Amateurs Abroad

A bit of a contrast, today, a century back, between the provinces and the thick of it. Edward Spears, British army Liaison to the French Headquarters, noted, with what seems like a mixture of ruefulness and pride, a strange visitation. After hundreds of pages describing the complexities of the string of battles that saved France, Spears lets a wacky anecdote stand alone:

On the 11th, to everyone’s astonishment, a group of middle-aged Englishmen arrived at Chateau-Thierry. Whence had they come? No one knew. They wanted to fight the Germans and were disappointed when told that if that was their desire they must return to Paris and join the Foreign Legion.[1]

They arrived, that is, at the headquarters of a general in command of a massive conscript army, a general who had almost lost a war and was now winning a battle that involved millions of men, with thousands of daily casualties. Proper channels, my friends, proper channels. And in England, Vera Brittain’s brother Edward pushed off down a very proper one indeed:


Friday September 11th

Edward went off this morning to Oxford to appear before the O.T.C. nomination committee. He left himself the slightest possible margin of time for catching his train, & ran off roaring with laughter at Mother’s anxiety on his behalf. We have said “He must depart” & he has departed, leaving home laughing, with a delighted sense that he is not to be one of those men who will be branded for life because they have not taken part in the greatest struggle of modern times.

There was good news this morning of a German defeat; the enemy have been driven back twenty-five miles, & their left has been enveloped. Several Maxim guns have been taken, & thousands of prisoners captured. Our fleet have pressed right up into Heligoland Bight, but the German fleet refuses the challenge to fight.

When I went up to the Ambulance Lecture this afternoon Dr Braithwaite told me that the results of the First Aid exam, had been published. Mr Wall found my name for me among the passed, also Mother’s. Not that it is a great feat as only 6 failed out of 98 who entered, but it constitutes the third exam. I have passed within six months, which is, I should think, something of a record. I spent the rest of the day chiefly in packing.[2]

References and Footnotes

  1. Spears, Liaison, 453.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 106-7.

The End of the Retreat

Sunday September 6th

Edward’s expected reply from Oxford came this morning. The Adjutant there enclosed one or two forms to be filled up & instructed Edward to call at his place next Friday, when he will appear before their selection & nomination committee. The Adjutant said he might have to wait some time before receiving a commission (unless he applied to a Territorial unit, which he does not want to do as he prefers Kitchener’s New Army) & that also there was some doubt of his getting into Churn Camp, Didcot, where Maurice is, as it only consists of those already gazetted.[1]

Vera Brittain has not quite filled us in on all the details, parental-permission-wise, but it seems that her father had withdrawn his objections at least as far as permitting Edward to write to the Oxford OTC about his interest in taking up a commission–even though Edward had previously communicated with a local regiment behind his father’s back. Incredibly, he got this reply in under three days. Perhaps it will make everyone happy: Edward can now go up to Oxford with the certainty of part-time training and the likelihood of a future commission–but no danger yet.

Not surprisingly, the older Vera Brittain is far better able to understand her father’s point of view. He was a businessman who sent his children to the best schools, but he was not a public school man himself, and at this point he bridled, seeing nothing in “militaristic heroism unimpaired by the damping exercise of reason” (Vera’s words, in the later memoir) that was worth the risk of his son’s life. It was a classic Bad Family Situation, with father bent on exercising authority and Edward torn between filial duty and a gentleman’s responsibility to stave off disgrace. Not so much “I learned it from watching you!” as “I imbibed it at the school you strove to send me to, thus bettering your family’s social position at the cost of this very ethos!”

So Edward would continually protest or rebel, leading to “constant explosions–to which, having inherited so many of my father’s characteristics, I seemed only to add by my presence.” Luckily, father will soon be going on holiday.[2]


Henry Williamson wrote home again today. He can’t seem to get enough of the YMCA free letter-writing tent–or perhaps he is just that lonesome and homesick. With typical guilelessness, he even starts a new sheet of the letter with “I write often, don’t I?”

