Working in the Papers of Robert Brand, sometime Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and well-connected banker at Lazard Brothers, I came across a six-page letter, written in scratchy black ink, from L. B. Namier. It is dated 5 January 1915, when Namier was a soldier in the Royal Fusiliers in a PSU (public schools and universities) battalion in Epsom. It is located in MS Brand 26/1.
Lewis Bernstein Namier (1888-1960) became, after the war, one of the most admired historians of his generation. Deploying immense knowledge and meticulous scholarship, he set rigorous new standards in documentary research and pioneered the use of prosopography – and delivered his findings in powerful prose. Constructing an account of his life is hampered by the lack of a substantial personal archive.
There are three major studies of Namier. In Lewis Namier: A Biography (1971), his widow, Julia Namier, is protective of his reputation but captures a sense of him as an individual and gives an account of his brief period in the army based on what Namier had told her. She also utilised various unsorted materials Namier had left, but he burned many of his papers in June 1940, perhaps in fear of a Nazi invasion. Namier’s collaborator on the History of Parliament project, John Brooke, helped bring order to these sources for her. On completing her book, she also destroyed some documents (especially her own letters) in this collection, which is now held by the John Rylands University of Manchester Library.
Linda Colley’s concise volume is a deft, incisive analysis of Namier’s outlook and talents as a historian. She tracked down a number of his letters in various collections in the Bodleian Library but her main sources were the same as those available to Julia Namier. It is not surprising, therefore, that her narrative of this period largely follows Julia Namier’s treatment.
D. W. Hayton’s superb large-scale biography, Conservative Revolutionary: the Lives of Lewis Namier (2019) is the product of painstaking research in an impressive range of archives and benefits from his discovery of a substantial number of documents in the History of Parliament offices, sources unavailable to Linda Colley. He makes use of them to challenge some of Julia Namier’s claims.
None of these studies makes any kind of reference to the letter of 5 January 1915; nor do they cite any other text by Namier on his time in the army. It appears, therefore, to be the only example of Namier’s own words revealing his attitudes and depicting his circumstances in this period. The letter also contains details that allow us to expand our understanding of this episode in his life.
By the time Namier wrote the letter he had been in the army for over four months and had a mounting sense of frustration with life in the camp and was growing desperate to find a means of escape – he twice describes his message as an “S.O.S. signal.”
Hayton accurately explains how unpleasant an experience Namier found his time in Epsom and uses the letters of another soldier serving with the Royal Fusiliers to capture the daily routine of recruits – the drilling and the long days full of menial duties (Hayton, p. 68). But the 5 January 1915 letter provides Namier’s vivid descriptions. He objects to having “every atom of self-respect knocked out of me”; and concludes, “Mentally and morally it amounts to slow, gradual bleeding to death.”
The letter also reveals how Namier enlisted as an ordinary soldier, thereby hoping to contribute to the war effort more quickly than “if I waited for a commission.” But he has become deeply disillusioned by his daily experience as a soldier and by the change in the composition of his unit. It began with many public school and university men with whom he shared similarities of outlook but virtually all his friends have departed for commissions and “my foreign extraction makes it much harder for me to be left among strangers.” Namier is desperate to get away.
Yet there is ambivalence in what he seeks. On the one hand, he writes of wishing to secure a commission in the Army Service Corps, since he could bring to it important skills. This, however, is hindered by his colonel who is “wild” about people leaving for commissions. Nevertheless, he asks Brand if he could intercede on his behalf. On the other hand, he mentions how F. F Urquhart, Namier’s tutor when he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, was trying through Lord Eustace Percy, the diplomat and former fellow student at Balliol, to secure some work for him at the Foreign Office. Hayton discounts the role of Balliol and Oxford (Hayton, p. 70) yet Namier’s words indicate that Julia Namier was accurate when she referred to “Sligger” Urquhart’s endeavours (Julia Namier, p. 119).
There appears to be no record of Brand’s response to the request for help in obtaining a commission. Perhaps he knew through his contacts about Percy’s efforts and regarded them as more promising. In any event, this line of escape from Epsom proved more fruitful. On 1 February Percy invited Namier to the Foreign Office, the wheels were set in motion for his transfer, and by 14 February Namier had been discharged from the army and begun working at Wellington House, the Foreign Office’s new propaganda bureau aimed at promoting American sympathy for the Allied cause in the war. Meanwhile, later in the year Brand himself also joined the civilian war machinery as a member of the Imperial Munitions Board of Canada.
Michael F. Hopkins
Sassoon Visiting Fellow, Bodleian Library Oxford, Hilary Term 2023,
and University of Liverpool