For a starter, today, Rowland Feilding and his breakfast. It’s been ages since we’ve had a guardsman dining in France on imported plovers’ eggs.
May 16, 1916. Bois des Tallies
The parcel of ham, two dozen plovers’ eggs, and the children’s sweets arrived to-day. Thank you all.
To-day the weather has completely changed, and has been superb. I have been at my usual occupation, digging trenches in the Suzanne Valley. I had also to go to a new place to start some work, and took with me one of the sergeants—Deakin, by name. He was working for a fruit-grower and seedsman before he enlisted, and being intelligent besides an excellent N.C.O. I found his conversation very entertaining. The ground is becoming strewn with a great profusion and variety of wild flowers. Few and far between are wild lilies of the. valley in bloom, which are much sought after by officers and men, and are therefore difficult to find. Another very common flower is a white one to which I cannot give a name. It grows from a bulb and has leaves like a daffodil, but much narrower and with a white stripe. The flower itself is like a star. Sergeant Deakin says he has not seen it before, but thinks it may be what is called “Star of Bethlehem.” If only you were in the country I would send you some bulbs.
An area map showing the context north toward Givenchy, where several of our writers have already served
Now that we have been lulled into a floral trench pastoral, today’s main course. Yesterday, E.A. Mackintosh wrote to his sister, a poem that also qualifies as a “last letter.” He was an experienced bombing officer, and there was a raid in the offing–it was prudent to be minded of farewells.
The raid took place today, a century back, and it has been extravagantly well recorded. Let’s begin with the official history of the 51st (Highland) Division, moving back some weeks:
When the weather cleared, it was found that the Division had taken over from the French an unintelligible tangle of trenches dug in what can only be described as a vast cemetery, in which the earth in many places barely covered the dead. The sector was also honeycombed with mines from end to end, the enemy apparently being complete masters of the mining situation…
The new sector extended roughly from the ruined village of Roclincourt on the right to the ruined village of Neuville St Vaast (exclusive) on the left…
The fighting had been of so desperate and stubborn a nature that French and Germans had repeatedly dug themselves in in close proximity to each other. As a result, the whole sector consisted of an unintelligible maze of trenches, aptly called by the French the Labyrinth.
This is not the last we’ll hear of the Labyrinth. It’s a nasty piece of territory:
This more personalized map shows the exact area at about this time–I found it at the istworldwarhibbettletters.com blog, which credits “Jack Sheldon. Old Sweats. Great War Forum. The Long Long Trail.”
In this sector the whole countryside was overlooked by the enemy in an astonishing degree. He occupied the famous feature known as the Vimy Ridge, of which the highest point just north of Thelus reached the height of 135 metres. His foremost trenches were on the outlying spurs of the Ridge, while the trenches taken over from the French were in the low-lying ground at the foot of these spurs. The enemy thus possessed all the advantages of close observation over our lines… Moreover, south of the Scarpe, Observatory Ridge stared down at Roclincourt and Écurie. The French, to neutralise his facilities for observation, had constructed communication trenches of what seemed interminable length… The labour of walking along these trenches, all cut on a very winding pattern, was severe.
But the slog up to the line was not worrying Mackintosh–or should I say MacTaggart, the “Senior Subaltern” bombing-officer hero of Mackintosh’s sketch, which is entitled, succinctly enough, “A Raid.” Rather, it was the wire. The wire, we must remember is not a fence, or a tripwire, or any sort of neatly-strung, vaguely linear impediment. It is a thicket of metal barbs, often deeply entangled and many feet thick, intended to catch and tear at the skin and clothes of any men who sought to approach the opposing front line trenches.
