Few may have heard of the village of Lyndhurst in Hampshire; and perhaps fewer still will have heard of one of its residents, Miss Alice Liddell. But many will surely know the book she was supposedly immortalised in – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
On a summers day in 1862, whilst accompanying Alice and her two sisters on a boat trip, Charles Dodgson told a story, as he often did, to entertain them. Dodgson later published the tale of the girl who followed a rabbit down a hole, under his pen name – Lewis Carroll and by 1870 the tales of Alice in Wonderland were complete when Carroll published the sequel, Through the Looking Glass. The books are among the most famous and influential fantasy novels ever written. I often think however, that the nonsensical narrative filled with anthropomorphic characters, giddy verse and subversive language somehow holds more logic and reason than the path that Alice’s real life would take as a result of The Great War.
Alice was the daughter of the Very Reverend Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church. As she grew up, she mixed in the circles of high society Victorian Britain and fell madly in love with Queen Victoria’s son, Leopold. Their romance however, was quickly squashed by their Mothers who deemed it unsuitable and Alice instead went on to marry a country gentleman, Reginald Gervis Hargreaves at Westminster Abbey. The couple had three sons; Alan Knyveton Hargreaves, Leopold Reginald ‘Rex’ Hargreaves (and I wonder if Reginald ever knew of Leopold’s namesake!) and Caryl Liddell Hargreaves.
The boys were well educated, with all three attending Eton College. The eldest, Alan, went on to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. In 1900 he was gazetted to the Rifle Brigade, seeing active service in the Second Boer War in 1902. By 1914 Alan had risen to the rank of Captain and in September, he served as part of the BEF in France and Flanders – in recognition of which he was awarded the D.S.O. Towards the end of 1914 Alan was injured near Hazebrouck, but after a period of recuperation he was able to rejoin his Regiment in March 1915. By this point, his younger Brother Leopold had also been in France for some 4 months and was serving as a Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards. Caryl, the youngest of the three was soon to join his Brothers in France (as an officer in the Scots Guards) and by July 1915, in a picture that reflected that of families up and down the country, all three of Alice’s children had been thrown into the melee of the war.
It was on May 9th at Aubers Ridge, that most inauspicious of places that is remembered as the final resting place for many of Sussex’s young men, that Captain Alan Hargreaves found himself. In the early hours of the 9th, the 2nd Rifle Brigade were tasked with advancing on the northern sector to capture part of the German front line. Captain Hargreaves’ C company were to follow behind B and D, with an objective of occupying and consolidating the section of captured trench. The attack reflected the action at Aubers as a whole, and was an unmitigated disaster. The men of the 2nd Rifle Brigade were left in a dangerous salient, as the assaults on their flanks had failed. In the face of ever increasing artillery and machine gun fire, they grimly hung on for 10 hours until they were finally overwhelmed. The courage of the battalion, fighting in such close quarters with no support is best described by a German priest who later recounted – ‘They were heroes all, brave and true to the end, until death….. men of the active English Rifle Brigade’. It was during this fighting, along with 653 other officers and men, that Alan was killed.
As Alice received news of her eldest sons death, her middle child Leopold was serving with the Irish Guards, promoting to Captain shortly before the Battle of Loos in September 1915. In November, he was invalided home… but his war was not over and in August 1916 he returned to France, where the 1st Irish were in action at the Battle of the Somme. By the 15th September, the Guards Division were assembled in the battered fragments of British trench between Delville Wood and Ginchy, where they were to advance to the northern outskirts of the village of Lesbœufs. The attack however was mistimed, and chaos reigned supreme. Leopold, who had been left behind with the reserve of officers, was ordered up to the front. Although wounded on his way up, he gathered the remnants of men from the Coldstream and Irish who had been left in complete disarray, to find shelter among a chain of shell holes, where they suffered under intense fire for many hours. The Guards Division would continue to hold the line towards Lesbœufs for ten days, when on the 25th orders were received to ‘renew the attack’. Unfortunately, yet again there were problems with timings, with the British artillery barrage wavering and falling short. Shells crashed down among the men and it was here that Leopold was mortally wounded, dying as he was carried back to the first aid post.
And so it was that Alice’s second son was killed, a casualty of ‘friendly fire’. A symptom of the chaos of battle, for shells and bullets maim and kill indiscriminately and do not pause to ask nationality. Small comfort perhaps, when on 14 November 1916, Captain Leopold Hargreaves was awarded the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry in action. He set a fine example of coolness and courage at a somewhat critical period and, personally, took forward and established a covering party.”
Alice’s youngest son, Caryl, survived the war and returned home to Cuffnells, the family estate, to a family now half the size it was before the conflict began.
I think of Alice and the heartbreak she must have suffered – for a parent to lose a child in any circumstance must be impossible to understand. But to lose two sons, their lives extinguished in a fraction of a second, churned up by the war machine – well when the questions are asked – why? what for? You will find no answers and make no more sense of the situation than can be found in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.