You’ve got to get used to it
- I am well, who are you? by David Piper, edited by Anne Piper
Anne Piper, 96 pp, £12.00, March 1998, ISBN 0 9532123 0 0
Show a primitive man a submarine, or a sophisticated one an elephant, and both have to have time to get used to the experience before they know what it is they are seeing. So it probably is with the experience of battle. The participant does not know what happened until he can work out in the language of his head (or of his tribe) some way of formalising it. Asked back in England what the retreat to Dunkirk had been like, a languid young officer is said to have replied: ‘My dear – the noise, and the people.’ As good an impression as any that could be devised from (in his case) normal social experience. The fragment of Beowulf known as ‘The Finnsburgh Episode’ provides a standard formula for expressing the shock-horror impact of a surprise attack on a heroic society. The Battle of Maldon is justly famous for the Homeric way it puts appropriate sentiments – which in its context also sound vivid and convincing – into the mouths of soldiers on the verge of death and defeat.
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Vol. 20 No. 21 · 29 October 1998
According to Jack Bevan, to whose authority I submitted on most topics, Ernest Thesiger, having taken his embroidery to work on in the trenches, summed up the Somme experience to a friend as ‘my dear, the noise, and the people.’ Of late – I think on the say-so of a dictionary of quotations – this comment has been re-assigned to an anonymous officer describing Dunkirk. When this attribution is accepted by John Bayley (LRB, 15 October), it’s time to worry. Can anyone shed light?
Vol. 20 No. 22 · 12 November 1998
Apropos George Schlesinger’s pertinent query (Letters, 29 October) about the origins of ‘My dear, the noise, and the people’, I suppose all wars invent stories and myths which are in fact second-hand. In 1943, when I first heard the story, it was quoted as coming out of Dunkirk, but whoever said it (if he did) might well have remembered hearing the Thesiger 1916 story. Or, just conceivably, he might have himself been inspired to make the same comment. Where noise and people are concerned all wars are much alike.
Surely every schoolboy knows – certainly I was told as a schoolboy – that Lord Sefton was the Guards officer who, having escaped from Dunkirk, and being quizzed about his experiences while drinking at his club, replied: ‘My dear, the noise, and the people.’ Sefton had kept a fixed pose of nonchalance since boyhood, when his sister went mad in front of his eyes in the nursery. George Schlesinger’s attribution of the phrase to Ernest Thesiger at the Somme sounds awry. When the First World War broke out, Thesiger fancied himself in a kilt and applied to join a Highland regiment, but as the accent he assumed for the occasion proved unconvincing, he spent much of the hostilities teaching embroidery to disabled ex-servicemen.
I knew the story, located in the Somme, in the middle to late Thirties.
I cannot be exact, but I read it many years ago in the chat column of a newspaper, quoting the response given by a gentleman at a cocktail party to his hostess, on being asked: ‘Did you have a good war, General?’ I am often reminded of it while travelling on the Underground.