The Last of the Stanfords

In Vere Fane-Benett-Stanford, His Letters and Diary during the Great War, London, 1923 (henceforth abbreviated to Letters), a picture emerges of the last in the line of the Stanfords of Preston Manor, Brighton. Vere Fane-Benett-Stanford recorded many of his experiences of the First World War in his letters home to his family, and through these epistles we can see both a glimpse of his complex character, and what it must have been like to serve at the front.

Vere Fane-Benett-Stanford, c1920-1922, PMPHO000022
Vere Fane-Benett-Stanford, c1920-1922, PMPHO000022

Background

Vere Fane-Benett-Stanford (1894-1922), the last of the Stanfords of Preston, had a background, education, and personality typical of regular officers of the First World War.

Born into the landed gentry, he was brought up to understand farming and field sports. In the introduction to Vere’s wartime letters, his father, John Benett-Stanford (1870-1947), notes with pride that his son learnt to ride young. He used this skill to inspect the tenant farmers on the Wiltshire estate owned by his grandmother, Ellen Thomas-Stanford, ‘and thus learnt good farming from bad farming, which knowledge is so essential to an estate owner, which in due course we hoped he would become’ (Letters).

Vere’s education was also typical of his class. A few hours after Vere’s birth he was put down for his father’s old house at Eton. However, when attending his preparatory school at Fonthill, East Grinstead, which was noted for its harsh regime of flogging and poor food, Vere’s health declined. His father wrote: ‘he lost weight badly, and eventually we had him home just in time to prevent a more serious breakdown than did occur – frail, weak, and very highly strung…Considering that we have been obliged to entirely knock off all education for a year, and that a complete rest-cure after the Fonthill treatment was necessary, Vere did not take a bad place at Eton’ (Letters).

At his public school Vere’s mathematical abilities might have taken him to university, but he and his family were determined upon a military career. With his mathematical ability he entered Woolwich, the training establishment for artillery officers. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery in July 1913, when he was nineteen years old, just one year before the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Writing Home

 

A Portrait of a Young Man

Vere served with the light artillery (eighteen-pounder guns) throughout the war, apart from his periods of leave and recuperation. This meant that, although he was not an infantry officer, he endured an existence very close to the front line, with all its dangers and discomforts. It also meant that when serving as a forward observation officer he could actually see the enemy he killed by bringing down artillery fire on them.

In his letters home to his family, Vere’s responses to the war are recorded. However, these letters probably do not give a complete picture – they are selective and there are no letters to his friends and contemporaries that might have revealed other aspects of his character. The letters present a picture of the officer-gentleman that Vere’s family expected.

Vere's father, John Benett-Stanford (1870-1947), PMPHO000016
Vere’s father, John Benett-Stanford (1870-1947), PMPHO000016

Notable omissions

There are interesting absences from Vere’s letters. There is no mention of alcohol or sex, two important escapes for soldiers in the war. Whilst it can perhaps be seen why Vere would avoid these issues, there are other topics that one might expect to arise that are also not touched upon: Vere shows no interest in religion, another comfort or problem which figures in many letters from the front; there is also little in his letters concerning the “Just War”, or a willingness to sacrifice oneself for King and Country. Another theme present in so many other letters from the trenches, the comradeship of the front line, the breaking down of class barriers and the love and sympathy for others who one would not have met in peace time, is again absent from Vere’s letters home.

It is possible that the themes of religion, patriotism and comradeship that sustained “temporary gentlemen” (officers promoted from the ranks) and other ranks were not necessary for a professional soldier whose views were very different from those of the war poets. Instead, the letters present the views of a young man, physically brave, confident and conscientious, but limited in imagination and sympathy – perhaps luckily for him. Like most of those writing from the front, he asked for news of friends and relatives, but as important are enquiries concerning the health and progress of domestic animals.

Vere's grandmother, Ellen Benett-Stanford (later Thomas-Stanford), c1868, PMPHO000029
Vere’s grandmother, Ellen Benett-Stanford (later Thomas-Stanford), c1868, PMPHO000029

The Letters

 

Socks and Shell Cases

Vere’s letters home contained various requests for himself and his men. For himself, newspapers (the Daily Express), subscriptions to Punch and necessary luxuries such as thick underwear. For the men he required tobacco, cigarette papers and pipes, but not more knitwear, ‘here in the trenches we are over-socked’ (Letters). In the winter of 1915 conditions were bad, and he made a desperate plea among his relatives for gum boots: ‘send them as soon as possible, as the poor men, poor devils, will all get sick’ (Letters, 26/12/1915).

