Joining up

Angus Calder

  • Soldier, Soldier by Tony Parker
    Heinemann, 244 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 434 57770 7
  • Echoes of the Great War: The Diary of the Reverend Andrew Clark 1914-1919 edited by James Munson
    Oxford, 304 pp, £10.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 19 212984 8
  • The Unknown Army: Mutinies in the British Army in World War One by Gloden Dallas and Douglas Gill
    Verso, 178 pp, £18.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 86091 106 3
  • Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle by John Keegan and Richard Holmes
    Hamish Hamilton, 288 pp, £12.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 241 11583 3

A major in the Royal Anglian Regiment talks to Tony Parker about battle:

I’ve only been in that kind of situation where someone’s been shooting at me, a total of about twelve times altogether – in Ireland, in Aden, and we had a couple of dust-ups with the Eoka lot in Cyprus. You get a little bit of headiness out of the situation, you do, because that’s what you’ve been trained for. You don’t feel frightened, you feel excited. This is the test: are you going to come through, are you going to get them or are you going to do something damn stupid and let them get you? You go cool and thoughtful, like you’re trained to. But you’re disciplined and your men are disciplined: it’s no good you all rushing round like a bunch of trigger-happy hooligans. You know you’re in danger and that you’re going to have to fight your way out of it. In a sense it’s like thoroughbred racehorses in the Grand National: they go round the course and they jump every obstacle, some fall and don’t get up again, and others carry on right through to the end. It’s a strange feeling of excitement that you can’t describe to someone who’s never been involved in it.

What ethical code controls that voice? What does it echo, in the long history of warfare examined by John Keegan and Richard Holmes in their book-of-the-television-series, Soldiers?

It looks to me as if fighting men have adhered to perhaps half a dozen different codes. There is the ‘rape and pillage’ style: a gang of men sets off to plunder a wealthy place, seize women, take slaves and valuables, maybe settle down as rulers. In retort to such predatory activity the ‘defence of the homeland’ model arises: people fight for their property and their families, but, ideally, with a civic or patriotic pride which invests their actions with nobility. Between the two, and able to meld with either, there is ‘Holy War’ to propagate or defend a religious or political creed. But ‘Major Bert Price’s’ voice, as tape-recorded and edited by Parker, evokes none of these three traditions.

This voice has told us that ‘Price’ joined the Army as a regular while on National Service in 1953, inspired by the Coronation of a ‘very pretty young woman who was our new Queen’. It rejoices later over the memory of ‘being presented to the lovely Queen Mother’. So, though patriotism doesn’t figure in Price’s account of emotions during battle, we can’t assimilate him to a fourth sort of a soldier, the mercenary – nor is there the faintest suggestion of the samurai. His reference to the Grand National faintly recalls one of the earliest of all models of warfare, which makes it much like a sport – as in small ‘tribal’ communities where battles between neighbouring groups are ritualised and rain might stop play. In certain Pacific Islands once under British rule, a version of cricket has apparently replaced inter-village battles: see Scyld Berry’s article in Wisden 1981.

But Price surely represents a sixth type, the modern career professional. The Army has given him a steady livelihood with sharp upward social mobility from a labouring job (no O levels) to a commission and the officers’ mess. His two ‘fine boys’ have got university degrees, and while he regrets that they won’t follow in his footsteps, he thinks ‘it could be said that they wouldn’t have the opportunities in the Army that they have with the qualifications they’ve got in civilian life.’ The ‘security’ of our ‘realm’ now depends on men who are on the whole unheroically motivated, who think of ‘security’ in that civilian sense which applies to careers and pensions, yet who form a society-within-society.

Parker’s presentation of their world is marvellously readable and piquant. He was a conscientious objector in World War Two and remains a pacifist. Yet the Ministry of Defence gave him almost unlimited scope to interview, live with, even go on patrol with, the Royal Anglians. He interviewed 181 people, some of them half a dozen times. He taped the General, he taped new recruits, he taped Army wives. He has cut excerpts from these interviews together brilliantly. His own voice is almost always cut out, yet we sense his presence in each conversation – friendly and respectful to all ranks, anxious to know and believe the best of everyone, so that where interviewees expose themselves as fools or rotters they are well and truly so exposed. Most are neither.

