- BuyInto the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
Vintage, 655 pp, £12.99, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 09 956383 9
In February 1924, four months before George Mallory and Sandy Irvine died on Everest, Conrad published a short essay called ‘Geography and Some Explorers’. He distinguished between the provision of scientific facts, which could be of only limited interest, and the ‘drama of human endeavour’ embodied in the pursuit of a ‘militant geography’ larger and grander than the mere search for knowledge. Wade Davis’s book on the British Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924 shows how each demonstrated its own form of militant geography, its own blend of poetry and politics, error and achievement. Mallory occupies the centre of this story, but the book reaches far beyond the life and thoughts of a single mountaineer and his place in a history of great British lost causes.
What is it, or was it, about mountains? Near the end of his long life as a passionate if cautious mountaineer, I.A. Richards told an audience at the Alpine Club that only the ‘moderately sophisticated’ could see the point of what to others looked like a ‘dangerous and wasteful species of dementia’. Only a mind which was in full possession of itself could hold off the ‘horror’ that threatens to overtake us in dangerous and exposed high places. Some of those same minds, Davis tells us, had lived through the killing fields of Flanders, where death came casually and continually, and where the quality of someone’s mind was of no concern to the machine-gun bullet or artillery shell.
On the slopes of Everest the enemy was equally indifferent and the risk almost as great. One faction within the Alpine Club wanted to preserve that risk by refusing to use oxygen, a fact juxtaposed here with Haig’s attempt (as late as March 1916) to limit the number of machine guns per battalion, for fear of dampening the men’s martial spirit. The 1921 expedition did not use oxygen, and when it was taken along in 1922 Mallory called it a ‘damnable heresy’ and Arthur Hinks thought that ‘only rotters’ would use it. Among the rotters was George Finch, who was supposed to lead one climbing party with the apparatus while Mallory and Howard Somervell went without it. Events conspired to prevent this happening, and the final party not only went without oxygen but made it impossible for Finch to assemble a qualified group to follow with it. Nonetheless, even with skeletal support Finch and Geoffrey Bruce went faster and got higher than anyone else, higher indeed than anyone had ever climbed before. Thanks to oxygen they did so relatively comfortably. In 1924, Mallory came back with oxygen and a climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, who knew how it worked and how to fix the apparatus when it went wrong.
The oxygen debate epitomises the tension between gentlemen amateurs and professionals. In choosing men for the 1921 expedition, Davis tells us that the committee consistently favoured the right sort over the best sort. No matter that the right sort were too old or not fit enough. Arthur (anti-oxygen) Hinks was among those who kept Finch off the 1921 roster, based on a dubious medical report that seems to have been a cover for their disapproval of his wife’s affairs and perhaps of his colonial origins. The same problems persisted in 1922 and 1924. Finch, who had had the temerity to earn money from his Everest lectures, was blackballed from the 1924 expedition, while one member of the committee vetoed Richard Graham because he had been a conscientious objector. Mallory, to his credit, condoned neither decision, but once again the party was deprived of three of the finest climbers available, with Frank Smythe also being left off the list. Finch had not only pioneered the use of oxygen but also designed a down coat as an alternative to the tweed Norfolk jackets that made the Everest party look, to Bernard Shaw, like a ‘Connemara picnic surprised by a snowstorm’. He was Australian and thus fit to die in the trenches but not to carry the flag of ‘imperial redemption’.
