The General Who Wept – Brasshats in Great War Books (A long essay in five parts)

Part I

One loyalty held true in the ranks of every army in the Great War, the institutional contempt of the fighting man for ‘the Staff’, those officers in charge of running the Great War as an important stage in their military careers – the ‘brasshats’. They were distinguished in the British Army by the red trimmings on their uniforms. Old sweats on the Western Front held open contempt for the ‘bloody red tabs’. The reservist fusilier, Frank Richards, author of the memoir Old Soldiers Never Die, spoke for many. ‘I never saw a general above the rank of brigadier-general in a front-line trench. The Brigadier that we used to have … used to pay us a lightning visit now and again on fine days, but he had no conception of what we were going through: he didn’t have to live in the trenches.’

They were fat, stupid bastards, those red-tabbed generals, swilling champagne in their chateaux headquarters, miles behind the lines.  Junior officers could be as contemptuous as their men. Alec Waugh, elder brother of the more famous Evelyn, served on the Western Front as a machine gunner before being taken prisoner in March, 1918. ‘Because of the immobility of the line, the higher commands were completely cut off from the men they led … During the eight months that I was in the line, I did not see a single officer over the rank of lieutenant colonel.’

The geographical separation between the trench hog and the brasshat was partly a question of ballistics. Roughly speaking, a man was behind the line, or ‘back’, when he was out of range of the enemy. Where the terrain offered natural shelter from artillery observation, it was possible for the back to be quite close to the ‘front’, measurable in yards rather than miles. Otherwise, the cushy life of the base wallahs was universally resented. Three miles behind the line it was possible to find those hardier species of French civilian attempting to turn a profit by offering café au lait, vin blanc and omelettes to the local garrison. These homely extras — plus the occasional glimpse of real, live women — lent a comforting suggestion of normality. ‘In the line’ meant lice and bully beef. Being ‘out of it’ meant pommes frites and the possibility of some mild flirtation. One subaltern, R.C. Sherriff, became famous after the War for a play that defined the ambiguities of the Western Front experience, Journey’s End.

It was first performed for two nights in December 1928, with the young Laurence Olivier starring as the protagonist, Stanhope, an infantry Captain whose sustaining middle class certainties disintegrate under the strain of duty. Journey’s End was an immediate triumph. Critics united in praising its sincerity and realism. Within weeks the play was back for a West End run that reached nearly 600 performances. Among the first night audience at the Savoy Theatre, January 21st, 1929, was the publisher Victor Gollancz. He sought out Sherriff in the interval and offered to publish his play immediately, as it stood. Within a year it had sold 175,000 copies in hard and soft-cover editions and had been translated or performed in 25 countries, including Germany. Later on, with Gollancz still hungry for the elusive best-selling English rival to All Quiet On The Western Front, he put out Journey’s End as a novel. It was a stinker. When padded out with a romantic sub-plot and circumstantial happenstance, the writing lost the psychological tension that had made it so compulsive in the theatre, where stagecraft contrived to emphasise a powerful sense of spatial and emotional claustrophobia.

All the action in Journey’s End takes place within the confines of a front-line dugout. The dialogue is set against the rumble of the guns. By the light of a candle, each soldier fights his individual battle. As Stanhope’s reserves of moral courage drain away he turns to whisky. His voice breaks. He becomes irritable and short-tempered. His own men recognise the symptoms and make allowances. What he can’t stand is the arrival of a new officer, straight from school and full of idealistic notions about the nobility of War. This is Raleigh, the younger brother of Stanhope’s pre-War fiancee. Raleigh has wangled a transfer to Stanhope’s company because he idolised him as a schoolboy cricketer and because he has heard how much Stanhope is admired by his men.

Writing about the play years afterwards, in a volume of essays called Promise Of Greatness, (Cassell,1968) Sherriff described Journey’s End as an attempt to show the tragic contrast between the dutiful junior officer and the muddled brasshat.

‘The general had lost all personal touch with the common soldier. He lived in a remote French chateau miles behind the line. The soldiers never saw him, never even knew his name. If some of them had come around the trenches, talked to the men in their dugouts, made them realize that they all were in it together, then they might have become legendary heroes, as men like Montgomery and Alexander became to the soldiers of the Second World War. As it was, the generals gave nothing to the common soldier to gain his respect or affection. They were a menace lurking in the background, always concocting a new devil’s brew with the same old poisonous ingredients.’

Sherriff said he intended Journey’s End to be an honest tribute to the English public school boy. As an idealistic subaltern himself (rejected at his first attempt to secure a commission because he had gone to a grammar school rather than a public school) Sherriff was contemptuous of the higher command.

‘We lost, I am sure, far more men than the Germans did. The German command had organized the structure of deep dugouts in which the men off duty could rest in peace and safety. But the British command had no use for deep dugouts. They considered them contrary to the offensive spirit … I was in and out of the front-line trenches for a year and saw a general only once. That was on a day when the divisional commander came around. It happened that we had been through a bad night of continuous shell and mortar fire. We were very tired and dirty, and there was something incongruous, almost ludicrous, in the sight of that extraordinary old man, beautifully spruced up in his well-cut tunic, riding breeches, and immaculately polished boots. He had rows of medal ribbons from past campaigns, a light-blue armlet, and the emblem of his rank emblazoned upon his polished tin hat. He looked like a man on his way to a fancy dress party. He stopped and glared fiercely at me. I remember he had a lot of hairs bristling in his nostrils. He fixed me with his eyes as if to instil a bit more offensive spirit in me and went on without a word … Such episodes like this built up in the minds of the fighting soldiers a conviction that the generals cared nothing about the war that the rank and file were fighting and were running their own exclusive war of fantasy, dragging in the fighting men as pawns and cannon fodder.’

