Julian Grenfell

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Julian Grenfell
Julian Grenfell (For Remembrance) cropped.jpg
Julian Grenfell in military uniform including his DSO ribbon
Born(1888-03-30)30 March 1888
Westminster, London, England
Died26 May 1915(1915-05-26) (aged 27)
Boulogne, Pas-de-Calais, France
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branchRoyal Dragoons
Years of service1910–1915
Battles/warsWorld War I
AwardsDistinguished Service Order
RelationsCaptain Francis Octavius Grenfell VC (cousin)

Julian Henry Francis Grenfell DSO (30 March 1888 – 26 May 1915) was a British soldier and a war poet of World War I.

Early life[edit]

Julian Grenfell was born at 4 St James's Square, London, the eldest son of William Grenfell, later Baron Desborough, and Ethel Priscilla Fane, daughter of Julian Fane.

He was educated at Eton where he was good friends with Denys Finch Hatton, Edward Horner, and latterly with Patrick Shaw-Stewart. From Eton he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he soon developed a reputation for rowdy behaviour, such as bullying Philip Sassoon by cracking a stock whip within inches of his head.[1] In his final year at Oxford Grenfell began to struggle with his studies, his moods became unstable, and he was anxious, agitated and miserable. His friends and family found it hard to understand what was wrong, but to modern eyes he was clearly suffering from a major depressive illness, possibly a bi-polar affective disorder. After consulting with his college and his parents Grenfell opted to take a pass degree, as he was not well enough to continue with his honours course[2]

Military service[edit]

Grenfell was commissioned in the British Army in 1907 and attached to the 1st (Royal) Dragoons in 1910.[3] He was initially sent out to India, where he enjoyed the big game hunting, but found the repetitive military training tedious, and his fellow officers rather dull. He then moved with his regiment to South Africa which Julian greatly disliked. By the summer of 1914 he was writing to his mother seeking her help to get him out of the army and back to Britain. When war broke out in August his regiment returned and were sent to Salisbury Plain for intensive training prior to deployment to the western front. It quickly became clear that conflict had become bogged down in static trench warfare, with little or no role for the cavalry. Julian's unit became infantry soldiers, and despite all the discomforts and dangers he continued to write upbeat letters to his family and friends. Julian became aware that lives were being regularly lost to German snipers. Using the hunting skills he developed at Panshanger Julian taught his men how to crawl through no-mans land unseen, "steering by the stars" to attack the German front line trenches, and gain intelligence.

He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order in the 1915 New Year Honours; "Lieutenant The Honourable Julian Henry Francis Grenfell, 1st (Royal) Dragoons. On the 17th November he succeeded in reaching a point behind the enemy's trenches and making an excellent reconnaissance, furnishing early information of a pending attack by the enemy."[4]

On 13 May 1915 as a captain in the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, Grenfell stood talking with a General Campbell, a shell landed a few yards from them, and a splinter of the shell hit him in the head. When Grenfell was initially brought in he was so cheerful that everyone thought he had only a minor wound; and when he (presciently) said "I think I shall die" his friends objected.[5] He was taken to a hospital in Boulogne where he initially seemed to be holding his own, but a X-Ray showed he had an extensive skull fracture, and underlying brain injury. He was operated on at once, but on 23 May the doctors found his wound was infected so a second operation was undertaken. After this he began to deteriorate, one arm gradually became paralysed, and he became increasingly drowsy. For ten long hot days his mother and father sat by his bedside, while Julian recited his favorite poetry, particularly his favourite, the ancient Greek tragedy Hippolytus by Euripides. He died on the afternoon of 26 May with his mother, father and sister at his bedside. He was 27 years old and was buried on a windy day, at the Boulogne Eastern Cemetery, his mother covered his grave with oak leaves and wild flowers. The day after his death, together with news of his death, his most famous poem Into Battle was published for the first time, in The Times.

In a letter from October 1914, Grenfell had written "I adore war. ... It is like a big picnic but without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I have never been more well or more happy. ... It just suits my stolid health and stolid nerves and barbaric disposition. The fighting-excitement vitalizes everything, every sight and action. One loves one's fellow man so much more when one is bent on killing him."[6][7] This contrasts with the work of later war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, but it should be remembered that Grenfell was a professional soldier, and, in any event, many British veterans of the war rejected the idea that Sassoon and Owen spoke for them.[8] Historian Max Hastings says of Grenfell that he was "idolised by his peers for reasons mystifying to posterity."[7]

His younger brother Gerald William (Billy) Grenfell was killed in action on 30 July 1915 within a mile of where Julian had been wounded.


On 11 November 1985, Grenfell was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner.[9] The inscription on the stone was written by a fellow Great War poet, Wilfred Owen and reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."[10]

Today Grenfell is most remembered for his poem "Into Battle" written in May 1915, the closing lines read;

"The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings."



  1. ^ Literary Review, August 2008, p. 29.
  2. ^ The Children of the Souls - A tragedy of the First World War, Jeanne MacKenzie, pub. Chatto & Windus 1986
  3. ^ "No. 28409". The London Gazette. 23 August 1910. p. 6107.
  4. ^ "No. 29024". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 January 1915. p. 9.
  5. ^ Jeanne MacKenzie 1986
  6. ^ Hollander, Neil (2013). Elusive dove: the search for peace during World War I. Jefferson NC: McFarland. p. 191. ISBN 9780786478910.
  7. ^ a b Hastings, Max (2013) Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War. New York: Vintage. pp. 527–528. ISBN 978-0-307-74383-1
  8. ^ Hastings, Max (2013) Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War. New York: Vintage. p. 546. ISBN 978-0-307-74383-1
  9. ^ "Poets". Net.lib.byu.edu. Retrieved 28 April 2013.
  10. ^ "World War I poets". Net Library BYU. Retrieved 10 June 2009.


  • Mosley, Nicholas (1976) Julian Grenfell: His Life and the Times of his Death

External links[edit]