Yesterday, a century back, saw the last major advance of the Somme battle. Today, therefore, was a day in which the exhausted troops fought to hold onto the ground they had gained, while reinforcements struggled up through the mud of the torn battlefield. One of those units was the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, Hector Munro‘s battalion. This is the account of one of his comrades, W.R. Spikesman.
…we left our front line to “flank out” on the left of our advanced line, the troops on the left, through the marsh-like conditions of the ground (men had sunk in mud to their stomachs), being unable to come up. It was a very dark winter morning, but after much excitement we were hailed by voices and a figure rose to the top of the trenches in front of us and shouting greetings to the Company Commander…
A number of the fellows sank down on the ground to rest, and Hector sought a shallow crater, with the lip as a back-rest. I heard him shout, “Put that bloody cigarette out,” and heard the snip of a rifle-shot. Then an immediate command to get into the trenches. It was some time later, about an hour, when a fellow came to me and said, “So
they got your friend…”
Hector Munro–Saki–is dead, killed, apparently, by a sniper.
It’s a strange, sudden end to a life that was rich enough to produce a thick, reliably excellent Complete Works and dark enough to keep several biographies straining to come at their subject.
Munro is a tough man to sum up. He was a writer much more skilled–savagely skilled–and better-known than most of ours, but he hardly wrote of the war at all. I wish we could have seen more of him, read more of his letters, but with Saki we have run up against one of the historian’s most unforgiving category of walls, namely those erected by next-of-kin. Hector Munro will not be the the last closeted gay man whose life story will fall into the hands of a relative who so loves him so much that he or she insists on doing great violence to his memory in order to keep it “pure.” Munro’s sister Ethel “set out to destroy all traces of her brother’s life that did not accord with the view of him that she chose to present.” Thus we are left with scraps, and the necessity of confronting the brief, sanitized, sentimentalized “biography” that she included in a posthumous edition of his work.
From this we can glean not only the above account of his last act and words, but the following assessment by one his officers. I can’t gainsay anything in them, although instant deaths by sniper are always suspect and officers do tend to praise elderly non-coms who refuse commissions…
I always quoted him as one of the heroes of the war. I saw daily the appalling discomforts he so cheerfully endured. He flatly refused to take a commission or in any way to allow me to try to make him more comfortable… He was absolutely splendid! What courage! The men simply loved him.
I hope this was true. It would be good to know that this sharp, sardonic, often-troubled man found himself–and found himself to be happy and appreciated–in some band of brothers.
As for Saki’s literary legacy, I can only put in a general plug and a link. He tends to be characterized, for ease of reference, as much like Wodehouse, just not quite as funny. This is true as far as it goes (who is funnier than Wodehouse?), but it’s not really accurate. There are society fops and dimwits to be sent up, yes, but Wodehouse was a pure comedian where Saki was a satirist. There are things that Saki is plainly angry about; therefore the world intrudes on his writing in ways that, with Wodehouse, it does not.
I’ll cheat, therefore, and go to a quick-and-dirty biographical comparison in order to illustrate what should be a purely literary point: they both made good fun of the English upper classes, but later in life Wodehouse blundered into Nazi apology while Munro insisted on serving in the ranks.
But don’t take my word for it. (I really don’t know his work well enough to temper this assessment–it seems to be right on, though.)
I’ll close the book on Saki with assessments from two biographers. They don’t disagree so much as land on different feet:
This self-effacing, secretive man of numerous acquaintances but few intimates, in some ways deeply unpleasant, in some ways admirable, achieved popularity and even love when he was endeavouring to be a killer. He was certainly capable of love, if for nothing else then for the place and ideal for which he fought and died.
A.J. Langguth, however, reaches back to those odd last words–“Put that bloody cigarette out!”–to close his own book: “Particularly because he had been the victim, the irony to the story might have made Saki laugh.
The sudden death of Saki is not the worst thing that happened today, a century back. I’ve come across an odd… I suppose it should be an intertwining–rather than strictly a crossing–of paths, which we will approach by means of Sidney Rogerson’s memoir. For Rogerson and the 2nd West Yorkshires, today was a day of blessed, scheduled, relief–relief that arrived at about 11 last night in the form of a fresh battalion, set to take over their trenches.
In the wee hours of the morning, then, after a final tour of the positions they had so much improved (by hard and skillful digging), Rogerson made his way back with his company. But he had misread his orders, believing that he had to report “relief complete” at his battalion headquarters, several hundred yards back in the reserve trenches, and then rejoin his company.
So Rogerson set off, alone, to cross the debatable lands near Dewdrop Trench. And he swiftly got lost.
