Tommy, p.1
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       Tommy, p.1

           Richard Holmes


  The British Soldier On The Western Front 1914–1918

  Richard Holmes


  For Lizzie, with love and admiration



  Title Page








































  P. S.









  Contemporaries instinctively called it Great: La Grande Guerre, Weltkrieg, and we can easily see why. Of course it was not the largest single event of world history: that ghastly honour must go to the Second World War, which in terms of human suffering and material destruction was infinitely worse for the world as a whole. But for Britain alone the First World War caused more casualties, which partly accounts for the fact that it is remembered in a particular way here. Many who lived through both conflicts agreed with Harold Macmillan and J. B. Priestley that the First World War was a more significant watershed than the Second. Barbara Tuchman may have been the first to use the analogy of 1914–18 as an iron gate separating the present from the past, and it has proved to be an enduring and powerful image ever since.

  So there it lies, overgrown, like the trenches that still lace the landscape of Northern France, but somehow dug deep into our consciousness. And it usually enters our minds not as history, but as literature. One of the problems with trying to write about the First World War is that most people have already read Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks before you get to them. I am certainly not the first historian to complain that it was far too literary a war. Cyril Falls began the process even before the Second World War; Correlli Barnett continued the movement thirty years ago and only last year, Brian Bond’s important book The Unquiet Western Front fired yet another well-aimed burst into an enemy who shows little sign of falling, but lurches on, stick grenades in hand, intent on doing yet more mischief to our understanding. Professor Bond suggests that ‘the “real” historical war abruptly ceased to exist in November 1918’.1 What followed was the resurrection and reworking of the war largely in terms of novels, memoirs and war literature in general. Indeed, Paul Fussell, in his influential book The Great War and Modern Memory, maintained that the war was uniquely awful and as such lay ‘outside history’, explicable primarily through its literature.

  This process has not simply affected the way we think of history: it strikes a resonance through the present and on into the future. Omer Bartov described what he termed ‘the invention of memory’ when he considered the effect of war literature in both France and Germany. ‘Experience of loss and trauma extends beyond personal recollection,’ he argued, ‘and comes to encompass both individual and collective expectations of the future.’2 It seems to me that Bartov has identified a key element of the process. By studying the war as literature we do not simply colour our view of the past and make it all but impossible to teach the war as history. We go on to tint our picture of the present and our image of the future too. When Second World War soldiers wanted to describe something going particularly badly they spoke of ‘The biggest balls-up since the Somme.’ For years it was impossible to attend a military presentation without a clip of Blackadder Goes Forth discussing the strategic imperative of inching Field Marshal Haig’s drinks cabinet closer to Berlin, and in the first Gulf War British camps in the desert were named after Captain Blackadder and his cronies.

  No sooner had its last shot echoed away than some participants recognised that the war they knew was being hijacked. Charles Carrington, who won his Military Cross as an infantry officer at Passchendaele, complained:

  It appeared that dirt about the war was in demand … Every battle a defeat, every officer a nincompoop, every soldier a coward.3

  Cyril Falls, a veteran turned Oxford don, saw how:

  Every sector became a bad one, every working party is shot to pieces; if a man is killed or wounded his entrails always protrude from his body; no one ever seems to have a rest … Attacks succeed one another with lightning rapidity. The soldier is represented as a depressed and mournful spectre helplessly wandering about until death brought his miseries to an end.4

  In practice it was not that simple, for many of the men writing in the 1920s and 1930s – Robert Graves and R. C. Sherriff amongst them – were actually ambiguous about the war, and actively resented being termed ‘anti-war authors’.

  Ambiguity became less marked as the war receded. Oddly enough, this happened at precisely that moment when, had the war been considered primarily as history, the appearance of a wide range of new sources, not least the first of the official histories, might have been expected to have broadened understanding. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in 1929 and made into a film the following year, was an important milestone. Remarque’s own experience of the war was very limited. He never actually fought in the trenches, was slightly wounded by shrapnel, and after the war was censured for posing as a decorated officer. The undaunted Charles Carrington was infinitely more experienced, and was indeed what Remarque pretended to be. But All Quiet struck a powerful chord with many veterans looking back at the war from the deep disillusionment of the late 1920s, and in a sense more accurately reflects the state of its author and his friends in 1929 than the condition of the German army twelve years before.

