Whatever might have happened to others, I am sure that Gilbert would have fulfilled his early promise.
Harold Macmillan The Winds of Change 1966
Harold Macmillan, British Conservative Prime Minister 1957-1963, Gilbert’s contemporary at Oxford, had the career that Gilbert wanted and thought he never would have had if Gilbert hadn’t been killed. Politics was Gilbert’s passion, as he told his parents in 1912: ‘I want to lend a hand in the fight against poverty and misery and wrong … My greatest ambition is to be among the great world problems and to try and give my part to their solution.’ He loved the cut and thrust of debate, the mastering of facts and the bustle of public life.
Gilbert was born in 1891, the youngest child by 11 years of Edward Talbot, bishop of Winchester, and his wife Lavinia Lyttleton, a niece by marriage of the Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone. He was a determined child as his mother freely admitted in her memoir, Gilbert Walter Lyttelton Talbot, ‘To a fault … he was insistent on claiming attention and in having his say in and out of season, and in arranging and ordering things as he wished.’ He grew into a determined man of whom Canon Scott-Holland said, ‘nature in endowing him richly, had also made him a character difficult to handle and to discipline.’
He was educated at Winchester where, in his eldest brother Neville’s opinion, he must initially have been very unhappy because he was much too full of himself, or as his other brother Edward put it, ‘had too much jaw’. But Gilbert came to love the place and on his last Sunday in England he went to Chapel there.
In 1910 he went up to Christ Church, Oxford to read Greats. Neville, then Chaplain of Balliol, watched from a distance and regretted his brother’s pleasure-seeking life, which focussed round London not Oxford and consisted of a whirlwind of parties, theatre trips and visits to the House of Commons. Gilbert was also involved in what his mother described as a ‘very strong and as it proved a hopeless attachment’, which she thought came between him and ‘steady concentrated reading’ and probably contributed to his poor degree since he only took a Third. Whoever the woman was, and whatever happened, the Bodleian’s copy of the memoir has a printed slip of paper pasted onto the page that mentions the ‘affair’, which quotes a letter Gilbert wrote to the woman in question that said, ‘I shall never forget that I was the better man for several years because of you, and that you did me good only – pure good not harm.’
Once up at Oxford the assertiveness that had seemed so unsuitable in a small boy could now be described with approval as ‘leadership quality’. Gilbert loved to be in the thick of things and was a born campaigner, organiser and hustler. He loved to play the part too having, as his friend AP Herbert remembered, ‘the grand air; superbly brusque or even arrogant, superbly gallant and courteous according to his pleasure’. He managed to get himself elected Secretary and then President of the Christ Church JCR, positions that were normally held by the College’s leading sportsman, which Gilbert was not. He was a founder member of the New Tory Club, Secretary of the Canning Club and successively Secretary, Treasurer and then President of the Oxford Union as his grandfather, father and elder brother had been before him. As another contemporary Spencer Leeson later wrote, ‘All his Oxford friends, and they were very many, were quite sure a brilliant career in politics lay before him.’
It was within the Union that Gilbert demonstrated the range of talents that could have brought him to political life. He spoke well, reasoned well, both his responses and his questions were quick and pertinent, he had an excellent grasp of facts and a command of the English language and he relished the whole business. He was a staunch Tory and a great admirer of AJ Balfour but his greatest political triumph is associated with Lloyd-George. Talbot invited Lloyd-George to address the Union one night in 1913. Lloyd-George was the bête-noir of the British Establishment, the leading radical politician, loathed by the Tories – and by the Suffragettes – and adored by his supporters. Harold Macmillan remembered the visit causing a huge sensation at the University. The police wanted the invitation cancelled fearing they would be unable to enforce order in the streets, whilst the University feared there would be chaos inside the Union. But in the event,as a friend later recalled, Talbot controlled the evening, “bossed the detectives, and hocussed the crowd and controlled the House with great masterfulness”. The two men formed an unlikely friendship, one that lasted until the younger man’s death.
Following his graduation Talbot had no immediate plans. Too young to go straight into politics, he was divided over whether to read for the Bar or go into business. However, he was able to postpone any decision by accepting an invitation to accompany his friend Geoffrey Colman on a world tour. They set sail on 31 July 1914 but on arriving in Quebec learnt that war had been declared and so immediately set about securing a return passage and within 12 hours were on their way home to volunteer.
Gilbert was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade where the unquestioned rightness of his situation gave him tremendous satisfaction. He loved the Army, appreciating that it gave his life order, discipline and purpose. He was very good with his men; taking seriously the instruction that although there were 55 men in a platoon it was the welfare of only 54 of them that should concern him. He was very strict with them but they never mistook this for anything other than sheer professionalism. Many wrote to his parents after his death, several mentioning how much they had enjoyed listening to the talks he had given them and the times he read to them during their rest periods.
The Rifle Brigade crossed to France on 19 May 1915 – Gilbert was in the 7th Battalion – arriving just as the Second Battle of Ypres was settling into a stalemate. On 19 July, in an attempt to seize the initiative, the British exploded a mine underneath the German line near Hooge. 3,200 pounds of ammonal blasted a crater 120 foot wide and 20 foot deep with a rim that rose 15 foot above the naturally low-lying land; the vantage point given by this rim was the point of the explosion. The crater was quickly encircled by the British front line and immediately became the focus of constant hostile fire. The Germans determined to capture this strategic position, but in order to ensure success were prepared to wait until the most propitious moment, normally within the first hour of new troops taking over a line, before they had time to settle in and realise what was going on.
