Thursday, 11 February 2016

Together

A recent enquiry came out of the blue, asking who was the friend referred to by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem "Together". I have to confess that I did not know the answer, though the wording of the poem suggested one of Siegfried’s hunting friends. The enquiry was passed on to more knowledgeable souls, who told me that the answer was probably Stephen Gordon Harbord, portrayed in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man under the name of Stephen Colwood. Those of you who came on the 2014 WFA Poetry tour may recall visiting Harbord’s grave at Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery near Ypres; he was killed in 1917.

Unlike his alter ego, Stephen Colwood, Gordon Harbord was not a schoolmate of Siegfried’s.  He went to Winchester, while Sassoon was at Marlborough; they first met around 1908. Harbord’s elder brother, Kenneth, four years Gordon’s senior, was a contemporary of Sassoon’s at Marlborough.  Kenneth went into the Royal Flying Corps and was one of the many servicemen who convalesced at Highclere Castle, “the real Downton Abbey”, under the patronage of Lady Almina Herbert.  (Since the surname “Harbord” is believed to have originated as a corruption of “Herbert”, this gives rise to further interesting possibilities.)

Almina’s husband, the Earl of Carnarvon (the very same treasure-hunter who later died of “Tutankhamen’s Curse”), became friendly with Kenneth during his convalescence, through their shared interest in flying machines.  Another of Gordon's brothers was Arthur Macdonald Harbord, who rose to the rank of major and married a daughter of Lord Louth, whilst Kenneth married a daughter of Sir William Goulding, Bt.

Colwood Park in Bolney, West Sussex, was the Harbords’ family home, hence Siegfried’s choice of this fictional surname for his late friend.  Like Stephen Colwood's father, Harbord senior was a clergyman, the Rev Harry Harbord, rector of East Hoathly.  I have been unable to establish any link between Gordon’s father and Australia’s legendary “bush poet”, Harry Harbord “Breaker” Morant; in the latter case, Harbord appears to have been an assumed name, possibly indicating an illegitimate line of descent – but I somehow doubt that the Harbords of Colwood Park were involved, and Morant seems to have been born in Devon.  The Rev Harbord was a follower of the Southdown Hunt, hence his acquaintance with the horse and hound loving Sassoon.  Gordon was a graduate and had ambitions to become an engineer. The firm friendship that grew between him and Siegfried was likened by the latter to a fraternal relationship; at times Siegfried felt closer to him than to his own brothers. Thus the death of the fictional Stephen Colwood would stand in place of the death of Siegfried's brother Hamo, George Sherston being an only child.

Gordon Harbord was in the Royal Field Artillery, which might initially sound safer than the trenches but in fact was equally dangerous as the enemy would naturally try to take out the guns and their crews and commanders who were doing all the damage to their forces.  Gordon was killed on 14 August 1917 while supervising the removal of guns from one position to another, in preparation for an assault on Passchendaele Ridge.  Not long before, he had won the Military Cross and been promoted to Captain.

Gordon's younger brother Geoffrey, who was also a friend of Siegfried's, had read the poems in "Counter-Attack" and written that he pitied Siegfried because he clearly felt the "horrors and bloodiness of it all more than I do".  Yet shortly before Gordon's death, Geoffrey (who was also in the Artillery), wrote to say how worried he was about Gordon because of his posting to Ypres, and commented that he wished to God it were all over. A few weeks later, after Gordon's death, he wrote that "you were easily his best friend".    

It seems to me that we don't pay enough attention to Siegfried's friendship with Gordon Harbord, possibly because it was a friendship formed through sporting activities and thus seems somehow less important than the more cerebral friendships with Graves, Owen, Hardy and the like.  However, Siegfried was fond enough of Gordon to write at least three poems about him, one being among my favourites.  "Idyll" is not a war poem, but Siegfried produced it in early 1918, while stationed in Ireland.  In 2014, a version in his own handwriting was sold at Bonham's auction rooms for £1,875. I wonder who bought it?
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