Tommy, p.55Richard Holmes
One night I discovered a Lancashire lad of eighteen crying in pain. He whimpered ‘No one has been near me, and I am in pain.’ I brought him some nourishment and a sedative, made him as comfortable as possible, and found time to sit beside him until he fell asleep. Holding my hand in both of his, he whispered, ‘You are good to me. I feel lovely now.’ He died before morning.
Bluey, an eighteen-year-old Australian with ginger hair, told her: ‘Mine is not an Aussie Blighty, so of course I’ll be going back again, and I know it won’t be my luck to get out of it again. Will you kiss me good-bye before you go?’ And when her clearing station on the outskirts of Ypres was bombed in 1917 (German aircraft were very active over the salient at night), one wounded man complained that they had no right ‘to send you nurses so far up here in the danger zone’, and an appallingly wounded Scot urged her to get under his bed, as she might get hit. Her patients kept in touch when they left hospital though sometimes the news was bad. ‘A brave mother’ wrote to say:
Our dear boy and only son Tom has died after a haemorrhage at No 18 BH [Base Hospital] at Etaples. I try to be brave for his father’s sake, who is broken-hearted. I have been helping him to work up a business for our dear boy when he returned to us, but God willed it otherwise.218
Second Lieutenant Mellersh, carried into a clearing station at Corbie, was surprised to find:
A real hospital, with real beds and real army sisters in their red and grey capes and their wide, white spotless headgear.
I was led to a bed and a Sister came up to me. ‘Hello sonny!’ she said. ‘Where’ve you got it? Is the rain making it muddy? Can you get into bed – you’ll get a hot drink in a moment.’
But I found I could not undo my mud soaked puttees. I felt exhausted and found I was shivering. One orderly helped me. Then in bed I somehow could not stop shivering. The sister came back. ‘That’s better!’ she said. ‘Why, you’re shivering.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, in genuine contrition.
‘You poor boy!’
It was so kind, so heartfelt. I was suffused with a glorious self pity and a deep feeling of worship for that sister.219
Lancelot Spicer, in No. 1 Red Cross Hospital, reported that it was a ‘most amusing place’ because its volunteer staff were rather blue-blooded: ‘nothing but Duchesses and Countesses – they really are very nice and work awfully hard’.220 And Harry Ogle found the matron of No. 6 General Hospital ‘efficient, kind and friendly, interested in us as persons but had no favourites’.221 Albert Bullock’s matron wrote to his mother to report his progress, and on 15 November 1918 confessed that: ‘I feel so cheerful that no more boys are being killed and maimed and we have ceased the fighting. You may be sure I will send you word of your boy very shortly. Yrs very truly, Matron.’222
Officers and men recovering from wounds or sickness appeared before medical boards, generally composed of three doctors, who decided whether they were fit for active service, home service, or should be discharged. Soldiers passed fit for home service only were periodically re-examined. As Britain’s manpower situation worsened in 1917 and on into 1918, travelling medical boards toured the country re-examining men who had previously been placed in a low medical category: many were ‘combed out’ and posted to France.
