Popular Posts

Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

In search of...Giles Edward Michael Eyre

One of my "fun" pieces of reading over the Summer was "Somme Harvest: Memories of a P. B. I. in the Summer of 1916" by  Giles E. M. Eyre. It was first published in 1938 and relates Rifleman Eyre's experiences in the 2nd Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps during the prelude to  and first few weeks of the Somme campaign. 

It is in many ways a remarkable book, literate and literary  - Dante is cited in Italian and classical references are liberally sprinkled throughout. It reads like a novel with no doubt a certain amount of poetic license being taken to render into direct speech conversations that took place almost two decades before they were set to paper. Giles Eyre clearly had more literary talent than the average private soldier which makes his account especially interesting as a counterpoint to the standard "Goodbye to all that" type efforts of the  public school subalterns  who managed to survive the slaughter.

Eyre's war came to a rather abrupt end when he was captured at Contalmaison in late July 1916 while, according to his narrative, attempting to get back to the British lines after an unsuccessful raid. And there the book ends, almost as abruptly as it begins. We are told practically nothing about the author except that he had served in France since 1915,  fought at Hooge and copped a blighty at the end of that year.  So who was Giles E. M. Eyre and what became of him after the war?

Here he is in a photograph included at the front of the 1938 edition of his book, probably taken in Schneidemühl camp in Prussian Posen, now Piła in Poland, which is where his POW records say he was taken after spending a brief period in a camp at Dülmen near Munster. He looks rather young, rather dark and rather short - both heals are clearly off the ground. He's wearing the standard German issue POW uniform that you can see in countless images of this sort. Nothing much to go on here.

It turns out that there is a bit of discussion about him in a  WW1 related forum, including some basic biographical information contributed by a descendant. This includes the intriguing revelation that in the 20s and 30s he was a  Fascist (not a BUF Facscist but a member of  the early British crank movements).

 A close reading of his book does  give some clues to his political views. There is a strong sense of  disillusion with contemporary political leadership and several laments about the lack of unity and purpose in the post-war world. There is also a certain amount of moaning about  those who apparently did well out of the war as well as some casual anti-semitism. It's a strand of feeling that was common across Europe in the inter-war period among young men gradually realizing that there were no homes for heroes waiting for them and that the best  (and worst) years of their lives were over. Instead they had to stand on the sidelines and watch those who had "had a good war" help themselves to the spoils while making a bog up of the economy for everyone else. We know what this led to in Italy and Germany. What is remarkable is that the domestic  result in Britain was more farce than tragedy.

Giles Edward Michael Eyre was born in 1896 in Messina Sicily and was in fact Italian both by birth and, at least partly, descent. The family moved to London in 1908 after the Messina earthquake and the 1911 census has them living at 95 Bouverie Road, Stoke Newington. What's left of the contemporary houses on the road seems to indicate that the 15 year old schoolboy lived in lower middle class respectability. The reality might have  been a little different. The 1913 electoral register reveals that they occupied 3 first floor rooms, unfurnished at a rent of  5 shillings a week. His 39 year old father Michael Samuel Frank Eyre-Varnier describes himself as a Professor of Languages but the fact that he worked on his own account suggests that in reality he was a language teacher giving private lessons. His birth place is Patna, India. 

Giles' mother was Henrietta Hopkins. In 1911 she was 56 - considerably older than her husband - and though born in Messina she is described as a British subject by parentage. It is also noted on the Census form that she had been deaf since the age of 15 and was feeble-minded. The Census form dates the marriage to 1895 and Giles appears to have been an only child. It is likely that Henrietta was  the child or more likely the  grandchild of Samuel Hopkins who was Deputy Commissary General to the British forces in Sicily.

There are few traces remaining of Michael Samuel Frank Eyre-Varnier. In the 1920s he lived in Islington. His first wife died in 1925 and he remarried in 1931 and by 1935 was living in New Malden where he died in 1948. One curious fact is that the family name was Varnier not Eyre and on 9th July 1920 he renounced the former by deed poll in favour of the latter. Eyre was in fact Michael's mother's maiden name (she was the daughter of a career soldier who did most of his soldiering in India). She married  John Joseph Varnier, a clergyman, in Allahabad on the 14th February 1860. 

