The King’s Hussar: Ferenc Békássy And The Great War

                  He went without fears, went gaily, since go he must,

                  And drilled and sweated and sang, and rode in the heat and the dust

                  Of the summer; his fellows were round him, as eager as he.

                  While over the world the gloomy days of war dragged heavily.

                  (Ferenc Békássy, 1914)

Written shortly after he left England following the outbreak of war, Ferenc Békássy’s poem 1914 is virtually unknown outside of his native Hungary. But Békássy represents what was lost by his own country as a consequence of war as much as Rupert Brooke is a symbol of the England that vanished after 1914. Like Brooke, Békássy too would die early on in the the War and so his work never had the chance to reflect upon the mounting horrors that unfolded.

In 1925, ten years after his death and a suitable amount of time after the Armistice, Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press published, Adriatica and Other Poems. It was to be Békássy’s only published work in English (he wrote in both English and Hungarian) and seemingly disappeared without note. Békássy also remained largely forgotten in Hungary, until after the fall of Communism in 1989, when his countrymen began to discover a new-found interest in his poetry, acknowledging the significance of the all too narrow body of work he left behind.

Ferenc Békássy was born in 1893 in Zsennye, Western Hungary. His family was an old aristocratic one, and the importance of education was strongly emphasised to Békássy from an early age, particularly by his mother, who encouraged him from childhood to spend hours in the family library. It was also his mother who believed that he and his five siblings should receive an English education and he was sent to the liberal and progressive Bedales in Hampshire, which had been founded the year he was born and was the first co-educational boarding school in England. It was at Bedales that he first met Noel Olivier, the daughter of the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Sydney Olivier. It was to be one of the most important and enduring relationships of his life.

Békássy left Bedales for King’s College, Cambridge in 1911, there, he found himself suddenly in the midst of a truly remarkable intellectual circle. Yet Békássy himself was the recipient of a great deal of admiration, for his own intellectual prowess and dashing Central European good looks. It was the latter that primarily led to him catching the attention of John Meynard Keynes, who was so taken with Békássy that he encouraged his admittance to the Apostles.

Lytton Strachey too was eager for Békássy to become a fully-fledged Apostle, writing to Keynes, ‘Békássy is so nice that the Society ought to rush forward now into the most progressive waters.’ Like Keynes, Strachey was very attracted to the young Hungarian and his younger brother James Strachey even wrote to Rupert Brooke that Lytton had, ‘wanted to bugger him when he was on the hearthrug.’

In 1912, Békássy became the youngest ever and the first foreign member of the society. James Strachey recalled Békássy’s delight at this acceptance and how ‘He just revelled in it. It struck him from the first that it was something he’d been looking for all his life.’ However, not everyone was quite so in awe of young Békássy. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s biographer, Brian McGuinness, claims that Wittgenstein announced his resignation as the second foreign member of the Apostles (although it was never finalised) due to his dislike of Frank Bliss, Békássy’s closest friend in Cambridge and remarked that a conversation with either Bliss or Békássy was a waste of time. Békássy later told others that, in retaliation, he had voted against Wittgenstein’s attempt to leave the Apostles.

Rupert Brooke was also far from pleased by Békássy’s admittance to the society. In December 1911, Brooke had discovered that Noel Olivier, with whom he then believed himself to be deeply in love, was also considering Békássy as suitor. Brooke’s biographer Nigel Jones reveals that Brooke was left in a jealous rage following the discovery of a letter Békássy had sent to Oliver, telling her, ‘Wherever I am and whatever I do, from writing poetry to flirting on various occasions – I always begin thinking about you. And really, there is no one else I care to be with so much…there is no one else I can talk with.’ Békássy’s subsequent attempts to be-friend Brooke were consistently rebuffed.

As an Apostle, Békássy remained close to Keynes, who even visited him in Hungary during the summer of 1913. Keynes would also help Békássy to return to his own country a year later. Donald Moggridge, Keynes’s biographer, writes that David Garnett later remembered how anxious Békássy had been to return to Hungary to fight Russia; war between Britain and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not declared until the morning after he left. Garnett further claimed that although Keynes had been eager for Békássy not to leave, he believed it was his duty to support Békássy’s decision and even helped him to pay for what, at that time, would have been an incredibly expensive endeavour. However, Moggridge questions whether this was indeed the case, pointing out that Keynes’s usually meticulous financial records show no sign of him having contributed to Békássy’s journey.

Irrespective of whether Keynes had financially contributed to his friend’s departure, he was undoubtedly distressed by Békássy’s death, which happened only four days after he arrived at the front.  Békássy, who had joined a Hussar unit, was killed in action against the Russians in Bukovina (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but now divided between Romania and the Ukraine). As Moggridge has revealed, only days after Békássy’s death, Keynes wrote to Duncan Grant about the evening out in London he had with Békássy, just before he returned to Hungary. Keynes claimed that he had felt ‘very depressed’ but Békássy had been ‘excited and not very depressed, he said, – “It will be a very wonderful experience for those of us who live through it.” He was certain to be killed.’

Above: A popular Hungarian song from the First World War 

Noel Olivier was still grief-stricken after Rupert Brooke’s death in April 1915 when she heard the news that Békássy had been killed in action. Only a month before his death, Békássy had written to her about how his life in England now seemed  very distant and his sadness at how nothing would ever again ‘be what it was.’ He ended by telling her, ‘I often think of you.’ Mike Read has claimed in his biography of Brooke, that after the deaths of both men, Olivier declared that there was no chance she would ever marry for love.

After Békássy died, until the end of the War, many more young men from King’s would be killed. A plaque was later erected in King’s College Chapel, honouring their sacrifice. Békássy’s name is noticeably absent as the fellows of the college decided against its inclusion. However, Keynes later had Békássy’s name carved into a wall of the chapel, believing it fitting that he should be remembered in Cambridge. In Zsennye, there is a memorial wall dedicated to Békássy, and his body still lies in the grounds of his family’s estate, where it was returned after his death.

Before political events, and another war allowed Békássy’s work and life to be neglected, many notable Hungarian literary figures recognised his extraordinary talent. Babits Mihály, the writer and poet, mourned how, despite Békássy naming one of his works “Poems 1912-1919” the latter date was one he would never see. In 1919, the poet Árpád Tóth also wrote of his admiration for Békássy, claiming that he ‘had everything.’ The fact that Ferenc Békássy did, means that his death was a tragic loss to not only Hungarian, but also English poetry.

Selected Sources: 

John Maynard Keynes: An Economist’s Biography – Donald Moggridge (1995)

Rupert Brooke – Nigel Jones (1997)

Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905-1914 – Keith Hale (1998)

The Letters of Lytton Strachey – Edited by Paul Levy (2005)

Young Ludwig: Wittgenstein’s Life, 1889-1921 – Brian McGuinness (2005)ékássy_Ferenc