What comes across, very movingly, is the great diversity of characters, social origins, opinions, within a unified hierarchy which dominates each individual life. A captain’s wife who was once a pacifist now sees ‘a lot of good in the Army’: it’s ‘a peace-keeping force and it’s protecting people, making sure they have democratic freedoms’. She likes to think that she and her husband have their ‘own coterie of fairly reasonably minded people’. This is one of many points in the book where one thinks one hears Parker’s own excised murmur. ‘Yes,’ she goes on, as if in reply to it, ‘they’re all Army, of course one has to say that. I think that’s because of the very nature of the job: you live in a very enclosed world of Army Army Army all the time – and of course we live here in an Army house.’

Within this Army, class prejudice up and down the hierarchy is intense. An NCO’s wife who doesn’t want to be snobbish is taken aback by a neighbour who refuses to come in for coffee because ‘her husband had told her not to get too chatty with me because my husband was his platoon sergeant and he felt I might be spying on his domestic circumstances. He’d told her something like: “The job’s the job, and we don’t want our private lives being brought into it.” ’ A black staff sergeant relishes his position as a ‘very senior rank NCO ... certainly the top of the middle management level’, but doesn’t reckon he’ll ever get commissioned because ‘there’s still so much old-fashioned boloney at officer level that I can’t see a black man being admitted to what they regard as a very exclusive club.’ A sergeant-major says he has doubts about whether he wants to go for a commission when he sees how the young ‘Ruperts’ from public schools behave in their mess. Whereas a lieutenant, who’s resigned in disillusionment after ten years and complains that ‘the Army perpetuates the British class system, and it couldn’t exist in its present form without that class system,’ recalls that the ‘biggest snobs’ in the mess are men promoted from the ranks, who are treated ‘patronisingly’ themselves but are ‘worse than anybody towards the ordinary soldiers’.

Surely, though, they can’t stickle more than ‘Major Harrison’, serving in a regiment where members of his family have held commands for ‘literally hundreds of years’, who rejoices that he has been born to ‘the high calling of professional militarism’ and that ever since Sandhurst he has had ‘the enormously enjoyable experience of living entirely in the officers’ mess. It means one is carrying on the way of life one is accustomed to, and has been all the time: it is an extension of one’s boarding-school life.’ Speech evokes character here as vividly as in a good novel. Dickens springs to mind as one listens to a lance-corporal:

I’m a soldier who you could say sir was very very happy to be a soldier sir. I think there’s nothing better, I would recommend it to anyone. I would say to anyone sir that I’d think they was lucky if they was to get into the British Army today. You have your complete security, you have your sport and your travel, if you’re a married man which in my case I am not, you have your house and all the rest of it, though my young lady and me will be getting married very shortly. Then she will have everything she wants too, and she’s very ready to join the Army with me, as they say sir. Because if a man’s wife is not right for the Army, then that man is not right for the Army either. I have known one or two who got out, and in every case I would say it has been the wife that was the trouble, moaning and that sort of thing, or wanting this that or the other.

Contrast this bolshie private:

Me, I’d definitely sooner be an ordinary person ... But it’s true isn’t it, there’s just no jobs going at all outside? Last leave I had, I went to see a bloke in the building trade who I’d heard was looking for someone, and I asked him if I could have a job. He asked what I could do, and I said I was a soldier. ‘Well go down the boxing ring then, you’d be more use to them than you would to bloody me.’ I’m not going to put up with it longer than I have to, though, not a minute.

But, as Parker is told by ‘Major Jenkins’, who is thinking about retiring shortly and taking a university degree, one of the ‘seductive’ things about the Army is that ‘soldiers of every rank are looked after very well ... If there’s one thing the Army doesn’t want it’s unhappy soldiers who feel they’re in a dead-end job. Considerable thought is put into what might be called the career structure.’

One of ‘Jenkins’s’ motives for quitting is the way the Army separates men from families for long periods. He and his wife don’t want to send their two young children to boarding-school, but have worked out that in 12 years of marriage ‘we’ve lived so far in a total of 16 different homes or houses.’ Parker and his tape-recorder travelled 28,000 miles with the Anglians. To Germany, where Army wives are put under pressure by the Families Officer to be as neat and tidy as their German neighbours. To defend our ex-colony Belize against Guatemala: wives don’t go, the child prostitutes are unappealing, the heat is terrific and most men hate it – ‘a stinking dump’, ‘a hole in the jungle’, ‘the grubbiest place I’ve ever seen’, ‘every living creature wants to either eat you, bite you or give you the pox.’ A black private born in the Caribbean finds the poverty worse than on his home patch and says: ‘I don’t know why there isn’t a revolution.’ Then to Cyprus, on UN peace-keeping duties – no wives again. And to Northern Ireland.

