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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.

 

Where Did All the Great War Books Go?

Book Review:  ‘Merchants Of Hope; British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919 – 1939’, by Rosa Maria Bracco.

Rosa Maria Bracco’s book was published by Berg in 1993 when she was working for a publisher based in Cambridge, England, after being awarded a doctorate from the university there. ‘Merchants of Hope’ reads like a Ph.D. thesis reworked for a middlebrow readership and it works. Almost every page holds something of interest about the Great War’s writers and their books. The author provides frequent summaries of plots, themes and characters and is helpfully restrained in not presuming too much upon the reader’s wider knowledge of the period.

In so far as Bracco pursues a critical argument it seems to be this: the invigorating analysis proposed by Paul Fussell in ‘The Great War & Modern Memory’ (1975) has had the unfortunate effect of obscuring the evidence offered by literature written closer to the event , much of which challenges Fussell’s assertion that the truest writing about the Great War was ironic. There were certainly bangry, ironical and disillusioned writers at work, 1919 – 1939, but most of those who made the Great War their subject after it had been won, civilian or military, Home Front or overseas, portrayed characters who thought the Great War was beastly but necessary. Heroism, fortitude, self-sacrifice and comradeship were taken as real by a majority of mainstream, best-selling English writers; these values signified an important truth about the War that readers expected to find endorsed in their novels.

Altogether Bracco refers to nearly 200 books, quite a few of them from names that will be familiar to Great War collectors. She also mentions a surprising number who will be new, including some from writers who never wrote again after their debut. Equally surprising, especially to book hunters familiar with ABE as a source of Great War titles, is the number of Bracco’s books which appear to have become extinct. About a quarter (37) of the books in her index are unavailable as hardback first editions on ABE. Many are now only available as print-on-demand facsimiles or e-books.

I checked two of Bracco’s titles – ‘Spears Against Us’ (1932?) by Cecil Roberts and ‘Simon Called Peter’ (1921) by Robert Keable. According to info gleaned from booksellers’ catalogue entries on ABE, sales for ‘Spears Against Us’ reached at least 170,000 copies; sales of ‘Simon Called Peter’ reached at least 250,000. Of the two titles, there were 16 copies of ‘Spears Against Us’ for sale on ABE and 31 copies of ‘Simon Called Peter’. This gives a survival ratio, in ABE terms, of approximately I: 8,000 for copies of ‘Simon Called Peter’ and 1: 10,500 for ‘Spears Against Us’. What happened to the rest of them, those tens of thousands of copies of both titles that have not survived the intervening eighty or ninety years? Lost? Discarded? Pulped? Are they still out there, somewhere, but not on ABE?

If Rosa Maria Bracco is right In thinking that English middlebrows of the Twenties and Thirties wrote of the Great War with a surer grasp of authenticity than their modern successors we should perhaps be taking them more seriously. Hurry now while stocks last.

Backchat in British Trench Lingo, 1914 – 1918

To ‘backchat’ in the British Army was to answer back. When directed at a superior it was impertinence or insubordination, which was a military crime. Among comrades it was simply part of the constant banter and raillery that prevailed in the ranks. The phrase comes from the Hindustani, batchit, from bat, language. In India, which is where The King-Emperor’s regular soldiers learned their trade before 1914, to ‘sling the bat’ was to talk the language of the native population.

Nothing marked out a ‘pukka’ Tommy at the start of the First World War so much as the quantity of ‘Hindoo’ in his slang. Proficiency in ‘chewing the rag’ with such an ‘old sweat’ was an essential first step for any volunteer or conscript seeking acceptance in a ‘mob’ of regulars. He quickly learned that bread was ‘rooty’, from roti; water was ‘pawnee’, pani; tea was ‘char’, chai. A private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Frank Richards, evoked the type precisely in his memoir, Old Soldiers Never Die. Booze and fillies were the priorities when Frank and his mate, Billy, disembarked in the French city of Rouen in August 1914.

