Excerpts from the autobiography - Njeanius Productions

Go to content

Main menu:

Ebooks > War books: Details
Cover of the novel
From Chapter 1: Harold Mellersh remembers his schooldays
The generation that came of age in England in time to fight in the First World War was trained to it with a sort of sublime unconsciousness. There was no conscription in the land, no propaganda - or not so that you would notice it - no talk of Lebensraum or place in the sun; but on the other hand there was a tradition of loyalty and a thing called the OTC, both of which one accepted as unquestioningly as compulsory games or the school tuckshop or the Glee Club or chapel on a Sunday.
There is a scene that has some relevance. The time is towards the end of the winter term of 1914 or the spring term of 1915, I forget which. The place is the quad of Berkhamsted School; but it could be that of any other public school, large or small, famous or unknown. It is a few minutes before two o’clock, and in a little while the quad will be quiet and empty and boys will be sitting at their desks waiting for masters to come sweeping in with their rusty black gowns trailing out behind them.
Now the quad resounds to the unison crunch of marching feet and rings to crisp - or not so crisp - words of command. The buildings around look on indifferently - certainly there is no female face at the window nor waving hand, as there would be the first time I marched after responding to Kitchener’s appeal. Nor, I guess, was the headmaster standing on the terrace, surveying the activities of his domain, for here was an activity already staled by use.
And the cause of it? The House Inter-Squad Competition. In other words, here was another of the competitions - cricket, football, gym, swimming, singing - arranged between the school’s ‘Houses’, which kept the school alive and the spirit of loyalty and rivalry and emulation flourishing in it. It was in no way different from any other of the house competitions. One merely took the OTC, as one took the parallel bars or the goal posts, and made use of it. ‘OTC’? Officer’s Training Corps of course, called for short ‘the Corps’, sponsored by the War Office and joined voluntarily by almost every boy except perhaps the few who might have been pronounced not physically fit or the fewer still who might have actively pacifist parents. One put on khaki on getting up on Friday, and one paraded after morning school under ‘Jas’ the Geography master, always hoping unavailingly that his hired horse would run away with him which it never did.
From Schoolboy into War: Book 2 the Autobiography
From Chapter 3: Harold gets his commission and starts training at Oxford
Then it came, the awaited long buff envelope: a fortnight after my birthday, on l0th June 1915.
It came by the first post and my mother brought it up to me while I was still in bed. “Here’s a letter for you,” she said, and I think she knew what it was as surely as I did. I waited until she had reluctantly gone out of the room before I ripped it open.
There must have been several documents within: instructions as to whither to proceed; intimation that an account had been opened for me at Cox’s Bank with the standard £50 allowance for the purchase of uniform and kit; a schedule of what the War Office considered that £50 ought to be spent on; uniform, binoculars, prismatic compass and so forth. But there was one document that mattered. It informed me that King George V had been pleased to grant me a Temporary Commission in His Special Reserve of Officers and in the Third Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment. It may well be that I afforded that document not half the awed respect and attention that it deserved. For here in fact was something of a miracle: that the Army which had helped to create an Empire, which had recently covered itself with glory and helped ‘saved the sum of things for pay’ should open its commissioned ranks to a schoolboy. But then its very accomplishment of that glory had turned the miracle into a commonplace, since its ranks were already more than decimated; and I knew this fact or rather was aware of it without realizing its significance, and I took it wholly for granted. I was concerned therefore more with the document’s detail than its wonder. The Third East Lancashires: my application, then, to get into Gray’s ‘crowd’ had been accepted. But something else: before joining my Regiment at Plymouth I was to be sent on a month’s ‘Young Officer’s Course’ (the predecessor of the later and the second world war’s cadet training) at Oxford, where I would be billeted in Worcester College. I must report there in three days’ time.
Everything seemed to be happening at once, and this was a busy and exciting time for the new second lieutenant of the Third Battalion the East Lancashires. “What regiment, sir? For the badges, you know.” That was the tailor, my father’s tailor in the City. I did not even know what my regimental badges were like. But it was flattering to one’s ego to be fitted for a uniform at one's father’s tailor.