But the passage of goods was not all one way. He was a passionate collector of souvenirs, mainly pieces of used or unused ammunition: ‘Two of the large German howitzer shells of those they fired last night did not explode. I have buried them in a secret place i.e. have hidden them. As I cannot describe the place you must wait till the end of the war when we come and get them; they are pretty heavy weighing about 70 pounds. They might possibly as you suggest, be used as lamp standards, but I think they will be better as a weight to keep the doors open’ (Letters, 18/11/1914).

Danger and Discomfort

When Vere wrote directly about the war, his standpoint was that of a professional soldier trained to fight the king’s enemy, whoever and wherever they were. This job meant danger and discomfort, but as an officer and a gentleman one had to make light of both, and do one’s duty. This ethic was combined with a sense of superiority, based on a certainty of the correctness of one’s own behaviour when compared with the failings of others – the French, Germans, territorial units and non-gentlemen.

The French were despised for their slovenliness, their unreliability and, above all, their bad horse management. The Germans were efficient, worthy enemies, but cruel. For the men of his own army Vere shared the prejudices of other regular officers. The territorial battery he visited were slack and nervy. It was not up to regular army standards, although he admitted that some territorial units were up to scratch. Vere was also contemptuous of staff officers and gleefully wrote about the discomfort of two “red tabs” during a short tour of the trenches when he deliberately led them across open ground exposed to German shellfire. He was puzzled by officers in his battery who were only temporary gentlemen.

Men and Horses

Vere’s letters home were greatly concerned with the men, guns and horses of his own battery, and his experience of living and fighting with them. The men and horses both needed to be cared for, organised and treated with stern but fair authority. He described ‘two terrible occurrences’ which illustrate the ambivalence, and perhaps skewed prioritising, of his feelings for the men and horses under his care. First, a vivid description of his favourite team of horses blundering off the road, and some of them drowning in a shell-torn swamp, is written with great feeling, demonstrating his grief for the loss of the horses. Shortly afterwards he wrote that a German shell exploded in a dug-out sheltering eight of his signallers: ‘it burst inside and killed the majority. Five men killed, two badly wounded….Poor devils, they did not know much about it’ (Letters, 28/8/1916).

Many officers found the duty of censoring their men’s letters embarrassing or moving. Vere, however, was amused by the ignorance, illiteracy and crude patriotism of the letters he read. Yet he was concerned with the comfort and welfare of his men, and was himself proud of being an efficient officer in maintaining and working the guns.

 

Attitudes to the war

 

Trench Humour

Vere’s responses to the war show courage and a crude, juvenile sense of humour. He is amused after crossing a stretch of open ground where he might have been sniped to discover that fellow officers had run a sweepstake on his survival. He was also amused when his sergeant was severely electrocuted on picking up the end of a live cable. Even an incident in which a terrified group of lunatics trapped by shell fire in no-man’s land had its comic side: ‘If it was not very sad it would be intensely funny’ (Letters, 7/11/1914).

War Games

His main task, killing Germans, was seen as a field sport which was made more interesting because the quarry shot back. In November 1914 he wrote: ‘The last days I have been doing forward observation. It is great fun; 1) You have to dodge the snipers 2) you have to dodge the shrapnel 3) you have to dodge the “coal boxes” (heavy shells).’ But such risks in forward observation had their compensations: ‘My favourite game is sniping. Sniping with a rifle isn’t in it compared with an eighteen pounder. It is not an easy job to kill a man two and half miles away, but every now and again I get them plumb. One day I killed five with two shells. It made up for a lot of misses’ (Letters, 20/4/1916).

Toy soldiers, TYTMP000558
Toy soldiers, TYTMP000558

A Change of Heart

This robust attitude to war changed over time. First the discomfort and then the danger began to erode his cheerful disposition. ‘The trenches are in a most awful state. I fell into one place up to my middle in slush. The trenches are really all rivers and absolutely beastly’ (Letters,8/2/1915). He welcomes the Christmas truce of 1914 and was glad when it went on into January in his sector because one could stroll around above the trenches. In 1915 he wrote: ‘it will be a great relief when we get to an end of this war…you have no idea of how one longs for a meal decently presented.’

Early on he is amused by ‘the funk’ of those who hide from shells. But courage is a wasting asset. On 28 July 1916 he voices his fear of the new gas: ‘The Huns are using a new type of gas…There is very little smell, no lachrymatory effect but it makes the skin of your mouth, throat and tongue curl up and frizzle. It is very deadly, we had to keep our respirators on all night’. The pressures of war are also evident in when he writes on 30 October 1916: ‘It is filthy cold. Also this eternal shelling gets on one’s nerves. I think it is one of the few experiences there are where “familiarity breeds contempt” is entirely wrong.’

On the whole, however, Vere retains a stoic restraint: ‘Poor Major Johnston has been killed, a dreadful loss, such a charming man.’ When he is wounded at the end of March 1917 he similarly downplays his own situation: ‘Darling mum, I’m an ass. I have caught a large bit, a small bit, I don’t know which, of a 4.2 shell. No real damage done’ (Letters, 28/3/1917).