Given the close connection of fiction and historical event–or, looking at it from the other side of no man’s land, the thinness of truth’s fictional garb–it’s hard to know what level of subtlety we should read into our hero’s speech. Little, one would think, since he is so closely supervised by the narrator’s voice. “Top-hole” seems affected–it’s the sort of thing that Edward “Robert” Hermon says, that Edward Thomas will shortly observe a pleasantly dense old regular saying, and generally the kind of thing that fictional toffs trot out. A tough call. We will join the sketch, which begins around lunch time on the day of the raid, already in progress, as a final preparatory exercise to the long-drilled raid has just concluded.
“My God, Charles,” said the Senior Subaltern, “aren’t they great? God help any Bosche that meets those lads. They’re just as fit and happy as they can be. I feel top-hole, too, don’t you ? I don’t see that there’s anything can spoil it.”
The other spoke slowly, looking in front of him. “Oh, I’m not in the least afraid of anything, if we can only get into the trench,” he said. “If the wire’s cut . . .”
A German barbed wire obstacle, probably in a rear area but representative enough
“Oh, damn the wire,” said the Senior Subaltern hotly, “it can’t help being cut. Anyhow, there’s very little there to start with, and if there’s any bombardment at all, it’ll go west; and there’s going to be a hell of a bombardment. Anyhow, we can’t do any more. Come on in and feed…”
They were both experienced soldiers and knew what it meant and now, as they went into luncheon, each saw a vision of his splendid men struggling in the meshes, and heard the rattle of a ghostly machine-gun. At luncheon they managed to forget their fear for a little, and the Senior Subaltern, a light-hearted person, entertained the Quartermaster, Transport Officer, and Padre, with whom they messed, by a vivid and heartrending description of the painful scene which would take place as his mangled corpse was borne down the line, and their unavailing regrets that they had not been kinder to him when he was a bright, happy boy. Charles MacRae, his junior, was more serious, but both of them felt curiously as if the whole raid was just a game of unreality, and at the last moment they would hear that it was “let us pretend.”
Bonhomie and fearful prospection continue to alternate as the two officers and their men move forward. They pass formidable wire obstacles in the British rear… they reach battalion H.Q. and learn that the raid will begin at 8:00… and then there is the matter of the watch.
“Oh, get along,” said the C.O. “Have you got a watch yet?”
“No, sir, I’m borrowing David Sutherland’s.” And the raiding party dispersed each to a dug-out to feed at other people’s expense.
During tea the fear which had possessed the two officers left them, and a pleasant tranquillity based on the reflexion that it couldn’t be helped took its place; but the sensation of unreality was very strong as they sat in the dug-out with their friends just as they had done a hundred times; only now they were going over the top in two hours’ time. At last at seven they girded on their weapons, and stumbled up the dug-out steps…
The raiders receive a brief exhortation from the brigadier, in which the pride of Scotland and the honor of the regiment each receives due emphasis.
“Good luck, boys!”
N.C.O.’s and men of their battalion stood at attention as they passed up, and a lump came into the Senior Subaltern’s throat. Suppose he had lost his nerve. Suppose that when the time came he should not have the courage to give the signal to advance. Savagely he fought his doubts, reminding himself of past risks lightly taken, heartening himself with a phrase he had heard the men use, “they cannae kill our officer,” and partially succeeded. But the abysmal doubt persisted somewhere in his brain, as it had done always before action, and probably always would.
At the support trench he parted from Charles MacRae, who was to advance from another crater. “See you in half an hour, Charlie,” he said, and went on to the front line with his half of the party…
To break in once more and discourse on morale would be intrusive, but, happily, Mackintosh/MacTaggart will do it for us. To speak of “fear” at times like this isn’t so much inopportune as imprecise. Not “fear:” fears.
Three fears began to obsess him. Perhaps the Germans would retaliate and drop one on to his close-packed party; perhaps the bloody fools had showed themselves already and given the raid away, “Oh, God,” he whispered, “don’t let us get casualties before we start the show.” The other fear was caught from the men. All along the line the whisper was running, “Short, they’re droppin’ short an’ missin’ the trench.” “You fools,” he whispered back, “that’s going for the wire, not the trench,” and reassured them; but all the same, he felt it himself…
And, once the men are in position in saps just forward of their own trenches, one more:
A new fear took possession of the Senior Subaltern. He looked at his watch. There would be a hitch in the timing; the barrage would be late, and they would have to go over without it. He watched the seconds go by. Only one minute, only half a minute, to the start of the barrage.