Throughout the war this was my worst nightmare–to be alone, and lost and in danger. Worse than all the anticipation of battle, all the fear of mine, raid, or capture, was this dread of being struck down somewhere were there was no one to find me, and where I should lie till I rotted back slowly into the mid. I had seen those to whom it had happened.
It’s a remarkable coincidence, I think, that A.P. Herbert’s tragic novel, The Secret Battle, also uses the occasion of the battle of Beaumont Hamel for a disquisition on what he calls “the theory of the favourite fear.” Herbert’s narrator lists several horrible ways to die and remembers the ways in which soldiers would talk of these fears, swapping them, vainly striving to master them. And his protagonist, Harry Penrose, shares a very similar terror with Rogerson:
That was how it was with Harry. The one thing he could not face at present was crawling lonely in the dark with the thought of that tornado of bullets in his head. Nothing else frightened him–now–more than it frightened the rest of us, though, God knows, that was enough.
So Harry Penrose did quite well today, a century back, playing a fictional part in the very real fighting by the Royal Naval Division. The narrator has been worried about Harry–he had confessed his feeling of nervous terror, his sense that his reserves of courage were depleted, that he would fail. He didn’t.
But Edwin Dyett, the officer whose experiences most informed the creation of Penrose, did. Dyett was left out of the attack, yesterday, and consequently he did not have the reinforcing presence of a platoon to lead, a group of men that he could not let down, other officers who might keep him to the task, before whom simple shame might prop up his will. Instead, Dyett was sent later in the day, with one other unsympathetic officer, to bring reinforcements up over the shell-strewn ground. And then he disappeared.
All day, today, the R.N.D. was holding the line near Beaumont, under terrible pressure from German counter-attacks. Bernard Freyberg, one of the last of the Argonauts, was winning a Victoria Cross with his skillful and courageous leadership of the Hood Battalion. Freyberg also reorganized Herbert and Dyett’s Nelson Battalion, which had lost all of its senior officers and was under the temporary command of a sub-lieutenant.
Dyett, who was supposed to have turned up with those reinforcements late yesterday, was not seen by anyone all day long.
It is strange and fortunate and bitter, then, that Sidney Rogerson made a foolish mistake today, a century back, and was unlucky, and stumbled into his greatest fear, the sort of mischance that can suddenly undo good men… and that it all came out alright. Close to panic, Rogerson eventually found the battalion headquarters, but by that time it had, naturally, been turned over to the relieving battalion. He is far away from the men he is supposed to be commanding, at night, under fire.
Stumbling back out into the shell-strewn darkness, Rogerson is saved by another swift spin of Fortune’s wheel: “this time, luck was with me.” He blunders into Hawley, a friend, along with a guide who knows the ground. Rogerson is a good officer, it would seem, promoted while young, probably never suspected of cowardice or malingering. But then again he has had three days of intense stress rather than Dyett’s all Gallipoli, plus many more months of war. In any event, Rogerson’s explanations of his mistake, his foolish absence, are believed. He was lost, but now he is found, before it is too late.
The danger remained the same, yet the presence of others banished at once the terror that had assailed me.
Rogerson, too, is lucky in his friends. And, simply, lucky. Instead of being lost in the night, and panicked, and away from his unit without any good excuse, he is soon back with the company, leading the exhausted men out through the barrage without a single casualty–a “miracle”–and, eventually, to their rest billets. As if to underscore the strange parallel between Rogerson and Dyett/”Penrose,” Rogerson is nearly accused of dereliction of duty even after he gets back to camp, since the colonel finds his company being issued rum while Rogerson is off in his tent, cleaning himself up. The colonel is satisfied once it becomes clear that a non-com had ordered the rum issue hoping to allow his officer some time to recover himself…
But again, what are the differences here? A brave man and good, and a coward and failure? No. If the remarkable conjunction of Rogerson’s memoir and Dyett’s tragedy should tell us anything, it’s that the length and intensity of a man’s service and the opinion of him formed by his fellows and immediate superiors is of much more importance to the “reception,” as we might say, of his actions than any inherent qualities of courage or cowardice. And then there is luck. Rogerson is certainly a good officer, and he has behaved bravely. But by his own account he panicked, and only the turn in his luck in the dark of the night saved him from, at the very least, an enormous loss of prestige and a probable spot on his colonel’s mental list of untrustworthy and possibly cowardly officers.
Who is to say that, if he had not blundered into his friend and the guide, he would not have done something foolish and been away too long and become–if not then, then later on–an officer whose confidence in himself and his “luck” is shattered. Without luck, does he become someone without the strength to go forward, and with no other other way out? Someone, that is, like Dyett?