‘Billy used to boast that no matter what new country he went to he could always make the natives understand what he required. He ordered a bottle of red wine, speaking in English, Hindustani and Chinese, with one French word to help him out. The landlord did not understand him and Billy cursed him in good Hindustani and told him he did not understand his own language, threatening to knock the hell out of him if he did not hurry up with the wine … I remonstrated with Billy and told him we could not treat the French who were our allies the same as we treated the Eastern races. He said: “Look here, Dick, there is only one way to treat foreigners from Hong Kong to France and that is to knock hell out of them …” ’

Some of the Army’s Hindi derivations – such as ‘Blighty’, ‘char’ and ‘pukka’ – became so widespread they have entered the mainstream of English slang. Blighty, meaning England, the homeland, derives from bilaiti, foreign land. A ‘Blighty’ or ‘cushy one’ was a fortunate wound requiring evacuation to England for treatment, similar to the German, heimatschuss, a home-shot, or the French, fine blessure, a fine wound. ‘Cushy’ or ‘cushti’, in the sense of comfortable, safe, well off, derives from khush, pleasure. ‘Pukka’, meaning correct, proper, fit for purpose, comes from pukkha, ripe, ready to eat – the opposite of ‘cutcha’, kachcha, bad, false, raw.

Given the importance of food and drink to the fighting man it is unsurprising that so many Indian words of a domestic nature entered trench lingo. Men were ‘booka’, hungry, bhukha, much of the time. ‘Burgoo’, porridge, and ‘skilly’, thin stew, reached the trenches in a ‘dixie’, an oval, bucket-sized cauldron with a lid and a handle that Hindi speakers called a degchi, cooking pot. Any offering deemed unworthy of the ‘bobbajee’, cook, bawachi, was likely to be disparaged as ‘cooter gosh’, not fit for human consumption, from kutta, dog, and ghosht, food. Like everyone else at the Front the ‘bobbajee’ often had to work under stress and got little thanks for his efforts. Any ingrate who spat out a mouthful of gristle with the exclamation, ‘Who called that bastard a cook?’ was likely to be rewarded with a prolonged spell of ‘dixie-bashing’- cleaning greasy pots with bare hands and a damp rag.

The battle on the Western Front was a siege, a war of materiel in the form of massed firepower and manpower. The scale of organisation required brought huge bureaucracies into being. Everything demanded a ‘chit’ or ‘chitty’, a hand-written authorisation, from chitthi. Anyone approaching the Quartermaster (‘blanket-stacker’ or ‘clutching hand’) for a new piece of kit was unlikely to be successful without a ‘chit’ signed by an officer or NCO. And behind ‘the Front’ was ‘the Base’, crammed with depots and warehouses run by an army of ‘ink slingers’ filling up wads of ‘coggidge’, Army forms, from kaghaz, writing paper.

Tommy’s best friend, according to his sergeant, was his rifle, his ‘bandook’ or ‘bundhook’, musket, banduq, When the ‘foot-slogger’ was ordered to march quicker he was told to put some ‘jildy’ into it, energy, effort, juldee. When he was ordered to slow down or halt it was ‘Arsty! Arsty!’ from ahisti, go slow. If he stood on the fire step to inspect No Man’s Land he took a ‘dekko’ at it, ‘Dekho! Look!’, from dekhna, to see. And every few weeks, if he was lucky, he was marched off to see the ‘dhobi-wallah , laundry bloke, at the local de-lousing station to get clean uniform in exchange his verminous ‘Khaki’ uniform, khakhi, meaning dust-coloured.

‘Dhobi’ meant laundry, and ‘wallah’ meant doer, wala, the man who does it. Everyone was a doer in trenches. The man firing the trench mortar was the ‘trench mortar wallah’. The man who fetched the mail was the ‘post wallah’. The chaplain was the ‘pulpit wallah’.

The most important doer of all, as far as Tommy was concerned, was the one who picked him up and carried him to safety after he had ‘stopped one’ on the battlefield. As long he hadn’t been hit anywhere vital, such as the ‘goolies’, testicles, from ghooli, ball, the ‘dhoolie-wallah’, was the stricken man’s saviour – the stretcher-bearer, from doli, the covered litter used in India for the conveyance of important personages. No one, in his own mind, was more important than the wounded warrior, especially if he was heading for ‘Blighty’ with a ‘cushy one’ after ‘doing his bit’ against the ‘unspeakable Hun’.