Today’s letter, except for the relative absence of complaint about military hardship, is more of the same: requests and inquiries about family and friends scattered amidst bold predictions about the course of the war.

From this and several previous letters Williamson stitched together the long letter in How Dear is Life (dated August 30th in the novel). The most interesting difference between document (or “informational text,” as the youth of America are now taught) and literary fiction is that Phillip Maddison addresses his father, while Henry writes to his mother. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Williamson doesn’t write to soften the callow or callous scribblings of his youthful self (sometimes, indeed, he highlights them), but here he decides to exchange direct and indirect methods of communication. In the letters to his mother he prattles on self-importantly about History and War and the Future and then asks her to tell all this to his father:

Our fleet will preserve shipping, etc, but our men will disappear for 50 years or so. Belgium will be a desert. Austria will be broken. This is my opinion. Please send me fathers. Keep this letter as a ‘curio’.

Curio kept.

In the novel, Williamson cleans this up slightly, and closes: “That is my opinion. Please send me yours, with the baccy. Keep this letter as a curio.”  Phillip is more willing to try directly to impress Dad, and Dad is willing to be impressed. Yet the outrageous/pathetic/touching lashings at his mother–first the complaints about her ugly hat and poor photograph, then “I wish you would write neatly in ink, I don’t like a scribbled letter”–become criticisms that are passed through another none-too-sensitive male, presumably gaining impetus like an asteroid slung around a star.

This gives us the chance to see Hettie Maddison subsume her own suffering in the hope that Phillip’s evolution from mama’s boy into swaggering soldier will bring him and his father together. The letter ends with a request for more letters and the instruction to “tell her not to come down here, we are out training all the time and have no time to see anyone.” Strong words, leaving Papa Maddison “really pleased” with his son’s “new direction.”

But Williamson punctures the hope he has briefly floated, jumping forward a week, to today, a century back:

9689 Pte. P. Maddison, ‘B’ Company, London Highlanders,

Crowborough, Sussex,

6 September 1914.

Dear Mother,

Today is Sunday. I have just wandered to the Beacon Hotel… Nearly everybody has someone to see him on Sunday. I have nobody: I am as an orphan, an outcast.

Still, the journey is long, the days are hot… perhaps I am too unreasonable…

Even the poor boys in this camp… are visited by parents and relatives, those who, perhaps, can ill afford the railway fare…

Perhaps I shall not see you again in this life–one never knows, and any opportunity three was is now gone forever.

Love to all,

P.S.T. Maddison.

P.S. Do you think it advisable to get rid of my suits and saleable things at home?

Not surprisingly, Hettie keeps this letter from her husband, “for she felt that he ought not to see it: the tone was so different and might disappoint his new regard for Phillip. Strangely, perhaps, she doesn’t react more than this, nor when she receives, later the same morning (these were the glory days of the Royal Mail), a note reading, in part, “I know that I asked you not to come down so don’t take any notice of my previous letter complaining…”

Both quotations above are, amazingly, verbatim quotations from two letters sent by Henry Williamson, this very day as well, a century back. He seems to back off from his use of the novelist’s privilege of fleshing out event with narratorial knowledge of mental states, preferring a “realistic” rendering of his moody, cruel, melodramatic younger self. From either sloppiness or the qualms of fidelity, he preserves, too, the actual dates even though in general he is accelerating Phillip’s camp experience to send him to France more swiftly than he got there himself…[3]


Charles Carrington, half a world away from his parents, has also been struggling against family resistance for permission to join Kitchener’s Army:

My early attempts to join the army had proved abortive and my visit to relatives in Birmingham was paid in a mood of frustration. The town was in an elevated state, with a recruiting campaign at its height. Birmingham was raising a ‘city battalion’ at its own cost and from its own resources. I persuaded my parents, by cabling around the world, to let me enlist, and, pretending I was nineteen, put down my name at the Town Hall on 6th September, the day–though I did not know it–that the tide turned on the Marne.[4]


But the turn of a tide can only be perceived after the fact, however slightly. Those marching around the low ebb may not even notice that their steps have begun to take them consistently in another direction.

