Things that Matter

We had just evacuated all the students to the playground, lined them up and done a head count. It wasn’t a fire drill but a bomb threat. We didn’t take it very seriously although bombs were regularly going off all over London.

I think this must have been November 1973 because I seem to recall there had been a recent incident at Victoria Station. The provisional IRA was active – had a habit of setting off explosives in stations and pubs – but none of thought our south London school was a target.

In any event, the hierarchy took it so seriously they sent the teachers back into the building to do a locker search. It made for a break in routine.

Soon after we gave the all-clear – no explosives found – and after almost all the girls had streamed back into the building, this came over the tannoy – the public address system:

“Will the girl in the purple socks now crossing the netball court please report to the office immediately.”

Purple socks! Some hapless girl – some outrageous rebel, some defier of all rules and proper decorum  – was out of uniform and would be receiving an administrative reprimand and no doubt all kinds of order and conduct marks sometime soon  And of course, the best of it was that while all the rest of us could hear the message loud and clear, the girl with the offending socks could not. She – after all – was outside.

At that time I belonged to a cadre of young teachers who didn’t take much stock in the strange and pettifogging rules and obsessions of the higher-ups in the school administration. After all – we were young and knew everything and they did not. And of course, in my years as a school administrator, I was never guilty of absurd and random micromanagement of the irrelevant and unnecessary. Never!

But I’ve always held on the that incident as an example of the absurdity of management and administration. It’s a situation captured in its extreme and comedic form in this WW1 Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon. Colonel Fitz-Shrapnel (got to love the inspired name) – under fire – receives a communication from Staff HQ.

The Things that Matter. Scene: Loos, during the September offensive. Colonel Fitz-Shrapnel receives the following message from “G.H.Q”: “Please let us know, as soon as possible, the number of tins of raspberry jam issued to you last Friday.”

Trivial, unnecessary and ill-timed – it’s the kind of situation that Robert Graves describes so well in his memoir Goodbye to all That. Army staff HQ could usually be relied upon to make irrelevant and nonsensical demands.

It’s the evening before the attack of High Wood during the Battle of the Somme 1916.

The evening of the next day, July 19th, we were relieved. We were told that we would be attacking High Wood, which we could see a thousand yards away to the right at the top of a slope. High Wood was on the main German battle-line, which ran along the ridge, with Delville Wood not far off on the German left. Two British brigades had already attempted it; in both cases the counter-attack had driven them out. Our battalion had had a large number of casualties and was now only about four hundred strong.

I have kept a battalion order issued at midnight:

“To O.C. B Co. 2nd R.W.F. 20.7.16.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 1.26.48 PMS 14b 99 was a map reference for Bazentin churchyard. We lay here on the reverse slope of a slight ridge about half a mile from the wood. I attended the meeting of company commanders; the colonel told us the plan. He said: “Look here, you fellows, we’re in reserve for this attack. The Cameronians are going up to the wood first, then the Fifth Scottish Rifles; that’s at five a.m. The Public Schools Battalion are in support if anything goes wrong. I don’t know if we shall be called on; if we are, it will mean that the Jocks have legged it. As usual,” he added. This was an appeal to prejudice. “The Public Schools Battalion is, well, what we know, so if we are called for, that means it will be the end of us.” He said this with a laugh and we all laughed. We were sitting on the ground protected by the road-bank; a battery of French 75’s was firing rapid over our heads about twenty yards away. There was a very great concentration of guns in Happy Valley now. We could hardly hear what he was saying. He told us that if we did get orders to reinforce, we were to shake out in artillery formation; once in the wood we were to hang on like death. Then he said good-bye and good luck and we rejoined our companies.

At this juncture the usual inappropriate message came through from Division. Division could always be trusted to send through a warning about verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches, or being polite to our allies, or some other triviality, when an attack was in progress. This time it was an order for a private in C Company to report immediately to the assistant provost-marshal back at Albert, under escort of a lance-corporal. He was for a court-martial. A sergeant of the company was also ordered to report as a witness in the case. The private was charged with the murder of a French civilian in an estaminet at Béthune about a month previously. Apparently there had been a good deal of brandy going and the French civilian, who had a grudge against the British (it was about his wife), started to tease the private. He was reported, somewhat improbably, as having said: “English no bon, Allmand très bon. War fineesh, napoo the English. Allmand win.” The private had immediately drawn his bayonet and run the man through. At the court-martial the private was exculpated; the French civil representative commended him for having “energetically repressed local defeatism.” So he and the two N.C.O.’s missed the battle.

What the battle that they missed was like I pieced together afterwards. The Jocks did get into the wood and the Royal Welch were not called on to reinforce until eleven o’clock in the morning. The Germans put down a barrage along the ridge where we were lying, and we lost about a third of the battalion before our show started. I was one of the casualties.

There’s a reason why amongst old soldiers the expression military intelligence is often regarded as an example of the oxymoron.

Here’s Wilfred Owen’s commentary: life is cheap and blood is dirt but smartness on parade matters.

The Inspection

‘You! What d’you mean by this?’ I rapped.
‘You dare come on parade like this?’
‘Please, sir, it’s-‘ ”Old yer mouth,’ the sergeant snapped.
‘I takes ‘is name, sir?’-‘Please, and then dismiss.’

Some days ‘confined to camp’ he got,
For being ‘dirty on parade’.
He told me, afterwards, the damnèd spot
Was blood, his own. ‘Well, blood is dirt,’ I said.

‘Blood’s dirt,’ he laughed, looking away,
Far off to where his wound had bled
And almost merged for ever into clay.
‘The world is washing out its stains,’ he said.
‘It doesn’t like our cheeks so red:
Young blood’s its great objection.
But when we’re duly white-washed, being dead,
The race will bear Field-Marshal God’s inspection.’ 

Owen started The Inspection in August 1917 while he was at Craiglockhart Hospital recovering from shell shock. He completed it in September, and it’s easy to see the influence of Siegfried Sassoon with whom he became friends during his hospital stay.

Claude Shepperson, The Absence of the General 1917.

In fairness it’s important to note that more than 200 British generals were killed, wounded or captured in WW1.

2 Comments

  1. Green Gremlin:

    Reminds me of Sassoon:

    Base Details

    If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
    I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
    And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
    You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
    Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
    Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
    I’d say — “I used to know his father well;
    Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
    And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
    I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

  2. Sam G:

    Sassoon’s protest which led him to be sent to Craiglockart where he met and influenced Owen.

    ‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

    I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

    I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

    I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

    On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.”

    Uproar in the House of Commons when it was read into the record.

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