Labours of the Month: February

Detail of an illuminated manuscript
A man warming his foot by the fire from a 13th century English Psalter. Trin MS B.11.4, f.i verso.

After the feasting and relaxing by the fire in January and another cold, dark month stretching before us, February may call for more indoor pursuits. Indeed, in one common scheme for the labours of the months, February’s labour is to sit by the fire, as the gentleman in B.11.4 is doing above. On the manuscript page below, the miniature shows a church scene for the labour of the month, with a priest sprinkling worshipers with an aspergil. While not particularly cosy, at least spending time in church would keep you out of February’s icy winds.

Illuminated book of hours
February from Trin MS B.11.22, f.1v

However, according to the illustration in B.11.31, February’s labour should be planting.

Painted miniature from a book of hours - a man digging and another planting seeds
February’s labour of the month, presumably made more laborious by the fact that the ground is still frozen. From Trin MS B.11.31, f.2r

While this may seem like bad advice to us in Britain, anticipating more frost and snow, this book is French in origin and this illustration may be the product of the warmer, more southern climate. Indeed, Books of Hours can often be generally located by agricultural clues such as when in the year planting and harvesting are said occur, and by how prominently wine production features in the list of labours. So, while the owners of the manuscripts above may have huddled into church in February, further south where the 15th century French book was produced, peasants may have been starting to sow seeds already.

Two pages of an illuminated book of hours
Trin MS B.11.31, ff.1v/2r.

In addition to February’s most famous Feast Day, that of St. Valentine, there are many other February Feast Days listed in medieval calendars. For example, 2nd February was an important religious festival called Candlemas, also known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Feast of the Purification of Mary or, as it is noted in this manuscript, La notre dame chandeleur. 

So, welcome to February and happy birthday, Pisces! Now get out your shovels out.

Painting of two fish
Pisces from Trin MS B.11.31, f.2r

Labours of the Month: January

Illuminated book of hours
Kalendar page for January. Trin MS B.11.31, f.1r

Happy New Year! This year we will be featuring the Labours of the Months from a few of our medieval Books of Hours at the beginning of each month.

Books of Hours were popular devotional texts in the middle ages. That is, they were produced for the laity rather than monastics or clergy and as such they were as richly decorated as the patron could afford. The Kalendar page for January pictured above is typical of Books of Hours, with painted miniatures showing the presiding zodiac sign and the Labour of the Month. The pages list important Saints’ Feast Days and other important dates in the Christian year, very often in red and blue and sometimes gold, as seen above.

To start the year off as we mean to continue, January’s labour of the month is feasting (in case you didn’t get enough of that in December). Feasting figures in Books of Hours are often shown sitting in front of a fireplace, showing that it was decidedly a time of year for indoor pursuits. There were several feast days in January, most significantly Epiphany or Twelfth Night, celebrating the revelation of Christ to the Magi and marked the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was celebrated throughout the medieval Christian world, though the date varied depending on local tradition and which calendar was used (usually 5th January).

Image of a man feasting before a fire from Trin MS B.11.31, f.1r
Image of a man feasting in front of a fireplace from Trin MS B.11.31, f.1r

In medieval England, celebrations for Twelfth Night veered toward the anarchic and pagan, with the Lord of Misrule – appointed by chance to whoever found a bean in their slice of cake – presiding over the feast and giving orders as the rigid hierarchy was turned on its head. Other traditions from this time of year included Wassailing, based on the Anglo Saxon toast Wæs þu hæl, meaning “Be thou hale” or “Be in good health”. In the house-visiting Wassail tradition, peasants visited the home of their Landlord and sang carols in return for sweets or drink. Any Landlord found to be stingy with his “good cheer” was subject to curses and vandalism.

In cider-producing regions of England there was a variant of Wassailing known as Orchard-visiting Wassials. Participants went out to apple orchards and sang and drank to the health of the trees. They would make a racket to frighten away evil spirits and pour cider onto the roots of a tree as a sacrifice to ensure that the orchard would prosper in the coming year.

