SIR: Alan Brien asked for figures showing that ‘the upper classes’ suffered greater casualties in the First World War than the rest of society (Letters, 18 September 1986). His suggestion that Raymond Asquith and his peers merely attracted more attention than privates in the 25th Durham Light Infantry is not entirely the result of his ‘left prejudice’. With some important exceptions (Isaac Rosenberg is perhaps the most obvious) the vast majority of those who wrote about their experience of the war were officers. Consequently, our perception of the trenches is largely derived from the perspective of the leaders rather than the led. However, there is no doubt that casualties amongst the upper echelons of society were proportionally higher than elsewhere.
There are several reasons for this, largely the result of recruitment and the structure of the Army. When war was declared and it was realised that there were not enough regular officers to command a vast new army, it was decided to recruit officers from the public schools in the belief that their education had instilled into them qualities of leadership, and that their training in the OTC would prove invaluable in an army of civilians. This official War Office policy meant that the vast majority of officers were from the upper and upper-middle classes. Large numbers of young gentlemen entered training camps rather than return to their schools for the new term that autumn. Many younger sons of the aristocracy had already entered the forces as a career and their brothers joined them, and fell with them, when war was declared. Reginald Pound writes in his book The Lost Generation (1964) that by the end of 1914 the fatalities included six peers, 16 baronets, six knights, 95 sons of peers, 82 sons of baronets and 84 sons of knights. As the casualties mounted, men whose backgrounds were less socially impeccable were commissioned, but there is no doubt that throughout the war the public schools, for good or ill, provided most of the officers and that public-school rankers remained a rarity. The University and Public Schools Brigade was formed with the intention of providing battalions in which every recruit had been to a recognised public school – only those whose alma mater was in the Public Schools Yearbook were eligible – but other regiments were calling for officers of the correct background, and a high proportion of these public-school privates took commissions and transferred.
Once an officer had joined his regiment, his chances of survival were less than those of his men both because of the structure of the Army and because of the duties the officer was expected to perform. The working unit in the line would be a company of 250 men led by a captain and five junior officers. Attacks would be led by an officer, whose smart uniform set him apart from his men and made him an obvious target for the enemy. Because there had been no conscripted army in Britain the majority of the soldiers were amateurs, unlike their professional opponents. Knowing this, the Germans instructed their men to pick off the officers in an attack in the belief that without leadership there would be widespread confusion amongst the ranks. Wiring parties and other dangerous forays into No Man’s Land usually consisted of one officer and one or two men (all volunteers), so that each time a patrol was required to crawl out into the night, the chances of taking part (and thus the chances of becoming a casualty) were as little as 1 in 125 for a ranker compared with 1 in 6 for an officer.
The consequences of these circumstances may be seen in casualty figures. In the summer of 1915 officer casualties were said to be running at double those of the other ranks. Clearly this does not mean that for every ranker casualty there were two officer casualties: it means that the percentage of officers killed or wounded was higher than the percentage of men. To take one (admittedly extreme) example from that year: during the Battle of Loos the 2nd Royal Warwickshires went into action with 17 officers and 650 men: not a single officer emerged unscathed and only 140 of the men returned.
Loos, of course, took place comparatively early in the war, before conscription was introduced and before the enormous casualties suffered amongst the ranks on the Somme. By the end of the war death had somewhat levelled the classes. In a booklet published in 1923 entitled ‘Public Schools and the Great War (1914-19)’, A.H.H. Maclean calculated that about 13 per cent of officers were killed in action compared with around 10 per cent of other ranks. However, even amongst officers the upper classes seem to have suffered proportionately more. The average proportion of fatalities amongst public-school recruits was around 20 per cent. At some schools (Harrow, for example) the fatalities were as high as 27 per cent.
A Conservative Disposition
SIR: Dr Addison implies (Letters, 18 December 1986) that I ought to be embarrassed by my support for the Conservative Party, which he describes as the ‘aggressive champion of valueless, anti-intellectual materialism’, and as ‘dominated by a business-school philosophy of converting England into a mid-Atlantic enterprise culture’. Since these descriptions go to the heart of public perceptions not only of the Conservative Party but also of the present government, I will answer them bluntly.
The Conservative Party and the present government are not ‘aggressive champions of valueless, anti-intellectual materialism’, nor have they done anything which justifies the belief that they are ‘dominated by a business-school philosophy of converting England into a mid-Atlantic enterprise culture’. What they are doing, on the contrary, is to give a touch on the tiller, move English politics out of the channel into which they began to run between 1940 and 1960, and to do this in a way which mixes doctrine with prudence. There are, I know, Conservatives in whom doctrine has obliterated prudence and who express their opinions with an unhelpful mixture of naiveté and aggression, and there is, in addition, a tendency in all political parties to draw the lines sharply between the new course which Mrs Thatcher’s government has pursued since 1979 and the courses which were pursued before that. Certainly there are real differences of aim and purpose. But the first rule in political analysis is not to be deceived by public rhetoric. This government is doing what the Conservative Party has wished to do, however unable to do it, since it first became the party of opposition to Labour in the 1920s, and it is the happiest of contrivances which has now produced a programme and platform on which the conservatism of the next five years will be a direct continuation of the conservatism of the previous fifty.