Concern has been expressed that Britain’s professional Army has been or will be corrupted by service in Ulster: officers will get used to a political role, men will grow hardened to patrol duty in British streets. Parker’s evidence is reassuring. Here is a second lieutenant:

I’ve only just come to Londonderry and I think it really is, it’s a really shitty job like sewer cleaning. I think about my own home town, and try to imagine myself going round with a platoon in the streets at night, knocking on the doors of people’s houses and demanding to be let in to search them. I can’t imagine doing that with people in my own home town.

Parker voluntarily submitted his manuscript to the Ministry of Defence. The relatively few omissions they asked for are indicated by blanks in the text. After an empty line and a half, another second lieutenant says: ‘We’re trying to stop the flow of history because we backed the wrong side in 1922.’ A major remarks: ‘We all know there’s no solution to this fucking problem and the best thing we can do is go away.’ Some other soldiers sound more committed to their task.

The Anglians were also sent to Greenham Common. Heseltine said in the Commons that, if necessary, soldiers would fire. About this job, and the Greenham women, views polarised. ‘They’re potty,’ says an officer; ‘completely misguided,’ says a lance corporal; ‘selfish bitches,’ says a private’s wife. But she adds: ‘To my way of thinking the main point about it is that if it hadn’t been for those women I’d have had Barry at home for a few days.’ Being called to Greenham was a nuisance, and there was, furthermore, professional anger over the use of soldiers in policing activities. ‘You accepted it in Northern Ireland,’ says a sergeant, ‘across the water and in a different country: but when you come face to face with civil disobedience here in your own country, things look different.’ A captain more or less admits that he wouldn’t have fired if ordered, but hopes that the women wouldn’t ‘take that as any sign of encouragement, because I know a good number of officers who’d be entirely “reliable”. I would hate to think what could happen when they were in charge.’ But some other men, and wives, express respect and even admiration for the Greenham women. Lisa, the German wife of a private, claims that she told her husband: ‘If you ever so much as spit at one of those women, don’t tell me about it because I’ll have no more to do with you,’ and a lieutenant objects to nuclear weapons on professional grounds. ‘There are rules to warfare and they should be obeyed. I think CND have a point when they say nuclear warfare would be a crime against humanity. I’m not by any means the only person I know in this regiment who is sympathetic to CND.’

All this, rather paradoxically, softens one up for pronouncements by the General which, quoted out of context, would sound suspiciously like neo-Fascism. He compares the Army to a ‘church’ and says that its values represent a ‘moral and social message for the country’. But we’ve heard by now the evidence to support his claim that the Army is a ‘pretty complete society’, with many people who care about others and with room for dissenters, and we can respect his unease over the fact that society-at-large doesn’t understand the Army, his admission that ‘We’re an island unto ourselves in many ways ... Unless we’re careful we do tend to look inward.’ He favours a return to ‘some form of limited national service’, pointing out that this has been normal on the Continent, ‘where society understands defence and contributes towards it with their sons and daughters’.

The British, of course, ‘contributed’ in this way during two world wars. The memory of the first remains especially mournful. The cost in one small Essex village is detailed in the diaries of the Reverend Andrew Clark, rector of Great Leighs. Clark was an obsessive scholar in the great tradition of mildly eccentric Anglican parsons. The son of a Scottish farm labourer who found his way via Dollar Academy to a double first at Balliol, he edited Anthony à Wood and Aubrey’s Brief Lives and then turned to the history of Essex, sending volume after volume of notes to the Bodleian. Devoted to what he called ‘the remarkable history’ of his own ‘most interesting parish’, in 1914 he began to record its current experiences, despatching the results to the same library. His diary eventually ran to three million words, and James Munson must be congratulated and thanked for reducing to publishable proportions this pioneering essay in what would later be called ‘mass-observation’.

That said, I found Echoes of the Great War disappointingly sticky. Munson states that Clark was lovable. Not to me. He has a curious conception of the objectivity required of an annalist. He does not describe the death of his beloved wife after a long and painful illness, since his record is meant to be impersonal: yet his prejudices often colour his observations. He makes clear his contempt for American students whose work he examines at Oxford, as for ‘chits of Braintree shop girls’ and a local socialist who is ‘foul-mouthed and full of venom’. Clark has humour, but of a Caledonian dryness – the letters his student daughter Mildred sent him from Scotland combine such humour with a more vital glow.

