As the clock turned over to today, a century back, A. A. Milne, signals officer of the 11th Warwicks, was sitting in a command dugout alongside his colonel and the rest of the headquarters and signalling sections. They were waiting for news of the battalion’s attack, which had begun an hour and a half before. They had another two hours to wait.
It was about two o’clock in the morning that a runner got through. The attack, as was to be expected, was a complete failure…
Advancing into machine gun and artillery fire, the Warwicks took heavy casualties and “were obliged to return to their original trenches.” Only one officer and eleven men were recorded in that day’s Battalion Diary as killed, but many of the 39 “missing” were also dead, lying between the German and British lines or in the German trenches themselves. The battalion commander, Col. Collison, will remember that three officers died, two were seriously wounded, and another was taken down the line suffering from shell-shock. At least 111 men were wounded.
But Collison and Milne didn’t know this at the time time. They knew almost nothing–which was a problem. And Milne was the communications officer.
“Am I to go back, sir?”
“No.” He caught the Major’s eye. The Major got up and strapped on his revolver. It was all too clearly the moment for me to strap on mine…
“Use your common sense,” said the Colonel. “If it’s impossible, come back. I simply cannot lose three signalling officers in a month.”
I promised, but felt quite unable to distinguish between commonsense and cowardice. The whole thing was so damned silly.
Milne knows, I think, that isn’t so much a brave confession as it is a nice little nutshell. He had wanted this rare independence to choose his own course. But, now–how was he to know where his duty lay? It’s somewhere between heroism and cowardice, out there in the dark.
Milne had to try, at least, to run a new line forward now, in the middle of the night, under fire. But he has only been in command of the signalling section for a single day–who should he choose to help him?
I told my sergeant that we were now going to run out a line, and asked him to pick two men for me. I knew nothing of the section then, save that there was a Lance-Corporal Grainger who shared my passion for Jane Austen, unhelpful knowledge in the circumstances.
The sergeant volunteers and picks a different man. Out they go into the night, following the major (probably the battalion’s second in command) toward the attacking companies.
We dashed. The Major went first–he was going to “reorganize the troops”; I went second, God knew why; the sergeant and the signaller came behind me, running out a line neatly and skilfully… From time to time the Major flung himself down for a breather, and down we flopped and panted, wondering if he would get up again. To our relief each time he was alive, and so were we. We passed one of the signal-stations, no longer a station but a pancake of earth on top of a spread-eagled body; I had left him there that evening, saying “Well, you’ll be comfortable here.” More rushes, more breathers, more bodies, we were in the front line. The Major hurried off to collect what men he could, while I joined up the telephone. Hopeless, of course, but we could have done no more. I pressed the buzzer…
The phone, unexpectedly, works.
I asked to speak to the Colonel. I told him what I knew. I ordered—what were telephones for?–a little counter-bombardment. Then with a sigh of utter content and thankfulness and the joy of living, I turned away from the telephone. And there behind me was Lance-Corporal Grainger.
“What on earth are you doing here?” I said.
He grinned sheepishly…
“I though I’d just like to come along, sir.”
He looked more embarrassed,
“Well, sir, I though I’d just like to be sure you were all right.” Which is the greatest tribute to Jane Austen that I have ever heard.
This story pleases me immensely. Any self-respecting, Pooh-reading Janeite should end it there, in triumph. But delving into this action has raised some interesting issues. We have two witnesses writing this attack, but neither of them were really eyewitnesses at all. The attack was hundred of yards ahead of them, in a shell-stricken night. Milne tells his own story, but Collison tries to tell his battalion’s, and for that he must rely on the testimony of the single surviving officer he was subsequently able to interview.
The attack, Colonel Collison explains, was made with two companies in front. One, despite the loss of three officers, seemed to penetrate the German line. But even that is not certain. The other company was stopped well short of the trenches, and a supporting company lost its way and headed off at an oblique angle.
It must have been easy enough for the forewarned Germans to counter this very localized inroad into their front line. “It is certain that these bold spirits were all either killed or captured,” writes Collison. It was his plan–he, that is, drew up the plan he was ordered to draw up, and remained, blind and helpless, in the position that duty required him to maintain, while other men tried to carry it out.
