The Lord Lieutenant of Devonshire, the fourth Earl Fortescue, kept detailed diaries during the First World War. These diaries provide a unique perspective of important events during this time, for the Fortescue family and the local community. Author, Dr. Richard Batten, takes the reader through the extreme significance of these documents.
My first book, A Lord Lieutenant in Wartime, is a study of the British Home Front during the First World War from the perspective of the Lord Lieutenant of Devonshire: the fourth Earl Fortescue. It explores the Great War exclusively through the wartime experiences of Earl Fortescue as he recorded them in his memoirs for the war years, his diaries, and a selection of his private papers.
This book follows from my doctoral thesis which examined the county of Devon in the South West of England during the Great War through the involvement of the local elite of the county. A prominent figure of Devon’s local elite was the fourth Earl Fortescue who was the Lord Lieutenant of Devon, a member of the county’s landed gentry, and a peer of the Realm. As the Lord Lieutenant of Devon, Earl Fortescue was one of the most industrious figures in Devon and as such played a significant role in the county’s war effort. When he decided to write a retrospective account of his time as the Lord Lieutenant of Devon during the First World War, Earl Fortescue consulted with his diaries from the war years and his private papers. Yet, the wartime diaries of Earl Fortescue are an extraordinary primary source in their own right as they present an invaluable viewpoint on the war years.
From 1914 to 1918, Earl Fortescue’s diaries reveal that he managed to find time to incorporate his vast interests and obligations. These included his hunting pursuits with the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, overseeing the Castle Hill estate in north Devon, his commitments to activities related to the war effort in the county as well as regular trips to London to fulfil his duties in the House of Lords. However, the length and nature of Fortescue’s diary entries vary significantly. There are diary entries that provide only very brief statements of the events that happened that day whilst, at the same time, the diaries also occasionally contain longer and more detailed entries.
According to Fortescue, the reason for these longer entries was due to the fact that if he had met and ‘talked with anyone who had inside knowledge of what was going on’. In many of the longer entries, Earl Fortescue documented verbatim the conversations that he had experienced with those who had inside information on subjects related to the war. These included prominent members of both houses of Parliament, foreign envoys and other notable contemporary figures.
One significant discussion that Earl Fortescue recorded in detail was evident in his diary entry for 18 April 1918. This conversation took place whilst he was in London, where Fortescue met the veteran British diplomat, Sir Arthur Nicholson. During dinner, both men spoke about the progress of the war to which Nicholson held ‘strongly that the Kaiser did not want war with us a bit & was rather let in for it by Austria’. This diligence to record events with great exactitude was also apparent in the diary entries where Fortescue documented the specific routes along with references to local landmarks that were taken by the Devon and Somerset Staghounds on their hunts across Exmoor. Therefore, the Ordnance Survey’ map and the Exmoor Historic Environment Record were invaluable research tools in the process to check these specific stag hunting routes as they were recorded in Fortescue’s diaries.
Hence, the diaries that the Earl Fortescue kept throughout the First World War impart an extensive chronicle of his daily activities and routines but also reflect the active and varied life that he led. The great variety evident in Earl Fortescue’s diaries reflect the various wartime responsibilities and roles that were placed upon the shoulders of a man who was also a Lord Lieutenant, a Peer of the Realm and a member of the landed gentry in Devon. At the same time, the longer diary entries also provide a unique perspective upon important events and reveal his participation, along with Lady Fortescue, in prominent social circles. Thus, the diaries of the fourth Earl Fortescue are a rich, multifaceted source with insightful and candid observations that take into account his life and the Fortescue family during the First World War.
This guest post was written by Richard Batten, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, where he completed a PhD in History. Richard has contributed to the blog of the Centre of Imperial and Global History at the University of Exeter and was interviewed by BBC Radio Devon in August 2014 and March 2016 as part of the events marking the centenary period of the First World War.