John Buchan writes in his autobiography, Memory-Hold-The-Door, ‘The outbreak of War in 1914 found me a sick man’. At thirty-nine, he was too old to enlist and in any case, as he ruefully observes, ‘no recruiting officer would have me’.
Although he did not see active service, he did serve in various capacities during the First World War and became its chronicler. The first part of what became Nelson’s History of the War (which Buchan wrote virtually single-handed) was published in February 1915. Shortly afterwards, in May 1915, The Times invited him to visit the Western Front as its special correspondent for the second Battle of Ypres.
In October 1915, he was back in France, this time for the War Office and with the rank of lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. In February 1916, he was asked by the Foreign Office to take a Russian delegation to Scapa Flow. He made further visits to France throughout 1916 where he assisted the British Army’s General Head Quarters with drafting official communiqués for the press.
Buchan was appointed Director of Information under Lord Beaverbrook in June 1917. The department he was part of was responsible for innovations such as the use of documentary film and the commissioning of paintings by official war artists. In January 1918, Buchan became Director of Intelligence in the newly formed Ministry of Information.
Buchan lost a brother and several close friends in the First World War. ‘My youngest brother and my partner in business fell at Arras. Hugh Dawney, whom I put first among the young soldiers, died at First Ypres; Cecil Rawling, with whom, before the War, I had made plans for an attempt on Everest, fell as a brigadier at Passchendaele; my wife’s cousin, Jack Stuart-Wortley, disappeared in the German advance of March 1918; Oxford contemporaries like Raymond Asquith and Bron Lucas, and younger friends like Charles Lister and the Grenfell twins, were all dead.’
Buchan’s writing about The Great War.
These For Remembrance (1987) [privately printed 1919] – Memoirs of six of Buchan’s friends killed in the First World War
A History of the First World War (1991) – Abridged edition of Nelson’s History of the War illustrated with paintings by war artists.
Greenmantle  – Set in November 1915, Richard Hannay is tasked with investigating rumours of an uprising in the Muslim world. He undertakes a perilous journey through enemy territory to Constantinople and, along with his friend Sandy Arbuthnot, sets out to thwart the Germans’ plans to use religion to help them win the war.
Mr. Standfast  – Set partly in World War One France, Hannay comes up against an old foe with the book’s climatic ending taking place on the battlefields of the Western Front.
John Buchan, Memory-Hold-The-Door (Hodder & Stoughton, 1964 )
Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 )