Next month​ I shall raise a glass to the memory of a relation whom I never knew – a great-uncle called Aubrey Hastings, who was killed at the Battle of Loos a century ago, on 5 October 1915. In that era of large families, he was one of five of my close forebears who fought in France during the First World War. Three wrote letters and reflections about the trench experience, of which I have originals or copies.

They offer a corrective, for me a significant one, to a popular myth about the Western Front, sustained by several bestselling modern novelists: that it prompted among intelligent people a uniform generational response, a revulsion of the kind reflected in the writings of Siegfried Sassoon and Erich Maria Remarque. In truth, attitudes varied as widely as do perceptions of all manner of human experience, in peace or in war. Uncle Aubrey was one of a large Catholic family, whose menfolk were all educated by Jesuits at Stonyhurst. When the war came he was 28, newly married and working in the City of London. He enlisted immediately, was commissioned into the East Surrey Regiment and went to France in June 1915 as one of the ‘First Hundred Thousand’, as the men of Kitchener’s New Army became known.

At first he reacted to the battlefield with curiosity and fascination rather than fear, as he described in letters to an elder brother, my grandfather, Basil Hastings, who was medically unfit for active service:

23 June 1915

Dear Basil, we went in the trenches for 24 hours on Monday. It was extremely interesting and exciting. They shelled us a bit and threw a few hand-grenades and hand-mortars. We had one casualty. I was firing at a sniper with a periscopic rifle and I had driven him from one loophole to another when he shot the piling swivel clean off my rifle and, incidentally, bent the bore. Some Hun! He was shooting splendidly all day.

The Hun gives you just as much in the way of shells and hand-grenades as we give him, but in a hand-to-hand fight they are not much good. We go back to the trenches today. It’s raining, so I expect they will be pretty sloppy. We fired four 18lb trench mortars at them, which they didn’t like at all. Three fell on their parapet, one in the trench. They replied with whizz-bangs and ‘little willies’, but without much effect. Thanks for the Tatler etc. They were very welcome, love to all.

As the weeks went by, however, Aubrey’s enthusiasm faded. His unit suffered a steady stream of casualties, and he received minor wounds from shell fragments:

My appearance in the casualty list for 13 August refers to the second time I’ve been hit – only slightly, Thank God! It occurred when we were in support. The Hun put over some shrapnel-registering shells, I think. Willie Martin and I were in command of Support trench with 3 platoons (Willie is our second captain – a ripping fellow, a regular officer) we got the men in dugouts and were returning to the telephone dugout.

We heard the usual whizz and I dropped down and Willie remained almost upright. It went off ‘bang!’ and I felt a sting in my right shoulder. As soon as it was over we emerged and I took my coat off and found I’ve been hit with two splinters. They only made a small patch of blood on my shirt. It’s not the fact of being hit, Basil, it’s the frightening effect of shells etc that make you so nervy. I’m much more nervy today than when I first came out.

The shift in the tenor of the thirty-odd letters of Aubrey’s I possess is striking. They are full of reportage, no better and no worse than tens of thousands of published examples of such correspondence. He describes trench war with mounting dismay: shelling, bombing, sniping, losses amid a sea of blooming poppies in the grass behind his dugout.

He arrived in France as a willing, if not eager, officer of the king. By autumn, however, he understood that the death that had overtaken a steady stream of his comrades was highly likely to come to him too. In one pathetic note to my grandfather, at that time a popular playwright, he asked him to try to use his influence to secure him a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, which he mistakenly supposed to be a less perilous alternative to infantry service: ‘I’ve got a certain amount of mechanical knowledge and I think my CO would recommend a transfer on the ground of being married.’ On 24 September he wrote: ‘We are in a bust-up tomorrow so I thought I’d let you know’ (this would become the British offensive at Loos). Then:

The artillery starts today. I only told the colonel the other day I was married and he said it was a pity I had not told him before, for in case anything happened to me, it would be difficult for Elly to get a pension. I just mention this in case of events, as I know you would help to straighten it out. Give my love to dearest Mother.

