Tommy, p.60Richard Holmes
But as big issues slipped away, smaller ones grew. Playing the game mattered. Second Lieutenant W. E. Giffard, already one-legged, and with two brothers killed in the war, was offered a ground job which would have spared him the danger of more ascents in an observation balloon. He declined on the grounds that: ‘I do not think it is playing the game.’113 What was ‘playing the game’ to a public-school boy was ‘finishing the job’ for a working man. At the very end of the war one of Private Stephen Graham’s comrades told him:
I am a married man… I have four children. I’ve been out here three years, and it’s been hard. But if the armistice were called off tomorrow, I’d gladly go on fighting. Why? In order that we might make a clean job of it. All that I care for is that my boys should not have to go through what I’ve gone through.114
What an Australian memorably termed ‘the bonds of mateship’ set rock-hard to link men in what one wise analyst has called ‘trench households’, small groups such as an infantry section, machine-gun detachment or the officers of a rifle company, who lived in close proximity, pooled privately-obtained food or drink, and wrote to console the relatives of the killed.115 Charles Carrington thought that:
A Corporal and six men in a trench were like shipwrecked sailors on a raft, completely committed to their social grouping, so that nobody could have any doubts about the moral and physical failings of his pals since everyone’s life depended on the reliability of each.116
C. E. Montague used precisely the same simile. Front-line life was:
very domestic, highly atomic. Its atom, or unit, like that of slum life, is the jealously close, exclusive community life of a family based in an urban cellar… Our total host might be two million strong, or ten millions; whatever its size a man’s world was his section – at most his platoon; all that mattered to him was the one little boatload of castaways with whom he was marooned on a desert island making shift to keep off the weather and any sudden attack of wild beasts.117
Sometimes the small group encompassed those whose rank might be presumed to exclude them. Second Lieutenant Richard Gale broke down in tears when trying to wrap up the remains of his batman, dismembered by a shell, and was taken back to recover, not with his fellow officers, but to the men’s dugout: ‘Their comradeship meant everything to me…’118 Montague argued that this sort of relationship was not simply founded on mutual survival, though that counted for much: most NCOs and men in the line simply believed that it was up to them and the junior officers to win the war.119 Alan Hanbury Sparrow thought that the real focus of loyalty came slightly higher, in what he called ‘regimental will. For we no longer rely on unknown forces, but upon what we know ourselves.’
What so many observers noticed were resolution and endurance which often had little to do with military discipline but often reflected qualities that men brought into the army, whether they came from mean streets or big houses. Siegfried Sassoon summed them up well when describing the soldier, Christ-like with his load of shouldered planks, in The Redeemer.
No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore – an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he’ll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.120
J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, served on the Western Front with 11/Lancashire Fusiliers, and wrote that Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s sturdy and long-suffering companion on his journey to Mount Doom, was a portrait ‘of the English soldier, of the private and batman I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself’.121 Occasional official reports into the army’s morale were conducted on the basis of censored letters, and revealed a broad spirit of endurance that was bent, but not broken, by suffering. In November 1916, in the aftermath of the Somme, one concluded that: ‘the spirit of the men, their conception of duty, their Moral[e] has never been higher than at the present moment’, though their earlier enthusiasm had been replaced by ‘dogged determination to see the thing through at any cost’.122
And even in November 1917, as Passchendaele squelched to its close, a report based on an analysis of 17,000 letters written by combat troops concluded that: ‘The Morale of the Army is sound… there is ample ground for the belief that the British Army is firmly convinced, not only of its ability to defeat the enemy and its superiority man to man, but also of the dangers of a premature peace.’123 C. E. Montague, for all the disenchantment which was to give his post-war memoirs their title, wholly agreed. He had little time for the way the army was run, and was critical of staff and chaplains alike.
But the war had to be won: that was flat. It was like putting out houses on fire, or not letting children be killed; it did not even need to be proved; that we had got to win was now the one quite certain thing left in a world of shaken certainties.124
Humour helped men endure. Some of it was decidedly dark, like the practice of giving a cheery shake to the dead hands which sometimes protruded from trenches, or infuriating, like drifting small paper boats, carefully ignited, along the long water-gully beneath the seats in base latrines. Some jokes reflected a belief that the war would prove very long. In 1915 it was said that a subaltern in a battalion on the Ploegsteert front visited a comrade in the line near Kemmel. ‘You will notice,’ said the Kemmel man, ‘my men are planting daffodils on the parapets to hide ‘em. We hope to have the line quite invisible in the course of time.’ ‘Humph,’ replied the Ploegsteert man: ‘You are a lot of blooming optimists. My men have planted acorns in front of our trench.’125 There was sometimes a fine edge of humour to the relationship between company commanders and their sergeant majors, or platoon commanders and their platoon sergeants. A Royal Welch Fusiliers company commander was in his dugout in a heavily-shelled front line when the sergeant major pounded down the steps with a face like thunder. ‘Tell me the worst, sergeant major,’ said the officer, expecting news of a disaster. ‘Well, Sir, I’m not sure that I should mention this,’ replied the CSM, ‘but I have just seen your servant stirring your tea with his finger.’
