Tommy, p.43
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       Tommy, p.43

           Richard Holmes

  Even those whose lives were imperilled by the bravery of German airmen could not but admire it. Lieutenant Arthur Behrend, spotting for his heavy guns from an observation balloon, respected the determination of a German pilot who appeared from nowhere to shoot down three neighbouring balloons. The passengers in the first jumped clear as it approached.

  Two tumbling bodies. Then two parachutes opened and floated gently earthwards. An anti-aircraft battery opened up, its white bursts dotting the sky at the right height. Otherwise its shells were absurdly wide of the mark. The Taube, unimpressed by them, came in a leisurely if determined way and set the next balloon alight in exactly the same way as the first. I was pleased to see that he did not dive to shoot up the parachutists.

  Mercifully the plane flew off after shooting down the third balloon. Behrend noticed that his experienced observer, the one-legged Lieutenant Hoppy Cleaver, checked his own parachute and then stood expectantly in the balloon’s basket rather than on its rim. After they had landed Behrend asked him why he had done so. ‘To throw you out, of course,’ replied Cleaver. ‘You were my guest, and I knew you hadn’t the sense or guts to get out yourself.’16

  Many onlookers found it hard to associate the destruction of a distant aircraft with the death of its crew. But the reflective P. J. Campbell recalled how:

  Sometimes the plane fell like a stone, but more often it turned over and over, fluttering to the ground like a leaf in autumn. I was still unfamiliar with death, and was distressed to think of the man inside, even if he was a German.17

  Yet if soldiers on the ground admired the courage of enemy airmen if it was directed against fellow aviators, they fiercely resented the bombing of their own rear areas which became increasingly frequent from 1916. Huntley Gordon watched a German fighter machine-gun the lorry holding an observation balloon and then shoot up some nearby horse lines. When it was brought down by British fighters he rushed to the site.

  I got close enough to see the airman as he climbed out of the cockpit, taking his helmet off. He was fair-haired and not more than 19 or 20. If we could have got hold of him we would have killed him. Everyone was savage at the machine-gunning, we being so helpless in the wagon lines … a staff car drew up and he was bundled into it. There was an attempt to rush the car, but the sight of senior British officers defending it with their sticks checked us, and the car got away.18

  There was also a widespread belief that the Royal Flying Corps pursued its own agenda instead of devoting all its energies to keeping German aircraft from attacking British infantry and guns. In an effort to restore confidence, the authorities arranged for infantry battalion and brigade commanders to go on familiarisation flights, but as James Dunn acknowledged, these were not always a success.

  They were done well by in Mess. The joy rides were adventures. [Major] Kearsley was thrown out on his head in landing. In the next course two machines collided, pilot and visitor in each being killed.

  The comedian of the air is a pilot transferred from a Highland regiment who will fly in his kilt. In making a bad landing he threw a brigadier out, and himself was caught by the tail of his kilt on the wing of the machine; there he hung, tucked up like the lamb of the Golden Fleece, a bare-breeched Jock.19

  Adrian Carton de Wiart was interested to discover, after the armistice, that Germans he met thought that their own air force failed to protect them from the depredations of the RFC, and he surmised that the feeling was one of the eternal truths of war.

  And yet there was no shortage of volunteers for flying duties. Even men who had seen just how perilous flying actually was were anxious to transfer. This reflected a variety of motives. Captain Dunn thought that ‘transfers to the Machine Gun and Flying Corps were much discussed’ when his battalion was down on its luck. But many officers and men felt that they had had enough of the trenches and wanted a change. Private Monty Goodban hailed from Clapham High Street, where his father ran a domestic store. Evacuated home after being badly wounded by a grenade in late 1915, he was commissioned the following year, and transferred to the RFC almost immediately. He returned to France in May 1917 after just under twenty-three hours’ training, and lasted only twelve days before he was shot down and killed. Aidan Liddell, a scholarly man with a first from Oxford, was already a qualified pilot, and spent a ghastly winter in the trenches as his battalion’s machine-gun officer, earning a Military Cross in the process. While on sick leave in Britain he transferred to the RFC. He was awarded the Victoria Cross in July 1915 for an extraordinary display of fortitude in bringing a crippled reconnaissance aircraft home despite hideous wounds, from which he died a month later.