On the 6th they [The 1/Irish Guards] marched through Rozoy (where they saw an old priest standing at the door of his church, and to him the men bared their heads mechanically, till he, openly surprised, gave them his blessing) to Mont Plaisir to gain touch between the First and Second divisions of the English Army.

The Irish Guards were now at the end of their long retreat. In the afternoon the battalion had 15 casualties, including five dead, from a German battery to the northeast at Le Plessis, but, after the battery was put out of action by British guns, they advanced past Le Plessis to Touquin, and bivouacked there. They were now east and south of Paris, and less than twenty miles south of the river Marne.[5]


John Lucy, resting nearby with the exhausted Royal Irish Rifles, described the situation in similar terms, situating his memories in the coming narrative of victory and advance:

On the 6th of September, the British Army had retired to its limit. It no longer covered Paris. Instead, it lay in billets and bivouacs to the east and southeast of the city, and the capital of France was almost in the hands of the German First Army under von Kluck. Away to our left some retiring French territorials and another small force, Gallieni’s hastily collected Sixth Army, rushed out in taxis from Paris…

Everyone mentions the taxis. Paris was vulnerable–as Vera Brittain informed us, the government had evacuated the capital three days before–and its second-line defensive forces and fortifications would not stand up to a German assault.

But Paris was neither attacked nor besieged. As Lucy puts it, now “The Germans appeared to go crazy,”[6] breaking off their pursuit of the BEF.

They hadn’t gone crazy, but they had blundered. Germany had a plan, and the plan had always involved a “right hook” to envelop and destroy the French army. Among the crucial mistakes by German High Command at this juncture–not least (although by no means the greatest) was assuming that the retreating British army was finished. It was exhausted and somewhat diminished, yes, but the ever-efficient rear echelons of the army managed, despite the pell-mell retreat, to bring reinforcements–both men and material–to the planned bivouacs, beginning yesterday. So, just as the BEF had reached the limit of its endurance, it got a rest, and resupply.

The Germans, meanwhile, ceased to act in strategic concert. The deeper enveloping movement had to be abandoned, and then, suddenly, the generals began squabbling (or the German version, which is to ignore inconvenient orders in the approved blind-eye-to-the-telescope manner). Von Kluck’s First Army, seeking the bulk of the French army, disengaged from the British and began to move east, outrunning the lines of supply and opening a gap between them and von Bülow’s Second Army, further to the West.

This was a gamble, and a bad one. “Papa” Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, seized the day. Racing (a legitimate verb, here, since his chauffeur was France’s best automobile racer) to meet with Sir John French and several of his own senior commanders, Joffre laid out the plan that would end the German advance. Edward Spears, the British liaison officer, described the scene years later in his memoir. The strategy meeting becomes in his hands the aristeia of a Great General, a military-religious Turning Point in History:

We hung on his every word. We saw as he evoked it the immense battlefield over which the corps, drawn by the magnet of his will, were moving like pieces of intricate machinery until they clicked into their appointed places…  As a prophet we was heard with absolute faith. We were listening to the story of the victory of the Marne, and we absolutely believed…[7]

Good stuff–but that is not, of course, how it looks, or feels, to the soldier on the ground. It’s fantastic history, in one-and-a-half senses. Maps are not fields, and men are neither pieces of machinery nor subject to the magnetic will of invisible men, however high-ranking and willful. We’ll stick with our Welch and our Irish informants as much as possible as the battle unfolds.

Now the French Sixth Army, instead of being committed to a grinding defense of the capital, led an attack on the exposed flank of the First Army, while more French troops and the BEF prepared to drive into the gap between the German forces. The Battle of the Marne began.

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 105.
  2. Testament of Youth, 100.
  3. See Williamson, Anne, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 19-20, and Williamson, Henry, How Dear is Life, 179-80.
  4. Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning, 51-2.
  5. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 39.
  6. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 157-8.
  7. Spears, Liaison 1914. See Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 311.

