Tommy, p.67Richard Holmes
In June 1916, an officer in the Rifle Brigade, enjoying egg and chips and a bottle of wine in a certain estaminet in Poperinghe, declared to his friends that it was as good a pub as Skindles in Maidenhead. The estaminet already
had a longish name painted on its front – Hôtel de la Bourse du Hoblon something or other – but no one took any notice of that. The British officers soon began to call it Skindles, and very soon the three rooms on the ground floor were crowded with tables, and the tables with bottles; and around the bottles … sat the British officers smoking, laughing, eating or waiting to eat, and shouting the name of Zoë, which was the name of the daughter of the ‘Mother of the Soldiers’, as madame was called. The officer of the Rifle Brigade was killed on the Somme a few weeks later, as were nearly all his friends; but others came, and vanished, and others after them; and many, many more stretched their booted and puttee’d legs under the tables and drank in the fug of tobacco smoke and laughter; until the guns were silent and the feet of men marching at night were rarely heard, and upon the ‘Mother of the Soldiers’ and her helpers fell a strange loneliness.297
NCOs and men found it hard to get to Amiens: indeed, the journey often involved a good deal of lorry-hopping even by officers. Poperinghe, closer to the front, and the railhead for units in the salient, was far easier. Many establishments were out of bounds to other ranks, and in any case there was a natural tendency for each to cleave to its own. Frank Richards maintained that a brief halt at Le Cateau in August 1914 was ‘the only time during the whole war that I saw officers and men buying food and drink in the same café’.298
Although the post-conscription influx of soldiers with private incomes meant that some could indeed afford to eat where they liked – one told an officer ‘I have independent means, sir, and am interested in agriculture’ – most would have sympathised with George Coppard when he declared: ‘My saddest memory of the war is my continual state of poverty.’299 The Reverend Andrew Clark, a vicar from Essex, heard soldiers complaining about their pay to a hymn-tune:
We are but little children weak
Who only earn eight bob a week
The more we work the more we may
It makes no difference to our pay.300
Soldiers were usually paid irregularly, in arrears: their paybooks, which had to be carried at all times, gave details of entitlements and stoppages. An officer designated to pay his unit drew the money from a field cashier, and soldiers were then paid in cash, in local currency, at a pay parade, signing an acquittance roll which the officer then used to support his original draft on the cashier. Or not, as the case may be. Officers were sometimes killed or wounded before they had the opportunity to submit the roll, and the Pay Department maintained a long guerrilla war against ex-officers well into the 1920s, trying, in the perennially mean-spirited way of such departments, to find out just how Mr Snodgrass managed to mislay 12 Platoon’s acquittance roll during the battle of the Somme: he must either furnish it, obtain signatures in lieu, or pay up.
A man might get less than his allotted pay because he was on stoppages – either to pay for lost kit or barrack damages, or because his pay was being docked for disciplinary reasons – and most soldiers made an ‘allotment’ which went straight to their families back home. Proficiency pay was added for soldiers who passed special courses, but when George Adams qualified as a machine-gunner in August 1915 he told his parents: ‘We have been told that we are entitled to an extra tanner [sixpence] a day as soon as we are proficient but I expect that will go the same way as proficiency pay for firing the rifle.’ He thought that he should now be on 1/8d a day, and felt ‘real goosy’ at the prospect of getting it. But he had been right in the first place: he received less than he expected, and was told to expect the balance of his pay in England ‘after this job out here is finished’. When he finished the course he was told that the machine-gunner’s qualification badge would cost him 1/9d (out of his pay) and so he asked his mother to run one up for him in white cotton on khaki instead.301 In addition, soldiers who had been well paid in civilian life became increasingly bitter about strikes in Britain and the wages received by munitions workers, now mainly women. The Reverend Clark noted in his diary with a note of disapproval how one munitions girl had apparently just spent 18/11d on a hat.
