Aftermath - when the boys came home

Monday 27 February 2012

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Douglas Haig: The Greatest Betrayal
by Alan Clark
from Daily Express November 1998

IN 1913 Britain was the most powerful country in the world. She straddled global trade routes with a Navy quite consciously designed to challenge, and defeat, all the other navies of the world in combination and simultaneously.

We were a contented people. Confident, loyal and, by today's polluted standards, innocent. Twice weekly the doorstep of every terraced house would be scrubbed white; and if wages were low - why a pint of beer could be bought for 4d (2p).

All too soon these standards, or rather the manner in which they were perverted, would exact a terrible price. Sir Edward Grey the Liberal Foreign Secretary and an early personification of the word "Europhile", decided on August 4, 1914, to commit the greatest maritime power in the world to a land war in defence of Belgium.

Belgium went under in 10 days and Britain spent the next four-and-a-half years in full-frontal, set-piece attacks on the Western Front, trying to get it back by heedless expenditure of blood and treasure.

First into the furnace was the British Expeditionary Force, a tiny professional group of sharpshooters. Photos show their magnificent physique. Every one in the Guards regiments had to be over 6ft tall. Soon they were all killed.

By 1915 the volunteers were starting to arrive from the recruiting offices. General Haig, the Army commander, had got into difficulties attacking the Germans at Loos. On the second day he put into the battle two complete divisions of volunteers That had just arrived. They had no rest, food, water or combat training and the machine-gunners scythed them down in rows.

The following year came the Big Push on The Somme - 10 times the scale of Loos, which Haig kept going for three months without advancing half a mile.

Unbelievably Haig was allowed to try again in 1917 (this time with conscripts, as the volunteers were mostly dead). He chose Passchendaele, the vilest morass of all The great battlegrounds, and poured in bodies from July until November, gaining barely a yard.

Freddy JohnsonMany years ago, when I was writing The Donkeys - whose climax is the second day at Loos - I managed to buy the Victoria Cross won in that battle by 2nd Lieutenant Freddy Johnson [pictured right] at the age of 23. With the medal came some yellowing press cuttings put aside by his parents. One describes a visit to his old school and the hero's speech when he joked to the boys: "This is far more alarming than anything at the Front."

A classic example of the "stiff upper lip", no more than would have been expected of him. But in the photos Johnson's eyes look haunted. He never took leave again and was killed at Passchendaele in 1917.

The scale of this butchery can hit one in different ways. For me it came as I watched for the first time the crowd of runners assembling for the London Marathon. "Must be around 40,000," said the commentator. Suddenly I realised that if they had been waiting to go over the top on July 1, 1916, every single one would be dead by nightfall.

None complained, although many were turned in their minds and, half-mad, shot for cowardice or desertion. Only the poets, quite privately (because editors sitting comfortably in their London offices, would never print anything "unpatriotic" ) on scraps of paper in ill-lit dug-outs did record what was happening.

GREATEST of them all was Wilfred Owen, who died from bullet wounds 80 years ago, on November 8. His most passionate poem was Anthem For Doomed Youth, from its opening line: What passing-bells for those who die as cattle? through to the final ones:

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall,
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds

This last was a reference to the fact that when the death telegram was delivered in its orange envelope, all the blinds in rooms facing the street  were drawn a silent signal to friends and neighbours of private grief.

So if, when on holiday in the North-east, or Devon, or Scotland, you are curious, then take a look at the war memorial on any village green and see how many carry one family name - and note their ages.

Because the four-year-long haemorrhage of the Great War was as much a betrayal of youth by age as of one class by another. The working classes, particularly in the countryside, had been brought up to believe that the aristocracy would always look after them in a jam (some hope!), while the middle classes, particularly the younger sons, were cut to ribbons. A complete future generation - designers, farmers, industrialists and inventors - just ceased to exist.We still wear the poppy on the 11th day of the 11th month and at the 1th hour we fail silent, very briefly in memoriam of those young.

Until recently the black button at the poppy's centre used to carry the inscription "Haig Fund".. No longer Most people now realise, even while trying to avert their minds from the subject, that it was Haig who threw it all away. How did Haig survive? Politics came into it, naturally The then Prime Minister, Lloyd George, became increasingly uneasy at the casualty lists but he was leading an uncomfortable coalition. He feared that if he quarrelled with the Commander-in-Chief his partners in the Cabinet would exploit the opportunity to get rid of him.

Haig's own colleagues were imprisoned by their hierarchic loyalties and nervousness about their own careers (one Army commander was sacked by Haig for retreating under a gas attack, even though his men had not been issued with gas masks). Besides, no one knew what the Western Front was really like, except those who fought in it and their attrition rate was rapid.

SO THE Field-Marshal, in bronze effigy still sits astride his horse and surveys, each year, the ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Does he ever perhaps in the small hours when the street is empty and silent, reflect on the most horrifying statistic of the whole conflict?

Two years after its end, when every corpse or human fragment that could be found was laid to rest founder of the War Graves Commission Sir Fabian Ware calculated that if the dead could march side by side in continuous proces sion down Whitehall, it would take them four days and nights to get past the saluting base.

 

The late Alan Clark was Member of Parliament for Kensington & Chelsea, a former Minister of Defence and a military historian.

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