A few days later the battalion’s war diary recorded: ‘D Coy’s trench got a severe shelling about 8 a.m. resulting in several casualties. Lt. Hastings was killed, also two men, and 9 others wounded.’ Aubrey was one of four officers and 68 other ranks of his battalion to die that month, with a further six officers and 251 other ranks wounded – in all, about one third of the 7th East Surreys’ total strength were casualties of the Loos fighting. From his last few letters, it’s easy to deduce that by the day of his death he was an unhappy man, committed to his duty but deeply fearful of his likely fate.

Yet Aubrey’s eldest brother contrived to enjoy the First World War in a fashion incomprehensible to those who view it only through the writings of the war poets. Lewis Hastings, born in 1880, had run away from Stonyhurst to South Africa aged 18, and roamed that country thereafter as hunter, policeman, prospector, star rugby player and not unsuccessful part-time politician. In 1914 he led a national recruiting campaign for the Imperial Light Horse, then served with them through the successful South-West Africa campaign. He then took ship for England and joined the Royal Field Artillery, with which by 1916 he was serving as a battery commander in France. Lewis’s letters, from those days until the end, reflect an exuberance and appetite for risk, which survived even a bad gassing.

In April 1917, about the time he was awarded a Military Cross, he wrote home to Basil:

Recently I’ve seen dozens of air fights, which are the cream of spectacles when you get anything like a near view. The Bosch is now getting it in the neck up above, thank goodness. For the present, we’re more or less in trenches again – but movement orders may come at any moment. I’m writing this in an Observation Post in the outpost line on a comparatively peaceful and sunny morning. Love to Billie and the youngsters.

All his life Lewis was a scribbler of verse, and the habit endured in France. He wrote a long poem at Ypres in 1917 entitled ‘The Salient’, later published in a collection of his work, of which this is a snatch:

Battery Action! S.O.S.!
Shadowy man after man leaps to a gun.
Flash from the centre – five then flash as one.
Faces of straining gun-crews,
     Vicious and vivid
Fire spirals and cataracts – knives, spikes
Of fire stabbing the dark. Batters and strikes
On the ears the unutterable, profound
     Debauchery of sound.

Much of the later part of the poem addresses Lewis’s hesitant recognition that somehow, amid the terrors and miseries of Ypres, he was enjoying himself.

After the war, he spent much of his subsequent life farming and hunting in southern Africa. For a time he was a member of the Rhodesian government, a huge, shaggy, romantic figure who roused hopeless adolescent passion in the breast of the teenage Doris Lessing, as she described in her memoirs long afterwards: ‘He was famous for his oratory. He was famous for his love affairs, possibly because he wrote poems not unlike Rupert Brooke’s, and a good many were love poems. Very handsome he was, like a lion … How could wives not fall in love with him? Not to mention daughters.’

In 1963, I was working as a researcher on the BBC TV series The Great War, for the 50th anniversary of 1914. Lewis wrote me a long letter, in which he put forward an argument I’m now convinced was sound: that it’s a mistake to suggest that the First World War was a qualitatively, as distinct from quantitatively, worse military experience than history’s other great death grapples. All conflicts inflict unspeakable horrors on those who participate in them ‘at the sharp end’. Veterans of the Thirty Years’ War, of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, or of the Eastern Front in World War Two, would laugh at the notion that Ypres or Passchendaele did worse things to mankind than other generations of soldiers endured.

Lewis told me that he had just finished reading a new history of the Waterloo campaign. ‘You know,’ he wrote,

those three days in 1815 were as full of mud and blood and horrors and blunders as the long Somme agony was. A review of Henry Williamson’s book on the Somme by some hysterical nitwit claimed that all the good and brave and the potential leaders were annihilated, and apparently on the first day! Frightful as it was, one must remember that it was followed by the large-scale battles of ’17 and the bloody squalor of Passchendaele. British fortitude and capacity for sacrifice were not written off in November 1916.

