Tommy, p.59
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       Tommy, p.59

           Richard Holmes
The night was quiet, apart from the incessant muttering of the distant guns. A few candles gave a flickering light. All round the barn men’s equipment and rifles hung on the shadowed walls. The Communion table was a rough wooden packing-case. Yet the service was impressive, had indeed a splendour often absent in formal surroundings.79

  And Walter Nicholson had the highest regard for Chaplain Rushby, a Wesleyan, who ‘went over the top with the leading company’ at Fricourt, and reported ‘a pleasurable excitement I shall never forget, nor ever be able to deserve’. ‘I never met a finer Christian,’ reflected Nicholson,

  but he never paraded his religion. He had a complete and utter faith in the goodness of our soldiers; glorying in their courage, endurance and cheerfulness. It was clear to him that they had a deep regard for divine things and that one of his battalion was linked to Cromwell’s ironsides in piety and courage.

  In Nicholson’s experience ‘when the padres were good, they were very very good; but when they were bad they were awful’.80

  In 1917 Anglican chaplains produced the report The Church in France, based on the results of 300 questionnaires. Neville Talbot, one of the chaplains who responded, affirmed that: ‘The soldier has got religion, I am not sure that he has got Christianity.’ There was a widespread feeling that Jesus was respected as a heroic fellow-sufferer, but little support for turning the other cheek. Many chaplains who responded thought that the war had broken down social barriers, and there was surprisingly little hatred of the Germans. However, it affirmed that priests needed to do more than simply to reach soldiers through their ‘Tommy-ness’: ‘There are things beyond Tommy, and the minute he wakes up to this primary fact, we shall have a sign that he is saved.’ In 1919 an inter-denominational group of seventeen chaplains published The Army and Religion, which reached some similar conclusions. The war, it declared, had shown many of the clergy to be amateurs because of their unwillingness to discuss spiritual issues man to man.

  Chaplains’ familiarity with the opinions of their soldiers through their censorship duties would have enabled them to see, as a modern researcher can, just how deep a current of belief flowed through the army: it certainly gives the lie to Robert Graves’s suggestion that: ‘Hardly one soldier in a hundred was inspired by religious feeling of even the crudest kind.’81 For some, belief was a reflection of pre-war teaching and feel for liturgy. Second Lieutenant Huntley Gordon reflected on the Psalms at Hellfire Corner, just outside Ypres, in August 1917.

  In this strange world, the Psalms can be a very present help in time of trouble; particularly as they were written by a fighter who knew what it was to be scared stiff. It’s really amusing to find how literally some of them apply to life in the Ypres Salient in 1917. ‘I stick fast in the mire where no ground is.’ (Psalm 69) ‘The earth trembled and quaked: the very foundation also of the hills shook.’ (Psalm 18) ‘The clouds poured out water, the air thundered: and the arrows went abroad.’ (Ps 77) ‘Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day…’ (Ps 91) But David was obviously whistling to keep his courage up. Well, there are moments when it’s something to be able to whistle at all. But this is surely to regard God as your lucky mascot; and that won’t do nowadays.

  One has to accept that one’s own survival cannot be the first consideration. We have got to beat the Boche, whatever the cost. But this suppressing of one’s instinct for safety is not easy, particularly at moments when your stomach turns over and won’t go back into its place; ‘Our belly cleaveth unto the ground’ (Ps 44) when the 5.9 cometh! All I hope is that, whatever happens, we may still be able to say ‘Our heart is not turned back: neither our steps gone out of thy way: No, not when thou hast smitten us into the place of dragons, and covered us with the shadow of death.’ (Ps 44).82

  And in August 1916 Private Alf Arnold RAMC told his parents that he had just heard a very good sermon comparing the nurse who looked after the patients in his ward to Jesus Christ: ‘I think that is very beautifully explained,’ he wrote.83

  But for far more soldiers belief was a conviction akin to fatalism, where God was indeed a mascot and prayers became more fervent as danger loomed. Some officers saw God as a sort of celestial commander in chief to whom they would eventually have to give an account of their operations on earth. Brigadier General Johnnie Gough, Haig’s chief of staff until he was killed in 1915, told a padre that:

