Tommy, p.12
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       Tommy, p.12

           Richard Holmes

  The pre-war regular infantryman who fought on the Somme was relatively uncommon, and the one who fought at Passchendaele was rarer still. But somehow battalions which the Army List described as regular did their best to behave like regulars. Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor in the Second World War, was medical officer to 1/Royal Fusiliers in the First. He noticed how: ‘The battalion kept changing, seven colonels came and went and I could never school myself to grow indifferent to these gaps.’33 The battalion was sorely tried on the Somme, but as it came out of the line:

  On the road we passed a Kitchener Battalion going up, they were resting by the roadside.

  ‘Them’s the First,’ one of them remarked, and the men hearing the words straightened up and covered off.34

  The first three armies that fought on the Western Front – Old, New and Territorial – were founded on voluntary recruiting. No less than 5,704,416 men – about a quarter of the adult male population of the United Kingdom – passed through the army during the war. Just under half, 2,446,719, were volunteers, and the remainder were conscripted by one of a series of Military Service Acts. The first came into force on 27 January 1916 and the vice was progressively tightened as the war went on.

  The conscript army had no separate identity. The majority of its soldiers were infantry: the infantry was easily the largest single arm on the Western Front, and suffered the highest casualty rate of any major branch of the army.35 Its soldiers were trained in the United Kingdom in battalions which, from the summer of 1916, steadily lost any genuine regimental identity: the 12th (Reserve) Battalion of the Welch Regiment became the 58th Training Reserve Battalion, the 230th (Graduated) Battalion and eventually the 51st (Graduated) Battalion of the South Wales Borderers.36 As we have already seen, soldiers were trained wearing one cap badge, and then rebadged, as the demands of the front required, in the infantry base depots at Etaples. The regional identity of units in the other three armies was steadily eroded also. This reduced the damage done to British communities which had been such a feature of the early stages of the Somme, but it deprived battalions of some of the bonds which had linked their members in the past.

  It is not surprising that the decline of regional recruiting affronted members of the Old Army. Company Sergeant Major Ernest Shephard of 1/Dorsets, as regimental as the proverbial button-stick, wrote on 21 August 1916:

  In the evening a lot of our old hands now attached to 2nd Wilts (who are in billets just over the bridge) came to see us. They are terribly upset on account of having to serve with the Wilts (some of them are men slightly wounded on July 1st) and they went to see our Adjt to ask whether they could not come back to their own regiments. Adjt promised to apply for them, but it will be useless. Why the responsible authorities do these things I cannot imagine. If a certain Regt is required to be reinforced quickly and none of their own are available, the matter is explained. But we well know that after our smash on July 1st strong reinforcements were sent for us, and on arrival at the Base they were diverted, some to 2nd Wilts, some to Hampshires, etc., and we received men of Hampshires as reinforcements instead of our own. And so the merry game goes on. Some big pot is drawing a large salary for such muddling work as this, ruining the one thing which has kept our army going so well, i.e. ‘Pride of Regiment’, ‘Esprit de Corps’.37

  The 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers had its losses in the fighting at High Wood on the Somme made up by 540 reinforcements, volunteers and conscripts, many ‘unlikely to stay the more exacting rigours of service in the field’. There were Cheshires, Shropshires and South Wales Borderers, who, as Captain James Dunn of the Royal Welch Fusiliers wrote, ‘arrived restful of their transfer and resented by us’.38 An old soldier of 1/Black Watch, widely known as Black Jock, returned to his battalion after being wounded. He was soon posted as a deserter: it transpired that he had deserted from Etaples to get back to his battalion, fearing that he might be sent amongst strangers. And his battalion, knowing well that tartan was stronger than regulations, duly expunged the ‘crime’.

