Ninety years ago this weekend the battle of the Somme had settled into its ghastly inexorability. The excruciating debacle of its opening offensive on 1 July — 19,240 killed, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing, the British army’s highest casualty rate in a single day’s fighting — was already logged as a grievous scar on future generations as well as history. The guns continued until muffled by the snows of November when the scoreboard of losses read: Germany 650,000, Britain 418,000, France 194,000. Back home in Blighty, shining idealism long replaced by a bitter and cynical despair meant that only a pursuit of mundane ‘normality’ kept spirits up and home fires burning. That midsummer of 1916 saw published in London a new story by a prolific 35-year-old comic writer P.G. Wodehouse, titled The Man with Two Left Feet. It featured not only popular silly ass Bertie Wooster but, for the first time, a sage and tranquilly mollifying manservant, a treasure of a gentleman’s gent whose character at once so tickled readers that within a year the unflappable fellow had assumed top billing when Wodehouse called his sequel simply My Man Jeeves. There was more to Jeeves than the invention by an inspired and clever writer of an inspired and clever name.
In that last languid peacetime summer of 1914, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse had spent a holiday with his parents at Cheltenham. On 14 August he had lolled in a deckchair at the College ground watching Gloucestershire beat Warwickshire by 267 runs. Between overs, I daresay, the yarn-spinner was dreaming up fictional names; he was nifty at those, his cast-list already peopled by said Bertie and such as Conky Biddle, Bingo Little, Clarence Chugwater, the Hon. Galahad Threepwood and, of course, good ol’ imperishable Psmith.
At the Cheltenham cricket, Wodehouse had been taken with the grace of a young Warwickshire bowler, particularly (the author said many years later) the unshowy, matter-of-fact way the callow cricketer had pocketed two sharp catches close to the wicket. Before that fateful last-fling summer was over, the Warwickshire man had gone to the Oval and clean bowled both Surrey champions, Hayward and Hobbs, and taken four for 44 for the Players vs the Gents at Lord’s. And then, within weeks, to war. That September, with a number of his county colleagues, the bright young cricketer at once enlisted with the Royal Warwickshire regiment. In 1915 he survived the battle horrors of Ypres. In the midsummer of 1916, he stood ready for the second big push at the Somme. Ninety years ago today, on 22 July 1916, near Longueval, he and many of his Warwickshires’ platoon fell dead ‘under a heavy volley of fire’. Percy Jeeves would play cricket no more.
1917’s Wisden is a thin, harrowing edition; page upon poignant page of obituaries. Of Percy Jeeves, it says, ‘An England bowler of the near future, a right-hander on the quick side of medium, and with an easy action came off the ground with plenty of spin. He was very popular among his brother players.’ All right, he might have been capped by his country in a less demanding and deadly game than the one chosen for him by the War Office and Field Marshal Haig — but it was some tidy bowling and fielding one sweltering August day at Cheltenham in 1914 which ensured that his surname, Jeeves, would become the most widely known of any cricketer ever, including even Grace and Bradman. Nice one, Percy, RIP. Nice one, Jeeves.