‘Edward was so popular with the whole Battalion, and you have the consolation of knowing that the dear child – for he looked so young – met his death with the greatest courage and bravery. The whole life out there was hateful to him, but he never murmured, and has been, and always will be, an example to us all by his absolute purity of word and deed.’
Thus wrote a fellow officer to Edward Cazalet’s family, following his death on the Somme on 10 September 1916.
Known to his family as ‘Doody’, Edward was an artistic boy of gentle sensibilities, charming manners and cultivated tastes, who took great delight in the gardens and wildlife which surrounded him at Fairlawne. (While Fairlawne’s mansion and gardens – shown above – are in Plaxtol parish; much of the farmland is in the neighbouring parish of Shipbourne. The Cazalets were squires of both.)
As befitted a boy of his social class, Edward’s schooling was planned with scrupulous care. His preparatory education had been at Evelyn’s at Hillingdon in Middlesex – a school with strong connections to Eton College – and in 1907 he duly went on to Eton. By his teenage years he had become an ardent collector of old furniture, china and books, and it was partly these interests which drew him into an unusual friendship with Lady Dorothy Nevill. The disparity in their ages – Lady Dorothy had lived for eighty years as opposed to Edward’s mere fourteen – was no obstacle; Edward loved to hear her recollections of the high Victorian age, which he would then note down in his diary. The pair exchanged many letters, to the end of Lady Dorothy’s life.
Edward did well at Eton. Upon leaving, he went to Hanover, where he was to study German in preparation for taking the Diplomatic Service examinations. He was in Berlin in August 1914 when war was declared. British banknotes having become worthless overnight, it was only by a loan of gold sovereigns from the Berlin correspondent of The Times that he was able to obtain a ticket to travel by train out of Germany – by his own account, a journey of nightmarish character.
After his return home, Edward went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. Warfare was totally alien to his gentle nature, but he regarded it as his duty to join the Cambridge University Officer Training Corps (OTC) and prepare to fight for his country. From there, he joined the Royal East Kent Regiment, known as The Buffs, as a 2nd Lieutenant; he transferred with the same rank to the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards at the end of 1915. He was on home service for the first six months of 1916, including time as one of those guarding Roger Casement, Irish patriot and British traitor, in the Tower of London. Although the officers were under strict instructions not to talk to Casement, such interaction could scarcely be avoided, and Edward noted in this diary that he was surprised by Casement’s charm and idealism: ‘a nicer person I have seldom met … It seems a terrible pity that he should have committed this last monstrous deed’.
Posted to France in July 1916, Edward confessed to his mother his natural horror of killing people; the idea of shooting ‘even’ a German, he said, made him feel sick. The 1st Battalion was exposed to severe and almost continuous losses of officers and men throughout the pitifully brief six weeks and three days of Edward’s service with them. They withstood much movement, by train and on foot, marching long distances in the summer heat in full battle dress, from Arques, to Mailly-Maillet, to a camp near Mailly, to a camp codenamed Bow Street, to Bezaincourt, to Vignacourt, and to Mericourt-L’Abbé – places whose names are a litany both familiar and strange to us today. Every march recorded in the regimental diary was accompanied by a list of casualties – men whom Edward knew, liked, admired. They were forced to suffer other horrors, too. Edward wrote to his brother Victor that ‘I am in the most smelly of trenches, the result of a large number of bodies being buried close by. The rats are quite innumerable.’ Later he found himself, ‘In a very small dugout similar I should imagine to the Black Hole of Calcutta. This part is rather smelly, as not long ago the enemy began shelling our line. The gas cylinders were broken and a very large number of our men were gassed. The numbers were so large that the bodies were not recorded, so it is not uncommon to come across the arm or leg of these unhappy soldiers.’ The contrast between Edward’s life at home in Plaxtol and that which he now endured could hardly have been more extreme.
From Mericourt the objective was the village of Ginchy, where Edward’s fate awaited him. From 25 August onwards there was almost constant fighting, with continual shelling, machine gun fire and fierce hand-to-hand trench combat. The weather took a turn for the worse, with rain and autumn mist, at around the time that the Battle of Ginchy came to its head on 9-10 September 1916. The fighting was intense: almost 200 were killed, wounded or missing by the end of the next day. Edward Cazalet was among them. He was 22.
Edward lies buried in Citadel New Military Cemetery, at Fricourt on the Somme. His name is recorded on the war memorials of both Shipbourne and Plaxtol.
In December 1916, Victor visited his brother’s grave and wrote words of simple and desperately sad reassurance to their mother:
‘It was all that I could have hoped for, very neat and tidy and just as he would have liked. It is a quiet spot and the birds fly about.’
© New Moons For Old 2016