Telephone +44 (0)1305 264066

One Family's Sacrifice - The Story of the Seven Sons of Canon and Mrs William Shuckforth Grigson

by Jeremy Archer

After a certain amount of lobbying the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa - Albert, Francis, George, Joseph and Madison - were all assigned in February 1942 to the commissioning crew of the light cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52). Only nine months later, around noon on 13 November 1942, the Japanese submarine I-26 administered the coup-de-grâce to the stricken USS Juneau, which had already been disabled during surface action off Guadalcanal the previous evening. Eight days after the sinking just ten survivors were rescued from the shark-infested waters of the Pacific - none of the Sullivan brothers was among them. This family tragedy led to a change of policy by the US Navy regarding family members serving together at sea.

In 1944 Hollywood released the movie, The Fighting Sullivans, while the story of the five brothers was the thread that ran through Stephen Spielberg's hyper-realistic war drama, Saving Private Ryan. There is also a book, We Band of Brothers, by John R. Satterfield, published in 1995. On 30 September a new destroyer, USS The Sullivans, was formally named by Mrs Alleta Sullivan in honour of her five dead sons. This vessel has been preserved by the city of Buffalo, New York and a new destroyer, also named USS The Sullivans, was formally named on 12 August 1995 by Kelly Sullivan Loughren, grand-daughter of Albert Sullivan, the only brother to have married. There is even a convention centre named after the brothers. Tom and Alleta Sullivan are thought to be the first American parents to have lost five sons 'in the defense of freedom' since the American Civil War.

This sacrifice of five sons from one family is matched by at least two English families: the Souls of Great Barrington, Oxfordshire and the Grigsons of Pelynt, Cornwall. Five Souls brothers - the eldest Frederick, identical twins Alfred and Arthur, and the younger two, Walter and Albert - were killed on the Western Front between 14 March 1916 and 25 April 1918, the twins within just five days of one another. Michael Walsh told their story in The Sunday Telegraph on 11th November 2001. Thus it was that, of their family of six sons and three daughters, William and Annie Souls lost their five eldest sons on active service while the youngest, Percy, who was too young to fight, died of meningitis in 1923. Their nephew Victor Walkley was quoted by Michael Walsh: "Annie Souls made the greatest sacrifice of any mother during the Great War." Michael Walsh noted that 'the Imperial War and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission know of no greater sacrifice by a British family'. The Grigson family have received rather less publicity.

The major source for what follows is The Crest on the Silver, an autobiography written by Geoffrey Grigson, the youngest of the seven brothers and the only one not to have suffered an untimely death. Geoffrey Grigson was an extremely able and erudite critic, editor, writer and poet. For him the truth was important and, if people were upset as a consequence, then so be it. One of his nieces told me that this volume caused some distress within the family while, by contrast, an uncle by marriage "rather enjoyed it". Geoffrey was born in 1905 and did not fight in the Second World War, having been advised by his eldest brother John: "Keep out of it. Go on quill driving."

Canon William Shuckforth Grigson was married three times. After a childless marriage of twelve years, his first wife Charlotte died. Two years later he married Mary; she gave birth to a daughter, who predeceased her mother, who herself died soon afterwards, the marriage having lasted just three years. At the age of 45 William Grigson then took a third wife, Mary Beatrice Boldero, with whom - between 1892 and 1905 - he had seven sons. All the children were born in The Vicarage at Pelynt, near Looe, to which living he had been presented in 1891 by General Sir Redvers Buller, best-known for the defeat at Spion Kop and the time it took him to relieve Ladysmith in early 1900.

At the end of The Crest on the Silver, Geoffrey Grigson recalls a conversation, after the funeral of the last brother to die, with Florrie, whose husband had rented part of the kitchen garden off the Vicar and his wife in the early months of the Great War. With her eldest son already in uniform, Mary was asked by Florrie if any more would have to go; she replied: "I should like all of them to go." When Florrie said: "But if all the dears were killed?"; Mary Grigson responded simply: "I should be very proud if they died for their King and Country."

Second Lieutenant Lionel Henry Shuckforth Grigson was the third son but the first to die. A scholar of New College, Oxford, he commenced military service on 4 November 1916. He was commissioned into The Devonshire Regiment, served first with the 3rd Battalion, was later attached to the 1st Battalion and soon afterwards found himself caught up in one of the many futile actions that characterised the war on the Western Front. On 9 April 1917 the British and Canadians achieved their greatest success to date in France and Flanders when General Allenby's Third Army burst through the German front line across a ten-mile front, including the seizure of strategically important Vimy Ridge. Unfortunately the Allies were as surprised as the Germans and only 60 tanks were available for what had only ever intended to be a very limited exploitation phase. Essentially the Arras operation was a diversionary measure since, just a week later, the French launched their 'Nivelle Offensive'. The latter turned out to be a disaster and, in order to prevent the Germans from exploiting mutinous conditions in the French Army, the British simply had to keep attacking.