It begins on time. As MacTaggart is about to give the order to advance, he thinks suddenly of (of course!) Oxford:
…into his mind came a picture of his boat on the Isis on a sunny day, and the coach on the bank counting the seconds to the starting gun. He laughed at the queer similarity.
“Half a minute more,” he passed along, and watched the seconds ticking past. Then all at once he climbed up, and, for a second or two, stood alone on the crater lip. “Come along, boys,” he said quietly, and the raiding party poured after him out across the open.
As he ran across the shell-torn No Man’s Land a strange exultation came over him. It was the same ground that he had crawled through painfully night after night, but seen in the daylight it was different and very thrilling. But what a devil of a long way it was much farther than he had thought. Where was the damned trench? Surely it wasn’t so far as all that.
Soon the raiding party reach the trench and, finding it deserted (a result of the well-timed barrage) climb down into it. But only the trench itself is deserted. Four German soldiers, who had been sheltering in a dug-out, now emerge, firing.
All at once his brain began to act rapidly. He yelled inarticulate curses, and pulled out a bomb from his haversack. The pin came out easily, but the Germans were too close. He dropped the lever and held the thing for a second or two; then flung it at the climbing men and leapt side-ways. There was a sharp crash as the bomb burst, and he sprang back again with his revolver ready. Writhing on the dug-out steps lay three of the Germans. The fourth leaned against the side with his hands over his face. A savage joy possessed the Senior Subaltern, and he shoved his revolver close to the man’s face and fired. Those clutching hands dropped, and the German crashed to the steps with the back of his head blown away.
Did it happen like this? I have no idea. It sounds so much like an adventure story, a war movie–the hero killing four men in the blink of an eye–but perhaps it did happen something like this. Or perhaps not: Mackintosh is writing a fictional sketch, remember.
The fighting continues, but Mackintosh soon returns to his earlier preoccupation: fear.
As he stood watching them bombing he suddenly became aware of one of his own men from the right coming towards him at a sort of staggering run. Blood was streaming down the man’s face and neck, and then MacTaggart saw one of the most terrible sights in the world, fear in the eyes of a brave man.
“I’m wounded, sir,” the man gasped as he ran.
The words steadied MacTaggart.
“All right,” he said clearly. “That’s the way home.”
More wounded men come down the trench, and report that British shells are falling short–they have been wounded by their own guns. After seeing to the demolition of part of the German trench and sending his men–those unharmed along with the walking wounded–back toward their own trenches, MacTaggart is about to follow.
MacTaggart turned. It was his English Sergeant, Godstone, no longer immaculate, but dishevelled and wild-eyed. The Sergeant saluted. “I’ve three men along here with their legs off,” he said.
In a flash MacTaggart saw the two possibilities before him. The men were certain to die, and it was pretty certain death for himself and the other two to go back. “Just chucking away extra lives,” he thought, and suddenly found life very desirable. For a second he hesitated. Then he remembered a score of things–his promise that he wouldn’t go back and leave one of them alive in the German trench, his pride that the men had always trusted him and followed him, his affection for the men, and, above all, the eternal principle, as old as war, “An officer can’t desert his men.” He turned to Charlie MacRae, suddenly calm, “Will you watch the left,” he said; “Sergeant Godstone and I will bring these fellows along.”
The impassive MacRae climbed on to the parapet, and sat there with his revolver in his right hand and a bomb in his left. He, too, like MacTaggart, knew that the odds were a thousand to one against them, but he made no remark. As MacTaggart turned back at the corner of the traverse he felt strangely comforted by the sight of MacRae sitting solidly there with his eyes fixed on the trench.
Along the trench the two ran past dug-outs from which came sounds of moanings, and suddenly came on the three men lying in a blood-stained bay with their rifles and bombs littering the ground. The first looked up at them as they bent over him. It was the boy who had wrestled with his chum in the morning. His legs were off below the thigh, and he looked strangely shrunken. “I’m done for, Sergeant,” he said steadily, ” you take the others.”
They bring one man down the trench and over the top. MacTaggart then goes back for the others.
He was alone now, and the queer comfort which the Sergeant’s presence had given him was withdrawn. He looked fearfully at each dug-out door, expecting to see a German bayonet emerging. By the time he had got to the men again he felt weak and hopeless. He fingered his pistol, thinking, “One shot for me and one for each of the men. They won’t get any prisoners.”
At his feet a wounded man looked up piteously.
“Ma airm an’ ma leg’s off,” he cried, full of his own pain, ” Ma airm an’ ma leg’s off.” MacTaggart felt that the chap would have appealed just the same to a Prussian for sympathy. A great pity flooded his mind, mixed again with wild anger at the man for giving him all this trouble.
“Oh, you silly devil,” he shouted in a high unnatural voice, “can’t you crawl on your other leg and arm?”
The man groaned. “Turn me over, sir, and I’ll try.”
There was a noise of feet and guttural voices along the trench beyond. MacTaggart tore a bomb from his bag and threw it over the traverse. Screams followed the burst and feet running rapidly away.
A man slipped down from the parapet above him. “I heard ye were left behind, sir,” he said, conversationally, and MacTaggart turned to see his own bombing Sergeant, come back for him through the No Man’s Land again. Suddenly he felt “This is all right. I’m going to get through. We’re all going to get through. And isn’t wee Macdonald a damned fine chap to come back for me like that?”
“Come on, Macdonald” he cried, and together they dragged the man to the point, and rolled him up on to the parapet.
Once again they went back for the boy. His brown eyes were dull now, but he whispered, “You clear out, sir, I’m done.”
“Rot,” said his officer, and up to the point they dragged him and tried to lift the dead weight to the top.
All at once MacTaggart’s strength seemed to leave him, and his arms were powerless to move the heavy body. “Oh, God! I can’t shift him,” he gasped.
“Charlie, come and help.” Charlie MacRae set his arms to the work, and his senior staggered into the open to drag MacNeil, the man with the pulped leg and arm, into an old trench, which ran down to their own line. The German guns were bursting shrapnel all along their parapet now, but he did not notice except in a curious, unthinking way, as if his mind was dulled to danger.
Once again the piece has drifted toward a relatively simplistic heroes-and-horrors sort of military history, only to correct course sharply.
He was filled with a hysterical rage against the Germans for hurting his men, and, as he lugged the groaning MacNeil into the slight cover of the old trench, with an artistic delight in the thing he was doing, he seemed to be regarding himself from the front stalls of a gigantic theatre and applauding a fine piece of acting. He wouldn’t get through it, and nobody would know, but he was doing the right thing, and painting a good picture. The aesthetic joy of it buoyed him up as he helped Sergeant Godstone along with the other man; then went back to the parapet where Charles and Sergeant Macdonald were still struggling with the boy. He looked down at the shrunken face.
“I believe we’ll have to leave him, Charles,” he said, “he’s a dying man.”
Charlie MacRae looked up with his hand on the boy’s heart. “No, he isn’t,” he said; “he’s dead.”
The journey back through no man’s land with the two men remaining “seemed to MacTaggart interminable hours filled with the bursting of shells and the shrieks of the wounded men, as he pulled them along.”
In another page and a half, however, it is over.
Then, all at once, the tumult stopped dead, and in the stillness there came from the German salient a single flare. The raid was over.
