ( ½d) a month for it.

Since writing about the beds we have received 3 sheets & a rug. We thought at first the rug was to go down beside our bed, then we thought perhaps it was a bed cover but I suppose it’s to lay on the iron as we roll the mattress & blankets up during the day. Whatever its purpose we ought to be nice & comfortable, as we have been promised some more stuffing for the mattress.

You asked me what tobacco I prefer; well something mild. Boardman’s I’m smoking at present. But it’s too expensive for you to send as I think the parcel rates are fairly heavy & it’s cheaper out here I think.

Bert mentions something about a scheme for you to get an allowance from the Government. We’ve heard nothing about it but a fellow told me you could not claim it if you are receiving 50% or more of your money from your place of business. If you think there’s any chance of getting it, of course send me particulars.

The weather out here is grand at present. We’ve had a clear blue sky every day for the last fortnight. But the roads are very dusty. 2 or 3 inches deep in some places.

Well I hope you are all quite well & are getting on alright. I wish letters didn’t take so long to come from England. Just fancy I you’re your letter on Dec 7th & you wrote it Nov 12.

The mail goes out here Thursdays & arrives Sundays, we get them on Mondays, so I suppose I shall receive May’s letter that you mention next Monday,

I’m glad you didn’t have to pay anything on my letter. I wrote to Uncle Tom, Aunt Charlotte, Cousin Ellen, Aunt Jinny etc just before we reached Bombay, (the same post as my last letter to you) to wish them the Compts of the Season, so I suppose they won’t have to pay.

Love to all,
Yr loving son

Archie A. Laporte Payne letter home December 1914

Archie A. Laporte Payne letter home December 1914

On embossed headed notepaper.
Royal Field Artillery,
R.A. Crest
Dec 9 1914
My dearest Mother & Father,

Thank you so very much for your letters and present. It is very good of you to send me those gloves – they are lovely ones and will be most useful. Your loving wishes & kind thoughts I know I can always have but a birthday I suppose is, more than at other times, a fitting time to express them. But I don’t like birthdays at all. They come too soon. Dr Nostum very kindly remembered me and sent me a box of Bath Buns. Please thank Maude & Evelyn for their letters. I will reply sometime. As you can imagine we are frightfully busy. I am afraid Christmas will be impossible. The captain will be away if anybody is – so I shan’t get a look in. don’t trouble about glasses. I hope you got my postcard of yesterday. I have heard from Reggie. I am glad he is better. I could not get home over the week end and I am afraid next week will be impossible. We are one officer short as one of them has left for the front,

Thank you very much for the vest I should like a couple of short pants if they can be obtained of the same material. I am glad Evelyn had such a good time at Bath. I hope she has quite recovered from her bad tooth.

I see that Vyvyian is gazetted today in the Times to the R.F.A. I don’t suppose he will come here. He will go to some lower division. I have written to him.

I did not see Mr Tillyers card in your letter. It may have dropped out however. Don’t send any rubbish through. The men are rather particular. I want old Windsors, Strands, Pearsons, & 6d Illustrated papers etc. I know the sort of stuff some good people think tommies appreciate.

Things go much as usual. We have guns but only old 15 pounders & not the ones we ought to have. The men have got khaki in our battery now and they work much better.

I am glad Vyvyan has got someone to knit him a scarf – I am sure he needs one!! ! I wish I had somebody to do likewise for me – Oh, I forgot 92 in the shade!

I have got another tunic so I am alright now. I have to get a lot more things before the kit inspection which takes place soon.

No more now as dinner is just on & there is no news to tell.

Much love to you & all & many thanks for birthday wishes & presents

Your affectionate son

On headed notepaper.

Royal Field Artillery,
R.A. Crest
Dec 20 1914.

My dearest Mother,

Everything is alright. Leave, for various reasons which I will not enumerate, has been cancelled until Wednesday next when I hope to get home again.

The train was full of angry officers called up from other parts. I was in barracks by 9.45 p.m. So sorry to give you such a fright but one must expect these things when on active service. I hope the Congregation did not think the Germans had arrived.

Much love. Hope you are all well.