His diary could be filled with defensive self-justification or a lament for the uselessly slaughtered. But neither of those approaches would serve much of a purpose. Rather, both his personal diary and the official Battalion War Diary testify to Collison’s decency and humanity–and to the free-thinking nature of his command. There is no protest, no dramatic gesture. But the War Diary, written in the clear hand of a clerk (or perhaps the adjutant) on an official army form, makes it perfectly clear that their orders were self-defeating: they were to attack just after–but not in coordination with–that barrage by the heavies. To write that this “no doubt advertised our intended attack” in the official record is a stinging rebuke. It suggests that Collison would have been morally justified in calling off the attack, but, realistically, that option was not open to him. Men were going to die, futilely. But nothing would prove the futility of their deaths unless orders were followed, and so they died.
Collison’s diary also provides a name for the body found by Milne, if we can allow for Milne’s having positioned a man described not as a signaller but as a “headquarters orderly” in that advanced command/signalling position. He was Private Saunders–William Richard Saunders–and Collison, too, steps aside from enumerating the day’s losses to remember a Warwickshire family tragedy: he tells us that Saunders had enlisted alongside his father, who had recently been killed. But that’s it–that’s all the colonel can do, writing later on, to remember what was a very bad day for his battalion.
If the story has taken rather long in the telling, the whole affair… only lasted a few minutes…
Collison even wearily compliments the Germans on their competent defense, but then again, he reminds us, they had been well-warned.
Much more remarkable is the Battalion Diary, presumably written today, a century back, or shortly thereafter. It makes it clear that sympathy for the plight of the 11th Warwicks was rather more widespread than we might have guessed:
At daybreak many of our men were still finding their way back to our trenches. The Germans showed themselves + shouted friendly remarks to our men + appeared anxious for a peaceful spell. Our stretcher-bearers went out and fetched in wounded men. For some hours the situation was very quiet…”
And it gets more interesting still. The end of that sentence is crossed out rather heavily–not merely stricken through, but then again not blacked or inked out. I’m confident restoring at least this much:
+ both sides sat[?] or stood[?] on the parapets quite f [3-6 letters illegible].
I wish I could make out the last word, but it seems clear that the Germans were merciful. If they had dead and wounded to evacuate they would have had a much easier time of it–they were in their own trenches. Instead, they took pity on the men they had shot down during the night and allowed for their rescue. Six weeks into the Battle of the Somme they craved some respite, some re-establishment of common humanity.
All this was duly described, then this honesty was regretted. Such an informal truce was, after all, against standing orders. Given Collison’s example of restraint, it wouldn’t do to fulminate–but this would seem to be a pretty clear example of front fighters on both sides united in passive resistance to the best efforts of their generals to get them all killed.
We have a letter today from Max Plowman on the happy occasion of his survival of his first tour in the front-line trenches. Or, more precisely, on his return to billets to discover a longed-for book in a parcel sent by his friend Janet Upcott. It’s Meredith, and it’s “a treasure.” The pleasure of having good reading to look forward to–his batman had neglected to pack other books when they came to the front–sends Plowman off on a rant about the newspapers.
I find there’s very little one can read out here. The newspapers on the war are nauseating… Whether the general censorship is to blame or not I don’t know but it’s all unreal–the horror & terror & misery are all ‘written down’ or covered with sham heroics by cheap journalism. Moreover, more than ever, I mistrust communiques. They are the window dressing of whitewash & varnish–true as a description of London would be which said “It was quite a large town, bigger than Oxford having many important & interesting churches in it of which St. George’s Hanover Square was considered by many to be the most interesting”. I’m not grumbling–no doubt these things are unavoidable but they look foolish from here & the armchair critic is made ridiculous. Truth has been sunk so deeply down the well now one wonders how long it will take to draw her up again. I should be glad if I thought I had the memory & luck & balance of mind & power of description to help in that direction but I don’t think I have.
This is a combination of a prayer and a writerly statement of purpose, the piety of a doubting writer mustered up and clutched close and slipping away through his fingers. But not all the way away…
Of course only fools believe the newspapers–I mean believe the Germans are cowards who won’t face bayonets–believe soldiers enjoy this kind of war–believe each British soldier who’s killed finds a beautifully tended grave and all the rest of the rot… One hates the vacuum that’s created and the journalistic blather is like a grinning mask on the face of death or a ballet dancer’s skirt on the figure of victory.
This lunging flèche seems a little too aggressive–the writer is back on the attack, but two such different metaphors!
