“I don’t suppose you like WAR any better than you expected.”
-Gerda Robertson to D.H. Robertson, 21 Sept 1917 (Robertson A1/11/21)
Dennis Holme Robertson was admitted to Trinity College in 1908. Originally studying Classics, he switched to Economics in 1910. He received scholarships for both subjects and was in the first class of the Classics (Part I) and Economics (Part II) Tripos. He was also heavily involved with amateur dramatics in Cambridge, for which he was highly praised.
Although unpublished, Robertson was also an accomplished poet in his student days, winning the Chancellor’s Medal for English Verse in three consecutive years (1909-11.)
While common narratives regarding contemporary attitudes to the Great War focus on the extremes of pro-war patriotism on the one side and pacifism and conscientious objection on the other, some individuals, like Robertson, felt discomfort both with military action and outright neutrality. Before the outbreak in 1914, Robertson was a member of both Cambridge’s Officer Training Corps (OTC) and the pacifist War and Peace Society. Butler explains this as preparing for the inevitable, asserting that “no one could have hated militarism more whole-heartedly… but he prepared himself for the impending war by joining [the OTC]” (1963, p.20). However, Robertson joined the OTC in 1911, long before war was inevitable.
Even within his membership of the War and Peace Society, he expresses conflicting views, writing in both the context of preventing war and of its appeal (An Open Letter to One who wants to Stop the War and A Reminiscence by a Territorial Officer.) His reluctance to openly support either cause is demonstrated in the fact that both articles were anonymous, attributed simply to “a territorial officer.” Even when lobbying with the British Neutrality League in the House of Commons on 4th August, 1914, he was careful to not imply any German sympathies. He wrote, “There’s no question of being pro German anyway, after all that”. (Aug 5th 1914, Robertson A1/13/1.)
“In the event of my death, there are certain matters concerning me about which misunderstandings may arise and about which I should like you to be fully informed…
My connection…with the British Neutrality League…will probably, if I live, ruin my career, and may even if I die be brought up against me”
– to A.J. Robertson, 1916 (Robertson A4/1).
Later in the War, Robertson expressed anxiety about jeopardising his reputation or future career prospects through pacifism. It must have been particularly clear to him in the midst of such cases as that of Bertrand Russell that neutrality was far from the safe option, but his concern about his perceived neutrality, when twinned with “in the event of my death [in combat]”, seems baffling.
Service in WWI
Robertson wrote the following poem to his brother Malcolm, also a decorated soldier, in 1914:
Thus our old friendly midnight wrangles cease,
On the same mark our compasses are laid;
And you who worshipped War must fight for Peace,
And I who strove for Peace come forth to aid.
So fare you well across the misty sea: –
And be it said, when this vile madness ends,
That towards the building of the world to be
There went “the laughter and the love of friends.”- (Robertson D9/1, pictured below)
A sense of duty no doubt played a part in Robertson’s early enlistment, but this does not explain why he never attempted a more pacifist route of service, for instance with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit instead of the army. In Fletcher’s account (2000, p. 72), Robertson’s sudden willingness for service came from a romantic, escapist view of war, illustrated in his 1912 poem Salisbury Plain:
Shall we forget in those prosaic days
How we rode forth out amateurish ways
And stormed the folly-wood and held that bridge
And charged the convoy from that distant ridge?
Surely peace claims us first:
Yet if fate send the worst
And the shrapnel-cloud of madness burst
Out of the leaden sky,
Who knows that even I
Who am fitter to work for England with my brain
And think for her and write for her
Than ride for her and fight for her,
May not come forth and join you once again
In memory of those days upon the plain?
– from Salisbury Plain, 1912 (Robertson D9/3/8).
His later Reminiscence by a Territorial Officer (1915) expresses this view even more directly:
“You must inquire whether desire for adventure as compared with desire for domination does not play a much larger part than you had realised [in the attraction to military enlistment]…and whether you cannot devise for us all some kind of ‘return to nature’ sufficiently alluring to satiate the savage in our breasts.” – (Robertson D5/4)
If this was Robertson’s reasoning, it was fortunate that he gained the post he did, as a transport officer in the 1/11th London Regiment as part of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. A transport officer was not routinely sent to the front line and he was posted only to the secondary theatres of the war. The exotic locations of his deployment also gave him the opportunity to experience some of the promised adventure, and many of his more poetic letters describe the “still beautiful country” around him, such as his encounter with the Great Sphinx of Giza in 1916:
“You would like the Sphinx; from one side she smiles at your foolishness and from the other she frowns at your wickedness and from in front she looks straight through and beyond you without comment.” – to Ainslie J. Robertson (Robertson A1/13 10)
In his role, Robertson avoided not only the Western Front, but missed out on the costly battle of Suvla Bay. Whilst presumably bound for Gallipoli with the rest of his Division, he was detained in England – first by a bout of jaundice and subsequently by employment in the Ministry of Munitions. By the time he re-joined his regiment in March 1916, the most dangerous campaign of the Middle Eastern theatre had been abandoned. Yet things could have been very different –originally trained as a cavalryman, “the war office bungled [his] commission” (letter to Keynes, 19 Nov 1914, L/R/6 KPKC.) Had they not done so, he would almost certainly have returned from the war with a less positive impression, had he returned at all.
Perhaps it was shame about the comparative lack of danger he faced, or his conflicted feelings on war as a whole, that contributed to Robertson’s reaction to the Military Cross he was awarded in 1917, for which he was promoted to Captain. More than just humble, Robertson was secretive enough about the achievement that he subsequently worried his family may have thought it was a posthumously awarded Victoria Cross.
“The last bears date June 13 and brings kind congratulations on M.C. [Military Cross] for which many thanks. I’m sorry I was so stupid about it, – it struck me afterwards and I’m only thankful an impulsive family didn’t rush to the conclusion it was a V.C. or DSO, and publish broadcast accordingly!” – (Robertson A1/13 13)
Robertson survived the war and went on to a successful career as an economist, the majority of his working years spent as a fellow of Trinity College (1914 to 1938 and 1944 to 1963.) He died in 1963 at the age of 72.
Butler, J.R.M. (1963) ‘Sir Dennis Robertson, CMG, MC, FBA,’ in Trinity College Cambridge: Annual Record 1962-1963, pp. 40-2, Cambridge: Trinity College.
Fletcher, Gordon (2000) Understanding Dennis Robertson: The Man and His Work. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.