  There was cavalry in evidence on the Western Front from first to last, often a good deal more useful than is generally recognised. But by 1918 some of its traditional functions were being undertaken by the tank, a weapon which the men of 1914 would have regarded as so much science fiction. In much the same way that Napoleonic heavy cavalry had charged to break the enemy’s line, so heavy tanks crushed wire and crossed trenches, breaching the defensive barrier so that the infantry could pass with relative ease. They moved at a walking pace and were a generation away from providing the key ingredient in the blitzkrieg that featured so prominently in 1940–41, but they had already begun to make a difference. And ‘whippet’ light tanks (we saw something of Lieutenant Arnold’s legendary whippet ‘Musical Box’ earlier) were beginning to take on the cavalry function of exploitation, but although they could move much faster than their heavy cousins they too were prevented, by mechanical fragility and logistic dependence, from making the bold, slashing strokes that came a generation later.

  There had been a military revolution between the first and last photograph, a change in the conduct of war as profound as anything that had happened since gunpowder made its noisy and foul-smelling appearance on the battlefields of the late Middle Ages. It compelled all combatants to change doctrine, organisation and practice in order to keep pace, and for the British army (and eventually the American army too), there was the added problem of growing a small peacetime army into a big one for war. There were three distinct elements to the challenge, and theorists would now term them the components of fighting power. The first was physical, involving the weapons and equipment used; the second, so closely related, was conceptual, and concerned the evolution of military doctrine; and the third was human, and centred on the myriad of complex factors that made men fight. Finally, the army’s medical services had to contend with problems of their own, as new weapons and tactics proved their terrible capacity to damage body and mind.


  The Short Lee-Enfield rifle had entered service in 1902, though in 1914 it had not yet completely replaced its predecessor, the Long Lee-Enfield. The short rifle weighed 8lb 10½oz and was 3ft 8½ins long. Its magazine held ten rounds, quickly loaded in two clips of five rounds each which the soldier thumbed in from above. The Boer War had emphasised just how important marksmanship was, and infantry training paid careful attention to it. Soldiers fired an annual range course on rifle ranges from sandy Aldershot to marshy Purfleet and rocky Glencorse, and this determined their shooting classification. The trained soldier’s course consisted of 250 rounds fired at ranges from 100 to 600 yards, with the firer kneeling or lying, sometimes with his bayonet fixed, and with a ‘mad minute’ when he fired fifteen rounds at a target 300 yards away. Part III of the classification shoot decided a man’s marksmanship standard. He fired fifty rounds, from various ranges, at a target with three scoring rings, earning four points for a bull (24 ins wide), three for an inner and two for an outer. The highest possible score was 200 points, and to qualify as a marksman a soldier needed 130 points; 105 made him a first-class shot, and 70 a second-class shot.20

  Marksmanship did not simply consist of shooting on the range, but also included judging distance and understanding enough theory of small-arms fire to be able to aim off for wind or at a moving target, and to understand what was meant by the
‘beaten zone’ covered by fire at any particular range. Rifles were zeroed to individual firers, and the rifle’s butt number (stamped on a circular brass plate screwed to the stock) was recorded in a soldier’s personal record, his ‘small book’. Like many soldiers, David Jones grew to love and understand his rifle:

  You know her by her bias, by her exact error at 300, and by the deep scar at the small, by the fair flaw in the grain, above the lower sling-swivel.21

  There was far less emphasis on the security of weapons than would later be the case, and keen soldiers spent hours in the barrack room practising loading with drill rounds, checking their point of aim by sighting at an aiming disc held by a comrade, and balancing a penny on the foresight protector to ensure that their trigger-squeeze was smooth: jerk the trigger and the penny would fall off.

