Robbie Graves is off to Wrexham, A Few Fusiliers Feud over Dates (and Tour a Cathedral); We Meet the Formidable Flora Sandes

Wednesday, 12 August

Up at 6 a.m. to see Robbie off to join the Welch Fusiliers at Wrexham. He started in good spirits & was waving to us as long as possible from the carriage window.'[1]

This from the diary of Robbie’s dad, Alfred Percival Graves. Robert himself gets the date wrong in Good-Bye To All That, remembering instead the 11th as his first day of training–a useful reminder that we will find ourselves in the hands of gifted raconteur who prides himself on playing faster and looser then the facts will allow. But also just a simple mistake, of which there will be many here in the war’s opening days.

A fact, however–and a curious one–is that what Graves, or rather the secretary of the golf club, had gotten himself into wasn’t quite the Regular army, nor Kitchener’s “new” army, nor the Territorials. It was, in fact, “the old militia back-door–renamed the Special Reserve. Only one or two fellows had come, like myself, for the sake of the war, and not the sake of a career.” The rest, Graves would have us know, are Sandhurst exam washouts–an early hint of Graves’s general interpretation of his place in his regiment: it was a stand-off between Graves himself, and perhaps a friend or two, and the thick-headed red line of benighted Regular Army officers.

Graves is succinct, too, on the benefits and drawbacks of being a teenaged lieutenant:

My O.T.C. experience helped me here [with drill], but I knew nothing of Army tradition and made all the worst mistakes–saluting the Bandmaster, failing to recognize the Colonel when in mufti, walking in the street without a belt, talking shop in Mess. Though I soon learned to conform, my greatest difficulty was talking to the men of my platoon with the proper air of authority. Many of them were re-enlisted old soldiers, and I disliked bluffing that I knew more than they did.[2]

Well, perhaps he conformed, but imperfectly, as both he and others will attest.

 

While young Robbie began his initiation into regimental idiosyncrasy, the second battalion was at Rouen, where Major Geiger and another of the officer-contributors to Dr. Dunn’s collective history had a tour of the cathedral, followed by lunch with the arch-bishop, with his episcopal blessing upon their departure.

 

Frank Richards belonged to A company as well, and although he was not formally welcomed by any upper clergy, he did meet, while “going by” the cathedral, “an English lady who informed me that she was an English governess to a well-to-do French family in Rouen.”[3] She took him around town, and so, an officer’s bishop being as good as an old soldier’s governess, a good time was had by all.

Geiger, along with Richards and the rest of A company (four companies to the infantry battalion–the other three followed two days later) then entrained for Amiens, to serve as advanced “Lines of Communication” troops. Geiger writes:

Crowds seemed to be waiting for us at every station, we stopped at every one, and a good deal of osculation went on.[4]

And Pvt. Richards:

On the evening of the 13th my company was ordered to Amiens, the other three companies remaining at Rouen. At every railway station on the way the villagers turned up with bottles of wine and flowers… In those early days British soldiers could get anything they wanted and were welcomed everywhere…[5]

There are two issues here: the (purely) historical and the literary. What really happened? When? The 12th or the 13th? Well, Dunn’s book is later,[6] and he cross-checked several different informants, as well as the official records, as often as possible. So Dunn is probably right, and Richards one day off–the discrepancy may be explained by simple confusion arising from the fact that they arrived in Amiens after midnight.

Anyway, let’s get sillier: were they welcomed with kisses, or with wine and flowers? Which was it really?

Let us allow these two memories, and the different details they choose to stand metonymically for the warm French welcome the first British troops to appear on this line from Normandy to Picardy received, to represent how two “true” histories can tell slightly different stories. So, was it gratitude and conviviality or affection?

I jest, a little. There is almost no difference in the impression of French welcome that the two accounts convey, right? But there is a difference in presentation, in the affected voice.

Retro brow-spotting has been all the rage recently, and here we have two.

