Battlefield Butler

Report of meeting held 18th January 2016

Prior Rick Hudson welcomed members and introduced the speaker Robert Chester. He is the Education Officer at Sewerby Hall and Gardens and often takes the role of the butler when presenting the history of Sewerby Hall.

Robert recalled that in 1915 John Graham, the real life butler at Sewerby House, joined the army and eventually was an officer’s batman and had charge of an officers’ mess and its soldier servants. This led him to research the role of soldier servants in the First World War.

Army officers at that time were usually chosen from landowning families with domestic staff. Each officer in the field was entitled to a soldier servant, and also a groom if he had a horse.  Robert discovered that from a speech made by Winston Churchill he could estimate that there were about 250,000 soldier servants in the war.  A few officers even brought female cooks with them although this was frowned upon by the army.  As one officer wrote, the soldier servant’s prime role was to provide good food, plenty to drink, a good bed, and a hot bath.

Soldier servants were uniformed, armed and trained as a soldier, but their servant role was paramount. This meant they were excused parades and such, and their role meant their food and accommodation was better that that of the average soldier. They also received a wage from their “master” in addition to their army pay.  Robert showed that it was clear from contemporary reports that the relationship between officer and servant was close, but not emotionally close. Class, education, and social standing were barriers that usually prevented a closer relationship. An officer might express regret at losing a good servant, but a servant might say “he was like a father to me”.  Officers also did not like the swearing and vulgarity they often overheard.

Robert said that as the war dragged on the role of soldier servant changed. He became less of a domestic servant and more of a “fixer”.  Officers, especially new officers who were very young and inexperienced, looked more for an experienced bodyguard who could advise and rescue his wounded master if necessary, and someone who could obtain their needs by hook or by crook. A bath manhandled in a trench and the makeshift cooking facility were two of the many wonderful photographs Robert showed. Robert was able to give some entertaining recorded examples of the ingenuity of soldier servants.

The speaker concluded that the official view of a soldier servant was correct. He relieved his officer from the mundane, allowing him to concentrate on managing the men under him. Robert also gave examples from literature of the soldier servant, officer relationships. JRR Tolkien said he based the character of Sam Gamgee in “Lord of the Rings” on that of a soldier servant.  And who can forget Baldrick in “Blackadder”.

The vote of thanks was given by Bro Chris Attlesey . He thanked the speaker for a well researched and informative talk.