Home At Last

After recuperating, Vere returned to the front. However, a few weeks later, at the end of April 1917, he got his “Blighty Wound” and returned to England to sit out the war. Here his letters from the front end, and there is surprisingly little information about his last years. Vere Fane-Benett-Stanford ended the war as a major with his own battery and a Military Cross. Nothing in his war time experiences led him to question, much less reject, a military career. The pleasures of peace time soldiering beckoned, but it was not to be…

The Lost Generation

Vere Benett-Stanford and his son John Benett-Stanford at Pythouse, c1872, PMPHO000060
Vere’s namesake, Vere Benett-Stanford (1839-94) and his son (Vere’s father), John Benett-Stanford at Pythouse c1872, PMPHO000060

 

After the War

After surviving the First World War, Vere Fane-Benett-Stanford intended to make a career as a regular army officer. However, only a few years later, on 30 May 1922, he died of tuberculosis in a Swiss sanatorium. His death was part of the larger tragedy of “The Lost Generation”. Although the death-toll of the First World War had little demographic impact, the effect of those losses on British society was incalculable. The young poets killed in the war are well known, but there were also young musicians, artists, scientists – many talented people whose lives were cut short and who never fulfilled their promise. It was said at the time that Britain had lost the best of a generation.

 

Part of this lost generation were the young aristocrats and landed gentry whose death sometimes brought with it the end of the family name. Such was the case with Vere Fane-Benett-Stanford. This class had strong links with the regular army and suffered heavy casualties from the earliest stages of the war.

Differing Opinions

Since his early death was related to his service on the Western Front, and the harsh conditions he inhabited there, Vere became one of those who “made the final sacrifice”. The anguish of those left mourning could be softened by the belief that the death had been necessary and heroic. Running counter to this, however, was the opinion that the horrors of the Western Front had been in vain, that generals had carelessly wasted young lives and the war itself had served no useful purpose.

 

Conditions on the Western Front

There is no available medical evidence for his time at Woolwich or when he was commissioned into the artillery, but we must assume Vere was judged fit for front-line duty in 1914. However, living conditions on the Western Front were such as to test even the most robust constitutions; losses from disease and exposure often exceeded those from direct enemy action. Officers escaped some of the worst rigours experienced by other ranks, but they still suffered great hardship for long periods.

Life in the trenches meant lice, fleas, rats, and the presence of decaying bodies. Frequently it meant rain or snow, deep mud or frozen slush endured without regular sleep or food and accompanied by the anxiety of death only yards or minutes away. Most minor wounds or ailments had to be endured in the line, as only the most seriously ill would be evacuated. Venereal disease, trench foot, trench fever and scabies were almost regarded as Self Inflicted Wounds (SIW).

Officers

In general, officers got better treatment in their own wards or hospitals, and usually they were given a longer period of convalescence. The most significant difference was in the attitude to the psychological casualty. The men who finally experienced a psychological collapse after prolonged exposure to the horrors of war were officially viewed with suspicion and often treated as malingerers. It was considered that there were brave men who would always be brave, and others who had to be cajoled into doing their duty. The latter had to be told to “pull themselves together”.

Men who had served in the trenches realised that everyone had their breaking point, but it was not until the Second World War that, with the idea of battle fatigue, that the notion gained wider support. Many men who were shot for desertion or cowardice in the First World War would have been put in hospital in the Second.

Officers had a lower rate of mental breakdown, possibly because they had more responsibility, more power, and were in control of the immediate situation. They also received more considerate treatment when they suffered from nervous breakdown. Vere would have been only slightly protected from the hardship of trench life; his physical and mental health would have been sapped over a long period of time, but as an officer and gentleman he bore the suffering stoically – underestimating the horror of his situation he carried on for as long as possible with his duties.

 

Vere’s Death

 

The Gas Attack

It was to be expected that a conservative and patriotic family like the Stanfords would make the early death of their last heir into a heroic event. There is an account (a typed obituary at Preston Manor) which attributes Vere’s death from tuberculosis three years after the war to a single event on the Western Front. According to this obituary, which was published by his grandmother in the local paper, Vere gave up his gas mask to a sergeant during a German gas attack. His lungs were exposed to the full force of the fumes and were consequently weakened and made susceptible to the tuberculosis bacillus.

An obituary for Vere Fane-Benett-Stanford, published by his grandmother, Ellen Thomas-Stanford, in the local paper
An obituary for Vere Fane-Benett-Stanford, published by his grandmother, Ellen Thomas-Stanford, in the local paper

This account presents a very heroic act, and one that has curious resonances with the story of Sir Philip Sidney at Zutphen, who gave his water to a wounded common soldier. The story has become part of local folklore, but there is no available evidence to validate it. There is no mention of the incident in the scrap-book collated by Ellen Thomas-Stanford from material relating to the family during the First World War.