The Brigadier-General was a cowardly skunk. The Major-General was an over-dressed queen. Nor was the Lieutenant-General any better. He was a pen-pusher, according to the Guards subaltern, Oliver Lyttelton.

‘Corps commanders settled into their chateaux like freeholders, not temporary tenants … paperwork grew comfortably under the military version of Parkinson’s Law. No esprit de corps could be built up: none of the troops knew to which corps they belonged. Furthermore, this static bureaucracy got out of touch with the troops and the conditions under which they lived, fought and died. In all my time I only ever saw one corps commander further up than Brigade H.Q. : he was Sir Julian Byng.’

Installed in their comfy quarters, invigorated by the fine wines they found in the cellars, the English generals blundered on, year after year, moving coloured pins around their maps with no thought to the human cost of their actions. Byng, in fact, appears more than once in Great War memoirs as an honourable exception.

‘I developed a nasty boil on the nape of my neck,’ says machine gunner George Coppard, in With A Machine Gun To Cambrai, ‘and went to the first-aid post to get it lanced. There was no sticking plaster available and, owing to the awkward position of the boil, I was bandaged around the neck, jaws and forehead. It looked as though my head had been blown off … suddenly I ran into a party of staff officers accompanying Sir Julian Byng, G-O-C the Third Army, on a tour of inspection. I wondered if I was seeing things. When about to pass by me, the General, noticing my bandaged head, stopped and said to me, “Are you wounded?” I replied, “No sir”. “Boils?” queried the General. “Yes sir,” I said, hoping that he, in an expansive mood, would wave a hand and say, “Send this man down to reserve for a couple of days’ rest.” I had no such luck. “Beastly things. I’ve had them myself,” he said, and with that the General and his entourage moved on.’

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Part II

Blinkered by years of rigid conformity, the English generals and their staffs blundered on from year to year, creating mayhem and disaster for the troops following their orders. Cavarlymen were the worst. They thought more of their horses than they did of their men. To mark the eightieth anniversary of the Armistice the London Daily Express devoted an entire front page to a diatribe against the chief British brasshat of the Great War, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, master bungler and cavalryman par excellence. Haig’s claim to fame, according to the Express, was to have led one million ‘magnificent, doomed men’ to their deaths.

‘The modern generation of military historians believes that hundreds of thousands of soldiers died needlessly as a result of Haig’s orders … We believe that Earl Haig, and his blinkered view of strategy and tactics, bears a heavy responsibility for those deaths. We do not question his patriotism. But we doubt his judgment and his humanity. There is one further charge against the Field Marshal: He did not share the sufferings and depravations [sic] of his troops. British soldiers endured a miserable existence in the rat-infested trenches while Field Marshal Haig and his staff lived a life of luxury in a chateau far behind the lines. Compare his insensitivity to the action of a truly great general, the Duke of Wellington. On the night of Waterloo, he slept on the floor so that a dying member of his staff could have his bed.’

Four generations on from 1914-1918, the vilification of England’s Great War generals shows no sign of cooling. Each celebration of the Armistice is taken as another opportunity to castigate the brass hats’ ineptitude and callousness. Every couple of years some thoughtful re-assessment is published, pointing out, with supporting facts and figures, how well most generals managed in difficult circumstances, how hard they worked, how quickly they learned and how doggedly they stuck to their task of defeating the Imperial German Army with improvised armies of volunteers and conscripts. None of it seems to have made the slightest difference. When things go tragically wrong, as they frequently must in warfare, the court of public opinion seems disinclined to accept bad luck or honest ignorance as a plea of mitigation; there must be some contributory viciousness or a failure of integrity involved. Which is why the Daily Express ended by calling for Haig’s statue to be removed, since it was an insult to the memory of the Fallen.

‘The gaps were occasionally there for the infantry to go forward, but the yeoman farmers and country gentlemen in uniform had the antique vision of galloping through on their horses to finish off the Germans with swords and lances! They couldn’t leave such ‘glory’ to the lower-class craftsmen and clerks and slum dwellers. The elite of the army, the cavalry, must have its turn … But the infantry made a big mistake when they broke open the German defences. They did not carry with them boxes of live foxes, to be released at the right moment so that the fox-hunting cavalry commanders champing in the fields behind could begin a wild, tally-hoing, unstoppable chase …’

The late working class English novelist Alan Sillitoe wrote two good books about the working class — Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner — but his pet theories about the Great War make embarrassing reading.

‘If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the British class war was fought out on the Western Front with real shells and bullets. The old men of the upper classes won by throwing the best possible material into the slaughter, including their own high-spirited and idealistic young … It was perhaps the last viciously competent task that the British upper class was to perform, and it is from the Great War that the drift between officers and men, governing and governed, between those lavish with the blood of others, and those frugal with the rich life they saw themselves on the point of beginning to enjoy, really began. Before 1914 a unity could have been possible, and the men might then have tried it. Joining up to fight was, in a sense, their way of saying yes, but the old men used this affirmation to try and finish them off.’

Forget about the German Empire’s fear of encirclement. Forget the rivalries of colonial expansion, the naval arms race of the Dreadnought era, the Schlieffen plan and the pre-meditated German invasion of Belgium. The Great War was contrived to prevent a revolution by the English workers, a convenient pretext for the fox-hunting squirearchy to do down the slum dwellers once and for all.

Sillitoe described his slim volume of almost-autobiography, Raw Material, as ‘neither quite fiction nor non-fiction, but a mish-mash of fact, and an artefact of fiction’. The book’s tough characters and ripe dialogue come from Sillitoe’s memories of his working class family but the most important relationship in the book is between the adult Sillitoe and his accumulated feelings about the Great War. The adjective ‘raw’ — as of an unhealed scar — refers to those feelings. The War was a crime against the working man and especially against the working men of Nottingham. Sillitoe could neither forget nor forgive nor could he keep silent.