Painting from a book of hours
Aquarius, the zodiac sign for January, pouring water from a jug, from Trin MS B.11.31, f.1r.

So this January leave those austere New Year’s Resolutions behind and instead feast in front of a fire, sing to your favourite apple tree and hope that there’s a bean in your slice of cake.

Illuminated book of hours
January – a man sits in front of a cooking pot in a canopied fireplace. Below, Aquarius pouring water from a jug. From Trin MS B.11.22, f.1r

The images in this post come from Trin MS B.11.31, a 15th century French Book of Hours, and Trin MS B.11.22, a 13th century Flemish Book of Hours, both beautifully illuminated exemplars of their time periods.

Emprynted in thys manere: a book launch in the Wren Library

Statue of Lord Byron and projector screen
Book launch in the Wren Library.

Trinity College Library was honoured to host the launch of the exciting new book Emprynted in thys manere: Early printed treasures from Cambridge University Library on 23rd October in the Wren Library. The book was edited by Ed Potten and Emily Dourish, with contributions from various authors who, according to the Special Collections blog, “Each wrote on an item that fascinated them, with art historians alongside scientists, library curators alongside typographers, and notable celebrity authors,” including Sir David Attenborough, Professor Mary Beard, Sir Quentin Blake, Bamber Gascoigne and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Trinity’s own Librarian, Professor David McKitterick, contributed a chapter on a Dutch Book of Hours (Inc.5.E.3.10 [2890]) entitled, “The Start of a Project”. The event in the Wren included brief talks by the editors and a number of the contributors followed by a reception.

"Emprynted in thys manere", the book that ties in with the Private Lives of Print exhibition now on at the UL.
Emprynted in thys manere ties in with the Private Lives of Print exhibition now on at the University Library.


The reception for the book launch, hosted in the Wren Library.
The reception for the book launch, hosted in the Wren Library.

The book ties in with an exhibition now at Cambridge University Library (UL) in the Milstein Exhibition Centre, entitled Private lives of print: the use and abuse of books 1450-1550. A virtual version of the exhibition, including a number of interesting films, is available online.

Items on display include a unique copy of the Gutenberg Bible – Europe’s first printed book using moveable type – and over fifty other items. These range from beautifully bound, designed or illuminated texts to those that bear the marginal illustrations, accidental ink-spills and other signs of how they were handled by their owners. Ed Potten says:

“We tend to assume that books of this age and importance have always been treasured items treated with the utmost respect and care – but we forget that books were constantly being read, handed down, sold and scribbled upon. Many of the early printed books owned by the Library have every spare space covered with notes and scribbles.

“There is a temptation to view these marginalia and doodles as diminishing and devaluing the books, but it’s precisely these features that make them a joy to study. They offer rare and fascinating insights into the private lives of books – glimpses of the many ways in which books were received and subsequently used by the first generations of printed book owners.”

An early printed book bearing an ink blot and the marginal inscription, "I stupidly made this blot on the first of December 1482" (Inc.1.B.3.1b[1330] )
An early printed book bearing an ink blot and the marginal inscription, “I stupidly made this blot on the first of December 1482” (Inc.1.B.3.1b[1330] )
The exhibition marks the conclusion of a cataloguing project involving the UL’s collection of over 4,600 incunabula. They are now searchable through an online catalogue, including all known details of provenance, annotations and condition. According to the Special Collections blog,

“Instead of a straightforward exhibition showing the most beautiful books, this display is intended to give an insight into the ways in which users interacted with their books over the first hundred years of the printing press.”

The exhibition will run through 11 April, 2015.

Readers may also be interested to look at The Guardian‘s coverage of the exhibition. For information about the early printed books in Trinity’s collection, visit our webpages. Images of the book launch are copyright the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, while the images from the books belong to the University Library.

Gutenberg bible page
The opening of St Luke’s Gospel in the Gutenberg Bible (Inc.1.A.1.1[3761] )
The most beautifully designed book of the Renaissance, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Inc.3.B.3.134[1830] )
The most beautifully designed book of the Renaissance, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Inc.3.B.3.134[1830] ).

