Moving story of Lydiard Viscount who served as a Tommy in World War One

By Barrie Hudson - 2 May 2024

  • Vernon St John, soldier and 6th Viscount Bolingbroke

    Vernon St John, soldier and 6th Viscount Bolingbroke

The story of an aristocrat who fought as an ordinary private soldier in some of the bloodiest battles of World War One was told at a talk organised by the Friends of Lydiard Park and Lydiard Archives.

  • Friends of Lydiard Park Chair Sarah Finch- Crisp with speaker Christopher Jary

    Friends of Lydiard Park Chair Sarah Finch- Crisp with speaker Christopher Jary

Vernon St.John, whose family home was Lydiard House, fought with the 6th Dorsets at Passchendaele through the grim autumn of 1917 and faced the German spring offensive on the Somme in 1918. 

One moment the young Lord Bolingbroke was celebrating his coming of age at Lydiard Park, the next he was set on a path for the battlefields of France. 

His story was told by author and military history expert Christopher Jary before a rapt audience at Lydiard Park Hotel and Conference Centre. 

Mr Jary, a volunteer at The Keep military museum in Dorchester, is editor of The Keep in 60 People, in which Vernon's experiences are detailed. 

He said: "It seems funny, doesn't it? A Viscount fighting as an ordinary English Tommy. 

"It is of course the basis of much of the humour in Dad's Army. The faintly aristocratic Sergeant Wilson serving under the socially-insecure, very middle class Captain Mainwaring." 

It was not especially unusual for members of the aristocracy to fight in the war, but for a member of the aristocracy to decide to fight as an enlisted soldier rather than an officer was a different matter. 

Mr Jary said: "The reality was that someone of his background could almost certainly have avoided the trenches had he chosen to do so by slipping into a safe job somewhere - either in uniform or not." 

Vernon, who inherited his title as the only legitimate heir, had two older brothers, Henry and Charles, who had already fought in the war and been wounded. 

Vernon was in the thick of what many historians cite as the key battle of the war. 

Mr Jary said: "By March 1918 the Russians had left the war, the Americans hadn't arrived in any numbers and the French had had the fight kicked out of them at Verdun. 

"In 1918 it was British troops who confronted and eventually halted the massive German offensive and who, once the Germans had expended their strength, turned the offensive and chased them back. 

"The British Army soundly beat the German Army on the battlefield - it was arguably their finest hour." 

And the young Viscount, who had enlisted on 4 June 1917? 

Mr Jary said: "He seems to have survived those first horrific 10 days of the German March offensive. 

"But on 2 April he was evacuated wounded from the battlefield. 

"It was the end of his war. He had a minor wound but, unsurprisingly, a major attack of neurasthenia - shellshock. 

"Brought back to England, he was admitted to Canadian General Kitchener Hospital in Brighton, where he was treated for shellshock." 

Vernon was discharged with honour from the Army on 6 November 1918, five days before the Armistice. He was 22 years old. He unveiled the War Memorial in Lydiard Tregoze and would live until 1974. 

He endured the effects of shellshock for the rest of his life, but did not allow this to prevent him from distinguishing himself as a nature writer or serving in the Home Guard during World War Two. 

Mr Jary said it was impossible to know how Vernon felt about his experiences in 191 and 1918, but added: My guess is that as an ordinary soldier he found himself among comrades and found that a pleasant experience. 

"I hope so." 

Information about future events hosted by the Friends of Lydiard Park can be found at

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