There was also repeated badinage between units, as Anthony French of 15/London remembered:
One spark of humour could set a whole column alight.
We approached a signaller industriously repairing a broken line and a voice cried: ‘Some say “Good old Signals!”’ to which a second voice replied: ‘Others say “…old Signals!”’ The verb was irrelevant and its execution biologically absurd, but the couplet was invariable whoever might be the ‘good old this’ or ‘good old that’. It was always the curious colloquial adjective ‘Old’ that preserved the affection.
The signaller took no heed.
‘He’s going up the “line”,’ someone suggested.
‘Lend ’im your button ’ook,’ said another.
The signaller turned and shouted with feigned surprise
‘Oh! It’s the bloody infantry. What you doing up the line, anyway?’
‘We’re looking for the GPO.’
‘Lookin’ for bloody trouble, you mean,’ said the signaller, raising a fist.
Another voice shouted: ‘What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?’ and from somewhere came the oft-repeated quip: ‘Hold your tongue, son, and polish up those medals!’…
‘Medals?’ cried another; ‘I’ve spat ‘em before breakfast!’ Someone tried to sing ‘Give me the switch Miss for
Ipswich, it’s the Ipswich switch which I require,’ but metre and pace failed to register, so Maxwell raised his voice and set the column singing:
‘Kitty, Kitty, isn’t it a pity in the City you work so hard
With your “One, two, three four five six seven eight Gerrard?”.‘
Kitty, Kitty, isn’t it a pity tha
With your lips close to the telephone when they might be close to mine?’
My last sight of the field-telephone man was of his face wreathed in smiles and his hand waving a friendly farewell.126
C. E. Montague regarded laughter as ‘the deadliest solvent of hatreds’, with his comrades quipping about ‘old Fritz’ or ‘the good old Boche’, ‘as if he were a stout dog fox or a real stag of a hare’.127 To soldiers he was Fritz or the Alleyman, to officers more often the Boche (in a variety of spellings) or the Hun. Indeed, Private Stephen Graham maintained that ‘the German was never Bosche or Hun to the rank and file, but always “Jacky” or “Jerry” or “Fritz”.’128 To the thoughtful David Jones he was something more sinister, for his field grey
seemed always to call up the grey wolf of Nordic literature. To watch these grey shapes moving elusively among the bleached breast works or emerging from between broken tree-stumps was a sight to powerfully impress us and was suggestive to us of something of what is expressed in those lines from the Ericksmal… ‘It is not surely known when the grey wolf shall come upon the seat of the Gods.’129
Jones wondered what the German made of British ‘ochre coats and saucer hats’. But to many he was bewilderingly elusive. When Sidney Rogerson saw German prisoners after his battalion had come out of the line on the Somme he admitted that:
Few of them were our idea of ‘square heads’. Some were mere boys, others myopic bespectacled scarecrows. Many were bearded, some having the fringes of whiskers framing their faces after the manner of the great crested grebe. All wore the long-skirted field grey coats, the trousers stuffed into clumsy boots. It gave us a strange feeling to see our enemies at close range. Except for dead ones, for an occasional miserable prisoner dragged back half-dead with fright from some raid, or for groups seen through field-glasses far behind their lines, many of us had never seen any Germans.130
And Charles Carrington heard wagon wheels, wiring parties, coughs and sneezes and even a sergeant major, his voice at full throttle, before he actually saw his first German.
Two general truths define the British soldier’s relationship with his enemy on the Western Front: the first is that he generally had a high regard for the Germans, and the second that the fighting man rarely felt a high degree of personal hostility towards them. There are, though, striking exceptions, and it is typical of the way the war has been approached that some historians choose to emphasise the divergences rather than the norm. Officers, in particular, often admired the Germans’ sense of discipline and duty. In October 1914 Lieutenant Billy Congreve searched the bodies of Germans who had been killed attacking Gordon Highlanders.
