Professor Harold Lawton
Professor Harold Lawton, who died on Christmas Eve aged 106, was an authority on 16th- and 17th-century literature in France, and is thought to have been the last surviving Allied soldier captured on the Western Front.
Lawton crossed the Channel in March 1918 and was sent to join the 4th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, in reinforcing the line at Bethune after a Portuguese battalion had been overwhelmed by a German artillery barrage at Armentières.
When he arrived the situation was chaotic, with the trenches little more than shallow scrapes, so that he and the other new arrivals had to dig in. When the Germans infiltrated their lines, outflanked them and swept past, Lawton and six comrades were cut off for several days without food, ammunition or orders. Eventually the Germans returned, and they had no option but to surrender.
That night, the seven prisoners were put in a wire cage, and taken through Lille. The townspeople were hungry themselves, but they came out and tried to give them bread. It was a kindness that Lawton never forgot. He was incarcerated in a fortress known as the Black Hole of Lille, where hundreds of men were crammed into cells, and had to sleep on wooden shelves. The sanitary conditions were appalling, and many died from wounds, dysentery and influenza.
Lawton was reported missing, believed killed, and it was some time before he was able to write home. Eventually, he was moved to Limburg, Westphalia, and then to a PoW camp at Minden, from which he was released after the Armistice was signed in November. Even then he did not feel entirely safe. During the return to England, in a captured German vessel, the captain told Lawton that there were still mines in the North Sea, and that if the ship was hit, the passengers were to assemble on deck - assuming that it was still there.
The son of the owner of a tile-making and mosaics business, Harold Walter Lawton was born at Burslem, near Stoke-on-Trent, on July 27 1899 and educated at Middle School, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Rhyl Grammar School. After being a member of the OTC, he was conscripted in 1916.
Young Harold would have put himself forward for officer training but his father's business was in difficulties, and he could not afford to purchase the uniform and other accoutrements that he would need as an officer. Instead, he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a private - with "a real mish-mash of rough and tumble lads", he remembered. He transferred first to the Cheshire Regiment and then to the Manchester Regiment, and was completing his training at Great Yarmouth when the port and camp billets were bombarded by the German fleet, though little damage was done.
On being discharged he studied French at the University of Wales, Bangor, and after obtaining an MA (Honours) in 1921 was granted a fellowship two years later. Lawton then went to the University of Paris, where he prepared a doctorate on Latin and French Renaissance literature under Henri Chamard, one of the first teachers of Renaissance French literature in France, just as Lawton was himself to become one of the first in England.
His thesis, Térence en France au XVIe siècle: éditions et traductions, was on the diffusion and influence of the Second-century BC Latin playwright Publius Terentius Afer. Describing and analysing all the surviving printed editions of Terence's comedies, this was an example of the massive doctoral dissertations then expected. Much later he discovered that a continental reprint house had reissued it in 1970 without his permission, on the specious excuse that he was probably dead; he was then able to have printed the previously unpublished second volume, studying the imitation of Terence in France.
Lawton stayed on at the Sorbonne for two more years in a junior teaching post, an experience that was important in his later work as a Renaissance specialist. It brought him into contact with such research students as Pierre Jourda, another leading specialist. Chamard's influence was also responsible for Lawton's enthusiasm for literary theory of the Renaissance and for the poetry of Joachim Du Bellay. On returning to England in 1930, Lawton became a lecturer in French and Modern Languages at University College, Southampton.
He was also asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, to make a typescript of William Gladstone's vast daily journal. Lawton proved extremely accurate, even when the 19th-century prime minister's legibility declined, but was not a skilled typist. So he sought the help of Bessie Pate, a childhood friend whom he then married, and with whom he had two sons and a daughter.
When hostilities broke out again in 1939, Lawton became a special constable while continuing his work at the university and beginning a series of talks to British soldiers and airmen on the French people and customs. As a result, he later discovered that his name was on a Nazi "wanted" list.
Lawton's first major publication after the war was his Handbook of French Renaissance Dramatic Theory (1949), an anthology of essential texts in Latin and French. Later, following Chamard's publication of the collected poems of Du Bellay, he also produced a valuable student edition of selected poems for English undergraduate use (1961), including a selection of the Latin poems (students were still expected to be competent in Latin).
From 1950 he held the chair of French at Sheffield University, where he remained until his retirement, becoming increasingly involved in university administration as dean of Arts and pro-vice-chancellor. A keen composer of occasional limericks, he would while away duller moments at committee meetings doing vivid caricatures of those present, such as Sir Hugh Casson.
As well as his continuing interest in classical antiquity and its revival in the Renaissance, Lawton also had a strong Anglican commitment, and his unpublished output included sermons delivered in French in the French church at Southampton. His ability as a public speaker and lecturer in French and in English, as well as his skill as a competent committee man with a subversive sense of humour, are brought out in the introduction to his festschrift Studies in French Literature, presented to be him in 1968.
After retiring in 1964 Lawton spent 15 years on Anglesey where he and his wife enjoyed beachcombing, walking and sketching. They travelled frequently to France, where his love for the French, their language and cuisine was reciprocated by the granting of the Médaille d'Argent de la Reconnaissance Française, and his appointment as an Officier d'Académie and Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.
Bessie Lawton died in 1991. After moving to Kent and, most recently, to Rutland, to be near his daughter, Lawton retained a strong interest in current and local affairs. He was reading Harry Potter in French at 103, and continued to do The Daily Telegraph crossword and drink a glass of malt whisky daily.
Time moves on...................
Finally, "All Quiet on the Western Front".