Most of the men looking for food and drink just behind the lines were thus usually short of cash, and found a wide range of estaminets which met their needs by providing the staple of egg and chips with white wine or (notoriously watery) beer for around 1 franc, a little under a shilling. Only officers were allowed to drink spirits, but many establishments were willing to bypass the ban by surreptitiously reinforcing the coffee (with much nodding, winking and franglais), though military police would sometimes burst into estaminets to sniff cups in search of spirits. Frank Richards and his mate Paddy celebrated the award of their DCMs by escaping to an out-of-bounds café, where ‘with vin blong, the gramophone playing, and two fair damsels to dance with, we were celebrating very well’. The fun was spoiled by the military police, ‘decent chaps’ but obliged to run them in because the APM was nearby, and eight days’ Field Punishment No. 1 was the outcome.302
While most estaminets were wholly respectable, with madame and daughters running front of house and monsieur toiling in the kitchen, others were less so. At the war’s end Frank Crozier found Margot, the pretty waitress at his favourite hotel in Boulogne, in floods of tears. Although, she said, she had ‘loved and been loved by many British officers during the hectic days’ she had fallen deeply in love with ‘a good-looking young British officer, son of a noble house, who – having slept with her on many occasions – promised to marry her’. She had just been jilted, and that very night she shot herself with a German pistol given her as a souvenir by a colonel.303 Such stories did not always have totally tragic endings. One officer knew, from censoring an NCO’s mail, that the man in question had a wife in England. But at the end of the war he announced that he would stay in France and ‘marry’ the proprietress of a nearby fish and chip shop, with whom he had a long-standing relationship.
And some estaminets had a good deal more than Pomfritz on offer, as Lance Corporal George Ashurst found in Armentières.
Drink flowed freely in the estaminets and cafés, and as the music and singing went on the boys danced with mademoiselles in the flimsiest of dresses, or flirted with them at the tables, using the most vulgar of expressions. All the evening Tommies could be seen either going to or coming from the girls’ rooms upstairs, queues actually forming on the stairs leading to these rooms.304
And then there were outright brothels where sex was the main item on the menu. These ranged from the establishments described by Gunner Aubrey Wade in the opening chapter, through Le Drapeau Blanc in Rouen – where several young officers on a draft conducted to the front by Robert Graves lost their virginity – to a decorous house behind the Somme battlefield whose beautiful and engaging ladies bore as little resemblance to the pale and overworked women of the notorious Rue des Bons Enfants in Armentières as a regular footguards battalion did to a down-on-its-luck pioneer battalion. Haig, an abstemious man, often used to stop at a café for a light lunch during visits to units or headquarters, and on one occasion selected this most up-market of bawdy houses. He remained wholly unaware of its real raison d’être, and the story caused huge delight.
Most soldiers of the old regular army had a vigorous interest in sex, and the likes of Frank Richards were usually prepared to engage a fleeting target at a moment’s notice. Wartime soldiers ranged from the determinedly moral to those who quickly discovered an appetite for casual sex which might have lain dormant but for the war. Patriotic girls in England were often happy to oblige departing warriors, and one of Eric Hiscock’s comrades, Corporal Thomas (his real name Reginald, but universally known as John), embarked upon a lifelong obsession after a barmaid from the Eagle and Child public house in Oxford slipped into his sentry box outside the Corn Exchange to make the U
For some the urgency grew in direct proportion to the danger, and one soldier’s lasting memory of going up the line of Second Ypres was of a young Highlander, kilt pulled up, making passionate love to a shopgirl. Arthur Osburn wisely observed that:
Plants and animals and men, when stress or privation threaten the extinction of their species, will hastily, even prematurely, ‘cast their seed’. That last fling by the young conscript in the brothels of Swansea or Havre before he went up to the shambles of Ypres was due to an instinctive urge: for the very young soldier it was probably his first fling, as it might be his last.305
The army’s wider sexuality was much more complex than the sort of smash and grab urgency displayed by so many. Sensitive men – and there were a good many throughout the army – valued women as a symbol of decency and peacetime normality. Sidney Rogerson thought that: ‘Women stood as a symbol of all that we were missing … The point is that the longing was sensuous as opposed to sensual.’ He noted how officers bought bath crystals, hair oil and pomade behind the lines because their squalid lives made them eager for the trappings of another world.306 In 1914–15 many young officers went from public school to the front with no opportunity to grow up in between. In peacetime married subalterns were rare, and even in mid-1916 there were often few married officers in the average company or battery mess. They were barraged with questions about how one actually went about sex, and for many a youngster the real question was whether it was best to ‘play the game and stay clean’ or, with death such a familiar friend, to lose their virginity before the reaper called. Charles Carrington went so far as to point to an ‘anxious obsession’ with sex amongst his comrades.