New acquisitions: Kabuki and Nō

This gorgeous set of two books on traditional Japanese theatre was kindly bequeathed to the library by Richard Marlow, Fellow of Trinity from 1968 until his death in 2013, and has recently been added to our collection. Both contain numerous photographs, both in colour and black and white, and useful reference information, such as illustrations of the various costumes of standard Nō characters and a timeline of famous Kabuki actors. To find out more about these beautiful theatrical forms and to see these exquisite books, request them in the Library.


231.a.96.1 – Kabuki. Text by Masakatsu Gunji, photographs by Chiaki Yoshida, introduction by Donald Keene, translation by John Bester. Tokyo : Kodansha International Ltd., 1969.

Kabuki is a form of popular theatre dating from 17th century Japan involving singing, dancing and lavish staging.

“In kabuki, tragedy and comedy, realism and romanticism go hand in hand. Elements of the musical and of the realistic drama exist side by side within one and the same play, creating a rich and varied beauty.” – Gunji, page 16

“Kabuki” can mean either the art of singing and dancing or it can refer to a swaggering or outlandish manner. Early kabuki performances were often located in red light districts, with a merchant class audience. Gunji euphemistically says of the origin of the word kabuki,

“It requires little effort today … to imagine the ways in which the word was used, and the kind of people and behavior to which it referred.” – page 18

Indeed, many of the actors were available to hire as prostitutes and, as was the case in Western theatre, the profession of acting was for much of its early history considered a lowly one until kabuki became more widely accepted after the Meiji Restoration.

The staging of kabuki was often elaborate, with platforms that extend into the audience, flying rigs, scenery changing before the audience’s eyes and revolving sections of the stage. Performances would be day-long programmes of popular entertainment, with the subject matter of the plays often being directly related to the season.

Inside front cover
Inside front cover
Title page
Title page
Plate – a Kabuki performance

231.a.96.2 – Nō : the classical theatre of Japan. Text by Donald Keene, photographs by Kaneko Hiroshi, with an introduction by Ishikawa Jun. Tokyo : Kodansha International Ltd., 1966.

Nō theatre, characterised by its use of delicately carved wooden masks, high poetry set to music and stately, stylised gestures, dates from as early as the 14th century. In contrast with Kabuki, it is restrained, understated and elegant.

“The purpose of Nō is not to divert on the surface but to move profoundly and ultimately, to transcend the particular and touch the very springs of human emotions.” – Keene, page 21

The forms and staging of the plays are highly codified and deeply symbolic. Subject matter varied from every day experience to legendary or supernatural themes, but the characters adhere strictly to a few main categories, demarcated by their masks, the style of their clothing and their movements. Since the masks are unchanging, emotion is expressed by the actors in other ways.

The masks themselves have elaborate rituals associated with them. They are invariably carved from cyprus and are treated with reverence by the actors.

“Before a performance … the mask to be worn is displayed in the dressing room and honored with ritual salutations.”- page 19

Nō is a complex art form that makes high demands of the audience. The language is archaic and poetic and the audience is expected to invest belief in the idea of, for example, a young child actor playing a fierce demon, or an old man playing a young woman. However,

“The appeal of Nō is by no means entirely intellectual or aesthetic; it moves many in in the audience to tears, and leaves haunting and poignant remembrances.” – page 21

Inside front cover
Title page
Plates – traditional masks

Dennis Holme Robertson – A Trinity War Poet

Dennis Holme Robertson in uniform.
Dennis Holme Robertson in uniform.

“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.

Robertson in a dramatic production.
Robertson in a dramatic production.

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.)

Excerpt from Robertson A4/1, a letter from D.H. Robertson to his brother, 1916.

“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.

Robertson on horseback in the desert. (Robertson A1/13)
Robertson on horseback in the desert. (Robertson A1/13).

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.

