Sir James Neville: War and Peace, A Norfolk Soldier at Home and Abroad
James Neville was a man of his time. The son of a London barrister and later Conservative MP, their family home was Sloley Hall, near North Walsham. As a young man, he was educated like many of his class— first at prep school, then Eton and then onto Sandhurst to join the officer corps ready to fight when called for in the 1st World War. To begin with, he thought war was a great adventure; a few years on he was not so keen, but, as a commissioned officer, still believed in doing his duty. He was awarded the Military Cross in January 1918, surviving the war despite a serious injury. In 1919 he was sent, with other international troops, to support the uprising of 'White' Russians against the newly installed Bolshevik government as part of the North Russia Relief Force. Of the 30,000 men involved in Russia about half were British, and, according to Neville, were mostly 'unfit for battle'. Their primary job was to guard Allied stores and keep the Trans-Siberian Railway open. An ignominious withdrawal followed. Next it was unfinished business in Ireland, being sent to counter the Irish Republican Army in their war of independence. By 1923, Neville's career was progressing well having been promoted to Captain, but an affair with his commanding officer's wife ended his military vocation. Finding it difficult to establish a new role away from the British Army, he eventually took a job with the Sudan Plantations Syndicate as an Inspector on the Gezira Scheme—a vast irrigation project designed to grow cotton between the White and Blue Nile. Working in The Sudan sounded like another adventure, but Neville quickly found the country and the work tedious. He returned home after eighteen months, tired and sick with malaria. Constantly looking for love, he was attracted to women who were already married until eventually he found someone who would—and could—love him back. Throughout his life Neville recorded his innermost thoughts, anxieties and beliefs in diaries, letters home to his father, sisters and friends as well as taking photographs during his adventures.
Sara Barton-Wood's research into the sixty diaries, letters and photographs, deposited with the Norfolk Record Office towards the end of Neville's life, provides a unique biographical insight into a Norfolk soldier abroad and at home. Neville often wore his heart on his sleeve when writing in his diary while retaining his sense of duty and service to country typified by his class during the first part of the 20th century. She gives the reader an opportunity to understand a lost era through the eyes of this emotionally complex and sometimes difficult man swept up in the political and social world in which he lived.