By Helen Cleary
Last updated 2011-03-10
Captain Geoffrey Donaldson 7th (Territorial) Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment
Captain Geoffrey Donaldson was the only son of Dr Eben Donaldson of Londonderry (who died in 1904) and his wife. The abundance of condolence letters sent to Donaldson's mother after his death in 1916 is testimony to his popularity as an officer and civilian.
His correspondence is informed by his love of nature and the world's beauty - he was a botanist - even in the midst of war. Added to that, the collection of letters constitutes an account of life in the trenches and the effects of war on men of various ranks. Particularly notable in the letters is his good humour and insightful observation of humanity.
Donaldson was educated at Oundle School, a public school for boys, where he did well and was much loved by his fellow pupils and teachers for his frank and attractive personality as well as his academic ability. A fellow pupil wrote to Mrs Donaldson how her son had been an inspiration, a pioneer of botany who would have achieved so much; his housemaster mourned Donaldson and regretted that he would not be able to continue their great friendship when peace eventually arrived.
Before he enlisted for war, Donaldson was an undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and took a first class in part one of the Natural Sciences tripos. But he was one of the first to join the OTC and went straight to a training camp in Cambridge before he began his second year at university. Within two years he would find himself on the Western Front gazetted to captaincy. As Donaldson himself explained: 'On March 10th I became that very common product of war - a very young captain.'
He had a strong visual sense which enabled him to describe the battered wartime landscape: 'All that one sees looking through the periscope is a great waste of flat, but debris covered, ground like that behind our line with ruined buildings and shattered trees in the distance.' But he was always able to find hope and beauty there - describing the ruined churchyard at Neuve Chappelle he wrote:
In the churchyard stands a huge black Calvary with the figure of Christ hanging intact upon it, a silent reminder of the ideals of Christianity and I suppose, that just as that pathetic figure has been spared by the bursting shells and still remains there in that scene of desolation, so the ideals of Christianity remain unshattered too... The grass grows high round the dilapidated gravestones and everywhere there is a profusion of garden and wild flowers, poppies, roses, larkspur, monkshood... I enclose a piece of hysimachia from the Churchyard. I only wish photographs could be taken here. The ruined chateau with its fine Clematis-covered gateposts and Church and Calvary would make wonderful pictures. They impressed me more than most things I have seen.
His writing about war is on a par with better-known literary contemporaries such as Wilfred Owen.
His outgoing personality meant that he appreciated the camaraderie of his situation - of the Mess he wrote, 'It has certainly always been the "happy family" which the tradition of the regiment lays down it should be, and its influence on the well being of the battalion cannot be overestimated.' Others would say the same of him. He was fondly nicknamed Dunlop and the men always considered him cheerful and easy to respect. One private wrote to his mother: 'I am sure no one in the Battalion felt his death more than I did. I did so admire him, the way he threw all his energy and mind into a thing he loathed, simply because it was his duty was very fine, and the his calm, cool courage in the trenches, but when the time came for action, he simply blazed forth.'
If Donaldson loathed the business of war he did not complain about it. In his last letter home he remained resolute and determined to comfort his mother: 'I don't think anything will affect my nerves now, so don't worry about me, dear, because I shall pull through all right and I am strong enough to stand any amount of fatigue.' His courage was matched by an indefatigable sense of humour - describing the scene after an attack for example, 'There were a great number of dead rats lying about, killed by the gas, as they have no gas helmets.'
Not that he was insensitive to the plight of others; he understood that some men could not withstand the horrors of war and described neurasthenia with medical objectivity:
I hear that ------ is much better; he was absolutely exhausted and I had no option but to send ------ and him back, as it was essential that they should not be near the men while the sort of ague, which is the outward and visible sign of the disease, was upon them. I say disease advisedly, because it is a disease, which they themselves are really unable to prevent. It just depends on the way you are made. Some are unconcerned, others must collapse if there is a prolonged strain.
Yet however sympathetic he was to the problem, he still felt it necessary to make a distinction between the treatment of officers and privates: 'Some of the men of course had it too, but I allowed none of these to go back. An officer is a different thing, because on him depends so largely the nerves of men.' This is the harsh reality of World War One - the experiences of many men depended on their class and rank.
Captain Donaldson led his company over the top on 21st July 1916 in the battle of Fromelles, which was intended as a diversionary attack staged to draw enemy troops away from the Somme. He led in a gallant manner, piercing the German 1st and 2nd lines, killing the enemy and taking prisoners. Sadly, the battalion to his left failed to get across no-man's land and Donaldson's company was cut off. He was killed by a bomb thrown directly at him.
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