Tommy, p.28Richard Holmes
The corps was the lowest level at which major plans could be formulated, largely because it boasted artillery assets which could reach deep into German defences and focus a real weight of firepower in support of its attacks. We have already seen that the British had no experience of this level of command before the war, and it is striking to see how little uniformity there was in the function of corps throughout the conflict. Some army commanders tended to use their corps simply to transmit orders to divisions, while others allowed corps commanders more latitude in planning to achieve a broadly-defined aim. Corps themselves treated their divisions in just the same way, and ‘the flexible style of command, where more authority was delegated to divisions (where possible) than had been the case since 1915, was crucial in the offensives of the Hundred Days’.118
But it is striking how contemporaries often perceived the corps as the rain cloud over their heads. Charles Carrington thought that:
The remoteness and anonymity of a corps headquarters was such that the Corps Commander, inevitably, was blamed. Heaven knows, we grumbled and joked about brigade and division, but within reason. Knowing them, we made allowance. Corps we did not know and since battles in France were mostly disastrous, the Corps Commander was rarely popular.119
Walter Nicholson believed that Lord Cavan of XIV Corps was ‘one of the rare corps commanders who was known by name to more than divisional commanders’. Carrington thought that while ‘my colonel, brigadier and divisional commander were men I could respect [and] every man in my company knew Brigadier Sladen and General Fanshawe by sight I doubt if one in ten knew the corps commander’s name’.120
Occasionally a corps commander’s attempt to be well known misfired. Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston of VIII Corps always introduced himself by his full name and title, proudly adding ‘MP’ after being elected to Parliament (for North Ayrshire) in October 1916. In the bitter winter of 1917–18 ‘Hunter-Bunter’ decided to wish troops departing on leave trains a merry Christmas. An aide de camp would open the carriage door and the general would intone: ‘I am Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston MP, your Corps Commander, and I wish you a Happy Christmas.’ From the smoky fug of one carriage a disembodied voice declared: ‘And I’m the Prince of Wales, and wish you’d shut the bloody door.’
The brigade, at the very bottom of our pile, had a comparatively hands-on headquarters. When Frank Crozier took command of his brigade in 1916 his divisional commander advised him, as they parted, to: ‘Treat your new brigade like a big battalion.’121 However, experienced staff officers recognised that successful brigade commanders needed a wider grasp of military matters to command a brigade successfully. Walter Guinness described one recently-arrived brigadier as ‘a very nice person and a most dashing leader of men, but completely ignorant about all Staff Work and the detail of running a brigade’.122 However, his sheer good sense in arranging matters so that his staff were not frequently disturbed meant that the headquarters actually worked much better than it had under his more experienced predecessor. Brigade headquarters were birds of passage. A division holding a sector of front might rotate its brigades so as to have two in the line and one out, and brigades did much the same with their battalions. In the hard winter of 1916–17, for instance, Crozier’s brigade did seven days in the line before being relieved.
In 1914 an infantry brigade would have had only three red-tabbed officers on its staff, the commander, his brigade major and a staff captain. However, it was impossible to control four battalions in a twenty-four-hour battle with such a tiny staff, and so as the war progressed brigade headquarters was fleshed out with more officers and clerks. Walter Guinness, flagged up for a brigade major’s appointment, was sent on a six-week staff course at Hesdin in late 1916. Most of those attending were brigade majors, staff captains or GSO3s, and he:
learnt almost as much from discussing matters with them as from the lectures and exercises. In the morning we generally had certain control operation orders of either armies or corps given to us and proceeded from them to work out our orders in syndicates in which we daily changed places and fulfilled different posts. In the afternoons we had conferences and criticisms of our own and the instructors production and the evenings were generally spent at a lecture by some expert from the outside.
In February 1917 he was appointed brigade major to 74th Infantry Brigade under Keppel Bethell. ‘Instead of the usual Brigade Mess of about ten,’ he wrote, ‘we had only five – Bethell, M— (the Staff Captain), an Orderly Officer … a Signalling Officer … and I.’123
On the eve of the attack on Messines this brigade headquarters moved up into a newly-constructed dugout just 600 yards from the front line. It was all too obvious, and ‘Bowyer, the QM of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers had his head taken off [by a shell] just as he was coming into the door of our dugout.’ The dugout itself was 30 feet below the surface, with ‘endless passages, five entries and eight rooms … also electric light. One only hears a very dull thud when a heavy shell lands on top.’ Later that summer, after Plumer’s 2nd Army had taken direction of attacks up the Menin Road, Bethell’s brigade headquarters was in a deep dugout at Birr Cross-Roads, half a mile north of the site of Hooge Château. ‘The dugout was one of the most disgusting places I have ever lived in,’ admitted Guinness.
It was only kept habitable by continual pumping and when the pumps broke down one was generally up to one’s ankles in water. Besides ourselves in the dugout, there was a dressing station and a good deal of accommodation given up to signals. The result was that our quarters were fearfully cramped and M— and I had to do all our work on a table about two feet by three on to which water was continually pouring down from the ceiling. Bethell had another little cubby hole on the other side of the passage and the five days which we spent before the attack were, I think, the most unpleasant of the whole of my time in France.124
Bethell was notoriously testy and impatient, and ‘became absolutely impossible’ so that he had to eat his meals alone.
