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 full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.