The letter accompanying Robertson's Military Cross.
The letter accompanying Robertson’s Military Cross.

Further Reading:

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.

Ludwig Wittgenstein and the First World War

Hand-written notebook
A page of Wittgenstein’s notes for the Tractatus, dated 16 August, 1916. (Wittgenstein 103, f.46)

Of course, not all Trinity men were from Britain or the Commonwealth and so found their wartime loyalties lay elsewhere. Bertrand Russell’s most famous student at Trinity College was Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian philosopher. After arriving at Trinity in 1911, Wittgenstein had progressed so quickly in his work with logic that Russell declared after only a year that he had nothing left to teach his pupil.

Wittgenstein’s work came to a halt at the outbreak of World War I when he immediately volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army, serving variously on a ship, in an artillery workshop and on the front lines. Decorated for valour for his service on the Eastern front and against the British army, Wittgenstein became a Lieutenant and was sent to the Italian front with an artillery unit. He was captured in 1918 and spent the end of the War as a prisoner of the Italian army.

Wittgenstein compiled the notes (on display) for his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, or “Logical-Philosophical Treatise” while serving as a soldier, and completed the writing while he was in Italian P.O.W. camps at Como and Cassino. This ambitious project was the only book-length philosophical work Wittgenstein published in his lifetime. Though the Tractatus had a huge influence on 20th century philosophy, Wittgenstein himself later criticised some of the ideas in it.

Unlike Russell’s battle of principles against the War and especially against conscription, Wittgenstein’s role in the War seems to have derived from intellectual curiosity as well as a desire to prove his spiritual mettle through hardship. Despite occupying such opposing viewpoints – Allies vs. Central Powers, pacifist vs. combatant, not to mention their differing philosophical tastes – Russell and Wittgenstein remained friends and Russell wrote the introduction to the Tractatus.

David Hume Pinsent

David Hume Pinsent was admitted to Trinity in 1912 and was friends with his classmate R.Q. Gilson. He gained a first-class honours degree in mathematics and then studied Law. Pinsent met Wittgenstein in his first year at Trinity and the two struck up a relationship based on shared interests in music and mathematics. He was Wittgenstein’s collaborator, test subject, friend and lover, and the pair traveled together to Iceland and Norway.

The War broke out while the pair were in Norway, and while Wittgenstein quickly signed up for the Austro-Hungarian military, Pinsent was deemed unsuitable for active military service. Instead, he trained as a test pilot, flying prototype aircraft at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough. On 8 May, 1918 Pinsent was co-piloting an Airco D.H.4 (A7671) – a two-seat biplane bomber piloted by Lt. L.F.D. Lutyens – when the aircraft broke apart mid-air, killing both men. Pinsent’s body was not recovered. Wittgenstein dedicated the Tractatus to Pinsent’s memory.

See also our interactive timeline of World War I for a look at some of the events that shaped Trinity’s wartime experience.

Bertrand Russell and the Conscientious Objectors

Pamphlet from 1916
A pamphlet containing the proceedings of Bertrand Russell’s trial.

Despite the widespread patriotic support for the Great War, there were many people in Britain who opposed it for moral, economic or political reasons. Some conscientious objectors (COs) were happy to aid the war effort in non-combatant capacities, while others refused to do any work that would contribute to the war effort. Despite being labelled as “cowards” and “peace cranks”, these individuals risked isolation, abuse and arrest. For some COs, the record of having been to prison for being a conscientious objector followed them for the rest of their lives, keeping them from steady employment. A few COs even died in prison. For many COs, the moral stance against war derived from religion.

For Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), philosophy lecturer at Trinity College, pacifism was the logical conclusion to his belief that the War was contrary to the interests of society and was therefore immoral. In 1915, Russell wrote to The Cambridge Review:

“Behind the rulers, in whom pride has destroyed humanity, stand the patient populations, who suffer and die. To them, the folly of war and the failure of governments are becoming evident as never before. To their humanity and collective wisdom we must appeal if civilization is not to perish utterly in suicidal delirium.”

