Yesterday, Alf Pollard led an improvised, four-man counter attack that defeated a German assault and saved an entire division’s position. He writes about the morning after in two different places in his memoir. One follows immediately upon descriptions of yesterday, but it begins a new section, entitled “Book Three: Afterwards.” The other is the very beginning of the entire memoir, which begins today and then flashes back to 1914. So it is not a stretch to say that the book is built around yesterday’s heroics and today’s reward.
The morning of the 30th April, 1917, was bright and sunny. I was awakened at ten o’clock from a deep refreshing sleep by “Bun” Morphy, at that time second in command of the battalion, who burst into my tent in a state of the deepest agitation.
“Get up at once, Pollard!” he called in his rich Irish brogue.” The Divisional General wants to have a word with you!”
I rolled over in my flea-bag and smiled up at him. Bun was a favourite with all of us.
“I’m afraid he’ll have to wait,” I rejoined. “I can’t possibly get up at present. I haven’t any pyjamas on.”
It was lamentable, but it was true. We were lying under canvas at St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Arras, having only arrived from the line at three o’clock that morning after sixteen days in action. We were all dead tired. Our spell “up the line” had been particularly strenuous. In addition, I had picked up a slight dose of gas on the way down. Fritz was shelling the Arras-Douai road and I was too overjoyed at our relief to bother to don my gas-mask. The camp was a welcome end to a long march; the Mess tent a pleasing centre. Several whiskies were needed before I fully realised I was back at rest. I was a bit tiddley-boo before I retired in search of my bed.
I found my tent all right. I found my flea-bag, properly laid out for me by my servant. The devil of it was I could not find my pyjamas. Perhaps I ought to confess that my search for them was rather perfunctory. I have often wondered why I bothered to undress. I had not had my clothes off for sixteen days; one more night would have made very little difference. As it was, I stripped naked and crept in between the blankets.
Pollard’s memoir begins as a light comedy, then–and it remains a comedy, in the old technical sense. It is a story in which, though the characters are challenged, all comes right in the end.
Bun was too excited to grasp the situation.
“Never mind your pyjamas,” he declared impatiently. “The General’s waiting for you, I tell you.”
The General would have continued to wait as far as I was concerned. Fortunately he eased the situation by coming to my tent in person accompanied by Colonel Aspinall, his G.S.O.1. How should one salute a general when in the nude? King’s Regulations makes no provision for such a contingency. I merely sat upright and hugged my blankets to my chin. Bun clicked his shining spurred riding boots to attention.
“This is Pollard, sor,” he boomed.
I realised the feelings of a rare specimen at the Zoo being shown off to two interested fellows. Colonel Aspinall fitted his eyeglass to his eye. The General held out his hand.
“I’m proud to meet you, Pollard. I’ve been hearing all about what you and Haine did yesterday and I want to tell you I’m recommending both of you for the Victoria Cross.”
The Victoria Cross!—the highest honour that any citizen of the British Empire can achieve. For a moment the tent whirled round me, the pole and the seams of the canvas hopelessly intermingled with khaki and field boots. In a daze I accepted the General’s hand, forgetting all about my nakedness.
The full title of the book is, naturally, Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C.
“I—I’m sure it’s most awfully good of you, sir,” I stammered. All my life I’ve always stammered in moments of great excitement. “It’s most awfully good of you. Er—” I was at a loss for words; then I remembered. “I’m frightfully sorry I can’t stand up, sir. As a matter of fact I couldn’t find my pyjamas last night and—er——”
Major-General Lawrie was a very tactful man. He appreciated my embarrassment.
“I quite understand,” he interposed. “You’ve not had time to dress. Have your bath and we’ll have a chat later.”
He turned to leave the tent. Colonel Aspinall’s eyeglass dropped with a faint click. I felt that he was smiling. A moment later I was alone with my thoughts. The V.C.!
Had anyone told me on August Bank Holiday 1914 that I should ever receive the V.C. or even the D.C.M., or even that I should ever be a soldier, I should have roared with laughter…
But laughter is where it ends up. His subsequent account of today, a century back, notes that there was much laughing among the officers and men of the H.A.C. And why not? They had saved the day, yesterday, and today they were out of the line and safe. And two of their officers had won the Victoria Cross. Why shouldn’t they laugh?
Here is the official citation:
On 29 April 1917 at Gavrelle, France, the troops of various units had become disorganized owing to the heavy casualties from shell fire and a subsequent determined attack with very strong forces caused further confusion and retirement. Second Lieutenant Pollard realized the seriousness of the situation and with only four men he started a counter-attack with bombs, pressing it home until he had broken the enemy attack and regained all that had been lost and much ground in addition. This officer’s splendid example inspired courage into every man who saw him.
Skeptics might point out that when an attack fails (in the neighboring division), awarding rare and famous awards to two men who helped to prevent a disaster (rather than achieve an intended victory) is a good way of deflecting criticism. That’s a likely story, but it is hardly on point–pretty much any decoration may arrive through some combination of ulterior motives, but that does not necessarily detract from the valor it rewards. My complaint is more simple: The H.A.C. is now at the “climax of our fame” and proud of having protected the position without taking heavy casualties…
But Pollard does not describe what casualties they did take. I’m not sure, actually, that he mentions any casualties in his Regiment that day at all (one of the three companions in heroism–each was awarded the DCM–a soldier from the neighboring division, is killed today). There were probably few–the CWGC notes only five men of the H.A.C. killed yesterday near Arras, and perhaps none of these were in his company. But I don’t know. Nor do we hear a thing of the Germans Pollard shot and bombed–did they die immediately? Did they suffer? Were they given aid? Taken prisoner? Deliberately killed as a potential threat to the rear? I don’t know.
My point is, again, that it’s a comedy: Alf Pollard is a callow boy at the start of the war, and a hero at the end. He’s done good, and everyone who matters has a happy war–bravery, success, recognition. The people who die to make this happen do not make an impact on the narrative. Pollard will even go on to marry the girl who has spurned his advances throughout–the V.C. helped with that as well. So not only a comedy, but more, er, “proof” that there is something to the evolutionary argument for reckless aggression.
But I get ahead of myself, and that is against the rules. We will hear from Captain A.O. Pollard, V.C. a few more times, and he will continue to represent a literary style more popular than that of the vast majority of the writers we read here. Pollard, just like Sassoon or Owen, deserves to be read in context, and examined alongside (rather than condemned for) his assumptions: a general will write a forward for his book, pitching it as a how-to guide for boys, all of whom “must long to receive the Victoria Cross.” And perhaps it is. But it’s worth asking how the author of a book so staunchly enthusiastic about war might fare when the chances for such happy heroism vanish and the memories fade. And it’s also fair to ask what the literary and historical qualities might be that recommend further reading of this book for those who aspire to recognition that can be earned in more humane and less dire circumstances than the Victoria Cross.
And, of course, even being able to look to the future, as Pollard can, is a gift of Providence–or an omission of Fate. Or happenstance. Edward Brittain writes to his sister Vera today, a century back, with more bad news.
Brocton Camp, Stafford, 30 April 1917
Dearest Vera —
I only heard this morning from Miss Thurlow that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd–a week ago to-day–and I sent you a cable about noon. No details are known yet as his people only got the War office telegram on Saturday evening; I have been afraid for him for so long and yet now that he has gone it is so very hard—that prince among men with so fine an appreciation of all that was worth appreciating and so ideal a method of expression…
Always a splendid friend with a splendid heart and a man who won’t be forgotten by you or me however long or short a time we may live. Dear child, there is no more to say; we have lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained? Truly as you say has patriotism worn very very threadbare.
Victor seems to be much better; Mother will be able to tell you more about him than I can as she sees him every day. She says his voice has come back just as it was before and that he speaks quite sensibly though his memory is not yet very good. He has asked for me to come and see him again and I hope to get up next Saturday.
He doesn’t seem to realise that he is blind yet but thinks he has a bandage over his eyes; I am rather afraid of what may happen when he finds out. I will write again in a day or two as soon as I hear any more about Geoffrey. This is an unlucky place–I was here when Roland died of wounds, when Tah was blinded, and when Geoffrey was killed.
Good-night, dear child.
The letter will take weeks; a telegram arrive in Malta tomorrow.