It would seem that name changes ran in the family. John Joseph was born in Sicily, the son of Mariano Varnier and his name is a truncated anglicisation of Michele Giovanni Giuseppe Varnier Miritello. J J was a Roman Catholic priest, sent as a missionary to India to undermine the English Protestant church. The flies and the dust only succeeded in causing him to turn coats and he joined the (English) established church, thereafter becoming chaplain to the Protestant church in his home town of Messina. Like his grandson he had some literary aspirations and wrote an account of his conversion "Why I left the Communion of the Church of Rome; or a narrative of inquiries regarding the grounds of Roman Catholicism" published by SPCK in 1869. He also had some entrepreneurial ambitions. According to an item in a 1872  issue of Californian Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences  J J, described as "...an Italian gentleman residing at Patma", succeeded in making "wine" from the fruit of the Jamun tree which apparently reminded him of Sicilian grape varieties. He must have been serious for the piece goes on to say that with the aid of one of his fellow countrymen hesolved the problem of preserving the wine in India's rather unforgiving climate.

So much for the ancestry, but what of our man Giles? In the first half of the 1920s he is to be found living with his mother and father in Brewery Road, Lower Holloway. And this is when it starts to get interesting. On the 14th October 1924 The Times reports that Giles Edward Eyre, an interpreter,  was charged at Bow St Police Court with insulting behaviour.  He had gone along to a Communist meeting at Trafalgar Square and made a nuisance of himself: "A police sergeant stated that at the conclusion of the meeting Eyre, who was wearing a Fascist badge, was surrounded by a crowd of about 300 persons. He was shouting, "You are a lot of dirty dogs". The crowd became very threatening towards him, and as Eyre refused to go away, to prevent a breach of the peace the witness arrested him."

He was bound over to keep the peace and with studied understatement the magistrate admonished him: "To shout out, "You are a lot of dirty dogs" was not very prudent. There is not very much in this. You should have gone away when you were told..."

As a coda to the piece The Times tells us that: "Brigadier-General R B D Blakeney, President of the British Fascisti, writes that Giles Edward Eyre was informed by letter last week that his name had been removed from the list of members of the British Fascisti...and that Mr Eyre in no sense represents British Fascism...".

Rebecca West in The Meaning of Treason opines that the British Fascisti "...was never numerous and had few links with the influential admirers of Mussolini, having been promoted by an elderly lady, [The Fascisti was founded by the bizarre Rotha Lintorn-Orman who was born in 1895 which actually made her 3 years younger than West, though it was actually bankrolled by her mother's fortune] member of a military family, who was overcome by panic when she read in the newspaper that the British Labour party was sending a delegation to an International Conference in Hamburg. Her creation was patronized by a certain number of retired Army men and a back bench MP and an obscure peer or two; but the great world mocked at it, and it has as aim the organization of amateur resistance to any revolution that might arise. It was a charade representing the word 'barricade'."

Eyre may well have known William Joyce (AKA Lord Haw Haw) another keen street fighter who was briefly a member of the Fascisti before quitting in 1925 to move on to better (and more violent) things. Meanwhile Eyre was still doing silly things. The Gloucester Citizen reports on 27th August 1925 that he was fined 10 shillings at Marylebone Police Court for possessing a revolver without a license. "A police constable said that on the 3rd inst. he saw the defendant in a public lavatory at the junction of the Edgware and Harrow roads. Eyre was attired in the black shirt of the National Fascisti, and in a sash around his waist he had a German revolver." It turned out that the weapon was unloaded.

 In 1926 Eyre was again in trouble with the law  appearing before Marlborough Street Magistrate's Court accused of having made insulting remarks in Oxford Street West. This time he was "at the head of a group of 400/500 blackshirted fascists" leaving Hyde Park at Marble Arch after a Fascist rally. There was fisticuffs with anti-fascist protesters who sung the Red Flag during the national anthem. This time the magistrate discharged him.

As well as making a nuisance of himself on the streets of London, Eyre found time in 1926 to get married to Louise Annette Neal and from then until 1939 they are recorded as living at various addresses in the Battersea/ Wandsworth area, always  houses in multiple occupation, never staying in the same place for more than a couple of years. In 1927 he was back in court, this time as one of the "victims". Eyre and some toughs allegedly went to the National Fascisti headquarters in Hogarth place Kensington and demanded to see the accounts. They were then threatened with a sword and a pistol by Lieut. Colonel Henry Rippon Seymour who claimed that he feared they were going to smash the place up. The story appears in the Gloucester Journal (12/3/1927) and is repeated in a number of regional newspapers. The Wikipedia entry on the National Fascisti reports the incident but mistakenly claims that  Seymour's threats were offered to Charles Eyres the leader of the Croydon branch of the Fascisti. This mistake, which is also made in at least one scholarly paper, probably stems from a typo in Richard Thurlow's  Fascism in Britain 1918-45 (pp36) where Eyre is rendered as Eyres.

