Guy Louis Busson du Maurier (1865 – 1915)
Guy was George and Emma du Maurier’s second child and eldest son. George often used his family as models for his Punch illustrations and Guy and his siblings can be identified in these pictures. A wonderful example of this is the well-known picture of Emma with her five children pretending to be an engine and railway carriages.
Although Guy was destined to be a soldier he enjoyed a multitude of other interests, including sport, notable rugby, and music. Music was very important in the du Maurier household and Guy learned to play the violin as a child.
Guy was educated at Marlborough before going to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, from which he was commissioned into the Royal Fusiliers. His first overseas posting took him to India and he was a career soldier for the rest of his life. Gerald looked up to his older brother and, as he grew up, he sought him out as an advisor and guide. Despite being away from home much of the time, first at school and then with the army, Guy was a good communicator and kept in touch with his brother and sisters with letters, which he often illustrated with little sketches and cartoons.
As Guy grew up he developed a talent for amateur theatricals, which he usually stage-managed and produced. Whilst in India he used his experience to organise shows for the soldiers and pursued his love for stage management when he was posted back to Woolwich.
During the Second Boer War Guy commanded a mounted infantry regiment, earning the Distinguished Service Order in 1902. It is said that, during that time in South Africa, Guy saw a fellow soldier killed next to him in such shocking circumstances that it turned his hair white.
In 1905, when Guy returned to the UK on leave, he married Gwen Price, who he had met through his sister Beatrix and her husband Charles Hoyer Millar.
When Guy was with his family he often talked of the possibility of war with Germany and the German army suddenly landing on British soil, catching the British unawares. On one occasion, before returning to South Africa following a period of leave, he left Gerald with the manuscript of a play that he had written.
The setting for the play is in the home of the Brown family, who live in a house called Myrtle Villa in a village in Essex. The play begins on Boxing Day with the family lazing about, chatting, relaxed. They are unconcerned with international politics and mock the arguments of a family friend who, alarmed at the way things are going, has just enrolled in the newly formed Territorial Army. Suddenly a foreign Captain and his Lieutenant burst in to announce that an invasion has begun and that Myrtle Cottage is now an outpost in the battle raging between enemy forces and English troops. During the play the enemy is dislodged and the house recaptured. Bullets fly, the roof starts to burn and the British retire. Mr Brown, the father of the family, stays on to defend his home with a rifle and picks off one of the enemy, whose colleagues then storm the place and take him prisoner. The Captain orders him to be shot…
After Guy and Gwen had returned to South Africa Gerald and J.M. Barrie tweaked Guy’s script a little and altered the end, as they felt that, for the purposes of maintaining morale, Britain needed to win! They called the play An Englishman’s Home and named the author as “A Patriot”. It was the first time that Gerald had directed a new play; the opening night was on January 27th 1909 at Wyndham’s Theatre and it was an awful, foggy night. The play had no well-known actors, no author’s name, there had been no advance publicity and none of the usual first-nighters attended. Gerald’s brother-in-law Charles Hoyer Millar however, described the first night thus:
…but the play was so thrilling with its mixture of comedy, satire and tragedy and its human appeal was so strong, that the final curtain went down amidst tumultuous applause which went on, and on, and on. Up and down went the curtain and it seemed the audience would never be quieted.
Initially it was believed that J.M. Barrie had written the play and, when it was discovered that the secret author was Guy du Maurier, his name was on everybody’s lips. The play was a phenomenal success and people were so inspired by it that recruiting for the Territorial Army went up by leaps and bounds. When Guy came home on leave he had women falling in love with him, such was his fame! Then, as with all things, something new happened to distract people and Guy and his play were forgotten.
In January 1915 Guy set off for France with his battalion – the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers. There is a record of Guy du Maurier’s brief experience of World War 1 in the form of the letters that he wrote to his wife Gwen. The first letter is dated 21st January 1915 and in it he asked his wife to purchase a pair of waders from Fortnum and Mason for him. His next letters describe the journey to his billet at Caestre and his settling there. In his letter of 31st January he asks Gwen to send his Mannlicher rifle with telescopic sights and ammunition for it! On 4th February he starts to describe entering the trenches at Ouderdom for a four-day stint. On 8th February he gives an account of the appalling conditions he and his men are living in and the casualties, killed and wounded. By 20th February his division has been broken up and he and his men are transferred to Locre, where things seem a bit easier. On 24th February his Mannlicher rifle arrives. By 28th February his disillusionment with the way the War is being fought becomes apparent. He complains of his lack of replacements and, more importantly, the amount of literature which rolls up in the shape of hints and recommendations of what and what not to do, all emanating from people who have never come near the trenches. The last letter is dated 8th March in which Guy speaks of more casualties among his comrades. He ends this letter:
We must make up our minds to the loss of another ¼ million soldiers lives and then perhaps we will pull off a victory. No starvation, no blockade, no anything but hard pushing against their line is going to end this war. No talent wanted, no great men – thank goodness for our sake, just men in masses and equipment and ammunition for them.
The following day Guy du Maurier was killed by a shell that exploded near him, just after he had evacuated his battalion from the front line. He was to have been promoted to Brigadier-General the next day.
Later, Charles Hoyer-Millar said of Guy:
He was a thorough soldier and very popular with his regiment, where he was always called Toby from his Punch association. He took his profession seriously and looked after the welfare of his men in every way. He was a great loss to the army and to his numerous friends. He never made an enemy. In his disposition, he was light-hearted and humorous, always adored by all his family.
And J.M. Barrie said of him:
He certainly had the du Maurier charm at its best – the light heart with the sad smile, and it might be the sad heart with the bright smile. He had a lot of stern stuff about him, and yet always the mournful smile of one who could pretend that life was gay but knew it wasn’t. One of the most attractive personalities I have ever known.
Guy was buried at Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery and there is a memorial to him on his father’s grave in the 1912 churchyard extension of the Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead.
Daphne du Maurier shared a birthday with her Uncle Guy. He was forty-two years old on the day she was born and she was only seven when he was killed. Because his career took him away from home so much she would not have known her uncle well but she was drawn to his memory by their shared birthday and by the insight that he had used when he wrote his famous play.
Some people are of the view that Daphne took the essence of An Englishman’s Home and rewrote it as The Birds. Certainly Nat Hocken is a good ordinary man like Mr Brown, who takes care of the people in his household when the invasion begins. However Guy’s play ends with a message of hope and engages with people, encouraging them to consider the dangers of a future invasion and to prepare themselves. Daphne, typically, leaves us with no hope, when even the BBC radio broadcasts cease; the Hockens are entirely alone and the birds are still coming.
© Ann Willmore 2016.