  Alongside the evolution of a literary cult which, by and large, came to see the war as waste built on futility and compounded by human error, there grew up a historical genre which was scarcely less influential. During the war there had been two major schools of strategic policy in Britain. One, the Easterners, took their tone from a letter written by Lord Kitchener to Sir John French, British commander in chief on the Western Front, at the very beginning of 1915 – Kitchener suggested that the German lines in France might well be ‘a fortress which cannot be taken by assault’, and suggested that there might be merit in looking elsewhere. Gallipoli and Salonika were both offspring of this logic. The other, the Westerners, would have agreed with Sir Douglas Haig, who took over as commander in chief in late 1915, that the war could only be won by beating the German army in the field. And as Haig announced in his final dispatch, this could only be accomplished by ‘one great continuous engagement’.

  What happened in the 1920s and 1930s is that the Easterners, who had shown little sign of winning the war, certainly won the historical argument. Churchill’s The World Crisis lambasted offensives on the Western Front which we
re, he declared, ‘as hopeless as they were disastrous’. Churchill had served as a cavalry officer, charging at Omdurman in 1898, and had been a battalion commander on the Western Front in early 1916. I can forgive him much on those counts alone: whatever he lacked it was not physical courage. But what of Lloyd George, whose mid-1930s Memoirs announced the bankrupcy of ‘narrow, selfish and unimaginative strategy and … [the] ghastly butchery of a succession of vain and insane offensives’? He accused generals not simply of professional incompetence and ignorance of the real conditions, but of personal cowardice. These accusations gloss over the fact that, as prime minister, Lloyd George had a direct personal responsibility for the very strategy he criticised. And Lloyd George was not right to carp about the cowardice of First World War generals. About fifty-eight were killed, or died of wounds received. Three divisional commanders were killed at Loos in September 1915, more British divisional commanders than were killed by enemy fire in the whole of the Second World War.5

  There was a more reputable combatant in the wings. Captain Basil Liddell Hart, whose evergreen rank veiled about six weeks’ service at the front followed by a longer stint in the Army Educational Corps, argued that Britain’s commitment to the Western Front clearly violated his own, oft reinvented, strategy of indirect approach and clearsighted description of the British way in warfare. Britain should have avoided that lethal concentration of troops and gone somewhere else. He thought that Gallipoli had been promising, and T. E. Lawrence had done really well in the desert. He could produce no evidence that the destruction of railways in the Hejaz made the teacups rattle in Berlin, but no matter. What had really brought Germany down, he argued, was naval blockade and internal collapse. I must not trivialise Liddell Hart, for he remains a commentator of rare insight, was helpful to students and, even late in life, was capable of surprising generosity to Haig. But he is the archpriest of the argument that there must have been a better way: his liturgy, after all these years, still has the power to inspire.

  The historical debate – not really the right word, for there was never much debate about it – was rejuvenated in the 1960s. Events such as the Cuban missile crisis, the Aldermaston marches, the Vietnam War and the burgeoning of an independent youth culture encouraged an iconoclasm, in which the generals of the First World War received unprecedented critical attention. Despite the reduction in the release period of public records from fifty to thirty years, meaning that most documents on the war became available in 1968, there was no immediate rush to reinterpret the war based on this evidence. Indeed, perhaps the most influential book ever written on the war, A. J. P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History, was little more than a triumphant flambéeing (with the blowtorch lit by Liddell Hart) of the leftovers of the historiography of the 1930s.

  On re-reading Taylor’s book I am stunned by its brilliant, incisive juxtaposition of bons mots, real insights and excruciating errors. ‘Failure [at Third Ypres in 1917] was obvious by the end of the first day to everyone except Haig and his immediate circle,’ it declares. Obvious, that is, to everyone except the German high command, which grew gloomier as the battle wore on, and thousands of British participants, whose letters and diaries often testify to a confidence not shared by those writing in the foreknowledge of failure. Even the Australian Official History speaks approvingly of 2nd Army’s attacks up the Menin Road in September, almost two months after everyone was meant to have lost confidence in the battle.

  Leon Wolf’s In Flanders Fields, whose publication actually predated that of A. J. P. Taylor’s book, was in many respects a more reliable work. A study of the 1917 campaign around Ypres, it is well written, and makes good use of memoirs and interwar histories. But it too confirmed the primacy of a school of historiography which seemed more interested in expounding a priori assumptions than looking at the facts. It contains no real sense of the campaign’s strategic purpose, nor is there any feel at all for the British army’s vast improvements in tactical method. And lastly, Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, for all its verve and amusing narrative, added a streak of pure deception to writings on the First World War. Its title is based on the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ conversation that apparently took place between Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Sadly for historical accuracy, there is no evidence whatever for this: none. Not a jot or scintilla. The real problem is that such histories have sold well and continue to do so. They reinforce historical myth by delivering to the reader exactly what they expect to read.

