Three Additional Extraordinary Women of the Great War
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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