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Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters

Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters

edited by John Jolliffe
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Given the ongoing interest in the First World War, which ended nearly a century ago, the re-issue of this book (first published in 1980) is timely.

Raymond Asquith, eldest son and heir of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, is – like Henry, Prince of Wales (Charles I's elder brother), Rupert Brooke, Hugh Dormer DSO and Robert Nairac GC - one of history's tantalising “what-ifs”: a handsome man, for whom great things had been predicted, killed in his prime, leaving us to speculate about what he might have achieved if he had survived. We can never know the answer: for all the superlatives heaped upon his grave, Raymond remains an elusive figure.

There are however some indications: a man of formidable intellectual powers, Raymond could probably have succeeded in any career that he chose. He won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, then at the height of its reputation as a forcing-ground of brilliant men. He graduated with First-Class Honours. At twenty-four he was elected a Fellow of All Souls College; an unusual accolade for one so young. Called to the Bar at twenty-six, Raymond, as the son of an eminent QC who was also a leading politician, had no difficulty in securing important briefs, serving as Junior Counsel in the North Atlantic Fisheries Arbitration and in the British Wreck Commissioner's inquiry into the loss of RMS Titanic. He was considered as a prospective Liberal Candidate for Derby. It is not clear whether this career at the Bar and in politics represented Raymond's true inclination; his illustrious father expected Raymond to follow in his footsteps, so he did. There are however indications that Raymond was not really a political animal; was probably out of sympathy with many of his father's Liberal colleagues and occasionally treated them, and even the Prime Minister himself, in a surprisingly offhand way.

Raymond seems to have inspired unusual loyalty, respect, and affection in his contemporaries. After his death on the Somme in 1916 Winston Churchill wrote: “I grieve for the loss of my brilliant hero-friend... He was one of the best...he did everything so easily”. He had a genius for friendship. John Buchan devoted several pages of his memoir, Memory-Hold-the Door, to Raymond, writing: “I have never known a friend more considerate, and tender, and painstaking, and unfalteringly loyal. It was this relation of all others in life for which he had been born with a peculiar genius”. Raymond was a member of “The Coterie”, a fashionable group of intellectuals united by close friendship and notable for their unconventional lifestyles and lavish hospitality. Raymond's marriage to Katharine Horner was extremely happy.

There was another side to Raymond, hinted-at above. He was intellectually arrogant. Buchan also recorded that: “He had no respect for the sacred places of dull men; there was always a touch of scorn in him for obvious emotion, obvious creeds”; including, apparently that of the Liberal Party. He was apt to be dismissive of the views of older men, however distinguished.

This book is not light reading; it consists mainly of the edited correspondence of Raymond Asquith, his wife, friends and relations. Unless the writer is as consistently brilliant a correspondent as Harold Nicolson or Alan Clark, perusing anyone's letters can become tedious, although some of Raymond's are bitingly witty and shrewd. Nevertheless they are of great interest to historians, offering valuable insights into a vanished era. Of interest to military historians are Raymond's pungent comments on Britain's conduct of the war. The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, “K of K” is dismissed as “Lord K of Chaos; a sad mixture of gloom, ignorance and loquacity”.

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Raymond served in the 16th (County of London) Battalion London Regiment and transferred to the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards in 1915. Assigned as a Staff Officer, he requested to be returned to active duty with his Battalion. This request led directly to his death on the Somme. Leading an attack near Ginchy on 15 September 1916, he was shot in the chest but famously lit a cigarette to hide the seriousness of his injuries, so that his men should not lose heart and continue the attack. He died while being carried back to the British lines.

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