H.M. Butler, Master of Trinity, struggled with his conscience with regards to the War and openly criticized Bertrand Russell, calling his outspoken pacifism a “dereliction of duty”. However, Professor Simon Blackburn notes, “In the heated, bellicose atmosphere of the time Russell’s unswerving devotion to that principle itself required a great deal of heroism.”

Rex v. Bertrand Russell – JRMB D5/1

Pamphlet: Rex vs. Bertrand Russell
First page of the pamphlet containing Russell’s trial in 1916.

Russell and others openly opposed the war from the beginning, and in 1916, with the introduction of Conscription, he authored a pamphlet distributed by the No Conscription Fellowship speaking out against the law and the ways in which it was enforced. After six men were arrested and sentenced to prison and varying degrees of hard labour for distributing the pamphlet, Russell wrote a letter to The Times confirming his authorship and stating that, “If anyone is to be prosecuted I am the person primarily responsible.” He subsequently sentenced to prison under the Defence of the Realm Act and fined £100. The proceedings of that trial were published as the pamphlet displayed here. This conviction led to Russell’s dismissal from his lectureship at Trinity. Later, he spent nine months in Brixton prison for his outspoken pacifism.

  H.M. Butler to J.R.M. Butler – JRMB A1/99

Letter dated 1916
The first page of a letter from H.M. Butler to J.R.M. Butler about the dismissal of Bertrand Russell from Trinity.

H.M. Butler wrote to his son, “I never discharged a more painful public duty than in taking action against B. Russell, and I was never more clear as to the necessity in the interest of the college.” This was not a universally approved action and several fellows wrote to the college Council to criticize Russell’s dismissal. He was reinstated as a member of Trinity in 1919 and made a Fellow of the College in 1944.

Typed letter
A letter to the college Council from several fellows registering their disapproval of Russell’s dismissal.

Further reading:

Blackburn, Simon (2014) “Russell, Wittgenstein, and the First World War”. The Fountain, 18.

The Cambridge Review. 10 February, 1915.

Clemens, Kate (2013) “Conscientious Objection“, First World War Centenary, Imperial War Museum. 

See also our interactive timeline of World War I for a look at some of the events that shaped Trinity’s wartime experience.

Robert Quilter Gilson

Photograph of Gilson in his military uniform
Lt. Robert Quilter Gilson in uniform [1915?]. Photo reproduced with the permission of Julia Margretts.

“The real strain is the strain of waiting. Always waiting with the knowledge that waiting cannot end the war, and nothing stirring to take our minds away from petty worries. It makes us all grumpy and bad-tempered sometimes, and I know that I am often haunted by the same feeling that I always had in England, that the test is yet to come.” – to Estelle King, 20 May, 1916

“To be caught in youth by 1914”, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote later in life, “was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.” One of those young men was a thoughtful, promising young artist named Robert Quilter Gilson (1893-1916), who had attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham along with Tolkien. Their small group of close friends called themselves the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society, named after the Barrow Stores at King Edward’s, where the group often met), believed that they were collectively destined for artistic and intellectual greatness, and left the school brimming with purpose and promise.

Black and white architectural sketches
A drawing by Gilson of the cloister beneath the Wren Library, published in Trinity Magazine on 25 February, 1914.

Gilson was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1912, a year behind fellow T.C.B.S.-ite Thomas Kenneth (“Tea Cake”) Barnsley, and read Classics. When the War broke out in 1914, he decided to finish his undergraduate degree and trained as an officer alongside his studies through the Cambridge University O.T.C. Upon graduating with a First Class degree in the Classics Tripos Part I, Gilson was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment, known as the Cambridgeshires. The regiment deployed to France on 8 January, 1916.

Line of soldiers marching on a country lane, 1915
Photo of Gilson (lower right, looking at camera and fully in frame) leading the 6th Platoon of C Company of 11th Battalion, Suffolks on exercises in Ripon, N. Yorkshire in 1915.