(For more derivations and explanations of Trench Lingo see Chris Moore’s miscellany, Roger, Sausage and Whippet, published by Headline To browse for books by any writer whose works have been quoted, click here.)

The Great War Bookshop 2015 – 1915 Diary

Monday, March 2nd

Blockade: the British and French warn all neutral shipping to Germany it will be stopped. After bad weather at the Dardanelles, the Royal Navy’s big guns fire again.

 

Tuesday, March 3rd

The first Canadians on the Western Front take over a section of the British line. Indian and British regiments mass to attack German-held Neuve Chapelle.

 

Wednesday, March 4th

Belgian troops shoot down a zeppelin heading for London. Trades unions agree to allow women and unskilled labour to work in munitions factories.

 

Thursday, March 5th

Another German zeppelin is shot down over the Belgian coast. In South West Africa, 40,000 South African troops march against German garrisons.

 

Friday, March 6th

Political turmoil in Athens as the pro-German king refuses to allow the Prime Minister to send troops to fight with the French and British at Gallipoli.

 

Saturday, March 7th

Indian troops move up at Neuve Chapelle where the British artillery has concentrated for its biggest bombardment of the war so far.

 

Sunday, March 8th

Austrian political and military leaders argue about yielding territory to Italy in an effort to prevent another war front opening against them.

 

Monday, March 9th

Lloyd George urges parliament to back legislation giving the government wide powers over the munitions industry.

 

Tuesday, March 10th

Indian and British regiments attack at Neuve Chapelle and break through the German lines. Lord Kitchener appoints the general to command at Gallipoli.

 

Wednesday, March 11th

The Neuve Chapelle battle bogs down as the Germans steady staunch the breach and bring up reinforcements.

 

Thursday, March 12th

German counter attacks at Neuve Chapelle are driven off. Rupert Brooke anchors off the Greek island of Lemnos for the Gallipoli campaign.

 

Friday, March 13th

The battle at Neuve Chapelle ends: British casualties, 12,000; German casualties 10,000. The general leading the Gallipoli campaign, Sir Ian Hamilton, is on his way there.

 

Saturday, March 14th

British vessels trying to clear Turkish mines from the Dardanelles channel are driven back by artillery batteries that have escaped the naval bombardment.

 

Sunday, March 15th

A German warship, the Dresden, is blown up by its crew after the Royal Navy catches it at anchor off the coast of Chile. Lord Kitchener urges greater efforts on munitions.

 

Monday, March 16th

Sixteen British and French battleships at the Dardanelles prepare to storm up the channel with guns blazing if necessary.

 

Tuesday, March 17th

General Hamilton arrives on the Greek island of Tenedos to take command of troops for Gallipoli. The Royal Navy commander, Admiral Carden, goes home sick.

 

Wednesday, March 18th

Disaster for the Royal Navy: two battleships are sunk by mines in the Dardanelles as they try to force a way through; others are damaged; the rest turn back.

 

Thursday, March 19th

Trades unions agree to a system of arbitration for settling disputes rather than strikes to speed up munitions production.

 

Friday, March 20th

The Allies accept Italian terms for entering the war. Winston Churchill orders the first prototype tanks. German zeppelins bomb the outskirts of Paris.

 

Saturday, March 21st

German forces in South West Africa are in retreat after their first encounter with General Botha’s columns. The Italian military attaché leaves Vienna.

 

Sunday, March 22nd

The Austrians suffer a humiliating defeat on the Eastern Front when the key fortress off Przemsyl falls with the Russians taking 120,000 prisoners.

 

Monday, March 23rd

Sir Ian Hamilton decides it will take weeks before his troops can be organised for a landing at Gallipoli. The naval bombardment resumes.

 

Tuesday, March 24th

The Turks appoint a German, Otto Liman Von Sanders, to overall command at Gallipoli. British aircraft bomb submarine yards near Antwerp.