P. J. Campbell thought that the young men of his generation needed ‘love and laughter, occasional pleasures, affectionate comradeship always’. He was deeply smitten by a French girl whose long hair accidentally brushed against his hand in a shop, though that was as far as things went. On leave in Paris a major offered to find him a ‘safe, clean prostitute’ for 200 francs (at about £8, no mean outlay for an officer on 7/6d a day). He declined, but bought some postcards (probably of Kirtchners’ long-legged bestockinged beauties, such a favourite in officers’ messes) and pinned them to the wall of his dugout.
Many soldiers fell in love, or something very like it, with French or Belgian girls, and there were many wartime marriages. And there were British women in France in growing numbers, first nurses in the hospitals behind the front, and later the uniformed drivers of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. The WAAC drivers were sternly ordered to have nothing to do with officers: Crozier knew that he was contravening regulations when he gave lunch to Madge, wife of a brother officer: they agreed that as he was a general they might break the rules safely. But nurses and drivers alike were hotly, and by no means fruitlessly, pursued. When the well-regarded Captain Yates, quartermaster of 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, was looking for billets in La Panne in August 1917 he shone his torch into a doorway only to find:
two nurses, each with a squire in very close attendance. Yates was told to ‘get out’ … ‘I’m an officer, a lieutenant,’ said one of the squires. ‘Well,’ said Yates, in his diluted Lancashire, ‘I’m a captain, but I don’t want to spoil sport, just to find my billet.’307
Charles Carrington wondered whether ‘there is a homosexual element in esprit de corps? Was there a tendency to reject the notion of women’s society to derive an emotional satisfaction from a world of men only?’ There was certainly a powerful emotional undertow in the relationship between men. Captain Herbert Read looked at his company and thought of the day when the war would end and they would be separated for ever. He did not know ‘What time your life became mine,’ and reflected on the marches, nights in trenches, battles and ‘many acts and quiet observances’ that had brought him so close to his Yorkshire soldiers. And at the moment of parting:
I know that I’ll wander with a cry:
‘O beautiful men, O men I loved,
O whither are you gone, my company?’
It would be easy to misjudge the extraordinary tenderness that soldiers were capable of showing one another, but there was usually nothing physically sexual in such relationships. Alfred Hale observed that two old corporals in his tent slept together, and he thought nothing of it.
At the time homosexuality was an offence against civil and military law, and 8 officers and 153 soldiers were actually court-martialled for ‘indecency’ on active service during the war. Arthur Osburn maintained that some officers and men deliberately admitted to homosexuality in order to be court-martialled, for a conviction would result in two years’ imprisonment in a British prison. He heard one officer announce, in a crowded leave train: ‘I’ve had two years of the War, and that’s as much as I can stand. I intend to get out of it this time even if I have to arrange to be caught red-handed in someone else’s bunk!’308 Osburn, by then a lieutenant colonel, did nothing at the time, but when he mentioned it to the assistant provost marshal at Poperinghe the fellow shrugged his shoulders, for the ruse was already well known. In fact the number of courts martial for ‘indecency’ is surprisingly low. It reflects several facts. Firstly, some homosexual officers and men sublimated their desires, at what cost we will never know. Secondly, there was often a clear understanding that soldiers in monogamous relationships ought not to be penalised. David Jones wrote movingly of a homosexual couple in his company, and at the battle’s end how:
… Bates without Coldpepper
Digs like a Bunyan muck-raker for his weight of woe.309
And thirdly, it was often easy enough for officers to masturbate in a two-man room in a hut, or for private soldiers to do the same in the dark recesses of a tent or dugout. ‘Brook, Jackson and myself all had some homosexual tendencies,’ wrote Eric Hiscock, ‘and in the days and nights of stress we masturbated, but kisses on unshaven faces were rare, and then only at moments of acute danger.310 He was propositioned twice, once by an officer who victimised him for his refusal, and then by a middle-aged private on a leave train, who gave him 10 shillings to keep quiet about some sleepy fondling.