  The war’s voracious appetite for infantry led to soldiers from other arms being compulsorily transferred. This led to difficulties because, for instance, well-qualified private soldiers in the Royal Engineers drew more pay than sergeants in the infantry. Sapper George Swinford records that in mid-1916:

  I passed all my exams in sapping, mining, knots and lashings, demolitions and bridge building, and was waiting to go to the River Conway to do pontoon bridging which was the last thing. Then on Sunday morning notices were put up that every man in the camp was to be on parade at ten o’clock … away we all went to Kenmel Park where were attached to the Royal Welch Fusiliers.39

  News that the sappers were entitled to extra pay unsurprisingly caused bad feelings amongst the infantry sergeants, ‘who said that they would make us earn it’. After large-scale collective absenteeism, which produced a week’s worth of trials, Private (as he now was) Swinford was rebadged again and sent to France, where he joined 11/South Lancashire, spending the rest of the war with that battalion.

  Sometimes the process of assimilation was rough. Norman Gladden joined 7/Royal Northumberland Fusiliers on the Somme in September 1916. ‘To add to our discomforts,’ he recalled, The new draft was received by the battalion without ceremony or any sort of induction. We were absorbed by our company like bodies being sucked down into a morass and made to feel as if we had no rights at all.

  Posted to 11/Royal Northumberland Fusiliers a year later when he returned to the front after being invalided home, he was much happier: the Lewis gunners he joined were ‘a likeable group, who made me feel at home straight away’.40 Often the new policy worked better than many old sweats would have expected. Men needed the sense of belonging, and battalions which took the trouble to make new arrivals feel welcome usually reaped the benefit. Lieutenant Colonel Eric Segrave, who commanded 1/15th London Regiment until promoted to command a brigade in August 1918, made a point of shaking hands with all new arrivals, regardless of rank, and left a first-rate battalion to his successor, Rowland Feilding, who immediately told his wife:

  They are like little lions – these London men … The standard of courage among these London lads is so high that men who would be considered brave elsewhere do not seem particularly brave here.41

  In contrast, Corporal Clifford de Boltz, posted to 1/Norfolk in France from 2/6th Norfolk, a cyclist battalion, found his draft ‘given some rations and told to lie in a field for the night’. They ‘gradually merged into the Regt.’42

  We cannot even tell to which regiment Percy Smith was posted in 1917, but we do know that he was not happy when he arrived in France. On 18 September he told his family that: ‘if the relatives and wives of us boys knew the real state of affairs out here they would worry more and more and most likely there would be an unrest in the country’, and he prayed his brother Vic might be spared his fate. But he was proud of his battalion:

  The Regiment I am in is a fighting Regt & we are always on the move we never stay at one place long, it was the first Regt out here when war was declared & we have some fine fellows. Fritz sure knows when we are about.43

  Frederick Hodges attended Northampton Grammar School, and followed the fortunes of older boys and masters who had joined the army: one came home ‘full of shrapnel … We were thrilled.’ Hodges was later ‘amazed how attractive all this information about the war was to under-age boys … One thing was certain … we must, we MUST be fit, so that we would pass A1 when the long awaited day came’.44 He joined the Northamptons in July 1917, and was sent to France, with so many other eighteen year olds, in the crisis following the German offensive of March 1918. On arrival in France:

  We were lined up in a very long single line. We were then counted off into groups destined for different battalions. Friends who stood in line next to one another were parted by a hand and an order, and marched off to different Regimental Base Headquarters. There were bell tents in a long line, where particulars were taken, and to our surprise, n
ew regimental numbers were given to us …

  In this peremptory way, I and about 300 others suddenly became Lancashire Fusiliers, while some of our friends became Manchesters or Duke of Wellington’s or East Yorkshires …

  He was posted to 10/Lancashire Fusiliers, where he was well received by the fiercely Irish Company Sergeant Major Doolan, ‘a regular soldier, one of the very few of the original British Expeditionary Force who had survived to this stage of the war’. He was soon calling his battalion ‘T’owd Tenth’, and was anxious to get his new cap badge.

  Hodges finished the war a corporal, and proudly returned home to Northampton in full fig.

  My khaki uniform was stained and worn, but my belt shone, my buttons gleamed, and my khaki tunic bore the colourful insignia of my regiment, brigade and division. On my epaulettes I wore the green and black tabs of battalion gas NCO with the brass fusilier bomb and the brass letters LF.