The Strange Death of Mehmet Shehu
SIR: Frank Walbank’s second letter (Letters, 18 December 1986) only muddies the waters. He makes four points. First, that my claim that there was a visit to the PRO by one or more Albanian researchers after 1972, and, specifically, shortly before the death of Shehu in 1981, is ‘unattested’. Second, that by making this claim, I ‘shifted [my] ground’. Third, that I have failed to produce evidence for a claim about dating. Fourth, that, by refusing to accept his own speculative and unsubstantiated points, I remain ‘in the realm of speculation’.
First, I can only repeat what I wrote before: I was told, and believe, after checking as carefully as possible, that after the 1972 visit by Puto and a colleague, the Albanians did further research in the PRO shortly before Shehu’s death. Second: the claim that I have ‘shifted [my] ground’ by referring to the second Albanian visit to the PRO. Since when is providing additional information ‘shifting one’s ground’? Walbank goes on to claim that if this visit was made by someone other than Puto – which I never suggested – ‘Puto’s book, written long before [so says Walbank – but see below], ceases to be relevant to Shehu’s death and we are in the realm of speculation.’ He goes on to claim that ‘Halliday still thinks it [Puto’s book] is relevant, for he emphasises the fact that it differs from the Nëntori articles of 1972-3.’ This is a farrago. I only mentioned the 1972-3 articles in Nëntori (an Albanian magazine) because Walbank brought them up. They were not relevant to the central issue – and still aren’t. Much less did I ever ‘emphasise’ them: this is Walbank’s megalomania. I merely did him the courtesy of responding to his irrelevant references to these articles and to a German edition of Puto’s book.
This brings me to the third criticism. I said that from internal evidence the introduction to the English-language edition could not have been written before 1980. Walbank takes me to task for not giving evidence. If he had read the short ‘introduction’ he would know what it says. It ends with the words: ‘Several years have now passed, and on the basis of the 30-years rule, the documents of the years 1945, ’46, ’47 and ’48 have become available, while those of 1949 should become available this year.’ ‘This year’ must be 1980, since documents are released, in principle, on 1 January of the year after the 30 years have expired. (En passant, it should be noted that 1980-81 was a key period for Albanian research, since it was 30 years after the Anglo-American attempts to invade Albania and overthrow Hoxha.) The question of when the ‘introduction’ was written is not a minor quibble, since Walbank staked his original case explicitly on a claim that everything was available to the Albanian regime by 1972. I tried to show that since there was material subsequent to 1972 in the Puto volume, Walbank’s central argument collapses. In fact, it is Walbank who shifts his ground. In his first letter (Letters, 6 November 1986) he claims flatly that everything must have been discovered by 1972. Now, in his second letter, he suggests the date 1976 ‘was relevant’. Once again, he pointlessly drags in a German edition and old Albanian articles. All this is ridiculous. In my original article I did not base anything on, or even mention, a German edition of the book, or 1972-73 articles in Albanian. In fact, Walbank now has to acknowledge that it is he who has entered the realm of speculation, even on the material he has chosen to bring up. He writes: ‘Personally I should be very surprised if both the English and German editions [of Puto’s book] are not direct translations of an Albanian original, for which the 1976 date was relevant.’ What else can this mean except that he has not checked the different versions on which he is basing his argument?
In any case, all this is irrelevant. What I said was: in 1981 the Albanians published a well-researched account of British machinations in Albania during the war (up to the end of 1944); just after this volume appeared, Premier Mehmet Shehu was reported to have committed suicide (December 1981); shortly after that, Hoxha denounced him as a multiple agent – and cited documents from the PRO showing that Shehu had been picked out by the British as a possible leader of an anti-Hoxha movement; some of these documents, which were genuine, while not demonstrating that Shehu was a British agent, seemed to me enough to detonate serious suspicion in the mind of a man like Enver Hoxha. I said it was most unlikely that the Albanian leadership could not have acted promptly on these documents. I suggested a link between the discovery of these documents and the demise of Shehu. This hypothesis was strengthened by the information that Puto, the author of the original book, had returned to the PRO shortly before Shehu’s demise. Walbank writes: ‘No one will be surprised to learn that the PRO records on Albania are selective.’ This really is shifting his ground. I made this point only because Walbank cited (with no disclaimer) a British government statement that ‘the FO documents’ on the Second World War were made available in 1972. The clear implication of his argument was that all the SOE and other material on Shehu must have been available to Puto in 1972. But, as I pointed out, this supposition is unsubstantiated, and I thought it necessary to alert readers to the fact that by no means all FO documents, much less all SOE documents, were available in 1972. It is a bit much for Walbank to try to portray my clarification of his misleading remark as a banality.
