This summer, browsing in a school fete, I found a first edition copy of a book by John Buchan, originally published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1935. Buchan is perhaps best known for his spy thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in 1915. It introduces the South African engineer and Boer War hero of subsequent novels, Richard Hannay, and has been made into a film four times, first by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. Buchan (1875-1940) began writing fiction at the beginning of a long career which included his rise to an Imperial statesman, Member of Parliament, barrister, publisher and soldier. He was born in Perth, a son of the manse of a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, his family moving to Fife soon after his birth. They later moved to the Gorbals in Glasgow and it was there that Buchan received his education, attending grammar school and then the University of Glasgow. By the time he went ‘up’ to Brasenose College, Oxford, he had already written articles for periodicals, and while there he published his first novel in 1895. He was called to the bar in 1901, but his first job was as a secretary to the high commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner. Returning to London in 1903, Buchan became a director of Nelson’s, the publishing company, in addition to furthering his career as a barrister, marrying and becoming a father of four. During the First World War, Buchan was a newspaper correspondent in France, an intelligence officer and then Director of Information. He later wrote Nelson’s History of the War and became a keen historian. In 1927 he was elected Conservative MP for the Scottish Universities and, on being made the fifteenth Governor-General of Canada, was created 1st Baron Tweedsmuir in 1935. In April of this year he published his book, The King’s Grace, celebrating the silver jubilee of George V. As he himself wrote in its preface, this was not intended as a biography of the King, the time for which had happily not yet come, since George died late in that year, but was an attempt to provide a picture – and some slight interpretation – of his reign, with the throne as the continuing thing through an epoch of unprecedented change. He incorporated into his text a few passages from his 1922 History of the War.Like his king, Buchan was an extremely well-liked and respected man, whose own death in 1940 also evoked a great deal of sorrow.
Since we have been commemorating the events of the fateful year of 1916, including the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, I thought it would be interesting to share some extracts from this out-of-print text about the year.
Extracts from the Account of 1916:
” When the year 1916 opened, the main front had been irrevocably fixed in the West. The vast material and mechanical power involved in the new type of war made it impossible to to alter readily the type of campaign which had once been set, or to use the whole world-front to strategic purpose. The unimaginative methods of frontal attack and attrition, as practised in 1915, were the only ones of which the High Command could conceive, since they seemed to follow naturally from the cumbrous mechanism behind them. The fact that they were costly was obscured by the hope that they were still more costly to the enemy. There was perhaps some reason in the view that the German will to conquer could only be broken by a holocaust of suffering, and not by some ingenious strategical triumph which might have given the Allies a victory on points, for we were fighting not only the pride of a monarch and an army but the megalomania of a great people.”
” Nor can much of the blame for the deadlock be laid on the British commanders. They had been compelled to conform to a mode of war which was not of their planning, and fro which they cannot escape. The most that can be said is that, out of a kind of professional loyalty, they had been too ready to defend the indefensible. What could Haig have achieved had he protested against the whole system? A radical change of military policy in the throes of a campaign would be like the uprooting of mandrakes.”
” Only British statesmen could break the bondage of a leaden and ineffective machine. If any charge is to be brought against them, it is not that they interfered unduly with the soldiers, but that they did not interfere enough, and in the right way. In a war of nations it is the civilian who must direct the general strategy… “
” Over Verdun, as over Ypres, there will brood in history a strange aura, the effluence of the sacrifice and fortitude of the tens of thousands who fell before her gates. Her little hills are for ever consecrated by her dead… As the weary French infantry scrambled over the débris of Thiaumont, a hundred miles to the north-west on a broad front the infantry of Britain and France were waiting to cross their parapets… Haig would have preferred an attack in Flanders, and indeed it is hard to see why Joffre chose the Somme area, for the German position there was immensely strong, and success offered no strategic advantage.
” The first day brought only slender results. There was no chance of surprise, the lengthy bombardment, owing to the poor quality of the ammunition, completely failed of its purpose, and the front of assault was too wide and the pressure too uniform. We were attacking a fortress without concentrating on the weak spots. The battle, which continued till it was stopped by the November rains, degenerated into a colossal effort of attrition…
” The Somme was the first great effort of the new armies of Britain, and in it they won much glory and a grave. The ‘tawny ground of Picardy,’ which Shakespeare’s Henry V discoloured with blood, was to become memorable for the English people, since few households in the land had not contributed to it a son. It was the final entry of the manhood of Britain into war… In their ranks were every class and condition – miners from the north, factory hands from the industrial centres, clerks and shopboys, ploughmen and shepherds, Saxon and Celt, college graduates and dock labourers, men who in the wild places of the earth had often faced danger, and men whose chief adventure had been a Sunday bicycle ride. This fighting stuff, which Germany had decried, proved a match for her Guards and Brandenburgers.”
” The Somme became a name of terror, that ‘blood-bath’ to which many journeyed and from which few returned… On the Somme attrition became at last a menace to Germany, for it was acute attrition: not like the slow erosion of cliffs by the sea, but like the steady crumbling of a mountain to which hydraulic engineers have applied a mighty head of water.”
General Rawlinson, commander-in-chief, IV Corps, British Army.
This British offensive was to be in support of the French, who were keen to have a quick and successful offensive before winter, and to help the beleaguered Russians, bearing the brunt of the German attacks in the east.
British General, Douglas Haig was well aware of the difficulties facing his men: the battlefield was full of slag heaps and mine works, affording the Germans excellent defensive positions. Despite their reluctance French commander General Joffre was adamant that the British attack. Forced to act before his New Army was ready, Haig still optimistically thought a breakthrough possible. The Allies had a five to one advantage in troop numbers.
