The Great War Bookshop Diary, April 2015 – 1915

Monday, March 30th

King George decides to takes a pledge to abstain from alcohol for the duration of the war. In South West Africa General Botha’s men advance.

Tuesday, March 31st

The German armies on the Western Front now comprise over 5,000,000 men. In New York, crowds flock to see the first epic of the film era – ‘The Birth of a Nation’.

Wednesday, April 1st

British planes bomb German submarine bases in Belgium. Over 30,000 British women have signed an official register to apply for war work.

 Thursday, April 2nd

Behind the German lines on the Western Front, scientists test how to release poison gas. ANZAC troops camped near Cairo riot through the city’s brothels.

Friday, April 3rd

French troops for Gallipoli arrive at their staging camp in Egypt.

Saturday, April 4th

Further progress reported in South West Africa. The strategic German settlement at Warmbad is occupied.

Sunday, April 5th

Two German officers escape from a prisoner of war camp at Denbigh in North Wales. They will stay on the run for a week before being re-captured.

Monday, April 6th

The Austrians want to take troops from the Eastern Front to defend themselves in the event of attack from Italy but the Germans object.

Tuesday, April 7th

British forces in Egypt start to leave for bases on the Greek islands to make their final preparations for the Gallipoli landings.

Wednesday, April 8th

The Germans near Ypres prepare chlorine gas for an attack but the wind is against them. Italy demands territory from Austria in return for neutrality.

Thursday, April 9th

German attempts to attack on rafts over the flooded ground north of Ypres are driven off. Germany accuses the United States of shipping contraband to the Allies.

Friday, April 10th

A ship carrying American war relief for Belgian refugees in Britain is sunk when a German submarine attacks a convoy near the Hebrides.

Saturday, April 11th

A giant German biplane with three powerful motors, the Staaken bomber, makes its maiden flight.

Sunday, April 12th

In the first pitched battle of the Mesopotamia campaign, a British force of 6,000 troops defeats a Turkish force of 12,000 at Shaiba.

Monday, April 13th

Lloyd George takes charge of the government’s Munitions Committee. A zeppelin is brought down by anti-aircraft fire near Ypres.

Tuesday, April 14th

A zeppelin reaches Wallsend, on Tyneside, and drops incendiary bombs: four civilian casualties. The work of the Red Cross is banned in German-occupied areas of Belgium.

Wednesday, April 15th

Italy builds up its forces in five areas facing the Austrian border. Night-time zeppelin raids against East Anglia: zero casualties.

Thursday, April 16th

The Canadian parliament approve a sum of $100,000,000 to be spent on the war. More than 100,000 Canadians are now in uniform.

Friday, April 17th

The British blow up German trenches on Hill 60 near Ypres with mines and, on occupying the craters, beat off counter attacks.

Saturday, April 18th

Fierce fighting for the craters at Hill 60. British aircraft locate and attack a German airstrip at the Dardanelles.

Sunday, April 19th

A French plane is shot down behind German lines, enabling the Germans to copy its device for allowing a machine gun to fire through its propeller.

Monday, April 20th

German artillery bombards Ypres ahead of a new attempt to seize the city using gas. The burning town’s civilian population departs in a hurry.

Tuesday, April 21st

The Austrians begin readying defences on their Italian borders in anticipation of attack.

Wednesday, April 22nd

The Germans use chlorine gas on a wide front to launch their mass assault against Ypres. French troops flee in panic. The Canadians move into the gap and steady the line.

Thursday, April 23rd

Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher becomes the first Canadian VC winner of the war after sticking by his machine gun when his comrades were killed.

Friday, April 24th

The death of the British poet, Rupert Brooke, is mourned on a French hospital ship. He died of blood poisoning caused by a mosquito bite on his lip.

 Saturday, April 25th

The British land at two places on the Gallipoli peninsula, ANZAC Cove and Cape Helles. Determined Turkish defenders pin the invaders to the beaches.

Sunday, April 26th

The British sustain heavy casualties at Gallipoli trying to establish their beachheads. On the Western Front, Lt. William Rhodes-Moorhouse wins the first VC in the air.

Monday, April 27th

Sir John French sacks one of his generals, Horace Smith-Dorrien, for urging a strategic retreat at Ypres. The cabinet authorises gas to be used as a weapon.

Tuesday, April 28th

British troops at Cape Helles advance two miles while the Royal Navy bombards Turkish positions. The Germans halt their attacks at Ypres.

Wednesday, April 29th

A zeppelin drops bombs on Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds: zero casualties.

Thursday, April 30th

The British at Cape Helles repulse a Turkish counter-attack after the government in Constantinople orders General Liman to ‘drive the invaders into the sea’.

Friday, May 1st

The first Mills hand grenades reach troops on the Western Front. A German submarine sinks an American tanker without warning in the Mediterranean.

 Saturday, May 2nd

The German government buys adverts in New York newspapers warning that ships flying the flags of the Allies will be attacked.

Sunday, May 3rd

Italy renounces its treaty obligations towards Austria, signalling the gradual mobilisation of its army.


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.’


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.’


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.)


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.



(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

The Great War Bookshop’s diary of the Great War. September 2014 – 1914.

Monday, September 1st

The Kaiser moves his Headquarters closer to the action as the British and French retreat continues.

Tuesday, September 2nd

The German Army occupies the French city of Lille while its advance guards reach the River Marne. The French government leaves Paris for Bordeaux.

Wednesday,   September 3rd

German cavalry scouts are reported 8 miles from Paris. Japanese troops land at Tsingtao in China where Germany has a trade concession.

Thursday, September 4th

The German army crosses the Marne in strength. General Joffre, orders an offensive to push them back.

Friday, September 5th

The British retreat from Mons now becomes a counter attack alongside the French. The Battle of the Marne has begun.

Saturday, September 6th

The government in Berlin drafts a proclamation to the French people in anticipation of imminent victory.

Sunday, September 7th

Six thousand French reinforcements for the Marne battle are driven there in Paris taxis. The iconic British recruiting poster ‘Your Country Needs You’ is approved for printing.

Monday, September 8th

‘My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking’ – French general, Ferdinand Foch, at the Battle of the Marne.

Tuesday, September 9th

The German armies recoil on the Marne and start to retreat. Spy mania sweeps Britain with pigeon fanciers coming under particular suspicion.

Wednesday,   September 10th

The Germans withdraw north from the Marne towards another river, the Aisne. Meanwhile, some 400,000 men have responded to Lord Kitchener’s appeal for volunteers.

Thursday, September 11th

Australian troops land in German New Guinea and attack the main town, Rabaul, destroying radio transmitters.

Friday, September 12th

The Battle of the Aisne. British troops push over the river to where the Germans are making a stand.

Saturday, September 13th

The French and British force the Germans off the high ground above the Aisne, which develops into a general withdrawal of the German armies away from Paris.

Sunday, September 14th

Germany’s senior general, Helmuth Von Moltke, resigns after the defeat at the Marne but to maintain morale the news is kept secret.

Monday, September 15th

The Press Bureau denies rumours that Russian troops bound for the Western Front have been seen on British trains ‘with the snow still on their boots’.

Tuesday, September 16th

The Germans start digging trenches after their withdrawal from the Aisne. The French and British also start to dig in.

Wednesday,   September 17th

With fighting continuing across Belgium its troops retreat towards Antwerp leaving nearly half the country under German control.

