Tommy, p.41Richard Holmes
Meanwhile orderly men and ration carriers are crossing the road with the big black Dixie of tea and soon they are heard shouting, ‘Tea up! Char!’ By the time they enter the barn the platoon is ready with mess-tins or enamelled mugs. Before they are all served the blanket men arrive with their rolls of ten and throw them down while they get their tea.246
Billets came in infinite variety. In one barn Ernest Parker’s comrades discovered ‘an enormous barrel of cider. Round the barn hung great clusters of apples, while the next building in the village displayed an ancient rusty sign inviting us to sample the beverages of France.’247 Frank Hawkings, in a part-ruined village closer to the line, helped convert a damaged house in the Belgian village of Voormezeele into a guardroom.
We have selected a café on the other side of the road, the outside of which we spent the morning fortifying with barrels of rubble. It has no roof, but the upper floor still exists. This afternoon we roamed about the village, looting furniture for the guardroom, and now, I must say, it looks very comfortable with carpets, easy chairs, pictures and tapestries on the walls and in one corner we have a pedestal on which is a large vase of roses.248
Lieutenant Roe once found his ‘billet and the platoon office in the local public house, the saloon bar having been cleared to make this possible’.249 Gerald Burgoyne described a March 1915 billet which was far less welcoming:
The farmer and his wife curmudgeons, everything filthy; we slept in our ‘flea bags’ in preference to the dirty, filthy bed in the room. The farmer’s wife won’t lend us a brush to sweep the floor, or to clean up, and everything is perfectly beastly. We managed to get a bit of bread from one of our men, and we had some cocoa with us, so we had a meal of sorts, of cocoa, bread and butter and jam and a slab of very heavy rich iced cake. However, even that did not spoil our sleep. We turned in just after 2 am I woke at about 6 am and dozed off till 10 am when I forced my servant to bring me a bucket of hot water, and I wanted it as I am getting itchy in my arms and am ‘afeerd’.250
Later the same month Burgoyne reported of another billet that: ‘the three other officers of my company and myself sleep and live in a tiny room 13 feet by 12 feet. On the floor are a double mattress and a single mattress (for Father) and the boy sleeps in a corner huddled up in a teaspoon of straw. However, he is young and has only just joined.’251
Officers might eat in a single battalion officers’ mess, but often the companies were too widely spread to permit it and they messed by companies instead. Regular officers such as Walter Nicholson and Rowland Feilding preferred battalion messes, arguing that it was hard for a commanding officer to keep an eye on his officers if they messed by companies, and in a small company mess casualties could have a particularly dispiriting impact. Gunner officers, their batteries habitually more widely spread than infantry companies, usually messed by batteries. Subalterns generally preferred smaller messes because of their relative informality. When Julian Tyndale-Biscoe returned to France in 1917 after being wounded, he was accommodated in an artillery brigade mess, whose secretary announced: ‘I want all my officers to wear moustaches and not look like a lot of smooth-faced flunkies.’ ‘I am afraid I can’t oblige him,’ wrote Tyndale-Biscoe, ‘unless I wear a false one.’252 When Robert Graves joined 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers another subaltern warned him that:
Only officers of the rank of captain are allowed to drink whisky or turn on the gramophone. We’ve got to jolly well keep still and look like furniture. It’s just like peacetime: mess bills are very high; the mess was in debt at Quetta last year, so they’re economising now to pay that back. We get practically nothing for the money but the ordinary rations, and we aren’t allowed to drink the whisky.253
Accounts of life in these company and battery messes run like a solid thread through officers’ letters and diaries. P.J. Campbell, not long out of school, had served an unhappy apprenticeship in an ammunition column before joining his first field brigade and being posted to one of its batteries. He was warned ‘not to take any liberties’ with Edward, the senior subaltern, such as ‘calling him by his Christian name for one thing, he keeps that for his friends’. Campbell had arrived to replace an officer who had been killed, and Edward resented the fact that ‘I had usurped the place that Geoffrey had once had. I was riding his horse … sleeping in his bed, sitting in his place in the mess.’254 Another new officer, Josh (regarded as an old man at thirty-two), was married, and was endlessly questioned by the other subalterns, virgins to a man, as to how one actually went about sex.
When C. P. Blacker joined 2/Coldstream Guards from the 4th Battalion in 1918 he was posted to No. 1 Company.
The company mess was located in a Nissen hut whither I was led. A sort of trellised arbour had been erected outside the entrance, giving some shade from the midday sun. Here some officers were sitting in shirtsleeves. Among them was Tom Barnard, who introduced me to the others …
‘Teddy’ Watson-Smythe, as he was universally called, was a young-looking and intensely sociable man of middle height some two or three years older than myself. He was well off to the point of opulence and had extravagant tastes in food and dress … The officer most in gear with Watson-Smythe was Tom Barnard … He was two-sided. On one side he was off-hand, arrogant and conceited; on the other amusing and engaging … Artifice may have been needed (as it is needed by most of us) to conceal misgivings at the core.