  On my upper arms above my Corporal’s stripes, the Battalion sign, an oblong yellow flash and the 52nd Brigade sign, a green square 52, and above these and just below my epaulettes, the 17th Divisional sign, a white dot and dash on a red background. My mother said it was quite colourful.45

  In his assessment of the reasons for the Allied victory, Frederick Hodges suggested that ‘the dogged courage and will to win at whatever the cost’ was more important than ‘superior military arts and skills’. He identified ‘unquenchable spirit, the sticky and the earthy wit of the infantryman at war, who, though he was a mere pawn in the plans of generals, yet remained an individual who served ideals; and for those ideals, faced death daily at some chance or mischance of war with courage in the line of duty’. Hodges may have been more idealistic than many, but he came close to identifying the qualities which helped keep what was now a national army together in the last year of a long war.


  ‘Then the “Dead March”, and what a nightmare,’ wrote Will Fisher.

  We draw on leather gloves, lift a body onto a sheet of brattice cloth, wrap it up, then tie it to a stretcher. ‘Off with it, boys’, and what a journey, even to us … And the stupefying heat and bad air, causing the sweat to pour down one in streams, and to add to the romance the sickening stench, rising all the time to the face of the man behind. In one place, wading to our knees in water, one man fell with the stretcher. Some bodies are heavy too, our wrists giving out before the two miles are covered … ‘Who is it?’ ‘Don’t know, indeed’, on we go … Twenty have so far been buried unidentified, owing to melting …

  The pity of it all, that flesh should be so cheap.46

  This could so easily be a scene from the Western Front, perhaps in a flooded trench at Festubert in the spring of 1915, or on the northern slopes of Longueval Ridge at the end of the Somme, but it is not. Will Fisher is describing the Senghenydd mining disaster of 1913, in the heart of the South Wales coalfields, in which 439 men died. Fisher had just come off shift, but immediately went underground again to help with the rescue operations. We will meet him again, lifelong socialist but successful and committed soldier: there was less inconsistency in that than some would have us believe. For the moment, though, let him usher us into the cramped and sweaty basement of what Barbara Tuchman called ‘The Proud Tower’, the world that went to war in 1914.

  It is easy to romanticise Edwardian England as just one long afternoon where it was always strawberries and cream at Henley, shooting parties at Sandringham, dinner at Quaglino’s and a breathless hush in the close as young Corinthians laid willow to leather. A gentleman could travel from London to Paris and on to Berlin and St Petersburg in the comfort of his Pullman carriage with the minimum of formalities and little risk. Churches were well attended, though earlier talk of a national religious revival now seemed misplaced. Sensible chaps like Alfred Hale could live quiet but comfortable lives on investment income. There might be a morning in the library, lunch in the club in St James’, then a first-class carriage on the ever-reliable 4.48 from Waterloo to Petersfield, and a cab from the station to find a glass of nut-brown Amontillado and one of Mrs Ling’s pies, in all its savoury splendour, waiting at home.

  Even a little further down the social scale a satisfying and predictable routine could be found. J. B. Priestley left school to become a junior clerk in the wool trade, working for Helm and Co. in Swan Lane, Bradford. His day began at 9.00 and ended at 6.00, 6.30 or even 7.00 pm, though if he stayed that late there was an extra 6d in the pay packet for ‘tea away’. He smoked Cut Black Cavendish in his pipe, 3½d an ounce from Salmon and Gluckstein’s, and wrote prose and poetry at home, enjoying the ‘irregular rhythm of effort and relaxation’. Looking back on his youth he could not disguise his affection for the old world. ‘I belong at heart to the pre-1914 North Country …’ he wrote; ‘something at the core of me is still in Market Street hearing the Town Hall chimes’.47