First, naturally, the lowbrow: here’s unselfconsious, frank old Frank Richards (would you believe me if I told you that his Pythonesque nickname was ‘Big Dick?’) and his generalities–“anything,” “everywhere”–and his good monosyllabic nouns. “Wine!”

And over here we have the straining middlebrow of the Regular Army, a less-than-dazzling scholar of the higher classes mustering a two-bit Latinism instead of deigning to smooch a French lass. Osculation is not going to produce great war literature.

For highbrow descriptive diction to emerge and declare itself, well… we’ll have to wait.

Finally, the cathedral. Several of the great Gothic cathedrals of Northern France play a role in the war, and Rouen usually has only a walk-on. Notre-Dame de Reims, spiritual capital of medieval France, will have a rough war–but not in the English sector. Notre-Dame d’Amiens, however, standing hard by the spot where A Company, 2/RWF detrained late tonight, a century back, will soon become the great Gothic tourism checkpoint of the BEF (the British Expeditionary Force–tiny now, enormous soon enough). The 2/RWF will see action soon, although not as soon as those units sent furthest North toward Belgium. In the meantime, I promise a good tour of the cathedral–next week, I believe.

 

I have another introduction to make, and another violation of the rules. Flora Sandes is one of the thousands of middle and upper class women who threw themselves into nursing at the very beginning of the war. But she never served on the Western Front, or nursed its casualties. She went to Serbia, leaving today, in fact, a century back. So she doesn’t fit in–but then Flora Sandes generally didn’t fit in. Except that she managed, eventually, to fit into the Serbian army itself, and thus claims the distinction of being the only Englishwoman to actually fight in the infantry in the First World War. A very strange story, and off the beaten path of this project.

But she is unique–and unusual besides. So I want to introduce her now, and I hope to find a way to work her story back in, later on. I’ve found that gender politics and sexual identity are among the more difficult things to treat, er, correctly and yet without brutish violence to their historical context, but Sandes’s outspokenness makes any attempt to completely dodge the issue seem a bit cowardly. Here’s the very beginning of her autobiography:

When I was a very small child I used to pray every night that I might wake up in the morning and find myself a boy.

Fate plays funny tricks sometimes, so that it behooves one to be careful of one’s wishes.

Many years afterwards, when I had long realized that if you have the misfortune to be born a woman it is better to make the best of a bad job, and not try to be a bad imitation of a man, I was suddenly pitchforked into the Serbian Army, and for seven years lived practically a man’s life.

Little did I imagine what Fate was hiding up her sleeve for me when the Great War broke out, and I joined Madame Mabel Grouitch’s little unit and went out to Serbia as a nurse—surely the most womanly occupation on earth.

Our little unit of seven nurses left London on August 12th, 1914, just a week after War had been declared.

I was not a trained nurse, but had been for three years an active member of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, so had some idea of the rudiments of First Aid, and now had the advantage of working under a fully trained nurse. …

Our contract was for three months—when it was supposed that the war would be over…”[7]

So this is not a story with a flock of friendly comparanda. And yet: the enthusiastic rush into the “most womanly occupation” is a pretty good equivalent of the way in which Old Boys and young men leapt to respond to their idea of proper manly (or gentlemanly) conduct, never mind their lack of qualifications. Sandes’s faint connection to an order of crusading knights is a weird echo of the pseudo-chivalric class sensibility which motivated so many newly-minted subalterns, but her blithely confident “I have some EMT training, I guess, and I’ll be under a real nurse” sounds like a gender-switched version of all of our Public School Boys’ “I did a few weeks in a cadet camp and know some ceremonial drill and now will have the advantage of working under a fully trained colonel.”

References and Footnotes

  1. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 111.
  2. Good-Bye To All That, 74-5.
  3. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 12.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 10.
  5. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 12-13.
  6. It was published five years after Richards' book. Richards, who was aided in publishing his book by Robert Graves, was one of the few privates to be consulted by Dunn. He is cited occasionally, but not frequently, as a contributor--and not at this point in the narrative, which is bumpy, given the splitting of the battalion by companies.
  7. Sandes, The Autobiography of a Woman Soldier, 9-10.