The Trevelyan brothers and the First World War

The Trevelyan brothers, Robert, Charles and George, who all attended Trinity, provide a microcosm in one family of the range of attitudes towards the First World War. Trinity archivist Rebecca Hughes explores the brothers’ experience of and attitudes to war.  

The Trevelyan family c. 1986. Left to right: Charles, George, Robert.

On 27 October, 1918, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson wrote a postcard to his friend, Robert Trevelyan, the poet, playwright, and classicist, wishing that the war could be resolved as easily as their latest postal game of chess; instead, it still seemed to ‘hang on a razor’s edge’.

Trevelyan, whose papers in the Trinity archive are currently being catalogued, was in France, working for the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC). He had earlier in the war sheltered the conscientious objector, poet John Rodker, and when he himself was called up, friends such as Desmond MacCarthy wrote to the Military Tribunal attesting that his pacifism was lifelong and not merely adopted as an excuse to avoid active service.

The Tribunal accepted this, and allowed him to work with the Quakers instead; letters from him to his young son Julian survive in the Trinity archives, in which he describes working on a farm which bred animals to be sold cheaply to French farmers who had lost their stock in the war and visiting Sermaize-les-Bains, destroyed in the first battle of the Marne, where the inhabitants lived in wooden huts built for them by the FWVRC; he also put together a lending library in Paris, from which books were sent out to relief workers.

Desmond MacCarthy’s letter attesting to Robert’s lifelong pacifism

Robert’s views of war were shared to some extent by his elder brother, Charles, a Liberal MP, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education. In August 1914 Charles resigned from the government in protest at British military intervention against Germany, and with others such as Ramsay MacDonald and Bertrand Russell, was a founder and key advocate of the Union of Democratic Control, which strongly opposed conscription and war censorship. Charles incurred much criticism and hostility in the press with the Daily News calling on 4 March 1915 for his expulsion from Parliament for ‘his foolish and pernicious talk…Trevelyan must go’.

The third brother, George Macaulay Trevelyan, later Regius Professor of History at Cambridge and Master of Trinity during the Second World War, was also horrified by the outbreak of war in 1914. Julian Huxley recalled in his memoirs that on hearing the news, George ‘buried his head in his hands on the breakfast table, and looked up weeping’.

Robert’s ID card for the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee

However, George believed that once the war had begun it was necessary to continue fighting and to win. He wrote to Robert that he had ‘never admired Charles more’, and that the anti-war side had a ‘most useful part to perform’, but that though he accepted a share of blame for Britain he held that the German militarists must be defeated.

George was judged medically unfit for military service, and so in autumn 1915 he took up the command of the first British Red Cross ambulance unit sent to Italy and served there until the end of the war, displaying notable bravery for which he was decorated by the Italian government.

The three Trevelyan brothers were convinced of the horror of war. In a letter to his son Julian, of 24 November 1918, Robert wrote: ‘I hope that there will be no more wars while I am alive, or while you are alive either’.

An exhibition of the Trevelyan brothers’ papers and photographs is on display in the Wren Library.

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