G. C. L. Atkinson was a young man who had come from the Bedfordshire Yeomanry and had been awarded a Military Cross for leading a successful trench raid during a recent tour of the line … He was known to the world as ‘Atters’ and showed an interest in boxing … A sturdy and dependable officer.
W. R. Scott was a middle-aged man of heavy build who had settled in South Africa and wore a South African War medal ribbon … Scott was slow in thought, and in speech somewhat hesitating … The other two officers were F. D. Bisseker who had come to the regiment at the end of October 1917 and W. Jackson. Before the war Bisseker had held a responsible post in the Imperial Tobacco Company and had lived in China. I recall him as a quiet retiring man … Jackson was a nice-looking young man without inhibitions. He was anxious – perhaps over-anxious – to be friendly with everyone and made the mistake of calling everyone by their Christian names too soon.255
Officers lived and died in the company of brother officers like this, gathered from a wider social group than would have been the case before the war. Although there were no commissioned rankers in No. 1 Company’s mess, they were very familiar elsewhere. On 30 October 1914, RSM Murphy, RQMS Welton and CSM Stanway of 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers were all commissioned as second lieutenants. Murphy used to bemoan his fate: ‘There was I, a thousand men at my personal control, the Commanding Officer was my personal friend, the Adjutant consulted me, the Subalterns feared me, and now I am only a bum-wart and have to hold my tongue in Mess.’256 The future Labour politician and prime minister Clement Attlee was serving with 5/South Lancashire in 1918, and contrasted the composition of its officers’ mess then with that of the battalion he had joined in 1914. In 1914 most officers came from public schools, and many from Oxford or Cambridge University, but in 1918 there was much greater variety, including a miner and an errand boy.257 From February 1916 most new officers were identified by their units and trained at officer cadet battalions in Britain. Promotion was open to talented men regardless of their background. Ernest Shephard, who has featured prominently in these pages as a company sergeant major, was commissioned in late 1916 and killed commanding a company with characteristic competence two months later. George Ashurst (his real ambition was to be an engine driver) was training with an officer-cadet battalion when the war ended. And Clifford de Boltz, a corporal for so long, was in the line when, on 22 March 1918, his company commander received a scribbled note still preserved amongst de Boltz’s papers.
From Ajt to OC D
Tell Cpl de Boltz to report to Bn HQ to proceed to England for commission at once.
He was trained
In 1917 Sergeant Alan Sugden was annoyed not to be put forward for a commission, observing that a man who was recommended ‘was no use in the battery and I was’. But he too was sent to an officer-cadet battalion in 1918, and was commissioned early the following year.259 Sidney Rogerson’s fine company sergeant major, Scott, was commissioned, only to be killed in Ireland, and Charles Douie’s CSM, Miller, ‘the most sturdy and reliable of sergeant-majors’, would not leave the company as long as Douie commanded it. ‘Not least among the many reasons for regretting the ill-fortune which cut short my command of A Company’, lamented Douie, ‘is that Jim Miller applied for and immediately obtained a commission, and died, a subaltern in the South Staffords, north of the Somme, on the darkest day of March 1918.’260 John Lucy was commissioned, survived the First World War and commanded a training battalion in the Second. He told those who had failed their commissioning boards not to be downhearted for, as his career showed, a man could rise through the ranks.
Some traditionalists found the influx of new officers from diverse backgrounds rather hard to get used to. In September 1915 Captain James Dunn described how a new officer joining 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers fell into a flooded pit on his first visit to the trenches and ‘got out unaided except for an apostrophe in the pure dialect of Birmingham’.261 The same author contrasted two new officers:
Casson, aged 23, had been at Winchester and Christ Church; he was a sensitive, refined youth, and an amusing gossip. Evans was about the same age, but had not ‘enjoyed the same social advantages’. He was very noisy and garrulous, always licked his thumb when dealing cards, and invariably answered ‘Pardon?’ when any remark was made to him. That ‘pardon’ became a little trying at times. Equally good when tested, these two merged their social incompatibilities in the end; both were killed on September 26th .262
Some Old Army attitudes proved to be stubbornly entrenched: Alan Hanbury-Sparrow wrote in 1917 of the ‘somewhat uncouth but very willing officer reinforcements’, adding ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but you can make a good leather one.’ He insisted on having a ‘properly run officers’ mess’ when 2/Royal Berkshire was out of the line, so that his youngsters would see how things should be done.263 When James Jack took command of 1/Cameronians, going back to the regimental fold after his tour in command of the West Yorkshires, he immediately insisted that the officers dress in regulation uniform, and presented them all with regimental canes.264
There were indeed some distinctive new members of the mess. One of Cyril Mason’s brother officers was Johnny,
a tough subaltern promoted from the ranks … At first his general appearance and manner of speaking caused him to be regarded askance even though he had the Military Medal and one or two other decorations. He wore an appalling gor-blimey hat and talked as if he had spent the whole of his time in a dugout getting other people to do his work. It was all a pose, and in part leg-pulling. He was one of the bravest fellows in existence masquerading as a shirk. He became extremely popular, not only in the officers’ mess and throughout the battalion, but also at Brigade where he went as gas officer.