  I believe that I shall stand before Almighty God. There are many things which I have done which I ought not to have but I think he will say: ‘Look here, when you have honestly known a thing to be your duty have you failed to do it?’ I really think I shall be able to say, ‘No’.84

  Others, officers and men alike, simply trusted that God would do his best for them. Private George Taylor of 1/Grenadier Guards told his mother how much he hoped for her prayers, and concluded: ‘May Jesus in his great love and compassion please grant that we may be spared to meet each other again. Give my love to all my friends… Yours in the Pink, George.’ 85 Private Roy Ashford reported that services at the base were ‘better attended than any I have seen in the Army’, and was glad to be blessed by a chaplain before he went up the line.86 Driver Len Doust RFA admitted to the desperate prayer so common before danger: ‘Oh God, for Christ’s sake, don’t let me be killed or maimed; don’t let me lose my arms or legs.’87 Another soldier told his sweetheart:

  I know a lot of men here before the war were great sinners but I know that they often pray now, it is the time the Germans are shelling our trenches that they think there is a God. I am not saying that I said my prayers before the war because I did not, but I don’t believe I have missed a night since I have been out here and ever since the battle of Neuve Chapelle I have believed there is a god because I prayed to him before the battle to keep me safe and He did, I had some marvellous escapes.88

  On the eve of the Somme a major in the London Scottish told Julian Bickersteth that he was quite confident that he would be safe because he knew that his young son prayed so hard for him: ‘The faith of my little boy is so real… God could not disappoint a faith like that.’ ‘I never saw him again,’ wrote Bickersteth sadly. ‘He was shot dead in the advance next morning.’89 But the current of belief flowed in two directions. W. H. A. Groom, religious when he went to war, lost his faith: ‘my belief in a church which condoned killing faded away’.90

  Religious belief, so fervent when shells whined overhead, was coupled with the selflessness which was so common in good units to encourage some chaplains, like David Railton, to ‘hope for such great things from the war’. But the war did not produce the national religious revival they prayed for, and the replacement of comradeship by selfishness was one of the unwelcome features of men’s return to civilian life. ‘It was just too wonderful for words to be a civilian again, free from orders and restraints,’ exulted Roy Ashford, ‘but just one thing was missing, and that was the comradeship and helpfulness one received from “chums” in the army’.91

  Practical experience of the way the war broke down social barriers encouraged several clergymen to pursue Christian fellowships after the war. The Reverend Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton was invited by Neville Talbot, senior chaplain of 6th Division, to establish a rest house for soldiers. Talbot found a suitable property in Poperinghe, and called it Talbot House after Neville’s brother Gilbert, killed when the Germans first used flamethrowers against the British at Hooge in 1915. It was universally known as ‘Toc H’ (signalese for TH) and became an oasis offering comfort and sanity, where men could drink tea, read newspapers and, if they wished, pray in the ‘Upper Room’. A notice at the door warned all who entered to abandon rank: Toc H was one of the few places where an officer could meet a noncommissioned brother in comfort. Talbot re-established Toc H in London in 1920 and it became the centre of an international movement. The original Toc H still survives in Poperinghe, and its quiet and simple Upper Room always seems to me to be heavy with the presence of the thousands who knelt there and prayed that thei
r cup might pass.

  Sometimes men’s spirituality was enhanced by the landscape. It was not always blighted and blasted, and nature struggled on in the most surprising ways. R. B. Talbot Kelly spent much of his time in observation posts, with ample opportunity to savour nature. He wrote that:

  The very spirit of the trees sank deeply into me… to me half the war is a memory of trees; fallen and tattered trees; trees contrasted in summer moonlight, torn and shattered winter trees, trees green and brown, grey and white, living and dead… Beneath their branches I found the best and worst of the war; heard nightingales and smelt primroses, heard the scream of endless shells and breathed gas; rested in their shade… cowered in their roots.92

  C. P. Blacker had a keen eye for nature, which he put to good use as he wandered through a wood near his battalion’s camp at Corbie:

  The floor was ablaze with white, yellow and blue flowers. The luxuriance was so unexpected as to make me feel that, as in a fairy story, I had inadvertently broken into some secret and privileged place where I had no business to be. The white flowers, pinkily nodding in the sunlight, as if in timid recognition, were of course wood anemones; the yellow flowers were lesser celandines and primroses… As I picked my way through the trees I came to a concealed clearing thick with wild daffodils, mostly in bud but a few in flower.