‘The masses who joined up were people who had been perfected by more than a century of the Industrial Revolution. In one sense they were indeed the flower of mankind: intelligent, technically minded, and literate, men of a sensibility whose loss sent England as a country into a long decline. When they died, as nearly a million did, they took their skills with them.’

We should respect Sillitoe’s rage, but suspect his analysis. Raw Material begins with a boyhood memory of a man who sat each day in a niche of Nottingham Cathedral selling matches. He had no legs, this match seller, and no-one could agree on how he’d lost them. Sillitoe’s mother said he’d been run over by a tram; his grandfather said he’d been born that way and was a shirker; his father said his legs had been blown off at the Battle of the Somme. However it happened, the legless match-seller was too arresting for the writer to ignore as a personification of futility and waste. Sillitoe’s loyalty to his feelings obscures the historical facts. There were many dead of the British Empire at the close of 1918 but there was no lost generation. As far as numbers of population were concerned, Britain suffered fewer losses in the Great War than the other belligerents and it recovered quite quickly after 1918. Within the total number of British dead — just short of one-million as Sillitoe correctly states — the upper and middle classes suffered in due proportion to the working class. The squirearchy of was maimed as badly as the industrial proletariat. And what the War didn’t accomplish, taxation did. Within ten years of the Armistice a quarter of the acreage of England and Wales had changed hands. The gentry’s estates were broken up and sold off to tenant farmers.

That other literary champion of the working man, J.B.Priestley, echoes Sillitoe almost exactly in his own almost-autobiography, Margin Released, published in 1962. Priestley served as an infantry Private on the Western Front before being promoted from the ranks.

‘It was not the danger, which might easily have been worse … but the conditions in which the lower ranks of the infantry were condemned to exist month after month, worse conditions than the Germans and the French ever knew except briefly in battle, that drained away health, energy, spirit and with them any real confidence in those cavalry captains, back in the chateaux, who saw themselves as generals fit for high command. They tell me Passchendaele in ’17 was worse still – I was never there, thank God – and now I believe the Army ought to have turned on Haig and his friends and sent them home. Even without the negotiated peace we ought to have had in 1916, we could have saved half a million British lives if we had handed the whole mess over to a few men from Imperial Chemicals, Lever Brothers or Lyons and Co … The British Army never saw itself as a citizens’ army. It behaved as if a small gentlemanly officer class still had to make soldiers out of under-gardeners’ runaway sons and slum lads known to the police. These fellows had to be kept up to scratch. Let ‘em get slack, they’d soon be a rabble again. So where the Germans and French would hold a bad front line with the minimum of men, allowing the majority to get some rest, the British command would pack men into rotten trenches, start something to keep up their morale, pile up casualties and drive the survivors to despair … The tradition of an officer class, defying both imagination and common sense, killed most of my friends as surely as if those cavalry generals had come out of their chateaux with polo mallets and beaten their brains out. Call this class prejuidice if you like, so long as you remember … that I went into that war without any such prejudice, free of any class feeling. No doubt I came out of it with a chip on my shoulder; a big, heavy chip, probably some friend’s thigh bone.’

Rave on, rave on against the generals and the posh folk, those pampered parasites of the established order who sent you out to do or die. Rave on against the conspiracy of the ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots’ that still lacerates our sense of right and wrong. Workers of the world unite. Pull down that statue in Whitehall of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, ‘Britain’s number one war criminal’.

There’s no point arguing against feelings with facts. Most Great War generals on the British side were not cavalrymen. They set up their headquarters in chateaux behind the lines because they were the most sensible places for establishing command and control over a wide area. Nor were they cowards. A total of 232 generals in the English armies became casualties during the Great War, 78 of them were killed in action. Such facts are of little use.

‘Nobody,’ says Mr Priestley, ‘will shift me from the belief, which I shall take to the grave, that the generation to which I belong, destroyed between 1914 and 1918, was a great generation, marvellous in its promise. This is not self praise, because those of us who are left know that we are the runts.’

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Part III

They were fine runts, the survivors of that generation, but they faced a real problem in the writing of their Great War books: none of them was in a position to give an accurate  conspectus. The Great War spread itself over too much of the world’s surface for generalisations about one theatre to apply in another. The man who fought in Mesopotamia or Salonika found himself in a completely different Great War from the man on the Western Front. The gunner’s War was different from the infantryman’s War. The captain saw things differently from the Private. And just as there were undoubtedly some nasty sergeants and stupid quartermasters so there were inevitably some nasty, stupid generals. There were also some very good ones. On November 20th, 1917, the commander of the Tank Corps, Brigadier-General Hugh Elles, did something uniquely Wellingtonian.

‘Throughout the whole of the war, on no matter what front, no general in command of any large body of troops ever led his troops into action. A general’s place during a modern battle is well in the rear. General Elles was the outstanding exception, but then he was a young man under forty, in charge of a young corps engaged in an entirely new form of warfare. His task was not to follow precedents but to create them … At ten minutes past six the tanks began to move forward in the semi-darkness, the infantry following quietly in single file. Ten minutes later a thousand guns opened out and a fierce barrage of high explosive and smoke shells descended like a hurricane on the German outpost line, 200 yards in front of the advancing tanks. Overhead squadrons of bombers boomed past, dropping their deadly eggs on German Headquarters and gun positions … The amazed Germans were completely overwhelmed. As scores of these monsters loomed up out of the mist, with their weird humps on their backs, the defenders of the line fled in panic, throwing away their arms and their equipment as they ran … The reserve line was soon overrun. Everywhere the enemy was streaming back in complete disorder. General Elles’ flagship, Hilda, having reached its objective, the general returned on foot to his headquarters, where, seated in his office, by aid of telephone and telegraph, he continued to conduct operations in a manner more in accordance with Field Service Regulations.’

