Victor Grayson at Passchendaele
By David Clark (Lord Clark of Windermere)
A hundred years ago on 12 October 1917, a young Englishman, Victor Grayson, a former MP, was fighting at Passchendaele with the Anzac Forces as New Zealand suffered the worst day in its military history. It was a truly terrifying experience in a landscape of mud interspersed with shell-holes full with water and dead soldiers. As he crawled towards the front along the boards the only light being provided by the exploding German shells meant to kill him, the frightened young man knew that if they missed, a slip into one the many shell holes, would inevitably mean death by drowning.
In those moments, he was just a soldier from Liverpool fighting alongside young men from New Zealand who were risking their lives for the sake of the mother country – in itself ironic as most of them had rejected the values of that same country with its iniquitous class structure when they had chosen to emigrate.
Before the war, Victor Grayson had been one of the leading socialists in Britain. Just ten years previously he had won a sensational by-election in the Yorkshire seat of Colne Valley which newspapers of the day felt presaged the imminent socialist revolution. He was a brilliant orator – possibly Britain’s finest. Grayson did nothing in half-measures. He travelled the country propagating the message of a better society. He had trained as a Unitarian minister and used his skills as a preacher of the gospel of Socialism. Converts resulted in their tens of thousands.
It might seem strange that Grayson was risking his life in defending a society which he denounced daily from the public platforms. Why was he doing so in the name of freedom and democracy when most young soldiers alongside him had been wage-slaves in Britain and did not even have a vote in elections? It is often assumed that the left in Britain were anti-war. Whilst the ILP leaders were opposed to the war most Labour voters supported it. The power of patriotism over-rode all other values.
Grayson’s closest confidante was the renowned journalist Robert Blatchford, the founder of the Clarion movement. His book on Socialism, Merrie England, sold over a million copies. In the years leading up to the war the two men were inseparable and had travelled to Germany together to assess the power of the Kaiser’s army.
The older man had been a soldier and was fiercely patriotic. Whilst fighting to overthrow capitalism, he remained obstinately pro-British. During the years leading up to World War I, he was fanatically anti-German. Grayson shared these views with equal fervour declaring, ‘We are fighting the German people. You may have been told we were fighting the German Kaiser and a crowd of Prussian Junkers, but I tell you we ‘re fighting the German race as a race.’
In the early months of the war, Grayson become a war correspondent for a Manchester newspaper, experiencing numerous dangerous escapades including a dog-fight with a German plane over France. On his return to Blighty he was persuaded by Churchill to use his oratorical skills on the recruitment platforms. Eventually this led him to Australia and New Zealand to assist in the enlistment efforts which in turn saw his volunteering for the Canterbury Regiment of the Anzac Corps. He was then shipped back to England and then to the Western front and Passchendaele.
Grayson showed the same bravery as a soldier as he had as a politician. He has left us with a vivid account of his experiences at the front. He wrote of the hours immediately prior to the battle at Passchendaele as being spent ‘in unspeakable discomfort, being drenched to the skin’, and with ‘the Boche being so near that we dare not cough nor light a longed-for cigarette.’ In the pre-dawn darkness, at 5.30 they were ordered ‘over the top’ to find themselves advancing straight into the waiting German machine guns.
As his colleagues fell around him, Grayson was knocked unconscious by a shell and with a piece of shrapnel embedded in his hip. On recovering consciousness he realised he was the only survivor and half-crawled and half-walked away from the front. He then described ‘reaching the advanced dressing station. This was an old Boche pill-box, completely surrounded by wounded comrades awaiting the services of a dresser. Unfortunately, the dresser had been killed and his associate severely wounded.’
He was left with no option but to try and struggle a further 3 miles through the thick mud to the next medical centre. He was lucky to be picked up by two artillery drivers who lifted him onto the back of their horse, already terrified by the bangs and flashes of exploding shells. Eventually, they delivered him to another dressing area where it was judged too dangerous to remove the shrapnel. On 14 October 1917, he was transferred to hospital at Rouen before being repatriated to the main New Zealand Hospital in England ten days later. Finally, it was deemed safe to remove the shrapnel.
Grayson remained in the army for further five months before being discharged as medically unfit. He found however another means of waging war against the Germans. His talents were put to good use as he toured the country, often speaking from the top of a disused tank, urging young men to join the army and raising money for the war effort.
His experiences in the forces never left him. He constantly returned to the theme of the ‘new vision of comradeship’. That feeling of brotherhood he had initially discovered in the Colne Valley socialist ranks was found again amongst his fellow soldiers on the Western Front. Never again was he to grace the public platform where he had used his greatest talent – the power to sway the masses. He eschewed a return to the political fold, disappearing from the public eye. Victor Grayson may have discovered his abiding cause but World War I had cost Socialism one of its finest proponents.
David Lord Clark of Windermere
Author of 2 biographies of Victor Grayson
Visiting Professor of History and Politics University of Huddersfield
Member of Parliamentary Joint Working Party on WWI.
(Images belong to the Imperial War Museum)