We Meet a Nursing Sister; Lieutenant Spears Explains the French

Wednesday, August 19th

We are having a lovely calm and sunny voyage—slowed down in the night for a fog. I had a berth by an open port-hole, and though rather cold with one blanket and a rug (dressing-gown in my trunk), enjoyed it very much — cold sea bath in the morning. We live on oatmeal biscuits and potted meat, with chocolate and tea and soup squares, some bread and butter sometimes, and cocoa at bed-time.

There is a routine by bugle-call on troopships, with a guard, police, and fatigues. The Tommies sleep on bales of forage in the after well-deck and all over the place. We have one end of the 1st class cabin forward, and the officers have the 2nd class aft for sleeping and meals, but there is a sociable blend on deck all day. Two medical officers here were both in South Africa at No. 7 when I was (Captains in those days), and we have had great cracks on old times and all the people we knew. One is commanding a Field Ambulance and goes with the fighting line. There are 200 men for Field Ambulances on board. They don’t carry Sisters, worse luck, only Padres.

We had an impromptu service on deck this after noon; I played the hymns,—never been on a voyage yet without being let in for that. It was run by the three C. of E. Padres and the Wesleyan hand in hand: the latter has been in the Nile Expedition of ’98 and all through South Africa. We had Mission Hymns roared by the Tommies, and then a C. of E. Padre gave a short address—quite good. The Wesleyan did an extempore prayer, rather well, and a very nice huge C. of E. man gave the Blessing. Now they are having a Tommies’ concert—a talented boy at the piano. At midday we passed a French cruiser, going the opposite way. They waved and yelled, and we waved and yelled. We are out of sight of English or French coast now. I believe we are to be in early to-morrow morning, and will have a long train journey probably, but nobody knows anything for certain except where we land—Havre.

It seems so long since we heard anything about the war, but it is only since yesterday morning.[1]

This anonymous diary, published in 1915, is believed to be the work of Kathleen Luard, an experienced nurse who left today for France. She was not a nun: the British custom was to refer to nurses as “sister” (and “matron,” for supervisors) regardless of any continuing religious affiliation.[2] We will check in with the nursing sister several times in the coming weeks–she may not get her wish to be sent forward with the field ambulances, but the hospitals themselves will see plenty of action during the retreat.


Meanwhile, Edward Spears, ad hoc liaison officer to the French, provides us with insight into the army that will stop the German advance almost single-handedly (and bear the brunt of the fighting throughout the war). This project is relentlessly Anglo-centric, but we shouldn’t fall into the same error that so man of the soldiers, generals, and Britons on the home front were pleased to perpetuate: the French were neither inefficient nor poltroons. They fought relentlessly throughout the war, taking heavier proportional casualties in worse conditions than the British, and with no more problems of demoralization or general incompetence than any other nation, and often considerably less. With the last of the Belgian fortresses nearly taken (see below), the war will briefly hinge on the ability of the French army to slow the German advance into Northern France.

On the morning of August 19th, Commandant Duruy returned from Namur. His news was pessimistic. He thought the moral of the Belgian Command very unsatisfactory and that a really determined and powerful attack would not be long resisted…

…On this day, I saw a considerable number of units of the I., III. and X. French Corps. The moral of the infantry was everywhere excellent. The men were cheerful and gay, in spite of the fatigue imposed upon them by constant marching in torrid weather. The reservists were obviously getting fit, and indeed, under the gruelling they were being submitted to, it was a question of getting fit or dying of exhaustion, for the marches had been very long. How the French soldier could go on marching indefinitely wearing the heavy “capote,” [greatcoat] and carrying a big load on top of that, will always be a mystery to an Englishman.

It was impossible to say that any one unit was better than another, although some had better reputations… In the French Army, the fighting reputation of a regiment and the way it is led, are of greater importance and influence its performance far more than its historic traditions. Nevertheless there are regiments which, although they have not the feeling of pride in their past that animates so many units in the British Army, can claim an ancient tradition and lineage: for instance there are two line regiments which trace their descent to Irish regiments in the French service in the eighteenth century, the Regiments of Dillon and Burke. Many claim as their forbears the old Royal Regiments; of these the 1st Regiment for instance is the lineal descendant of the Regiment of Picardie, which in the  eighteenth centuiry claimed to be the oldest in Europe; and in the sixteenth century the 5th Regiment was the famous Regiment of Navarre. Even our old friends the gendarmes are the descendants, as their name (gens d’armes—men-at-arms) implies, of the old feudal cavalry…

The overwhelming mass of men in the French Army were workers on the soil, peasants, hardy and strong, with tremendous powers of physical endurance. What is more they were big men. It came as rather a shock to those Englishmen who saw a great deal of the French, to observe, as the industrial population of England became absorbed in the British Army, that the French Army of ’16, ’17 and ’18 was composed of bigger, better, and stronger men than the British, probably a stone heavier on the average, and an inch or so taller.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anonymous, Diary of a Nursing Sister, 4-6.
  2. Complaints about the passive voice are tiresome but, yes--in this case it represents a lack of diligent research.
  3. Spears, Liaison 1914, 94-6.

The Master and the Regulars; Pooh on Armageddon; Vera (shows) appeals to Edward; Donald Hankey Adopts a Gospel of Tough Love; Osbert Writes for Money

Before we get to the Master (that’s Henry James!)[1] a word on the Regulars: as I mentioned in a post a few days ago, we will need, now that war is upon us, to find a few committed diarist/letter-writers/memoirists who were serving in the army when the war began. Their accounts will allow us to follow the fighting in France, day by day, while our poets are still in school, or dithering, or just beginning their training. The regulars will be joined, in a few weeks, by a number of volunteer nurses.

So please do bear with this week of cacophonous posts: we meet a few more people, now and soon, and then try to keep the other balls slowly rolling while we follow our Regulars to France. There we will keep a close eye on one or two at a time and letting each voice speak several times a week.


As for today, a century back, the reactions to yesterday’s momentous events began. Henry James, the suddenly superannuated master of the civilized novel, wrote that

The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton feat of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for my words.[2]


And now to a brace of one-and-future Regular Officers:


August 5, ’14

The Gospel says: ‘Love your enemies.’ That means: ‘Try to make them your friends.’ It may be necessary to kick one’s enemy in order to make friendship possible. A nation may be in the same predicament, and be forced to fight in order to make friendship possible.[3]

These were the thoughts that Donald Hankey jotted down in his notebook today, a century back. Hankey, twenty-nine, entered into the same soul-searchings and deliberations as so many other young Englishmen with a somewhat unusual perspective. From a wealthy middle class background, he attended Rugby (overlapping with Rupert Brooke, although Hankey was older) but then went on to the Royal Military Academy. His army career, however, was very short, due both to illness and an antipathy for military life, and Hankey spent most of his twenties as a student of religion and home-front missionary in some of England’s poorest urban neighborhoods. He had also traveled, tried foreign mission work, and wrote–both a scholarly book on Christian doctrine (the result of his studies at Oxford) and as a travel journalist.

So Hankey would need to square his English gentleman’s desire to enlist with his very serious commitment to a life lived for the gospel. He had experience living outside of the usual haunts of a privileged life–he had traveled to Australia in steerage and he made a habit of pursuing his missionary work in the clothes of a poor laborer or farm worker. This seems to have been a high-minded attempt to bridge the famous English class gap and bring the good news without its distancing effect, although it’s hard to imagine this sort of class-drag not causing some resentment. Hankey wasn’t really trying to pass, however–he still lived well when he was not working–but rather saw his attempt to mix with those less, er, fortunate then himself as essential experience for his chosen path in life.

It was his intention to eventually become an ordained minister, in fact, that led him to consider the unusual step of not seeking a commission but rather enlisting in the ranks. His military expertise might be more valuable if he served as an officer, but wouldn’t a gentleman ranker gain invaluable insights into the lives of the lower classes by fighting alongside them, insights that would enable him to be a better future shepherd of their souls? Hankey will waver for a few days.