Thursday, September 18th

The German general, Paul von Hindenburg, is made commander of German armies on the Eastern Front. He will soon become a dominant player in German strategy.

Friday, September 19th

In France, as the battle of the Aisne subsides into a stalemate, German artillery starts a long range bombardment of the city of Reims.

Saturday, September 20th

Volunteer British nurses arrive in Belgium to help in Red Cross hospitals. Rheims cathedral is set on fire by German shells.

Sunday, September 21st

A German warship sinks a neutral Dutch vessel in the Atlantic because it is shipping wheat to Britain.

Monday, September 22nd

British aircraft carry out their first bombing raid against Germany, targeting Zeppelin sheds at Cologne and Dusseldorf – ‘flames were seen up to 500 feet’.

 Tuesday, September 23rd

The embarkation begins in Canada of an Expeditionary Force to fight alongside the British in France.

Wednesday,   September 24th

The fighting on the Western Front spreads north to the town of Peronne on the River Somme. A British force lands at Tsingtao to assist the Japanese.

Thursday, September 25th

On the Somme, the battle spreads to the nearby town of Albert.

Friday, September 26th

The German army leaves Albert in French hands but captures nearby Bapaume leaving the front line between the two places.

Saturday, September 27th

The British decide to move north into Flanders, to try to outflank the German threat to their supply lines through the Channel ports.

Sunday, September 28th

In Belgium, the German army besieging Antwerp brings up its heavy artillery.

Monday, September 29th

The Belgians prepare to evacuate Antwerp. In China, the Japanese lay siege to the garrison at Tsingtao.

Tuesday, September 30th

In a bid to prevent friendly fire mishaps, the German air service decides to identify its aircraft with the black cross.


Excuse Me While I Rant

It was bad timing that two hours after blogging about how useless television is for discussing books in general and Great War books in particular BBC Four should pop up with a programme just for me introduced by Martha Kearney. I came in late so missed the introduction but I soon caught the gist. There were images of war cemeteries and B&W archive footage of the trenches. But it turned out not be a book programme about the Great War at all. It was a programme about the Hay on Wye literary festival. So there was no discussion, just a series of severely edited interviews with writers gagging to promote their books.

The first sequence of soundbites featured three writers with books to plug about the Great War. By books, I mean novels. The first novel had been written by someone called Helen Dunmore. She spoke about being interested not so much in the Great War as what had happened after it. She spoke about liberating the archive and “wanting to break the silence.”

The second novelist was called Louisa Young, plugging the second installment of a trilogy. She said it didn’t have a lot of the Great War in it because she was “not that interested in explosions.” She was more interested, it turned out, in doing a Pat Barker on us – the same Pat Barker who is esteemed among Great War book readers for her beautifully conceived and written ‘Regeneration’ trilogy, which dramatises the use of electric shocks to treat soldiers suffering from what is referred to today as post-traumatic stress disorder. Louisa Young’s trilogy concerns men with their faces blown off, thereby requiring plastic surgery, as pioneered by the New Zealand doctor, Harold Gillies. She said that because men spent most of their time on the Western Front in trenches their heads were the most vulnerable part of their anatomy, especially since steel helmets were not introduced “until some time in 1915.”

The third novel was written by someone called Kamila Shamsie. Her protagonist was an Indian soldier who, while being treated for wounds in the Indian hospital set up in Brighton Pavilion, “becomes aware that he is being treated differently from English soldiers.”

Was it better, I wondered as I watched, to have something, anything, on telly about Great War books, no matter how superficial, than nothing at all? Was it better, from the novelist’s point of view, to serve up any old re-heated mish-mash than to miss the 1914 – 2014 bandwagon altogether? Did it really make for better telly to talk to a female Indian or Pakistani novelist about the experience of Indian soldiers on the Western Front rather than some white, middle-aged British male historian who might have invested years of research in the subject? And was it better for me, as BBC viewer interested in Great War books, for the BBC to spend money on sending Martha Kearney to Hay on Wye for two days with a camera team (five hotel rooms; five salaries; ten breakfasts; ten lunches; ten dinners; plus cappuccinos in between) to fill nine-minutes of Sunday night telly with televisual froth rather than literary fibre? I think you know the answer.

For readers interested, like Helen Dunmore , in what came after 1914 – 1918, the Great War Bookshop has a whole catalogue devoted to the Aftermath which currently contains more than 50 items, mostly written by men and women who experienced the Great War at the sharp end rather than imagining it one hundred years later. Readers interested in the pioneering work of Dr. Harold Gillies at Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, are likewise directed to the catalogue called ‘Medical, Nurses & Doctors’ which contains his original journal articles with diagrammatic explanations of his breakthrough surgical techniques. As for the experience of Indian troops on the Western Front, the classic novel Across the Black Waters by Raj Mulk Anand, first published in 1939 and translated into almost every European language, is still available as a paperback so there’s no obvious reason to re-imagine it, thank you all the same. The great Great War books are out there already, if you know where to look, and they’re often better written and cheaper than the new ones. Happy hunting …

Five Influential Great War Books, A Fairy Story

Once upon a time, not very long ago, a British television producer was presented with an idea for a programme about the Great War by a bookseller. The producer said the bookseller’s idea definitely had potential but as the meeting was drawing warmly to a close he saw his boss, the commissioning editor for History programmes, on the other side of the glass wall of his office.

“Just a sec,” he said, “Terry needs to hear this. He loves this kind of thing.”

It turned out that Terry was the kind of commissioning editor for History programmes who did not, in fact, like people knowing more than him about History unless they happened to be professionally qualified academic historians. So although Terry thought the bookseller’s idea for a telly programme was ‘quite strong’ he couldn’t see how it could be ‘made to work’.

“What would you say,” he said, narrowing his eyes creatively, “what would you say were the most influential books about the First World War?”

Fair question. A seller of Great War books might reasonably be expected to know something about their context and significance. And the commissioning editor for History knew that some Literature slots were soon coming up for grabs.

“Influential in what sense?” said the book seller.

“You know,” said Terry. “What were the four or five most influential books that shaped the way we think about the First World War today?”

“Well,” said the bookseller. “Le Feu would have to be up there, obviously… ”

“The what?”

“You’d probably have to start with Le Feu. French. Under Fire. It was the first international best-seller of the Great War. Siegfried Sassoon raved about it. I think he might have lent his copy to Wilfred Owen when they were both in Dottyville together.”

“Yeah,” said Terry. “That kind of thing.”

Telly is useless at dealing with books. It needs action. Telly can only tell stories about books by dramatising their contents or by talking to writers. But a dramatised book, in telly terms, is a drama. And the writers with the most to say about the Great War are mostly dead. So an idea for a telly story about the books of the Great War was never going to get beyond the e-mail stage and the telly producers and the book seller all knew it. But the book seller wrote the email anyway and lived happily ever after.

Under Fire, by Henri Barbusse. Sub-title, The Story Of A Squad. A savage, violent depiction of life and death in the French trenches of the Western Front. Although Barbusse was 41 when the Great War started and judged to be unfit for military service he enlisted in the ranks and wrote Under Fire while recovering in hospital from wounds received at Verdun. It was published to rave reviews and considerable controversy in 1917 and quickly translated into English. ‘At last,’ said Siegfried Sassoon, ‘someone has brought war home’. The British bibliographer of Great War books, Cyril Falls, writing in 1930, describes it as a blatant example of anti-war propaganda designed to appeal to readers lusting for war horrors. ‘In detail it is more unreal than any British book of which one can think at the moment; in fact, with all the faults of a great deal of British war fiction, the latter is redeemed by a certain sturdy common sense which is absent from the work of M. Barbusse.’

