The story of Kate Luard, a real Essex heroine during the First World War, is incredible. Hopefully you have followed Caroline Steven’s posts about her on our blog. Tim Luard now tells us about his grandfather, Trant Luard, brother of Kate.
“Think of your brother in the long night-watches with his marines guarding the sailors tossing on the deep blue sea”. So begins one of many letters written by my grandfather, Trant Luard, to his sister Kate and now stored, along with the rest of the family archives, at the Essex Record Office. Kate’s own letters about her life as a nurse on the Western Front were collected at the time into two books — one of which, Unknown Warriors, was republished last year. Both she and another of her six brothers — Frank, a Royal Marine colonel killed in action at Gallipoli — have already featured on this website.
My grandfather’s role in the Great War, as a naval intelligence officer, was less obviously heroic than theirs, but it is still worthy of attention, if only because the far-flung places in which he served remind us of the often overlooked global nature of the war. And on a personal level, reading through his many letters home over his long years of service has given me the chance to learn far more about the character and day-to-day experiences of a man whom I knew only in my childhood as a delightful but very elderly retired colonel with twinkly blue eyes and a walking stick.
Trant Bramston Luard was born in 1873 at Grays, Essex — the eleventh of 13 children of the Reverend Bixby Garnham Luard, vicar of Aveley, and his wife Clara (nee Bramston, another old Essex family, boasting several MPs and a Lord Chief Justice to its name). As the youngest boy, Trant soon got used to being served last at meals, and until the day he died aged 102 he preferred his food — and even his coffee — to be on the cool side. The traditional career choice for the male Luards was either the church or the army. It seemed obvious which path the teenaged Trant would take, being small and somewhat frail and inclined towards music, religion and the arts. So it came as a surprise to all when at the age of 19 he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Marine Light Infantry.
In January 1901 he left Portsmouth for China as a Royal Marine captain on HMS Blenheim. He would not return for almost four years, and his letters home provide a fascinating picture of life at sea, on the Yangtze River and in ports such as Hong Kong, Yokohama and Tientsin at a time when Britain’s gunboats still ruled the waves. In Peking he toured the Forbidden City soon after British and other Western troops had invaded the Chinese capital to raise the siege of the foreign legations and quell the Boxer Rebellion. Sadly, he was not immune from claiming his own small souvenir. “You go through three magnificent gates & courtyards & you come to a series of equally magnificent Halls, each one more splendid and impenetrable than the last… I’m afraid it will be rather a shock to their Imperial Majesties when they come back because most of the place has been looted on a pretty comprehensive scale inside, chiefly by officers I believe. The Emperor’s throne of gilded wood was fearfully hacked about, which enabled us all to break off little bits as a memento with a clear conscience… We sat on the Emperor’s throne & on the Empress Dowager’s bed & overran the place generally in the best style of the British Cockney Tourist”.
It’s clear from his letters that Trant found life on board a single ship for four years in the close company of his fellow officers something of a strain. He describes his mess-mates in the wardroom as being absorbed in their “own little world of routine and shop and mild diversions”. He preferred to mix with the midshipmen, finding them less stuffy and old-fashioned and with a keener interest in the world at large. “I like some of them immensely”, he wrote. “I never let them ‘sir’ me off duty. I’d much rather they smacked me on the back like a subaltern. But they’re much nicer than our subalterns.”
Back in England, Trant Luard served for a while at Chatham as an instructor of musketry and in 1911 was promoted to major. He was on his way back to Hong Kong as a senior naval intelligence officer in July 1914 when his ship, HMS Triumph, put in at Colombo. “We were astounded to hear when we arrived that we were at war with Germany,” he wrote. “The local intelligence officer asked for some help, so I stayed”. One of his first tasks was to track down the elusive German cruiser, SMS Emden, which had sunk or captured nearly two dozen ships in the Indian Ocean. It turned out to be the Australians rather than the British who eventually succeeded in blowing the Emden out of the water and bringing her exploits to an end. But Trant’s family back home in Essex (his father was now rector of Birch, near Colchester) loyally gave him due credit when they came to write their annual Christmas rhyme, rounding up family news for 1914:
Of Trant we cannot give much hist’ry,
since all his work is wrapt in myst’ry.
The Navy in the Eastern Main,
had need of Trant’s inventive brain;
The elusive Emden’s wily trix
had placed them in an awful fix.