A character like Elles could not but be liked by his men. The author of Tank Warfare: The Story Of The Tanks In The Great War, Francis Mitchell, says that as Elles led the charge into the Battle of Cambrai with his pennant flying every tank crew ‘swore not to betray his trust.’ As soon as Elles had made his point, however, he went back to his proper place. Once upon a time, in the days before tanks and the machine gun, it had been necessary for the general to lead in person, pennant flying, in order to win the trust of his men. In the Great War, all that was needed was a gesture of friendly interest. Richards sneered at his no-show Brigadier on page 92 of Old Soldiers Never Die but by page 280 the offending general had been replaced by someone much better and Richards was honest enough to admit his corresponding change of heart. ‘The Brigadier often used to visit the troops in the front line. He was called “Merry and Bright”. He was a decent old stick, and everybody seemed to like him.’

Being liked by his men helped the general, but it was not his  priority. His main aim was to win battles, or those bits of battles assigned to him. The good general — whether at Brigade, Divisional, Corps or Army level — took pains to look after his men because they were his only means for beating the enemy. When soldiers were looked after they fought better. Accepting that the distribution of stupid or arrogant men in the English higher command was approximately the same as their distribution in the ranks, there must have been some averagely good generals around, or how could the Great War have been won?

The writer who did most to defend such arguments was Charles Carrington. His first book,  A Subaltern’s War, had the misfortune to be published in 1929 when the competition was at its most intense. It was re-printed twice, then virtually disappeared for three decades. When the book was re-issued in 1964, Carrington wrote an introduction explaining what he thought had gone wrong.

‘The proud, dogged, tense spirit of the soldiers of 1918 did not at all resemble the image in which they have been represented. Most of the war-books which attained such popularity ten or twelve years later, with the honourable exceptions I have mentioned [Sassoon and Graves], were written by non-combattants who observed the war externally from behind. Two books by reputed American authors, Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms and Cumming’s [sic] Enormous Room, may be quoted as samples of the low morale that prevailed behind the lines. Both are books about men with safe assignments far out of danger, “cushy jobs” as we called them in those days, who decided to shirk, and boasted of their moral failure … None of the books I have mentioned had one tenth of the effect of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the best-seller in most western countries in 1928 and 1929. I notice that I then described it as a “highly coloured romance” about “disgusting and contemptible characters”. It does not lack interest as a classic example of what can be done to float an inferior article into popularity by a world-wide publicity campaign … All Quiet satisfied the demand of readers in 1929 for dirt about the First World War, during the anti-militarist reaction that broke surface ten or twelve years after the War had ended. But the mood of 1929 was quite unlike the mood of 1917, and the enthusiasm of post-war civilians for Herr Remarque’s best-seller was not widely shared by ex-soldiers who, if they applied their critical faculty, could hardly fail to notice that this author knew all about “wangling” and “scrim-shanking” and looting in the back areas but became less convincing, the nearer he drew to the battlefield. One was left with a lingering doubt whether he had ever been there. It was a book about the rear, not the front.’

A Subaltern’s War exemplifies the ‘phlegmatic objectivity’ identified by Guy Chapman as the distinguishing characteristic of the best Great War books in English. Carrington, writing under his pseudonym Charles Edmonds, never uses a fancy word when a plain Anglo-Saxon monosyllable will do. His stated purpose in writing was to discharge his memory — ‘adding nothing and omitting nothing’ — of the two big battles in which he fought, the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele, 1917. He does not seek to record ‘impressions’ but to account for ‘how a young soldier spent his time’. The first draft was begun in 1919 but the book was not finally published until 1929.

‘In these times when reticence is out of fashion it seems strange that I was deterred from publication for ten years by unwillingness to commit the indecent exposure of describing my own feelings … My book was heavily reviewed in Britain and in America, and was even trounced by some critics on the grounds that I was a brutal unfeeling militarist. This, I own, astonished me … Young soldiers who enlisted without expecting hardships and danger must have been foolish indeed; and any who misjudged the nature of army life were quickly introduced to the realities of the situation by the old soldiers. It can only have been a very stupid, insensitive, young man who did not concentrate his mind, sometimes during the long months of military training, on blood and wounds. We were pretty well prepared for the horrors of war by the time we came to face them, and though, for my part, I have never been able to work the Battle of the Somme out of my mental system, nothing happened to me there which could be described as “disenchantment” or “disillusion”. It was what I had bargained for.’

Carrington believed it was unfortunate that the most skilful writers of Great War books were young men of his own age and background who had got more than they bargained for. They were inclined to be pacifist by nature and had been made liberal by their education. They were willing to fight but only cleanly, heroically and in an obviously just cause. Because of their heightened idealism they were more easily disturbed by the grosser realities of war than their more stolid contemporaries. Young men like Graves and Sassoon were not typical of their generation. Generally speaking, poets and novelists are not ordinary by temperament and outlook. A writer may be able to speak in the ‘voice of the many’, his livelihood may depend upon it, but the everyday voice in which he deals with his peers is likely to be idiosyncratic rather than typical. Graves, Sassoon, Hemingway and Remarque achieved success with their Great War books not only because they spoke compellingly of their particular experiences, nor because they were specially attuned to what the publishers and readers of the 1920’s were eager to buy, but because their books had undeniable literary merit. A talented writer is more likely to write a good war book than an average writer or a talented soldier. Carrington’s complaint was that a disproportionate number of good Great War books had been written by talented, atypical young men who by virtue of their sensitivities were destined to be disenchanted and disillusioned. Their literary success bequeathed a distorted view of the Great War to later generations. Writing in 1968, in an essay called Some Soldiers, he put the alternative view.