During the night of the 29/30 July the 8th Battalion The Rifle Brigade relieved the 7th Battalion who had just spent an exhausting few days in the crater. Gilbert marched his men back towards the rest area; they had gone 8 miles when, with only 2 hours sleep and no real food, they received orders to return immediately to the front. Half an hour after the 7th Battalion had been relieved the Germans had overrun the 8th Battalion, inflicting huge casualties. It was not just the element of surprise, nor the relative inexperience of the 8th Battalion, that caused such a rout but the fact that the Germans had used their new weapon flammenwerfer, flamethrowers. Specially trained storm troopers had crossed No-Man’s-Land with canisters of petrol strapped to their backs connected to hoses that squirted ‘liquid fire’ 40 yards ahead of them. The terrified occupants of the crater were engulfed in flames and neither experience nor extra vigilance could have helped them.
Divisional Headquarters demanded that there should be an immediate counter-attack that afternoon at 2.45 pm. Senior officers on the spot pleaded that such an attack, in broad daylight, would be suicide for the troops involved. But HQ feared that the Germans were on a roll and had to be stopped.
Gilbert and his platoon were to be part of the first wave. Their orders were to wait in Zouave Wood from 2.00 to 2.45 whilst British artillery bombarded the crater. This they did, waiting long enough for the German guns to find the range of the wood and cause many casualties. Gilbert was observed walking among his men, talking to them, but after a while when the noise got too loud to hear anything he sat down on his own with his head bowed, all the while checking and rechecking the time on his watch. At 2.45 he blew his whistle five times and with the words “Come on my lads this is our day” led his men out of the woods towards the German machine guns lining the rim of the crater 150 yards away. Within seconds Gilbert was dead, the attack failed and scarcely one of his platoon survived. The 7th and 8th Battalions The Rifle Brigade lost 31 officers and 762 men that day.
Two days later Gilbert’s brother, Colonel Neville Talbot, now Senior Chaplain to the Sixth Division, arrived at Hooge to try and discover what had happened to his brother. He found Gilbert’s batman, Nash, who had been with him in the attack. It can have given Neville no comfort at all to learn that Gilbert had never believed that the British bombardment would knock out the German machine guns, and that he knew that whoever led the first wave of a counterattack was a dead man. Nash reported that he had been with Gilbert when he’d been hit and had been trying to staunch the flow of arterial blood from a wound in Gilbert’s neck when he had opened his eyes, smiled and died.
Two days later Gilbert’s brother, Colonel Neville Talbot, now Senior Chaplain to the Sixth Division, arrived at Hooge to try and discover what had happened to his brother. He found Gilbert’s batman, Nash, who had been with him in the attack. It can have given Neville no comfort at all to learn that Gilbert had never believed that the British bombardment would knock out the German machine guns, and that he knew that whoever led the first wave of a counterattack was a dead man. Nash reported that he had been with Gilbert when he’d been hit and had been trying to staunch the flow of arterial blood from a wound in Gilbert’s neck when he had opened his eyes, smiled and died. Nash’s hand was over Gilbert’s breast pocket when another bullet hit him in the chest, piercing Gilbert’s cigarette case and smashing the third finger of Nash’s right hand, which was later amputated.
Neville could not bear to think of his brother’s body lying out in the open unburied and unblessed. Late that night he crawled out into No-Man’s Land – all 6 foot 5 inches of him – and found Gilbert’s body lying 32 yards in front of the wood. He was only able to touch his head but he noted that Gilbert had his prayer book with him, the prayer book which his mother had given him and in which he had written: ‘Fear not! Ye are of more value than many sparrows.’
Eight days later the British recaptured the crater following a substantial and carefully planned attack. The very next day, 8 August, Neville took three soldiers with him to recover and bury his brother’s ‘poor blurred remains’.
Gilbert was 23. It’s really only in the letters of condolence his parents received that it’s possible to see behind the boy with the ‘airy and careless looseness of manner,’ who was ‘impulsive, poetic, strenuous, affectionate, reckless even in his extreme untidiness,’ who did everything with so much zest, ‘indeed too much zest for his success in the Schools,’ and about whom there was ‘a valiant infectious urgency’. However many of them saw, as his Oxford tutor John Murray did, that ‘Gilbert was growing, and he would have continued to grow’. His parents must have thought this too, choosing lines from ‘Such, Such is Death’ by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in 1915, as the dedication to his mother’s memoir:
And your bright promise . . .
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens, and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.
It was in May 1915, before Gilbert arrived in Flanders, that Neville first made his suggestion that the Army should provide a Christian rest and recuperation centre for all troops, irrespective of rank, somewhere not far beyond the front line. Having found premises in Poperinghe, he appointed his friend the Revd PB (Tubby) Clayton to run the centre. Initially it was going to be called Church House but the Army decided to call it Talbot House in Neville’s honour. After Gilbert’s death, Neville asked that the name Talbot should be in Gilbert’s honour, not his own. Talbot House, known as Toc-H, flourished during the war and expanded afterwards into a worldwide organisation promoting Christian tolerance and inter-class friendship and in so doing tried to preserve something of the brotherhood of the trenches.
The fighting at Hooge at the end of July and the beginning of August had no strategic significance.
John Buchan Nelson’s History of the War
How I did love his ruddy head, his faults, his gifts and himself.
Mr Beloe, Winchester master
He was the very best of friends … He will still be my greatest friend.
Gilbert Walter Lyttelton Talbot by Lavinia Talbot