Private Lord Crawford: an average soldier

David Alexander Edward Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford and 10th Earl of Balcarres (1871-1940), by George Charles Beresford

David Alexander Edward Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford and 10th Earl of Balcarres (1871-1940), by George Charles Beresford

The Gallery’s Board of Trustees continued to meet throughout the First World War although their numbers were depleted as younger members enlisted to serve in His Majesty’s Forces and the public galleries were closed. 

One notable and unexpected absence from meetings between April 1915 and December 1916 was that of the Board’s Vice Chairman, David Alexander Edward Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford and 10th Earl of Balcarres.  Lord Crawford was an eminent politician and energetic supporter of the arts, born into one of the premier families in Scotland, chief of the Lindsay clan and chairman of the family firm Wigan Coal and Iron Company. 

At the outbreak of war in 1914, he shared with a small but well informed group of realists a fear of what lay ahead and in March 1915, appalled by the extent of British casualties at Neuve Chapelle in Flanders, he was driven to join up to serve his country. This was an unusual step for a married man of forty-three; but even more extraordinary, for a public figure and peer of the realm, was his decision to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC).


‘Buried where they fell’.  A view of Neuve Chapelle.  Illustrated London News 10 April 1915, p. 474

‘Buried where they fell’. A view of Neuve Chapelle. Illustrated London News 10 April 1915, p. 474

Crawford's decision interrupted a distinguished career in public life as well as his commitments at the Gallery. At the start of the year Gallery finances weighed heavily and Crawford was engaged in battle with the Treasury about unspent balances of grant-in-aid and at the last Board meeting he attended in February 1915 a letter from the Treasury was tabled that announced the suspension of the purchase grant for ‘so long as the war lasts’.


No. 12 Casualty Clearing Station, Hazebrouck.  Reproduced by kind permission of the Royal Army Medical Services Museum.

No. 12 Casualty Clearing Station, Hazebrouck. Reproduced by kind permission of the Royal Army Medical Services Museum.

It was not long after this that he followed three of his gardeners into the RAMC and began his training at Aldershot. In May he was assigned to No. 12 Casualty Clearing Station based at Hazebrouck, about fifteen miles behind the main line running south from Ypres in Flanders.

The role of the clearing stations was to check the wounded and prepare them for either return to the front or transfer to a base hospital for further treatment. As a medical orderly, Crawford's main task was to maintain the operating theatres, including stretcher bearing duties.

‘After the day’s work in Flanders’.  An ambulance convoy.  Illustrated London News 10 July 1915, p. 33

‘After the day’s work in Flanders’. An ambulance convoy. Illustrated London News 10 July 1915, p. 33

 Crawford kept a diary throughout his life and the extensive entries he made in France provide a personal insight into the day-to-day lives of the medical orderlies: the grind and tedium of the work and the horror of war seen from the perspective of the clearing station.

21 June 1915 - Spent practically the whole morning scrubbing walls, windows and floor of the apartment which is to be called the operating theatre.

11 July 1915 - Two hundred cases arrived today. I was in the theatre all day - five cases under anaesthetic, two of amputation of fingers, two on one man, three from another - also a terrific bullet wound entering the back of the thigh and issuing above the knee after travelling round the thigh bone.

Crawford embraced his new role at the clearing station, describing himself as an ‘average soldier’. However, the views he expressed in his diary were coloured by his background and age and he was often critical of what he saw around him - in particular the untrained ‘spoilt young swankers’ commissioned as officers:

12 September 1915 - The new-born officer is just as standoffish as ever was the old pre-war officer - more so I fancy in some cases where the officer is forever perched upon a precarious dignity. We come into contact with so many who never commanded more than a squad of clerks or accountants five months ago and whose heads are now turned by the importance of their position as sub-lieutenants.


Extract from the diary of Private Lord Crawford, 14 January 1916.  Reproduced by kind permission of Lord Balniel.

Extract from the diary of Private Lord Crawford, 14 January 1916. Reproduced by kind permission of Lord Balniel.

14 January 1916 – We have only just got rid of an exceptionally tiresome and ill-behaved officer, which set me again thinking how serious is the danger involved by the new type of newly joined officers ... I have come across scores, I might say hundreds, who are utterly incompetent to lead men, to inspire confidence or respect, to enforce discipline, to behave even as gentlemen. This war is going to be won by the NCOs and men, not by the commissioned ranks.