‘We may bore you with our anecdotage, but we don’t bore one another. If an outsider should crash one of our reunions, his imposture is revealed as soon as the conversation moves into the jargon of names and half-hints and allusions which cannot be counterfeited, which defy the interpretations given by young historians when they write about the First World War today … We have not suffered more than other men; we have not been struck harder blows by fate; we have not been more self-sacrificing; and are not more bloodthirsty. Our characteristic is that we were all put to the same test; all exposed our strength and weakness to the same public gaze; all, when young, rejected the illusions about life and death that some men nourish in old age … I never meet an “old sweat,” as we liked to describe ourselves, who accepts or enjoys the figure in which we are now presented, though it is useless – undignified – to protest. Just smile and make an old soldier’s wry joke when you see yourself on the television screen, agonised and woebegone, trudging from disaster to disaster, knee deep in moral as well as physical mud, hesitant about your purpose, submissive to a harsh, irrelevant discipline, mistrustful of your commanders. Is it any use to assert that it was not like that, and my dead friends were not like that, and the old cronies I met at reunions are not like that … Is it worthwhile to write once more about a subject on which a later generation has made up its mind?’

Carrington offers a corrective to the orthodox view of Great War brasshats but he was by no means an apologist. If he encountered a silly general, he described him.

‘On Sunday at Church Parade the whole brigade attended, and we were horrified to see how few were left of the two battalions which had “gone over the top” on July 1st. But this was not a melancholy occasion: it was enlivened by a speech from Lieutenant-General Sir – , of whom so many comic stories were current. He commanded the whole Army Corps of 80,000 men, and was a very great man indeed. Nothing irritates the soldier so much as heroics, for which this general was renowned. He strode into the midst of the brigade and poured forth such a wealth of what Stalky called “jelly-bellied flag-flapping” that our own general blushed for shame and the rear ranks shook with ill-concealed giggles. The great man retired convinced that he had made a good impression.’

Carrington served in the 5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment throughout the War. The Order of Battle for July 1st shows that the Fifth Warwicks were part of the 143rd Infantry Brigade, one of the three brigades comprising the 48th Division, which was one of the four Divisions comprising the VIII Army Corps. The ‘great man’ to whom Carrington refers with a tactful, non-defamatory dash was the commander of VIII Corps, Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston, a bungler in the classic mould known throughout the Army as ‘Hunter Bunter’. The reference to ‘our own general’ must therefore mean the commander of the 143rd Brigade, Brigadier-General B.C.Dent, or the commander of the 48th Division, Major-General Robert Fanshawe, of whom Carrington later wrote with complete approval.

‘He was about as unlike as one could be to that bloated figure, so dear to the funny men, the stereotype of a British general. A thin sandy-haired little fellow in his fifties, with a quiet pleasant voice, he often reminded me of Chaucer’s Knight. We called him Fanny, “and in his port he meek was as a maid” … He spent more days in the front line than any man in his command and always followed up the attack behind the leading troops, assuring questioners that it was the safest place in battle. He would drift unobtrusively into a trench, wearing an old raincoat over his decorations, would ply the sentry with chocolate or beef cubes, and would listen to complaints before making his comment … He never set his men impossible tasks, never fell into the classic error of generals in all armies of those days, the tendency to press on with an attack long after the opportunity of victory had slipped away. He and his brother, also a general, were knighted by the King on the field of battle, side by side, something that hadn’t happened since the Middle Ages.’

Carrington spoke of men as he found them, not excepting himself. He stuck to what he knew. He didn’t set out to re-write history. A Subaltern’s War speaks for a large number of men, perhaps a majority, who felt in maturity that their achievements in youth had been traduced by a wholesale mis-remembering of why the Great War had to be fought in the way it was — and why it had to be won. Carrington, Graves, Sassoon, et al wrote the books that were in them. If these books were bleak or angry or condemnatory, so be it. Writers were only partially responsible for the post-War mood of disenchantment and disillusion. Politicians were also to blame, and one of them in particular.

The Prime Minister from December 1916, until the end of the War was David Lloyd George, a Welsh wizard to his supporters, a charlatan to his enemies. His predecessor, Asquith, had been magisterial in style but indecisive in action. Lloyd George, by contrast, seemed to radiate energy and purpose. He was, to use a contemporary term of approbation, a man of great capacity. He brought urgency and determination to the leadership of the nation. He mobilised the workers, solved the munitions crisis, put new armies in the field and kept fractious allies together at home and abroad. Naturally, he had to go and spoil it all.  Lloyd George’s War Memoirs are scrupulous in awarding praise to those with the acuity to appreciate Lloyd George’s mastery and intolerant of scepticism, however honest. The index of the War Memoirs reveals a sustained loathing of Haig that goes far beyond the normal vindictiveness of a superannuated politician:

‘HAIG, FIELD MARSHAL, EARL … 50; his reputation founded on cavalry exploits… 323; failure of his strategy at the Somme … 366; insists on premature use of tanks … 477; pays tribute to Geddes work on transport but omits to mention Lloyd George’s part … 701; holds false opinions about German weakness … 866; his limited vision … 890; viciously resists Lloyd George’s attempts to get unity of command … 891; his stubborn mind transfixed on the Somme … 900; a planomaniac … 1240; obsessed with Passchendaele and optimistic as to military outlook … 1266; his plan strongly condemned by Foch … 1295; misleads Cabinet about Italian Front … 1296; misrepresents attitude of generals to Passchendaele … 1333; fails to appreciate value of tanks … 1423; incapable of changing his plans … 1610; his miscalculations … 1707-8; his conduct towards Fifth Army not strictly honourable … 1719-20; his unwise staff appointments … 1865; helps to make Smuts pessimistic … 1867; launches successful attack of 8/8/18 but fails to follow it up …2011-31; his censorious criticisms of his associates … 2011; Lloyd George had no personal quarrel with … 2015; the two documents that prove his incapacity … 2016; liked his associates to be silent and gentlemanly … 2019; his diaries contain no acknowledgement of Lloyd George’s work in production of men and munitions … 2023-4; his attempt to shirk blame for March, 1918, defeat …2036-7; his cavalry obsession … 2038; only took part in two battles during War … 2041; no conspicuous officer better qualified for highest command than, 2042.’

