Robin and I had planned a camping and fishing holiday in Norway for the summer of 1914, and in the early autumn we were to sail to Cape Town for a tour of South Africa. However, as soon as events pointed to war, we cancelled both trips. Robin circulated his Commissioners asking for the mobilisation of all Scouts, ready to be of service in what-ever capacity required. Even before the actual declaration of war, Scouts were guarding bridges and telegraph lines against possible sabotage. As soon as hostilities began, they acted as hospital orderlies, messengers in Government Departments and assisted the Police. Perhaps one of their most arduous and responsible jobs was a day and night patrol of the coast from the northern tip of Scotland right round to Cornwall. They did this all through the war. ‘Men of the Second Line', my husband called them—boys doing a man-size job even in the worst possible weather. No wonder the Movement grew stronger rather than weaker as the war progressed.
Of course, during the first few days, the country was full of wild tales of German spies at large in the community, of acts of sabotage at home and fearful casualties abroad. I solemnly recorded in my diary that Russian troops had been seen going through Scotland to Belgium. So rife was this rumour that when staying in Perthshire that week, I hurried down to the station to watch for them on the trains. Two days later I noted : ‘Russian rumour denied by General Ewart who commands Scotland and ought to know.'
Robin was eager to be back with his regiment but Lord Kitchener told him that Scouting was the very best service he could give to his country. He did become Adjutant-General for the New Army and, as Hon. Colonel of the 13th Hussars, he had certain responsibilities with his old regiment. Mostly, however, in that first year of the war, he spent his time touring Scout units, encouraging, recruiting, inspiring.
So many young men of our acquaintance were soon to be killed in the fighting. Our own gardener and chauffeur left us to join up. At the beginning of October, my brother Arthur returned from France ‘wounded in the head and very unnerved. The scenes he has seen are awful and they have had a fearful time.'
I could not do much myself as yet towards the war effort for I found I was expecting a second baby. However, I bought a 'type-writing machine' and helped Robin with his Scout work.
Robin's mother had lived to hold one of our children in her arms but she did not live to see the second. She died on October 13th, 1914 at the age of ninety—incredibly alert right to the end. As if that were not enough sorrow for Robin, every day brought news of more and yet more young men we knew being killed in France; and on November 5th that dear jolly man (General Kekewich), whom we used as children to call ‘The Happy Egg' on account of his baldness, shot himself out of despair at being no longer of service to his country. He had earned a high reputation during the Boer War, he had attended our wedding and was one of Peter's godparents. It was terribly sad.
So many of Robin's contemporaries were dying. It made me acutely conscious of the difference in our ages, made every minute together that much more precious. Field-Marshal Lord Roberts had died, who had given the order for the column that got through to Robin in Mafeking. We went to his funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral on November 19th:
Very impressive and beautiful. A terrible day—bitterly cold and wet for his last journey. He died in such a happy way, though, amongst his Indian troops within the sound of guns. Robin would like to end like that.
Despite the dreadful slaughter in Flanders, there was still a certain gaiety in the attitude of young men to the war. Eric Walker, the Secretary of the Scout Association, had joined the Royal Flying Corps. With the same panache that characterised the Battle of Britain pilots in the last war, he ‘parked' his aircraft by Ewhurst Church on his way over to France one morning in February of 1915 and popped up to the house to have breakfast with us!
Robin had been longing to get back into uniform. His opportunity came in late March when he went over to France to visit his regiment at the Front. ‘Thank Heaven, not to fight,' I wrote gratefully in my diary.
There were two new additions to our household that summer. ‘Jimmie', a small car, was purchased in May; and Heather, our second child, was born on June 1st. Robin taught me to drive and within a few weeks I felt completely confident. Thereafter, I was much more mobile and usually chauffeured Robin to his various engagements. He did not like driving and very rarely took the wheel.
In 1915, the war was still not having much effect on the lives of those of us who were at home. There were shortages, of course, and the newspapers were full of news from France; but even so, dear Heather's christening was still an event, given half a page of coverage in the daily paper! July 13th was the only fine day of that week, I remember. Three hundred Scouts lined the road from Ewhurst Church to our home and entertained the guests at the garden party we gave in the afternoon. For a few hours, we all forgot the war.
Normally we could not forget it. We could hear the big guns booming somewhere across the channel. Court came home on leave, wounded. Friede, my dear old German governess, came to stay but now she was classed as an ‘enemy alien' and had to report regularly to the Police. News came that Eric Walker had been shot down and was a prisoner-of-war in Mainz. Robin went over to France again in July and then we went on a five-week tour that took us to Ireland. 'Extra-ordinary feeling of revolt and hatred of the English', I observed.
During his last visit to France, Robin had been greatly impressed by the work of the Y.M.C.A. in providing recreational facilities for the troops. Their huts offered refreshments, news, concerts and a dry, reasonably warm refuge in which to write letters home. Robin could see that the number of huts was woefully inadequate to meet the needs. Once back home, he prevailed upon the Mercers' Company to put up the money to provide a hut at Val-de-Lievres, Calais. It was to be staffed by men and women connected with Scouting and he arranged that I should be one of the first ‘staff'.
I was absolutely delighted to have this opportunity of doing some-thing real at last towards the war effort—but what to do with the babies? My mother disapproved strongly of the idea of my going. It seemed mad and unnecessary to her—another black mark against Scouting —but I managed to coax her round a bit and she agreed in the end to look after the babies for the three months or so I should be away.