In March 1918 Hanway Cumming’s brigade headquarters at Saul-court, just behind the line, was approached by a sunken road and ‘consisted of a series of “elephant shelters” dug into the bank of the road with a mined dugout below them, altogether very snug and comfortable quarters, as things went.’125 He commanded from the dugout, he and his staff wearing gas masks for much of the day, when the Germans attacked on 21 March. In the fluid battle that followed he spent much of his time on the move. He was riding back with his orderly from another brigade headquarters (staff cars were not issued below divisional level), which was in telephone communication with divisional headquarters, ‘when suddenly he was fired at comparatively short range, one bullet hitting the horse just in front of the saddle’. He galloped clear, though both horses died later: he acknowledged that he owed his life ‘to the gallant way in which, although badly wounded, the horses had kept up sufficiently to carry them out of danger’.126
Later that year the brigade had moved south to the French sector in Champagne, with its headquarters ‘accommodated in a dugout, tunnelled into a bank on the hillside and, being in the middle of the wood, was beautifully screened from aerial observation. The wood itself was delightful, full of lilies of the valley and wild spring flowers …’. Cumming did not relish the prospect of living in the dugout and so ‘had a small wooden hut built for himself’.127 Again his headquarters was overrun by a German offensive, and again he commanded from horseback. During the steady advance of the last Hundred Days he was often without a static headquarters at all. The perennial problem remained communication. Although his signallers were often able to get lines in quickly enough to speak to division, it was always hard to reach battalions, and on 26 August he managed to stop an attack, cancelled at the last moment by division, by using two ‘young and active’ staff officers to sprint forwards. At this stage in the war some brigadiers were very far forward. Private Albert Bullock of 8/Royal Warwicks encountered his brigade commander in the front wave
Frank Crozier, his brigade rushed forward to help stem the German counterattack at Cambrai, found a dugout to command from – where a visiting hussar caused concern by upsetting a bottle of port and six glasses. Pulled out of the line, he found his headquarters accommodated in a family vault in Havrincourt. The Germans had cleared out the coffins and their contents, but the place still smelt ‘diabolical’. Crozier saw that his staff were lying in the coffin niches, and asked his servant how they could do it. ‘They’d sleep anywhere, they’re nearly dead themselves,’ snapped his forceful orderly Corporal Starrett; ‘you lie down now as you are, here’s some tea coming, and go to sleep.’129
Being on the staff of a fighting formation was certainly no sinecure. However, there were safe and predictable staff jobs, and, particularly on the lines of communication staff or at the base, a cunning or unfit officer could find himself an easy billet. J. B. Priestley, who joined a New Army battalion in 1914, was eventually commissioned in 1917, gassed and then medically downgraded to B2, ‘unfit for active service but fit for something’. He finished up at the Labour Corps depot at Rouen, running what was effectively a labour exchange that specialised in trades that were decidedly not run of the mill. ‘If Fourth Army wanted two comedians, three conjurers, a couple of female impersonators it sent us a wire saying so,’ he wrote, ‘then we paraded the most likely specimens, tried one or two out on the stage, and packed them off by the next train.’130 Another temporary officer who would become an author, R. H. Mottram, spent much of his war on liaison duties with the French civil authorities, and described how rear headquarters grew.
Far more general was the continual change in organisation. The Administrative Chiefs now came back to Headquarters, and the Mess was subdivided. Laundry and Salvage, Sanitation and Gas Officers were being appointed, and soon the non-regular, untabbed personnel of the staff outnumbered the brass hats as per establishment. Expeditionary Force canteens made their appearance, and there was a tendency to specialise hospitals, create remount depots, innumerable ‘schools’ and baths. This kept me so busy, for there was hardly a yard of ground or a barn that the inhabitants were willing to part with, that the short rest-period soon passed. Nor was this wonderful. I ask myself what I would have thought if, coming home on leave, I had found my home full of French troops from the Pyrenees and my garden arranged for a bull-fight. Yet such would have been exact parallels to the demands we made.131
Soldiers on their way to and from France, on duty or on leave, tended to see far more of horsey railway transport officers (‘Engines a bit frisky this morning?’ asked a muddy colonel in Punch) or corpulent assistant embarkation officers than they did of their own formation staffs. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Osburn, writing in 1932, by which time the staff had few friends, wrote of how:
With each stage backwards towards the Base and the shores of old England there was an increase of the tendency to an irritable form of unreasoning obstruction, a crabbing kind of jealousy. Commandants of rest camps and other back areas, town majors, and so forth, harried the fighting man who came back for a brief respite with all sorts of restrictions and obligations … As one left the War behind there was also more pomposity and more fussy discipline …
I began to realise this Back-Area spirit on the platform of Abbeville station, where a Railway Staff Officer calmly informed me that R.amC. meant ‘Rob All My Comrades’. I had never before heard that stupid libel.132
An officer of the Scottish Rifles echoed this experience. Having come out of a hard battle:
