Hairy

E.S. Turner

  • The war the Infantry knew 1914-1919: A Chronicle of Service in France and Belgium by Captain J.C. Dunn, introduction by Keith Simpson
    Jane’s, 613 pp, £18.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 7106 0485 8
  • Passchendaele: The Story behind the Tragic Victory of 1917 by Philip Warner
    Sidgwick, 269 pp, £13.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 283 99364 2
  • Poor Bloody Infantry: A Subaltern on the Western Front 1916-17 by Bernard Martin
    Murray, 174 pp, £11.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 7195 4374 6

Three writers on the strength is a potential embarrassment for any fighting unit. In the Great War the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers could muster Robert Graves (Good-bye to All That), Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer) and Frank Richards (not, as some have supposed, the creator of Billy Bunter but the author of Old soldiers never die, an excellent view of the war by a Regular in the ranks). As many will know, Good-Bye to All That, published in 1929, erupted like a burst of mustard gas; much of the book turned out not to be the plain truth but the treacherous higher truth. Among those who took exception, on personal grounds, was Sassoon, to propitiate whom the publishers carried out last-minute surgery on the book. Another who objected to its ‘hyperbole’ and inaccuracies was Captain J.C. Dunn, the veteran and outstandingly fearless medical officer (a former combatant in South Africa) who had been attached to the Battalion. As a corrective to Graves, and perhaps as some sort of answer to war poets in general, he produced a magnificent tour de force, the length of three ordinary books, called The war the Infantry knew, which was published anonymously in a limited edition late in 1938, when people were preparing for the next instalment of Armageddon. Its reissue is most welcome, as is the well-informed Introduction.

Most of the text was written by Dunn himself, with the aid of his own diaries and letters, but he welded into it the work of some fifty regimental contributors. It is far more than a battalion history, containing as it does much which the elders of the regiment would have excluded (they already had their own history). When Sassoon was invited by Dunn to contribute, he responded first by writing a long self-analytical poem, ‘A Footnote on the War: (On Being Asked to Contribute to a Regimental History)’, and decided he must refuse; then he changed his mind and, drawing on his diaries, sent Dunn a 12-page account which appears as a separate chapter (and which he incorporated into Memoirs of an Infantry Officer). Robert Graves was not asked to contribute, since Dunn feared the tone of anything he might write and wished to avoid the embarrassment of rejecting it. In The war the Infantry knew Graves attracts only occasional mentions, once as having ‘reputedly, the largest feet in the Army, and a genius for putting them in everything’. Then he receives ‘a chest wound of the kind that few recover from’. He is, in fact, reported dead and the usual letters of condolence are sent to his kin, following which he writes to the commanding officer that ‘the shock of learning how much he is esteemed has recalled him from the grave and that he has decided to live for the sake of those whose warm feelings he had misunderstood.’ In Martin Seymour-Smith’s Robert Graves: His Life and Works Dunn is described as the man who saved Graves’s life, though Dunn does not mention so routine a matter. The most interesting reference to Sassoon in Dunn’s text arises from his ‘quixotic outburst’ – the end-the-war-now letter he wrote to the press in 1917, and which caused him to be sent to ‘a shell-shock retreat’. Writes Dunn, in August of that year: ‘He will be among degenerates, drinkers, malingerers and common mental cases, as well as the overstrained. It is an astute official means of denying our cold-blooded, cold-footed superior persons the martyr they are too precious to find from their own unruly ranks.’ So much for Craiglock-hart War Hospital, where Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met.

The war the Infantry knew is a superb mosaic of war. It bears out Dunn’s statement in his Preface: ‘War is neither a glitter of highlights nor a slough of baseness, it calls forth the best that is in the human spirit; its worst aspects are found far from the battle-line.’ In between the bouts of slaughter there were town billets with fussy landladies who wanted lights out at ten; on quiet days boys and girls selling current English newspapers and chocolate came right up to the rear trenches; there were drives by Battalion HQ to persuade troops to buy War Savings Certificates in order to keep the war going; and there were ‘hairy-eared’ educationists anxious to launch their schemes on troops who were supposed to have their backs to the wall (‘What wall?’ they wanted to know). Black comedy was not hard to seek: ‘In the parapet of Old Boots Trench a German had been buried, it must have been in 1914. The weather had exposed a pulpy arm; there was a wrist-watch on it. Some whimsical passer wound the watch, it went, it was a repeater; passers-by gave the winding a turn, but soon a souvenir-hunter took the watch.’ Wrist-watches held a sometimes fatal lure for scroungers; a luminous dial in no-man’s-land did not wink in vain. When a German prisoner complained that his watch had been stolen he was shown a collection of German watches and invited to take his pick.

The war had hardly begun before home newspapers were offering £5 for exciting letters from the Front, so the men, tongue in cheek, sat down to oblige. ‘Since these adventures were untrue and of no value to the enemy, officers did not bother to censor them.’ The official battle reports unloaded on war correspondents by GHQ were not much nearer the truth and were read with cynical relish by those who had been in action (at the war’s end the leading correspondents were knighted, a mistake not made after World War Two). This book offers glimpses of them dining in state in Amiens, showing alarm at the approach of regimental officers to their reserved tables. Perhaps they had cause for alarm. In one restaurant a colonel, ‘lamenting, after the sweet, that he had not had any dressed lobster’, got down on all fours ‘to stalk an unwatched dish on another table; and he devoured it with help’ (good enough for a £5 prize, surely). There is also a glimpse of a press lord embarking at Boulogne for England: several generals are ordered from a part of the deck to which a special gangway is run up for Lord Northcliffe and his ‘numerous ink-slinging retinue of serviceable indispensables’. His papers would soon (Spring, 1917) be splashing the German-corpses-into-fat rumours, which, oddly, are not mentioned in this book until 1918, in the context of German food shortages.