A good many of them had been bayoneted. Horrid wounds our bayonets make, and these Germans must have put up a good fight. It is all rot the stuff one reads in the papers about the inferiority of the German soldiers to ours. If anything the German is the better, for though we undoubtedly are the more dogged and impossible to beat, they are the more highly disciplined.131
‘Newspaper libels on Fritz’s courage and efficiency were resented by all trench-soldiers of experience,’ maintained Graves.132 ‘Had we but had NCOs like the Germans,’ argued Alan Hanbury Sparrow, ‘we could have built dugouts like the Germans and saved countless casualties’. He thought that their high standard of pre-war training meant that the Germans could use NCOs where the British had to use officers, and so ‘thousands of promising young officers were killed doing lance-corporal’s work’.133
In part this did indeed reflect the fact that the German army was a conscript force structured for major war. In part, too, it reflected the fact that German senior NCOs often commanded platoons and acted as seconds in command of companies.134 (In the late 1930s the British sought to imitate the German practice by introducing the rank of warrant officer Class 3 – warrant officer platoon commander – but it was not generally a success and the project was speedily abandoned.) There was wide agreement that British troops, even in very good battalions like 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, generally required the presence of an officer to make them stand. When the British lost control of High Wood on 14 July 1916 it was partly because some of the men in scattered units drifted back, ‘not demoralised, just leaderless’.135 In contrast, the German infantry mopping up one flank of the wood were commanded by an NCO, as humanitarian as he was brave. He marched the prisoners his detachment took to the rear, and: ‘About two miles back he halted them at a canteen, went in and bought a box of cigarettes and a bottle of brandy; each prisoner was given six or seven cigarettes and a pull at the bottle.’136 A month later Lieutenant Stormont Gibbs reflected of another failed attack that:
It seems hardly credible anyhow for Suffolk yokels to get as far as an objective with at the most two officers -who were both probably wounded … It may be suggested that the sergeants and other NCOs should have held the men together. But the suggestion would not come from anyone aware of the ineffectiveness of the average NCO under shell-fire. There are exceptions – and then they ought to be officers. This may only apply in the infantry where promotion is so rapid owing to continual casualties. It may also apply to ‘regulars’. Our high-class parade-ground company sergeant major, an old regular soldier, could not be taken into the line or he inspired panic.137
In May 1917 a British attack on Tunnel Trench in the Hindenburg line narrowly failed. One experienced sergeant blamed ‘panic among men without enough training and discipline’, and another said that success ‘only wanted running forward instead of running away’: it was significant that 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers had only one unwounded officer in action.138 In an earlier action a sergeant reported that things got out of hand when his platoon commander was killed (knifed as he went for three Germans) and the men rather lost heart: ‘If there had been an officer about it would have been all right, someone to give an order and take no back-chat.’139 Corporal Fred Hodges was inclined to agree. ‘The Germans were always referred to by us as “Jerry bastards” but we all respected their courage, professional skill and determination,’ he wrote. ‘Their NCOs, and some of their private soldiers, displayed great initiative; more, I sometimes thought, than we did when not being led by a determined officer.’140
The problem also reflected the British army’s reluctance, rooted deep in its history, to give NCOs wide responsibility out of the line. Sidney Rogerson’s Company Sergeant Major, Scott, was:
Quiet-voiced, phlegmatic to a degree, with sandy hair, ruddy face, and blue eyes… the antithesis of the bellowing warrant officer beloved by cartoonists. A man of considerable education and marked gentleness of manner, he got results by the affectionate regard in which he was held by officers and men rather than by obvious resort to discipline.141
Scott was commissioned, captured towards the end of the war, but killed fighting the IRA in Dublin immediately after it. For all Scott’s evident quality, when Rogerson allowed him to issue rum to the company after it emerged from the line, Lieutenant Colonel James Jack rebuked him for permitting it without an officer present. Yet when the battalion had to be moved by rail, the business of entraining was left to the regimental sergeant major and the company sergeant majors working on the adjutant’s direction. British NCOs and warrant officers were expected to get on with a wide range of purely mechanical tasks, and the army could not have been run without them: they never enjoyed the executive authority of the Unteroffiziere mit Portepee on the other side.
But who can doubt the potential of the best of them? Edmund Blunden paid handsome tribute to Company Sergeant Major Lee, ‘tall, blasphemous and brave’.142 Siegfried Sassoon affirmed that: ‘CSMs were the hardest worked men in the infantry; everything depended on them, and if anyone deserved a KCB it was a good CSM.’143 Arthur Behrend wrote with affection of ‘the excellent sergeant major’. When a shed full of reinforcements was hit by a shell (they were killed before they had formally joined the brigade and appeared on its ration strength, and Behrend soon had to deal with letters asking
A truly heroic figure. When he returned the first time the whole of the front of his chest and legs were scarlet with blood, the result of a German bomb bursting near him, and although he assured us that his wounds were only scratches, his appearance was quite terrifying… I would say that this corporal showed the most exemplary courage throughout this action, cheering-on and encouraging the wretched private soldiers who were helping him, and keeping the coolest of heads… this NCO’s actions must have been largely responsible for restoring the situation on this little bit of the front.145
There was often admiration at the way the enemy fought. When Norman Gladden’s comrades moved past a dead German, large and fully accoutred, who had been killed making a single-handed stand in an advance post, ‘a murmur of approbation went down the file, not, for once, for the death of an enemy but in admiration of a brave man’.146 In August 1918 William Carr, at thirty-one rather old for a gunner subaltern, was observing for his battery of 18-pounders.
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