Julian Grenfell (1888-1915) was a celebrated First World War poet. Born in London on the 30th March, he was a good student, attending Eton and later moving on to Balliol College, Oxford. Though a successful scholar, he was a withdrawn man, often retreating inward with his problems and worries, and suffered a nervous breakdown towards the end of his time at Oxford. The resulting pass mark for his degree was sufficient to gain him a commission in the army. Joining the army had been a long-time ambition for Julian, and during his time at war he wrote extensive letters and kept a diary until he was mortally wounded in combat. These documents form a part of the Panshanger archive. Throughout his writing he treats war with a surprising reverence and admiration; in a letter to his mother on the 24th October, 1914, he proclaimed ‘I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy.’ Audio readings of these letters have also been produced by volunteers working for Herts Memories and can be found here.
In 1914, four years into his military service, he received a Distinguished Service Order for excellent reconnaissance. Just one year later, on 13th May 1915, Julian was hit by a splintering shell and died from head trauma within 13 days at 27 years of age.
Today Julian is remembered for just one poem, ‘Into Battle’, which was written on 29th April 1915 and published the day after his death. One of the most popular poems during and after the war, it is now either discarded or condemned. It was an unashamedly patriotic and celebratory poem, exhibiting the same attitude that Grenfell demonstrated in his correspondence. Many critics have argued that, had the poet lived longer, he would have become disillusioned with the war. His poetry, letters and diary represent some of the last writing that considered war a glorious endeavour. Later 20th century writers would turn to dealing with the suffering and sadness it inflicts.