Hankey was a thoughtful Christian, both a student of his religion and a man determined to make actual sacrifices (of financial and social comfort) in order to serve his God. Many of the writers who set the tone of English public discourse about the war in its early weeks were, however, willing to put God and religion to use–it was patriotism first and religion wherever it was useful. (It should not need pointing out, after all these years, that all the combatant nations claimed god for their side–the Germans even created a hot little corner of the military souvenir resale market by asserting this fact on their belt buckles, which read Gott Mit Uns.)

Now it won’t do much good to complain simply that each nation claimed right for their side, and backed that claim up with the most universal sort of appeal (fewer, even, than now, were those then willing to openly disespouse any sort of monotheism). If they were going to fight a bloody foreign war, how could they not claim that (their) God was with them?

Well, so: we’ll come back to this subject when more specific outrages against religion are committed. What I want to show today is that the knee-jerk assumption of divine backing for national policy got particularly sodden and sneaky-noxious when it was mixed with the late Victorian habit of couching patriotic sentiment in the pseudo-medieval language of chivalric warfare. These barrages of cant and gassy hypocrisy were so dense, especially in the war’s early days, that they infiltrated the edges even of the most resilient minds, those intelligences most swiftly and tightly masked against lies.

Everyone caught at least a touch of the gas–even Robert Graves, even Thomas Hardy. But here is the unadulterated stuff:

So shalt thou when morning comes
Rise to conquer or to fall,
Joyful hear the rolling drums,
Joyful hear the trumpets call,
Then let Memory tell thy heart:
“England! what thou wert, thou art!”
Gird thee with thine ancient might,
Forth! and God defend the Right!

The standard-bearer (see?) for this sort of imperialist, retro-phony horseshit was Henry Newbolt, best known for “Vitai Lampada” (thesis: cricket is like war, and the playing fields of Eton will literally teach you how to die well at your primitive machine gun, and earn undying glory–“vitai lampada” means “torch of life,” or, perhaps “eternal flame”–over the bodies of so many heathens). Newbolt was a very bad poet, and very popular (see here; scroll down for elitism!) but a professional writer of sporty doggerel can’t afford to be slow off the mark. Today–the first full day of the British war effort–his poem “The Vigil” appeared in the Times. Its last stanza, quoted above, gives a good sense of the rest (there are, for instance, several other exclamations to “England”).

This gives us, at least, the ability to ask, here at the beginning, what exactly “war poetry” is supposed to do. Drums, trumpets, sure, well–those won’t go up to the line of battle, anyway–but “gird” and “thou wert?”

What does it mean (to be a man far too old for active service and) to exhort the youth of England to risk their lives in an idiom that no one speaks any longer, and one that refers to an invented chivalric past? As it happens, Newbolt had written these lines sixteen years before, in alleged “mystical anticipation” of this, its initial publication on the day when thousands of young Englishman would begin to choose whether or not to gird themselves.[4] Unless we take the mysticism literally, we might then wonder what sort of sacred and heroic feelings can lie unblunted in a desk-drawer for almost long enough to raise new cannon-fodder from scratch and yet retain any real meaning: there is a very frightening thought–or un-thought–behind this poem, namely that whenever capital-W War comes, it is Joyful and Right.


From the heart of London, Osbert Sitwell wrote to his father. Although his autobiography mentions a sudden paternal offer of cash a few days earlier–and implies that he refused it–his father’s archives preserve a letter from today requesting money: “I hate worrying you about these things as I know how dreadfully the war will affect you… but one’s chance of survival in this war seems so small that it is not worth taking small risks on account of expense,” so please, Daddy Dearest, send me some money so that I might buy a new pistol and field glasses.

An unimpeachable request! And, considering the circumstances–Osbert’s constant high living and indebtedness–also a monumentally manipulative and cheeky one.[5]



And on the fictional outskirts of London, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, handed over the wheel of his car to his chauffeur, the better to ponder how the war will affect his fledgling cigarette company. (Not well.) In the back seat, cousin Francis, the gifted layabout and imaginary-best-friend-of-thedashing-secondary-character-who-is-not-a-stand-in-for-the-author, practices his Dutch and German–what could he be thinking of?

Rather awkwardly, today, a century back, marked the publication of an issue of Punch, the great and influential humor magazine, that had, of course, gone to press before the events of the Last Weekend. The magazine, like all major British cultural organs, would immediately toe the line and unstintingly support the war effort–so today, of all days, marked its only real anti-war gesture. You can’t even pick up a newspaper, a century back, without stumbling over situational ironies. He’s a rascal, that young A.A. Milne; here’s how his story began:


The conversation had turned, as it always does in the smoking rooms of golf clubs, to the state of poor old England, and Porkins[6] had summed the matter up…

“What England wants,” he said, leaning back and puffing on his cigar, – “what England wants is a war. (Another whiskey and soda, waiter.) We’re getting flabby. All this pampering of the poor is playing the very deuce with the country. A bit of a scrap with a foreign power would do us all the good in the world.” He disposed of his whiskey at a draught. “We’re flabby.” He repeated.” The lower classes seem to have no sense of discipline nowadays.” We want a war to brace us up.”

It is well understood in Olympus that Porkins must not be disappointed. What will happen to him in the next world I do not know, but it will be something extremely humorous; in this world however, he is to have all that he wants. Accordingly the gods got to work.

There’s not much more to the story: the gods get to work, and because one fat useless English club-man subscribes to the popular idea that cultural decadence can be sweated out in a war, hundreds of thousands are slaughtered.


Back to reality: today was also the day that a handful of fully equipped regular battalions began to move toward France.
The signal arrived at Dorchester at about 2.30 a.m., and we were underway 3.15. We started in pouring rain, the men in the best of spirits, singing at the top of their voices. I have forgotten what they sang, but it was certainly not “Tipperary,” which was already out of date in Quetta the previous year.

The Second Royal Welch (2/RWF) was an old regular formation, and these old sweats were too cool for Tipperary. A “humorist” will later sing it when the battalion appears to be lost on the march, but this was not a song, apparently, that real soldiers embraced, even at the beginning. A striking number of memoirs make reference to “Tipperary,” usually with a hard commitment one way or the other: either “Ah, but did we love that song!” Or “Real soldiers scorned that false stereotype of the carefree Tommy, and we only ever heard rookies or idiot civilians singing it.” History can be tricksy, and now you know: lightweight Great War buffs talk about Tipperary, but the real vicarious Tommies sigh at the affectations of the nubes.[7]

We need to meet yet another young officer, stationed today, a century back, as it happens, in Tipperary itself–yet another reminder that the war that until very recently had seemed to loom largest in possibility was civil war in Ireland.

Lieutenant Billy Congreve of the Rifle Brigade was twenty-three years old and extremely tall and skinny, looking more like a well-brushed and knobby-kneed school boy than a soldier. And there are lots of clearly pre-war pictures on the web, so enjoy. But he was a graduate of Eton and Sandhurst, the son of a VC and the older brother of a midshipman who were, by the time the news reached Ireland, already moving. With trouble on the horizon, Billy Congreve had recently started a diary, in which he will record his combat experiences, which will begin not long after those of the 2/RWF–few were as well-prepared or apt in the sudden new war. Still, Tipperary aside, the story of mobilization in Ireland is one that Congreve can hardly help reporting–in a journal he began in anticipation of war–in an ironic register:

Billy Congreve in a pre-war photo

We were all medically examined today and made wills–at least the men did. I didn’t, as I have nothing to make one about.
All the village is very perturbed. They follow us about and weep copious tears and utter long-winded blessings. Mr. Hegarthy came up to me with a somewhat alcoholic manner, and mysteriously ushered me into his holy of holies, a stuffy, dirty hole. Here he gave me whiskey of great merit (?) and potent beyond words, and a box of cigars. I had to take all this and many words of affection besides, I hope I played my part well.[8]