Your affectionate son

Three Additional Extraordinary Women of the Great War

Three Additional Extraordinary Women of the Great War
Sylvia Henley
There were at least three additional extraordinary women of the Great War, one of whom was Sylvia Henley. Instead of valiant deeds of bravery these ladies were given the subtle title of “The Blue Beast”, which was an Edwardian slang term for sexual passion. They became mistresses and confidantes of some of the most powerful men of the Great War.
Sylvia Henley was born on the 3rd March 1882 at Alderley Park near Macclesfield in Cheshire. Sylvia was the fifth child of Lyulph Stanley and May Bell, who were wealthy and privileged members of the aristocracy. A succession of opportunistic marriages in the past had endowed the Stanley family with further wealth and an estate at Penrhos on Hollyhead Island off the Anglesey coast as well as a London town house in Mansfield Street. She was educated at home by a governess where she was taught the basics of reading, writing, piano, singing, needlework as well as modern foreign languages. She enjoyed a happy childhood where she enjoyed the pleasures of the outdoor life and became a capable horse rider and excelled at tennis and swimming. All the Stanley girls were involved with the boy’s escapades and Sylvia was always to the fore. Lyulph Henley taught all his children they should be heard as well as seen, and were encouraged to join in all the family discussions which in Sylvia’s case helped her considerably in her adult life.
It was her elder brother Arthur who introduced the Hon. Anthony Morten Henley into the Stanley family, and Anthony with his younger brother Francis regularly visited Alderly Park. Anthony, was one of the younger sons of the Third Lord Henley came from a similar background to the Stanley family. When Anthony began to court Sylvia his prospects as a barrister looked promising. The first stirring tales of the Boer War in 1899 were seen as attractive and the prospect of a new war for young and adventurous men was too much to ignore.
Anthony was encouraged by one of Sylvia’s cousins to volunteer for the Imperial Yeomanry of the 28th Bedfordshire Company, known as Compton’s Horse. In South Africa, he was expecting to participate in gallant cavalry charges across the veldt but instead he was shunted into support actions near Johannesburg and Pretoria. By transferring to the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys) he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant. He saw operations in the Transvaal and rose to the rank of Lieutenant by the end of the war in 1902.
Back in England, Sylvia’s father was not impressed with Anthony’s prospects as he had opted for a career in the army rather than the legal career he had been pursuing. Sylvia and Anthony married on the 24th April 1906, but the bride had her arm in plaster with a broken arm, which she received trying to break in a horse. Shortly after the wedding Captain Anthony Henley was transferred to the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers, a cavalry regiment based in Dublin, which was easily reached by boat to the Stanley estate at Penrhos. Many powerful and influential people came to stay at the Anglesey retreat, one being Winston Churchill who had married Sylvia’s cousin Clementine Hozier in 1908. Clementine formed a close friendship with Sylvia and met regularly when Sylvia discovered she was pregnant. On the 4th March 1907, Sylvia gave birth to a daughter, Rosalind, at Alderley Park. Anthony spent long periods away with his regiment and Sylvia produced a second daughter, Mary Katherine, on the 30th June 1908. With Anthony on military duties, Sylvia and the children remained at Alderley. There were rounds of house parties and the house would overflowing with the guests and their valets plus the Stanley servants. The Asquith family became closest to the Stanley’s and it would be H.H. Asquith would prove to be the most dangerous.
Asquith became a close friend of Lyulph Stanley as they both been to Balliol College in Oxford and had been Liberal MPs. By now Asquith was Chancellor of the Exchequer eventually leading to the position of Prime Minister in 1908. Sylvia’s father acquired the title of Lord Sheffield and for his appearances at the House of Lords he would stay at the Stanley London house in Mansfield Street, where he would often be joined by Sylvia.
Asquith was always focussed on the political battle and with support from David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill they attacked the House of Lords in retaliation for the “People’s Budget“ in 1909. Any vetoing by the House of Lords of the legislation that had been initiated in the Commons was overthrown by the 1911 Parliament Act. Both Lyulph Sheffield and Asquith shared common ground over the increasingly violent debate on women’s suffrage, and both had argued against women obtaining the vote.
In 1911 Anthony was appointed General Staff Officer, which meant he and Sylvia could be together and they leased a house near Kensington Gardens in London. On the 15th December 1913 Sylvia gave birth to a third daughter Elizabeth, who sadly only lived a few weeks.
In the meantime Prime Minister Asquith’s Liberal government was facing a threat from the Irish MP’s who had supported the 1911 Parliament Act. He was being pressured to establish Home Rule for Ireland. While Asquith was playing bridge with the Stanley’s he received a telegram to say that Brigadier-General Sir Hubert Gough, GOC 3rd Cavalry Brigade based in Dublin, along with some other officers threatened to resign. They resented the possibility they would have to quell Ulster’s opposition to Home Rule. Asquith was anxious to keep Anthony close to him, and he was appointed as Private Secretary to Asquith when the Prime Minister took on the role of Secretary of State for War in April 1914. He carried out both tasks until the outbreak of the war in August 1914.
