Julian Grenfell was born in St James’s, London, the son of William Grenfell, Lord Desborough, an MP and outstanding all-round sportsman. His mother, also of aristocratic descent, was a renowned society hostess and a member of the “Souls”, a group of influential artists and intellectuals.which met at their country house Taplow Court in Buckinghamshire (today owned by a lay Buddhist Society). Julian was educated at Summerfields School in Oxford before going to Eton where he won the Jelf Prize for Latin verse, was one of the editors of the Eton College Chronicle and was prominent in athletics, boxing and rowing. He went on to Balliol College, Oxford in 1906 where he only obtained a pass degree.
He rebelled against his aristocratic background and, because of his hatred of affectation, was unwilling to take part in family social gatherings, much preferring the outdoor life with his dogs and horses. His poem, I Won’t Be Made a Social Pet, written in his youth, amply reflects this. On leaving university, he joined the army in 1910, serving first in India, then South Africa, before being sent to France on the outbreak of the First World War.
As a captain in the Royal Dragoons, he won the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery on the battlefield in 1914. He was a fearless soldier who appears to have revelled in warfare, describing himself as well suited to it on account of his “stolid nerves and barbaric disposition”. He had in fact gained a reputation as a bit of a bully in his school and university days. After being awarded his DSO he was offered a job as an ADC at headquarters which he declined, preferring to stay where the action was. His contempt for those well away from the front was expressed in his highly sarcastic poem Prayer for Those on the Staff with lines like “see that his eggs are newly laid” and “let no nasty draughts invade the windows of his Limousine”.
In early 1915 the life of this lion-hearted soldier was brought to a tragic end when he was hit in the head by a shell splinter, dying thirteen days later of his wounds after a couple of failed operations to save his life. To increase the family grief, his younger brother Billy was killed in action two months later. The family’s only surviving son died in a motor accident in 1926, obliterating the barony. Julian Grenfell’s loss was deeply felt by the troops and the poet Maurice Baring wrote a sonnet in his memory. Grenfell did not write much poetry and is best known for his stirring poem Into Battle which was published in The Times the day after his death together with the news of it. Robert Bridges included it in his anthology The Spirit of Man 1917 and it has since been much anthologised. Julian Grenfell is one of the sixteen war poets commemorated on the slate tablet in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.