At 7:30 AM on 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Gilson led his men over the top near La Boisselle. The German guns, which were supposed to have been destroyed by a week of heavy bombardment by British artillery, were still working. When the Cambridgeshires advanced, the German gunners, shaken but still alive and alert, opened fire. A fellow soldier reported that Gilson walked calmly and steadily forward in front of his men, taking charge briefly after his commanding officers fell, until he himself was killed by a shell burst. On that first day of the Somme, Gilson was only one of 6,380 casualties from 34th Division, the division that sustained the heaviest casualties on the deadliest day of fighting in British Military history.

We have a window into Gilson’s brief life thanks to his prolific and eloquent letters to his school friends, family and his sweetheart, Estelle King, written from his time at Trinity College through to his last days on the Western front.

Photograph of a young boy and a young man, 1913
R.Q. Gilson with his brother, Hugh Cary Gilson, in 1913

18 October, 1914

Letter, 1914
First page of a letter to Gilson’s step mother. October, 1914.

“Cambridge is such a definite idea and so different from anything else that I suppose I really expected to find the same Cambridge this term. It isn’t in the very least the same, and that meant disappointment.” – to his stepmother, Marianne Gilson, whom he called Donna, on 18 October, 1914

On returning to Cambridge for his final year of studies, Gilson noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere in Cambridge as a result of the War that was declared over the Long Vacation. “It is no more a unique place of high spirits and light-heartedness,” he writes, “but just about as pleasant a place as any other in these different days , and one’s friends are just as much one’s friends, even though they too are not the same.” He describes with satisfaction his new rooms in Great Court, which he got by earning a scholarship for the year, and Trinity in general: “I wish you could have seen it this afternoon with the low sun casting long shadows on the bowling green and making John’s a picture of contrasts in sun and shade and colour. And the border along the beautiful old wall is a splendid sight with chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies and scarlet salvias.” His love of Cambridge, and his love of descriptive writing, are evident throughout his letters written during his years at Trinity.

12 January, 1916

Envelope opened by censor
Countersigned envelope with sticker showing it was opened by the Censor.
Countersigned letter.
Final page of a letter to Estelle. January, 1916. The letter was countersigned O.H. Brown.

“It is very strange to look out from these windows across miles of flat peaceful country and say to oneself that only a few miles out of sight there are strange and terrible things going on that all Europe is watching. It is so unlike everything that one has ever thought of as real.” – to Estelle King on 12 January, 1916

With this letter is its envelope, with a sticker showing that it was opened by the censors. All letters had to pass the censors to ensure that soldiers were not giving away their movements, but Gilson ran afoul of the censors more than once, thanks to his lavish descriptions of people and places. Next to Gilson’s signature is the countersignature of O.H. Brown, a necessity that he resented, writing here, “I so much want to hear of your doings in Holland. Your letters will not be censored by anyone we know.” His ability to write is further hampered, he says on the previous page, by the fact that they have been allowed fewer candles on this night, so he is writing “in the midst of conversation”.

25 – 30 June, 1916

Letter, 1916
Page one of Gilson’s last letter to Estelle, 25 June, 1916

“I wish you could see a deserted garden that I passed the other day – all overgrown with long grass and weeds. It was a riot of bright colours. Larkspur and Canterbury bells and cornflowers and poppies of every shade and kind growing in a tangled mass. One of the few really lovely things that the devastation of war produces.” – to Estelle King on 25 June, 1916

“There are many grand and awe-inspiring sights. Guns firing at night are beautiful – if they were not so terrible. They have the grandeur of thunderstorms.” This letter describing a peaceful deserted garden was written amid the tumult of a week-long artillery barrage of the German front line. This was to be his last letter to Estelle, written from a tent some way from the trenches, where he had the luxury of “being able to walk about over stretches of grass” and re-reading some of her letters to try to conjure up in his mind where she was. “You have managed to give me a wonderfully clear picture of your Dutch surroundings, which is exactly what I want.” He did not sign off the letter and instead closed with, “It is so hateful being cooped up in the trenches – caught in a trap, as it sometimes seems. – Rob.”