  He later sustained an out of body experience near the same wood.

  The experience lasted, I should say, about thirty seconds and seemed to come out of the sky in which were seemingly resounding majestic harmonies. The thought: ‘That is the music of the spheres’ was immediately followed by glimpses of luminous bodies – meteors or stars – circulating in predestined courses emitting both light and music. I stood still on the tow-path and wondered if I was going to fall down. I dropped onto one knee and thought: How wonderful to die at this moment. I put my hand over my forehead as if to contain the tumult and fend off something. Wonder, awe and gratitude mounted to a climax and remained poised for a few seconds like a German star shell. Then began the foreknown descent.

  Blacker, an intelligent and well-read man who went on to become a doctor, thought deeply about the incident, and eventually concluded that it had been religious rather than pathological. And when he revisited the Somme with a brother officer in 1960 he saw a dark cloud hanging over the battlefield, ‘rimmed and shot through with light… The cloud came from the infernal regions; the illumination, which came from elsewhere, honoured the multitudes of dead.’93 Charles Douie linked the rhythm of the seasons with the pattern of men’s lives.

  I watched the coming of spring in the woods, and the young corn in the fields, and the men, the flower of every shire in Britain, on the march towards the chalk uplands of the battlefields. I wondered often how many of those whose eyes were delighted by the glory of the fields would see the harvest, and I thought of that other harvest which death would reap.

  In the late spring of 1916 he spent much of his time in a dugout west of Thiepval, ‘looking out over the broad marshes of the Ancre and the great trees of the wood beyond’.94

  In the very midst of Third Ypres Private Groom found his spirits touched by dawn: ‘It was a marvellous sunrise and I remember the huge red ball of the sun resting on the top of a distant pillbox.’95 Fred Hodges admitted that:

  Certainly I have never lived so close to nature since, nor been so acutely aware of life. Between the wrecked villages, the crops lay ungathered, and nature, uncontrolled by man, was a riot of scent and colour; oats and barley mingled with cornflower and poppies, with the song of a lark in the blue sky.96

  And P. J. Campbell thought that the roses at Gibraltar Farm, not far behind the front, ‘were as beautiful and smelt as sweetly here as in a Oxford garden,’ and watched daily as a pair of swallows reared five young in a nest on the beam of a shelter.97

  There was always an extraordinary poignancy in discovering that even a battlefield remained home to animals and birds. A mole fell into Sidney Rogerson’s trench on the Somme, and he thought it ‘one of Nature’s miracles that this blind, slow creature could have survived in ground so pounded and upturned’.98 Charles Douie was struck by the spectacle of two mice playing hide-and-seek behind a dud shell in his trench. Lieutenant Edwin Campion Vaughan’s platoon found a dead pigeon ‘and buried him, railing his grave with little sticks and chains of sedgegrass, and in his coverlet of pimpernels we erected a tiny white cross’.99 In the spring of 1916 Captain Dunn ‘avoided treading on little frogs in Cambrin trenches,’ and shortly afterwards he heard a nightingale.100


  There was widespread agreement that, as Robert Graves observed: ‘Patriotism, in the trenches, was too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as only fit for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out.’101 An infantry officer remarked on ‘how much more seriously the company would take the war were the [Ypres] Salient around Preston, or Bolton, or Manchester’.102 And another commentator discerned ‘no self-conscious patriotism among the rank and file… The word itself meant nothing to them.’103 Yet there was certainly a conviction, often expressed in letters home, that the war had to be won to keep Britain safe. In August 1914 Sergeant Bert Fielder assured his wife that:

  If I go away you must not worry if you don’t get my letters because you must understand it is all for the good of England, and the English soldier is not only fighting for his country but to save his own home from destruction and being ruled over by the Germans.104

  Men at the front, many of whom genuinely believed that they were fighting to preserve the mother country, were irritated to learn that their views were not shared by those they thought they were defending. In October 1915 Second Lieutenant Edward Underhill wrote bitterly that his countrymen had no idea what the war was about.