  But help is at hand. The scrabble of feet on duckboards announces the arrival of supports. First there was John Terraine’s Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier, published in 1963, and really a brave and remarkably impartial piece for its day. Terraine held his ground alone for some time, assailed by pastiches like Oh What a Lovely War, but by the mid-1970s revisionism with some real scholarly weight behind it crashed into the argument. Historians such as Tim Travers, Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson worked with the newly-released official documents to look at the British high command, Peter Simpkins examined the New Armies, Paddy Griffith charted the improvement of British tactics, and John Bourne, of the admirable Centre for First World War Studies at Birmingham University, initiated a mass of work on the background of British generals. It is a cruel reflection on book-buying that some of the most important work was not the most widely read: J. G. Fuller’s Troop Morale and Popular Culture and Gary Sheffield’s Leadership in the Trenches have never enjoyed quite the sales of Alan Clark’s The Donkeys.

  I do not applaud the appearance of these works just because some of them are revisionist – as it happens I find myself in the uncomfortable No Man’s Land of historiography, collecting salvoes from both extremes – but because they are serious and scholarly in a way that an awful lot of earlier work simply was not. The war had already attracted too many historians who were determined to bend its events to fit their own analytical framework, jamming their pastry-cutters onto the evidence, and either discarding anything that lay outside their intriguing shape, or rolling it extra thin if there was not quite enough. Last year’s publication of the first volume of Hew Strachan’s magisterial First World War does, in a way, mark a turning point in the whole process: here we have scholarship blended with emotion, and a successful attempt to look at the conflict as a world war, not just as the Western Front with attached sideshows.

  However, there is still a trend for many of the war’s historians to be overly preoccupied with the big political, strategic and operational issues. Was the war avoidable? Had Britain any other course of action in 1914? Were British generals actually geniuses rather than donkeys? Was the Treaty of Versailles too hard or too soft? How well understood was the post-Somme doctrine for divisions in the attack? In the process they often lose sight of the men who actually fought the war. True, combatants get anthologised, and we have lots of examples – some of them actually very good – of the historian as copytypist. And there is an ever-widening use of oral history, so that the words of this fast-disappearing generation can reach out to help us understand what this war was really like.

  Or can they? I make this point as gently as I can, for it is no mere conventional politeness to say how much I admire the men who fought on the Western Front. But the interviewing of veterans in the 1970s and beyond concentrated, as it had to, on those who had survived. Like accounts written long after the events they describe, interviews with survivors inevitably reflect the past through the prism of the present. Although A. J. P. Taylor was unduly harsh to write them off as ‘old men drooling over their lost youth’, they do require at least some degree of caution. Sometimes survivors played their roles too well: they became Veterans, General Issue, neatly packed with what we wanted to hear, exploding at the touch of a tape-recorder button or the snap of a TV documentarist’s clapper-board. Up to my neck in muck and bullets; rats as big as footballs; the sergeant major was a right bastard; all my mates were killed. And sometimes, just sometimes, they tell us this because they have heard it themselves.

/>   So we should be extra cautious about how we use and interpret oral history and other non-contemporary evidence. It is often far too late-recorded oral history: occasionally forgotten voices tell us about imaginary incidents. Much better to go back to what people thought at the time. And in the case of the First World War there is really no excuse for not doing so. Both the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum and the Liddle Collection in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds are bursting with letters, diaries and an assortment of ephemera. And when I say bursting, I mean just that: new material is arriving faster than a single diligent historian can keep up with. However gloomy I get about being an historian, I am always excited by opening one of those big brown archive boxes, and tipping out letters on YMCA notepaper from the infantry base depots at Etaples, a leather-bound Jermyn Street diary, or a field message book with its flimsy, carboned paper and waterproofed cover. There is something unutterably poignant about a diary entry written by somebody who didn’t know whether he would be alive to eat his supper that day. I am not suggesting that we ought not to read Sassoon and Graves, Campbell and Carrington, all published after the war, but the closer we get to events the better our chance of finding out how people really felt.

  The army of 1918, warts and all, represented the greatest collective endeavour of the whole of British history: over 4 million men went to France and nearly three quarters of a million stayed there forever. As the war went on they drifted apart from the land that had raised them, and lived in a world with its own rules, values, beliefs and language. They celebrated the armistice in silence, not with wild rejoicing. And then they went back to pick up their lives. For most of them the war was not, pace Paul Fussell, a break, a sundering. It was, as Private David Jones termed it, in parenthesis, bracketed into a busy life.6 It soon became evident that they had won the war but lost the peace, and the corrosive effect of this sense of collective betrayal can hardly be over-emphasised. The positive diaries become bitter memoirs as Military Crosses and Military Medals went to the pawnshop. And so we remember the war not as we might, through the eyes of 1918, as a remarkable victory so very dearly won, but through the eyes of 1928 as a sham which had wasted men’s lives and squandered their courage.

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