There was little time and I arrived at Paddington for my Oxford train not in uniform but carrying it in a large cardboard box. Who should hail me from an open first class carriage door but my tall dago-like friend from the Inns of Court Unattached Contingent. He was resplendent in a new uniform. We travelled together. Then he was taking a taxi to his college, which fortunately was not the same as mine, and I was taking another. It must have been the first taxi I had ridden in, perhaps even the first motor car. It had, like most taxis of 1915, only two cylinders and it chugged along in a slow reluctant sort of way while the dreaming spires of Oxford took no notice whatsoever.
From Schoolboy into War: Book 2 the Autobiography

From chapter 5: Harold's first day with his regiment
At length my new servant and I were standing outside the tent together and he said he would see me again in the morning. “Have you,” I hesitated, “have you been to the front?” He said he had: he had been in the first German gas attack at Ypres. He then described what it was like. You had had, he said, to put water on your handkerchief the best way you could, and he managed to convey delicately that there was an indelicate way. I was tremendously impressed with his narration.
This was the real thing. I was getting near to the war at last.
For the rest of that evening I was to be impressed. It was the weekly Guest Night; and on such nights, though there would not necessarily be any guests, a few of the Regulars at the head of the table wore the blue of mess uniform, whilst outside there played the regimental band. On the table, between shining and immaculate glass finger bowls, rested a long row of the first and second battalion’s silver centre-pieces, elaborate affairs, gifts of retiring colonels, showing anything from a hunting scene to a bayonet infested and cannon-scarred battlefield. The mess waiters, grizzled men in khaki with many good-service stripes to their arms, waited efficiently if without flourish, the mess sergeant stood like a ramrod at the door, and the sound of music sufficiently muted by distance, streamed in through the open windows of the hut. I, sitting next to my red-headed friend, who now seemed more interested in his other neighbour, and to a young man who asked me my name and then ignored me, had plenty of time to take it all in.
Then came the climax. With the table cleared, the Colonel, at the head of the table, unstoppered two decanters of port. They progressed down each side of the table. “Go on, you have to have some!” whispered my mentor. Then a silence. Then everyone rising.
Then from the other end of the table, sepulchrally, “Mr Vice, the King!” Then from our end, more youthfully, “Gentlemen, the King!” Another unexpected silence. Then the band crashing out with the National Anthem. Then the sip of port - strong stuff! - and a murmur of “The King”, with a few of the seniors adding respectfully but authoritatively, “God bless him!” And then the final touch: a waiter with a box of snuff, a regimental tradition. “You have to, sir!” Sniffings from the back of hands. A few sneezes, a little laughter.
“Gentlemen, you may smoke.” The Regulars, it might be said, were clinging consciously to their customs. It might however with greater truth be said that they were continuing them without any consciousness that there was any need to cling. In any case I was impressed - which, as a new subaltern, I was no doubt meant to be.
There was, however, the war. And the Third East Lancashires at Laira Battery were not unaware of it. To be fair to them, that is to say to the senior officers responsible for training, they were very aware of it, since they had already come back, most of them, from an experience of it that had wounded themselves and killed their fellows.
From Schoolboy into War: Book 2 the Autobiography
Chapter 9: The Somme
Our division was not to be in the initial attack. We were the troops to help the cavalry when the break-through was made - or to continue the attack on the trenchline if by unhappy chance it wasn’t. By1st July we were in billets close behind the line, somewhere, I think, around Albert, whose battered church we had passed, gazing up at its gilded virgin at the head of its tower, now horizontal, later to dip further and finally to fall. There we waited and fed on rumours. On the 4th we were ordered in to attack.
There must have been many soldiers in France - the older ones, the more serious-minded ones - who tried to keep abreast of the news and to obtain some sort of wide view of the conduct of the war. But they must have been in the minority and I knew of none: not so much ‘ours not to reason why’ as that we didn’t want to reason why.
Even those who did want to know must have found it difficult, for one of the arts of war is to hide unwelcome truths. The nub of this truth was that the Allied generals had been suffering from what all generals must suffer from, though some of their critics would hardly seem to allow it: there is an enemy; and he will do his damnedest to outwit you and forestall you. This battle of the Somme, the show-piece of the great concerted effort of 1916, was not turning out as was intended. Way back in February Falkenhayn, the then German generalissimo, had launched his great battle of attrition, choosing for it the fortress which he knew the French would do all in their power to save, Verdun. All through the spring and early summer that battle had gone on, whilst the disrupted plans for concerted action reduced themselves to hurried and abortive attacks by Italians and Russians and the taking over by the British of the last part of the line north of the Somme which the French had so far held.
Only on 24th June did the battle of Verdun finally die down; and by then the French armies were exhausted. The result: a further slight delay in the opening of the Somme battle and a great reduction in the French participation from what had been originally intended. The main reason for the choice of an otherwise not particularly favourable battle site - that this was where the two national armies joined and that they could thus attack together, bras-dessous bras-dessous, as Joffre put it - had now but little force. But it was too late to change.
All this few soldiers can have realized, or for that matter civilians either; for most of us none of it was realized at all - which was perhaps to the good, for the knowledge would have done us no good.
On 1st July, on a fine sunny morning, the great attack was made, five French divisions on an eight mile front south of the river and eighteen British divisions on a fourteen mile front north of the river.
The result is only too well known: in the south an advance but nowhere near great enough for a break-through; in the north virtually no advance at all; for the British a tale of casualties amounting to almost sixty thousand, of whom about a third were dead. There have been greater battle casualties. But it was an appalling figure.
The days of 2nd and 3rd July were days of regrouping and consolidation, with abortive attacks on the left but also with the final capture of Fricourt, where we were soon to be, on the right. Haig was now planning a fresh all-out attack; and for this some tactical ‘nibbling’ would be necessary in order to help that attack to success.
For that nibbling the Second East Lancashires would find themselves involved.
As for us, we continued to live on rumours. They were not of the wholly optimistic kind so far current in England - my sister’s diary for 7th July runs: ‘The British offensive began last Saturday. They have been doing very well’ (adding, on her own account, ‘but it is a terribly anxious time’). Our rumours were mixed. Some said that we had got no further than the parapet of our own trenches. Others told of villages captured and thousands of prisoners taken. It was obvious, from the evidence of our own ears, that the British bombardment had been stunning. But it was obvious too that there had not really been a breakthrough. We were not surprised. This, however, was not because we possessed superior wisdom; it was simply the natural pessimism of the expert, in this case the expert in staying put in trenches.
We now learnt that our brigade, the 24th (there were four battalions to a brigade, later three, and three brigades to a division) had been given the task of capturing the village of Contalmaison, and that the East Lancashires would not be the battalion in support. Our strength had just been augmented with a batch of new young officers; but they were, for this show, being left behind. They said farewell to us with a mixture of wistful regret and (probably) personal relief.
On the 5th it was ordered that two officers from each company should ride up to the front line and inspect the ground over which we would attack. Wade chose me to accompany him, perhaps because he thought I was least likely to fall off a horse. I was apprehensive of what would happen when we passed our guns; the horses however seemed on the whole less bothered by the noise than I was.
Something else also bothered me. We had recently been issued with the standard shrapnel-helmet or ‘tin hat’. This, I found, bashed itself disconcertingly onto the top of my head as soon as my horse began to trot. There was admittedly a certain amount of padding between one’s head and the hard iron of the helmet, but it was very inadequate. I tightened my chin-strap, struck out my chin, and hoped for the best.
Shell-fire soon made me forget this trouble. But the bursts were really very few and far between: there was a lull, at least on this sector of the line. Indeed the scene was almost peaceful - as also almost panoramic, for the ground rose gently in front of us, and the trench lines, in this chalky soil, showed up white, with now and then a patch of red where the disturbed seed of poppies had sprung to life.
A line of observation balloons swayed lazily high above us, and the muted bursts and white puffs of shrapnel around them, which never seemed to hit them, gave an impression of laziness too.
The ground around us however, and increasingly as we progressed, gave the lie to this illusion of afternoon lazy peacefulness.
Here was the chaos of battle.
We dismounted and walked up the road to what had been the village of Fricourt. No wall seemed left more than man-high and on each side was mud and shell-holes and the woodwork thrown askew of once well-built trenches. Motor ambulances came down the road and a few walking wounded - there was some fighting somewhere all right. Our guide asked the way of one of those. “Turn right by the dead major,” he was told.
We went on and the road became narrower, and less distinguishable as a road. Dead men began to appear, and they seemed all to be British, and their faces looked pale green. Why, I wondered - gas, or the effect of fumes? Then we came to the dead major. He lay with his eyes open, and they were very blue, and his arm was flung out and on it showed plainly the crown and three stripes on his sleeve - he was making a most easily recognizable signpost.
At length we had reached what they told us was the front line.
Nobody seemed to be bothering to take cover; the Germans were apparently too preoccupied to take much notice of us; also too far away. There, across a green and vast no-man’s-land, was the village of Contalmaison, a few houses sheltering among trees. As we watched, a squad of Germans, for some reason, rose and moved their position, running. My first sight of the enemy! As we watched, a shell landed in the middle of them. “Good spotting!” we said. But we could not see very well.
In fact, what a distance away was Contalmaison! Had we got to attack over that vast green flatness? Well, if we had, we had. We came back the way we had come; and I suppose there were meetings of company officers, but I don’t think there was any very useful or helpful information that we who had done the reconnoitre could give. What remained ineradicably in my mind was the dead major and the pale green faces.
The next day the battalion was moving up into the line, ready to attack early on the following morning. It seemed a long way when one was not on horseback. We fell out in a field and had a meal, a sort of mass picnic. We then spread out by companies and then by platoons, ‘open-order drill’ proving useful. In Fricourt Wade halted his company for a rest and I, leading the first platoon, came and sat beside him. There was more activity today and more ambulances lurching down the road, from some of which came groans. “They ought to issue morphia tablets with the field dressing,” observed Wade. Was he getting ‘windy’? A Company finally got itself, at dusk, housed for the night in old, very deep and fairly intact German trenches. I walked up and down the parapet trying to supervise things. The shelling was now heavy, the great ‘crumps’ landing all about and sending up fountains of earth. I was thrilled that I didn’t feel afraid. “Come down out of there!” somebody yelled. I was again being guilty of foolhardiness.
The Germans had built very good dug-outs - it was this proficiency of course that was one of the great causes of the British failure in the battle of the Somme. We now made use of them, the company officers having one to themselves: we had an evening to spend there. A dug-out, whether British or German, is a very distinctive place. Most people have some ideas of it, from seeing a production of Journey’s End perhaps: the entrance at trench level protected by its impregnated anti-gas blanket, the stairs going down, the cavernous interior lit by inadequate pools of light from candles stuck on to a trestle table. Only the dank smell is missing and cannot come over the footlights, though a dug-out could be cosy once one had ‘got a good fug up’. I do not think that this one was particularly cosy however; perhaps it was too big, perhaps the circumstances were not conducive to such a feeling.
I do not remember that evening well. We had a meal of sorts I suppose, though the lugubrious Crumb could hardly have produced his masterpiece, sardines on toast. We may have drunk our rum ration. We certainly did not get drunk - we were in fact a remarkably abstemious mess, the usual drink being sticky French syrups, Citrone and Grenadine, with soda. I found some discarded German greatcoats, cut off a few buttons for souvenirs, and when I lay down on the floor to sleep put one of the coats over me because I did not feel very warm. Was I suffering from the ‘wind up’ that I had ungenerously attributed to Wade? Wade ordained ‘lights out’ early because our attack was timed for 7.30 a.m. But we had some idea of the rate of casualties of those who were ‘going over the top’ in the battle of the Somme, and I doubt whether any of us got to sleep very early.
As for myself: this was ‘the eve of the battle’ and I was aware that I ought to be thinking heroic or sentimentally nostalgic thoughts. But neither would come at the conscious summons. My home, the green drawing-room, the sunny garden, the dark, solid dining room? But I could only think of them in a thoroughly detached sort of way: they were of another world, so different from the blown-up chaos outside, the scattered dead, the dimly seen mud walls of this German dug- out. I could only feel rather miserable and rather cold. But that was solely of course because, coming up in battle order, we had not our usual trench coats to spread out as an eiderdown. I did get to sleep in the end and stayed so till wakened.
In the morning we were told that our attack had been put back by half an hour. I don’t think many of us knew the reason, that an attack the night before on which we were to depend had miscarried but that it had been too late to alter the artillery programme, this meaning that we should lose much of the advantage of our supporting barrage. It was not a good start. Up the road out of Fricourt and towards the dead major I was accosted, as it happened, by an old school friend. He had just come out of a ‘stunt’. It was pretty hot up there, he said. I wished rather heartily that I was in his shoes and not mine. Then I consulted my marked map once more, checked my loaded revolver and spare ammunition, and commanded, “Platoon, ’shun! At ease, quick march!” The dead major was still there; and then we were passing the place from which we had gazed across at Contalmaison, and the village did not look any nearer. We moved to the right and past some more unburied dead. One had died of haemorrhage with red froth round his lips; he looked like a clown. Then we found our jumping off place, a gully more than a trench. I looked over the top: there was a small copse, I noticed, to the left. I extended my men along the gully and looked at my synchronized watch. There were seven minutes to wait.
No one said much, though twice came the question, “How much longer, sir?” I don’t think we were afraid any more. It was Shakespeare’s courage screwed to the sticking point, not an exaltation but a sort of self-drugging. Then, in thoroughly approved style I was blowing my whistle, giving the overarm signal, and commanding “Advance!” Nothing happened at first. We advanced at a slow double. I noticed that it had begun to rain.
Then we came to a low muddy trench, the continuation probably of the one we had left to man our jumping off place. We jumped into it, and found Long’s platoon already there. He told me I had come too far to my left. Then he saw that I already had my revolver out, and chaffed me. Someone laughed, and I put the thing back in its holster. We all moved forward again, over the grass, forming one long line. And then the enemy machine-gunning started, first one gun, then many. They traversed, and every now and then there came the swish of bullets. Someone on the extreme right fell.
Long gave the command to lie down, and my men took it for a signal for themselves too. Now what? Presumably, ‘sectional rushes’, as per drill book, one section firing hard to cover the advance of the other. “Pass the word down,” I said, “my platoon will make a sectional rush.”
I waited until the machine-gunning had swished by and we rose and made a not very fast staggering run. When the machine-gunning was coming back I signalled to lie down. Long’s platoon came up in line with us.
Then there for a while we stuck. The rain continued and the machine-gunning continued too. We gave up firing: it was too far away for rifle fire to be effective; we could in any case see no Germans. We lay as fiat as possible and winced each time the machine-gun bullets passed. There were one or two groans; men were getting hit.
Ought I to make another sectional rush? Suddenly Wade had thrown himself by my side. “This is simply chucking men away!” he said. What was he going to do, I asked. B Company and the Worcesters on the right, he said, had less far to go. They might get in on the flank. He was going to wait. Then he had disappeared.
The machine gunning and the rain continued. Then Wade was at my side once more. “Make for the shelter of that copse!” he said.
We made for it, running with our knees and backs bent. We were out of the machine gun fire; but the German spotting was good and almost at once light artillery fire found us, ‘Whizz-bangs’ arriving, as their name implied, with hardly any warning.
Everyone lay along the outskirts of the little wood or just inside, and no one said anything. I looked round, and could see no sign of Wade or Long. Had the others retired? “Let’s get out of this, it’s a bloody death trap!” somebody said. I told him to shut up. But was he right? More men were getting wounded. A shell landed just in front of me, dislodging a sapling which fell across my legs but failing to explode. I felt temporarily elated at the escape. But what was happening - had the order to retire failed to reach me? But I couldn’t retire without orders.
The Assistant Adjutant was by my side. Where was Wade? He asked. I didn’t know. He said we were doing better on the right, but here it was a bloody fiasco. Everybody seemed to have retired - I had better do the same.
The men needed no encouragement. Stooping, they ran back, and I followed them.
We reached the trench where we had first met Long’s platoon. It was now half full of mud, the rain had done that: mud up to the knees, the consistency of stuff men bale out from street gratings. It was also full of men.
The shelling was growing heavier now, high explosives, with also shrapnel bursting overhead. The men were getting back as best they could, wading through, intent on escaping to safety.
There were wounded in the trench, one lying with a smashed leg and asking for water. I was horrified that no one seemed to be taking any notice and I gave him a drink from my water bottle. Ought I to try to carry him back, or was that the job of the stretcher bearers and was he safer at present at the bottom of the trench? A little ashamedly I decided that it was right to leave him.
I came up with a sergeant of another platoon. “Bad as the Ninth of May, sir,” he said. We struggled on through the mud and the rain and the shelling. Then came a terrific crack above my head, a jolt in my left shoulder, and at the same time I was watching in an amazed, detached sort of way my right forearm twist upward of its own volition and then hang limp. I realized that I had been hit.
The men treated a young officer in two ways, either generously and genuinely as their leader, or else, equally generously, as a sort of precious and slightly incomprehensible child to be taken care of. For a while I had, I suppose, been the former; I now returned to the latter. My servant was at my side almost at once - servants in the line served with their platoon.
Get back along the top of the trench!” he commanded. He saw that my arms were useless. “Let your equipment slip off!” I did so, and left it in the Somme mud.
We continued over open ground - less safe but less slow and neither he nor I knew how badly I was wounded: he was taking a risk for my sake. I noticed that there was a good number of German dead about here; but I was more concerned with myself. Finally we reached the end of the trench where, as at a turnstile, stood the battalion doctor and his orderlies, sorting out the wounded from the whole. They dressed my wounds, told me that a shrapnel bullet had gone through my right forearm and another was probably still somewhere in my left shoulder, and put back my rain and mud and blood soaked tunic over my shoulders. Could I walk, asked the doctor. I would find a field dressing station down the road. “You’re for Blighty all right! Goodbye.” I started down the Fricourt road. People coming up grinned at me with friendly and probably jealous compassion, and I grinned back.
I was suddenly filled with a surge of happiness. It was a physical feeling almost, consciousness of a reprieve from the shadow of death, no less. That I had just taken part in a failure, that I had really done nothing to help win the war, these things were forgotten - if ever indeed they had entered my consciousness. I had been through the Somme battle and I was alive: that was enough.

From Schoolboy into War: Book 2 the Autobiography

From Chapter 18: The end - demob and Harold's mature thoughts on war and peace
I petered out of the Army via Spanish flu. It was a slowish process, getting demobbed (demobilized from the forces), but for me not as slow as for some. After hospital and sick leave it did not apparently seem worthwhile to the War Office to send men back to the Third Battalion or anywhere else and I continued on leave until 1st June.
Then, a week short of four years after I had first put on uniform, I finally took it off and became a civilian again - or rather perhaps, since I had only been a schoolboy before, I became a civilian for the first time.
I had, on coming back home from Brussels, found myself in the Prince of Wales Hospital again, the barracks-like Great Central Hotel. It was not so crowded and seemed pleasanter. I spent hours playing a grand piano standing isolated in the middle of a totally empty palm court, my own orchestra and with nobody to tell me to shut up making that damned row. It was pleasant but not exhilarating. One thing I discovered for myself was the Sunday Observer, lying waiting for me on the bookstall that was being still kept open in the hotel’s foyer. Those were the days of Garvin's editorship and his famous long editorials, pontificating but informed. I began seriously but eagerly enough the task of re-educating myself. It had been initiated for me tentatively and perhaps unconsciously by Collier and Gordon Russell in the war and continued by Gordon Russell who later took me to his Cotswold home and opened my eyes to at least the existence of a world of art and craftsmanship, something of whose very existence I had hardly been aware.
I came home. I played the piano in my parents’ green-carpeted, gold-picture-framed drawing room, with Victorian ornaments and family photos for audience instead of potted palms. I joined the local tennis club. I thought a good deal; and faced, with some reluctance, the task of finding myself a job.
That was what everybody was doing. These were difficult days, naturally. They were days of disillusionment for many; Lloyd George had talked of making England a land fit for returned heroes; and the phrase rebounded on him and turned sour.
The trouble was that so many civilian jobs seemed, by comparison with fighting for one’s country, unromantic, petty, even undignified.
No doubt many of us had ideas above our station: we had been somebody during the war, and we expected to continue to be somebody. Perhaps it was a good thing that I had not got that MC or that temporary captaincy, for I might then have felt more like that myself.
Perhaps also we contributed to the disillusionment ourselves, by conforming unconsciously, that is to say, to the tradition of peacetime employment, the tradition of it having an unheroic cash nexus. I remember going at Easter time for a short country holiday with Lyon and Collier, where an obliging lady at our hotel told our fortunes. She said, among other things, that I should never be rich. I was horribly disappointed; for apparently my sole criterion of success in civilian life was to grow rich. I also remember calculating the amount of my gratuity and of again being disappointed, when demobilization came, in that I was missing another whole year’s payment by no more than a week. A natural reaction perhaps, and a very small point. But after all - and as I had sententiously told my men - one did not strike in the Army, for pay or for anything else. It had probably never occurred to me that I was ‘employed’, and for pay; most certainly the idea had never occurred to me that one might be expected to do only certain jobs or hours of work for one’s pay and might expect overtime or danger money if one did more - neither word existed in our vocabulary. There was a nobility in being a soldier.
I remember yet another incident. We had had in the Second Battalion an efficient and cheerful young officer who had sometimes regaled us with stories of when he was on the boards as a gentleman of the chorus. Lyon had gone to a show in town and spotted him across the footlights. Meeting him later back-stage, he had found him constrained and unfriendly and obviously ashamed that he had had to go back to his old job. There was nothing very heroic, nothing very much worthwhile, in being a gentleman of the chorus.
Here indeed was the trouble and a trouble deeper than the contemporary one of fitting oneself into a job at the end of World War I. It is the fundamental problem of war-and-peace. They talk in the times in which I now write of war being the natural state of the human species. Man, we are told, is a naturally aggressive animal, ineradicably filled with the instincts of the carnivorous ape from which he is descended, inescapable heir to the even wider and deeper and more ancient instincts that not only bid him defend the territory that he thinks is his but also deny him happiness if he is not so doing.
Much of that idea will no doubt come to be thought an exaggeration. But something will be left: the idea, that is to say, that war is not wholly bad for mankind and that the obvious task for the species, if it is to survive, is to find a substitute for war that will bring out the heroism, the self-sacrifice, the sense of unity, the vividness and purposefulness that war can call forth, without accompanying it with its mass slaughter.
And something of that I am sure we who were returning to the civilian world did feel. At least we were convinced that there must be no such war again, that it must be made to have been ‘the war to end wars’, that the opportunity must be taken to inaugurate a new era of social justice that men such as Wells and Shaw were telling us could be attained.
That we were to be disappointed is history and no part of the purpose of this book to seek to recount.
From Schoolboy into War: Book 2 the Autobiography
Back to content | Back to main menu