 

Wednesday, March 25th

General Hamilton goes to Egypt to rally Australian and New Zealand troops, ANZACs, for the Gallipoli campaign and to co-ordinate plans.

 

Thursday, March 26th

French aircraft bomb German zeppelin sheds at Metz. Local officials in Germany are given powers to restrict alcohol sales and weaken the beer.

 

Friday, March 27th

Rupert Brooke arrives at the Egyptian port of Alexandria so the Royal Naval Division can re-pack and re-organise for the Gallipoli landings.

 

Saturday, March 28th

Outrage in London after The Times publishes a report blaming the failures at Neuve Chapelle on a shortage of munitions.

 

Sunday, March 29th

Lloyd George gives a speech saying Drink is a more dangerous enemy than Germany. General Hamilton inspects a parade of 20,000 ANZACs in Egypt.

 

Monday, March 30th

King George decides to take the pledge and 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’.

Book review: ‘And We Go On’, by Will R. Bird.

 

The name of Will Bird will be familiar to some readers from his book, Ghosts Have Warm Hands, which features reports of the author’s personal encounters with spectral apparitions on the Western Front, 1917 – 1918. That book, published in 1968, was a much abridged and re-written version of a more conventional combat narrative published by Bird in 1930 to considerable success in his native Canada. It is that book, under its original title and with a scholarly introductory essay, that is now under review.

So that is the first question for readers who’ve had to survive 2014’s centenary deluge of ‘re-discovered’ Great War obscurities and ‘undeservedly neglected’ classics. Is this latest effort of retrieval worth the effort, especially at the paperback price of £16.99? Probably yes, if you are interested in exploring the Canadians’ fine record on the Western Front. Yes, too, if you like your memoirs of France and Flanders to be granular in physical detail and mixed in with frequent moralistic speculations on the callousness of industrial warfare. None of the classic episodes of the infantry memoir are omitted from And We Go On: the sniped soldier whose brains splatter the author’s uniform; the comrade who dies in the author’s arms; the German met on patrol whom the author mercifully allows to retreat.

But classic parts do not always make a classic whole. Introducing this well-produced new edition, its editor, Professor David Williams, draws comparisons between Will Bird’s work and that of Eric Maria Remarque, Siegfried Sassoon and Ernst Junger, amongst others. Non-Canadian readers may well feel this is a stretch too far. Apart from the ghostly encounters, there is nothing of the Western Front infantry experience in this book that cannot be found more pithily expressed and without a tenth of the moralising in, to take just one example, Frank Richards’ immortal memoir of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Old Soldiers Never Die.

The Great War Bookshop Diary, February, 2015 – 1915.

 

Sunday, February 1st

Germany decides on unrestricted submarine warfare as bread rationing is introduced in Berlin. British football legend, Sir Stanley Matthews, is born in Stoke.

 Monday, February 2nd

A colonel in the Turkish infantry, Mustafa Kemal, starts organising troops on the Gallipoli peninsula to resist an invasion by sea.

Tuesday, February 3rd

Turkish troops attempt to cross the Suez canal with a co-ordinated attack at three places but are easily repulsed. In South Africa, the last pro-German rebels surrender.

 Wednesday, February 4th

Germany publicly declares its new policy on submarine warfare and warns that all ships in British waters are henceforth regarded as legitimate prey.

Thursday, February 5th

Parliament votes to increase the size of the British army to 3,000,000 men.

Friday, February 6th

On the Western Front the war goes underground. The British are mining at La Bassee while the Germans detonate three mines a La Boiselle.

Saturday, February 7th

The Kaiser visits the Eastern Front and braves a blizzard to see the start of an ambitious new offensive against the Russians at Masuria.

Sunday, February 8th

At the British military base at Rouen, the Church Army opens the first civilian-run recreation hut for soldiers heading to and from the Western Front.

 Monday, February 9th

Sandstorms impede the British pursuit of Turks retreating across Sinai from Suez.

Tuesday, February 10th

Now the rebels in South Africa have surrendered, the British turn their attention to the German colony next door whither many have fled.

Wednesday, February 11th

The South African Prime Minister, General Louis Botha, sails for South West Africa (modern Namibia) to command his troops personally.