For a few years Giles seems to keep himself out of trouble, but then in August 1933 he is back in the news. The Times (31/8/1933) carries the story of a brawl involving 50 or 60 black shirted members of the British Union of Fascists who broke into the offices of British Fascists Limited. This time Eyre is a witness for the prosecution. The incident seems to be nothing more than a turf war between rival fascist groups, but the really interesting thing is what Eyre says under cross-examination.  He claimed that during the war he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Cross of St George [an Imperial Russian decoration]. The Times report continues: "Defending council Mr Hutchinson said there is no record at the War Office of any such foreign decorations being awarded to you.

Eyre: 'I certainly got them. I was taken prisoner by the Germans. I escaped and was afterwards sent to Russia to fight.'

Hutchinson: 'If the War Office records show you were repatriated from Germany in 1919 and that you never fought in Russia, that would be incorrect?'

Eyre: 'Yes it would'

Hutchinson: 'Have you the usual certificate of permission from the War Office to receive these foreign decorations?'

Eyre: 'I have but I cannot produce it now. It is among my papers which are all in disorder.'

Mr Hutchinson said that there was a War Office official in Court who would give evidence on these matters.

The Magistrate: 'You cannot call evidence on the question of the witness's character. I suppose the War Office official is here as a sort of scarecrow to make the witness careful?'

Hutchinson: 'I should not like to call a War Office official a scarecrow. Say an intimidator.'"

All this is very odd indeed. Was Eyre telling the truth or was he a fantasist? Why would he claim - as reported in a subsequent Times court report that he fought in Russia from September 1917 to June 1918 if it wasn't true? The publicity blurb for the 1938 edition of his book mentions an attempted escape from a German POW camp:

"Giles Edward Eyre, now forty-three, has had a crowded life of breathless adventure. One of the few survivors amongst the British residents of the Messina earthquake of 1908, journalist, wanderer in the far corners of the Empire, sailor before the mast, soldier, nearly drowned in swimming across the Vistula in an attempt to escape a German prison, lecturer and propagandist, supporter of lost causes; in these pages, full of quick action, tragedy, pathos, and comedy, he shows us how very great the humble "Tommy" was, and how fine was the human material of our War Army."

If he did escape the probability of surviving the 350 mile trek East through enemy territory to the Russian front line - notwithstanding his little swim in the Vistula - seems a little unlikely. But if it wasn't true why would a War Office official be present in court to intimidate him over his little Munchausen moment? Fantasists in court are rather common and officials from major Government departments rarely attend the trials in which such trifling and inconsequential stories are regaled,  stories moreover that have no bearing on the substance of the case.

It so happens that we can check at least part of Eyre's tale. His medal records survive. There is no mention in them of any foreign decorations. Moreover there is no record in the London Gazette, which usually recorded the award of foreign decorations or in the French Journal Officiel. What the medal records do reveal however is even stranger. Eyre was not demobilized in 1919. In fact he was issued with a new regimental service number and record that he was awarded the "IGS Medal and Clasp Wazn 1919-21". As it happens his medals came up for auction in  March 2008 at Dix Noonan Webb and sold for £150. The auction blurb is worth quoting in full:

"India General Service 1908-35, 1 clasp, Waziristan 1919-21 (6838190 Pte. G. E. Eyre, K.R.R.C.) contact marks, nearly very fine, rare to regiment £120-140

Private Giles E. Eyre, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, entered the France/Flanders theatre of war on 25 August 1915. The I.G.S. medal with this clasp to the K.R.R.C. is rare as there was no battalion of the regiment present; only a small detachment serving at India at the time qualified. In the 1924 K.R.R. Chronicle, an officer and six men of the 1st Battalion are listed as being presented with the medal and clasp at a church parade on 3 February 1924. Sold with copied m.i.c. confirming the award of the 1914-15 Star, British War and Victory Medal; also with an extract from the rolls which confirms the I.G.S. medal and clasp to Private Eyre as ‘4/K.R.R.C. attached Hd. Qrs. Waziristan Force. Dera Ismail Khan’."

So though Eyre may not have been in Russia the official record places him on the Indian North West Frontier taking part in a campaign against hostile tribesmen. This doesn't sound like the sort of thing that would normally happen to a repatriated POW who would have been  in pretty poor shape after the best part of 3 years in captivity.

After 1933 there are few public traces of Giles Eyre. He does not appear to have been a member of the British Union of Fascists and during World War II he joined the Home Guard. He died in 1971.

Who then was Giles Eyre? An oddball? A fantasist? A misfit? Probably he was all of these and possibly more. What strikes me  is that I thought I was reading a book about three months in 1916 when in fact  I was reading  a book about a structure of feeling created by the disappointments of the inter-war years and probably common to many of the P. B. I.. In other countries this led to tragedy, in Britain merely to oddity.

No comments: