1918 – Winners And Losers
A few years after the Armistice some comfortably charitable ladies in Scotland had the idea of setting up a factory to provide paid employment suitable for disabled ex-soldiers – to make imitation poppies. One of them was Dorothy Maude Vivian, second daughter of the third Lord Vivian and maid of honour to Queen Alexandria, recently ennobled into the Countess Haig, wife of Field Marshall Douglas Haig who, as commander of the British Army in France, had planned so many of the disastrous battlefield episodes which had left so many dead or needing charity through being physically wrecked. Throughout the year the poppies flowed out, each bearing in its black centre spot the initials HF standing for the charity’s name of the Haig Fund. Which may have done something to persuade the commander that, as far as his reputation went, it had all been worthwhile.
Haig achieved his ambition to replace Sir John French as commander of the BEF in France in 1916, after a long campaign of intrigue and character denigration. He installed himself in a château near Montreuil – a small, agreeable town where his officers could ease the stress of commanding the thousands of British soldiers in the trenches by visiting their club where a subscription of five francs ensured them three good meals and afternoon tea each day and access to vintage claret and burgundy at prices far lower than those in Paris or London. Haig’s immediate concern was to implement the decisions of the joint conference at Chantilly, to launch a series of devastating Allied attacks across the trench line to drive the German army into subjection. This was to be tested in the Battle of the Somme, lasting from 1 July 1916 until November. Before the reality of the casualties emerged that battle was represented as a proud example of British valour and fortitude which would crucially re-arrange the shape of the Western Front and so the future of the war. It turned out to be a gruesome failure costing thousands of lives but bringing little significant change.
The conferring overlords at Chantilly were not, of course, distracted by any contributions from the people whose lives were for disposal – the Allied soldiers who would be ordered out of their trenches to face the storm of bullets and shells in order to kill as many of the enemy as possible before putting the rest to flight. All over Britain – as in Germany, France and the rest – there was a powerful surge in enthusiasm for the war and a restless ambition to get into military uniform and into the front line as soon as possible. An example of the war, and of Haig’s reaction to the fate of the soldiers, was the 49th. Division of the West Yorkshire Regiment who on 3 September 1916 were ordered to attack a heavily fortified area which included the infamous Triangle and the Pope’s Nose. Those troops were supposed to be resting before going over the top but in the event they had to spend their waking time dragging ammunition and reserve rations for miles up to the dumps near the front. Their condition was such that one of their sergeants said his platoon’s normal strength of 33 was reduced to ‘eighteen decrepit old men’. The result was, then, predictable. Of the 350 men who attacked in the first wave on that day 244 were killed or wounded. Haig’s view of the incident was that those men ‘…did not really attack and some men did not follow their officers … I had occasion a fortnight ago to call the attention of the Army and Corps Commanders …to the lack of smartness, and slackness of one of its Battalions in the matter of saluting when I was motoring through the village where it was billeted. I expressed my opinion that such men were too sleepy to fight well, etc.’
Deep within that murderous confusion were the Bright brothers, three proud Cockneys who had become hardened soldiers during the Boer War; this account of them is compiled from their own memories and that of their sister Maud, who was both proud and fearful of them. The eldest was Bill, a sergeant; there is a photograph of him in the splendour of his uniform with riding breeches, spurs and peaked cap with its regimental badge. He stands erect before the studio forest, wide-eyed at the camera. What they would have called A Fine Figure Of A Man. There are no known photographs of the other two, Jim and Fred, but they were also out there. On 16 September 1916 Bill was blown to bits, probably in a trench. His men said they knew it was him because among the other remains they found his identity tag. His name is on the Memorial at Thiepval – one of those ‘Who Have No Known Grave’.
When Jim was told about his brother’s death his immediate, insistent reaction was that he had to take part in that night’s trench raid which was planned to slip across No Mans’ Land and bring back a couple of Germans for interrogation about the enemy’s strength, origins, plans. With the rest of the men Jim went silently across and as he dropped into the opposite trench a young German soldier appeared – ‘not much more than a kid’ was how he described him – holding trembling hands aloft and whispering ‘Kamerad’. It must have been obvious that this ‘kid’ would have been only too ready to answer any questions put to him later by a British officer but Jim did not let that divert him. ‘I’ll give you Kamerad you bastard’ he snarled as he sank his knife into the young body again and again. It is not known whether Jim stayed in that enemy trench long enough to appreciate that conditions there were much better than those he had to endure. What is known is that he wrote to Maud ‘I am up to my knees in mud and I am lousy. Please send me some clean socks and underwear’. During the later Battle of Paschendaele he was himself taken prisoner (but not knifed). He then spent the rest of the war being cruelly worked in a salt mine in Germany, which left him with permanent damage to his lungs so that in the next war he could only wheeze his life out in a small, dingy room in the East End while the Luftwaffe bombed as he lay dying.
Fred’s story was different. A previous record of insubordination to an officer had led to him being thrown out of the Army – ‘dishonourable discharge’ he pointedly labelled it – which caused his application to join up again in 1914 to be rejected until the British Army’s losses were such as to cause a lowering of standards. So he joined the other two in the trenches, until an exploding shell or a burst from a machine gun tore out the muscle in his left arm and sent him back to civilian life. However serious, the wound did not stop him starting a boxing club where the local lads could be taught by him in what he primly called ‘the noble art’. It also did not stop him getting into a fight in the docks in which he lost the sight of an eye.
It was rather different in the higher levels. Late in August 1914, during the chaotic retreat from Mons, Chief of Staff General Sir Archibald Murray responded to the news that the BEF was in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by the advancing Germans by passing into a faint. Any private soldier who behaved in that way might well have been dragged before a Court Martial and perhaps executed for cowardice. However Murray, as a high ranking officer, had to be treated differently. His indisposition was remedied by feeding him a pint of champagne. Years after the war, one of Haig’s generals remembered Major General Sir Henry Wilson as an ‘Out-and-out crook. Never did a stroke of work. Sat in his office writing to his lady friends in high places’. In the same style, Haig himself was ready to contemptuously sneer at those who were supposed to be his staunch allies, writing to Dorothy Vivian as early as September 1914 that: ”The French are most unreliable. One cannot believe a word they say as a rule’. And later, on the same theme, ‘They are truly a race of usurers!’
After the Armistice an immediate question for the British government was how Haig should be rewarded for his time in charge of the British forces on the Western Front. The first attempt at this was to arrange a great victory parade in London and to suggest that he shared the fifth carriage with Foch, Clemenceau and Orlando. Haig did not think much of this: ‘I have no intention of taking part in any triumphal ride with Foch and a pack of foreigners, merely to add to L G’s importance and help him in his election campaign’. He also rejected an offer of a viscountcy, on the grounds that the same title had previously been offered to Field Marshal Sir John French, the officer he had deposed and who had been sacked – to Haig’s satisfaction – for being incompetent. Eventually, more to his taste, he was made Earl Haig of Bemersyde with a subsidiary viscountcy and barony, an estate in Scotland and a grant to allow him to live in the style these titles demanded. There was however another problem; Haig asked for £250,000 as appropriate to his achievements in arranging all that slaughter but Parliament disagreed and limited his reward to £100,000.
A different type of heroism, of endurance in the face of exposure and deprivation, was demanded of the men returning from Flanders. One of these was Wally Crosby, the boyfriend of Maud the long-suffering sister of the three Bright brothers. When the war began Walter, who had a well-paid, secure job in a sawmill tried to join up – how else would he have faced the Bright family? But he was rejected until 1917 when he was ordered to report to a boat train at Victoria Station which would take him to France. Before he went he and Maud married in a local Registry Office. This was not due to the anxious couple being bound by any deep affection but because they hoped that if Wally was Killed On Active Service Maud would qualify for a war widow’s pension which would be significantly more that the sweatshop wage she was getting from her job in a Shoreditch dress factory.
But Wally survived; and when he was demobilised and went to the saw mill to ask for his old job back he was told that it had been taken by an eager young civilian soon after he had left for the boat train. Thus it was that Wally and Maud resigned themselves to a ‘peacetime’ life of relentless poverty, made sharper and deeper as they produced a batch of children. Wally, one of the survivors of that dread turmoil which is now being glorified by the ruling class, descended into an underpaid road-digging labourer; between the two World Wars he was unable to find a job lasting him more than a week or two. For him and his family there was no triumph but only bitter frustration and despair. Meanwhile their leaders gathered at Versailles in what was called a Peace Conference except that its primary task was to re-arrange the national borders to prepare for the next conflagration. In that process the people of Germany were subjected to such privation as to persuade them that their best hope was in a cruelly repressive state. And as the poppies, with their reminders of Haig and his works, flowed from the factories the children were being born who would grow into the warriors – the trained killers – of the next war.