In 1917 they visited another battalion’s headquarters dugout during an attack, both dressed as private soldiers. Mason was invited in for a drink but Johnny was mistaken for a private and left outside: Mason had to explain that he was an officer too. When the battalion was in Bonn at the end of the war, Johnny admitted, during a conversation in the mess, to leading a pre-war strike in a Lancashire colliery, adding that he would not have told the story had any officers of the North Lancashires been present, for he had rioted against that battalion. ‘Oh I’ve longed to meet one of you fellows for years,’ said a visiting colonel. ‘I was a subaltern in the North Lanes in those days and transferred to my present regiment later.’265
One of the most obvious social clashes between new officers and old was that while both had servants, only those officers from traditional backgrounds felt comfortable with and knew how they were expected to behave towards their servants. The army’s provision of servants for its officers was not wholly a reflection of the pre-war army’s social structure, for warrant officers (universally promoted from the ranks) had them too. Strictly speaking officers had servants and warrant officers ‘batmen’ (the term derived from the French bât for pack saddle, or packhorse), but the words became interchangeable. Batmen cleaned an officer’s kit, lugged about his valise (canvas and sausage-shaped part sleeping bag, part suitcase), sometimes cooked his food in the line, and often acted as bodyguard and confidential runner. A good servant could free his master’s energies for the task of command, and servants make frequent appearances in officers’ accounts.
Siegfried Sassoon’s batman was Private Flook. ‘Flook and I were very good friends,’ he wrote, ‘and his vigilance for my personal comfort was such that I could more easily imagine him using his rifle in defence of my valise than against the Germans.’266 Bernard Adams agreed that: ‘Our servants were good friends to have behind us, and Dixon was a man in his element.’267 James Agate’s servant was ‘Of the surly tyrannical sort, half childhood’s nurse and half golf-caddy. I go in dread and fear of him. I eat when he thinks I should be hungry and sleep when he thinks I should be tired.’ He was horrified when Agate disappeared improperly dressed: ‘You do me no credit, Sorr,’ he declared, ‘rushing off in all your swarth and sweat.’268 Adrian Carton de Wiart enjoyed the services of Private Holmes, ‘a delightful scoundrel’ who took him from the field when he had suffered one of his many wounds, materialised aboard the hospital ship, despite having been turned away by the embarkation officer, and then appeared at the officers’ hospital in Park Lane. ‘I never enquired into his methods,’ wrote Carton de Wiart.269
After Harry Ogle was commissioned and posted to 1/King’s Own he entered his billet, where:
We found our valises had been unrolled, beds made with our blankets, and everything neat and tidy; at the foot of my bed, a smart, alert but somehow unsoldierlike man was waiting to speak to me or for me to speak to him. He was bronzed, moustached, dark-haired, wiry and of medium build, with a humorous eye and mouth and a very alert expression. This was my batman, Private Cecil Cockerill, in civilian life the manager of a department in a Plymouth store. He was a man of wide interests and knowledge and we soon became good friends.270
When Lieutenant Burgon Bickersteth’s servant was badly wounded he regretted that he did not know what hospital he was at, ‘so I cannot write to him, which troubles me very much’. Edwin Vaughan’s batman Private Dunham was indomitable. They were in a captured German pillbox near Langemarck after a hard day’s fighting when Vaughan noticed that Dunham was carrying a sack. When asked what was in it he replied stoutly that it was a rabbit that Vaughan had sworn to eat on Langemarck Ridge. However, it was then rather past its best and was jettisoned into the filthy water covering the pillbox floor. Graham Seton-Hutchison lost his batman, remembered simply as Peter, and lamented that: ‘The loss of his devotion smote me sorely.’ He was ‘a faithful servant, a friend and counsellor, an ever-present companion to give me confidence in the darkness of a dangerous night, and good cheer, when fortune favoured a visit to battalion headquarters, and a quick run along the disused tramway from Houplines to Armentières to refresh the company mess-box.’ He spoke for many officers when he declared: ‘Let us now, who received their ready services, praise batmen.’271
Many batmen reciprocated this regard. When Lieutenant Neville Woodroffe was killed at Ypres in 1914 his se
Writing to you in respect of my late officer which I have been servant to him since he has been out in France … He was a brave officer and he was like a father to me as I am myself an orphan boy … I was awfully sorry when God called such a brave man away … He told me just before his death that I was going home and he was staying where he was. With that he gave me his watch and I will be willing to forward the watch to you … when you write to me as I am not certain of the address … I remain yours sincerely, Robert Bingham.272
George Coppard joined 6/Queen’s in 1914 and was not naturally close to officers there, commenting that the commanding officer ‘might have been the Shah of Persia for all that I knew of him’. But in 1915, after his transfer to the Machine Gun Corps, he became servant to Lieutenant Wilkie. ‘I soon found out to my pleasure that Mr Wilkie regarded me as a comrade and I grew very attached to him,’ he wrote.
He was about twenty years old, had a boyish plumpness and wore a tricky little moustache which I secretly envied. I do believe he was the first Scotsman I had ever met that I came to appreciate and understand, and his brogue was fascinating to listen to. His home was in Sanderstead, near Croydon, which provided something in common between us.273
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