In his own letters home Vere mentions gas as an unpleasant and frightening weapon but he only records one incident when he was slightly gasses: ‘We have all recovered now from our slight gassing, Straubenzie was really bad, his helmet broke as he put it on, so he had to unravel his other one. I also had a very bad headache for the rest of the week’ (Letters, April 1916).

In a footnote to this incident his father suggests that this was the episode which caused the weakness in Vere’s lungs that made them easy targets for tuberculosis bacillus. But it is not the dramatic event depicted in the obituary and it is someone else caught without his gas-mask. There is no evidence that Vere was ever evacuated from the trenches as a gas casualty, and even Straubenzie stayed with the battery until he was wounded with Vere in 1917.

An Alternative Explanation

The causes of his death were perhaps more complex than the version put forward by his family and accepted by public memory, but no less sad. In the first place, Vere did not have a robust constitution, and, on top of that, the hardship of life on the Western Front undermined his health. Finally, the disease itself was not diagnosed until it had reached an advanced condition.

Although a member of the sports loving country gentry, there is evidence that as a boy Vere had a weak constitution. He was unable to withstand the Spartan rigours of his first prep school, having to be withdrawn and nursed back to health at home, and after this he attended a school for delicate boys at Ashdown house, Forest Row.

 

Vere’s Decline

 

Trench Fever

There is some evidence of Vere’s physical ill health within his letters. He frequently complains of colds he cannot get rid of. In May 1915, he went down with trench fever, a disease akin to typhus and spread by the excretion of infected lice. He went home to convalesce and did not return to the Western Front until the end of the year. On 16 November, a relative of the family, himself a serving officer, wrote to Vere’s grandmother: ‘I am surprised to hear how light Vere is. He ought to be more than 9.8 with his 6.2 of stature. It is unfortunate that his return should be at such a bad season of weather as he is not too robust and the weather over there is very cold’ (letter from H.V.Benett to Mrs Thomas-Stanford).

The Wound

Vere’s experience of the Western Front ended in the spring of 1917. Initially he was wounded by shell splinters in a town behind the lines on 29 March. He played the incident down; ‘Darling mum, I am an ass. I have caught a large bit, a small bit, I don’t know which, of a 4.2 shell. No real damage done’ (Letters, 29/3/1917). He returned to his battery, but a month later occurred the event which put him out of the war: a German shell landed on his dug-out, killing the two other officers with him, and burying him in rubble. He was rescued, and directed fire of his battery with two burst eardrums. Finally, in agony, he had to report in sick. His father comments: ‘he was really badly shell-shocked and was sent home sick for nearly a year.’

There is, unfortunately, hardly any available evidence concerning Vere in the year and a half (from April 1917 to November 1918) that he was away from the war. He was not severely enough wounded to be invalided out of the army. The burst ear drums could not have resulted in a major loss of hearing and by the autumn of 1918 he had resumed military duties on Salisbury Plain. However, he was almost certainly mentally and physically exhausted.

The Collapse

A similar lack of evidence pertains to the years after the Armistice. Vere returned to France in November 1918 as a battery commander with a Military Cross, with the intention of staying on in the peace-time army. He served with an expeditionary force in Turkey in 1919 and then went out to Burma ‘feeling horribly sick’ to serve as ADC to his father’s cousin Sir Vere Fane, an officer commanding British troops in Burma. His father wrote: ‘He had not been there more than a fortnight before he absolutely collapsed and a charming PMIO discovered he was suffering from tuberculosis, which he had contracted owing to the lungs being made very good hosts to the bacillus by being badly gassed earlier in the war’ (Letters). Vere took one year sick leave on full pay, followed by one year sick leave on half pay, before resigning his commission.

Mis-diagnosis

This brings us to the third cause of Vere’s early death. His father tells us that his illness was twice mis-diagnosed as ‘Flu’. This was probably a common error during the period of the Spanish Influenza epidemic which caused so many deaths worldwide in the immediate post-war period. However, it was a disaster for Vere. There were antibiotics available until 1920 to effect a quick cure for tuberculosis. At that period the only hope was for an early diagnosis and a quality of nursing that could only be afforded by the rich. The family was able to afford the care but the diagnosis came too late.

The Last of the Stanfords

There were, evidently, a number of factors that probably contributed to Vere’s death: wounds, disease, mis-diagnosis, the conditions in the trenches, his less than robust constitution. Whatever the combination, Vere Fane-Benett-Stanton died in 1922 in a Swiss sanitorium, bringing to an end the line of the Stanfords of Preston, Brighton.

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