Without Machine Gun To Cambrai

Book Review: A Fool In France, by Christina Keith. Part One: The Daintiest of Tan Suede Shoes.

A publisher told me once: books come in two categories; those for men and those for women. Men buy books about Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill and war; women buy novels. Apart from books about cookery and cats, that’s the English market. Writers of men’s books saw the 2014 centenary of the Great War approaching well in time but, so far, few of their books have captured the public imagination, perhaps because too many of them hit the market in one go and too many of them look the same. Most publishers are not mavericks in the herd. Instead of giving us interesting new stories they prefer re-garnishing the old ones. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend every time. Lions led by donkeys; mud, blood and self-sacrifice; in Flanders fields the poppies grow, in industrially homogenised formats.

The best most useful way to mark the 1914 – 2014 centenary would be for publishers to admit their ignorance of the Great War’s already vast literature and to concede that most of the necessary books about 1914 – 1918 have been on the shelves for decades – books written by the men and women who fought it and paid for it. Publishers could then concentrate on re-publishing authentic Great War books that have fallen into obscurity, or rescuing from the archives worthwhile manuscripts and diaries that never made it into hard covers. A cade in point is A Fool In France, by Christina Keith.

Christina was an early blossom of that pre-Great War generation of young women determined to secure for herself a proper education. Born in Caithness in Scotland, she studied Classics first at Edinburgh University, from which she graduated in 1910, and then at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she qualified for a career in Academia. The outbreak of war in 1914 found her at Newcastle taking up her first post as a lecturer. Her brother immediately joined up but Christina had to stay watching from the sidelines as more and more of her male students enlisted for the cause, many never to return. Her own chance didn’t arrive until the summer of 1918 when the War Office in London contracted the YMCA to organise voluntary adult education classes for troops at the base depots in France.

A Fool In France is not the first book to reflect this particular aspect of life on the Western Front but it is the first one to reach readers in the form of a self-contained memoir. As such it is sharp-eyed, humane, funny, sad, un-ostentatious and convincing.

‘Not knowing in the least what I was going to do, where I was going, with only my telegram of summons, the uniform and a pink chiffon frock which, as a forlorn hope, I had packed at the last moment – I set forth.’

Christina was posted to the French port of Dieppe which by late 1918 had an English population larger than many British towns. Army camps, hutments, hospitals, warehouses, dumps and training grounds sprawled along the roads leading to the Front. Christina and her YMCA colleagues were kitted out in VAD-style uniforms and given a hotel as their headquarters. But hardly had they set up shop when the Armistice was declared. Thereafter soldiers from the Front flooded the base camps to be penned like cattle while awaiting demobilisation. For many of them, Christina Keith was the first Englishwoman they had seen in months.

‘The delightfulness of Camp life – as any woman would understand – lay largely in the fact that you were the only woman there. You interviewed the General – if you were ‘Miss Mordaunt’ – for a hut for your classes, and on the same condition, you got it. If you were a male instructor, you only reached the Brigade Major, who might possibly promise you a hut in the dim future …’

Christina reports how one colleague, the dark-haired, white-faced and fascinating ‘Miss Circe’, arrived at her first camp ‘in the daintiest of tan suede shoes, fresh from Bond Street. Consequently after one day, her feet had crocked. The Principal Medical Officer spent most of the morning bathing them, while the Camp Commandant’s entire Staff was occupied in amusing the lady for the rest of the day.’ Henceforth, we are told, all women joining the education service were ordered to abjure all footwear except ‘boots of the heaviest pattern’.

Having gone to France to teach Latin, Greek and classical culture, Christina had to adapt her syllabus to wha the demobilised Tommy wanted to learn, usually something that might be useful in the search for a job in Civvy Street. Arithmetic, book-keeping, shorthand and How To Write Letters all came near the top of the list. Christina also found herself teaching Spanish and Italian although she couldn’t speak a word of either. No one cared. The opportunity to talk with a proper Englishwoman [sic] was boon enough for these woman-starved officers and men. “Fact is, Miss,” she was told, “we don’t want to learn nothink here, we don’t. Not but what we’d like to see you, Miss, every Saturday night when the car comes.” The weedy male lecturer who tried smuggling lectures on Socialism onto the curriculum was soon sent packing.

As a newcomer to the War so late in the game, Christina saw and wrote about things that others left out of their Great War books. She was on hand when one of the first boats arrived bringing home the rapatries – French civilians who had endured four years of oppression under German occupation in cities like Lille and Douai.

‘One day, as I was going with a wee French baby in my arms in the procession, we met a lorry load of Boche prisoners going back to their camp. The rapatries were afoot, dispirited, dog-tired – as despairing as human beings can be. The Boche prisoners were well fed, in good condition, in the prime of life. And their lorry went superbly well. But if it had been a Rolls Royce itself it would not have got past the rapatries … [They] threw down their bundles, swarmed up on the lorry and in a moment were at the throats of the Boches. A low growl of hate – more like the growl of an animal than of a human being – ran along their lines … Stones hurled through the air, curses fell thick and fast, yet the rapatries by and large were long past fighting age – mere human skeletons. The Boches cowered in their lorry and sought in vain for an escape. It was an ugly moment, and if it had not been for our own soldiers, coaxing here, diverting there, I don’t know what might have happened.’

Throughout their months lecturing in the demobilisation camps, Christina and her female colleagues were desperate to get the Front. The Base was colourful, exciting, full of French and English activity, but it wasn’t the real War. It was the trenches, the immortalised devastated zone, that exerted maximum fascination. It took several weeks of wangling and all of Christina’s new found expertise as a flirt to secure the official passes that finally got her and her companion, ‘the Hut Lady’, onto the train and up the line.

Their objective was to see at least some of the ground fought over and won by the 51st (Highland Division) in which the Seaforth Highlanders, men from Caithness, had served. To give herself the best possible chance, Christina had decided to head for Cambrai, the furthest limit of the standard gauge rail track in 1918.

“There’s nothing to see at Cambrai,” said the RTO [Railway Transport Officer, the man in charge of issuing passes for precious seats on trains]. “ You’d much better go to Roisel.”

“Oh thank you,” murmured Christina. “And what do we see there?”

“Devastation,” replied the RTO with blank and fathom-less eyes. “Lots of it. That’s what you want isn’t it?”

“That’s what I want,” confirmed Christina ; and she was not disappointed.

‘As we drew nearer Cambrai, leaving Gouzeaucourt behind us, every inch almost seemed to have its story to tell. But it was the constant sight of gaping shell holes choked with filthy water, of abandoned tanks, of wrecked lorries and of pitted ground that remained most clearly with me … One of the officers [with whom Christina was sharing a compartment] pointed out a deep smudge on the horizon. “That is Bourlon Wood” he said briefly. “You have probably heard of that.” Even now I can see its grim blackness flickering in the distance …’

Christina and the Hut Lady were the first tourists to reach Cambrai since the German retreat.

‘The first thing I noticed was the direction posts still in German. ‘Nach Bapaume’, ‘Nach Arras’, and further instructions on how to get to the principal places in the town. “There is electric light here,” I said in amazement, as we picked our way down one of the streets … “Oh yes,” said my companion [a polite English officer]. “The Boche put all that in, you know. Very methodical is the Boche, and we’ve just taken it over.” Yet for all that, the town had a deserted, scared look. Many of the houses were standing empty and abandoned – windows were broken, great gaps yawned here and there. The ring of our footsteps on the pave seemed to be an intrusion on the silence. I felt as if there were ghosts looking down on us from the gaps in the walls.’

The highlight of the tour came on the return journey from Cambrai, at Vimy Ridge, that notorious battlefield held tenaciously by the Germans until it was finally captured by the Canadians in April 1917. Christina and the Hut Lady were given a guided tour of the trenches by two young officers and the modern reader cannot help wondering if some of the trenches they explored were those preserved on Vimy Ridge today with concrete sandbags.

”You would like to go down a dugout, wouldn’t you?” asked one of their guides. “I’ll take you down one of ours and one of the Boche’s. His are far the best, of course.”

Christina didn’t like it underground. She hated standing in the black dugout chamber, next to the improvised bunks that still smelt of their last occupants. She had an attack of panic when she was guided towards an underground passage leading to another part of the trench.

‘ “I’m not going there,” I cried out, “I’m not going there at all.” My companion looked blank. “It comes up on the other side,” he explained in bewilderment. “I’m not going,” I repeated, “oh, please take me up before it gets dark.” He began to understand I was terrified, and though he was perfectly polite, he could not prevent a broad smile … The coats left in the bunks no longer interested me, whether they were Boche or British … “It’s awful,” I said …’

But when she was safely back on top, in the fresh air, it was the officer’s turn to be shocked. “There’s only one thing I haven’t seen,” said the lady sight-seer. “What’s that? We’ll show it you.” “A dead Boche,” said Christina. “I suppose you won’t show me that?” “No, I won’t. You shouldn’t want to see that.”

‘My eyes strayed to the little lonely cemeteries, in their hundreds, all around us. The men who lay there were so far from Canada and had given up so much … I turned to my escort. “It’s the thing I want to see most,” I said slowly, “and there’s many a woman would tell you that.” His eyes were uncomprehending. “Disgusting,” he said. “Now tell me when you’ll come back for a weekend.” ‘

After the Great War Christina Keith returned to Academia and remained there for the rest of her working life, a spinster don at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, with a reputation for sharpness of mind and mild eccentricity. She retired to Caithness in 1942 and spent her time writing. Her last book, a biography of Sir Walter Scott, The Author Of Waverley, was finished just before she died in 1963.

‘Since leaving France,’ she writes, ‘I have never been able to read a novel or listen to a play without boredom. They are so slow – dead slow – as the men [the demobilised soldiers she once taught] used to say of the prose of Sir Thomas Browne. And the books make love so slowly. I could give them points every time in how to do it well. We managed things better in France.’

After the Great War, many books and plays must have felt slow to those who’d survived it. But Christina Keith’s A Fool In France is not one of them and the History Press, despite not putting the title on the cover, has done her a good turn by publishing it for the first time after too long a delay.


A Fool In France, by Christina Keith, History Press, 2014, softback first edition.


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