Tommy, p.21
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       Tommy, p.21

           Richard Holmes
 
The Reverend Julian Bickersteth, an experienced army chaplain who had lost a brother in the Leeds Pals on 1 July 1916, quietly observed that there was an inevitable tension between the two sides of battle’s equation. ‘Returning from the battlefield to this atmosphere always makes me unhappy,’ he wrote from a headquarters on 30 August 1918,

  because I see so clearly the cleavage between those who direct operations and those whose duty it is to carry them out. This is as true in civilian life, of that I am sure. The employer of labour, however sympathetic, can never really appreciate the sweat of the men … until he lives their life … 11

  James Jack, doyen of tough-minded infantry officers, had seen more of the war’s rough edge than most, but resented: ‘unjust, malicious slurs on my old commanders, despite any mistakes they have made’.12 ‘Let sleeping dogs lie,’ recommended a former sergeant. ‘The generals are all dead now and it is notable how most critics waited until they were dead before taking them to pieces.’ H. E. L. Mellersh, a twice-wounded infantry officer, complained that his war was misrepresented on two counts by its critics.

  They sometimes … paint the picture in colours of too unrelieved gloom. One of the curious things about a nation at war – one of the tragedies too – is that life is intensified. There is much happiness in wartime, much that is spirited, much that is admirable, much that is just jolly …

  The second misrepresentation when it occurs is more serious. It stems largely from a mistaken conviction that in World War I the troops were supremely badly led. And from this unfair conviction there issues sometimes an outlook even more unfair; that the war was one vast useless, futile tragedy, worthy to be remembered only as a pitiable mistake.

  I and my like entered the war expecting an heroic adventure and believing implicitly in the rightness of our cause; we ended greatly disillusioned as to the nature of the adventure but still believing that our cause was right and we had not fought in vain.13

  Often a sense of honest incompatibility emerges from contemporary accounts. Some people did jobs and lived lives which were unlikely to endear them to others: generals and their staffs usually slept dry, and the men they commanded, all too often, did not. In order to consider the experiences of Thomas Atkins we need to give some thought to the men who commanded him, and to the machinery in which he found himself a small and often rather muddy cog.

  The British Expeditionary Force that went to France in 1914 was expected to consist of six infantry divisions and a cavalry division, although in the event one division (4th) arrived after the fighting had begun, and another (6th), initially retained in Britain to provide a measure of home defence until the Territorial Force was fully mobilised, did not set off for France till early September. During the whole war Britain raised sixty-five infantry divisions; there were four Canadian and five Australian divisions, and one Australian and New Zealand (later exclusively New Zealand) division. Most of them served on the Western Front, and a snapshot at the end of the war shows fifty British, four Canadian, five Australian and one New Zealand division in France and Belgium.14

  The most numerous combat arm was the infantry, and its structure was the scaffolding around which everything else was built. The establishment of an infantry division fluctuated as the war went on, but a look at its organisation in early 1916 gives some sense of its structure for the war as a whole. Commanded by a major general with a small staff, a division comprised three infantry brigades, three brigades of field artillery, a howitzer brigade and a heavy battery, and an assortment of administrative services including three field ambulances and a divisional train – actually a horse-drawn transport column. An infantry brigade, commanded by a brigadier general with a tiny staff, had four battalions of infantry, each with a war establishment of thirty officers and 977 men. Battalions of the same regiment did not necessarily serve together: indeed, in the old army it was unusual for them to do so. The infantry strength of a division, twelve battalions, was around 12,000 men.15 This might be reduced by as much as half by battle casualties and sickness, and the losses incurred by a division fell most heavily on its infantry. When the 34th Division (New Army, with a brigade of Tyneside Scottish, a brigade of Tyneside Irish, and a brigade with two Scots and two English battalions) suffered an appalling 6,380 casualties on 1 July 1916 it actually lost well over half of its attacking infantry.