War is often the handmaiden of beneficial change, and the First World War was no exception. Advances in medicine and hygiene meant that sick rates on the Western Front, at 1.3 sick to 1 wounded, were lower than on other fronts, and far lower than the 24 to 1 of the American Civil War, and 10 men died from enemy action for every 1 that died of disease, a dramatic reversal of the traditional ratio. Saline drips became routine to reduce the damage done by shock; blood transfusions, cutting-edge in 1914, were used in the clearing stations from 1917 and the advance dressing stations in 1918; gas-gangrene, common in wounds inflicted in areas where the soil was heavily manured, affected 10–12 percent of wounds in 1914 but only 1 percent in 1918, and ‘meticulous primary surgery’, and the delayed suture of wounds, proved real life-savers. Abdominal wounds were still hard to deal with, and their mortality rate ran at about 50–60 percent, with some specialist surgical units getting it down to 40 percent by the war’s end. The army took delivery of its first X-ray machine in 1913: by 1918 they were in regular use at clearing stations and occasionally further forward. Some apparently simple inventions had profound consequences: the Thomas splint brought the death rate for fractures of the femur down from about 60 percent to some 30 percent.223
Venereal disease, so long a scourge of armies, was described by an official history as causing ‘the greatest amount of constant inefficiency in the home commands…’.224 It estimated that the admission rate of Australian and New Zealand troops was as high as 128 and 130 per 1,000 of strength compared with 24 per 1,000 amongst British troops. The British army reported 416,891 hospital admissions for VD during the war, and as a stay in hospital averaged some fifty days for a soldier with syphilis the issue was as much about manpower as medicine. Soldiers who contracted VD were obliged to declare it, and were then sent to special hospitals, where their pay was stopped: as most married men made ‘allotments’ to their wives, marriages were often put at risk. Failing to declare VD was an offence under military law, punishable with up to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. The establishment of early-treatment centres where men were able to disinfect themselves went some way towards helping, as did the politically-contentious use of licensed brothels. One in Rouen was visited by 171,000 men in its first year, and there were only 243 reported cases of VD; however, opposition at home led to its closure.
Officers suffering VD were sometimes able to persuade a considerate regimental medical officer to treat them privately, but for most men there was no choice between shameful hospitalisation or untreated disease. And it was difficult for the latter to remain undetected for long due to periodic inspections. On 4 May 1918, Captain G.O. Chambers, AADMS of the Cavalry Corps, informed the camp commandant that a sapper of the topographical section:
Has been sent to 51 CCS this day suffering from syphilis. I discovered the case during a medical inspection of the Corps to-day. From the appearance of his present condition I consider him to have had the disease from 4–6 weeks.
He has not reported sick in this period.225
Most controversially, the war did much for the recognition that not all wounds were to the body. A condition broadly defined as shell shock, because it was initially believed to result from the physical impact of a nearby shell on the brain, was increasingly recognised by the authorities, although the term covered a variety of traumatic neuroses. Symptoms presented in different ways. Some men, like Private Alfred Moss in F. P. Roe’s platoon, became ‘withdrawn, untypically quiet for long periods, and eventually even morose’.226 Second Lieutenant William Carr found one of his sergeants, the sole survivor of a gun detachment hit by a shell, ‘in a terrible state, shaking and incoherent. We spent some time talking to him trying to calm him down and comfort him, but to no avail.’227 Others developed hysterical conversion syndromes, in which a mental condition had physical symptoms like paralysed limbs, blindness or deafness. Some men went berserk: Frank Hawkings and his comrades were only saved from one who jumped out of his trench and fired at friend and foe alike because the Germans machine-gunned him.
At first, as R. H. Ahrenfeldt acknowledged in his history of British military psychiatry, it was almost a matter of chance whether a man with psychiatric illness was considered to be genuinely ill, a malingerer, or even a deserter. By August 1916 the BEF had its own consulting psychiatrist and consultant neurologist, and by the year’s end there were psychiatric centres in every army area and ‘mental wards’ in base hospitals. Treatment in the United Kingdom improved in parallel, and the work of Dr William Hales Rivers, who developed treatment for ‘anxiety neurosis’ at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh, is perhaps the best known, not least because Siegfried Sassoon, declared shell-shocked after publicly protesting about the w
Although shell shock is often seen as the disease of the war it was, in its various forms, less common than we might think. In 1917 psychiatric admissions ran at 1 per 1,000 for the civilian population, 2 per 1,000 for troops in Britain and 4 per 1,000 for the BEF. Some shell-shocked men did not get as far as hospital because, as the 1922 inquiry made clear, the incidence of shell shock could be reduced by good discipline and leadership within units. Wise regimental medical officers could often deal with many mild cases by resting men in safety not far from the battlefield, and giving them the firm expectation that they would recover, pointing the way ahead to the effective treatment of what modern military psychiatrists would describe as ‘battleshock’.