With the end of danger MacTaggart broke down and sobbed, crying for “My men, my beautiful men,” and then turning to the German line with a scream, “You swine. I’ll give you hell for this.” A hand fell on his arm. It was his dear Major, “Father” to the whole brigade.
“What’s up, Tagg? ” said the Major.
“I’m going back to give those swine hell, Major,” he yelled, and was knocked sideways by a vigorous clout on the head.
“You young fool,” said the Major, ” what you want is a drink,” and led him down to H.Q., where his men were already assembled. First of all, he went to the dressing station, and found there men lying and sitting, to hear from one that he had bayoneted two Germans, from another that he had bombed such dug-outs, and to realize that the raid had really succeeded, although it was a while before they found how well.
Strangely, Mackintosh unwinds the piece instead of leaving it there. There is a quick reunion with the others, a telling of tales, a silencing of an irritatingly celebratory piper, and the slow journey back to billets. The last words are MacTaggart telling his hostess, in French, that he is very tired.
So how do we parse history and literature, “truth” and fiction?
We shouldn’t, really, but we can’t resist. A letter to his sister–yesterday’s poem was not a “last letter” after all–relates several details that made it into the finished piece, so we can conclude that it is “closely based” on reality. Except of course for conventions of language:
I didn’t stop swearing the whole time, except when I was praying–but I promised the men I wouldn’t leave the Bosche trench while there was a man alive in it and I kept my word.
And then there is this:
All the men I have brought back have died.
The two wounded men brought back under fire, Private A. Thompson and Lance Corporal A. MacDonald, died the next day.
And then there is what might seem like a touch of eerie melodrama: we learn that the “boy” who died in the trench–David Sutherland–is the same one from whom Mackintosh borrowed the wrist-watch.
There are two ways to end today’s story, and, as usual, I will hesitate on the path, and then try them both. Here’s how Mackintosh will end the letter to his sister:
I believe I’ve been recommended for the Military Cross, but I’d rather have the boys’ lives. If I get one, I’ll get home on special leave soon. I’ve had my taste of a show. It’s not romantic. It’s hell.
He will get it, the citation reading as follows:
For conspicuous gallantry. He organised and led a successful raid on the enemy’s trenches with great skill and courage. Several of the enemy were disposed of and a strong point destroyed. He also brought back two wounded men under heavy fire.
No mention, then of the boy left on the parapet, or the precise number of “Bosches” killed in the trench (in addition to his four, MacTaggart claims “more than forty,” or the fate of Thompson and MacDonald. Or that another man, McDowell, was killed when a bomb burst in his pack as he returned to the trench. Nor will these details turn up, I would guess, when the raid is feature in the Times, two days hence. The battalion history, on the other hand, is both sanguine about the raid’s success and frank (if inelaborate) about its costs: “Lieut. Mackay wounded, 4 men killed, and 12 wounded, while the enemy casualties were estimated at 60 at least”
This, then, was something of a victory. More Germans killed than Scotsmen. A decoration: Mackintosh not only led a successful raid, but he went above and beyond what was required of him, seeing first to the mission and then to the wounded men.
And with the victory, valuable intelligence:
These raids in particular brought to light certain facts concerning German trench construction. The German trenches did not resemble the small ditch-like trenches commonly seen at schools of instruction and training grounds. They can better be compared to the marker’s gallery in a rifle range. They were ten to eleven feet deep, with the sides for the most part revetted with planks. To get into them was not easy; to get out of them still less easy; while evacuating the wounded from them was a matter of very considerable difficulty. In fact, in the case of Mackintosh’s raid, it is doubtful if his wounded could have been brought back to our lines at all had not a sally-port through which the more severely wounded were carried been discovered.
This lets me end my commentary–the first ending, naturally–on that familiar, irritating, ironic note: this is valuable information, and the surprising strength of the German lines will no doubt be communicated to the highest levels and taken account of as the planning for the “Big Push” continues…
A second ending, for us, is a possible crossing of paths. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t work, but I’ll throw it in here anyway:
There is a letter from Kate Luard, possibly of today, a century back, that describes an evening walk. She is very close to Mackintosh, just below the northern edge of Vimy ridge, and the time she mentions is barely an hour off from Mackintosh’s account (7.15 rather than 8.20).