  An artillery brigade consisted of three batteries, and was commanded by a lieutenant colonel: it had much more in common with an infantry battalion (also commanded by a lieutenant colonel) than with the much bigger infantry brigade. Batteries of field guns and howitzers had six weapons apiece, but heavy batteries only four. So a division boasted thirty-six 18-pounder field guns, eighteen 4.5-inch howitzers, and four 60-pounder heavies. The whole of the divisional artillery (which included a heavy artillery ammunition column and an ammunition column for each artillery brigade) was commanded by a brigadier general, properly known as the commander Royal Artillery, but CRA in common parlance, and ‘guns’ (just as individual artillery liaison officers were often called ‘guns’ by the infantry battalion they supported) to a bluff divisional commander.

  Field ambulances were also lieutenant colonel’s commands, although they were much smaller, with just nine officers and 224 other ranks, than infantry battalions or artillery brigades. They answered to an assistant director of medical services (ADMS) at divisional headquarters. This gentleman, a full colonel, wore distinguishing maroon collar-patches rather than the red of the general staff. Although the division’s engineers, two field companies and a signal company, were less numerous than their infantry or gunner comrades, they too were commanded by a full colonel, the commander Royal Engineers (CRE) at divisional headquarters. The sappers recognised his importance by roaring out their trademark song Hurrah for the CRE!, redolent of the veldt and pre-war Aldershot, on suitable occasions.

  Good morning Mr Stevens and windy Notchy Knight

  Hurrah for the CRE

  We’re working very hard down at Upnor Hard

  Hurrah for the CRE …

  For we’re marching in to Laffan’s Plain,

  To Laffan’s Plain, to Laffan’s Plain,

  Yes we’re marching on to Laffan’s Plain.

  Where they don’t know mud from clay …

  Oolum-da cried Matabele

  Oolum-da away we go.

  Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah,

  Shuush … HURRAH!16

  The division was the common currency of all armies on the Western Front, although there were always differences between British, French and German divisions. In the French army, for instance, brigades, two to a division, consisted of two regiments, each with three battalions, and it was the numbered regiment – 66th of the Line, or 3rd Zouaves — that carried the weight of identity borne by single battalions in the British army. The Germans, for their part, removed the brigade (two regiments again) from their divisional structure in 1915 in a successful attempt to speed up tactical response by removing a link which made no unique contribution to the chain of command. The British army maintained only one brigade that did not fit naturally into the divisional structure. In August 1914 the four infantry battalions on lines of communication duties were swept up into the newly-constituted 19th Infantry Brigade, which thereafter enjoyed a peripatetic existence, moving between divisions.

  In the British army the division was the highest formation with which a soldier could reasonably identify. A battalion might stay in a single division for the whole war, though there were sometimes changes, often for good reason. The mauling of the two New Army divisions, 21st and 24th, that attacked so disastrously on the second day of Loos, prompted GHQ to carry out transfers of complete brigades between three recently-raised New Army divisions and three regular divisions in France, to try to ensure that experience was more evenly spread. It was right to do so, for formations like 21st and 24th divisions clearly demonstrated the weakness of the New Armies. Only one of the two divisional commanders, two of the eight brigadiers and one of
the twenty-six battalion commanders were serving regulars: the rest were ‘dug-outs’ brought back from retirement when war broke out. Just thirty of the regimental officers in the two divisions had regular experience: the rest were wartime volunteers with no more than a year’s service, all but a few weeks of that in England.17

  The 34th Division required substantial reconstitution after the first day of the Somme and again in the summer of 1918. Lieutenant Guy Chapman, whose brigade was loaned to the division in the first week of July 1916 to compensate for its shocking 1 July losses, recalled his men hooting when they heard that the divisional commander, Major General Ingorville-Williams, had been killed. They did not know him, though he was popular with units in the division from the start. Chapman wrote that ‘it was reported [wrongly] that he had been souvenir hunting. And why not hoot? What was this Hecuba to them?’

  In the winter of 1917–18 there was a large-scale reshuffle, and infantry brigades were reduced from four battalions to three. Captain James Dunn reflected on the impact that this change had on his own 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, which moved from 19th Infantry Brigade in 33rd Division to 100th Brigade in 38th (Welsh) Division in January 1918.