Thursday, February 12th

At the instigation of Lloyd George, the formation is under way of a new regiment, the Welsh Guards.

Friday, February 13th

Boats kitted with steel nets patrol the English channel to snare German submarines. Railway workers in receive a war bonus.

Saturday, February 14th

The German offensive on the Eastern Front clears the Russians out of East Prussia.

 Sunday, February 15th

A mutiny by Indian troops in Singapore is suppressed with summary executions after nearly 40 Europeans are killed.

Monday, February 16th

In the face of the German submarine threat, the British government prioritise shipping for transporting troops and supplies to Gallipoli.

Tuesday, February 17th

Aircraft launched from HMS Ark Royal reconnoitre the Turkish forts guarding the Dardanelles channel and the Gallipoli peninsula.

Wednesday, February 18th

The year’s first session of the Italian parliament opens with a clamour for war against Austria to reclaim historical territories.

Thursday, February 19th

French and British battleships open a methodical bombardment of the Dardanelles forts.

Friday, February 20th

Winston Churchill, in bed with the flu, holds a meeting with officials to form a Landship Committee to design and build a prototype tank.

Saturday, February 21st

American diplomats work to broker a deal in London and Berlin to halt submarine attacks on neutral shipping.

Sunday, February 22nd

The Germans end their Masuria offensive after driving back the Russians with heavy casualties.

Monday, February 23rd

Troops from South Africa march on German settlements in South West Africa. Anti-submarine nets are deployed in the Irish Sea.

Tuesday, February 24th

In Austria, the government takes over the distribution of flour and grain.

 Wednesday, February 25th

The bombardment of the Dardanelles forts resumes with the Royal Navy’s most powerful battleship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, joining in.

Thursday, February 26th

The Germans use flame-throwers for the first time, against French troops near Verdun. Royal Marines land at the Dardanelles to blow up Turkish artillery.

Friday, February 27th

The despatch of the 46th (North Midland) Division to France heralds the arrival on the Western Front of Britain’s Territorial Army.

Saturday, February 28th

Lloyd George urges speedy progress on the supply of munitions. A merchant ship in the Channel rams a German submarine – the first attack of its kind.

Without Machine Gun To Cambrai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Great War Bookshop Diary, January 2015 – 1915

 

Monday, January 5th

The London Stock Exchange trades again after its five-month shutdown. Roman Catholics around the world protest at the arrest of Cardinal Mercier.

Tuesday, January 6th

Lord Kitchener speaks on the war in parliament: German strength is diminishing while the resources of the Allies can only increase.

 Wednesday, January 7th

Italy, preparing to abandon neutrality, establishes its first air force. The French government cracks down on liquor sales and bans public consumption of absinthe.

Thursday, January 8th

Lord Kitchener backs Churchill’s idea for a strategic strike against Turkey at Gallipoli. The French storm German positions around Soissons.

Friday, January 9th

Inside Germany, the top brass test poison gas as a weapon. King George visits wounded Indians in Brighton where the Royal Pavilion is in use as a hospital.

 Saturday, January 10th

Turkish troops in Palestine prepare for an advance across the Sinai desert to attack the Suez canal.

Sunday, January 11th

The Royal Navy in the eastern Mediterranean begins planning for an attack against Turkish land defences inside the Dardanelles channel.

Monday, January 12th

The Germans counter attack at Soissons; the city’s cathedral is damaged by shellfire.

Tuesday, January 13th

The British war cabinet decides definitely to invade Gallipoli with French support. The King bestows the first VCs of the war at Buckingham Palace.

Wednesday, January 14th

The Kaiser awards medals as the battle at Soissons ends in a German victory. Turkish troops launch their desert advance towards Suez.

Thursday, January 15th

On the Eastern Front, the Russians assemble a new army of 800,000 men for an invasion of Prussia.

Friday, January 16th

The Turks cross Sinai under cover of night using 10,000 camels as transport.

Saturday, January 17th

A French submarine on patrol in the Dardanelles is sunk after hitting a Turkish mine.

