“If you return home safely while your old father is living, it will be truly the crowning joy of his long life.” – H.M. Butler to J.R.M. and G.K.M. Butler, 13 August, 1915
Every family in Britain was touched by the Great War and the Butler family was no exception. Henry Montagu Butler (1833-1918), Master of Trinity from 1886 to 1918, saw the College through the war years while his three sons from his second marriage volunteered to go to war. The letters between father and sons show a glimpse into the lives of a family closely connected both to Trinity College and to the Great War.
James Ramsay Montagu Butler (1889-1975) was born in Trinity College and was known later as a historian and his father’s biographer. He read Classics and History at Trinity and excelled academically, gaining a double first. He was also president of the Cambridge Union, the University’s celebrated debating society. James joined the Scottish Horse Regiment at the outbreak of war and served in Gallipoli and Egypt. In 1916, he joined the War Office as a General Staff Officer (Major). He was mentioned in Dispatches twice during his active service and awarded an O.B.E. in 1919.
The youngest brother was Nevile Montagu Butler (1893-1973), who was in Germany at the outbreak of war. On 6th November, the German military authorities began arresting British male civilians between 17 and 55 years of age. Nevile was held in the Ruhleben internment camp along with over 4,000 other foreign nationals who were in Germany at the beginning of the war. Despite the best efforts of his family and friends to secure his release, Nevile was held until March 1915, when he was transferred to stay with a German family and then allowed to leave the country.
On returning to Britain, Nevile Butler received a commission as Second Lieutenant in the Household Battalion. The Household Battalion was formed in 1916 from soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Life Guard and the Royal Horse Guard in order to help fill the emptying ranks on the Western Front. Nevile was lucky to survive; the Battalion sustained heavy losses, including 13 officers, during its 14 months of existence. After the war, he went on to become an ambassador, and was Knighted for his diplomatic services.
“How can I write about this dear, dear most loveable boy?” H.M. Butler to J.R.M. Butler, 21 July, 1916
The middle brother, Gordon Kerr Montagu Butler (b. 1891), was a Lieutenant in the Scottish Horse and fought in Gallipoli and Egypt alongside James. While in Gallipoli, he found out from his father that he had narrowly missed out on being elected a Fellow of Trinity. He received a bullet wound to the thigh in 1915 and died on service in Egypt in 1916. H.M. Butler wrote this letter to James on hearing of Gordon’s death, saying, “Little did I dream when I wrote to you yesterday… that he was no longer with you – no longer to be seen and talked with and laughed with.”
See also our interactive timeline of World War I for a look at some of the events that shaped Trinity’s wartime experience.