‘This doomsday’: the Trevelyans in the First World War

RCT/23/1: Robert Trevelyan’s identity card for the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee.

On 27 October, 1918, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson wrote a postcard to his friend, Robert Trevelyan, the poet, playwright, and classicist, wishing that the war could be resolved as easily as their latest postal game of chess; instead, it still seemed to ‘hang on a razor’s edge’.

RCT15/8: Letter from Robert to his son Julian written in November 1918

Trevelyan, whose papers in the Trinity archive are currently being catalogued, was in France, working for the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. Earlier in the war he had sheltered the conscientious objector, poet John Rodker, and when he himself was called up, friends such as the art historian Desmond MacCarthy wrote to the Military Tribunal attesting that his pacifism was lifelong and not merely adopted as an excuse to avoid active service. The Tribunal accepted this, and allowed him to work with the Quakers instead. Letters from Robert to his young son Julian survive in the Trinity archives, in which he describes working on a farm which bred animals to be sold cheaply to French farmers who had lost their stock in the war and visiting Sermaize-les-Bains, destroyed in the first battle of the Marne, where the inhabitants lived in wooden huts built for them by the FWVRC. He also put together a library for relief workers. He writes of his hope that ‘there will be no more wars while I am alive, or while you are alive either’.

RCT/42/9: Photograph c.1896 of the three brothers with their parents (L to R: Charles, George, Robert)

Robert and his two brothers, who all attended Trinity, provide a microcosm in one family of the range of attitudes towards the First World War. His elder brother, Charles, was a Liberal MP, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education, who resigned from the government in August 1914 in protest at British military intervention against Germany, and with others such as Ramsay MacDonald and Bertrand Russell was a founder and key advocate of the Union of Democratic Control, which strongly opposed conscription and war censorship. He thereby incurred much personal criticism in the press.

RCT14/101: Letter from George to Robert written just after the end of the war

The third brother, George Macaulay Trevelyan, later Regius Professor of History at Cambridge and Master of Trinity, was also horrified by the outbreak of war which he called ‘this doomsday’. Julian Huxley recalled in his “Memories” that on hearing the news, George ‘buried his head in his hands on the breakfast table, and looked up weeping’. However, he believed that once the war had begun it was necessary to continue fighting and to win; he wrote to Robert that he had ‘never admired Charles more’, and that the anti-war side had a ‘most useful part to perform’, but that though he accepted a share of blame for Britain he held that the German militarists must be defeated. He was judged medically unfit for military service, and so in autumn 1915 he took up the command of the first British Red Cross ambulance unit sent to Italy and served there until the end of the war, displaying notable bravery for which he was decorated by the Italian government.

All three Trevelyan brothers were convinced of the horror of war; all believed in November 1918 that everything possible should be done to ensure that such a disaster never occurred again.

Papers from the Trevelyan archive are currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.