To resume my main thesis. There is some evidence in the PRO which seems to me to be relevant to the death of Mehmet Shehu (documents listing Shehu among ‘pro-British elements’ and as a possible leader of an anti-Hoxha movement). In 1981 the Albanians publish, in English, Puto’s volume based on PRO records. In December 1981 Shehu dies, allegedly having committed suicide. In 1982 Hoxha reveals some information from the PRO about Shehu.
Walbank’s references to a German edition of Puto and early articles in Albanian are irrelevant both to my original hypothesis and to the key point – which is that Shehu hit the skids not in 1972 but much later. Mr Walbank fails utterly to answer my point that there is no evidence whatsoever for, and overwhelming evidence against, the possibility that Hoxha would sit inactive on information like that in the SOE reports. It is inconceivable that Hoxha would allow himself to describe Shehu as ‘a glorious leader’, as he does in a text published in December 1979 (With Stalin, first edition, page 96) while having in his possession SOE documents suggesting Shehu might be a good man to overthrow him. (The 1979 edition of With Stalin was, of course, later withdrawn and a second edition published in 1982, minus the praise for Shehu.)
I can only say again that I do not know what went on in Tirana. My hypothesis at least had the merit of relying on verifiable facts: we know the Albanians found some stuff on Shehu in the PRO; we know they used it; we know Hoxha was ultra-suspicious. Mr Walbank would have us believe that Hoxha sat on the PRO information for nine years while lauding Shehu. I just do not believe this is possible and, further, from the way the Albanians quoted the PRO material, it is impossible to believe that it did not play a role in the Hoxha-Shehu rupture and Shehu’s demise in 1981. Mr Walbank’s second letter is irrelevant.
SIR: I was interested to gather from R.W. Johnson’s piece on the Moonies (LRB, 18 December 1986) that the Reagan Administration took one of its most devoted members of staff, Pat Buchanan, from the Moony newspaper, the Washington Times. Readers of the London Times (of whom I am no longer one) were recently able to examine the thoughts of this same Pat Buchanan on the subject of the clandestine Iranian arms deal and the channelling of the proceeds, against the will of Congress, to the Contra insurrection in Nicaragua. Buchanan urged that governors and senators who owed their eminence to Reagan should now show their loyalty by standing up for him as he defends himself against those who accuse him of conspiring to break the law. It was time for them to take their shotguns and get in behind the stockade. According to Buchanan, Oliver North is every inch the hero that his President has called him: the idea was that North may not have done what he is thought to have done, but that he was right to do it if he did. I would hope that some readers of the Times were willing to take a hard look at this piece of government propaganda – foreign government propaganda at that, with the message that it is good to break the law – and to compare it with the paper’s anxiety to expose (with every justification, at times) the untoward behaviour of Labour councils in this country. Is the loony Left worse than the moony Right?
SIR: Those of us who have worked with Unesco for many years are not surprised to hear that Gough Whitlam explained to Michael Davie that ‘Bulgaria was formerly the province of the Roman Empire known as Dacia’ (LRB, 4 September 1986). He seems to have caught Davie with his strides down, too, because the review of Whitlam’s blatherings does not correct this howler – Dacia, as we all know, is present-day Romania.
Waugh makes you laugh
SIR: There is of course no reason on earth why John Bayley (LRB, 4 December 1986) should like either Evelyn Waugh or his novels; and he puts the case against with his customary perception and acuity. But I must take issue with his contention that ‘as always with Waugh’s fictions, the most compelling point to the reader, and the secret of their continuing popularity, is the suggestion of a more complex, more fashionably fascinating, more erotic world just outside the novel, which the novelist himself is a member of, and of which he is giving the reader offhand telegraphic glimpses in dazzling black and white.’ Not to this reader it isn’t; nor to any others that I know. While Bayley is undoubtedly right about the creation of a tantalising world, surely the ‘most compelling point to the reader’ is that Waugh was extremely funny. He makes me laugh when I’m reading alone; he makes me laugh when I’m reading in company; he makes the company laugh when read aloud. I know why he makes me laugh, but I don’t know why he makes me laugh so much. John Bayley may well be right that Waugh was not a born novelist, and only a gifted craftsman (in the derogatory sense which he uses), but it is surely perverse that in the whole of a fairly lengthy piece, nowhere does he mention that Waugh’s essential trade was in humour.
Time Out, London WC2
SIR: When, before publication, David Norbrook politely and proudly sent me his stanzas, in which my Martian ‘whimsy’ (Letters, 23 October 1986) is expressed otherwise and becomes ‘sublime’ to rhyme with ‘rhyme’, he proposed that my reply should be a villanelle.
It was a vindaloo you ordered, wasn’t it?
I find your act quite hard to follow
and not just in the obvious sense.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe,
swords that you have had to swallow
with a smile of sick pretence.
I find your act quite hard to follow.
The compliments you pay are hollow.
We know our quarrel is intense.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe:
my politesse and yours are shallow,
top-dressing for an audience.
I find your act quite hard to follow.
I think you’d melt me down to tallow
if you ever got the chance.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe.
Touché! You win a flower show
of laurels for your rhymed defence:
a fact I find quite hard to swallow.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe.