A Dream of England – for Armistice Day

Anyone who has researched the fallen of World War One through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website will occasionally have come across a record that states that a soldier served under another name – and wondered about their reasons. This is one young man’s story.

Wainwright Merrill

Wainwright Merrill was born on 26 May 1898 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel Merrill  and Estelle Minerva Hatch Merrill. He had an older brother, Gyles. His mother, a botanist, journalist and businesswoman, died when he was just ten.

Clearly a bright young man, in 1915 he was studying English literature at Dartmouth, an Ivy League college in New Hampshire.  He already believed that America should enter the European war and joined Dartmouth’s college military battalion which began training in February 1916. The group practiced marching, studied artillery tactics and dug a series of elaborate trenches near the college football field.

Trenches at Dartmouth College

The assembled battalion at Dartmouth

He  also attended two sessions of the civilian military training camp established at Plattsburg, New York. These were part of a volunteer pre-enlistment training programme organized by the Preparedness Movement, a group of influential pro-Allied citizens.

Exercises at Plattsburg

After only a year at Dartmouth, Wainwright transferred to Harvard, to be closer to his family in Cambridge, where his father and brother lived in Bellevue Avenue.  There he joined the college’s  Officer Training Corps programme.

Wainwright in uniform, probably that of the Harvard OTC

But his stay was short-lived. He left Harvard in November 1916 and travelled to Kingston, Ontario. Once there, he volunteered to serve as a gunner in the 6th Siege Battery of the  Canadian Garrison Artillery. Only eighteen, he was considered a minor by the Canadian military and needed his father’s permission to sign up. He knew this would not be forthcoming, so assumed the identity of Arthur Ashton Stanley, a clerk born in 1895 in England.  In a letter home to his father, Merrill explained that he ‘could not, in honour, stay out if America should take no action’.

The attestation of ‘Arthur Ashton Stanley’

Wainwright was sent, along with thousands of other Canadian soldiers, to England, to the Kent coast where he was quartered at Risborough barracks, near Hythe. He arrived in spring 1917

All that is left of Risborough Barracks today

His study of English literature had developed in him a great affinity for all things English. He had read Caesar’s account of  invading the country,  Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shelley and Dickens, but his favourite was Kipling (‘the one and only Rudyard’) His reading perhaps fostered a romantic view of England, but in Hythe he found that the romance was real. Having seen it for himself, he wrote of the poet Shelley:

One can well appreciate his love of the wild things, the blue fleecy clouded heaven, the May wind in the trees; and this fair green wood and hill and meadow land that is England. … This beauty of the English countryside surely has approximated the ideal surroundings and pulsed with the best aspirations of countless men down the years. It is indeed a wonderful thing to know and feel. No one is more thankful for, or realises better than I, the splendid chance I am having to be here in my youth (1)

He loved the Roman ruins of Stutfall castle, the winding roads and scattered stone houses of the Romney Marsh, sunset over the English channel, Stone Street (‘a flinty white road’), the inns and their ‘jovial hosts’. In the April showers he compared himself to Chaucer’s pilgrims and visited inns:

And I have walked out over the green Marsh to Dymchurch-under-the-wall, stopping for ginger wine and a pint or two at Botolph’s Bridge and the Shepherd and Crook in Burmarsh and stood on the sloping or2)

He cycled out from Hythe to Brenzett and quoted:

Oh Romney level and Brenzett reed

I reckon you know what my mind needs

(from ‘A Three-part song by Rudyard Kipling)

He met farmers in pubs and rode on to ‘the gates of Rye’, where he imagined (quoting Kipling again) King Alfred putting the Vikings to flight. He went to Canterbury, where he thought of Dickens’s Betsey Trotwood at the market. He had tea and buns in Hythe and caught the bus to Sandgate. He visited Lympne castle and nearby church, Saltwood castle and Hythe church with its ossuary. He saw nothing to displease him

I like England very, very much. I could easily love it as a home and it is surely greatly worth fighting for.

Clockwise from top left, Stutfall Castle with Lympne Castle behind; Botolph’s Bridge Inn; the ossuary at St Leonard’s Hythe and a gate at Rye

Finally, on October 18, 1917, Wainwright was sent to France. He was then stationed near Ypres in Flanders, Belgium where he manned the heavy artillery guns behind the front lines of combat. Just before he left, he wrote that he expected soon to return to England and would then be hoping for a commission. It was not to be. He was killed on 6 November 1917, when a long range German artillery shell exploded in his barracks. He was nineteen and had been in Belgium less than a month. Ten days before his death, he had written to a Harvard classmate, Edward Hubbard, contemplating the possibility of his death:

It‘s mighty hard, Ed leaving everything back there, perhaps for good and all. So if it should be that, friend, I’ll say good-bye—but God! how can one—a couple of simple words and it’s over, and you go up to the Line, and try to laugh, or smile at least, and swallow it down. But it’s part of the game, of course, and it is a noble end which we seek out of the ruck and jetsam of death and broken men and lasting sorrow.

Wainwright Merrill is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Ypres Reservoir.

 

  1. Letter from Wainwright Merrill to May Cranford Clark.
  2. All other quotations from A College Man In Khaki, edited by Charles M Stearns, Regent of Harvard University, 1905-10, Instructor at Dartmouth College, 1914-18.

 

 

 

 

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