Hiscock gambled the 10 shillings playing crown and anchor on the boat back to England, and here he was in good company. Gambling was officially forbidden, but crown and anchor was as universal in the British army as the card game skat was in the German. The banker kept a cloth and die bearing crown, anchor, heart, club, spade and diamond. The cloth was spread, the die was rattled, and men were encouraged to step up and put their money on one of the symbols. An experienced crown and anchor man’s patter was a delight.
Come and put your money with the lucky old man. I touch the money, but I never touch the dice. Any more for the lucky old heart? Make it even on the lucky old heart: are you all done, gentlemen … Are you all done? … The diamond, meat-hook, and lucky old sergeant-major … Now, then, will anybody down on his luck put a little bit of snow [some silver] on the curse? Does anyone say a bit of snow on the old hook? Has no one thought of the pioneer’s tool? Are you all done, gentlemen? Are you all done? …311
Harry Ogle thought that crown and anchor men were ‘no ordinary men’, and that they must have begun early as ‘newspaper boys, then hangers-on, tipster’s boys, frequenters of back-alley precincts, fetch and carry boys on racecourses … Their patter was continuous, spoken with a voice always raucous, but untiring and effortless …’.312
Gambling went on in billets and estaminets, but it was generally unsafe in the great variety of canteens that sprang up in the rear areas. Ogle remembered Lady Egerton’s Coffee House at Rouen:
a large wooden hut which looked grim outside but inside was gay with the flags of all the allied nations, hanging from rafters and spars. There were men returning from leave, men from hospital and men in new drafts.
Then there were the bigger YMCA canteens, well stocked with provisions of all sorts for those who could afford them. In the autumn of 1916 a huge marquee appeared in Bazentin Wood, literally on the Somme battlefield:
The canteen had a trestle table-counter stacked with everything … that could be eaten or smoked or mixed for drinking. There were biscuits, slab cake, dates in fancy boxes, figs, chocolates and sweets, oranges, tins of sweetened milk, of cocoa, bottle of camp coffee … Hoe’s Sauce and Tomato Ketchup.314
And right at the other extreme were tiny, one-man establishments, often run by clergymen charging only cost price for their wares, in the very shadow of the front line. Rowland Feilding found one in an emplacement on the recently-taken Messines Ridge, run by a ‘fine sportsman’ who was ‘a Nonconformist minister. We shook hands and I congratulated him on his effort. For his cash-box he had a German machine-gun belt box.’315
If some pleasures, like sex and gambling, were either private or forbidden, others were officially organised, and it was here that the rich variety of the regimental system made itself felt. Regiments took pride in pushing the boat out on key anniversaries or national saints’ days, and particularly on Christmas Day, when it was an army tradition that the officers waited on the men. On Christmas Day 1917 the NCOs and men of 1/1st South Midland Field Ambulance sat down to a Christmas dinner of roast pork, cabbage, onions, potatoes, apple sauce, plum pudding, apples, oranges, wine and cigarettes. The printed menu proudly announced that the chef was ‘Lance Corporal Draycott’, and his assistants ‘Privates Hood and Raybould’.316 The year before the junior ranks of 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers had enjoyed soup, roast meat with potatoes, carrots, turnips and onions, plum pudding, with an apple or orange, and nuts. The sergeants had whisky, port and cigars in addition, and at 5.00 pm there was tea with cake, candied fruit and sweets, and a canteen-full of beer for every man. The officers, dining in company messes, did even better, with pâté de foie gras, curried prawns, roast goose, potatoes, cauliflower, plum pudding, anchovies on toast, and dessert, the whole lubricated with Veuve Cliquot, port, cognac, Benedictine and coffee. The Royal Welch made much of St David’s Day, Irish regiments paid vinous tribute to St Patrick, and the Scots duly celebrated St Andrew. On Minden Day, 1 August, the six Minden regiments celebrated the bravery of their forefathers, who had attacked a superior body of French cavalry in 1759. New traditions sat alongside old. In 1915 the London Scottish held an all-ranks lunch in a ruined factory in French Flanders to mark the anniversary of the regiment’s first battle at Messines the year before, and there was ‘Soup, Roast Beef, Plum Duff … also whisky for those that were inclined’.317
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