Sunday, January 18th

Argentina impounds three German merchant ships for violating its neutrality.

Monday, January 19th

The first night-time air raid on Britain by zeppelins sees bombs dropped on Yarmouth, Cromer and Kings Lynn: 4 civilians killed; 15 injured.

Tuesday, January 20th

A ship carrying Ernest Shackleton and his team to explore the Antarctic becomes icebound. It will be more than two years before they get home.

 Wednesday, January 21st

In the North Sea, one German submarine accidentally sinks another after a mix up over signals.

Thursday, January 22nd

British aircraft attack Zeebrugge on the Belgian coast where the Germans are developing a submarine base.

Friday, January 23rd

British aircraft locate the Turks advancing on the Suez canal. The inventor Stanley Mills designs Britain’s first effective hand grenade.

 Saturday, January 24th

British and German Dreadnoughts clash at the Dogger Bank in the North Sea. 800 Germans drown when the Blucher is sunk. Royal Navy casualties: under 100.

Sunday, January 25th

The German government imposes controls on grain and flour as food imports run short.

 Monday, January 26th

The Turks reach the Suez canal and launch a feint attack. The French and the British confirm plans for joint operations at the Dardanelles.

Tuesday, January 27th

As British diplomacy targets neutral powers in the Balkans, ahead of the Dardanelles- Gallipoli campaign, Rumania receives a ‘loan’ of £5,000,000.

Wednesday, January 28th

The British war cabinet hears Lloyd George’s arguments for a military campaign to rally support in the Balkans for Serbia against Austria and Germany.

Thursday, January 29th

The Cumbrian shipbuilding town of Barrow-in-Furness, where British submarines are under construction, is shelled by a German submarine.

Friday, January 30th

In the English channel, German submarines attack merchant ships without first giving warning signals: two British vessels sunk.

War Books, a poem by Ivor Gurney.

 

Ivor Gurney served as an infantryman on the Western Front, 1916 – 1917. This poem comes from ‘Ivor Gurney, War Letters’, edited by R.K.R Thornton, published 1983.

 

War Books

What did they expect of our toil and extreme

Hunger – the perfect drawing of a heart’s dream?

Did they look for a book of wrought art’s perfection,

Who promised no reading, no praise, nor publication?

Out of the heart’s sickness the spirit wrote

For delight. Or to escape hunger, or of war’s worst anger,

When the guns died to silence and men would gather sense

Somehow together, and find this was life indeed,

And praise another’s nobleness, or to Cotswold get hence.

There we wrote – Corbie Ridge – or in Gonnehem at rest,

Or Fauquissart or world’s death songs, ever the best.

One made sorrows’ praise passing the Church where silence

Opened for the long quivering strokes of the bell –

Another wrote all soldiers’ praise, and of France and night’s stars,

Served his guns, got immortality, and died well.

But Ypres played another trick with its danger on me,

Kept still the needing and loving of action body;

Gave no candles, and nearly killed me twice as well,

And no souvenirs though I risked my life in the stuck tanks,

Yet there was praise of Ypres, love came sweet in hospital

And Old Flanders went under to long ages of plays thought in my pages.

 

The Great War Bookshop Diary, December 2014 – 1914

Monday, December 1st

French pilots start testing a device to enable them to shoot through their propellers. The leader of South Africa’s pro-German rebels, Christiaan de Wet, is captured.

 

Tuesday, December 2nd

Belgian troops north of Ypres repulse Germans trying to attack over the flooded fields with rafts.

 

Wednesday,   December 3rd

The German military imposes martial law in those parts of Belgium under its control and levies a tax to raise 40,000,000 francs for continuing the war.

 

Thursday, December 4th

King George visits Belgian Headquarters and confers a medal on King Albert. In London, an official inquiry gathers evidence of German atrocities.

 

Friday, December 5th

South Africa’s pro-German rebels offer to negotiate; the British demand unconditional surrender.

 

Saturday, December 6th

The Pope suggests a truce to mark Christmas. Long-range German guns bombard Ostend.