But after Trant’s arrival there,
accounts were settled fair and square!
Trant remained in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) until early 1915, before spending the rest of the war in the Middle East, as a staff officer of the Naval Commander in Chief, East Indies and Egypt. Given the family’s strong military tradition — his uncle, William Luard, was an admiral and his great grandfather, Nicholas Trant, had been a general in the Peninsular War — there seems to have been a sense that he was “missing out” by being so far from the centre of the fighting. His father writes to Trant’s sister Kate in France in March 1915: “Isn’t it sickening for poor old Trant to be kicking his heels in Colombo, when every one of his friends and relations is in the thick of things in Europe and the North Sea?” A few months later, after the publication of Kate’s Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, Trant sends her a letter to say her book has moved him to tears. He wishes he could serve on the front with her but thinks it unlikely they’d let him go, so he will carry on with his naval intelligence work. This includes “submarine matters”, but the censor wont let him say more.
After he is moved to Port Said and later Alexandria, Trant writes that he feels “funny” at having had two brothers killed while serving in the Mediterranean. (One, Alexander, had fallen from the rigging as a 17-year-old midshipman in 1880; the other, Frank, died at Gallipoli on 28 Apr 1915 while holding a machine gun post alone to allow his men to retreat). As he hears more news of men he knew in Essex dying in battle, Trant even goes as far as to say he feels “ashamed to be alive sometimes”. There was certainly a stark contrast between his comfortable lifestyle in the Middle East, with unlimited food and luxuries and servants, and the hardships and horrors of Kate’s life at the Front or the straitened circumstances and rationing faced by his various other siblings left at home with their elderly father in Birch Rectory.
In October 1915, at about the same time as Kate’s colleague Edith Cavell is being shot in Brussels on the order of a German court martial, Trant is sauntering out to make a drawing of the Pyramids by moonlight, which he sends to one of his sisters. His office in Port Said, next to the Suez Canal, is next to the Rear Admiral’s (“a curious old bird”) in the airy and palatial Navy House. This he describes as “an immense 2-storied building with about 25 large windows and a verandah all round, like what I imagine an Italian palazzo to be, on the edge of the water on two sides, so from the dining room we look out in two directions on the water, a quarter mile from the canal entrance”. A typical day’s intelligence work ends at four or five in the afternoon, “when we all go out and either play tennis or mud golf or go for a walk on the beach and then on to the club to read the papers”.
But Trant was, after all, already 42 when the war began, so it’s perhaps not so surprising that like other senior officers he was allowed to enjoy a comparatively easy time of it. And his big moment of action did come, when in late 1917 he played a part in the Third Battle of Gaza. During the operations of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) against the Turks from August to November of that year, he landed in Palestine as officer in charge of observation of naval gunfire and communications with HM ships. General Allenby had assembled seven infantry divisions to fight alongside the Desert Mounted Corps. The entire force, including Arab workers, comprised 200,000 men, 46,000 horses, 20,000 camels and 15,000 mules and donkeys. The bombardment of Gaza that preceded the infantry’s attack was the heaviest bombardment of World War One outside European theatres. The sixth night’s shelling from onshore and offshore guns is said to have produced an even heavier concentration of fire on a small area than had been put in on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Crouched in his dugout, Trant found the noise “simply appalling”, but it was an experience he “wouldn’t have missed for anything”.
On November 11th he entered the enemy’s captured trenches and became the first officer of the naval services to enter Gaza itself. “Hardly a house had a roof on”, he wrote. Once again, there were trophies to be had. “I found a copy of the Koran — about the size of the big bibles on the reading desk in church — and brought it back under my arm on a pulling horse.”
Trant received the Order of the Nile, Class 1, and a personal message of commendation from General Allenby. Cooperation between staff and fleet had been “better than I could have believed possible”, Allenby wrote, and that was due to the “good staff work” of Trant and another officer.
In 1920, after returning home and being promoted to colonel, Trant married Helen Cockburn, a 24-year-old British war widow whom he’d met in Port Said. Together they had four children. He retired in 1924, but lived on happily for another 50 years. Even in his 90’s he was completing the Times Crossword every day after taking Helen her breakfast in bed. As well as keeping up his frequent correspondence he wrote a number of small books including , at 96, a treatise on human relations entitled “The Challenge of Becoming”. When the Marines asked if he wanted a present or a party to mark his 100th birthday, he replied firmly “A party, of course — what good is a present at my age?”