Julian Grenfell, the eldest son of William Henry Grenfell and Ettie Grenfell, later Lord and Lady Desborough, was born in London, England. The family home was Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire. Julian’s father, a celebrated sportsman and his mother, a renowned society hostess, were members of ‘the Souls’, a group of influential artistic and intellectual aristocrats.
From childhood, Julian drew and wrote poems. He had a deeply-felt response to nature and loved outdoor pursuits, his dogs and horses. At Eton he won the Jelf prize for Latin verse and wrote for and edited college magazines. Efforts by his mother to involve him in her social world resulted in a rebellious early poem, ‘I Won’t be Made a Social Pet!’ At Oxford he was regarded as a ‘golden boy’ who ‘did everything and shone in them all. He rowed, and he hunted, and he read and he roared with laughter, and he cracked his whip in the quad all night; he bought greyhounds from the miller of Hambleden, boxed all the local champions; capped poetry with the most precious of the dons and charmed everybody . . . ‘the only things he couldn’t stand were pose or affectation’ (Lawrence Jones).
Grenfell wrote a series of essays criticising what he felt were the contradictions of contemporary society. Overwork, illness and disappointment in his romantic affairs, coupled with rejection of his ideas, led to a breakdown, with the result that he received only a pass degree.
After Oxford, in 1910, Grenfell joined the Royal Dragoons, a heavy cavalry regiment. At first stationed in India and then South Africa, he continued to draw and to write – poems, comical plays for his men to perform and articles for the regimental magazine. A poem from this time, ‘To a Black Greyhound’, expresses the close affinity he felt with animals. He read the work of Rupert Brooke, which he loved. He toyed with the idea of becoming an artist, but his family did not encourage his ambitions. By the summer of 1914, he was on the point of leaving the army. However, war was declared on 4th August and by early October, Grenfell was in France. He loved the outdoor life, the companionship of horses, dogs and men and the opportunity to throw himself into the fight for a noble cause. He gained a reputation for light-hearted courage and won the DSO. He was mentioned in dispatches and promoted to the rank of Captain. He refused a job as ADC, saying his regiment was short of officers and wrote a satirical poem, ‘Prayer for Those on the Staff’.
Grenfell’s best-known poem, ‘Into Battle’, was written at a time of confusion as he and his men waited to go up to the front near Ypres. It expresses his long-felt, almost mystical connection with the natural world and the fighting man’s place within it. On 13th May 1915, Grenfell was wounded by a shell-splinter to the head while monitoring enemy troop movements. He died on 26th May with his parents and his sister Monica, a Red Cross nurse, at his bedside. ‘Into Battle’ was published in ‘The Times’ together with the announcement of his death.
The poem was an inspiration to many in its own day and has been much anthologised since. Had he lived, Grenfell’s outlook and his poetry may have changed as disillusion and anger were engendered by protracted trench warfare and needless mass slaughter.
Taplow Court, Grenfell’s home, is now owned by SGI-UK, a lay Buddhist society whose activities aim to contribute to a more just and peaceful world. The house and grounds are open to the public at advertised times during the Summer and to groups throughout the year by appointment. A Julian Grenfell exhibition and series of related events were staged at Taplow Court during 2005, to mark the connections with the soldier-poet and his family and 90th anniversary of Julian’s death.