…Sister S. and I took sandwiches in our haversacks and set out to explore the Ridge. We had a great day. The Ridge is a long high plateau which runs at right angles to the trenches (i.e. East and West) and eventually meets them, so the farther along you get on its top level the better view you get of the positions on your left… You could see the communication trenches and the whole front line of trenches with the historic battered village and mines, and shells bursting on them. It was a great sight…
…we fetched up at Observation Point at 7.15 and a lively Evening Hate was going on. What looks like summer lightning at night is by daylight or twilight a dazzling flash of flames and in the miles of map [see above] spread our before you from this place to beyond the German lines, we could see these points of flame every time our guns loosed off, and far ahead we could see the Boche guns also, and burst of shell all along the lines of trenches. Poor lambs.
Which brings me to the third ending of Mackintosh’s raid.
Private D. Sutherland, Killed in Action in the German Trench, May 16th 1916, and the Others who Died
So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.
Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting,
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year get stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.
You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight –
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.
Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.
Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed “Don’t leave me, sir”,
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.
This is a rare thing–a memorial poem to a dead man written by the man who led him to his death, risked his own life to save him, and failed. As an authoritative act of military literature it can have few parallels.
As a poem it is, once again, fairly traditional, but it tacks safely between the rocks of military aggrandizement and the shoal waters of anodyne sentiment. If the goal of memorial is to fix in memory–the memory of others, unknown to the dead–something of the life and the loss, then this succeeds.
And, since I have chosen to be conflicted and numerous in my endings today (there’s more!), why not one more niggling query: did Mackintosh know his man so well? That would be admirable, although it would be hard–indeed, problematic–for an officer to be good friends with a private. But perhaps this sense is only a side-effect of the strong (which is to say “rather odd”) poetic choice to assert the officer’s priority over a father… it’s not a move we’ll see too often, as the younger officers tend more to identify with their men against the generation of their fathers, rather than claiming to supplant them.
But there’s another explanation: Mackintosh knows these details–the sheep, the father–from the fact that he reads his mail. And even then, did he know the dead man so well? It would seem that David Sutherland was not, in fact, an only son.
So Mackintosh is the hero of the day–Senior Subaltern, raider, prose-writer, fictionalized protagonist, and poet. But he assumes a great deal when he decides to take up the task of memorializing David Sutherland…
Despite the exhaustion no doubt occasioned by “The Raid,” I want to include a brief bit from Edward Hermon today as well. His role here seems to be that of the honorable, perhaps slightly awkward, exceptionally earnest, slightly hapless family man. He has been working away at not very glamorous jobs with his unit of the yeomanry for quite some time, and sending endless loving letters to his wife. Their youngest is only months old, now, but it is time for the eldest to go to Eton. Hermon can be slightly obtuse, but he is also one of our few writers who is actually corresponding with a woman on the home front on an almost daily basis.
In a brief, half-articulated flash, he understands how war comes and goes for the warriors as they change positions relative to the front. But an efficient postal system is not enough to bring their loved ones at home into the same rhythm. For them, danger is ever-present.
Tonight I have been wandering about in the garden with the river running so silently by & a lovely full moon & the gramophone going; miles away from war & not a sound to be heard–it makes it all very hard to realize. Whereas you seem to have the whole ‘mental’ part of the show, like the poor, always with you & the very great family gap too & I know it must be a gap…
And, finally, hark, exhausted, to a Royal Welch lark. Dr. Dunn’s chronicle describes a bombardment, but takes a moment to acknowledge important local poetry-generating activity.
Throughout the turmoil a pair of swallows tried persistently to build under an overhead traverse in the strafed front line, and a lark nested among the wire.