All Quiet On The Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque.  A sentimental but ‘realistic’ account of the trench war from the German side in which the dominant theme is the futility of war and the essential integrity of those called upon to fight and die no matter how doomed the cause. Since publication in 1929 it has racked up the biggest sales of any war book in any language. Part of the explanation for its phenomenal sales was the Oscar-winning film of the book made in 1930. The Nazis also gave it a boost by burning All Quiet in public for its anti-militarist message. Falls got it completely wrong when he wrote: ‘A number of eminent critics [in 1929], made drunken with the uproar, wrote laudations which they probably regretted afterwards. Soon there will be a reaction, and all those whose brows are more than six inches high will vow that the book is worthless.’

Memoirs Of An Infantry Officer, by Siegfried Sassoon. The middle volume of a trilogy of fictionalised Great War autobiographies from an English Great War poet, mixing his lyrical perceptions of trench warfare with the sensibilities of a dutiful civilian-in-uniform whose humanity was tested by combat but not destroyed. Sassoon’s memoirs cemented the Western Front as a permanent feature in the landscape of Eng. Lit. Falls praised Sassoon for mapping the ‘vast gulf’ that separated the old pre-War certainties from the Modern era’s doubts, cynicism and uncertainty.
Testament Of Youth, by Vera Brittain. Perhaps the best book about the Great War by an English woman and certainly the best autobiography by one. A massive best-seller in its day and always kept in print. Testament is one of the founding texts of the ‘Lost Generation’ school of Great War writing and offers feminist critics a fully realised, emotionally charged account of one womans’ role in sustaining the British war effort. It was published in 1933, too late for comment by Falls.

Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth. This book was not a best-seller and, as far as English readers are concerned, it never will be. It evokes the impact of the Great War on a fictitious Austro-Hungarian family of low-ranking aristocrats. Most of the action takes place on the Eastern Front, which few English readers can get excited about. But when people ask ‘Why didn’t the Great War produce an epic comparable to Tolstoy’s War And Peace? the answer is Radetzky March. Roth died in self-exile in Paris in 1939, penniless and obscure.

All lists of great books are obliged to be subjective but if a discussion of comparative value is to take place it has to start somewhere.

Under Fire and All Quiet are probably worth their place in the front line but hard-core fans of Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones Of War might seek to argue against Siegfried Sassoon. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is drenched through with his Great War experience and, in the wider world-historical context, might be said to be the most influential book of the lot though it’s never been regarded as an explicitly First World War title. Likewise, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, a book that is inconceivable without the Great War and hugely influential but never considered as a WW1 text. John Buchan’s pulp fiction (eg. Greenmantle and The Thirty Nine Steps) is still selling prolifically a hundred years on but did he have a wider influence than his entertainment value? As for Joseph Roth, his claims would surely be disputed by supporters of T.E. Lawrence, whose Seven Pillars Of Wisdom is very often cited as the best prose in English to survive the test of time (helped of course by the David Lean/Peter O’Toole film).

No long-term reader of Great War books would find much difficulty coming up with a short list of titles to start an interesting discussion but it is unlikely to be happening any time soon on a telly screen near you.

The copyright in this article is held by Christopher Moore, 2014, and no reproduction is allowed in any form without written permission from the author.

Ten Books About The Great War By Or About British Women.


Women On The Warpath, by David Mitchell. Cape, 1965. Mitchell wrote while there were still women alive who had served in uniform during the Great War and were willing to enliven his research with first person testimony. Hence his very good accounts of the many and varied roles that women took over by the end of the War. He also keeps an eye on the suffragists.

The Virago Book Of Women And The Great War, by Joyce Marlow. Virago, 1998. A compendium of Women’s writings arranged in chronological order, 1914 – 1918. Nurses, bus conductors, drivers, munitionettes and pacifists, they’re all here. Marlow surveys the same ground as Women on the Warpath but her reporting doesn’t have the same fibre content.

Diaries, 1915 – 1918, by Lady Cynthia Asquith. Hutchinson, 1968. The aristocratic Cynthia made a political marriage to the Prime Minister’s second son, Herbert Asquith. In her conscientiously maintained diaries she reported ironically on the personalities of Great War London as viewed from her superior vantage in Downing Street. While her husband was away at the Front (he served in the Royal Artillery and wrote a Great War novel, Young Orland, about a lovelorn gunner subaltern) Cynthia was courted by various suitors, the most persistent of whom is known in her diaries as ‘Bluetooth’. Her efforts to keep his advances at bay, while not scaring him off completely, is one of several themes that keep the reader engaged to the end of what is a long if worthwhile read.

Testament Of Youth, by Vera Brittain. Gollancz, 1933. The best known book by a British woman about the Great War and deservedly so. Brittain’s autobiography is a keystone of the Eng. Lit. monument to the ‘Lost Generation’ killed or maimed 1914 – 1918. A beautifully written and emotionally charged account of how one woman’s hopeful future was torn apart.

Not So Quiet, by Helen Zenna Smith. Albert E. Marriott Ltd, 1930. A pseudonymous work from an Australian journalist, Evadne Price, who based it on the diaries and recollections of a real woman who worked as a British ambulance driver in France. Even as a second-hand, novelised memoir it still contains enough matter to give a plausible tone of authenticity to its account of what happened ‘over there’, that strange place where men and women could test the boundaries of what might be permissible. The title echoes Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front and seeks to deliver a similar ‘warts and all’ evocation of war’s reality for a specifically female readership.

Ourselves, by Irene Clephane. .John Lane, 1933. A social survey of the years 1900 – 1930, written with a female readership firmly in mind. There are more than 240 photographs & illustrations, many featuring fashions, home decor and women at leisure. The book is in two main parts with the Great War being treated as an interlude with hardly a soldier in sight. The writer concentrates instead on the Home Front and themes such as recruiting, munitions, rationing and zeppelin raids.

WAAC, The Woman’s Story Of The War, by Anonymous. Werner Laurie, 1930. Another novelised memoir of an amorous female auxiliary stationed in and around the Bases and depots of the Western Front. The author gives her name as Connie but has been identified as a male journalist. However, as with Not So Quiet there is enough plausibility in the detail to suggest that, for some women in uniform one hundred years ago, this is what day to day life must have been like. The formula clearly worked because there was a prompt sequel, WAAC Demobilized, which continued the story by sending ‘Connie’ on a frolicsome trip around the world.

Diary Without Dates, by Enid Bagnold. Heinemann, 1918. This little gem of a memoir is now scarce in its first edition but is readily available in various cheap paperback reprints. The Great War bibliographer and historian, Cyril Falls, fell slightly in love with Bagnold’s writing after reading her other Great War book, The Happy Foreigner, to which he awarded one star. Diary Without Dates lacks the obvious love affair but contains some heart-rending scenes describing the London hospital where Bagnold worked as a VAD nurse before becoming a chauffeuse in FANY. The Happy Foreigner wasn’t written for another eleven years, coming out in 1929, the same year as All Quiet on The Western Front – presumably in an effort by Heinemann to capitalise on Remarque’s success. Falls wrote of The Happy Foreigner: ‘This book, mainly concerned with events just after the Armistice, is fiction obviously founded upon a good deal of fact. The heroine is an English girl, driving a car for the French, who is summoned to Metz by the general commanding there to make a dancing-partner for his officers. There are descriptions of the hardly-cooled battle zone, and a prettily-managed love affair with a French officer. All this may sound rather commonplace, and so it would be if it were not illuminated by the most fascinating of precious styles, a delicate humour and keen observation.’