As soon as war was declared Anthony left his administrative position at the war office and joined his regiment, the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers. All cavalry regiments left Britain for Le Havre in France on the 15th August 1914. They were entrained to Mons in Belgium, but no sooner had they arrived they were ordered to retreat. Increasing casualties were arriving at hospitals in England including lancers from Anthony’s regiment. Asquith checked the casualty reports and found Anthony was not among the casualties and immediately sent a telegram to Sylvia to inform her that he was safe. Asquith sought the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir John French’s assistance in transferring Anthony onto French’s staff as GSO2.
Women were mostly supportive to the men over the war. Even the suffrage movement realised they must assist the nation. Women’s rights activist Dr. Elsie Inglis’ attempted to set up a woman’s ambulance service but was rejected by the War Office.
In 1915, during a visit to Penrhos, Sylvia lectured Asquith over his dominating influence he had over her sister Venetia, with whom he had been corresponding obsessively for some considerable time. Venetia had also been engaged in a double game of intrigue by balancing Asquith’s obsession and her passionate desire for Edwin Montague, who was a member of Asquith’s Cabinet. Sylvia was aware of the double game her sister was involved in, and started to correspond with Asquith.
One of the first letters she wrote to him was about the rumours that he had been reluctant to sending an expeditionary force to France and Belgium. Also that shell production was not all that was hoped for.
Asquith went on a tour of munition factories and assured the workers that shell production was meeting the military’s requirements. However, there was a shortage of High Explosive Shells, which would to be addressed in the near future. Asquith was aware of Venetia’s passion for Montague but still corresponded regularly whilst Sylvia looked on. Her own marriage appeared to be quite secure but she was concerned, that at the age of 33 time was running out, and that she had not provided Anthony with a son. She had however produced three daughters but sadly only two had survived. She buried herself by helping out in a temporary military hospital at the Tenant’s Hall, which was an annexe to Alderly Park, doing much of the auxiliary nursing a VAD would do. In May of every year, the landed gentry who had country houses entrained to their London houses for a three month season of art exhibitions, races and grand balls & dinners. Sylvia travelled to Mansfield Street to take part in the season, and accepted an invitation from Asquith to attend a party at his country manor ”The Wharf”. This gave Asquith the opportunity to lavish attention on Sylvia as he was becoming increasingly absorbed by her, and she was flattered by his attention.
On the 11th May 1915, Venetia wrote to Asquith informing him of her plans to marry Montague. He received her letter, continued with his political commitments, and then replied to Venetia that he had received her letter. He also wrote to Sylvia looking for her support about why Venetia had betrayed him. Over the next few days she received numerous letters from Asquith and it soon became apparent his affections were being transferred from Venetia to Sylvia. Writing a letter to Anthony, she stated she was anxious for his support, but at the same time she wanted him to know how much the Prime Minister needed her.
Asquith’s Liberal Government at that time was facing heavy criticism over the supposedly week response to the war, especially over the issue of conscription. The criticism was compounded by the “Shell Scandal” and the resignation of Lord Jackie Fisher, First Sea Lord. The compensation for Asquith was his regular correspondence with Sylvia. On the 25th May 1915, Asquith managed to form a coalition government of hostile Conservatives and Liberals, but they came with certain conditions. The Conservatives demanded that Winston Churchill was removed as the First Lea lord of the Admiralty, Lord Haldane was sacrificed and Montague was to lose his Cabinet position. Lord Kitchener was to remain as head of the War Office and David Lloyd-George was appointed as the new Minister of Munitions. Asquith was able to negotiate through these troubles with the support Sylvia gave via their correspondence.
She wrote to Anthony, who was fully occupied on the Western Front that Asquith was extremely fond of her but not how deep his feelings went. She also complained she was not receiving any responses from Anthony she thought she should be getting.
At the end of May 1915, Asquith visited Sir John French at the front line and while he was there Anthony came home on leave for a few days at the beginning of June. In a letter to Sylvia, Asquith complained that he was disappointed not to have received a letter from her in over a week. With Anthony home on leave she could not afford the time to correspond with Asquith. When Anthony went back to the front line, she found she had new confidence when she realised she was having considerable impact with the men she came in contact with. With her new confidence she was able to argue Anthony’s case for obtaining an active command with Major-General Sir William Robertson. She eagerly awaited news from Anthony regarding his promotion. Venetia was staying with Sylvia at Mansfield Street preparing for her wedding and saw Asquith’s constant stream of letters to Sylvia and was upset that her sister had replaced her in Asquith’s affections. She deliberately left an open letter knowing that Sylvia would see it, in which the envelope read Miss Venetia Stanley, and the letter was sent by Anthony.
