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Staffordshire soldier poet went from comfort to conflict

By Staffordshire Newsletter  |  Posted: August 17, 2014

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Was it only for Death we were borne of our Mothers?

Only for Death created the dear love of our wives?

Only for Death and in vain we endeavoured our lives?

Yea, life was given to be given; march onward, my brothers!

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THESE are the words of a man whose comfortable middle class future was predictably marked out and yet irreversibly changed by the bloody conflict of the Great War.

The life of Charles John Beech Masefield provides a fitting example of how the First World War - as it was later known - was a great leveller and changed the face of class-ridden Britain.

His life has now been chronicled by Trentham author Graham Bebbington and it is the epitome of detailed research and scholarship.

Masefield’s Stone-born father had all the accoutrements of success, educated at Cheltenham College and Jesus College Cambridge, before becoming a solicitor articled to a Cheadle firm.

Not only that, he married the boss’s daughter and young Charles grew up in a fine country house set in the 80-acre Abbots Haye Estate, surroundings amid nature which suggests the ideal environment for a would-be poet.

His father served as a magistrate, was a keen naturalist and helped set up Hawksmoor Nature Reserve whose ornamental gates were ceremonially opened in 1932 by his cousin John Masefield, the poet Laureate.

Charles’ mother Susan (née Blagg) was keen on amateur dramatics, served in charitable groups and brought up young Charles in a large property with no fewer than seven bedrooms, three bathrooms and four reception rooms. Here he spent his early years with his four siblings the Masefield household, being regarded as “a strictly Christian one” with no indulgence in drinking and smoking.

So the scene is established for young Charles to enter his father's law firm after schooling at Repton.

Pupils were allowed one hot bath a week and the chance of a cold bath every morning was made available in the school where the curriculum was decidedly the classics with young Charles enjoying the school's debating society.

Charles Masefield’s notable success in 1898 was to gain the prize in divinity but by his final year he had taken up the pen and received the prize for English verse, though regrettably, it has not been kept.

His early years as an articled clerk were spent in a Dickensian office alongside relatives including his grandfather who decried the need for modern technology including the telephone which he refused to use.

As for Charles, his first published work was a novel in 1908 and his betrothal to his wife Muriel (nee Bussell) coincided with the publication of a guide to Staffordshire.

A few years later, the couple were living in a Cheadle and Charles was a member of a field club, interested in archaeology and the education of local miners.

He was at the forefront of money-raising for the local parish church and appeared to be living an idyllic life . . . but all that was about to change.

Charles Masefield believed that the validity of the war could be summed up in his words: “Right is right and we shall prevail.”

In an address to a young men's club, he posed the question: “If this war cannot cleanse us as a nation what will?”

He joined the 3rd/5th North Staffords in Stafford’s Corporation Street schools in Stafford in August 1915 and so began an extended correspondence with his beloved wife Muriel - the letters, thankfully, have been retained.

Back home, various family bereavements meant Charles had become the sole family survivor of the law practice and he was granted special leave to sort out office affairs but he was soon back - albeit at Brocton camp with fellow officers.

His return to France in May 1917 was to Lens with the 5th North Staffords and involved a planned raid at Cite St Laurent, his company killing 50 and capturing three prisoners. He was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry.

Alas, this life was fast coming to its end when he was reported missing in a later attempt to capture the industrial city of Lens . . . a telegram boy conveyed to Masefield’s wife the news that he had been killed.

Charles Masefield was buried in the parish cemetery at leForest amid tributes to his leadership and high ideals.

Arthur St John Adcock, later remarked that Masefield did not die for the old England but for a new England of his dreams.

The Life and Times of Charles Masefield MC by Graham Bebbington is published by North Staffordshire Press. The ISBN number is 978 0 9928305 3 3

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