1916-1926: from the Somme to the General Strike

The British Army at the start of the Great War
Was essentially ‘Wellingtonian’:
A predominantly country-set set of officers,
A predominantly rural army of men,
Battalions and companies of men and officers,
With a reverence for tradition and locality,
Be it the BEF or the Territorials:
‘I daresay it is snobbish to say so, but the fact remains that men will follow a gentleman much more readily than they will an officer whose social position is not so well assured.’
Kitchener’s recruits changed that, of course,
And then with conscription, by the end of the war,
5 million industrial workers had joined the army –
‘More than 10% of the … workforce joined up in the first two months of war’;
Two and a half million men had volunteered by 1916
And a further 2 million men indicated
That they would willingly countenance conscription;
This patriotism still meant some cultural problems, however:
Trade unionism, for example;
But, in the main, military discipline did its job:
From saluting right through to executions …
Although when trouble did break out, as at Etaples,
Then the old class antagonisms came to the surface –
As with General Haig:
‘Men of this stamp are not content with remaining quiet,
they come from a class which like to air real or fancied grievances…’;
But class prejudice was of little consequence
When placed alongside racial prejudice –
When colonial support workers went on strike in France,
Summary public shootings were the response.

So, after this contextualization,
I, do make Oath, that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs, and Successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty, His Heirs, and Successors, in Person, Crown and Dignity, against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, and of the Generals and Officers set over me.
So help me God.

So now on to the Somme:

‘Pals’ Battalions, on the whistle, lads. Steady pace in straight lines.
Into the remembrance of statistics’:
‘How many officers and men went over the top on July 1st 1916?’
‘150,000, sir.’
‘What weight did the men carry?”
’66 lbs: rifle, grenades, ammo, rations, cape, helmet, gas masks (two), goggles, sandbags (empty, four), field dressing, pick/shovel, water bottle, mess tin, sir.’
‘And our casualties?’
’19,000 dead and 38,000 wounded. Highest figures ever in a single day, sir.’
‘Good man. Correct again. And was that it?’
‘No, sir: another five months of bloody attrition, sir, and another 420,000 casualties. ’
‘How long was the front?”
‘Eighteen miles, sir; but listen to this account of the 1st of July from Captain Gerald Brenan, M.C., sir. It gives a flavour of the battle.’
‘The battle opened a little after sunrise on 1 July 1916, with a bombardment that shook the air with its roar and sent up the earth on the German trenches in gigantic fountains. It seemed as though no human being could live through that. Then our men climbed by short ladders onto the parapet and began to move forward shoulder to shoulder, one behind the other, across the rough ground. They moved slowly because each of them carried a weight of 66 pounds. Then the German barrage fell on our trenches and their machine-guns began to rattle furiously. Clouds of blue and grey smoke from the bursting shells, mixing with a light ground mist, hid the general view, but in the gaps I could see little ant-like figures, some of them keeping on in a broken line, others falling, crawling, lying still. Each of them carried on his backs a tin triangle to assist in their identification by our artillery, and the early morning sun shone on these triangles and made them glitter. But as the hours passed I could not see that any of them had reached the German front line and later I knew why: our bombardment had not penetrated the deep dugouts the Germans had excavated in the chalk and their machine-gunners had come out and were mowing our men down …
The sun rose higher and higher in the sky, the heat of that scorching summer day grew and grew, but though I was never able to get any coherent picture, the failure of our assault on Serre gradually became obvious. Those three or four hundred yards of rough ground that lay in front of our front lines were thickly sprinkled with silver triangles, only a few of which still moved, while the German parapet was bare and still the pounding of our front trenches went on …
After fifty-six hours spent in shell-holes, sleeping among and even pillowed by dead comrades, without water, without food, having to defend themselves the whole time, a few of the more determined had managed to creep or fight their way back through the German lines to tell their tale.’
‘ Now here’s the last two stanzas from a poem by Second-Lieutenant Robert Ernest Vernede, 3rd Battalion, the Rifle Brigade, sir: it’s a poem about three selfless and quietly heroic sergeants who were killed, sir.’
‘Those sergeants I lost at Delville
On a night that was cruel and black,
They gave their lives for England’s sake,
They never will come back.

What of the hundreds in whose hearts
Thoughts no less splendid burn? …
I wonder what England will do for them
If ever they return?’

‘A few more statistics please, my good man. Death by our own hands – by the war’s end, how many of our men were executed by firing squad?’
‘346, I think, sir.’
‘Do you have any reports in my valise that we could share?’
‘Course, sir. Certainly sir. Here we are; three cases of privates.’
“The man has a very bad character both in civil life and in the army. He is probably useless as a soldier. For the above reasons I feel it my duty to recommend that the sentence be carried out. I am quite aware that the general worthlessness of the man is inclined to influence above decision, but I have given due weight to this point and see no reason to allow it to alter my opinion. I do not think it affects my judgment.”
“This man was not a man who gave much trouble neither was he in any way a man whom one would pick out as a good man. He is considered by his Platoon Commander to be of poor intellect, and I consider that he is a typical slum product of a low level intelligence…”
“The …Battalion … contains a proportion of rough characters and lately there has been a certain amount of insubordination especially when orders are issued for heavy work in the trenches. I am reluctantly compelled to state that I think an example is necessary in the interests of discipline of the Brigade.”
‘Is that enough, sir?’
‘Anything on NCO’s?’
‘Course, sir. Here we are again, happy as can be, all good friends and jolly good company.’
“As an NCO he is a failure, being too familiar with his subordinates, and surly and morose to his superiors … Chief cause of complaint is that NCOs will not assert themselves as they come from the same class of men as those in the ranks and think too much of their position after the war when they will all be in the workshops again.”
‘Were most men executed for funk? Cowardice?’
‘No, sir. Desertion. Here’s the views of two different generals, sir.’
“‘I consider the extreme penalty should be inflicted because: (a) the man has already deserted once on active service (b) he has no intention of fighting for his country (c) is quite worthless, as a soldier or in any other capacity and is better removed from the world.”
“He was no rotter deserving to die like that. He was merely fragile. He had volunteered to fight for his country … at the dictates of his own young heart. He failed. And for that failure he was condemned to die …”
‘What did the young man say?’
‘He said, sir, “What will my mother say?”’
‘You’re going on a walk today, aren’t you?”
‘Yes sir, Bristol, sir; we’re meeting at Temple Meads and then walking around St Philips and the Dings; we’re remembering the days of the Triple Industrial Alliance before the war. And remembering Alfred Jefferies who lived in St Philips and was executed for desertion on November 1st 1916: firing squad at dawn, sir. His brother Arthur was killed in 1916 too, at the Somme, sir. A bad year for the family, sir.’
‘Cheer me up, old chap, for God’s sake. Sing me a song or something.’
‘Course sir, certainly sir.’
“If you want to find the old battalion,
I know where they are, I know where they are, I know where they are
If you want to find the old battalion, I know where they are,
They’re hanging on the old barbed wire,
I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.
I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.”

‘Before I finish, sir, one last thought. I’ve often reminisced about the old days sir, and one thing’s stuck in my mind but it’s rarely mentioned, sir. You know how people talk about the sacrifices and heroism at the Somme and so on, sir. But I’ve often thought what if those men had lived? Then we wouldn’t have lost the General Strike ten years later, sir. Just a thought sir – but worth thinking about.’

‘I’d like to finish, now, sir, if I may, with the last two stanzas of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Aftermath, from March 1919. Thank you, sir, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.’

“Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized you and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?”

‘Just think, sir, those boys might have won the General Strike, sir. And I wouldn’t be calling you sir, sir. Would I?’