Sylvia had always known Anthony was fond of Venetia and had been for quite some considerable time. She also knew he was not a prolific letter writer, and by writing to her sister she was concerned about the relationship between the two of them. Sylvia was so upset by the discovery that she collapsed with blood poisoning caused by a reaction of the inoculations she had been given. For 24 hours she was dangerously ill and she successfully came through the physical crisis. Montague was able to go some way to helping her emotional crisis by stating he had approached Venetia about Anthony just a few weeks before their wedding. Not only was Asquith challenging him professionally but Anthony was a threat to him over Venetia. Despite having problems with the coalition over the removal of Churchill from the Cabinet, he was concerned over Sylvia’s state of health and her mental distraction. He wrote to her in an attempt to find out what was wrong but did not receive any proper answers. She corresponded with Anthony through the summer of 1915 but their letters remained polite and remote, despite Anthony’s remorse for his affair with Venetia. Sylvia involved herself in voluntary work as an auxiliary nurse in the West End of London’s children’s clinic between trips to Alderley of Penrhos to see her children.
Asquith was supportive of Sylvia’s nursing role as he was appreciative of the nursing uniform she wore. When Asquith requested she should lunched at 10 Downing Street, she went direct from the children’s hospital but his reaction disappointed her. Although appreciative of the nursing outfit, on Sylvia he found it a bit drab on this occasion. He always preferred her to wear more colourful clothes for lunch. Sylvia also had another position with the Red Cross Enquiry Department compiling casualty lists, which did not need a specialist outfit as it was purely administrative. The war and the long separation from Anthony had changed her from naivety of the outside world to the harsher realities of life. She had seen the effects the war had on the lives of ordinary people, other than the upper class, through her work with the children’s clinic and the Red Cross. She was now more broad-minded, which she needed to be as she discovered that Anthony and Venetia’s affair was continuing despite their denials. However, she continued to believe her relationship with Asquith was platonic only as she managed to keep his physical advances at arm’s length. To her the friendship between them was more to help Asquith by relieving the stress of his office and acting as a sounding board for his political problems. Physical contact between Sylvia and Asquith only went as far as holding hands as she did not permit any sexual contact.
Sylvia spent Christmas of 1915 at Alderley with her family. In January 1916, her cousin Clementine Churchill persuaded her to reduce her hours and the children’s clinic and Red Cross, and she agreed to help run the Hendon District Canteen catering for men and women working at the local munitions factories. At the end of January, Anthony came home on leave from the Western Front and Sylvia vacated her children’s clinic and Red Cross to be with him. Even without Anthony’s affair, the relationship between them was difficult. The war had changed men who were fighting during combat and Anthony was no exception. He had a great camaraderie with his men who had seen action under fire of the enemy whereas Sylvia did not have the same rapport with her fellow volunteers. When Anthony returned to France she was still filled with nagging doubts about their future. However, they spent a happy and intimate week together when Anthony was on leave again in London just prior to the Battle of the Somme. When the battle began on the 1st July 1916, Sylvia was staying at Alderley. She wrote immediately to Anthony when she heard the news but it was five days before she received a reply that his regiment was on the flank of the main operation and at the moment he was quite safe. Sylvia’s brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver Stanley, was wounded whilst serving in the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) and was invalided home to recuperate at Mansfield Street.
Having travelled back to London to nurse her brother, she discovered she was pregnant. When he heard the ne ws Anthony was delighted although he was still in contact with Venetia. His career and administrative skills had been boosted at the recent operations on the Somme, where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and twice mentioned in dispatches.
By the autumn the Battle of the Somme was still raging on with the casualties ever increasing for little ground gained. Not only was Asquith and his government facing this problem but they were also having to deal with the agitation from Ireland and America over the trial and final execution of Irish Sir Roger Casement for treason. In his letters to Sylvia, as well as his personal feelings for her, Asquith used her as his confidant. Asquith received a terrible shock when he heard the news of the death of his own son Raymond. On the 14th September 1916 his son advanced into a hail of bullets and shrapnel whilst leading his company of Grenadier Guards over the top attacking the village of Lesboeufs. He was wounded almost immediately in the chest, treated off the battlefield but died soon after. The news took several days to reach the Asquith family and he sent Sylvia a short telegram informing her of his loss. The press continued to criticise him for his war leadership and his political opponents saw an opportunity for a final assault against him. Asquith’s position was weakened by the death of his staunch ally Lord Kitchener and with David Lloyd-George’s proposals for a tougher approach to the war he knew it was time for someone else to take over. He resigned as Prime Minister and in a letter to Sylvia he confessed to being exhausted by the political battles and was relieved to have the burden of responsibility removed.