On 9 May 1917 the 1st Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment were part of what was supposed to be a coordinated attack to recover the village of Fresnoy, lost to the Germans the previous day. Unfortunately the Canadian battalion earmarked to support the left flank of the Devons in their attack on Fresnoy received their orders too late. Nevertheless Captain Lionel Maton felt 'honour bound' to carry the operation through. The Germans were ready for the counter-attack and manned their trenches in strength: the battle lasted all day, scarcely any ground was gained but the 1st Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment lost 6 officers and 80 men killed and a further 98 officers and men wounded. Both Lionel Maton and Lionel Grigson fell: neither has a known grave. They - and many other Devons - are commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

Before taking his degree at St. Chad's Hall, Durham, Kenneth Walton Grigson enlisted in 7th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment. This was a reinforcement Battalion that never left the United Kingdom: according to contemporary Army Lists, a number of officers were attached to 5th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (The Prince of Wales's Own). Kenneth Grigson was commissioned on 7 March 1915, promoted Lieutenant on 1 June 1916 and awarded the Military Cross in the King's Birthday Honours in 1918. The final major effort by the German Army, Friedensturm, or Peace Storm, was launched on the River Marne opposite Rheims and Epernay on 15 July 1918. By now the German shock tactics were familiar to French and British alike and the momentum of Friedensturm soon dissipated. On 20 July 1918 XXII British Corps replaced Italian II Corps in the line as part of General Berthelot's French Fifth Army: the former's 62nd (West Riding) Division was heavily engaged in the fighting to recapture the village of Marfaux. Once again the artillery barrage had failed to touch the well-sited German machine guns and 62nd Division suffered heavy casualties on 20 July 1918: 46 officers and 776 other ranks. Acting Captain Kenneth Grigson was one of those killed in action: he is buried in Marfaux British Cemetery, in the bottom of a pretty valley in the middle of one of the most famous wine-producing regions in the world.

Claude Vivian Grigson was the third youngest of the seven sons. At the age of just 18, he was serving as Cadet 183204, 1st Cadet Wing, Royal Air Force. He died less than a month before the Armistice, on 15 October 1918. Geoffrey wrote that he 'died of pneumonia through stupidity and carelessness and that progressive indifference to the individual which is bred by a vast war'.

The second youngest brother 'through the ill-advice of my father's nephew had by now buried himself in the sweatiness and unhealthiness of the Burmese teak forests'. Aubrey Herbert Grigson 'mechanically went by way of a scholarship, and Oxford (Pembroke College), and a tropical outfitter's, into a Burmese forest'. By 1937 he was married and working as Forest Manager for the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation Limited. Captain Aubrey Grigson also served in the Army in Burma Reserve of Officers. On 11 December 1941 the first Japanese troops crossed the Siam/Burma frontier; on 23 February 1942 the Sittang Bridge was blown, with much of 17th (Indian) Division on the wrong side of the river; on 8 March Rangoon was evacuated; on Monday 27 April 1942 Aubrey Grigson was killed at Schwebo, Upper Burma by 'a Japanese bomb'.

The eldest son, John William Boldero Grigson, was born on 26 January 1893 and enlisted as a Ordinary Seaman in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in February 1913. Career progression was swift: he was commissioned into the fledgling Royal Naval Air Service in 1916, was posted to the seaplane carrier HMS Ark Royal in August 1917 and, on 1 August 1919, was awarded a permanent commission as a Captain. By the beginning of the following year he was commanding a flight of DH9s and DH9As of 55 Squadron in Egypt. John Grigson saw much service and was highly decorated: he was awarded the DFC in September 1918, a first bar in December 1919 and a second bar on 28 October 1921 'for services in Mesopotamia' - he was only the fifth person to be awarded a second bar to the DFC since the award was instituted on 3 June 1918. He saw action in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Caspian, Eqypt and Iraq. In 1920 John Grigson was awarded the DSO 'for gallant and distinguished service' in Southern Russia.

He continued to climb the Royal Air Force promotion ladder: Officer Commanding, 55 Squadron in 1929; Officer Commanding, No 2 (Indian Wing) Station, Risalpur in 1935; and Air Officer Commanding, Palestine and Trans-Jordan in 1940. On 23 April 1941 John Grigson assumed command of the British Air Forces in Greece: Geoffrey paints a vivid picture of him 'standing on a ruined aerodrome in a pair of shorts, cursing at the attacking German aircraft, and firing at them as they skimmed over, with rifles which an aircraftsman loaded and reloaded for him'. By 1943 John Grigson was Acting Air Officer Commanding, Rhodesian Training Group, under the auspices of which organisation many of the young RAF pilots of the future first took to the air. It was a terrible irony that such a brave man was killed in a flying accident near Bulawayo on Saturday 3 July 1943 and now lies buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe). The announcement in The Times includes the anguished appeal: 'Please, no letters.'

Like four of his brothers, Wilfred Vernon Grigson was educated at Leatherhead; he completed his formal education at Christ Church, Oxford. During the First World War he was a Lieutenant in 30th Battalion, The Machine Gun Corps, seeing service in France, Mesopotamia, Belgium and Palestine. After the war he joined the Indian Civil Service and rose steadily through its ranks. He was knighted in the New Year's Honours of 1948, just four months after the partition of India, and the creation of the new state of Pakistan. On 26 November 1948 the Pakistan Airlines flight on which he was travelling from Karachi to Lahore crashed near Vehari in the Western Punjab. All sixteen passengers and five crew were killed. Sir Wilfred Grigson's obituary in The Times noted that he 'had been on leave from his efficient and self-sacrificing services to the Pakistan Government as head of the organisation for relieving and settling the millions of refugee Muslims who swarmed into West Punjab after the partition of the Land of the Five Rivers in August 1947. He handled a tragic situation with sympathetic insight.' At the end of The Crest on the Silver, Geoffrey Grigson referred to 'a defaulting aeroplane'. On the penultimate page of that autobiography Florrie is quoted as saying: "... you are the only one left, Master Geoffrey. The only one."