It took longer for Lloyd George to write his memoirs of the Great War — five years — than it did for the British Armies fighting under Haig to win it. Each of the two massive volumes in the cheap edition of 1936 is as thick as a brick. They contain barely a single good word for Sir Douglas Haig, even though, as Lloyd George concluded for himself, there was no conspicuous officer better qualified for the position he held. If they are taken at face value, the War Memoirs comprise a most savage indictment and they have had a permanently damaging effect. As Britain’s war-time leader, Lloyd George spoke with unrivaled authority. Apart from the official historians, no-one had access to a better archive and he made full (if selective) use of the documentation. Lloyd George made it acceptable not just to criticise the brasshats but to heap contumely upon them. In his extensive chapter on Passchendaele, 1917, he surpassed his impassioned best.

‘Artillery became bogged, tanks stuck in the mire, unwounded men by the hundreds and wounded men by the thousands sank beyond recovery into the filth. It is a comment upon the intelligence with which the whole plan had been conceived and prepared, that after the [Passchendaele] ridge had been reached it was an essential part of the plan that masses of cavalry were intended to thunder across this impassable bog to complete the rout of the fleeing enemy. For months hundreds of thousands of British troops fought through this slough. They sheltered and they slept in mud-holes. When they squelched along, they were shot down into the slush; if wounded they were drowned in the slime: but the survivors still crept and dragged onward for four months from shell-hole to shell-hole, with their rifles and machine-guns choked with Flemish ooze, advancing about a mile a month. It was a tragedy of heroic endurance enacted in mud, and the British Press rang with praises of the ruthless courage, untiring calm and undaunted tenacity – of the Commander-in-Chief! It was not the fault of the newspapers. The truth was carefully eliminated from official communiques and Press dispatches from the front. There was a relentless and clever censorship exercised … Never had there been such a deluge of explosives. It poured for forty days and forty nights, without a moment’s cease. It is computed that during this time we fired 25,000,000 shells. Never had there been a more persistent indifference to losses in men and officers. Our men advanced against the most terrible machine-gun fire ever directed against troops in any series of battles, and they fell by the thousands in every attack. But divisions were sent on time after time to face the same slaughter in their ranks, and they always did their intrepid best to obey the fatuous orders. When divisions were exhausted or decimated, there were plenty of others to take their places … We still went on hammering, making some apparent, but no real progress except in the dispatches from the front. These rang out peal after peal of swelling triumph.’

The War Memoirs were first published in six volumes. By the time Lloyd George was finishing the final instalments, he had begun to receive letters from readers of the earlier ones. He collected many of these and published them later as an Appendix to his chapters on the Battle of Passchendaele. To any hater of the English brass hats these excerpts must have seemed irrefutably authoritative confirmation of their deepest convictions.

‘The conditions were impossible – no Staff Officer was ever to be seen near the front line, the sheer hopelesness and slaughter shook the morale of every man who took part. The generals responsible for prolonging the fight should have been shot’ (From an ex-Captain.) ‘May I congratulate you on your exposure of the Passchendaele affair, and on turning the searchlight of truth on to Haig’s military reputation. I have been delighted to see confirmed the opinion I always held about him, that he was a man of rigid ideas, devoid of all imagination and therefore of all inspiration …’ (From a Major.) ‘It was quite obvious that G.H.Q. were wholly ignorant of the conditions prevailing at the front. Everywhere I went the junior officers, N.C.O’s and men were very bitter and contemptuous of G.H.Q. and complained that they had never seen a staff-officer or even a senior officer at the front.’ (From an Officer with a D.S.O.) ‘Bravo! As one of the survivors of the Passchendaele massacre I should like to add my testimony to the remarks in your recent publication. It is as a breath of fresh air, dispersing the fug and fog of hypocrisy and deception. Every front line man knows full well that what you have said is more than the truth, and that you have let off lightly those responsible for such criminal folly.’’(From a Private.) ‘I take this opportunity of congratulating you on your fearless exposures of the horors and blunders of the war. As a young Highland lad I soon had my eyes opened as to what a ghastly business war is where man is brought below the level of the beast. I served at Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme where it was obvious to even the soldiers in the trenches that blunders were committed with unnecessary loss of life.’ (From an ex-Sergeant.) ‘I suppose you have noticed the type of man who defends Haig and justifies Passchendaele. Again, had Haig learnt nothing from the ghastly failures of Neuve Chapelle, Loos and the Somme? I took part in all these engagements and every one a hideous blunder and satisfied only the vanity of an incompetent Staff … Let me assure you that your comments are more than justified.’ (From and ex-Serviceman, M.M.)