  But we do not need to look very much harder to see the cracks in the masonry. The labour movement was growing stronger by the year: there were 422 strikes in 1909, 834 in 1912, and 1,459 in 1913: there would have been a General Strike in 1914 had war not intervened. Class divisions within Britain were still accepted by many, though there was growing rancour. On 23 January 1917 Corporal Will Fisher, already feeling the symptoms of the tuberculosis that would kill him, wrote:

  Want to go through to the end, feel fit enough. Anniversary of enlisting two years ago. DEATH OF MY BOY GEORGE. The lad is better off; he is free from wage slavery and the insults of class rule.48

  John Simpson Kirkpatrick, one of the heroes of the Australian fight for Gallipoli, was a merchant seaman from Tyneside who jumped ship in Sydney in 1909. In 1912 he told his mother:

  I wonder when the work men of England will wake up and see things as other people see them. What they want in England is a good revolution and that will clear out some of the Millionaires and lords and Dukes out of it and then with a Labour Government they will be almost able to make their own conditions.49

  And if the Bradford community described by J. B. Priestley was ‘closer to a classless society than anyone born in southern England can ever understand’, there was a desperate underclass which even junior clerks seldom saw. John Cusack’s mother brought up five children in two ground-floor rooms in a Glasgow tenement. There was no bathroom, and just a cold water tap and grate in the kitchen. His father and mother slept in the bed, and the children on the floor of a room eight feet square. The family went to a public wash house once a week. After his father emigrated to America the family was barely able to survive.

  For dinner at midday we’d probably have some broken biscuits which you could buy for a ha’penny a packet or we might have a ha’penny worth of hot chips from the fish and chip shop. A portion of fish cost tuppence, which was too dear for dinner …

  I hardly ever wore any shoes. I used to wear short pants made of corduroy for a Sunday otherwise of flannel. They were never new, unless you were the eldest child. You simply fell into your brother’s clothes. I would wear a little flannel shirt of a dark colour, a jacket and what we’d call a bonnet or hookerdon, a cap which I pulled down well over one eye.50

  Underwear was uncommon – John Cusack’s comrades found their army issue vests and drawers items ‘previously unknown to us’. In working-class households where it did exist it had to last a full week between washes. It is small wonder that wartime rationing significantly improved the diet and health of families such as these.

  In July 1901 Arthur Osburn was a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, just back from serving as a volunteer private in the Boer War, an experience which helps account for the bitter flavour of his memoirs. It was decades before the founding of the National Health Service, and the very poor depended for their medical treatment on the charity of doctors and senior medical students. Osburn was on duty in a Bermondsey slum. ‘Outside in the shabby court the heated air quivered,’ he wrote:

  Odours of hops, tanneries, horse dung and wood pavement inextricably blended. The mean tumb
ledown dwelling I was in buzzed with flies, while the frowsy smell of unclean bedding was everywhere; here and there the familiar chain of brown vermin crawled from the loose and half-rotten skirting boards upwards onto the greasy walls. A thin wailing sound was coming down the steep rickety staircase from a room above – one of the spate of unwanted infants which plague the slums and which I had helped bring into the world, wondering at the time whether the snuffling, puling bundle of misery would not have done better to have got itself born in an African jungle.

  ‘That makes fifteen, and I’ve buried nine, sir,’ the mother had said. The midwife, nodding confidentially at me, had suggested a bootlace or lying the unwanted one down on a blanket. Full of youthful rigidity and righteousness I had sternly threatened her with the coroner if the child was not alive the next day.51

  William Woodruff grew up in a Lancashire cotton town about ten years later. His father worked in the mill, and family life was typical of that of many manual workers, a notch up from the tenement underclass but still with precious little room for financial manoeuvre.

  My brother Dan and I shared a bedroom with our parents. There were two metal beds with straw mattresses resting on thin metal slats … Dan and I slept in the same bed. We slept so close to our parents that we could touch them. The nearness of our bodies made us feel safe. I accepted my parents’ love-making long before I understood it. It was as natural as somebody using the pisspot … It didn’t disturb me, or confuse me, or revolt me. Like my father’s deep snoring, I ignored it. Living in such a confined space meant everybody shared in everybody else’s joys and sorrows.52

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