Moreover, though I know beyond peradventure that our chaps in 1918, especially after the great German attacks in March and April, were on the whole below the heroic standards of the British armies of 1916, they were still capable of inflicting upon the German army in August, September and October the greatest defeats in its history, capturing more prisoners than the French, Belgians and Americans put together … This is always forgotten. Wish I could tell you more – about horses! About mules! Yes, the poor bloody mules!

My own study of the reminiscences of those who fought in France suggests that while Lewis’s zest for the fray represented a minority view, it was more widely shared than many modern historians recognise. In The Long Shadow, his recent study of the legacy of 1914-18, David Reynolds makes the important point that the bulk of contemporary poetry, far from being anti-war, was fiercely patriotic and positive in tone. It is often forgotten that Wilfred Owen went to his grave in 1918 still resolute that the allied cause was just.

Charles Carrington, later a biographer of Rudyard Kipling, served for three years as an infantry officer in France. In 1975 he was moved to write to the historian Michael Howard by exasperation with Paul Fussell’s newly published The Great War and Modern Memory. Fussell, an American critic and veteran of World War Two, suggested that what had happened to those who fought in France was so uniquely dreadful that it defied adequate interpretation by historians, and could be properly understood only through a literary prism. Carrington thought this was nonsense, and agreed with Lewis, whom he knew, that it’s a mistake to regard the war poets as the only authentic voices of their generation. ‘I saw more fighting,’ he wrote,

than Siegfried Sassoon, or Edmund Blunden, or Robert Graves, far more than Liddell Hart, four or five times as much as Wilfred Owen, and I didn’t go home with a nervous breakdown. [But] I fear the damage is done, and the myth of the 1930s has prevailed … When I meet some clever young scholar from Queen’s or Keble who has written on WWI and say to him, as politely as I can, ‘My dear chap, I was there at the time and it wasn’t at all as you describe,’ the shade of disbelief that I know so well passes over his features as he says to himself ‘the old boy’s growing soft. He’s losing his memory.’ Does anybody care any longer about the silent millions who did not want the war, did not cause the war, did not shirk the war, and did not lose the war … who had never heard of these lugubrious poets … with their self-pitying introversion?

The fundamental argument advanced by Lewis, Carrington and others was that although they acknowledged the horror of the Western Front and recoiled from the misery it inflicted, they rejected the view it was either an intolerable experience or a futile one. They were convinced of the justice of their cause – the defeat of German militarism – and believed that the price this demanded from the British people was one that had to be paid, and was paid without resentment or regret by a large proportion of those who fought.

Another of my family witnesses, however, adopted a perspective on the war much closer to that of Sassoon and Blunden than to that of Lewis and Carrington. My maternal grandfather, Rolfe Scott-James, was a literary critic, a sombre, self-consciously intellectual figure, a friend of Ford Madox Ford and Thomas Hardy. In 1912, he had published an essay in which he expressed satisfaction that, in the new age of specialisation, future wars were likely to be fought exclusively by professional warriors, the people most appropriately equipped to face horrors few civilians could be expected to come to terms with. Yet in 1916 Scott-James, aged 37, found himself commissioned into the Royal Artillery. He did his own subsequent part well enough to finish the war as a battery commander with a Military Cross – in other words, he achieved the same level of military distinction as Lewis. But not for a moment did he share Lewis’s robust attitude to the struggle.

In August 1923, almost five years after the Armistice, Scott-James wrote a bleak, brooding essay for the magazine The 19th Century, which began by describing the mood at a small gathering of veterans he had attended. ‘Some of us,’ said one man, ‘can’t help thinking that we fought the war for nothing.’ Scott-James wrote: ‘There was none of the rage of despair in the speaker’s voice. His slight shrug of the shoulders expressed his sense of disillusion, and hinted that there was no more to be said about it.’ Scott-James reflected on the sense of anticlimax that had accompanied their homecoming from France in 1919: ‘The army was not brought home; it trickled home. Its men had not expected parades and cheering crowds, but something more than the cold sense of “Your King and country no longer need you.”’ In the course of the struggle, two Britains had evolved, the nation at home and another abroad:

The nation at home swung off buoyantly on its new course, taking deep draughts of the romantic tragedy of the war, organising itself for unaccustomed works, setting its women to zestful tasks, accustoming itself to the sight of khaki in the streets and the strange uniforms of virile young women, rationing itself, paying taxes, making money and sustaining the markets, keeping the theatres open for the entertainment of ‘the boys’ and the maintenance of its own high morale – in a word, ‘carrying on’, not without some consciousness of merit, with a feeling that its lot was in some ways harder than that of the lads in the trenches, whose idealised lives were described in a language which especially appealed to women, by gifted descriptive writers in the daily press.

Meanwhile, the five million men who served with the British army in France experienced ‘the swift reversal of all normal standards of conduct, comfort, consideration, the obligatory acceptance of new values, the monotony of hitherto unimagined things alternating with an infinite variety of movements’. This highly organised, exclusively male military society conducted a self-absorbed existence unlike anything the world had ever seen: ‘It was like a vast nomadic tribe, constantly shifting and camping and shifting again. The mere territory it covered seemed to the individual soldier as large as a country.’ Even a railway train, if it approached the forward areas, ‘was a romantic, entrancing object, arriving from far-away, happier areas, where people lived in houses, and slept in inconceivable bliss in beds, and between sheets.’ For the men doing the fighting, as distinct from the vast, relatively privileged ‘blob’ fulfilling service functions in the rear areas, ‘there was no escape from the army’s physical, mental and moral clutch. In time men acquired the habit of thinking that this had been their lives always, and always would be. The “lovely war” was becoming normal, and they came more and more to rely on one another.’

Scott-James observed that few men, writing home, told their families any part of the truth about the horror of their experiences. He might have been thinking of my great-uncle Aubrey, who scrawled a PS at the end of one of his Western Front letters to his brother: ‘Of course I don’t say anything about the fighting when I write to the women.’ It was the ‘of course’ that would have caught Scott-James’s eye. He wrote of the men of the army:

They were not articulate in the sense of being able to communicate the reality of their experience to any but those who had shared it with them. They were always under discipline, and orders must be obeyed without question. They were a silent, unprotesting, unexplained race, who took no part in determining the conscious life of the nation except by doing what they were told. Tasks were allotted to them; their companions were chosen for them; their lives were mapped out for them with precision.

Five years on from the Armistice, some of his old comrades

are prematurely worn-out – spent, like some heavy fragment of a distant burst shell that whirrs with slow momentum to sink with a thud in the earth. But others are alive and sentient, and aware of things more important by far than politics are or affairs of the state, and hear with interest and some aloofness the reverberations of great world movements of which the war, perhaps, was no more than a beginning. They will not much longer be submerged. They are beginning to be aware of their own strength and character. In their lives are preserved at least some wild, robust, untrimmed shoots from a parent tree which flourished mightily in the war, though it was broken and charred, and stripped of its fairest branches and leaves.

Scott-James wrote as a radical intellectual who voted Liberal all his life (in our own times he would probably have supported the Labour Party). His essay in The 19th Century reflected a suppressed rage at what he saw as the postwar betrayal of the generation that fought, a rage which was not nearly as widely felt or voiced in 1923 as it became by the end of that decade. At the time, not one of the war poets had yet been much recognised. Though Scott-James and Lewis were the same age and had similar war experiences, I don’t think the two men would have found much common ground had they talked about the war, its merits and demerits.

Carrington noted that it’s a mistake to assume that all those who fought suffered lasting emotional damage in consequence. While some veterans were profoundly scarred, others remained remarkably untouched, as is true of a substantial proportion of those who serve in any war. Just as certain men and women are capable of emerging from a car crash, bereavement, divorce or terrorist explosion without much change in the tenor of their lives, so some did from world war. Post-traumatic stress is an unquestionable reality. Yet it is by no means a universal one, and it seems a conceit of our own times to dismiss as unfeeling brutes those who, in many cases literally, ‘soldiered on’.

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