Much of what Clark records is wild gossip and rumour. Those apocryphal Russians (‘with snow on their boots’) who were thought to have passed through Britain en route to the Western Front trek through Clark’s early entries. It is reported to Clark that they landed in Yorkshire; that 80,000 passed through Oxford on 28 August 1914; that they were fed at Colchester on 30 August; that soon afterwards they threaded Bristol at night in darkened railway trains, being identified by their black beards glimpsed in the light of their cigarettes and cigars. Sometimes Clark casts doubts on such stuff – as on the mid-war story, told him third-hand as ‘perfectly true’, about a lady at Waterloo Station who stepped on an officer’s toe, heard him swear softly in German, had him seized, and got a reward of a hundred pounds. But he credits the unlikely tale that a Zeppelin raider was guided along the road to Chelmsford by a motor-car with bright headlights – when a navigator who could link up with one car could presumably have found a sizable town without much difficulty. An unwary reader might be misled by much which passes for information in this book, though I do not blame Mr Munson for not providing apparatus to separate fact from fable, since that task would have been like tracing gas leaks in a sewage farm.

I suppose my chief reason for not enjoying Clark’s diary much is that what it chronicles is desperately sad. Great Leighs, with 614 parishioners, lost 19 men killed in uniform. In September 1914 the rector notes that young Harry Sergeant, eager to volunteer, has been rejected because his chest measurement is below the minimum, and has bought himself a pair of dumb-bells. Two years later, word comes of his death in France, after (this seems to be fact) the guns on the Somme have shaken Clark’s rectory. The rector seems unable to comprehend the evidence filtering through, despite censorship, of the hideous character of trench warfare, though as early as November 1914, a sergeant in the South Staffs who has served in the North-West Frontier and in the Boer War tells him that this new show is ‘not fighting but murder’. In February 1916, Clark notes scornfully: ‘With the usual penchant for the horrible, and the usual proneness to exaggeration, soldiers on leave have made most harrowing descriptions of their horrible experiences, to excite sympathy and to gain notoriety. Hardly one in twenty has been either reticent or at all cheerful at the prospect of going out again. This talk has badly frightened the women-folk.’ A year later, however, he reports without comment that a soldier has ‘told his father that out in the trenches the mud is so terrible that he had seen horses absolutely sink out of sight. He is inclined to think that several people who have not been traced (e.g. Colonel Deacon, Herbert (“Hubby”) G. Wright), and have long been reported missing may have disappeared in this way.’

Clark earlier sets down a rumour from Scotland that in the Battle of Loos the Warwickshire Regiment got ‘so undisciplined’ that the Scots Guards turned their machine-guns on them. This is not confirmed in The Unknown Army, an admirably thorough, concise and well-written study of First World War mutinies by the late Gloden Dallas and Douglas Gill, though they do observe that the Guards, and the Scottish units, retained a reputation for reliability while the efficiency of most other sections slumped as carnage slowly stripped the Army of its experienced professionals. Divisions from the Dominions also stayed firm although – or rather because – they wouldn’t accept the draconian discipline that volunteers and conscripts from Britain endured.

Dallas and Gill, unusually, look at the Western Front as an episode in British working-class history. By the end of the conflict nearly five million men from the industrial work-force had entered the Armed Services. Such rights as British workers had won in civilian life were denied them. Australians were disgusted, even Germans were surprised, by British Army regulations, under which men ‘could be condemned to death ... by a handful of captains and lieutenants, gathered perfunctorily in a tent, for brief desertion or for an act of simple insubordination. And there was no civilian agency, not even the High Court, through whom to enter an appeal.’ Over three hundred men were executed for military offences abroad.

Discipline was especially obnoxious at the base camp at Etaples, where reinforcements from England and veterans just out of hospital suffered alike in the training grounds, ‘the Bull Ring’. Wilfred Owen compared this place to ‘a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles’. A Scotsman said it was ‘like passing through hell for two weeks’. Here, in September 1917, the arrest for no apparent reason of a New Zealand gunner, by the hated military police, led to several days of mutinous but orderly revolt, which produced such a relaxation of conditions that ‘Bull Ring’ training ‘was to a large extent closed down’. Interestingly, it was Scots and Anzacs – the very troops whose fighting morale remained highest – who converted ‘a sudden riot of four thousand men into a series of daily demonstrations’. Irish troops present took no active part, despite the eruption of nationalism in their homeland; their morale was already poor, and later disintegrated so badly that the Sixteenth Division ceased as a specifically Irish unit.

