Clockwise from upper left: Owen, Tailhade (turned sideways to obscure his damaged right eye and hand), Flaubert.
Wilfred Owen and Laurent Tailhade have been seeing a lot of each other, and the elder poet took it upon himself to rectify what he considered to be some of the more glaring holes in Owen’s literary education. On the 5th they met again, and Tailhade gave him Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint-Antoine. Today, a century back, they met again, and Tailhade signed the Flaubert and presented him with Renan’s Souvenirs d’Enfance et de Jeunesse as well. This photo was probably taken today, in commemoration of the occasion.
Meanwhile, at the other end of France, the French and the German commanders in chief both found themselves ignorant of the exact position and condition of their armies. The only certain thing was that the momentum of the campaign was finely balanced. Over three desperate days of fighting along two hundred miles the armies had battered each other, and it was difficult for any general to know if his men were beaten or, perhaps, on the edge of victory. This rolling battle was named after the nearest major river, the Marne.
The BEF had as of yet done little, but as the French drew the German First Army back, they were positioned to exploit the yawning gap between it and the Second Army, further to the east.
The Irish Guards were one of the units that continued their slow recent advance into that gap, crossing the Petit Morin, a tributary of the Marne, and occupying the town of Boitron.
Here the battalion re-formed and pressed forward in a heavy rainstorm, through a flank attack of machine-guns from woods on the left. These they charged, while a battery of our field-guns fired point-blank into the thickets and captured a German machine-gun company of six guns (which seemed to them, at the time, a vast number), 3 officers, and 90 rank and file. Here, too, in the confusion of the fighting they came under fire of our own artillery, an experience that was to become familiar to them… they proudly shut up in the farm-yard [where they were bivouacked] the first prisoners they had ever taken; told off two servants to wait upon a wounded major, took the parole of the other two officers and invited them to a dinner of chicken and red wine. The Battalion, it will be observed, knew nothing except the observances of ordinary civilized warfare.
Yes: is it really remarkable to see a tradition-saturated guards regiments treating its officer-captives like international gentlemen and men of their word? This was how their forebears had conducted themselves in the Crimea and, before that, against Napoleon. Yet perhaps it’s just a little bit remarkable. This is not the first time, and most assuredly not the last, that we will see combat troops treating their opponents rather better than the shrill tone of patriotic sentiment at home might call for.
The 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers had “an eventful day,” a century back, beginning at 3 AM. By four they were overlooking the banks of the Marne, and by mid-morning they were enduring the vicissitudes of incompetent generalship. It was not entirely clear which brigade–and thus which brigadier–the 2/RWF belonged to, and so the day was marked by a series of oblique marches,periodically interrupted by new orders and a change of directions. In an unusual departure from gentlemanly decorum, Dr. Dunn lets the disagreement into his book: the colonel believed that they should be receiving orders from one general Hunter-Weston, but “less senior officers were sure that H.-W. lost his own brigade in he morning and just wandered round giving orders to anyone who would listen to him.” Major Geiger of A company:
I have a vivid recollection of this distinguished officer early in the day’s proceedings careering past me on the flapper’s perch [i.e. on an extended seat, behind, and presumably clutching, the officer who drove] of a motor bicycle and of thinking how such a means of progression was possible only for a British General…
Hunter-Weston reappeared to order two companies to make a flank attack on what turned out to be British troops. Happily, they realized this before damage was done, yet continued to advance as they had been directed in a martial sort of do-si-do. The general then showed up where the rest of the battalion waited and ordered the colonel, bereft of two companies but with other troops now theoretically attached to his command, to advance to a nearby château.
The battalion had barely reached the château when General Hunter-Weston arrived again on the motor cycle, and again told me to open my map.
But A and B companies were still trundling north-east toward the river. Major Geiger:
Within minutes–I think it would be around 4 o’clock–a gorgeous General Officer, he of the flapper’s perch, burst on our vision. he asked who we were. On my respectfully informing him, he waved his stick and, pointing downhill, exclaimed in the theatrical manner which later made him so celebrated, “Follow me.” He then strode off so rapidly that before one platoon had fallen in he had disappeared–for two years as far as I was concerned.
During the afternoon, the wandering Welch made their way down the steep hillsides of the Marne valley to the town of La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. The bridges had been destroyed by the Germans, who held the part of the town on the right (far) bank of the Marne. This meant that they were near enough to fire upon.
Despite the violence, an air of slapstick persists: useless long-range rife fire by the Royal Welch draws machine gun fire upon them, wounding “‘600 Griffiths, the Goat-Major, one of my most ancient warriors… he had a bullet through his forearm, and a very aggrieved look.”
After several more visitations from the peripatetic Hunter-Weston and less amusing encounters with a German ambush and the bodies of the British soldiers who had earlier cleared the town, the 2/RWF were at last reunited.
Frank Richards describes this day too, and it sounds a little less fun when viewed from the ranks:
The enemy were supposed to be holding the two villages, and we had to take them. We were met by a hail of bullets. The men to the right and left of me fell with bullet wounds in the legs, and a sergeant just behind me fell with one through the belly. We were having heavy casualties, but couldn’t see the enemy…. some of the men had remarkable escapes, several having their water-bottles pierced…
When it was dusk we carried on with the attack…
Six of us and a young lance-corporal were told to occupy the nearest large house, and if we found any of the enemy inside not to fire but use the bayonet. The doors and the wooden shutters of the windows were securely fastened and we tried to burst a door open, but failed. We then knocked a panel out of the bottom of it which left a space just big enough for one man to crawl through. The seven of us looked at one another… we were all old soldiers except the lance-corporal, who had about twelve months service. One old soldier had very nearly persuaded him that it was his duty as a lance-corporal to lead the way, when our officers came on the scene and ordered us to get in the house at once, also warning me to take the lead. It took me a couple of seconds to crawl through, but it seemed like a couple of years. I had every prospect of being shot, bayoneted, stabbed, or clubbed whilst crawling through, but nothing happened and the remainder soon followed. We searched the house. There was not a soul inside, but we found a small back door wide open which a few minutes before had been securely fastened.
