Ferenc Békássy was one of only two of those connected with Bedales to die on the “wrong” side in World War One. The eldest surviving son of Count Istvan Békássy and his wife Emma Bezeredj, he arrived at Bedales in January 1905 accompanied by his younger brother Janos. Their elder sister Antonia (Tonika at School) had already spent a year in Steep. As with many of the early Bedalians the choice of school seems to have been dictated by their mother who, as a Hungarian aristocrat, was fluent in French and may have read Edmond Demolins’ book “À quoi tient la supériorité des Anglo-Saxons?”, published in 1897, which sang the praises of Bedales and the New School Movement.
Throughout his school career Ferenc seems to have impressed by his application, though occasionally his written style evoked criticism from his elders. The report on The Summer Show for 1908 commented on his first prize - “The work done by Békássy ma. on grasses represents a great deal of close study .... his written work might with advantage have been in a simpler style in parts.” In the previous year, as a member of the Junior Science Society he had delivered a lecture on “The Protection of Flowers”. Perhaps it was his home background that equipped him to score well in a shooting competition that year. He was active in debates, proposing the motion “That Esperanto should be encouraged” (won 15 v 8), defending the argument “That Railways should be a property of the State” (lost 9 v 10) and speaking in favour of votes for women (won 25 v 2).
It is difficult to trace his contributions to “The Bedales Chronicle” as at that time most articles were unattributed but he was its editor in his final year at school and, at the same period, was being awarded prizes for his writing and “speaking with his inimitably explicit style” in a number of debates. In 1910 he had passed Essay, History, Mathematics and Scripture in the Higher School Certificate (but failed in Latin and Greek) and in the following year was award 2nd class in Part I of the “Cambridge Previous” examinations and 1st Class in “Additionals” and passed his entrance examination for King’s College, Cambridge.
At Cambridge he rapidly began to move in high-powered circles, attracting attention for his intellectual qualities, his poetry and his physical beauty. He had already inspired the enmity of Rupert Brooke through their mutual devotion to a younger Bedalian girl, Noel Olivier. Brooke was furiously jealous in August 1911 having seen Ferenc’s letter to Noel including the comment “there is no one else I care to be with ... there is no one else I can talk to.” It was further inflamed when Brooke, breakfasting in Ferenc’s rooms in King’s, saw a letter from Noel encouraging his attentions. When Maynard Keynes and James Strachey proposed that Ferenc should be admitted to the exclusive group of The Apostles he opposed it bitterly. Nonetheless, in January 1912 Békássy became the youngest ever (and first non-British) member of the Society. The writer of the OB Cambridge letter to The Bedales Chronicle of 7th July 1912 commented “To tell the truth we are rather in awe of Békássy as he has been eagerly taken to the bosom of the intellectually elect of King’s.”
Nonetheless Békássy retained his affection for and contact with his old school. In December 1912 he wrote to James Strachey from the Jarintzoff home at the top of Bell Hill where he had been staying, “playing fives and football against my old school” as was the OB habit in that era. He had also walked to “the top of the Hill” to “talk of reviews and books and things” with Edward Thomas. From the thoroughly Russian Jarintzoff household he went to Switzerland to meet E L Grant Watson, several years his senior at school but briefly a science master during Ferenc’s time at Bedales. Watson recalled, “I had known him previously when he was a schoolboy, and a most extraordinary schoolboy he was. At eighteen he had the mentality and culture of a man of forty. He seemed to have read everything. He knew half a dozen European languages equally well, and although he was a Magyar in every gesture and expression, he could write poems and good poems too, in English, French, and German. He was a lovable and stimulating character, and with a great sense of humour and fun.”
Many were disappointed when Ferenc Békássy graduated with a 2nd class degree; he had spent far too much time on pursuits outside the required work for the History Tripos – especially on his poetry. In 1913 some had been published in a Cambridge manthology and he was writing, in Hungarian as well as English, poems that were to be published only after his death. After graduation he went to Switzerland, again with Grant Watson to stay with the latter’s parents and then, in late July, they began to make their way back to England. Watson remembered that on the way they heard of the death of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo. “Békássy became surprisingly excited. ... he said ‘As a good European ... I of course deprecate political murders. They ought not to happen; they are altogether wrong – but as a Hungarian nothing could please me better.’.” For days he scanned the newspapers and talked of Eastern European politics, scrutinising the map of Europe. “Once, spreading both hands over Russia and moving them eastward he said, ‘See how terribly large, and what potential power!’ He admitted to a great fear of Russia saying “So would you be if you were so near.” As mobilisations came in quick succession “Feri said: ‘This is a sign. There will be war.’ And the next day he left for England to collect two brothers and two sisters who were being educated there.”
David Garnett arrived to see John Maynard Keynes and provides the final evidence about Békássy’s feelings in the moment of crisis. “It was a few days after the fourth of August 1914, and we were at war with Germany. ... Maynard told me that he had succeeded in raising enough money to enable the Hungarian poet, Ferenc Békássy, to leave England the night before. The banks were all shut owing to a moratorium, and Békássy was anxious to return to Hungary to fight against Russia. War had not been declared between Britain and the Austro-Hungarian Empire until that morning.” (ie after he had left England.)
Hungarian regulations required all Hungarian males between the ages of 19 and 42 to be available for military service but I believe Ferenc was an eager volunteer. Towards the end of the year he wrote the much quoted poem 1914; this is the first stanza
“He went without fears, went gaily, since go he must,
And drilled and sweated and sang, and rode in the heat and dust
Of the summer; his fellows were round him, as eager as he,
While over the world the gloomy days of war dragged heavily.”
Grant Watson remembered Békássy’s last words as they parted in August 1914; “I don’t so much mind being wounded, but I don’t want to be killed; I have too many good friends. They make life so attractive.” However, Watson adds, “He was found wounded in an abandoned position and died in a Russian hospital. ... His many English friends felt that something rich and precious had gone from their lives." He had died, about four days after entering the trenches, fighting at Dobrovouc in Bukovina.
Mr Badley’s tribute in The Bedales Record for 1914-1915 concludes:- “In him, though he died fighting for our enemies' cause, we have lost one of our very truest sons, and one from whom, had he lived, we expected great things. At Cambridge he took the two parts of the History Tripos and if he did not come out as high as we had hoped it was because he could not confine himself to the subject or period prescribed. He thought, discussed and wrote much, and was alike devoted to poetry, philosophy and the political problems of his country. But above all his was the idealist's and poet's nature, and whatever career he had decided to follow, that, we may be sure, would have found in the future, as in these years of promise, the expression alike in his writing and his life.”
Initially buried near where he fell, Ferenc’s body was later reinterred on the family estate at Zsennye in Vas County where a memorial plaque was erected in a wall. He is, of course, commemorated alongside his fellows in the Bedales Memorial Library, but it was only at Keynes’s insistence, and with some reluctance, that King’s College allowed a memorial tablet to be erected on a wall opposite the official College Memorial to the Fallen.
Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press published a small collection of his poems entitled “Adriatica and Other Poems” in 1925. The Bedales copy was presented to the Library in 1927 by a fellow Apostle, R C Trevelyan, whose son Julian was at that time a member of the School.