Sorry!–I’ve been writing dull platitudes! Well I’ve been very frightened Janet. Shell fire is a very terrible thing, much more terrible than I had ever troubled to imagine… The men who decided to fire heavy guns on soldiers in trenches must have been possessed by the devil. To sit in an inferno of noise & light & wait to be blown to nothing with small earthquakes all round is a disgusting experience. Its stupidity strikes everybody up there…
The sympathy between Milne’s experience and Plowman ‘s writing is remarkable: “so damned silly” and “stupidity,” the disgust at propaganda and the frank contradiction of ostensible norms and orders shown by the Warwicks and their foes…
Plowman then goes on to describe the very slight wound he had received the previous Wednesday. That was a good joke, of course, but the relief that follows his first tour in the trenches is most sincere. Plowman describes this in a passage from his memoir:
It is marvellous to be out of the trenches: it is like being born again. The cloud of uncertainty that hung above us every moment while we were under fire, putting its minatory query before the least anticipation, is lifted, and we are free to say, “In an hour’s time,” without challenging Fate with the phrase. When freedom to anticipate is being persistently challenged, one understands as never before how much man lives by hope. To be deprived of reasonable expectation — even of the next moment — is the real strain. I had not thought of that. Certainty, even of violent death, would often come as a relief. It is the perpetual uncertainty that makes life in the trenches endurance all the time. “Stick it” has become a password: intelligibly the right one. We have to forget “I shall.” It is this constriction of hope that depresses men in the trenches. “If” stands before every prospect, and it is no small “if” in this war. But here we are, alive again, like men redeemed from the grave. We have left the trenches behind.
Instinctively we feel as if we have earned the right to go home. We gave Death the chance. Death did not take it and we’ve escaped alive. What about it? Isn’t the war finished — at least for us? Some of these men have put their lives in pawn a hundred times. Haven’t at least they earned the right of respite? Surely you who live walled round by safety would not demand of these men that they shall keep on offering Death their lives till he accepts? Surely, despite your grey hairs, you’d rather leap from seats of assembly and run into the breach yourselves? I hope you would, but now I am wondering whether you’ve imagination enough to know what’s happening. I should like to remind army commanders, cabinet ministers and other members of parliament, that soldiers only respect those in command over them who are themselves willing to hazard their lives. Napoleon knew this. It behoves them to remember. If they are content merely to prescribe our fates, let them be assured that their share in the honours of posterity will be the award of con- tempt.
Anyway we are alive again for a time — most probably — though three men have been killed in a cook-house that was standing here when we left, but has since been shelled out of sight. Peace will come some day, bringing to some men, if not to us, its almost unthinkable reprieve. Peace might even come to-day. Who can tell?
It’s a bit manipulative to segue back and forth from letter to memoir, but at least I can comfort myself knowing that its quality would provide some solace to the century-back Plowman. Here is how today’s letter concludes:
I wish I could come home & tell you all I know, now while the impressions are fresh because I suppose if I “stick it” long they’ll all get dull & in the desire to “get on or get out” I shall forget what war is really like & be as inarticulate as the rest when I do get back. But… I’m awfully glad I did get out here. This is a rotten letter because it tries to emphasise the terror & horror of the war which one can only vaguely realise in England…
Well, it’s a tall order.
Meanwhile, back in England, Wilfred Owen continues with his training. It’s musketry, now, the hoary British army term for rifle-shooting. Let’s let Wilfred observe himself under observation:
Sat. Night [13 August 1916] Mytchett Musketry Camp
Dearest of Mothers,
Just had your Letter which came, as you designed, tonight. It came refreshingly, comparable to the cool rain that broke over this desert this evening…
My own shooting, alas, is the least of my cares. But it is a bit of a worry, because, in duty bound, one strafes the men for bad shooting, and is never sure of not doing worse than the worst of them. They keep a relentless watch on my Target. I have so far got a Pass every day, but I only do well in Rapid! I can get off 5 rounds in 30 secs, scoring 3 bulls and 2 inners, 17 marks out of 20. If allowed more time I do less well. It is an interesting point of my psychological ‘erraticness’…
And one more brief, melancholy note, from Owen’s erstwhile fellow Artists’ cadet. Tonight, a century back, Edward Thomas is making a bonfire of books and letters that he can’t take with him. Two months after his landlady evicted him from his shack-study in his garden in Steep, his wife and children will be moving to a new cottage at High Beech. Thomas will continue to move among different barracks and camps, and soldiers–even soon-to-be-officers–must travel light.
I thought I should be accused of making a beacon for Zeppelins last night, I had such a huge bonfire…