Scars Upon My Heart, edited by Catherine Reilly. Virago, 2003. A softcover anthology bringing together 78 women poets of the Great War. Already known as a bibliographer of British war poets, this useful collection showed Reilly as a champion of the wives’, mothers’ and sisters’ point of view.

To browse for books by any writer mentioned, click here


The Cruelties Of Bibliomania

In the same sense that a lunatic is a nut case, colloquially speaking, a bibliophile is a book case, a person who delights in the literary, aesthetic and physical qualities of books to degree that can become obsessive. At The Great War Bookshop if a book is about the Great War, we must have it even if we know we’re not going to like it. Which in biblio-terms probably makes us maniacs rather than philiacs. Once upon a time, we used to be interested in all kinds of books but that’s a different story. If you were to show us one now we could hardly bear to pick it up, never mind open it. And where second-hand books are concerned we are hardcore. No Foyles or Blackwell’s for us. At any slack hour of the day you’ll find one of us nosing through the bargain basements of London’s Charing Cross Road. Overhead, drumming on the thick glass pavement blocks, we see the feet of Londoners hurrying about their lunch-hour business. Down in our dim dungeons for books, invisible fungi feed off the accumulated sediments of the book cases who’ve spent most lunch-hours of their working lives following the scent of — Ugh!There are some titles you want to vanish instantly.

From A College Window, by A.C. Benson.

Return To Jalna, by Mazo de la Roche.

Jungle Lovers, by Paul Theroux.

Pain goes with the territory when you spend hours per week with be-numbed optics and an acute pain in the neck from reading upside-down spine titles sideways. Bad books make bad backs. What drives us is an instinct that every book must find it’s reader.

The Leopard, by Giuseppe de Lampedusa.

Jupiter’s Travels, by Ted Simon.

The Glands Of Destiny, by Ivo Geikie-Cobb.

Dedicated book cases don’t have time for exploring distant literary or historic regions, however alluring. We know what we like and we don’t like anything else. When we’re not hunting or reading  we have wives and families to think about, trains to catch. We don’t have time for dawdling in the Charing Cross Road over books about glands or novels written by colleagues at what used to be the day job, not down here, in the dungeon of earthly delights, down on the bottom shelf …


In a strictly literal sense, the bottom shelf of a basement in the Charing Cross Road is as low as any book can sink especially if, like Cleft, it is brand new, freshly published and coutured in a fashionably expensive jacket. For a Great War book case Cleft is the opposite of serendipity. As soon as I connect with it as a title I’m thinking: split down the middle; relationships sundered; a crying shame for some or all of the characters involved; it’s another one of those modern novels for women who don’t give a fig for the Great War or its legacy in print. But it is worse than that. Because I know this novelist of modern relationships. She used to be a former close colleague. We shared the same work station in the same office. Teamwork was her day job, and mine too. She once confided to me, in the canteen, of her ambition to be a novelist one day in a crisply-tailored jacket. And there she is, smiling out at me from the rear flap of it, looking way better in black and white than she ever did in real life.

 With my thumbs, for old times’ sake, I prise Cleft apart at the midway point to sample the telling of the story of two Australians called Calley and Snit. They live in the present tense. They speak of their feelings, needs and desires in chopped up, cinema-style dialogue and half a page of it is quite plenty enough. Cleft leaps from my hand whence it came, back to the bottom-most shelf, leaving me with the sense that I have just wasted two and a half minutes of my precious lunch hour that could have been better spent with my neck at a more awkward angle. I am not the book case Cleft is looking for and that’s the end of the story.


 On the day I met Cleft in the Charing Cross Road  I could have taken it back to the office where I once worked and made its writer glow with pleasure.


“Hey! Look, everyone! It’s Cleft ! Sign it for me, Nikki, and when you’re famous it’ll be worth something. Well done! You must be really chuffed.”

But here’s the thing. Rules are rules. One: every book must find its reader fair and square; no ulterior motive can be allowed to impinge. Two: tmoney spent on a book that isn’t about the Great War cannot be spent on a book that is about the Great War; so that’s cash lost forever from the cause. Rule number three: you have to be famous and dead before your signature adds value to any book you might have written,  excepting J.K.Rowling. So Cleft stayed where it was. Which is why Nikki left work two years later probably thinking that none of her colleagues ever gave a shit for the novels she wrote with so much sustained dedication and all the talent she could muster but without any reference whatsoever to the Great War. Which must have been a bit of a shame for Nikki. But that’s Great War book cases for you, tight-fisted bastards all over and cheerfully wrapped up in their own narrow obsessions.


Why We Love Cyril Falls


The supply of bibliographies of the Great War has conspicuously failed to keep pace with the volume of books produced on the subject. Even before the War was over, its bibliographers found themselves running out of stamina. Of those bibliographies that reached a semblance of completeness only two have stood the test of time: Temoins, by Jean Norton Cru (Les Enticelles, 1929), which deals with French books; and War Books by Cyril Falls (Peter Davies, 1931), which is more general and less prescriptive in the Englishness of its approach. Both books came out during a boom in sales triggered by the publication of All Quiet On The Western Front which brought a flood of titles onto the market as writers and publishers sought to benefit from the publicity generated by Remarque’s best-selling success.

Falls’ War Books divides Great War books into categories, History, Reminiscence and Fiction, and deals with them comparatively, awarding stars according to merit. He was not generous with approval. Falls, like Cru, served on the Western Front during the Great War. He was a Staff Captain with the 36th (Ulster) Division and therefore thoroughly familiar with the raw material of the infantry experience. After the War he worked on several volumes of the British Official History under the general editorship of Brigadier Sir James Edmonds. This led to a long career in military history, culminating with a professor’s chair at Oxford. If anyone knew about the Great War and its literature, that man was Cyril Falls.

In the category of ‘History, General’ Falls considered 223 books, from Abbott, G.F., Greece And The Allies 1914 – 1922 to Yapp, Sir Arthur, The Romance Of The Red Triangle. Six books in this category received the maximum approval rating of three stars by virtue of their ‘superior merit’; 16 books received two stars; 51 books received one star. In ‘History, Formations & Units’, Falls considered 119 books, from Aitken, Sir Max, Canada In Flanders, to Wyrall, Everard, The West Yorkshire Regiment In The War. Five books received two stars; 32 received one star. A total of 49 books were included by Falls in ‘History, Foreign’, from Anonymous, Les Campagnes Coloniales Belgesto Zwehl, Erich, Von Falkenhayn. Only one book in this category received three stars; six books received two stars; 19 received one.

In the category of ‘Reminiscence’, Falls considered 177 books, from Abraham, J. Johnson, My Balkan Log, to Young, Francis Brett, Marching On Tanga. Two books were awarded three stars; 12 received two stars; 33 received one star. In ‘Reminiscence, Foreign’, Falls considered 20 books from Bloem, Walter, Vormarsch, to Vogel, Dr Hofprediger Kilometer Mit Der Garde-Kavallerie. One book received two stars; six received one.