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Part IV

The name Passchendaele reeks of infamy. Writers of Great War books commonly note that its pronunciation in English sounds like the wickedest of ironies. Passion Dale = Valley of Love. But ‘Passion’ also refers us to the crucifixion of Christ and his weary ascent to the place of execution — Golgotha, a barren hilltop in the shape of a skull. The image of Christ toiling to his calvary was invoked explicitly by poets witnessing the laboured passage of English soldiers towards the firing line. As many again invoked the Pilgrim’s Progress of John Bunyan. His Slough of Despond was the Salient itself, the green dale of memory that had become a pit of nighmares. Bunyan’s Celestial City was the Passchendaele ridge, gateway to the paradise of open country, unattainable save to the chosen.

Tommy as Christ. Tommy as Pilgrim. The image of the English Private at Passchendaele speaks of his dedication and determination, and his submission to orders from above. Siegfried Sassoon recognised Him in The Redeemer: ‘He faced me, reeling in his weariness/ Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear./ I say that he was Christ …’. Herbert Read, writing in My Company, recognised the Son of God among his men: ‘My men, my modern Christs/ Your bloody agony confronts the world.’ Wilfred Owen genuflected to the Christ in all soldiers in his poem, At A Calvary Near The Ancre: ‘One ever hangs where shelled roads part./ In this war He too lost a limb,/ But his disciples hide apart;/ And now the Soldiers bear with Him.’

The painters too, those who served as war artists, found it impossible to avoid Christ’s presence. The crucifix and the crown of thorns — in the form of grave markers and barbed wire — intruded into every square yard of landscape. One official wart artist, the portraitist, Sir William Orpen, spent most of 1917 and 1918 on the Western Front and afterwards published a highly collectable book, part memoir and part picture album, called An Onlooker In France. It is dedicated with unembarrassed adoration to Tommy.

‘This book must not be considered as a serious work on life in France behind the lines … The only thought I wish to convey is my sincere thanks for the wonderful opportunity that was given to me to look on and see the fighting man, and to learn to revere and worship him – that is the only serious thing. I wish to express my worship and reverence to that gallant company, and to convey to those who are left my most sincere thanks …’

If the fighting man attained apotheosis through loyalty and suffering, his general too received a mark at Passchendaele — the stamp of calumny. If the bitter attrition of the Battle of the Somme was symbolised by the two enemies impaled on each other’s bayonets, the Battle of Passchendaele was personified by the general who wept.

Lloyd George visited GHQ during the Battle of Passchendale but he doesn’t mention meeting this staff officer who was to make such a powerful contribution to the mythology of the Great War. Lloyd George borrows him straight from Basil Liddell Hart’s A History Of The World War published in 1934.

‘ “Perhaps the most damning comment on the plan which plunged the British Army into this bath of mud and blood is contained in an incidental revelation of the remorse of one who was largely responsible for it. This highly-placed officer from General Headquarters was on his first visit to the battle front – at the end of the four months’ battle. Growing increasingly uneasy as the car approached the swamp-like edges of the battle area, he eventually burst into tears, crying, ‘Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?’ To which his companion replied that the ground was far worse ahead. If the exclamation was a credit to his heart it revealed on what a foundation of delusion and inexcusable ignorance his indomitable ‘offensiveness’ had been based.” ’

In a footnote to this quoted excerpt, Lloyd George offers the reader a further quotation — from Sir Douglas Haig’s chief Intelligence officer, Brigadier-General John Charteris.

‘General Charteris, in his published diary, records that on 9th August: “The front area now baffles description … it is just a sea of mud, churned up by shell-fire.” ’

The reason for this footnote appears obscure. Charteris has earned a questionable reputation among some military historians for the over-optimistic Intelligence assessments he routinely prepared for Haig’s consideration. On the evidence above, however, he appears to have been well aware of conditions on the battlefield. The campaign to take the Passchedaele ridge continued until November, 1917. If Charteris was already writing in August of the impossibly muddy conditions at the front he surely could not have been the general who was so taken aback that he wept when he drove up there ‘at the end of the four months’ battle.’

The American popular historian, Leon Wolff, identifies the general who wept as Haig’s Chief of Staff, Sir Launcelot Kiggell. In his best-seller of 1958, In Flanders Fields, Wolff dates the general’s fateful drive to November 7th, 1917.

‘The following day [ie. the day after the village of Passchendaele was finally captured, November 6th] Lieutenant-General Sir Launcelot Kiggell paid his first visit to the fighting zone. As his staff car lurched though the swampland and neared the battleground he became more and more agitated. Finally he burst into tears and muttered. “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” The man beside him, who had been through the campaign, replied tonelessly, “It’s worse further on up.” ’

Kiggell was a theoretical, bookish kind of general. He had earned his rank by the pen not the sword. He drove a desk at the War Office for many years and then became Commandant of the Army’s Staff College. He looked older than his years and was prone to poor health. He had never set foot on the Western Front when Haig took him on as Chief of Staff after his first choice for the post was vetoed in London. One of Kiggell’s erstwhile pupils, Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, described him as tall, gloomy and erudite.

‘His theory of war was to mass every available man, horse and gun on a single battlefield, and by the process of slow attrition wear down the enemy until his last reserves were exhausted and then annihilate him … [he] concocted Napoleonic battles on paper, which on the ground turned out to be slaughter-house dramas. He was essentially a cloistered soldier; he never went near a battle, and — if correctly reported — only once visited a battlefield, and then long after the battle had been fought.’

‘If correctly reported’ is a telling phrase here, allowing room for doubt. Kiggell was introspective by nature and was widely recognised by his colleagues at GHQ as suffering from severe stress and over-work during the final stages of the Passchendaele offensive. Charteris recognised it; Haig recognised it. As a soldier who’d risen to eminence without exercising field command, Kiggell had plenty of critics in the Army and he was well aware that he was not widely admired. It is understandable that he might have been in a vulnerable emotional state. But to burst into tears? In front of witnesses? An English Launcelot!? The respected Great War historian, John Terraine, takes the incident at face value in his 1963 biography of Haig.