  We go with mixed feelings, though the men seem pleased enough. The 19th Brigade, as an improvised formation at the outset, has been the step-child in every division to which it has been attached or of which it has been a part. It has never been given a place in the glow of the footlights in Great Shows except La Boutillerie, where it acquitted itself in a way second to none … We are going to a division begotten in Welsh parish politics: one on which the War Office looked askance until it had to send it overseas, and which has been in G.H.Q.’s bad books since the Mametz muddle – though some excellent officers have been given command of its units.18

  Moving a battalion from a division in which it was comfortable caused not only dissatisfaction but also practical inconvenience. Divisional standard operating procedures were all different, and a great deal of the military grammar of periodic reports and returns which units had to submit to brigade and division had to be re-learnt. A unit’s status and reputation, carefully polished in one division, might be dulled if it moved to another, as Private Frank Hawkings observed. ‘We have been told that the Q[ueen] V[ictoria] R[ifles] are to be withdrawn from the 5th Division,’ he wrote on 28 January 1916. ‘We are most fed up and sick at having to leave the regiments with whom we have been ever since 1914. The regulars too are very sorry that we are going. In 1914 they looked on us as their pet Territorial regiment and we were very popular with them.’19 And personalities played their part. The one benefit of 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers’ leaving 33rd Division was that its commander, Major General Reginald Pinney, in Haig’s view one of his steadiest generals, was ‘a devout, non-smoking teetotaller who banned the rum ration in his division’. An appalled Private Frank Richards thought him, in consequence, ‘a bun-punching crank … more fitted to be in command of a Church Mission hut at the base than a division of troops’.20

  Reshuffles were the exception, not the rule, and many divisions retained much of their original composition throughout the war. They built up distinctive identities which embodied an alchemy of differing qualities: regional bonding and the argot that came with it; a blend of regimental friendships and tensions; a pride in past performance (often real but sometimes imagined); a confidence in (or sometimes unifying disdain for) the divisional commander and his staff, and an amalgam of other things besides. Divisions quickly adopted distinguishing patches worn on the sleeves or backs of tunics. These were sometimes ‘tribal’, like 16th (Irish) Division’s shamrock or 36th (Ulster) Division’s red hand; sometimes featured numbers, such as the swastika-like three sevens, joined at the base, for 21st Division; letters, like 51st Division’s ‘HD’, for Highland Division; or sometimes a symbolism whose origin is now lost, like 11th Division’s key of life or 19th Division’s butterfly. They meant a good deal to the men that wore them, as the newly-commissioned Second Lieutenant Huntley Gordon RFA reflected when he went up the line with the 25th Division at Ypres in 1917.

  But there is no doubt that the 25th is one of our crack divisions, what the Boche calls ‘storm troops’, and I am proud to wear the Red Horseshoe Divisional sign on the back of my tunic, whatever the differences [of regional origin] underneath … We are to be with two other famous divisions (8th and the Highland 51st) in the centre of the coming offensive.21

  Affection for his division rarely expunged the cap-badge pride that Private Atkins felt for his battalion, though it did enable a soldier in a unit that was down on its luck to take comfort from the fact that he belonged to a decent division. This mixture of loyalties had a double-edged effect.

  Cap-badge loyalty was a vital and highly constructive force which enhanced the cohesion and fighting will-power of even a mediocre battalion; yet at the same time it was also a seriously damaging obstacle … It tended to encourage soldiers to regard the battalion, and not the brigade or the division, as the true centre of authority and therefore of tactical planning.22

  Friction with other divisions helped the process of definition, and there were repeated spats between Scots and English divisions. Ian Hay, writing from the perspective of a New Army officer in 10/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of 15th Scottish Division, blamed ‘the flat caps on the left’ for letting down his division at Loos.23 Robert Graves of the Royal Welch Fusiliers swiped back in his ‘memoir’ Goodbye to All That, retorting that his adjutant had told him that: ‘The Jocks are all the same; both the trousered kind and the bare-arsed kind; they’re dirty in trenches, they skite [e.g. brag] too much, and they charge like hell – both ways.’24 When he tried to make contact with the Scots New Army battalion on his right at Loos he was not impressed by what he saw. ‘I walked down their trench some time in the morning of the 26th [September 1915] and walked nearly a quarter of a mile without seeing either a sentry or an officer. There were dead men, sleeping men, gassed men, all lying anyhow. The trench had been used as a latrine.’25 He later acknowledged that ‘this was overstating the case’, and went on to admit that:

  There was a particular prejudice in the Royal Welch against two Scottish battalions in our brigade owing to an incident in the first month of the war – and against the Scots in general because of a question of sportsmanship in an Army football final some years before.26

  In any case it is clear that by no means all Englishmen agreed with Graves and his adjutant. Private Ernest Parker of the 15th Hussars declared how:

  One thing I shall never forget is the sight of thousands of rhythmically swinging kilts as a Division of Highlanders swept towards us. Skirling at the head of the column strode the pipers, filling the air with wild martial music. Behind glinted a forest of rifle barrels and the flash of brawny knees rising and straightening in rhythm. Were these the freemen of yesterday, peaceful citizens who a few months ago strolled to work. These men seemed to us a crack military unit ready to carry out its mission.27

  Robert Case, a former Wiltshire Yeoman by now commissioned into the Royal Engineers, also had a high regard for the Scots his division relieved in the Vimy Sector in 1916. ‘By heavens, though,’ he wrote, ‘these Scotties are the finest fellows I have ever had the pleasure of meeting anywhere. Good luck to them wherever they go.’28

  It was commonly asserted that the Germans kept a list of the fifty most reliable British divisions, and that this always included the Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and the Guards, together with other well-regarded formations (9th, 18th, 29th and 51st generally amongst them) and, of course, the speaker’s own division. There is no evidence that such a list existed, but the frequency with which it was discussed by contemporaries points to the importance that soldiers attached to their division’s reputation. Acceptance of this sort of ranking is now so frequent that serious authorities (some quite properly applauding the achievements of their forebears) often accept at face value the mythology burnished at the time.

  The most commo
n belief is that British divisions were uniformly useless and Dominion formations were all first rate. But the evidence of fighting quality is less clear-cut than is suggested by the historian Denis Winter’s affirmation that whenever Haig encountered serious opposition: ‘British units were pushed aside and Dominion troops put in charge.’29 That Dominion troops were generally good, and often very good indeed, is beyond question. But Gary Sheffield’s careful study of the Australians at Pozières in 1916 shows that even these doughty fighters had a steep learning-curve to ascend. Sir James Edmonds, the waspish British official historian, warned Dr Charles Bean, his Australian counterpart: ‘Don’t try to persuade the Australian public that the 1916 Australian Corps was the fine instrument that it was in 1918.’30 A scholarly examination of the detailed performance of a sample of fifty divisions in the last Hundred Days of the war concluded that:

  in general, ten British divisions performed at least as well as – and in a few cases partly better than – the leading six or seven Dominion divisions. It is also interesting to note in passing that, of the British divisions with the highest success rates, all, apart from the Guards (regular) and the 66th (territorial) were New Army Formations.31

  This work points to a wide spectrum of achievement, for example with 9th (Scottish) and 19th (Western) Divisions successful in more than go percent of their attacks, seven divisions with a failure rate of 25 percent or more, and only twelve divisions enjoying success in less than 50 percent of their attacks.

  Success depended very much on the ability of the division’s cadre to convert a flood of reinforcements into useful soldiers. ‘Good infantry,’ suggests Peter Simkins, ‘could be created by good divisions within a few months, so long as the formations possessed an experienced cadre around which it could be rebuilt.’32 Recovery time was also important: in mid-1917 divisional commanders generally thought that a month would enable their divisions to be properly reconstituted after a gruelling spell in the Passchendaele battle. During the Hundred Days 12th Division had five prolonged episodes in battle or in the line, and lost 6,940 officers and men, 69.5 percent of its total strength and about 75 percent of its infantry. It was consistently successful, and still had plenty of bite left at the end of October. Perhaps surprisingly, longevity in command was not necessarily a conclusive factor. Both 9th and 12th Divisions were good, but while the latter had only two commanders in its entire service the former had nine.

 
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