In the ‘Fiction’category, Falls considered 106 English language books and 12 foreign ones, from Acland, Peregrine, All Else Is Folly, to Zweig, Arnold, The Case Of Sergeant Grischa. Three books were awarded three stars; 14 received two stars; 31 received one.

So. Out of the 706 books Falls read in order to write War Books 12 were considered by him to be of superlative merit; 52 were judged to be very good; 172 merely good of their type. He wrote in his Preface that he expected his list to prove disputatious, but probably not for applying too rigorous a standard of judgement. At the time Falls was active, slang, woolly thinking, posturing, polemic, immodesty, hyperbole, wilful idiosyncrasy and blatant pandering to the market were considered to be bad behaviour in a serious writer. Exactitude, emotional restraint and craftsmanship were esteemed. Such conventions held strong while British universities produced graduates in their thousands. Today we produce them in their hundreds of thousands and every person with a computer can write and publish without constraint. Which is great if people have something interesting to say and a powerful way of expressing it. Which is why we like Cyril Falls. In the arena of Great War books he exerts the power to discriminate. Here are the twelve titles receiving his maximum three stars:

Official History Of The Great War, Military Operations: Gallipoli, by Brig.-General. C.F. Aspinall-Oglander, Heinemann, 1929. ‘No serious student of the War can avoid reading this book.’

The World Crisis, 1911 – 1918, by the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill, Thornton Butterworth, 1923-1929. ‘It is probably the best general guide to the development of British policy during the War yet published.’

Official History Of The Great War, Military Operations: France and Belgium, Vols I, II, III, IV, by Brig.-General Sir J.E. Edmonds and Major A.F. Becke, Macmillan, 1922 onwards. ‘The reader can always feel secure that he will find no essential neglected.’

Revolt In The Desert, by T.E. Lawrence, Cape, 1927. ‘The book belongs to the select top shelf of war literature.’

History Of The Great War Based On Official Documents. The War In The Air., by Sir Walter Raleigh and H.A.Jones, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922 – 1928. ‘Altogether a very fine piece of work.’

Fix Bayonets!, by John W. Thomason Junior, Scribner, 1926. ‘The best American book on the War, and one of the best books of any nationality on the War.’

Schlachten Des Weltkrieges. In Einzeldars-Stellungen bearbeitet Und Herausgegeben Im Auftrage Des Reichsarchivs, Berlin, Stalling, 1921 onwards. ‘The care and skill with which they have been prepared are most praiseworthy.’

Undertones Of War, by Edmund Blunden, Cobden-Sanderson, 1928. ‘An almost perfect picture of the small events which made up the siege warfare of France and Flanders.’

Marching On Tanga, by Francis Brett-Young, Collins, 1917. ‘So much grave beauty of description and of sentiment it is hard to find in any other book descriptive of the War.’

The Whistlers’ Room, by Paul Alverdes, Secker, 1929. ‘The little story is half comedy, half tragedy, and in its fashion a masterpiece in miniature.’

Debits And Credits, by Rudyard Kipling, Macmillan, 1926. ‘Equal to the best their author achieved in the great old days.’

Her Privates We, by Private 19022 [Frederic Manning], Peter Davies, 1930. ‘Here indeed are the authentic British infantrymen.’

The men and women who served in uniform, 1914 – 1918, were better placed to judge the authentic voices of the Great War than their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They recognised the rarity of the superlative in any form of activity and tended to judge writing about the Great War according to the seriousness of what was at stake. Falls was probably typical of his class and type. He deprecated the exhibitionist and valued originality, sincerity and authenticity. He also foresaw the further rapid publication of Great War books, which is why every section of his book is provided with blank pages allowing the serious reader to add new titles as they appeared. Surveying the field of Great War books today, and despite the oceans of ink spilled on the printing them since 1931, it is questionable whether the ghost of Cyril Falls, should it appear in a bookshop near you, would feel obliged to reconsider too many of his literary judgements nor find an excess of new works worthy of his highly old-fashioned and discriminatory three-star accolades.

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Copyright in this work is held by the Great War Bookshop, 2014.

Cancelled Out In Five Instalments

  Part I: The Death Grapple

 by Chris Moore

They can be tricky, Great War books, when it comes to separating fact from fiction. Take the example of the bayonet men, two enemies impaled on each other’s bayonets. They symbolise the prodigal waste of the First World War, 1914 – 1918, in which the massed manhood of Germanyfaced the massed manhood of France and England and tested themselves to destruction. The munitions of Krupp and Skoda cancelled out the firepower of Vickers and Le Creusot. Their machine guns cancelled out our machine guns; their barbed wire our barbed wire. The image of two infantrymen cancelling each other out with their bayonets symbolises a generation of European males consumed in the attrition factory of the Western Front.

‘Mametz Wood was full of dead of the Prussian Guards Reserve, big men, and of Royal Welch and South Wales Borderers of  the new-army battalions, little men. There was not a single tree in the wood unbroken. I got my greatcoats and came away as quickly as I could, climbing over the wreckage of green branches. Going and coming, by the only possible route, I had to pass by the corpse of a German with his back propped against a tree. He had a green face, spectacles, close shaven hair; black blood was dripping from the nose and beard. He had been there for some days and was bloated and stinking. There had been bayonet fighting in the wood. There was a man of the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr regiment who had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously. A survivor of the fighting told me later that he had seen a young soldier of the Fourteenth Royal Welch bayoneting a German in parade-ground style, automatically exclaiming as he had been taught: “In, out, on guard.” He said that it was the oddest thing he had heard in France.’

The 1929 Jonathan Cape first edition of  Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves is not the one familiar to most English readers, it has become scarce and expensive. In 1957, Graves revised his original Cape text for a new edition published by Cassell. It was this later, revised edition which went into paperback as a Penguin Modern Classic and which has never since been out of print. Graves said his revisions had resulted in what he called the ‘omission of many dull or foolish passages; restoration of a few suppressed anecdotes; replacement of the T.E.Lawrence chapter by a longer one written five years later; correction of factual mis-statements; and a general editing of my excusably ragged prose.’

English war poets felt justified manipulating the battlefield actualite to suit their purposes in prose. Some of  Graves’ ‘omissions and restorations’ have been questioned over the years but the grapple unto death he reported seeing in Mametz Wood in July 1916 was not among the ‘factual mis-statements’ he felt obliged to correct.  In his 1957 revision, he slightly embroiders his first account, replacing the sentence  ‘There had been bayonet fighting in the wood …’ with ‘I came across two other unforgettable corpses: a man of the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr Regiment had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously.’

No doubt Graves had heard, as had everyone else, of some Tommy and some Jerry who had bayoneted each other to death somewhere on the Western the Front, but can we believe he saw them? The Western Front was so grotesque in scale and detail anything was credible. Men were blown out of their boots into trees. They were chopped in half by machine gun fire or sliced down the middle by shell splinters. A few died whole and intact, from the effects of explosive concussion on their internal organs. However men perished, they were photographed. British soldiers were banned from carrying cameras into combat but some of them did and the results have been published. Official photographers were allowed onto the battlefields before and after combat. The one photograph no one has seen is two enemies impaled simultaneously on the other’s bayonet.

(To be continued. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author. )

Part II: How Young They Died.

During his time in France, Lieutenant Robert Graves of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was not called upon to lead a bayonet charge. To re-live what that experience might have been like we turn to Second-Lieutenant Stuart Cloete of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He describes in his autobiography, A Victorian Son, how he and his men spent the night of September 24th, , 1916. They were in trenches before the German-held village of Combles.

