Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Remembering a Veteran: Capt. Harold Macmillan, Grenadier Guards

Former British Prime Minister Harold "Super Mac" Macmillan was shabbily treated in this past season's episodes of The Crown, which I have otherwise found enjoyable.  I thought his war service deserved a remembrance here.

Eton graduate and future prime minister Maurice Harold Macmillan was commissioned a 2nd Lt. with the King Royal Rifle Corps in November 1914.  Four months later he transferred to the more prestigious Grenadier Guards.

He first saw action at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, being wounded lightly in the head and seriously in the right hand. After convalescence, he returned in April 1916 to Ypres, and was lightly wounded on 19 July when on a reconnaissance mission to approach the German lines and listen.

At the Somme in mid-September 1916 he was seriously wounded in the pelvis and left thigh, though without any bone being fractured, for the bullet was slowed by his water bottle. He lay for a day in a shell hole in No Man's Land: "I had in my pocket Aeschylus's Prometheus in Greek. It was a play I knew very well, and seemed not inappropriate to my position...I read it intermittently."

He was rescued at darkness by Company Sergeant-Major Norton, but had to make his own way to the dressing station, where his wounds were dressed but not drained, allowing abscesses to form. Surgeons decided it would be too risky to attempt to remove the bullet fragments.

He spent the rest of the war in and out of hospital and unable to return to France. The war left Macmillan with "a limp handshake, a dragging gait, and sporadic pain. His war service and war wounds were of great advantage to him in Tory politics, for until the 1960s to have had ‘a good war,' and especially to have been wounded, counterbalanced many an intellectual and political eccentricity. Macmillan did not play the patriotic card; his body played it for him." His political career led him to become prime minister in 1957, and he served in the office until 1963.  He died in 1986.

This is a from a letter he wrote his mother before the Somme:

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about a modern battlefield is the desolation and emptiness of it cannot emphasize too much. Nothing is to be seen of war or soldiers—only the split and shattered trees and the burst of an occasional shell reveal anything of the truth. One can look for miles and see no human being. But in those miles of country lurk (like moles or rats, it seems) thousands, even hundreds of thousands of men, planning against each other perpetually some new device of death. Never showing themselves, they launch at each other bullet, bomb, aerial torpedo and shell. And somewhere too (on the German side we know of their existence opposite us) are the little cylinders of gas, waiting only for the moment to spit forth their nauseous and destroying fumes. And yet the landscape shows nothing of all this—nothing but a few shattered trees and three or four lines of earth and sandbags, these and the ruins of towns and villages are the only signs of war anywhere visible. The glamour of red coats—the martial tunes of flag and drum—aide-de-camps scurrying hither and thither on splendid chargers—lances glittering and swords flashing—how different the old wars must have been!
Letter to his mother, 13 May 1916

Sources:  Imperial War Museum Website


  1. Macmillan should also be remembered for his maiden speech in the House of Lords, in November, 1984, regarding Thatcher's treatment of the coal miners of Britain:

    It breaks my heart to see—and I cannot interfere—what is happening in our country today. This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser's and Hitler's armies and never gave in. It is pointless and we cannot afford that kind of thing. Then there is the growing division of Conservative prosperity in the south and the ailing north and Midlands. We used to have battles and rows but they were quarrels. Now there is a new kind of wicked hatred that has been brought in by different types of people.

    He was the Prime Minister of my childhood. I appreciate this link to WW1 that I did not know about. Alan Kaplan

  2. The passage from that letter is really excellent.

  3. My Grandfather an AEF veteran said something very similar

  4. Mine too; too day’s politician would avoid military service (ie Clinton
    Bush Trump Qual Chaney etc)

  5. Excellent read, particularly concerning his service in WW1. One point to note: I doubt any infantry officer at the time would think the GG were a more prestigious regiment than the KRRC !