‘Many people will be familiar with the story of how he burst into tears at the sight of the Passchendaele battlefield, exclaiming: “Good God! Did we really send men to fight in that?” Since Kiggell had every means of knowing what conditions were like throughout the battle, this emotional outburst is a clear proof that his nerves had suffered badly.’

Another equally respected Great War specialist, Paddy Griffith, describes Kiggell’s exclamation as apocryphal, explaining that ‘Kiggell was actually a much cleverer tactical commentator, in his own right, than has often been acknowledged. He was not merely Haig’s mouthpiece, and was surely very well aware of trench conditions before he “sent men into them”.’

There is no word from Kiggell to clarify the doubts. Within weeks of reportedly bursting into tears Kiggell was sent home for good. It wasn’t just his colleagues in the Army who had their suspicions about him, influential politicians were also hostile. Haig was given a new Chief of Staff and a new Chief of Intelligence for planning the campaigns of 1918. Kiggell faded from view entirely after the Battle of Passchendaele to reappear again, but only briefly, in 1954, the year he died at the age of 92. That was the year he was first named as the general who’d wept. The attribution came in a book called Tempestuous Journey by Frank Owen. It was the first full length biography of Lloyd George to be completed after his death and it was based on three years quarrying in the Welsh Wizard’s personal archive. Owen takes the orthodox ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of Passchendaele.

‘When General Kiggell, Haig’s Chief of Staff, paid his first visit to the scene of the shambles – after it was all over – he grew more and more restive and unhappy as his car approached this desolation. At last, he broke down, and wept. “Good God,” he sobbed. “Did we really send men to fight in that?” His companion, who had fought there, answered stonily: “It’s worse farther on up.” ’

Lidell Hart launched the myth in 1934 with his anonymous ‘highly placed staff officer’; Owen gave the myth a name twenty years later, when it was too late for Kiggell to deny it. Maybe he wouldn’t have denied it. Perhaps it was true. As Great War myths go, the general who wept feels as ‘right’ as the simultaneously bayoneted enemies in Mametz Wood. Both incidents are conceivable. The general who wept is too powerful a symbol of remorse for a writer of Great War books to want to disbelieve in him. Too good a symbol, also, for the hater of brass hats to ignore, since the tears of the general who wept, like those of Judas, offer a wholly inadequate gesture of attonement.

As with any myth, each writer remembering the weeping general feels the need to add a slight extra twist of mis-remembrance to the tale. Winston Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, wrote an excellent little book about men in combat called The Anatomy Of Courage, drawing extensively on his experiences as a young Medical Officer with a battlion of Royal Fusiliers on the Western Front. In discussing that often unpredictable moment at which a strong man breaks, he recalls something he once read, or was told, about the Battle of Passchendaele.

‘During the Battle of Passchendaele a very senior staff officer asked to be taken to the battlefield. His mind was saturated with all its details; his practised eye took in the scene. Suddenly he said to those with him “What is that stream there?” “That, sir,” said an officer pointing to the map, “is this road.” When the staff officer saw for the first time what he had asked his men to do, he broke down and wept bitterly.’

Dennis Wheatley remembers the general who wept in his autobiography The Time Has Come …. Except, again, what he actually writes is a mis-remembering of something he once read in Lloyd George’s Memoirs.

‘One day a Cabinet Minister who was visiting the Front lunched there [GHQ]. Afterwards the Tank Brigadier blew his top, told the minister about the appalling state of affairs up at the Front and declared that the battle ought to be called off. When the Minister had gone, Haig’s Chief-of-Staff, General Sir Archibald Murray, had the Brigadier on the mat and gave him hell for having dared to criticise the strategy of the Army High Command … The Brigadier protested he was right and asked the General to come up to the Front with him and see what it was like there for himself. Indicating his maps, Murray said his place was not at the Front but there, arranging the transfer of Divisions and so on; but at length he gave way to the Brigadier’s pleading. A Rolls was sent for; they drove up through the [sic] Ypres and as far as they could in the direction of St Julien. When they could go no further Sir Archibald Murray stared appalled at the endless sea of mud. Then he exclaimed, “Can we really have been sending men to attack across this!” And he burst into tears.’

Starting off as an anonymous staff officer, the general who wept took twenty years to acquire a name. As Sir Launcelot Kiggell he ‘sobbed’ and ‘burst into tears’ and ‘broke down’ for a further twenty years while his car ‘lurched through the swampland’ or ‘approached’ the battlefield of Passchendaele’. In 1934 he was ‘uneasy’ as he approached the combat zone; in 1954 he was ‘restive and unhappy’. In 1945 he acquired a retinue, with maps. By 1978 he had changed his name to Sir Archibald Murray and had traded in his ‘staff car’ for a ‘Rolls’.

It may be that quite a few generals of the English Army found occasion for tears at some point during the Great War. Even allowing for the military stiff upper lip it would be surprising for them all to have come through without a tremor of grief or lamentation. Sir Launcelot Kiggell may well have been such a one. Sir Douglas Haig was certainly not. He kept a detailed diary throughout the War and made sure that it was preserved by posting it at regular intervals to his wife. He had black moods and sad days but there is no mention of tears. He was in charge of the biggest Britsh military force ever assembled and he took the responsibility seriously. It was what he had trained himself for from the beginning of his professional career. Haig did not allow himself the luxury of expressing his feelings, although his stolid equanimity wobbled from time to time at moments of crisis and, like most generals, it was not unknown for him to be peevish or curt. But blub like a baby? Only in private, if ever.

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(To be concluded …)

Copyright in this and subsequent parts, Christopher Moore, 2014.

To browse for books by any writer whose works have been quoted, click here

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