Remembering Erasmus Darwin (1881-1915)

4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, 1914. 2nd Lieutenant Erasmus Darwin is in the middle of the back row.

Monday, 11 November, 1918 was a day of riotous celebration in Cambridge. Rowdy mobs of male students smashed shop windows and threw books and paintings into the street. Later a bull was driven into one of the colleges, and an effigy of the Kaiser was burned on a bonfire in Market Square. Cars roared about the streets all day long, and cheering men and women continued to shout and dance well into the night. On 12 November the Cambridge Daily News reported that ‘the world seemed to have turned upside down’.

Ida Darwin, 65, spent the day quietly at The Orchard, her home on the northern outskirts of Cambridge. From about noon, as she sat on the veranda overlooking her garden, she could hear the sounds of joyful pandemonium breaking out in the town. She wrote to her daughter Ruth that evening to describe how, within an hour of the announcement of the end of the war, ‘the whole town was beflagged and full of all kinds of motor vehicles tearing about regardless of petrol restrictions.’ Her husband Horace Darwin, 67, had been in the office of his Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company on Chesterton Road when he received a telephone call with the news. When he and the other directors came out to tell the workers that the war was over, ‘there was a seething mass of excitement & singing’, Ida told Ruth. ‘D[addy] had to stand on a table & make a speech & announced that the Works would be shut for the rest of the day. They ended with cheers for D…’

Ruth Darwin, 35, was in Reims in eastern France, working at a ‘Foyer des Soldats’, a hostel with a canteen and recreation rooms for convalescing French soldiers. (There were over fifty of such hostels, organized by the British Committee of the French Red Cross and staffed by English women volunteers.) The Darwins’ other daughter Nora Barlow was in London with her husband and four small children. Both Ruth and Nora understood why their mother felt so detached from the cheering crowds in Cambridge that day and the happiness of the end of this long war. Ida described it as ‘the feeling almost of dread of beginning normal life again with the blanks.’

Erasmus Darwin, Nora and Ruth’s brother, had been one of the first to enlist after war was declared on 4 August 1914. He was 32 and worked as a company secretary for an ironworks in Middlesbrough in the industrial north east of England. He had been working hard there for seven years and now was ready for an adventure. ‘You know of course that it simply means we shall be used for police duty, and it will be a kind of prolonged strenuous holiday,’ he reassured Ida. At first the army provided the excitement Erasmus craved. His company slept under canvas until the end of October, and their days were filled with rifle training and revolver shooting. Erasmus enjoyed taking his men out on scouting manœuvres over the Yorkshire moors, and a photograph of him shows him standing in his uniform and squinting into the sun a little self-consciously, as if amused to find himself in a muddy field playing war games with a group of men.

In November 1914 the company was moved from their temporary billets outside  Darlington to another camp forty miles north of Newcastle. Forty thousand troops were stationed there already, and more were arriving every day. Erasmus was convinced that his own company, with its experience and training would soon be sent to the front to fight: ‘We may be in France any day now, more than that none of us know …We were all getting tired of waiting for something to do and now that it has probably come we are glad.’

The reason for so many troops pouring into Newcastle that autumn was the prospect of an imminent German invasion. The Secretary of State Lord Kitchener announced a major alert for 20 November, when the tides and moon were particularly favourable for a sea crossing, and around the country three hundred thousand British soldiers were ordered to be on standby. But by December Erasmus told his parents that ‘the terrors of immediate invasion’ seemed to be wearing off. The winter months that followed in the training camp were cold, uncomfortable, and claustrophobic, with regular outbreaks of meningitis in the poorly sanitised billets. It seemed as if their regiment would never be sent to the front, and he and his fellow officers began to discuss organizing a tennis tournament for the summer.

At last, news came that the Yorkshire battalions should prepare for departure on 18 April. On 14 April Erasmus scribbled a note to his sister Nora in London: ‘No absolutely definite news but it is practically certain that we go on Friday’. Nora doubtless had other things on her mind, as her third child, a boy, was born that Wednesday. The following day, Erasmus received an official summons from the War Office to attend a meeting in London, and was offered a post working for the Ministry of Munitions. Erasmus turned it down, and went to visit Nora briefly to see her newborn son. He sailed with his company to Boulogne on 18 April.

A day after arriving in northern France he wrote to explain to his father that he had been asked to help to organize factories to produce the munitions that were badly needed by the British army. It would have been ‘interesting and important work’ Erasmus wrote, ‘but of course there are plenty of older men who can do it just as well as I can.’ Horace wrote back immediately:

You could not possibly have accepted the W.O. appointment; to have accepted a civil job almost to the day your regiment was ordered for active service seems to me out of the question. It wd. have been very nice for us having you still in England and doing really useful war work, but that is another story… Well good bye old chap, it is such a comfort to us to feel so certain you did right to join the army when you did.

Sadly, Erasmus never got his father’s kindly letter. At 5pm on Thursday 22 April the German army released 6,000 canisters of chlorine gas, a deadly new weapon, along the Ypres Salient. Thousands of French colonial troops died in what became known as the Second Battle of Ypres, and Canadian forces only just managed to hold back the German advance. All British troops available were needed to fill the gaps, so the Yorkshire battalions were ordered to advance to the front line on Saturday 24 April.

Before they set off, Erasmus tried to calm his men by joking that they should pretend they were ‘on a field day’, just like their training exercises on the Yorkshire moors. As they advanced towards the village of St Julien in columns of platoons they were fired on by German artillery and long-range machine guns from the front and on both sides. Erasmus was hit by machine gun fire and died instantly. He and Captain Jack Nancarrow were hastily buried near a farmhouse, in graves that were never subsequently found again.

Nora’s baby, born on 15 April 1915, was named Erasmus Darwin Barlow. Horace Darwin joined the new Ministry of Munitions in May 1915, and during the war the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company would develop equipment to locate the position of enemy guns, and instruments such as gunsights in aircraft. On 30 April 1915 Erasmus Darwin’s obituary was published in The Times, written by his cousin Bernard Darwin. He wrote that Erasmus ‘had many of the warmest friendships; nor could anyone have been more wholly delightful and light-hearted than he was in holiday mood.’ One of the few holidays his hard-working cousin allowed himself, Bernard wrote, was returning to Cambridge for May Week every year. Erasmus would have loved the exuberant celebrations of Armistice Day 1918.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved. 14 November 2021

Sources: Ida Darwin letters: Add. 9368.1: 6105, Add. 9368.1: 6112: Erasmus Darwin letters DAR 9368.1: 3177-82, Cambridge University Library Darwin Family Papers. https://greenhowards.org.uk/announcement/erasmus-darwin/