 

Sunday, December 7th

The Paris stock exchange re-opens for business. The British in Mesopotamia advance into the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

 

Monday, December 8th

The biggest naval battle of the war so far takes place off the Falkland Islands. Admiral Sturdee sinks five German ships. Germans killed: 2,100. British killed: 10.

 

Tuesday, December 9th

Another Germany spy, Nicholas Ahlers, is sentenced to death but reprieved. The archaeologist T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) sails to Egypt for a job in Military Intelligence.

 

Wednesday,   December 10th

No one is nominated in the ‘Peace’ category when the year’s Nobel Prizes are announced in Stockholm.

 

Thursday, December 11th

British airmen adopt the French roundel to identify their aircraft because the Union Jack appears too like the German cross at long range.

 

Friday, December 12th

On the Eastern Front, a new offensive by the Germans and Austrians persuades to Russians to quit the city of Cracow.

 

Saturday, December 13th

A British submarine sneaks under a mine-field in the Dardanelles and sinks a Turkish battleship — the first success of its kind in naval warfare.

 

Sunday, December 14th

A counter attack by the Serbian Army forces the Austrians into retreat back and opens the way to Belgrade.

 

Monday, December 15th

Serbian patrols enter Belgrade as the Austrians retreat.

 

Tuesday, December 16th

German warships bombard Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby at breakfast time: 137 killed; 592 injured.

 

Wednesday,   December 17th

Britain takes control of Egypt and declares a Protectorate. British insurance companies raise premiums for householders on North Sea coasts.

 

Thursday, December 18th

The Indian troops who’ve arrived on the Western Front attack German trenches at Givenchy. A new Sultan, Hussein Kemal Pasha, is installed in Egypt.

 

Friday, December 19th

The Indians at Givenchy yield to German counter-attacks. Allied aircraft bomb zeppelin sheds at Brussels.

 

Saturday, December 20th

The French open a big offensive against the Germans in Champagne designed to relieve pressure on the Russians in the East.

 

Sunday, December 21st

British reinforcements are sent to bolster the Indians being pushed back at Givenchy. Lord Kitchener authorises a big expansion of the Royal Flying Corps.

 

Monday, December 22nd

German efforts break the Indian line at Givenchy are repulsed and the lost trenches regained.

 

Tuesday, December 23rd

The first Australian and New Zealand troops who left for Europe at the start of the war pitch camp outside Cairo.

 

Wednesday,   December 24th

Unofficial truces mark Christmas Eve on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Dover becomes the first British city to be bombed by aircraft. No one is hurt.

 

Thursday, December 25th

Three British seaplane carriers launch air-raids against targets inside Germany. One battleship at anchor is damaged.

 

Friday, December 26th

The Russians tell the British that they will not be able to resume offensive operations next year unless they get more artillery shells.

 

Saturday, December 27th

At a meeting with General Joffre, Sir John French is informed of French plans for large offensives in 1915 in which the British will play a supporting role.

 

Sunday, December 28th

Londoners are warned to take shelter in basements in the event of air-raids. More Australian and New Zealand troops leave for Europe.

 

Monday, December 29th

Winston Churchill urges cabinet colleagues to consider strategic alternatives to the Western Front where German superiority is forcing the Allies to ‘chew barbed wire’.

 

Tuesday, December 30th

German aircraft bomb Dunkirk, inflicting nearly 50 civilian casualties.

 

Wednesday,   December 31st

After five months of fighting, casualties on the Western Front are estimated to be: French, nearly 1,000,000; German, around 680,000; British, about 90,000.

 

Thursday, January 1st, 2015 -1915

A new medal is approved for junior officers – the Military Cross. This year’s Wimbledon tennis championships are cancelled.

 

Friday, January 2nd

King Albert rejects the idea of putting his army under the command of Sir John French. The Royal Navy bombards Dar-es-Salaam in German East Africa.

 

Saturday, January 3rd

The Roman Catholic leader in Belgium, Cardinal Mercier, is arrested for his pastoral letter urging ‘patriotism and endurance’ against German occupation.

 

Sunday, January 4th

Turkey suffers a heavy defeat in two separate battles against Russian Armies in the Caucasus.