Professor Harold Lawton

First World War veteran and scholar of the French Renaissance at Southampton and Sheffield


Harold Walter Lawton, French scholar: born Burslem, Staffordshire 27 July 1899; Fellow, University of Wales 1923-26; Lecturer in French, University College, Southampton 1930-37, Professor of French 1937-50, Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1945-49; Professor of French, Sheffield University 1950-64 (Emeritus), Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1958-61, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1961-64; married 1933 Bessie Pate (died 1991; one daughter, and two sons deceased); died Cottesmore, Rutland 24 December 2005.

Harold Lawton was a scholar of the French Renaissance who devoted much of his life to France and its culture. In recent years, he had won increasing attention as one of the longest-surviving veterans of the First World War and the last surviving Allied soldier captured on the Western Front.

A child of the Potteries, he was born in 1899 in Burslem, the son of the owner of a tile-making and mosaic business. He attended Middle School, Newcastle-under-Lyme, as had Arnold Bennett before him, and his early love of all things French may well have owed something to the influence of his illustrious Francophile predecessor. A decline in the family business brought a move to North Wales, where Lawton pursued his education at Rhyl Grammar School. A member of the OTC, he was conscripted in 1916. His straitened circumstances meant he could no longer afford the extra expenses entailed by officer training, so he enlisted in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, subsequently being transferred to the Cheshire Regiment and thence to the Manchester Regiment. Even before crossing the Channel he came under enemy fire, when the German fleet bombarded his training camp and the port at Great Yarmouth in November 1916.

He left for the Western Front in 1917 and in March 1918 found himself with the 4th Battalion of the East Yorkshire regiment at Béthune, north of Arras. On 21 March, the Germans launched 65 divisions in a vast offensive along a front of 60 kilometres, from the River Scarpe to the River Oise, with the aim of driving a wedge between the Allied armies. In the event, the German assault secured an advance of 60km but proved a strategic failure by the time it was stemmed at the end of the month.

However, on 8 April, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, loath to admit defeat, redoubled their efforts in a new attack northwards against the English front, this time between Armentières and La Bassée. The objective was to cross the River Lys, secure Ypres, and push towards Dunkirk. Harold Lawton was sent from Béthune with the East Yorkshire regiment to reinforce Armentières after a line being held by a Portuguese battalion on the banks of the Lys gave way.

Haig reported that the British had their backs to the wall and Churchill rushed to Paris to plead for reinforcements. It was too late for Lawton and his comrades, who rushed to reoccupy the line, only to discover that the trenches were little more than "scrapes in the ground" and to find themselves outflanked by the German advance even as they attempted to dig in. In the chaos that ensued, Lawton witnessed at close quarters one man shot through the head by a sniper. The battalion retreated, but it was already surrounded by the enemy and Lawton and six others were cut off for several days until the Germans returned to take them prisoner.

Some 90,000 Allied soldiers had been captured during this period, and their numbers swamped the Germans' capacity to cope with them. As a result, Lawton was incarcerated first in a cage in an open field and then in the fortress at Lille. After 12 days crammed with hundreds of others into one huge hall, six to a bunk, among men covered in scabies and dying from wounds, dysentery and influenza, he was relieved to be taken by cattle-truck to Germany, first to Limburg in Westphalia (from where in June he was at last able to send a postcard home to reassure his family) and subsequently to a POW camp at Minden.

On being released following the Armistice in November 1918, and discharged from military service in 1919, Lawton studied for a degree in French at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, obtaining an MA in 1921 with a thesis on Roman Gaul which demonstrated his gifts as a Latinist combined with his love for France. He then went to pursue research in Paris, where he was to spend the rest of the 1920s, first writing his doctoral thesis and then in a junior teaching post at the Sorbonne.

These were momentous and turbulent years: the French Occupation of the Ruhr, in pursuit of war reparations from the Germans, precipitated an international diplomatic crisis and riots in Paris from 1923 to1925, while the period also saw key events in French culture. André Breton's two Surrealist manifestos were published in 1924 and 1929; Proust's Le Temps retrouvé, completing the posthumous publication of one of the great works of world literature, appeared in 1928; while Montparnasse echoed to the sounds of jazz and Josephine Baker could be seen walking along the boulevard with a panther on a lead.

In 1926 the publication of Gide's Les Faux-Monnayeurs coincided with the completion of Harold Lawton's massive doctoral thesis, Térence en France au XVIe siècle: éditions et traductions, a 570-page work on the dissemination and influence of the second-century BC Latin playwright Publius Terentius Afer. Together with the regulation "thèse complémentaire", a 216-page study of imitations of Terence by French Renaissance playwrights, this work was to be republished in 1970-72 and remains a landmark in the field.

In 1930 Lawton took up a lectureship in French and Modern Languages at the then Hartley University College in Southampton. In 1933 he married a childhood friend, Bessie Pate, whom he had enlisted to help him produce, at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, a typescript of the diaries of William Gladstone, deposited at Lambeth Palace Library. A popular and effective teacher, he succeeded to the Chair of French in 1937. How many of his students realised he was also at this time a special constable in Southampton, while continuing to discharge his university functions?

On the outbreak of the Second World War he once again volunteered for service: the talks he gave to British soldiers and airmen on French people and customs came to the attention of the Nazi authorities, who placed Lawton's name on a list of suspect individuals to be dealt with as the opportunity arose. Meanwhile, he continued to write and publish articles on 16th-century and classical French theatre and on Renaissance humanism, and kept the Modern Languages department going during the war years: he was a leading light on the development committee which prepared the ground for the transition to full university status for Southampton in 1952.

During the immediate post-war period, Lawton was active in renewing cultural contacts with France and reconstructing the discipline of French Studies in British universities, alongside luminaries such as Eugène Vinaver and Alan Boase. He reasserted his authority in the field with the publication by Manchester University Press, in 1949, of his Handbook of French Renaissance Dramatic Theory, an anthology of key texts.

Then, in 1950, Lawton took up the Chair of French at Sheffield University, where he remained until his retirement in 1964. These years saw him serve on the board of the journal French Studies, to which he was to contribute many sagacious and learned reviews. In 1957 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Association of Heads of French Departments. Nineteen sixty-one saw the publication of his student edition of selected poems of Joachim du Bellay, the most important of Renaissance poets after Ronsard. By this time, Lawton, having served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, was a Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the university (the first to hold this newly created office), and contributed through his shrewd judgement and far-sighted administrative skills to the process of preparing the university for the student expansion of the mid-1960s.

His exceptional longevity allowed him a long and rich retirement. He and his wife spent 15 years living on the Isle of Anglesey, where he enjoyed developing those artistic gifts which had earlier enabled him to lighten tedious committee meetings by producing caricatures of those present. On moving to Rutland, he became a notable supporter of the campaign to defend the county against proposed extinction.

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