Really Very Exhilarating

R.W. Johnson

  • The Guardsmen: Harold Macmillan, Three Friends and the World They Made by Simon Ball
    HarperCollins, 456 pp, £25.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 00 257110 2

Harold Macmillan, Harry Crookshank, Oliver Lyttelton and Bobbety Cranborne all arrived at Eton in 1906, the first two from the affluent middle class and the other two from aristocratic families. Lyttelton went on to Cambridge and the others to Oxford, but they all served in the Grenadier Guards in 1914-18, and all four entered Churchill’s cabinet during the Second World War.

Macmillan broke down as soon as he got to Eton and had to be withdrawn by his mother – J.B.S. Haldane later spread a rumour that he’d been expelled for homosexuality. He was then privately educated by the redoubtable Ronald Knox, and at Oxford, still under Knox’s spell, devoted himself to religion with such seriousness that he was generally expected to become a Catholic. Crookshank, meanwhile, became an ardent freemason. They both worked hard: Macmillan got a First in Mods and Crookshank ‘only just missed’.

Life was very different for the other two. Lyttelton’s uncle was, uncomfortably for him, headmaster of Eton while Lyttelton was there; his father was a cabinet minister and before that had been second only to W.G. Grace in the England cricket team as well as a soccer international. At Cambridge, Lyttelton became, as he put it, an ‘educated flâneur’, and ran up large gambling debts. His idyll was brought to a thunderous halt by his father’s death, struck down by a cricket ball. Cranborne, for his part, was a Cecil. His grandfather, Lord Salisbury, had, while prime minister, made his son Jim (Cranborne’s father) a minister – a piece of nepotism no other family would have contemplated. Cranborne was a lazy, hopeless student at Eton and Christ Church, where his set consisted exclusively of royalty and other aristocrats; his sole distinction at Oxford was to get arrested for disturbing the peace in the early hours of the morning while playing a drunken game of bicycle polo with Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. He insisted that behaving this way was his birthright and that he had merely been entertaining those he had woken up.

What made all the difference was war and the Guards. All four joined up, keen to do their duty but also to see action; the horror of what they were undertaking became apparent only once they had reached the front line. Crookshank and Macmillan fought on despite receiving wound after wound. Macmillan was shot in the head and the hand at the battle of Loos in September 1915; around the same time, Crookshank was buried alive in the trenches near Givenchy, then shot in the leg outside Loos. Returning to the front in 1916, both men received their final injuries of the war on the Somme, as part of the same advance on the morning of 15 September. Macmillan was shot in the knee and the back; he was lucky to survive, and his right arm and left leg never worked properly again. Crookshank was castrated in an explosion; he wore a surgical truss for the rest of his life. Both men were shattered, emotionally as well as physically crippled. Crookshank retired, embittered, into his family; Macmillan became utterly dependent on his mother, and for the next twenty-five years was regarded by friend and enemy alike as just too damaged – charmless, pompous and self-obsessed – ever to play a useful role again.

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