  In the Old Army officers took shooting very seriously. Musketry Regulations ordained that ‘Subaltern officers will fire the range practices … with their companies.’22 Major General Tommy Capper, killed at Loos, believed that there were ‘few things as disgusting’ as an officer who was a second-class shot. When the young George Ashurst, a Special Reserve recruit, scored four bulls and an inner at 600 yards during his training at Brackenber Moor near Kendal, his colonel declared: ‘ “I have never seen such shooting in my life. Nineteen points out of a possible twenty, and by a recruit too. Here, take this, my boy”, and he gave me five shillings.’23 In March 1917 Private Albert Bullock wrote that ‘Colonel Peters offered £1 and Coy Officers 10/- to every marksman [but there was] only one marksman.’24

  Marksmanship badges of crossed rifles were worn by all marksmen below the rank of warrant officer, and there were special distinctions for the best shot in each company or battalion. Good shots received a proficiency bonus, with a marksman receiving an extra 6d a day. This led to a certain amount of fiddling, and old soldiers would often make a point of squaring the man responsible for scoring on their target: small fortunes could be made with a sharply-jabbed pencil. Private Snailham of the Accrington Pals fired his range course ‘in the most dreadful wind and rain imaginable. It was a farce. We couldn’t see the targets, let alone hit them. By a miracle – or a fiddle – we all passed with good marks.’25

  Even allowing for the occasional bit of fruitful dishonesty, the musketry scores turned in by the Old Army were remarkable. The commanding officer of an infantry battalion with less than 50 percent marksmen would have an embarrassing interview with his brigadier, and would return the favour, with interest, to his company commanders, who passed the bad news down with added emphasis. Some cavalry regiments were every bit as good, and in 1908 the 14th Hussars had 354 marksmen, 212 1st class shots, thirty-five 2nd class shots and just four 3rd class men. The Field Service Regulations of 1909 defined ranges of 600 yards and under as ‘close’, 600 to 1,400 as ‘effective’, 1,400 to 2,000 as ‘long’, and 2,000 to 2,800 (which required a special long-range sight) as ‘distant’. An enemy who presented himself at ranges of less than 600 yards to the men of 1914 was in very serious trouble. Corporal John Lucy’s men had already stopped massed attacks with their fire at Mons, but found themselves pinned down in the open on the Aisne.

  By lucky chance or instinct I saw the enemy machine gun. There it was, mounted daringly on the roof of a cottage, about six hundred yards away, and directly to my front. With all my strength I shrieked the range, described the target, and ordered five rounds rapid fire … In about four seconds some thirty bullets were whistling about that dark spot near the chimney as we slammed in our rapid fire, glad to have work to do, and gloriously, insanely and incredibly the German machine gun stopped firing …26

  Marksmanship training of this quality was one of the casualties of the first few months of the war. The army expanded so quickly that old standards could not be maintained. There were too few experienced instructors, too little range-space in Britain, and, at least until early 1916, such a limited supply of rifles that some recruits graduated from wooden dummies, through a series of stopgaps like the Long Lee-Enfield, the Canadian Ross and the Japanese Arisaka, to the Short Lee-Enfield. It took a year for the Accringtons to get their Short Lee-Enfields (SMLEs), and they were luckier than many. By 1917 some drafts had not even seen an SMLE on their training, but handed in their Arisakas when they left Britain and were issued with SMLEs when they arrived at base in France. These weapons had been recycled through the salvage system, which saw many items recovered from the battlefield brought back to the base for repair, renovation and reissue. Albert Bullock arrived at Rouen on 18 September 1917. ‘Issued with service rifle and bayonet – got a beauty and made a [highest] possible [score] on miniature range …’27 The miniature range was a 30-yard range, popular at the base and infantry depots because it made the best use of limited space. Nevertheless, it was a mere travesty of pre-war musketry training, and this, with the constant turnover of trained men, meant that for the last eighteen months of the war the once-famed British musketry was probably little better than that of the European armies which, without the imperative of the Boer War, had taken it less seriously. Worse still, in July 1916, 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers received some drafts who had received just six weeks’ training, in the course of which they had fired ‘only five rounds of ball cartridge’ and whose weapon handling was so poor that they were a danger to themselves and others.