Generals are an unfailing fount of fun. King’s Regulations forbade the praise of senior officers, an injunction rarely breached in practice; Captain Dunn, no longer Regulations-bound, does not spare his superiors, sternly though he upholds the military virtues. Often the generals seem like fugitives from Oh, what a lovely war! One of them, whom Sassoon reputedly caricatured in ‘He’s a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack ... But he did for them both with his plan of attack,’ is described by Frank Richards as ‘a bun-punching crank and more fitted to be in command of a Church Mission hut at the Base than a division of troops’ (as a teetotaller he deprived the troops of their rum ration). Another commander of great effervescence and oddity was removed, late in 1916, to a Parliamentary seat in Ayrshire: ‘on going away he insisted on shaking hands with an unwilling sentry, told him who he was, and how he had been honoured by his fellow-citizens. The man probably doubted his sobriety.’

Dunn is a devotee of the Old Army and has deep reservations about new recruits serving as ‘Pals’. ‘There is a brigade of university and public-school men – accustomed from infancy to be waited on, with not a soul to show them an active soldier’s chief job – rough casual labour. Two battalions are “Sportsmen” but not sportsmen enough to join up with the ruck of their fellows.’ But his supreme contempt is for the theorists, again ‘hairy-eared’, who argued that ‘the way to win was to destroy the Regiment, the immemorial foundation of armies, and nationalise the Army.’

The weaving together of so many accounts sometimes leaves uncertainty as to who is the witness, who the commentator or who the poet who says of a sudden onrush of rats: ‘They made a noise like wind through corn.’ No doubt the answer is intended to be ‘It is the voice of the Battalion,’ but as a rule the dry, often astringent tone of Dunn is easily recognisable. How far did he touch up that tale of how ‘our douce Scotch Commander-in-Chief’ stopped for coffee at an estaminet which, unknown to him but not to passing Staff, a notorious lady from Paris had ‘staffed with some winsome daughters of Rahab’? This incident is one of a hundred-odd entries listed under ‘Anecdotes’ in the index, which is clearly Dunn’s own loving work. He was a man with an eye for landscape, weather and fauna; under ‘Animals’ he lists 12 species, from bats to rats. He observes the effects of different gases on horses, cattle, poultry and mice (mustard gas apparently helps to keep lice at bay); he cites the soldiers’ habit of freeing farmers’ dogs which are kept permanently chained until needed to work the treadmill for the churn. Under ‘Birds’ he identifies 25 species, including nightingale and swan; one reference is to the day when ‘the splinter of a 5.9-inch shell fired at our 6-inch battery killed a lark on the wing.’ Other entries include ‘Burials’ (the body of a captain had to be reburied twice in one day by a cemetery squad trying, under fire, to keep the dead underground); ‘Fortnum and Mason’ (crates seen on the back of a Staff Rolls-Royce); and ‘Phonetics’ (the battalion had in the ranks an Oxford lecturer who maintained that an officer was swearing in a Silesian dialect and must therefore be a spy).

The battalion’s record, as Dunn points out, was not necessarily a typical one (just as Graves and Sassoon were not typical officers). It was always used late in action: ‘Attacks had to be made with the knowledge of others’ failures, and over their dead.’ He does not admit, in this narrative, that he briefly took over command of the battalion (which was decidedly no function of a medical officer) at a bad moment during Third Ypres, but Keith Simpson in his Introduction produces evidence to suggest that he did (he apparently admitted seizing a machine-gun when the gunner was hit and firing it till it jammed). Dunn’s DSO and MC with Bar were awarded him for tending wounded under fire (another Medical officer, Captain N.G. Chavasse, won the only double VC of the war for performing similar acts during Third Ypres).

Third Ypres, fought to seize the Passchendaele ridge, was the doomed onset in the mud which has often prompted exclamations of ‘They’d never get troops to go through that again.’ In his Passchendaele, which marks the 70th anniversary of that occasion, Philip Warner argues that the worst feature of the battle was that it so ‘disheartened the democracies’ that they ‘became less willing to preserve peace by preparing for war’. Yet in the military context of the day the attempt to enlarge the Ypres Salient appeared as good an idea as any. The French had mutinied, the Russians were collapsing, the Americans were not yet ready: there seemed no point in sitting still and letting the enemy plan the next move. What went wrong is common knowledge: pounding by guns wrecked the natural drainage and vile weather deepened the resulting swamp. A two-mile belt of deep quagmire, void of landmarks, separated the front trenches from the rear areas and a man was as likely to drown in this land battle as in a sea battle. Warner gives well-chosen, vivid accounts of this ‘push’, if that is the right word for a form of progress in which an officer, under fire, walks in front of his tanks trying to find firm ground for them by poking with his stick. In popular lore this is the battle in which Haig’s Chief of Staff, General Kiggell, belatedly visiting the front, broke down and exclaimed, ‘Did we really send troops to fight in this?’ Warner has turned up a Staff memoir asserting that the strain on a regimental officer holding a trench was as nothing to that of sitting at GHQ planning the movements of giant unseen armies. With hindsight it seems unfortunate that the Staff was not relieved of this strain a couple of months or so earlier.

Bernard Martin, the now deceased author of Poor Bloody Infantry, was badly wounded on the first day of Passchendaele but lived to write this short memoir in his 90th year. He was as innocent a subaltern as could be found: even after the Somme he was unsure of the meaning of that all-purpose word the use of which a visiting general so strongly condemned. Could a 20-year-old really have been so unworldly? It is not utterly impossible; the war reaped many a virgin male. Unlike Graves, Martin was not addressed as ‘wart’ when joining his first regimental mess, but he was warned not to speak for the first fortnight. Callow as he was, he was regarded as mature enough to prosecute deserters.