‘I look at my watch again. How funny to live by a watch, minute by minute, as if I were going to catch a train. It is growing a little lighter. The sky begins to turn grey. Fix bayonets. There is a clatter of metal against metal, the sharp sigh of steel withdrawn from the secrecy of its scabbard. The hard irrevocable click as the bayonets go home in their sockets. Ten minutes. Five minutes … Suddenly there is a roar. Our barrage has come down. … I put my whistle in my mouth and blow. No one can hear it …We do not run. We walk. We stroll behind our barrage as if it was a curtain. It is a curtain, a curtain of fire and death … A hare got up in front of us. How long had it lived in no-man’s-land? It ran down the line. As if they were beaters, the men lunged at it. A man caught it on the point of his bayonet and held up his rifle with one hand. The men cheered. It was blood, first blood … We came to the first objective. The blue line, it was called on the maps. The wire had been cut; we had no difficulty … In the next line – the support – we had more trouble. The trenches were deeper. The troops were better, too – Prussians. They got out of the trench to meet us and we fought hand to hand. Bayonet met bayonet while the machine guns spat … This was the only time I saw a fight like this. It is very rare for bayonet to meet bayonet. Bayoneted men may go towards each other but as a rule one will break and run before the steel. I saw the results on another occasion where the Scots Guards had engaged the Prussian Guards and had fought till hardly any of either regiment were left alive. We found them later, some still erect, impaled on one another’s steel.’

Cloete and Graves were fictionalists as well as factualisers. Goodbye To All That was originally drafted as fiction and, after the war, Graves went on to write a series of novels based on Roman history — I, Claudius; Claudius The God; etc. Cloete (it is a South African name, pronounced Klooter) went on to write a string of best-sellers about the subjugation of Africa by intrepid white men — Turning Wheels; The Curve And The Tusk; etc. He also wrote a war novel, How Young They Died, about the experiences of an infantry second-lieutenant on the Western Front. The hero of this novel, Jim Hilton, is 19 years old when he joins the fictitious ‘Kings Own Wiltshire Light Infantry’. He fights at Ypres and the Somme, is wounded, mended and promoted, then survives. Which is what happened to Stuart Cloete. Unfortunately, we can no longer question him about the difference between his published fiction —

‘They crossed a deep German trench on duckboard bridges and advanced in line … and then something hit him [Jim Hilton]. It felt like a blow from a wooden mallet. It spun him around and he sat down. Christ, he was hit!’

and published fact —

‘I spun round and sat down. I [Stuart Cloete] felt no pain. I felt as if someone had hit me in the shoulder with a great wooden mallet with such force as to knock me over.’

Lieutenant Hilton’s fictional mallet blow was published in 1969, Lieutenant Cloete’s factual version appeared in 1972. When Cloete describes in Victorian Son how he saw Scots Guards and Prussian Guards impaled on each other’s bayonets, was that something he really did see, or was it something he imagined ( ‘ … I saw the results on another occasion …’ ) on behalf of his alter ego, Jim Hilton? Perhaps it was something he had read somewhere and appropriated, perhaps from Goodbye To All That?

Given that there undoubtedly were bayonet charges on the Western Front, and that some of them may have taken place in both a literal and metaphorical fog, it seems credible that two enemies meeting face to face in such circumstances might have stabbed each other simultaneously. But would each have struck with sufficient force to impale the other? British infantry were specifically trained not to impale their enemies. As Graves correctly reported, the British bayonet drill was, ‘In, out, on guard.’ Sticking the bayonet in, without pulling it out, could be dangerously inconvenient. The last thing any Tommy needed in a battle was a dead Hun hanging off the end of his rifle. British infantry were trained not to stab any part of the body where the bayonet might get stuck, between the ribs for example.

‘In, out, on guard,’ was the rule but in the heat of battle things could go awry. The American, Arthur Empey, volunteered to fight in the British Army and wrote about his experiences in a book called Over The Top, published by Putnam’s in 1917. Empey served as a machine-gunner with the Royal Fusiliers and was wounded in a raid during preparations for the Somme Offensive in 1916. Writing during his convalescence, under conditions of war-time censorship, his account gives neither dates nor places.

‘… Three waves went over and captured the first and second trenches. The machine gunners went over with the fourth wave to consolidate the captured line or ‘dig in’ as Tommy calls it … I never saw such a mess in my life – bunches of twisted barbed wire lying about, shell holes everywhere, trenches all bashed in, parapets gone, and dead bodies, why, that ditch was full of them, theirs and ours. It was a regular morgue … One dead German was lying on his back, with a rifle sticking straight up in the air, the bayonet of which was buried to the hilt in his chest. Across his feet lay a dead English soldier with a bullet hole in his forehead. This Tommy must have been killed just as he ran his bayonet through the German.’

Tommies who stuck their Hun up to the hilt could easily end up dead. Stabbed men convulse; their muscles contract by reflex, trapping the blade. The further the blade goes in the harder it is to pull it out. And then what? The Tommy caught in this predicament has one choice, either to let go altogether and hope to find another rifle quick or to pull the trigger which, if he is lucky, might loosen his victim’s grip. Four inches in the kidneys or the throat was the recommended ration of cold steel for the average Hun, somewhere soft, never his chest, arms or legs because then the bayonet hit bone and did not immediately incapacitate.

The most prolific killer of the Great War was artillery. The second great killer was the machine gun. Gas blinded or maimed its victims, often temporarily, but rarely killed them outright. The bayonet was negligible in adding to the increments of human wastage that constituted the war of attrition. The English writer and artist, Wyndham Lewis, fought as an artillery officer on the Western Front and wrote one of its most stylish memoirs, Blasting And Bombardiering, published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1937. The pre-war ‘Blasting’ part of his autobiography concerns the experimental Vorticist writings that Lewis championed in his avant-garde magazine Blast; the ‘Bombardiering’ part of it ( A Gunner’s Tale) covers his war experiences in the Royal Field Artillery.

‘Sixty per cent of the casualties on the Western Front,’ says Lewis, ‘were caused by shell-fire, forty per cent by bullets. (Bayonet wounds were so rare that they do not enter into the statistics.)’ Lewis presumably had in mind the statistics contained in the Official History Of The Great War, Medical Services, published in 1931. Table 15 (page 40) takes a sample of 212,659 British casualties and shows the percentages of wounds caused by different weapons.

Weapon                                            Number of wounds               Per-centage
Bullets, rifle or machine gun         82,901                                       38.98
Shells, trench mortars, etc.         124,425                                      58.51
Bombs and grenades                     4,649                                        2.19
Bayonet                                              684                                         0.32

In gross terms, the chance of any British soldier of the Great War getting killed or wounded on the Western Front was in the region of 8:1. The chance of a British wound being inflicted by a German bayonet was something like 300:1. Multiplying these two together suggests that the chance of any randomly selected British soldier ending up with a bayonet wound was approximately 2400:1. The proportion of deaths in relation to total casualties during the Somme Offensive of 1916 was somewhere in the region of 3:1. Factoring this probability into the calculation suggests that the chance of any randomly selected British soldier at the Somme being killed by a German bayonet might be somewhere in the region of 7200 to 1. If the chance of being killed by a bayonet was so low then the chance of death by simultaneous impalement must have been very, very low.

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. There are poems, novels, autobiographies and memoirs. There are no photographs of what Graves attests and Cloete confirms. But at this stage of the inquiry, the jury remains out.