I was detailed to ride 10 miles back to Corps H.Q. to get pay for the troops from the Field Cashier. Having got the money we were informed by the M.P. that this beautiful untouched town was out of bounds for anyone not on the corps staff. We were not allowed to get even a cup of tea although the tea shops and cafés were full of staff officers and their clerks. We were all but put under arrest.133
Perceptions apart, there was not much loafing at GHQ and on formation staffs. John Charteris wrote that: ‘There are few, if any, officers who do not work a fourteen-hour day, and who are not to be found at work far into the night.’134 Most general staff officers there did some work before breakfast, took an hour for lunch, perhaps taking a turn round the ramparts for their health, and then worked on to dinner, returning to their offices afterwards. Men collapsed at their desks with the strain, and the ‘accidental’ drowning of one exhausted brigadier general was widely believed to be suicide. However, the war correspondent Philip Gibbs, who himself did so much to help shape attitudes, remained unsympathetic towards them. ‘Within their closed corporation,’ he wrote,
there were rivalries, intrigues, perjuries and treacheries like those of a medieval court … They worked late into the night. That is to say, they went back to their offices after dinner at mess … and kept their lights burning, and smoked more cigarettes, and rang each other up on the telephone with futile questions …135
The canard that staff officers had no idea of front-line conditions is often repeated. But even if Charteris is not a sympathetic figure it is evident that he knew just what the Ypres salient was like in 1917, for he visited it several times. On 4 August 1917 he wrote that: ‘Every brook is swollen and the ground is a quagmire.’ ‘The front line now baffles description,’ he wrote later, ‘it is just a sea of mud churned up by shell-fire.’ On 10 October, after watching the failure of an attack, he lamented: ‘Yesterday afternoon was utterly damnable. I got back very late and could not work, and could not rest.’136
Many junior staff officers knew exactly what front-line conditions were like. Reginald Tompson, then on the staff of 7th Division, wrote in his diary on 30 July 1916 that:
The conditions in the trenches which are in great part obliterated & non existent are indescribable. It takes 2 hours to go 300 yards in places, & they are up to their thighs in liquid mud, & unceasing rain continues, & where there are trenches they are often only 2ft deep. The battalions will be relieved tomorrow. 48 hours is the maximum they can stand. The food is drenched with rain before they can eat it.
Nor was he unaware what all this was doing to the division. On 1 September he ‘went to Knight’s funeral before starting. 3 graves, Knight … Crawford and Stroud. Knight was only a small parcel. Stroud didn’t turn up as he was never found.’ Four days later he recorded:
One of the blackest days we have ever had. We were pushed out of Ale Alley & the losses against CUINCHY are very appalling, & nothing whatever was accomplished as far as one can see. The GOC went in to see the Corps Commander to protest at the way in which the division was being butchered for no purpose.137
Arthur Smith was one of the two surviving staff officers in 38th Division at the end of the Mametz Wood battle.
In the early morning, about 5am, I was exploring an out of the way trench to see where it led to, when I came across a young lad who was wounded. He told me that he had been lying there for two days, and no one had seen him. He had a hole about the size of a shilling in the right portion of his chest, and of course he could not breathe with the right lung … I plugged up the hole with a field dressing, and gave him a drink of water. He was so grateful. I then noticed a bible sticking out of his breast pocket, and he told me it was the best thing he had got … I gave him the following verse to think about, ‘I will never leave thee nor forsake thee,’ and then went off to find some one to help me carry him away … He will be in Hospital now, and I think he will live.138
The following year Smith himself needed the bible. He was badly wounded in the foot and the surgeon gave him a choice: ‘I could leave your foot on and you may get blood poisoning, or I could take it off, but that would be the end of your service. Let me know tomorrow what you’d like.’ He opened his bible at a page containing the phrase: ‘The Lord is thy consolatio
Lord Stanhope believed that the staff were blamed for what had certainly been a failing early on: ‘all through the early part of the war it was very rare for generals or staff officers to be seen in the trenches’. Indeed, when he was commanding a Grenadier company in the first winter of the war he saw his own commanding officer in the trenches only four times in three and a half months. But by the time he was on the staff of V Corps in 1917 ‘I and the GSO2 were in the front line practically every day.’ He went on to suggest that the process might have been overdone, ‘and whether the Staff would not in many cases have been of more value to the fighting troops if they had thought about more fully in their offices the information they had received from reports and from personal information.’139
We may never get to like them, these GSO1s, deputy assistant adjutants and quartermaster generals, brigade majors and staff captains. Perhaps the glacis plate of historiography is now too thick to let us get close to them as they worry about their reports and returns, or deal with billeting problems in Hazebrouck or Albert. But let us at least judge them for what they were: by and large honest, brave and hardworking, sometimes promoted above the level of their competence, all too well aware of the consequences of their mistakes, and by no means ignorant of what they were expecting men to do or the circumstances in which they had to do it.
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