- A Family's Letters Evoke a Lost Empire
Robin Du Boulay (1926-2008), a distinguished University of London medievalist, was the elder son of the twelfth child in the family of thirteen fathered by Rev. James Thomas Du Boulay, the housemaster of Winchester College. Robin's father, Philip Du Boulay, born in 1880, came of working age as imperial Britain was reaching its apogee in extent, but as the colorful and fascinating Servants of Empire reveals through the letters of this compulsively epistolary family, large families required marriages for daughters and jobs for sons, and opportunities, mostly abroad, were already in decline. Colonial infrastructure needed trained locals to replace farmed-out colonials.
Traditional classical educations graced much of the correspondence circulated among those Du Boulay brothers and sisters who left home to earn often precarious livelihoods. Most were originals which could be lost and often were, but some were first drafted in notebooks and carbon paper preserved many copies. Eyewitness records of empire at a level below the leaders and entrepreneurs, they frame, as Robin Du Boulay has intersected them, a dimension of lost empire through a "network of affection."
Hubert, the eldest brother of seven, was able to go to medical school and practice at home. He had little compulsion to write. Younger siblings sought work abroad. Four daughters vanished into quiet marriages, spinsterhood, or early demise. Noel chose the army. In Egypt and the Sudan he learned Arabic and how to haggle for camels, participated in the failed attempt to extricate General Gordon, drew evocative watercolors to enhance his letters, and wrote graphically of events and of the "usual army contradictions between action at the double and unaccountable delay." Ordered to Japan to observe the ongoing war in [End Page 100] China, he participated in a seaborne landing that "a modern mind," according to his nephew, "will find ... chillingly familiar." Noel Du Boulay also describes the lure of the hot springs that diverted Japanese invaders, bent on murder, to pause and dig holes in the sandy bed of a river, "and sit in the hot wells thus formed while the outside thermometer stood at about 0° F, and the stream flowing close by was thickly crusted with ice."
"Noel's reports, formal and informal"—he was young Robin's favorite uncle—"offer a forceful lesson in the mingling of friendship and barbarism in all armies. Cruelty and atrocity freeze us and the next moment killers appear bathing, laughing and bargaining among survivors. There is no other moral than to seek peace." Left unsaid is that Noel's nephew, prior to completing his degree at Oxford, was an artillery officer engaged in beating back the Wehrmacht in the Netherlands and north Germany in 1945.
After the Boxer Rebellion, Major Du Boulay was gazetted as commanding officer at the Summer Palace in Peking. He served later in Mauritius, and then as a Brigadier in the European War at a frustrating desk job in Portsmouth coordinating transport to France. In memory he never left the artillery. When he lay dying soon after the Second World War, "The nursing home told us he was shouting out fire orders at the time."
Even more successful was James, who forged an administrative career in India, became private secretary to the Viceroy, and helped organize the Durbar for George V at Delhi, the unfinished new seat of government. After its success, a friend rushed to his wife saying, "I do congratulate you, and everyone is so delighted, dear Lady Du Boulay." Jim had not yet told Freda, who asked him how long he had known of the knighthood. "About six months," he said. English understatement abounds in the Du Boulay letters, but not among the women. During the World War I years Freda wrote to her mother about young Mike, who was three: "I tell Mike he is to be either a soldier or a sailor, and he nods his head and says 'sojer.'... So I hope it is impressed on him." He lived...