‘After the day’s work in Flaa‘The King’s car approaches’.  Visit of King George V to Flanders.  Illustrated London News 6 November 1915, p. 581nders’.  An ambulance convoy.  Illustrated London News 10 July 1915, p. 33

‘The King’s car approaches’. Visit of King George V to Flanders. Illustrated London News 6 November 1915, p. 581

On 27 October 1915 a visit by King George V caused a flurry of excitement at clearing station and Crawford reported in his diary that the nurses busied themselves preparing tea, baking scones, erecting palm trees in new green flower posts and rehearsing curtsying in the hall. However, he went on:

All I saw of King George was a motor car of superb design, flying past our front door at forty miles an hour.


‘The return from the front’.  Victoria Station.  By Richard Jack (1866-1952).  Illustrated London News 6 May 1916, p. 591

‘The return from the front’. Victoria Station. By Richard Jack (1866-1952). Illustrated London News 6 May 1916, p. 591

Crawford was granted special leave to visit his wife and new born daughter in January 1916 and afterwards, on route back to France, he passed through Victoria Station and observed the mood among the crowds gathered to say farewell to departing soldiers:

13 January 1916 - A quiet crowd ... Now and then the laughter of strained merriment, dim cheering as one train after another left the bay - farewells throttled in sobs of those who stayed to see the train actually steam out.


‘In a section retaken by the Division Mangin’.  French troops at Verdun.  Illustrated London News 27 May 1916, p. 673

‘In a section retaken by the Division Mangin’. French troops at Verdun. Illustrated London News 27 May 1916, p. 673

A month after his return to Hazebrouck, Germany commenced it bombardment of Verdun - a campaign that continued until November - and in his diary Crawford wondered at the human cost:

23 March 1916 - The fighting goes on at Verdun. Germany gains little ground and suffers heavy loss - but how long can France stand her casualty lists? Their army is big but its wastage has been immense and they have smaller reserves to fall back on.

On the anniversary of his arrival in France, while acknowledging that his experiences had eased his stricken conscience after Neuve Chapelle, Crawford wrote:

12 May 1916 - I do not wish to celebrate a second anniversary out here. None do, even the freshest arrival quickly acquires a horror of it all, and it is only for newspaper consumption that we hear of wounded men at home longing to 'have another shot at the Germans'.


‘In the centre of Mametz’. The Battle of the Somme.  Illustrated London News 22 July 1916, p. 91

‘In the centre of Mametz’. The Battle of the Somme. Illustrated London News 22 July 1916, p. 91

During June Crawford noted in his diary considerable movement of troops and rumours that two large churches were to be cleared for hospital purposes. These were among the preparations on the ground for a big attack at the Somme, which began in July. Crawford visited Mametz Wood on the Somme a few days after the British attack started and saw first-hand the devastation of battle:

7 July 1916 - What a scene of desolation is this area of battle. One stumbles across a corpse distended by gangrene, half hidden by luxuriant flowers, and then a few yards further on a patch of land from which every vestige of vegetation has been completely burned. What is marked on the map as a wood is in reality a seared row of skeleton trees. This is the most violent and wasteful of all the invasions of nature which a bombardment involves.

This was one of the last entries Crawford made in France as the following day he received a cipher telegram persuading him to return to London to join the coalition cabinet as Minister of Agriculture.


Note from Lord Crawford, 20 July 1916 (NPG 104/7/2)

Note from Lord Crawford, 20 July 1916 (NPG 104/7/2)

In spite of the national importance of his new role and all that he witnessed first-hand in Flanders, it was with some reluctance that he accepted the appointment and relinquished service at the front. Afterwards, when congratulated on his cabinet position by the Gallery’s Director, Charles Holmes, Crawford hurriedly scribbled a terse response from his house in Audley Square:

‘But don’t congratulate me! What I want is condolence.’

 


Extracts from the diaries of Lord Crawford are reproduced by kind permission of Lord Balniel.

Private Lord Crawford’s Great War Diaries, edited by Christopher Arnander were published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, in 2013.