          Part III: Frightfulness On The Somme

The battles of 1915 on the Western Front saw a surge of enthusiasm among British infantry tacticians for the hand grenade. But by 1916, the higher command had come to believe that, from the psychological as well as the practical point of view, the hand grenade was an insufficiently offensive weapon. British troops who tried to seize German trenches by bombing were observed to run out of ‘dash’ once the Germans started throwing bombs back at them. The mentality of bombing, whereby attackers worked their way forward under such cover provided by shell-holes, saps and trenches, allowed too much free play to the instinct for self-preservation. Far better for attackers to go in boldly, over the top, led by their officers, eager to deal with Jerry at close quarters with tempered steel.

The bullet killed two-thousand men for every one killed by the bayonet and yet the citizen armies that the English hurled against the Germans on the Somme had been trained to believe in the bayonet as the supreme infantry weapon. A travelling circus of PT instructors toured the parade grounds behind the Western Front to demonstrate the most efficacious methods of bayoneting Huns. After each demonstration, the troops were herded round an assault course to practise what they had been taught on stuffed sacks. The emphasis was as much on attitude as technique. Trainees were encouraged to roar as they charged, to grimace as they drove the bayonet home. Robert Graves says the imprecations of the bayonet instructors behind the lines — ‘ “Hurt him, now! In at the belly! Tear his guts out! No more little Fritzes! Bite him, I say! Eat his heart out!” ’ — left him feeling so disgusted that he felt gladdened at the prospect of returning to the comparative civility of the forward trenches.

The English war poets reserved particular scorn for the head of the PT instructors’ travelling circus, Major Ronnie Campbell. Part of their attitude was perhaps due to the fact that, as a Gordon Highlander, Campbell could be marked down as a ‘hairy-arsed Jock’. But young career soldiers also resented being told how to fight. Basil Liddell Hart, who went on to become one of the Great War’s most widely read historians after surviving the Battle of the Somme as a subaltern, was also disparaging of Major Campbell and his fellow evangelists.

‘Their inflammatory efforts were not taken very seriously, but rather as a comic relief … they may have had some effect in multiplying the numbers of German prisoners who were bayoneted after putting up their hands in surrender, or when being taken back to P.O.W cages. Another ill effect was that too many of our men lost their lives in trying to “close with the bayonet” and “kill with cold steel” as prescribed, so that they were shot down at close range by cooler-headed opponents who realised that the bullet outreaches the bayonet until the range is closed to less than two yards. More wisely, most of the German troops did not even fix their bayonets, lest the drag should disturb their aim in firing.’

Sensitive subalterns might shudder but the more sanguine regimental officers and NCOs understood that mass industrial warfare was a particular type of butchery and if the British were to prevail against the Germans they would have to behave accordingly. The only certain way to win the war was to eject the Germans from their trenches and drive them home. The British and the French could not afford to adopt a defensive posture on the Western Front, not while France and Belgium remained occupied. The Allies had to attack. And the spirit of the attack was the spirit of the bayonet.

The first day of the battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916, was conceived as the biggest bayonet charge in history. Tens of thousands of men went over the top at Zero hour and advanced in waves on the German lines. Except, as is well known, it wasn’t a charge. Most of the infantry were weighed down with so much equipment that a steady plod was all that could be expected. Their commanders were assured that a steady plod was all that would be required since the attack was unlikely to meet much resistance after the pounding inflicted on the German trenches by the preparatory barrage. In the event, the only success by British troops attacking north of the River Somme was won by the Ulstermen of the 36th Division. Fired up by rum and religious fervour (it was the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne) many Orangemen ignored their orders, dumped their packs and charged like hell. It was up-hill all the way but they were in the German trenches within minutes, stabbing and slashing everyone who stood to fight. It was glorious but forlorn. The Ulsters’ charge took them so far ahead of the plodders on either side of them that the Germans, once they’d recovered from the shock, were able to outflank them and beat them back. By the end of the day, the 36th Division, like most British units north of the River Somme, were back where they’d started, leaving nearly 60,000 dead or wounded comrades behind.


Part IV: Hand To Hand At Gaza

Pierce the human vessel and eight pints of blood are likely to spurt out under pressure. The antagonists in a serious bayonet fight were stained with each other’s blood within seconds. Most English subalterns, and most English publishers of Great War books, were too well-bred to find the realistic depiction of human gore fit for public consumption. Oliver Lyttelton — Eton, Cambridge, Grenadier Guards — was proud to typify the breed. He survived the Great War, helped Winston Churchill win the Second World War and in later life became a Viscount. As Lord Chandos he published his Memoirs in 1962, describing how, on September 15th 1916, he and his guardsmen moved into position to assault the German-held village of Lesbouefs.

‘A few yards after leaving our trenches we were met by a withering fire. Our friends on the right were soon brought to a stop, and the rattle of machine gun fire from that flank showed that our fears of being enfiladed had been well founded … The Germans, who had been severely hammered by shell-fire in their trenches on top of the ridge, had pushed forward a company or two to the foot of the slope in front of us, and were firing at us from a group of shell holes. Suddenly the men saw them and, with a hoarse blood cry which I can still hear in my dreams, rushed this line and before we could stop them had bayoneted or shot most of the defenders. I say before we could stop them, because my confused impression is that the enemy shot at us until we were less than ten yards away, and then put their hands up. After that, nothing would have stopped the Grenadiers … I was myself in a great state of excitement and for a few minutes fighting mad.’

‘Hoarse blood cry.’ ‘Great state of excitement.’ ‘Fighting mad.’ The Somme Offensive brought the English gentleman face to face with modern warfare, human butchery on an industrial scale. The battle cry of the Grenadiers haunted Oliver Lyttelton’s dreams for years. But what they shouted he does not say, nor what they did with their bayonets when they reached the Germans with their hands up. The full and frank depiction of the nightmare at Lesbouefs … well, some things are best expressed by Old Etonians when left unsaid or merely hinted at.

The English subaltern supped his fill of horrors on the Somme but very few of those who came through were willing, or able, to provide a clear picture in words of what the worst of bayonet fighting was like. Stuart Cloete made a fictional attempt at it in How Young They Died, where he describes Jim Hilton’s first taste of hand-to-hand fighting at Ypres.

‘ “Charge!” he shouted, and ran forward. The men swept on with him, cheering. He was part of a khaki wave. The Germans he was facing seemed enormous. Giants. Christ … He drove his bayonet at a man’s belly. The German parried. Barrel met barrel in a blow that stung his hands. He brought up the butt under the German’s chin. He went down and Jim spitted him in the throat. The Germans – what was left of them – turned back.’

Biff, bash, and down he goes. Cloete’s perfunctory description suggests he doesn’t have much relish for the job. Few English writers did. Writing of the aftermath of a bayonet fight — the waxy-green corpses, the men impaled on each other’s bayonets — was easier and more tactful than attempting to re-create one. For a first-hand account of a bayonet battle that sounds authentic, we have to turn to the Australians, and specifically to those formations that had their first experience of battle against the Turks.

Ion Idriess was a trooper in the 5th Australian Light Horse. On March 27th 1917 he was with the cavalry squadrons held in reserve for the assault on the Turkish stronghold of Gaza. This ancient capital of the Philistines guarded the traditional invasion route to Palestine from the south. It was a formidable obstacle, built on a prominence overlooking the surrounding country. The Turks had strongly wired their trenches and had sited them among the dense stands of catcus that for generations had guarded Gaza’s fields and orchards.