Considerably closer to the action was Lieutenant Edward Louis Spears, the rare British regular officer with fluent French, and conveniently located in Paris:[9] ,

I was ordered to the Grand Quartier General on August 5th, and was told I would be taken there in the liaison car leaving the War Office at 1.30 p.m…  Our departure caused some excitement. We piled into the car, a huge racing machine owned by a very nice man who had been mobilised as its chauffeur…

As the great doors swung open and the first British officer started for the front, a cheer burst forth from the hundreds of clerks, orderlies, etc., who had just marched back from dinner… and were leaning out of the windows or were still in the immense courtyard.

The driver stopped at a bazaar to buy two large Red Ensigns which were secured to the wind screen as a sign that the British really were in the war…[10]

Showing the flag indeed. By that evening, Spears had been presented to General Joffre, the French commanding general, and begun his work as official British Liaison.


And finally, Vera Brittain:

Wednesday August 5th


All the news of last night was confirmed this morning.. war between England & Germany is formally declared…

The town was quite quiet when we went down, though groups of people were standing about talking & one or two Territorials were passing through the streets. Several Territorials & one or two Reservists were going off by train this morning & there was a small crowd on the station seeing them off. Close by us a Reservist got into a carriage & his father & a girl, probably his wife, came to say goodbye. The girl was crying but they were all quite calm…  Though excitement & suspense are wearing, I felt I simply could not rest but must go on wandering about.

…I showed Edward an appeal in The Times & The Chronicle for young unmarried men between the ages of 18 & 30 to join the army. He suddenly got very keen & after dinner he & Maurice wandered all round Buxton trying to find out what to do in order to volunteer for home service.  They were informed by someone at the Police Station that the best thing to do would be to telephone to the Territorial Headquarters at Chesterfield. They got on to a very interesting officer there, & told him they wanted if possible to be allowed to serve for a period as they did not want their service to interfere with their going to Oxford if it could be avoided…[11]

The “appeal” mentioned here is Lord Kitchener’s call for one hundred thousand volunteers to form what would soon be called the “New Army.” Kitchener was one of the few senior British politicians to voice the opinion that the that the war might last several years, and that a larger army–something at least closer to the relative scale of the continental conscript armies–would be needed. His appeal was well received: many more than a hundred thousand were ready, willing, eager to serve, and so Edward and his friend Maurice–and Roland too, of course–began their maneuvers upon the formidable British military bureaucracy, their goal being to seize a place in “Kitchener’s Army.”

Now, my fondness for young Vera Brittain should be apparent, and I hope I am conveying something of the rare mix of stubborn self-regarding intelligence and writerly sensitivity which she possessed even in 1914–but oh the cruelty of a young woman scorning! Just yesterday she was taunting her rejected suitor, Bertram, about his uselessness to his country–he had evidently not been in his school’s cadet corps–and today she opines that Roland, despite his cadet training, should be spared war, on account of his lofty beautiful brains…

References and Footnotes

  1. No, he's not important to this project, but why pass up a chance to sentence us to a booming sentence by the master of the incomparable whopper sentence?
  2. Quoted in this fashion by Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined, 1. Transcriptions of this letter differ somewhat widely; one site even attributes the quote to Paul Fussell...
  3. Hankey, A Student in Arms, 187.
  4. Hynes, A War Imagined, 25.
  5. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 53.
  6. I do not at this time know of any connection between this proto-Pooh and his namesake who flew under the call sign Red Six, but I fervently hope to discover one.
  7. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 5, 25.
  8. Congreve, Armageddon Road, 20--yes, another book entitled "Armageddon."
  9. Né Spiers--like Ford Madox Hueffer he kept his birth name until after the war, then published his most famous work--in Spears' case, an account of the first month of the war--under his newer and more English name. Spiers wanted his name to be "correctly" pronounced. And also not to reveal his Jewish ancestry.
  10. Spears, Liaison, 19.
  11. Chronicle of Youth, 87-88.