  The decline of shooting standards in the British army was also an inevitable consequence of the rifle’s diminishing utility in trench warfare. In contrast, grenades (‘bombs’) had become increasingly important. Lieutenant Colonel Croft of 11/Royal Scots saw that on 14 July 1916 his soldiers seemed incapable of hitting the enemy in the open only 200 yards away, and he wrote bitterly that the archers of Crecy would have done far better. Private W. H. A. Groom agreed, admitting that ‘troops under counterattack even forgot to use the rifle at long range and waited until the enemy were well within bombing range’.28 An official pamphlet published in July 1916 warned that:

  It must be realised by all ranks that the rifle and bayonet is the main infantry weapon. Grenades are useful for clearing small lengths of trench and for close fighting after a trench has been rushed; but no great or rapid progress will ever be made by bombing, and an assault across the open after adequate preparation will usually be a quicker and in the long run less costly operation than bombing attacks on a large scale.29

  However, many experienced officers recognised that reducing a soldier’s reliance on the grenade and improving his marksmanship could easily become counterproductive in the attack, as it might encourage a static firefight rather than a decisive assault: there was a balance to strike.

  And this, of course, raised the emotive issue of the role of the bayonet. The Short Lee-Enfield was fitted with a foot-long sword-bayonet. Pre-war infantry training manuals described how a company attacking would be divided into a firing-line and supports. The firingline, reinforced from the supports as the occasion demanded, was to establish fire superiority over the enemy, in a process that generations of British soldiers has come to know as ‘winning the firefight’. Artillery would make its contribution, the object being ‘to demoralize the defenders and reduce the volume of their fire’. However, the firefight was a means and not an end, for:

  The object of fire in the attack, whether of artillery, or machine guns, or infantry, is to bring such a superiority of fire to bear on the enemy as to make the advance to close quarters possible … as the enemy’s fire is gradually subdued, further progress will be made by bounds from place to place, the movement gathering renewed force at each pause until the enemy can be assaulted with the bayonet.

  At the appropriate moment the local commander would order the assault.

  The commander who orders the assault will order the charge to be sounded, the call will at once be taken up by all buglers, and all neighbouring units will join in the charge as quickly as possible. During the delivery of the assault the men will cheer, bugles be sounded, and pipes played.30

  The bayonet ha
d always been seen as much as a means of injecting psychological shock into the battle as actually killing the enemy, and the main purpose of bayonet training throughout the First World War was to give soldiers confidence to take their steel to the King’s enemies. The bayonet generally receives short shrift from historians: for instance in her Brief History of Killing Joanna Bourke surmises that bayonet training has survived in armies largely because of their inherent conservatism. The bayonet caused only 0.32 percent of one sample of 200,000 British casualties, although this may be a reflection of the fact that the Germans placed less reliance on it: Charles Carrington affirmed that he had never seen a German soldier with his bayonet fixed. Contemporaries were divided as to its merits. Alan Hanbury Sparrow complained that ‘it was all the rage, this brainless bayonet fighting’ and said that he had never seen a man killed with the bayonet31, and Rowland Feilding, another experienced infantry officer, was equally sceptical. Some officers’ low regard for bayonet fighting reflected their irritation that training for it took up so much time in depots in Britain and at the base. It was easy to receive drafts well schooled in the short jab and the butt-stroke (essential ingredients of bayonet drill) but ignorant of marksmanship, and this in turn reflected the fact that bayonet training was easy to organise when ammunition and range-space were lacking.

  There is no doubt at all that bayonets were used in combat on the Western Front, albeit less often than rifle fire or hand grenades. The battalion history of 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers described ‘tense moments with the bayonet’ in November 1914, and bayonet fighting on the Somme in August 1916. Aidan Liddell wrote of a night attack on his battalion by 224th Bavarian Reserve Regiment in December 1914. It was pressed home with such careless determination that he believed that the attackers were ‘fired up with rum’. As they were in the middle of the battalion’s position and ‘wouldn’t stop firing, they had to be bayoneted. An astonishing show altogether’.32 A survivor of the Mametz Wood battle told Robert Graves that he saw a soldier of 14/Royal Welch Fusiliers ‘bayoneting a German in parade-ground style, automatically exclaiming: “In, out, on guard!”’ Graves himself saw the corpses of a man of the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr Regiment who ‘had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously’.33 Graham Seton-Hutchison, armed with rifle and bayonet as a company commander at High Wood on the Somme, bayoneted two Germans: ‘I was a murderer, breath coming in short gasps, teeth set, hands clenched round my rifle, nerves and sinews tense with life.’34 When the Welsh Guards attacked Ginchy on 10 September 1916 its men:

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