Vol. 34 No. 21 · 8 November 2012
David Simpson left readers with the impression that opposition to the use of oxygen in high-altitude mountaineering was the preserve of a few long-dead members of an upper-class faction in the 1920s Alpine Club (LRB, 25 October). Not so: the argument continues to be made by some leading mountaineers today, the grounds for resisting now being the grotesque sight of ‘comfort stations’, discarded oxygen bottles and dead bodies despoiling what was a once a pristine landscape held sacred by the peoples of the high Himalaya. No corner of the world, highest mountain or deepest ocean, Arctic or Antarctic, rainforest or desert, is now safe from corporate exploitation, either for its natural resources or its cachet as a tourist destination. The spiritual aspect of mountaineering is disappearing, and at the same time the cultures and values of indigenous communities, who often understand much better how to tread lightly in their harsh environments, are being systematically eroded. The suggestion that the use of oxygen should be banned in high-altitude mountaineering is undeniably elitist, but it may be the only way of preventing the Himalaya going the way of the Alps, now largely a giant adventure playground for well-off thrill-seekers.
David Simpson quotes Wade Davis as mentioning ‘Haig’s attempt (as late as March 1916) to limit the number of machine-guns per battalion, for fear of dampening the men’s martial spirit’. In sixty years of reading military history I’ve met many of the wilder, more prejudiced and unsubstantiated criticisms hurled at Douglas Haig (he was ignorant of the conditions in which he sent his men to fight; he was indifferent to their sufferings; he sheltered in châteaux miles from the front line; he scorned the war-winning invention of the tank; he thought cavalry would win the war by charging barbed wire and machine-guns) and thought that most of them had been successfully demolished by modern historians writing about the Great War. This one is new to me. It is a matter of fact that the British army was not only equipped with the eminently reliable Vickers Medium Machine-Gun, in rapidly increasing numbers as the changing tactics of the war dictated, but from mid-1915 also had the excellent American-designed, British-manufatured Lewis Light Machine-Gun down as far as platoon level. This was the army which, under Haig, transformed itself in a few months in 1916 from an agglomeration of inexperienced New Army battalions into an all-arms professional force which two years later could go on to beat the German army ‘if not quickly and easily, at least eventually and conclusively’.
Vol. 34 No. 22 · 22 November 2012
David Simpson fears that the Mallory film The Epic of Everest has gone the way of very many old films (LRB, 25 October). Not so. I saw it in the Vondelpark, Amsterdam in 1995. Dutch National Archives projected it onto a screen in the park using a 35mm projector mounted in one of the archive’s windows. The film ends with the figures of the climbers disappearing into the distance.
Vol. 34 No. 23 · 6 December 2012
The incorrect attribution of the first Tibetan grammar and dictionary to Charles Bell by either Wade Davis or his reviewer David Simpson – it is not clear which – does injustice to Csoma Sándor, who published the first in English in 1834, under the auspices of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta (LRB, 25 October). Sándor’s feat was all the more remarkable given that his mother tongue was Hungarian and he had travelled to the Himalayas by foot from his native Transylvania.
Balingup, Western Australia
Should we demand for turning what was rare
Into a cheap couvade or proxy paradise,
Just one more travelogue to make the groundlings stare?
Thus Louis MacNeice in the script for The Conquest of Everest, lines later included in Autumn Sequel (Letters, 22 November).
Brasenose College, Oxford
Vol. 35 No. 1 · 3 January 2013
Bob Hall says that the allegation that Douglas Haig sought to limit the number of machine-guns per battalion is new to him (Letters, 8 November) and refutes the charge by pointing out that the army had machine-guns. Yet the story is one of A.J.P. Taylor’s most memorable in The First World War (1963):
Lloyd George inquired how many machine-guns were needed. Haig replied: ‘The machine-gun was a much overrated weapon and two per battalion were more than sufficient.’ Kitchener thought that four per battalion might be useful, ‘above four may be counted a luxury.’ Lloyd George told his assistants: ‘Take Kitchener’s maximum; square it, multiply that result by two – and when you are in sight of that, double it again for good luck.’ This feat of arithmetic gave 64 machine-guns per battalion. Before the war was over every British battalion had 43 machine-guns and cried out for more.
A similar account can be found in Taylor’s English History 1914-45, where he also asserts that Haig ordered Passchendaele, and that a cavalry attack was part of his strategy in July 1917. I’d be disappointed to hear he’d made it all up.