The greatest explosions of discontent – over conditions of service as well as over demobilisation arrangements – followed the Armistice. There was massive strike action in the Calais area, and at Kantara in Egypt. In Britain there were big demonstrations – in Folkestone, in Bromley, in Whitehall itself – and a strike at Shoreham. The Army had to make concessions: it was doubtful whether it ‘had sufficient loyal troops in England to put the demonstrations down’. Dallas and Gill have focused attention on very significant events which other historians have neglected. ‘During the winter of 1918-1919, the stability of British society was placed, for once, in doubt. In certain cities socialism made ground and, in many units of the Army, the officers lost their power to command. But the two phenomena never actually linked up.’ During the war, civilian socialists in Britain had shown no interest in reforming the Army, either because they supported the war or because they rejected battle utterly. Labour’s newspaper, the Herald, ‘scarcely covered the scores of mutinies in which the Army was engulfed’ and ‘drew no comparisons between the demands of the soldiers, and those of the workers’ movement elsewhere in the land’. Yet ‘it was the soldiers who furnished the government’s most determined opposition. In 1919 their strikes in France and Egypt outran, in their significance, the fluttering of the red flags on the Clyde.’

These remarkable episodes were soon forgotten. The mystique of the Army as a society-apart-from-society survived the First World War, perhaps because of the strength of feeling among volunteers and conscripts, officers and men that civilians at home had never understood what the war was really like. The Second World War, when so many troops spent so much time in Britain, created conditions in which the accommodation of the Army with modern democracy seemed desirable, even possible. While ‘Colonel Blimp’ and his ‘bullshit’ were harried by sections of the press, the establishment of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs represented official recognition that soldiers had some right to reason why. (The death penalty for cowardice and desertion had been abolished in 1930.) Even so, the social history of the Services from 1939 to 1945 has yet to be written. There are formidable methodological problems arising from the complexity of military organisation and from the sheer diversity of conditions, but social historians will have to take their courage in their hands and move on to this military terrain, where they will meet that admirable pair, Keegan and Holmes, moving purposefully towards them from the other direction.

Their achievement in recent years has been to humanise and ‘socialise’ the study of military history. Soldiers will contain few surprises for those who know their other books, but it makes a first-rate introduction and a useful work of basic reference. It is not so strange that some of Parker’s Anglian officers reveal independent, enlightened minds when one reflects that Keegan and Holmes may have instructed them at Sandhurst. They conclude Soldiers by agreeing with Wilfred Owen that it is an ‘old lie’ which says that it is dulce et decorum, sweet and fitting, to die for one’s country, in battle. In modern war, fates such as Andrew Clark was prodded to imagine (but could his imagination take the idea in?) for some of his missing soldier-parishioners have been commonplace. As Keegan and Holmes put it: ‘Many just disappear, disintegrated by a shell burst or amalgamated with the soil of a ruined battlefield by the feet of marching comrades or the wheels of a passing vehicle.’ Their last sentences refer to ‘ten thousand years of human history in which young and old alike have felt that the way the world works offers no one any alternative to the death of its young men under arms. May the world, in its next ten thousand years, find a way of working that spares the old the need to ask the young that sacrifice.’

Ironically, one step in the right direction might be to increase, in a sense, the militarisation of our culture, to break down the walls between Army and general society. Had conscripts – non-professionals – been deployed in Ulster, public opinion in Britain would surely have long since demanded and got an end to the ‘shitty’ work. We use career soldiers to do jobs which our elected rulers deem necessary but which we wouldn’t touch ourselves. Insofar as such work is indeed necessary, a democratic people should take the responsibility for it into its own hands. However intelligent and responsible its commanders, a hierarchical army trained to intense specialisation is not a fitting instrument for democracy. I think we should be discussing whether a citizen’s militia based on universal military training would be a feasible option – a force for defence co-terminous with the adult civilian population, including women and, I hasten to add, candidates for ‘Dad’s Army’ like myself.