Yet there was more than pure logic at work where this terrible response to a shocking war was concerned. The shell-shocked victim, unable to gain employment after the war, became one of the period’s most enduring icons. And, as Peter Leese has written: ‘The memory of shell shock has remained potent too, because it has become the first and most powerful expression of the destructive effects of industrialised warfare on the mind …’.228 It marked the military revolution just as surely as the heavy gun, tank or aircraft.
HEART AND SOUL
THE WILL OF AN ARMY
What modern military theorists call ‘the moral component of fighting power’ is always more difficult to define than its fellows in the trilogy, the physical and conceptual components. It can neither be counted and costed, nor can it be accurately assessed through drill books, training manuals or pamphlets on doctrine. In the First World War, difficulties are especially acute because the whole issue of motivation is intimately linked to our interpretation of the war more widely. For some historians, combat motivation primarily reflected a draconian code of discipline which made the officer’s pistol and the firing squad the army’s natural response to personal failure: for others, decent fellows, proud of their cap badge and bravely led, did their job without flinching.
Of course the truth is more complex: motivation on the Western Front reflected a whole host of factors which varied from man to man, unit to unit, place to place and time to time. It is in this area that deconstructivist history is most dangerous, because by focusing on particular aspects of this complex mosaic, perhaps to meet an understandable personal or political demand (or simply to sell more books), writers often paint a picture that the men of 1914–18 would look at with disbelief. We have already seen that they were not lions led by donkeys. But so too were they neither thugs led by nincompoops, nor weaklings coerced by brutes, nor yet warriors led by heroes. Yet if we look hard enough we can find evidence of all these types – perhaps even in the same battalion on the same day.
In Redcoat, my study of the British army in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I focused on what I saw as the two prime factors in motivating in the army of the age, and called them stick and carrot. Under stick I reviewed the coercive aspects of morale, and under carrot its persuasive aspects. The First World War requires a wider analytical framework, including a broader assessment of what men thought about their world, themselves and their enemy.
MAN AND GOD
It was an irreverent and blasphemous army, with the conversation of soldiers larded with what David Jones termed ‘the efficacious word … above any other … considered adequate to ease outraged susceptibilities’.1 Frederic Manning, in the first edition of his book Her Privates We, rendered the word as ‘muckin’, but, in the second edition, was allowed to unveil it fully. Corporal Hamley of 7/King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, in reserve behind the Somme battlefield, is not wholly content with one of his signallers, Private Weeper Smart:
‘You shut your blasted mouth, see!’ said the exasperated Corporal Hamley, stooping as he entered the tent, the list of his head, with chin thrust forward as he stooped, giving him a more desperately aggressive appearance. ‘An’ let me ‘ear you talkin’ on parade again with an officer present and you’ll be on the bloody mat quick, see? You miserable bugger you! A bloody cunt like you’s sufficient to demoralise a whole fuckin’ Army Corps. Got it? Get those buzzers out, and do some bloody work for a change.’2
The parish priest of the Belgian village of Dickebush was frankly puzzled by it all. ‘I have looked it up phonetically in my little English dictionary (fahke),’ he wrote.
And I find, to my surprise, that the word ‘fake’ means ‘false, unreal, or not true to life’. Why the soldiers should refer to us in this way is difficult to understand, and yet everywhere one hears talk of ‘fake Belgium’ and ‘fake Belgians’.3
And for all this, American oaths were a novelty even to the British. Eric Hiscock’s comrades in 26/Royal Fusiliers were shocked to hear the Germans called ‘cocksucking mother-fuckers’ by the new arrivals: ‘no one … had heard such expressions before, nor knew what they meant’.4
Coarse language, no great surprise to men from hard, working-class backgrounds, was a shock to those from more sheltered upbringings. Rory Baynes remembered that at his prep school ‘a boy called Quin was beaten with a slipper for using bad language. The depraved boy was heard to say “damn”. ‘5 An officer noted how he found himself in serious trouble with his fiancée for using the same word when he missed a shot at golf. Officers might, however, legitimately allow themselves to use ‘bally’ in public. When the popular Captain Gussy Collins, wearing his trademark monocle and carrying a cane, saw his old company of 25/London making for its objective at Messines, he shouted cheerily: ‘Haven’t you captured the bally place yet?’6 But for some men serving in the ranks swearing was not least amongst the crosses that they had to bear. Alfred Hale, conscripted in April 1916, endured a perfunctory medical examination ‘wearing literally nothing but my coat and walking shoes’ and then went to draw his uniform at the tailor’s store.
