Returning to Battles Past

by M. Davies (College Porter)

Postponed due to the pandemic from the 7th to the 31st of October, a new play, Into Battle, is to make its first stage appearance at the Greenwich Theatre, London. Written by Hugh Salmon, Into Battle tells the true story of a student feud that took place within Balliol College, which was ended by the First World War, and which has remained forgotten for now over 100 years. In part, it is a story of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ against the backdrop of a general election that was probably the most diverse in British history, and the coming of a world war.

In 1906, eighteen of the fifty-three freshers who went up to Balliol came from the same school: Eton. ‘The Anna’ was the nickname for the Annandale club formed in 1910 which was made up of exclusively Balliol Etonians. (So, it was more exclusive than the famous Oxford Bullingdon Club, many of whom were Etonians. Recent members of the Bullingdon included Boris Johnson (Eton then Balliol), David Cameron (Eton then Brasenose) and George Osborne (St Pauls then Magdalen) – all at different colleges of Oxford University.)  Members of ‘The Anna’ had their own meal table and they soon became renowned for ritually verbally and physically abusing other undergraduates within the college who they called ‘Plebs’.  One contemporary noted ‘The Annandale Societies dinners would often be followed by ‘Waterfalls’ in which quantities of the colleges crockery would be sent cascading down staircases.’ On one occasion, rabbits were let loose in a quadrangle to then be killed by a bulldog for their amusement. On another, they dressed themselves as cavemen and went from room to room smashing things up and throwing beds out through the windows.

The play focuses on Annandale members: the Honourable Julian Grenfell (who would become famous for his war poem Into Battle and who is commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey), his brother the Honourable Billy Grenfell (who won the top Classical scholarship at Balliol) and Patrick Shaw Stewart (President of the Annandale Club, who would also become a renowned poet – he was already famous throughout the University and wider society being regarded as one of the cleverest of his generation). Whilst their college rivals were Keith Rae (who was home educated in Liverpool due to his younger brother having TB, and founder of the Balliol Boys club which funded underprivileged children) and Ronald Poulton-Palmer (who became an international rugby player and captain in the last international before the war – some even regard him as the greatest rugby player of all time). This feud would divide the entire college.

The Etonians clearly had it in for Rae, insulting him and trashing his room, as well as smashing his windows, before throwing his belonging out. Rae was a Christian, committed to try to help the scruffs and poor of Oxford’s back streets, and he took exception to the thuggish behaviour of these Etonians. 

The script for the play was produced after digging around in family and college archives. It includes the character of Balliol’s Junior Dean and Chaplin, the Reverend Neville Talbot (fellow of Balliol College 1909-1920) who found himself in the middle of these feuding students. It is noted that the Reverend would rather see the good in someone rather than the bad.

Julian Grenfell was sent home to his family estate for a term (apparently spending weeks on a sofa with a rifle at his side) but the antics of the Grenfell brothers went far further than high spirits into brutish bullying. On one occasion, a member from another college was removed from Balliol property by use of a whip. Ultimately, following an Annandale Society riot in college, Billy was sent down for a year.

Amazingly, Keith Rae and Billy Grenfell joined the same military regiment and eventually resolved their differences in the trenches before going into battle. They were both killed in the same battle on the same day in Belgium near to Ypres, on the 30th of July 1915. ‘Ronnie’ Poulton-Palmer was killed at Ploegsteert on 5th of May 1915. Julian Grenfell died in Boulogne on 26th of May 1915. Patrick Shaw Stewart was killed at Cambrai on the 30th of December 1917, his celebrated poem ‘Stand in the trench, Achilles’ being found on his body and published posthumously. So, none of the protagonists survived the great war.

After Rae’s death, his father (a stockbroker and banker) formed a new financial trust, aware of his son’s commitment to the underprivileged. The endowment is known as the Keith Rae trust and it still survives today, supporting youth clubs and other charitable organisations with two Balliol Fellows among its trustees.

The Annandale Club was closed down in the 1930s by the Master at Balliol, Sandie Linsay. Evelyn Waugh later described the club’s members of privileged Etonians as ‘arrogant, rowdy and exclusive, but…were not mere sprigs of fashion. They were prize-winners, both athletic and academic… All of them loved poetry, and many wrote it. Several had outstanding good looks.’

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Student Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, SCR, and Staff. Current Executive Editors: Monim Wains and Siddiq Islam

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