  I don’t believe you in England realize what was is, and invasion is the only thing to do it. I am not at all sure that invasion wouldn’t be the best thing to happen to England. All this fuss about recruiting is very galling to us out here. We are firm believers in National Service and would like the slackers out here for a week or two. Nobody can realize what it is like unless they have heard shells rushing overhead, and have seen all the ruins of farms and houses, or been deliberately shot at by one’s fellow man, even though they are a different nationality. It is ghastly to me who has only seen a little bit of what it is like. What it must be with gas and liquid fire added, and then on top of all a heavy bombardment. I hate shells; they are awful and give me the jumps, or as we say out here ‘they put the wind up me’.105

  He was right to be concerned: a shell-splinter hit him in the back of the head, just under his steel helmet, as he rallied his company at Stuff Redoubt, near Thiepval, on 12 October 1916, and killed him: he was twenty-one.

  Many veterans detected a sense of national superiority which had little to do with the immediate aims of the war and was not patriotism in any conventional sense. ‘If the Germans won and invaded England,’ declared one, ‘they would still be laughed at in the villages as ridiculous foreigners.’ ‘I did not think it occurred to us that we could ever be defeated,’ opined another, ‘so great was our faith in the British Empire with all its great traditions.’106 C. E. Montague later wrote of the unreasoning national pride that characterised the New Armies, adding wearily that: ‘the high unreason of faith that would move mountains in 1914 seems to be scarcely able to shift an ant-hill today’.107 Although some cynics observed that the only Empire the average soldier knew was the Hackney music hall of the same name, there was a powerful alliance between public-school commitment to an empire with a civilising mission (and, in a more practical sense, a huge network of jobs providing outdoor relief for the middle classes) and working-class music-hall patriotism with its noisy affirmation that British was best and foreigners were funny. In his Spanish Farm trilogy Ralph H. Mottram wrote of the soldiers’ affection for ‘the football fields and factories, the music halls and seaside excursions that they
talked of, and hoped to see once again’.108

  And there was often a striking contrast between the shared values of the front and the increasingly distant world of Blighty. ‘London irritated me beyond expression,’ wrote John Reith of his leave in 1915; ‘was this what one was fighting for: loafers, profiteers, the whole vulgar throng on the streets’.109 Bernard Martin found it irritating to be acclaimed as a hero, but ‘the word meant nothing in front-line trenches’ back at home:

  More than once strangers patted me on the back and offered to give me a drink in a pub; but even these good-natured people did not want to learn how heroes live and die. Exceptionally, I was asked: ‘Do the French women wash your clothes and mend them?’ and a man said, ‘When it’s too dark to go on fighting – are you free for the evening, can you get to a cinema?’.110

  H. E. L. Mellersh, home on leave in 1916, discovered that:

  The general atmosphere at home… made me feel, on this leave and all subsequent leaves, that I did not any longer fit in. Inevitably I was out of sympathy with the old way of life that in any case had changed, while I too had changed…

  Nevertheless, when all that is said and done, I did, in those days of my first return home from the front, consider myself as someone apart, as someone belonging – even though I had been with them for so short a while – to the Second Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment, and no longer to this cosy, suburban, restricted, uninspiring Clarence Road, St Albans.111

  Motivation often changed as experience grew. Many was the man who, like Eric Hiscock, felt patriotic enough until he found out what the war was really like.

  The Oxford glamour of donning uniform was at last in shreds, the mud and fearful noise and incomprehensible action that was surrounding me had stilled for ever any semblance of Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory running through my stupid brain. War, I knew at last, was run for fools by fools on office stools, and the sooner I got out of it the better for all concerned, which meant me, my parents in Oxford, and the girl I left behind me – a plumpish flapper called Doris who sold bags and suit-cases over the counter of a smart leather-merchant’s shop in Oxford’s Queen Street.112

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