Page two of Gilson's last letter to Estelle.
Page two of Gilson’s last letter to Estelle.
Page 3 of Gilson's last letter to Estelle.
Page 3 of Gilson’s last letter to Estelle.

Letter, 1916
The first page of Gilson’s last long letter to his father, 25 June, 1916.

“I often think of the extraordinary walk that might be made all along the line between the two systems of trenches. That narrow strip of ‘No Man’s Land’ stretching from the alps to the sea is a most extraordinary phenomenon.” – to his father, Robert Cary Gilson on 25 June, 1916

On the same day, Gilson sent his father a long letter, in which he seems to have been in a reflective, philosophical mood, reflected in the quotation above. He apologised for sending fewer letters lately, and says, “I take your word that a postcard is sufficient to fill a gap when I cannot manage more”. After this letter, on 30 June, Gilson sent his father one final field postcard with statements deleted as appropriate:

“I am quite well. / I have received your parcel. / Letter follows at first opportunity.”

The next day, the Battle of the Somme began.

Field postcard
A field postcard filled in by Gilson on 30 June, 1916.
Front of the field post card.
The front of the field post card.
Envelope bearing Gilson’s father’s writing: “My dear son’s last letter”.

Many thanks to Julia Margretts and family for the kind loan of photographs and letters and for permission to reproduce them.

Further reading:

John Garth (2003) Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth.

John Garth (2011) “Robert Quilter Gilson, T.C.B.S.: A Brief Life in Letters.” Tolkien Studies, 8(1).

See also our interactive timeline of World War I for a look at some of the events that shaped Trinity’s wartime experience.

David Louis Clemetson

Photograph of a young man with arms folded
A close up of David Louis Clemetson in 1914 from the photograph below.

Lt. David Louis Clemetson (1893-1918) was one of a very small number of black officers serving in the British military during WWI. Very little information is known about Clemetson apart from his military record, but this is what research by Trinity Library and College staff has uncovered.

Born in St. Mary, Jamaica, Clemetson attended Clifton College in Bristol, where he served for five years in the OTC. He was admitted to Trinity in 1912, studying Law and rowing in the Lent Bumps. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Clemetson seems to have left his studies to enlist in the Sportsmen’s Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, a unit whose slogan was “Hard as nails”. He was wounded while serving with the Royal Fusiliers, invalided back to England, then transferred to the 24th Welsh Regiment of the Pembroke Yeomanry, at which point he received a commission to serve as Second Lieutenant in October of 1915.

While the Allied forces were joined by hundreds of thousands of soldiers from British Dominions and Crown Colonies such as the West Indies, India, Pakistan, South Africa and Nigeria, Clemetson was one of a very small number of black officers in the British Army itself. The 1914 Manual of Military Law restricted black soldiers and those who were not citizens of Britain from command in the BEF. However, Clemetson and a handful of others gained commissions despite the barriers. These brave men rose through the ranks, fought and in some cases died fighting for Britain in the First World War and it is hoped that a century later their stories will not be forgotten.

Lt. David Louis Clemetson was killed in action in Perrone, France. His name is listed on the British West Indies Regiment memorial in Port Maria, Jamaica and he is buried in Vendhuile, France. He was posthumously awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal.

Newspaper clipping from 1918
A copy of Clemetson’s obituary from 1 October, 1918. Reproduced with kind permission of The Jamaica Gleaner.
Photograph of a rowing team.
A photograph of the First Trinity and Fifth Boat (also known as the “Rugger Boat”) team that rowed in the Lent Bumps, February 1914. Clemetson is in the back row, centre. (Add.PG.65)

See also our interactive timeline of World War I for a look at some of the events that shaped Trinity’s wartime experience.

“Nevile’s Court a Hospital…”: The First Eastern General Hospital

Hospital photo 1
Hospital beds for 250 soldiers in the cloister beneath the Wren Library.