There, with much foul language on the part of an individual who ordered us all about, with ‘Take off your boots’, ‘Put them on again’, ‘Now put your khaki tunic on’, etc, all shouted at the top of his voice and interspersed with such expressions as ‘What the bloody hell?’, ‘By Jesus’; etc, we recruits gradually transformed ourselves, outwardly, that is to say, from civilians into soldiers.7
He later lamented that: ‘One got so very wearied of hearing everything being described as f-cking this and f-cking that, the very word, with its original indecent meaning, being at length a mere stupid and meaningless vulgarity.’8
In one sense an army is defined by its language. Stephen Graham thought that once a man ‘begins to use the army’s language without wishing it he has ceased to be an individual soldier, he has become soldiery’.9 Henri Barbusse wrote of how the speech of his own army, ‘made of a mixture of workshop and barrack slang, and patois, seasoned with a few newly-coined words, binds us, like a sauce, to the compact mass of men who … have emptied France to concentrate in the North-East’.10 The British army was linked by its oaths, its nicknames, its deliberate mispronunciations and its practice of calling acquaintances of the same rank ‘chum’ – cartoons in Australian trench journals rendering it ‘choom’ in evident testimony to the abundance of northerners. A long-eared chum was a mule and a long-faced chum a horse, as Richard Chant of the 5th Dragoon Guards reflected in a poem:
So good luck to all the Pals I know
That’s had the life-long run
Especially those that took the Jump
On the back of his long-faced Chum.11
But a long-haired chum was altogether different, a woman. Food-itself snap, scoff or scran – had a myriad of descriptions which rival the art of modern menu-writers. When Sidney Rogerson woke up on his first night out of the line Private Parkin told him with delight that lunch was ‘stewed beef and sixty-pounders, sir, and deaf’uns and custard’.12 A ‘sixty pounder’ was a b
Signalese, the language once peculiar to signallers, seeped into the army as a whole. There was a phonetic alphabet, to prevent misunderstandings over the telephone. And so trench mortar, abbreviated to TM, was Toc Emma. There was as yet no twenty-four-hour clock, and so pm was Pip Emma and am was Ac Emma. Officers and men used the alphabet in everyday speech to emphasise their warrior status. To an habitué the ‘Deputy Assistant Adjutant General, General Staff Officers 1st, 2nd and 3rd Grades, and Acting Assistant Quartermaster General’ were ‘Don Ac Ac Gees, Esses O 1, 2 and 3; Ac Ac Q Emma Gee.’14 A trench-mortar battery, TMB, was a Toc Emma Beer; an Observation Post, OP, was an O Pip; and a machine gun, MG, was Emma Gee tout court.
To call the Germans the Alleyman (a corruption of the French allemand) or Ypres Wipers implied an early arrival at the front, and the use of such words by newcomers would earn the forcefully-expressed disapproval of old hands. Place names were shamelessly mispronounced. Monchy Breton was Monkey Britain; Auchonvillers, Ocean Villas; Bailleul, Baloo; Biefvillers, Beef Villas; La Quinque Rue inevitably La Kinky Rue; Sailly la Bourse, Sally Booze; Wytschaete, White Sheet; Ploegsteert Wood, Plug Street Wood and Albert was rendered with English pronunciation and a good hard ‘t’. Mouquet Farm, that evil spot on the Somme, was Mucky Farm or Moo-Cow Farm. Where local names were lacking, invention was at hand: three advance dressing stations in the Ypres salient were christened with the mock-Flemish names of Bandaginghem, Dozinghem and Mendinghem – the latter two still have Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemeteries named after them.
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