This morning, at Brinsop Court in Herefordshire, Nina Astley (Lady Corbet by her first marriage) received a telegram from the War Office informing her that her son Sir Roland James Corbet (Jim) had been killed at Givenchy (see my post of 15 April).
The effect on everyone in the house was devastating. Nina was with her ten-year-old daughter Lesbia, her mother, and a relation, and they were staying with Constance Astley (née Corbet) and Hubert Astley, who owned the house. Seventy years later, Lesbia told me that Jim was engaged to marry Elizabeth Hayes, she was to be a bridesmaid, and the bridesmaids’ dresses had already been bought. Crueller still, Jim Corbet was the last in an unbroken male line from Hugo le Corbet, a Norman knight who came to Britain with William the Conqueror. Jim had already inherited the baronetcy and his death eventually caused a dynastic crisis.
For hours everyone was prostrated with grief. In 1986, Lesbia recounted the events to me in almost a whisper, and trailed off. I remember there was a very long silence afterwards in the sunlit winter room where our interview took place.
In the afternoon, Nina sent many telegrams from Hereford, which was six miles away. At about 2.30 p.m. in London a telegram boy delivered the following:
To: Calderon 42 Well Walk Hampstead
The worst has happened Jim was killed in action 15th April Phyllis Mother and Lesbia here pray for us Dina Brinsop Court Hereford Telegrams Burghill
It was a good thing that George was home on leave. The telegram was really addressed to Kittie, as can be seen from Nina signing herself ‘Dina’ — they had called each other this ever since they were teenagers (it was perhaps from the popular music hall song ‘Villikins and His Dinah’). Kittie had known Jim Corbet as a baby, his sister Lesbia was her god-daughter, and his elder brother Vincent (d. 1903) had been a pageboy at her wedding to Archie Ripley in 1895. Kittie was ‘Auntie’ to Jim, and George ‘Uncle’. Nina knew Kittie would pray for them.
At first, perhaps, she prayed that it had not happened. There was no battle in progress on that part of the front and Jim was an experienced professional soldier. In a letter from Flanders to his mother, Constance Astley, Dick Sutton (q.v.) also ‘had a faint hope it wasn’t true, as I didn’t think there had been much fighting in that part of the line’, but added: ‘Really the Coldstream has come to mean certain death.’ On the back of Nina’s telegram, at some point, George drew for Kittie a series of diagrams of trenches, including one that showed there was only 3’6″ between the firing-step and the parapet.
Although George was slightly uneasy with Kittie’s high society friends, there can be no doubt that he was extremely fond of Jim Corbet. There was no ‘side’ to Jim; he took his dynastic responsibilities very seriously, but was loved for his humour, gentleness and courtesy. As a cadet, he had been an admirer of a popular London actress, but always took his sister with him when he visited her! His sister adored him.
Although, as Jim had explained at his coming of age celebrations in August 1913, he was unable to reside on his estate at Acton Reynald very often, he was deeply attached to it. In many ways he was a countryman. This would have appealed to George, who himself had walked much of Shropshire and detested cars. Also, Jim was a serious ornithologist, a subject that George was well versed in. For Jim’s coming of age, the Calderons had given him two books by the Edwardian naturalist W.H. Hudson, whom George knew. An entry in Jim Corbet’s war diary for 21 August 1914 reads:
Left ETREUX and marched to OISY. Still very hot and marching very fatiguing. […] I bought a whinchat I found in a tiny little cage, and which had been given a hard dog biscuit to eat! And then let it go. The owner thought I must be mad.
Kittie’s instinct was to go to Nina straightaway, as she had in emergencies before; but it is clear from Nina’s letter of 20 April that Kittie felt she could not. She instead wrote immediately. George needed longer to think about Jim’s death, and wrote the following day, Sunday 18 April, or possibly after returning to Fort Brockhurst on the Monday.
Next entry: ‘The Lamp’ (Concluded)