After innumerable inoculations, meetings and instructions, I set sail on Thursday, October 7th, 1915—for France. Y.M.C.A. Recruit No. 269 had been called up for duty. There were eight of us on the staff—five men and three women. Our billet was a horrible little box of a cottage but it was close to the Mercers' hut. The weather was appalling so it was as well we had not very far to wade through the mud. Conditions were primitive. There was an out-door earth closet; and our infrequent baths were taken in a tin tub and the bathwater after-wards emptied into the street outside! Inevitably, I took in a number of stray animals as pets—a kitten, an Airedale dog and a rabbit which for no apparent reason earned the name of Boots.
We called our hut ‘The Mercers' Arms'. Stella Ashton and I were the ‘barmaids', dispensing chat and sympathy along with the cocoa and cigarettes. Maybe the chat was the most acceptable service. One Tommy said to me ‘You don't know what it has been to us chaps to have you ladies here!'
The work was hard. Sometimes I wondered whether I could stick it out, particularly on the anniversary of our wedding and Peter's second birthday. But I knew it was a worthwhile job and it was marvellous to see what happiness it brought to the tired and dirty Tommies. Moreover, it was important to me personally. For the first time in my life, I was doing a real job of work on my own. It was good training and I was under discipline—both of which were to fit me for the life I have lived these many years 'when self-discipline has been the quality most often needed. Meantime, however, I had no inkling of the public life that lay ahead of me; rather was I drawing on past skills : playing my fiddle at a Christmas concert for the troops, and singing. ‘I know a lovely garden' was one of the sentimental ballads I put across, I remember. It left one feeling lumpy about the throat and scarcely able to sing because one knew the men would be thinking of home.
Meantime, Robin had been whipping up enough support at home to start up another Y.M.C.A. hut at Etaples, this time sponsored by the Scouts. He particularly wanted Stella and me to open this one so after Christmas we moved there from Calais. It was even harder work here, for there was only one man to help us. The first day we were short of water, short of food, short of change.
Etaples was a dirty, loathesome, smelly little town which seemed even worse because we were so frustrated by lack of help. Extra hands had been promised from England but there were delays over permits so we had to struggle on short-handed through the beastly winter weather. Then, at the end of January, I was badly hit by 'flu. I staggered into the hut part-time for two days although I had a soaring temperature but then was ordered home.
When we went to Grey Rigg to see the babies, Peter did not know me at all after so many months away and was very shy with both of us. This, I was to discover, was one of the penalties of the life I was to lead in the future—the long periods of enforced separation from my children.
Let me be frank and admit that I have never been a doting mother. I loved my children but my darling Robin was the person who mattered most in my life. I always put him first and the children a long way second in my affection. Indeed, as they grew up, they would probably say they came third with me for by then I was so completely involved in Guiding. I am aware that I can be criticised on this account but let me say in extenuation that Guiding was at first partly an extension of my great love for Robin; then it developed far, far beyond my expectations or even my imagining and to lead it properly demanded no small personal sacrifice. I realise now that I missed a great deal through being away from my children so much, though not so much as might be expected. Most children in our walk of life at that period were, in any case, left largely in the care of their nurse and nursery-maid. If the main burden of bringing up my children was lifted from my shoulders, it was only a repeat of what my own mother had done with Auriol,
Arthur and myself. For example, I see in my diary for July 17th, 1921, I made an entry: ‘Peter had lunch downstairs with R. and me in a grown up way for the first time.' He was then almost eight. It seemed to me at that time quite natural that he should still be taking his meals in the nursery with Nannie; today, such an arrangement would be unthinkable. My children assure me, however, that they never felt neglected. Indeed, they have told me how excited they used to be whenever we were coming home. I think I am very much closer to them today than ever I was during their early years. Robin, of course, was absolutely wonderful with them and they adored him. For ex-ample, I see that I wrote in my diary in 1917: ‘Babies heavenly and the nursery feels rather full now with three! I think Robin is a better mother than I am and gloats over them.'
Peter, to our desperate anxiety, was a very frail baby. He had rickets and spent a lot of time on his back. He also suffered from constantly recurring attacks of gastro-enteritis. Nowadays, with modern medical skills, these ailments would no doubt have been promptly cured, but in the state of knowledge in 1914 to 1918, he was constantly under the doctor's care and all this illness made him late developing. He did not walk until he was three. We were advised that he should have bracing sea air and he spent nearly a year at Bexhill, much of the time in a nursing home, until after our third child was born in April of 1917. She was to have been ‘David' but arrived as Betty instead.
We had been somewhat dismayed on our return from France in 1916 to learn that the owner of Ewhurst Place had been killed in action. Our tenancy was for the moment secure but the house was going to be put up for sale. We could not possibly raise the capital to buy it and, even if we could have done, it was not as conveniently placed as we should have liked.
To travel down from London, one had to take a train from Charing Cross to Robertsbridge, then change to the branch line, the ‘Rother Railway', from Robertsbridge to Ashford. It was a funny little line. One bought one's ticket on the train. The conductor would move precariously along the outside of the coaches, even while the train was in motion. One would be sitting in one's seat when suddenly the carriage door would open, letting in a blast of wind and rain, and there was the conductor. After collecting all our fares, he would climb out through the door again and proceed to the next compartment!
We looked at a number of properties during the next few months and eventually settled on Little Mynthurst Farm near Horley, a dear quaint fifteenth-century place, though a trifle awkward inside with lots of low beams and communicating rooms. We took it on a short lease and moved there in September of 1917 —with three children, the staff, three dogs, two doves, pigeons, rabbits, ducks, chickens and goldfish!
Lewis P. Orans, 2004