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Deep in the long south western peninsula of England that is Cornwall there is a magnificent country estate of rolling meadows and stands of Maple and Sycamore trees, and nestled in the middle of it, invisible until you get close, is a large Victorian mansion. Until a few decades ago this was the home of the succession of Lords Clifden, whose family name was Agar-Robartes, the wealthiest family in Cornwall and one of the wealthiest in the country.

Lanhydrock now belongs to the National Trust, the charity that preserves much of Britain's heritage so that visitors such as myself can wander around its corridors and imagine what it might have been like to live there, either as a family member, or as one of the army of servants that kept it all running. The Agar-Robartes were considered to be enlightened employers whose staff had considerably better working conditions than was usual at the time. Each got one afternoon off work per week. The servants' quarters were much less luxurious than the family rooms, of course, but the senior servants had a room with bed, armchair and fireplace. The female servants' rooms, while on the same upper floor of the house, were separated from the male quarters by a door which was kept permanently locked, and accessed by a separate staircase. Nevertheless it was not impossible for the men and women to fraternize, and at least one marriage took place among the staff.

The original house burned down in a catastrophic fire in the mid-eighteen hundreds and the present house was built in its place by the Lord Clifden of the time, one Thomas Agar-Robartes. The new house was to be the epitome of comfortable luxury and incorporated the very latest technical innovations such as plumbed hot water and bathrooms. Lord and Lady Clifden each had their own bedroom and en-suite bathroom, but we're told that both preferred to wash the traditional way – in tin baths in front of the fire in their bedrooms.

When Lord Clifden died, the title passed to his son, also Thomas, together with the estate, the family's London residence, and the extensive lands they owned elsewhere. This Lord Clifden was a typical Victorian gentleman, if rather better funded than most, who doted on his ten children and spent time and energy with them, taking the little ones for rides on his back and generally behaving with them in a most undignified manner that would have scandalized his father. The oldest son was, of course, named Thomas but he was known in the family as Tommy. When he left home to go to Eton he arrived there as Tommy Robartes and that is how he was known at school, and then at Oxford university, and even when he became a member of Parliament he was Tommy Robartes to his friends.

The billiard room at Lanhydrock has photos on the walls of Tommy, clearly happy, with friends playing Cricket, and Golf, and rowing. It seems that the friendships he made at school and at university lasted into adult life.

Tommy was quite a character. One commentator described him as 'that paradox, a democratic aristocrat'. His sense of justice led him to campaign for the rights of the ordinary man, better working conditions, better health care, and he was frequently to be seen in the corridors of Westminster, working tirelessly to advance the causes he believed in. He was known as the most immaculately dressed MP.

Tommy's two rooms at Lanhydrock are quite modest, a bedroom and adjoining dressing room, very masculine and quite austere. On the surprisingly small bed the National Trust have placed on display a leather suitcase, opened to show that it is compartmented and fitted out with all the accoutrements that a gentleman would need when travelling – hairbrushes, shaving equipment, various preparations for ensuring that hair and moustache would always look neat. We're told that this suitcase went with him into the trenches of the first world war.

As a member of Parliament, Tommy was not expected to join the army, but he signed up anyway, and was assigned a desk job in Whitehall, which he bore for a few months before transferring to another regiment in January 1915, in order to get across to France and do some real soldiering. He wrote to a friend at the time that he felt he must join the fighting 'at all costs'.

There is a record from September of 1915 telling a little of Tommy's life from that period. The German front line trenches were only a short distance away, and Tommy and two others were assigned that night to go over the top on a reconnaissance mission to establish whether there was any fresh activity on the German side. The three soldiers, each ranked Captain, divided the job between them. One explored to the left, Tommy checked out the middle section and the other went to the right. It was dangerous work, at any moment the enemy might fire a flare into the sky, and in the light of it the three men would be sitting ducks to be picked off by German snipers. On this occasion they got back safely. Tommy and his colleague to the left returned reporting all quiet, and the man who went right reported that he discovered a German telephone wire, and tapped into it, but hearing nothing he then cut the wire. It was a routine operation, devoid of incident, probably one of many that Tommy carried out.

Still in September of 1915 there was a sortie which left one of Tommy's men entangled in the wire, unable to get back to the safety of the trench. We don't know the exact circumstance, but we do know that Tommy went to his rescue, and died in the attempt. He was thirty-five years old.

What, I wonder, was the relationship between Tommy and his men? The complaint is often made that the soldiers were 'lions led by donkeys' but would Tommy have been such a donkey? This was a man who had made a career in peacetime of campaigning for a better life for the ordinary working man. Surely he did not think of the soldiers under his command as cannon fodder. He was a man who preferred the company of other men, who made close enduring male friendships and who had reached his middle years without feeling the need to marry or even, as far as we know, to court. Did he try to befriend his men? Would he have found them reserved, reluctant to trust someone whose background was so different? Someone so evidently a 'nob' – a member of the nobility? We do know that he went to the rescue of one of his men even though he must have known that the chance of success was slight, and the likelihood of his own survival of the attempt was just as slight. Was this man a special friend of his, or would he have done the same for any of his men? Was he being reckless, heedless of his own safety? Was the attempt suicidal? What we can say, I think, with some confidence, with twenty-first century hindsight, is that Tommy was an honourable man, and a loss, among the loss of nearly ten million others in that terrible war to end all wars a hundred years ago.

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Thank you, Bruin, a wonderful glimpse of the past. I am always amazed at the stories and anecdotes that seep out of the past and give us a real glimpse of unvarnished historical moments. So much of what we read from government sources have been cleaned up or rewritten to present a political point of view.

In the Americas we have only our own Revolutionary War and the Civil War to bring us images of soldiers fighting on native soil. The UK has a more colorful, and even tragic, history of conflict over the centuries. The wealth of stories like the one Bruin presented are slowly fading from the conscious thought of society although I am sure they remain in the hands of family.

The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., has for many years done their best to chronicle the lives of American soldiers from past wars beginning with WW1. Not just the heroes but the ordinary experiences of men before, during and after their service to country. It can be seen and heard here: http://www.loc.gov/vets/

For a writer, any catalog of events in the words of the participants is pure gold for research and development of stories. From my own POV the wars of the 20th and 21st Centuries are just too recent to attract my attention. I chose the Civil War for some of my stories because it was the object of much reading in my formative years at a time when there was a large wealth of information available to the reader in libraries.

I remember something about heroes being ordinary people who are at the right place at the wrong time and react without thinking. I hope that paraphrases the line from someone in my reading past. It sure seems to fit the image I have of Tommy Robartes. His dash to save a fellow soldier ended in tragedy but then he was concerned about his friend and gave his life in the attempt to save him. That is the mark of a true hero.

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A most touching remembrance, Bruin, and you leave us with a genuinely significant question. I think Tommy was clearly a brother to his men.

...In the Americas we have only our own Revolutionary War and the Civil War to bring us images of soldiers fighting on native soil.

Let us not overlook the French and Indian War, our North American share of the Seven Years War, from 1753 to 1763 (who was counting?). While the Algonquins did back the French, the Iroquois Nation allied with the British colonists. It was George Washington's first military action (he lost). It led Benjamin Franklin to propose a unified colonial government, with a legislature and an executive (he lost). It gave rise to the Cajuns, it inspired the lyrics for "Yankee Doodle", and it gained for the British both Canada and Florida, although it retained Louisiana for Spain. More importantly, it produced the debt that led Britain to harshly tax these colonies and thus resulted in our War of Independence.

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