Saturday, 13 July 2013

The General and the Lieutenants

“For they were only your fathers,” wrote Ewart Alan Mackintosh in 1916, addressing the troops slaughtered in a raid on Arras that he had personally led, “but I was your officer”.  The message in Mackintosh’s touching poem “In Memoriam” is that he considered himself responsible for ensuring his men’s safety and therefore suffered as much as their families did when he failed in this task.  Although only 23 and a temporary lieutenant, he regarded himself as standing in loco parentis, a father figure to those he led into battle.  The officer himself was killed in action the following year.

Mackintosh had done his best to save the life of the mortally-wounded young soldier, David Sutherland, whose death inspired the poem.   Despite his best efforts, the boy's body went missing, and, instead of a grave, Sutherland's name appears on the Arras Memorial, where I saw it last Sunday afternoon, in the course of another very enjoyable poetry tour organised by the Western Front Association.  Since then, I have been reflecting on what I heard, saw and learned, and feel I am beginning to understand a side of Siegfried Sassoon that I had previously not considered.

Like Siegfried Sassoon, the Scotsman Mackintosh was a product of the English public school system, though St Paul’s School was a very different place from Marlborough College.  Different again were Uppingham and Chigwell, the schools attended by Roland Leighton and his famous circle of friends, immortalised in the memoirs of Leighton’s fiancée, Vera Brittain.  Most of these schools had a common ethos, holding patriotism, loyalty and courage in the greatest regard.  Along with this went a sense of responsibility to one’s inferiors as well as respect for one’s superiors.  Leighton and his friends Victor Richardson and Edward Brittain were known as “The Three Musketeers” even before they left school, and these solid boyhood relationships were of a kind that could be built on to form the links that bound the British armed forces together.

Some schools, like Uppingham, included military training corps among their extra-mural activities, and they were the breeding-ground for a large proportion of the young officers commissioned early in the First World War.  Robert Graves, educated at Charterhouse, was, like many of his contemporaries, forced to cut short his academic career before taking up his place at Oxford and reached the rank of Captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the age of twenty.  Charles Sorley, like Sassoon an Old Marlburian, whose sense of honour was so strongly-developed that he is said to have volunteered for punishment when he broke school rules, enjoyed the briefest of university careers and, also a captain, was barely twenty when killed at the Battle of Loos.  Edward Brittain, Vera's brother, felt that it was his duty to go to war, and took unkindly to his father's efforts to prevent him signing up, going so far as to suggest that Brittain senior's failure to attend public school was an important factor in his pacifism.  There was certainly some priggishness involved in Edward's reaction.

The responsibility of officers towards their men did not stop with lieutenants and captains, but continued up the chain of command.  If the junior officers considered themselves honour-bound to protect the common soldiers, they also had certain expectations of their superiors.  This fact may be a key to the understanding of Sassoon’s outburst against “The General”.

Sassoon, however, was not typical of the junior officer class.  This, too, may be a key to understanding his actions, particularly the Soldier’s Declaration of 1917 and the one-man mutiny that resulted in his being exiled to Craiglockhart Military Hospital to have his war “neurosis” cured by pioneering psychiatrists.  Educated at home until the age of 13, he was never fully imbued with the public school cast of mind, which may go some way towards explaining the brevity of his Cambridge career.  By the time he enlisted in 1914, he was nearly 28 years old.  Instead of seeking a commission, he defied convention by entering the Sussex Yeomanry as an ordinary trooper.  It was partly a practical decision; he did not wish to see his beloved hunting horse commandeered, and the only way to avoid this was to take Cockbird with him into a cavalry regiment; but the regular cavalry was an expensive place to be.  The decision to enlist as a trooper, however, revealed how little he understood of military life.  Believing himself unfit to be an officer, he imagined he would find comradeship amongst the ranks, but he soon realised that he was something of a misfit there. Nevertheless, the time he spent in the company of ordinary soldiers must have given him an edge later, when it came to understanding their mentality.

Admittedly the 28-year-old Sassoon was not a particularly mature young man for his age.  He had been cosseted by his mother and encouraged to live at home on an unearned income, spending his substantial leisure time on activities such as riding, cricket, and (from a very early age) writing poetry.  Life as a junior officer on the Western Front came as a huge shock to his system, but he seems to have adapted with alacrity.  He wanted to have someone to care for, something to take responsibility for, and the members of his platoon fulfilled that long-dormant emotional need.  It is hardly any wonder, then, that he saw red when he realised that those further up the line of command were not demonstrating the same sense of parental responsibility that he and his fellow lieutenants felt so strongly.  He was appalled when a senior commander insisted on a colonel dismounting in order to salute, and he was even more irritated by the general who came to give the troops a pep talk, ironically only revealing how out of touch he was with their situation.

Up until now, Siegfried had been a conventional young man, with no inherent tendency to defy authority.  Sassoon the rebel was born when, three years into the war and aged 30, he participated in the Battle of Arras  He had already lost numerous friends in action, notably his beloved David Thomas, but now he was beginning to feel he had a duty to do something about it.  Buoyed up by the publication of his first major collection, The Old Huntsman, and egged on by the socialist circle of Lady Ottoline Morrell, he took the action that made him notorious.  Futile and foolhardy as others may have felt his gesture to be, he summoned up the strength of character to make it, unfettered by the pseudo-military discipline that had been inculcated in so many British schoolboys over the previous century or so.

"The Lost Generation", as they are often referred to, were certainly the men who would have led Britain into the post-war world.  Leighton, Sorley, Grenfell, Brooke and company were the brightest and best of young men and might have had glittering careers in public service or government.  What was left, after so many of them had given their lives for their country, included the lucky, the lazy, the cowardly and the cunning.  It also included a few men like Sassoon, who retained their individuality and questioned the war, choosing either to stay out of it or to make a stand against it; the latter were few in number.  The Soldier's Declaration makes it quite clear that Sassoon was never a pacifist; his early belief in the justice of Britain's cause had endured. Perhaps surprisingly, he does not aim his criticism at the generals, but at the politicians who, he believed, were deliberately prolonging the war for their own ends, without considering the loss of humanity.  Had not so many illustrious youths been killed, the face of post-war Britain would have been very different - but can we be sure it would have been for the better?

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