On the 29th January 1917, Sylvia gave birth to another daughter Juliet and wrote to Anthony to tell him how disappointed she was by not by not having a baby boy. She wrote regularly to him without mentioning Asquith, with whom she had been in a close platonic relationship for over two years.
In the meantime, Anthony was appointed Temporary Brigadier-General as his first active command following the Battle of Arras in May 1917. He joined his new position as General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 127th Infantry Brigade at Epéhy and one of the first tasks was to dig a new trench 500 yards in front of the existing line. The operation was achieved with minimum casualties earning him several Mentions in Dispatches.
Sylvia was a regular guest at ”The Wharf”, even though she was increasingly busy. King’s College Hospital was impressed with the success of the canteen at Hendon, which she helped to run alongside her cousin Clementine Churchill. Sylvia was requested to set up new canteen facilities for the expanding military and civilian hospital. Asquith did not approve of Sylvia’s new acquired independence, because it made her increasingly unavailable.
The British Army was in good shape partly due to the foundations to wage war that the Asquith government had laid down while he was still Prime Minister. However, the military situation was not good. Germany was able to release large numbers of troops to the Western Front after Russia withdrew from the war. The Germans launched a surprise offensive on the 21st March 1918 and Anthony and Sylvia’s letters were not delivered on time owing to the new mobile war. When the tide turned in the summer of 1918 Anthony was fully occupied with the Allied toward the Hindenburg Line, and at the wars end he had been Mentioned-in-Despatches eight times. Upon returning home he found that the war had given women a new independence and Sylvia was determined that her marriage was on very different terms.
David Lloyd-George coalition government was returned to power after the General Election was held a few weeks at the end of the war. Sylvia was one of the privileged women who were eligible to vote. Asquith and his Liberal Parliamentary Party supporters were now in the minority, along with the Labour Party.
For Sylvia, new opportunities arose owing to the fact she had worked with other classes of people in children’s hospital and canteens. She was recruited to the Board of Governors of King’s College Hospital in 1920 because of her administrative skills. She was to hold that post until 1973.
Anthony returned from the war unscathed and was appointed a CMG (Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George) in 1919 and he retired with the rank of Honorary Brigadier-General in the Reserve of Officers. However, for pay purposes was a Captain as the army had rescinded the temporary ranks at the end of the war. He retired and became a director of a shipping company where he spent a great deal of time working abroad, especially Romania.
In 1922 Lloyd-George called a truce with the Asquith Liberals to defend the election but were defeated by the Conservatives, and Stanley Baldwin was the new Prime Minister. Asquith lost his seat and the following year was elevated as the Earl of Oxford to the peerage. He remained close to Sylvia after the war, but the passion had gone. H.H. Asquith’s health began to deteriorate and in 1927 he suffered a stroke. He recovered but caught a chill the following winter and passed away on the 15th February 1928.
For Sylvia the years between the end of the war and 1925 had not been the happiest when Anthony died suddenly in Romania playing cricket. Within months her father died and the estates of Alderley Park and Penrhos had to receive economies as the war had stripped a lot of their assets.
In October 1925 Sylvia accompanied her cousin Gertrude Bell on a visit to Baghdad, where she was shown the sights and meet the people of Iraq. Gertrude was influential in the creation of the new Iraq after the Turkish Ottoman Empire collapsed. Sylvia suffered an eye infection and returned to Britain leaving her cousin behind. Gertrude never returned home.
In 1940 Sylvia was on hand to give Winston Churchill her moral support after he became Prime Minister. She was a regular visitor to Downing Street and remained close to the Churchill’s for the rest of their lives.
She continued to be involved with the administration of the King’s College Hospital as well as the Reginal Hospital Board, for which she awarded the OBE in 1962 in recognition of her tireless work. She worked on during the 1960 and 70’s and by 1977 her stamina began to fail her and she was admitted to a nursing home. Sylvia died of heart attack on the 19th May 1980 aged 98. She fulfilled partially the characteristics of the Blue Beast by being the confidant of H.H. Asquith. She was never his mistress in the physical sense but she was privy to the nation’s greatest secrets.
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