I went out to report and going down the street came across one of our majors and a half a dozen men knocking at the door of a house which had a Red Cross lamp hanging outside…
We went in and found twenty-seven wounded Germans, including two officers, inside. Our major, who was an excitable man, was cursing and raving and informing the German officers that if one weapon was found in the house he would order his men to bayonet the bloody lot of them. We searched the house but did not find a weapon of any description….
Shouldn’t “our major” be major Geiger, commanding A company?
Back to Dunn’s regimental history for a moment. There is another major on the scene (at least, as second-in-command, he should be a major, one O. de L. Williams, who writes that in a locked house “we found the wounded Germans. Geiger, who came in later, tells about in his own way.”
Here we struck oil. Upstairs was a large room with about 50 wounded Germans, all in bed, being tenderly nursed by French Red Cross Sisters. The Germans had their arms and ammunition, which so enraged one officer already in the house that he insisted they should be taken out and shot forthwith, although the Sisters were most emphatic that these men had not fired a shot while in the house. The Germans were badly wounded; all the rifles I had time to examine were clean; so, as senior officer present, I left a guard…
Well. History–and havoc–play havoc with the memory. It seems that it was Williams who raged… and yet he should have been in command of Geiger, only a company commander. It’s possible, though–they had similar length of service–that Geiger was senior despite not being superior… in which case he is describing his own ungentlemanly behavior in the third person. A rum business. It is very well worth noting that, as far as we know, no Germans were shot. If the British had been Germans and the Germans Belgians, many would have died.
Back in the house they had broken into, the men find a “big dinner–roast chickens, ducks, vegetables all nicely cooked, and bottles of wine”–left by the presumed German fleers. “Stories had been going around that the Germans has been poisoning the water in the wells and we had been warned to be very careful not to eat or drink anything where they had been. We never took much notice of the stories or warnings.” After all, “pukka [real, proper] soldiers would [n]ever poison good food or drink.” The seven fusiliers gorged themselves and went upstairs to sleep in proper beds.
And in fair Buxton, with the drama of Edward’s fate settled for the time being, the upper middle class fends for itself:
Tuesday September 8th
Daddy went off for his holiday this morning. The maids also all went & Mrs Fowler came in to help to look after the house with Drabble, & we began the unaccustomed & very salutary task of looking after ourselves a good deal more than usual. Otherwise the day was of a type I am getting used to — a series of First Aid & nursing classes. Mrs Ellinger had a nurse in to show us bed-making etc., & took care to offer herself as the patient, & to undress in front of the people she had asked in to watch, in order to display her expensive underclothing. To me it looked somewhat unsuitable to see so much lace & frilling when people are starving for want of peace; also I think that plain, dainty garments such as the night-gowns I am now embroidering for myself, which the wash cannot spoil, are much more appropriate for practical use than the kind of elaboration one only expects at a dance.
Well, this is pretty hilarious, all things considered. Two or three Brittains (I assume Edward is at home) appear to be doing some salutary roughing it with only a 3/2 master/servant ratio. Then, what must have been an extremely unerotic strip-tease elicits a minor capitalist-puritanical rant from a young woman, who, I think it’s safe to assume, does not do her own laundry even when the maids are on holiday. Much though we may nod with chagrin at the thought of so much lace and frilling mangled in the wash, it’s hard not to recoil with something more than a giggle from such a heady combination of snobbery and unself-consciousness.
But–aha! There is an untold story here, a tragic incident that explains the wounded pride beneath the puritanical counter-attack, a Testament that explicates the Chronicle.
Brittain does not much soften her portrayal of the provincial middle classes when she reworks all this material into memoir. We learn, as a matter of fact, some new and damning details, for instance that the women of Buxton “wasted so much material in the amateur cutting-out of monstrous shirts and pyjamas, that in the end a humble local dressmaker… had to be called in to do the real work, while the polite female society of Buxton stalked up and down the hotel rooms, rolled a few bandages, and talked about the inspiration of helping one’s country to win the War.” But when one of these ladies stripped to her fancy panties (or, I would imagine, her voluminous bloomers), the fateful accident occurred. “In a zestful burst of vigour, I crumpled the long frills of her knickers by tucking them firmly into the bed.”
But back to the diary, and the traditional coda of war news:
The news from the front is still vague, but has a more hopeful aspect. The Allies have now taken the offensive & seem to be pushing the Germans back. On the end page of the Daily Mail to-day were some ghastly pictures of ruined Louvain – the Oxford of Belgium – the destruction of which by the Germans is the greatest crime of the war…
Lieutenant Billy Congreve of the 3/Rifle Brigade was now a long way from Tipperary–where his battalion had been stationed when war war declared–and with little more than the channel to go. Having arrived in England a few weeks previously, he and the rest of the 6th Division (which included his father, commanding its 18th brigade) sailed from Southampton today, a century back: “A captured [German] officer… says that they will be done in a month, If so, we are only just in time. Certainly the papers seem more cheerful today. The Germans have apparently left Paris alone and now we have taken up the offensive.”