At the beginning of the War, Colonel Joseph Griffiths, a surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, led plans to build a large open-air field hospital in Cambridge, to be called the First Eastern General Hospital (Territorial Force). Cambridge was an ideal location thanks to its rail connections and the resources available because of the University and Addenbrooke’s itself. Grounds for a permanent structure were identified and work began soon after Britain joined the War, but until those buildings were completed the incoming sick and wounded needed a temporary location.

Initially, patients were brought to the Leys School, but when the pupils were due to return for term, a new location was required. Col. Griffiths gained permission from H.M. Butler, Master of Trinity College, to use Nevile’s Court – the court that is bounded on one side by the Wren Library – as the next interim location. In preparation for the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers, blinds were installed around the cloistered portions of Nevile’s Court to protect the patients from wind and rain, an enclosed operating theatre was constructed and wooden floors were put down to cover the uneven flagstones. Orderlies were housed in tents on the lawn outside the library and cooking for the soldiers was done in the Master’s Lodge. Between August 12 and 30 1914, 250 beds were made ready under the Wren Library for the first convoy of wounded soldiers arriving on the 31st.

Hospital photograph
The first patients arrive at New Court, Trinity, as Col. Griffiths poses for the camera.

Soon, larger tents were required and were erected on the fields behind the Wren to house an additional 250 soldiers. Soldiers who were able to walk spent their time on The Backs, enjoying the fresh air, fishing and the occasional game of football. Local businesses helped the hospital by supplying delivery trucks as make-shift ambulances, and many members of the hospital staff, especially stretcher bearers and the female Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), were members of the local community. Cambridge residents did their part to entertain the soldiers, throwing sweets, cigarettes and small gifts as the soldiers fished in the river.

The Backs, with soldiers relaxing by the river
The Backs, where soldiers relaxed along the river banks.

The hospital was a true collaboration between Town and Gown, as the librarians of Trinity, Magdalene and Corpus Christi Colleges organized a book and magazine drive to create a library for the soldiers in hospital, and a Fellow of the College whose rooms were on G staircase, Nevile’s Court, temporarily vacated his residence to house it. Around 50 newspapers were also donated daily to help keep the injured soldiers entertained during their stay at the hospital.

Nevile's Court with soldiers reclining on the grass
The soldiers are entertained by a choir in Nevile’s Court

Finally in mid-October, the permanent war-time location for the First Eastern General Hospital opened its doors in West Cambridge. This hospital was equipped with a 108 foot long kitchen capable of serving 1,700 patients as well as operating rooms, laboratories, store rooms, offices, and sleeping accommodations for orderlies. It stayed open through 1919 and may have treated as many as 70,000 – 80,000 patients throughout the course of the War. After 1919, a housing crisis meant that the huts that formed the wards became council housing, known as the Burrell’s Walk estate, and were subsequently demolished to make way for the building of the University Library in 1928.

Title page of a pamphlet
“Nevile’s Court a Hospital” – a sermon by H.M. Butler, 1914

After the Hospital left Trinity, H.M. Butler commemorated the occasion with a sermon, praising the humanitarian efforts of those involved. In Nevile’s Court a Hospital, he marvels over the sight of the court being used in such a way:

“It has been a house of mercy to young men, not students… but young men stricken down for the time by no fault of their own but by wounds or accidents, some of them wounded in the fierce battles… where they saw so many of their officers and their comrades destroyed in a moment by the German shells; some of them almost envying these brave companions because they were themselves for some weeks prevented from going to the front and forced to remain in our peaceful England.”

For all the cheer displayed in the photographs and for all the pleasant pomp about it, the hospital was a place to patch men up and send them back to the front lines, as Butler’s last line hints.

Further reading:

Philomena Guillebaud (2014) From Bats to Beds to Books: The First Eastern General Hospital (Territorial Force) in Cambridge – and what came before and after it. Haddenham: Fern House Publishing.

The Cambridge Review (1914).

See also our interactive timeline of World War I for a look at some of the events that shaped Trinity’s wartime experience.