As part of our series looking into the lives of the RUSI members who were VC holders and fell in the Great War, we profile Captain Francis Octavius Grenfell.
Francis Octavius Grenfell and his twin brother Riversdale (Rivy) Nonus were born on 5 September 1880 at Hatchlands, Guildford. The twins, who went to Eton, were younger than their thirteen siblings. Francis’s flair for languages saw him become an interpreter in German, French and Hindustani. The twins were expected to enter the military, and Francis saw action in the Second Boer War. As he departed for the First World War, Francis wrote: ‘I have always been working for war, and have now got into the biggest in the prime of life for a soldier’.
Francis Octavius Grenfell was awarded the VC for his actions at Audregnies, Belgium, on 24 August 1914. The 9th Lancers and the 4th Dragoon Guards were ordered to attack the German guns. The enemy position proved to contain no less than nine batteries and catastrophic casualties resulted. Grenfell noted starkly: ‘We had simply galloped about like rabbits in front of a line of guns’. This desperate action nonetheless allowed the 5th Division, which risked annihilation, to withdraw. Grenfell was miraculously uninjured – although his horse was killed, and bullets tore through his tunic and boots – but later injured in the hand and thigh.
Grenfell assisted in saving the guns of 119 Field Battery, which were at risk of being captured by the three German batteries massed against them. Grenfell called for volunteers, so inspiring them that every man, 40 troopers and eleven officers, stepped forward. A few men covered them from the embankment, while Grenfell and the others ran back and forth, alongside the gunners, across two fields, making multiple trips to pull each gun away by hand, since they had no horses or rope. They were targeted by artillery and concentrated small-arms fire. A shell landed under the gun Grenfell and his men were moving. It did not explode, but the sheer force of impact lifted the gun clear of the ground. Grenfell, whose hand wound was dressed merely with a scarf, was wounded in the face, but continued. The guns were recovered at the cost of fourteen Lancers and heavier losses to 119 Battery.
Grenfell, who had been in action since dawn, refused medical attention and insisted on riding back, some sixteen kilometres, with his men. At 1900 hours, his injuries and fatigue overcame him, and he passed out. He was found by the Duke of Westminster, who was driving around in his Rolls-Royce searching for men to help. The Duke was a good friend of the twins so, having arranged treatment for Grenfell’s wounds, he took him to Le Cateau. By chance, Rivy was there; this was the last time the twins saw each other. Rivy was killed in action on 14 September, while Francis was convalescing in England. His uncle, Lord Grenfell, described Francis’s reaction to the news: ‘From that moment he was a changed man in everything but his enthusiasm for his regiment and his desire to get back to the fighting line’.
After returning to the front in October, Francis was injured again. When his VC was gazetted, he wrote: ‘I have been through so much … that what would and should have made me yell with joy nearly causes tears … [I have] no great feeling of having achieved anything … I know so many who have done and are doing so much more than I have … any honour belongs to my regiment and not to me’.
After recuperating, Grenfell held a last dinner – with guests including Winston Churchill – and returned to his regiment. On 24 May 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, he was killed at Hooge, Belgium – one of 208 men killed out of the 350 who had gone into action. He was creating a fire trench, encouraging his men with the call: ‘Who’s afraid of a few dashed Huns?’, when he was shot. Francis’s last words were for his squadron : ‘Tell them I died happy, loving them all’.
The next day, in the dawn light, a small group carried Grenfell’s body along the Menin Road. Buchan described the scene: ‘figures like spectres, clothes caked with dirt, faces yellow from the poison gas. They were all that remained of the 9th Lancers’.
Grenfell was buried near Ypres in the Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery, Plot II, Row B, Grave 14. He bequeathed his medals to his regiment. His VC is held in the 9th/12th Royal Lancers Regiment Museum, The Strand, Derby. A colleague wrote that Grenfell: ‘left a memory which will never fade, a braver soul never stepped’.
By Ashley Ryan, RLMH volunteer, 2016 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize winner.
This article is the fourth in a nine-part series to be published in the RUSI Library News.
Part I For Valour: The Victoria Cross, RUSI and the First World War
Part II Charles ‘Fitz’ FitzClarence
Part III John Edmond ‘Johnnie’ Gough
If you would like to learn more, go to https://RUSI.org/GreatWar
Kevin Brazier, The Complete Victoria Cross: A Full Chronological Record of All Holders of Britain's Highest Award for Gallantry (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2010).
John Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell: A Memoir (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1920).
Gerald Gliddon, VCs of the First World War: 1914 (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1994).
Paul Oldfield, Victoria Crosses on the Western Front, August 1914–April 1915: Mons to Hill 60 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2014).
RUSI Journal, ‘Great War Stories: RUSI’s Fallen Members’ (Vol. 162, No. 3, June/July), pp. 4–10.