The English infantry began their march forward at dawn on March 27th and were in position to attack by midday. Idriess and the rest of the cavalry watched with frustrated admiration as waves of infantry plodded through the smoke and dust of the Turkish barrage. Finally, as the sun began to sink, the Australian Light Horse got their chance. The infantry had at last penetrated Gaza’s outer defences. Idriess and his troop dug in their spurs and charged.

‘To our right was the only low hedge and the Turkish infantry were enfilading us from there – Lieutenant Waite swerved his troop and the horses jumped the hedge down onto the Turks: we only got a glimpse of that scrap – the lieutenant firing with his revolver, his men from their saddles, until the lieutenant was hit in five places, but what Turks were not killed, ran, while we thundered on and wondered what calamity might happen when we struck those giant walls of prickly pear. The colonel threw up his hand – we reined up out horses with their noses rearing from the pear – we jumped off – all along the hedge from tiny holes were squirting rifle puffs, in other places the pear was spitting at us as the Turks standing behind simply fired through the juicy leaves. The horse-holders grabbed the horses while each man slashed with his bayonet to cut a hole through those catcus walls. The colonel was firing with his revolver at the juice spots bursting through the leaves … Then came the fiercest individual excitement – man after man tore through the catcus to be met by the bayonets of the Turks, six to one. It was just berserk slaughter. A man sprang at the closest Turk and thrust and sprang aside and thrust again and again – some men howled as they rushed, others cursed the shivery feeling of steel on steel – the grunting breaths, the gritting teeth and the staring eyes of the lunging Turk, the sobbing scream as the bayonet ripped home. The Turkish battalion simply melted away: it was all over in minutes. Men lay horribly bloody and dead; others writhed on the stained grass, while all through the catcus lanes our men were chasing the demented Turks. Amateur soldiers we are supposed to be but, by heavens, I saw the finest soldiers of Turkey go down that day, in bayonet fighting in which only the shock troops of regular armies are supposed to have any chance.’

Part V: Mametz Wood

 Graves attests, Cloete confirms. Fact blurs into fiction as one man’s memory becomes another’s myth. When the armies finally quit the Western Front the refugees returned to reclaim the battlefields. They re-built their towns, re-paved the roads and put the signposts back.  The old landscape was put back, piece by piece, year after year. The bloodiest bits of France and Flanders – the uplands of the Somme, the flat Salient around Ypres – began to disappear under the plough. Each year brought British pilgrims searching for their fathers and their grandfathers in the places where they’d fought and died.

The battlefields of the Western Front exerted a grim, touristic fascination even before the war was over. Gerald Brenan fought in the Somme Offensive as a subaltern in the Fifth Gloucesters. He was working as an artillery observer on July 1st 1916 and watched the doomed assault of the 56th Division from a vantage near the village of Hebuterne at the northern end of the Somme battlefront. Days afterwards, he went wandering over the battlefield to try to find a friend of his, Ralph Partridge, who was serving in a neighbouring Division. He described the walk in his lyrical memoir, A Life Of One’s Own, published by Jonathan Cape in 1962.


‘There was a heavy traffic of mule-drawn limbers and wagons choking the roads, and around us batteries were firing and soldiers camping by companies and battalions around their stacked rifles in open bivouacs. Then the numbers thinned out, and after a little we came to Mametz Wood, which had been the scene of heavy fighting. Its trees were torn and shattered, its leaves had turned brown, and there was a shell hole every three yards. This was a place where something unheard of in this war had taken place – hand-to-hand fighting in the open with bombs and bayonets. What seemed extraordinary was that all the dead bodies there lay just as they had fallen, as though they were being kept as exhibits for a war museum. Germans in their field-grey uniforms, British in their khaki, lying side by side, their faces and their hands a pale waxy green, the colour of a rare marble. Some of these figures still sat with their backs against a tree, and two of them stood locked together by their bayonets, which had pierced each other’s bodies; they were sustained in that position by the tree trunk against which they had fallen. I felt that I was visiting a room in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, for I could not imagine any of those corpses having ever been alive.’

Graves attests, Cloete and Brennan confirm. Respect to all men of all sides who fought the Great War. We can be too clever by half re-fighting their battles as readers. It is sometimes necessary to go and see for oneself.

In reaching Mametz Wood I followed the footsteps of Siegfried Sassoon, who describes in Memoirs Of An Infantry Officer how, on July 6th 1916, he captured a German trench singlehanded. Sassoon and his runner, Lance-Corporal Kendle, set off from Quadrangle Trench. It lay to the west of Mametz Wood and was still being dug by the Germans when the English attacked, barely waist-high at its deepest and fully exposed to observation by the German garrison in Mametz Wood itself. Sassoon and Kendle crawled the length of the trench to the point where it ran out completely as it curved down into a shallow valley. From the other side of this valley German snipers were taking pot shots. Kendle raised his head slightly to retaliate and was drilled through the forehead, stone dead. Sassoon was enraged.

‘If I had stopped to think, I shouldn’t have gone at all … quite unexpectedly, I found myself looking down into a well-conducted trench with a great many Germans in it … I slung a few more bombs, but they fell short of the clumsy, field-grey figures, some of whom half turned to fire their rifles over the left shoulder as they ran across the open towards [Mametz] wood, while a crowd of jostling helmets vanished along the trench. Idiotically elated, I stood there with my fingers in my right ear and emitted a series of “view-holloas” (a gesture which ought to win the approval of people who still regard war as a form of outdoor sport). Having thus failed to commit suicide, I proceeded to occupy the trench – that is to say, I sat down on the fire-step, very much out of breath, and hoped to God the Germans wouldn’t come back again.’

It is impossible to approach Mametz Wood in the footsteps of Siegfried Sassoon and not want to re-enact the whole episode. With the aid of a 1916 trench map I followed the approximate course of Quadrangle Trench to the approximate point where Kendle might have been killed. I took in the lie of the land and checked my bearings. The returning refugees had done their work well. The surrounding fields and copses had been restored exactly as they appeared on my trench map. I set off downhill at the double. I crossed the shallow valley, stormed the tussocky bank on the other side and stood on top of the filled-in trench that Sassoon had captured.

At the edge of Mametz Wood a farmer was rooting out logs for firewood. To show respect for his property I scuffed along the perimeter of his field instead of striking out directly across the rows of tiny green shoots that were just beginning to appear through the soil. Half hidden in the mud was an unexploded Mills bomb, rusty orange in colour, the size of a small pineapple but heavier. The safety pin was missing but the detonating handle was still in place, rusted solid. I weighed it in my hand. Then I lobbed it, stiff-armed, into the bottom of the next field.

In Mametz Wood I truffled in the leaf mould. The old German trenches were visible as zig-zag indentations along the tree-line. Shell craters showed up as declivities between fallen tree trunks. A dry branch snapped and I looked up just in time to glimpse the white scut of a startled deer disappear into the gloom. There was no sound except the rustle of my footsteps in the leaves. No birds sang. The  men I had come to meet, Brenan, Cloete & Co.were still there, the South Wales Borderers, the Lehr Regiment. I didn’t see a Tommy and a Jerry impaled on each other’s bayonets but I knew without the shadow of a reader’s doubt that they were there.

Copyright, Christopher Moore, 2014. Reproduction in any form is not allowed without written permission from the author.

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