The attack of 75,000 troops made some progress; however, it slowed due to lack of artillery support, confusion over navigation and the heavy fire of the German defenders. Six thousand British soldiers were killed on the first day of the battle. On the second day some German machine-gunners stopped firing to allow their opponents to retreat to their lines. By the end of the offensive in October British casualties were over sixty thousand, three times as many as the German losses.
On 25 September, poison gas, referred to as ‘the accessory’ in order to maintain a level of secrecy, was used by the British for the first time. One of those watching its use was General Rawlinson:
I witnessed the sight from the top of a fosse some three miles distant from the front line and the view before me was one I shall never forget. Gradually a huge cloud of white and yellow gas rose from our trenches to a height of between two hundred and three hundred feet, and floated quietly away towards the German trenches. Amidst the cloud could be seen shrapnel bursting on the enemy’s front line trenches.
However, the plan backfired when the wind changed direction and the gas blew back into the British trenches, causing havoc among the troops. By the end of the war, the British had used gas cylinders 150 times, compared with eleven attacks by the Germans. Despite the terror it induced, poison gas caused a relatively low number of British Army deaths during the war. Loos was part of the Artois-Champagne offensive, which became a dogged war of attrition in which Allied commanders were always hopeful of achieving a breakthrough. British and French losses totaled 310,000; the Germans lost 140,000. One of the British officers was John Kipling, the son of the poet Rudyard Kipling, killed in action on 27 September. His father wrote the following short poem about his death:
My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests
The story of father and son was recently dramatised by the BBC in ‘My Boy Jack’, a powerful film starring David Suchet and Daniel Ratcliffe.
Meanwhile, a ‘mock’ trench section was dug in Blackpool, to help troops train for trench life and warfare. During the ‘illuminations’ and throughout the war, for a penny a time, visitors to the ‘Loos Trenches’ were shown around by recovering soldiers from a nearby hospital.
In a Munitions Tribunal held in Glasgow in September, twelve apprentices aged between fifteen and eighteen were admonished for demanding higher wages. Although they were working 103 hours a week, the sheriff told them, no boy could be allowed to put his private wage-earning capacity in front of the national need.
Born in December 1915, French singer Édith ‘Piaf’ Gassion was named after British nurse Edith Cavell, who had been executed two months earlier for helping Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium. Over twenty places in France, Belgium, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Portugal and Mauritius bear her name, including a pub in Norwich, her home city, where she was laid to rest outside the cathedral…
In the 1970’s I was an ‘absolute pacifist‘, based mainly on my Christian faith and interpretation of Jesus’ words in the gospel. Having studied Wilfred Owen’s poetry for A Level, I refused to buy a red poppy when the British Legion volunteers came round. I told them that while I respected the memory of the soldiers and sailors who died in a futile war (my Great Uncle was one of them), I would not wear a red poppy with General Hague’s name on it. At that time, the Poppy Fund was named the Hague Fund, after ‘the butcher of the Somme’ (a title which I have since discovered was somewhat unfair, and not the way in which the millions of ex-servicemen who turned out for his funeral saw him at the time). Instead I wore a badge with a white poppy on it (the Peace Pledge Union didn’t sell paper poppies then). It said ‘Peace in our time, for our time’. At that point, I hadn’t studied the history of the thirties, ‘the devil’s decade’ and appeasement. Having done so in detail over the last forty years, it is no longer the red poppy I have a problem with, but the white.
From 1936-38, despite the obvious threat of continental fascism demonstrated by the Civil War in Spain, the Peace Pledge Union conducted a campaign in support of the National Government’s policy of non-intervention in Spain which was then turned into one of appeasement of first Mussolini’s chemical war in Ethiopia and then Hitler’s seizure of Austria and Czechoslovakia. As a member of the largely pro-fascist and pacifist Welsh Nationalist Party commented at the time, this last act, approved by Chamberlain, was just another fascist way of murdering a small, defenceless nation without going to war about it. The Left in Wales, and throughout Britain, supported the democratic, Republican side against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler, but the brave volunteers of the International Brigades from working-class areas of Britain like the mining valleys of south Wales could do little against Franco and Mussolini’s troops, backed up by German bombers, like those who bombed Guernica and the refugees trying to escape the conflict. Pacifists like The Quakers helped to receive the Basque refugees brought from Bilbao to Southampton later in the war, but by then the cause was obviously lost. In the meantime, The Peace Pledge Union fought and won by-elections, Oxford Union debates and signed up millions on its pledge cards. As one of its leading and longest-serving members, Lord Soper, later reflected, it was easy to get people to sign the pledge, but achieving peace in Europe was a far more difficult task.
So when Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938, waving his piece of paper with the German Führer’s signature on it, and talking of ‘peace in our time’, he was cheered all the way to Downing Street. The British public had been fooled into thinking that a permanent peace accord had been struck with Germany. The Peace Pledge Union was the major architect of this, and they were happy to take acclaim. Only a handful of Labour MPs, including Harold Nicolson and Clement Attlee supported Churchill in the House of Commons debate on the issue. They were condemned as ‘war-mongers’ in the House and the press, in November 1938.
So, if we base our remembrance purely on the historical record, it is the white poppy which bears the most shame. However, acts of remembrance are not, thankfully, the acts of historians alone. They are acts of commitment to the memory of all our families who died suffered, whether as civilians in Coventry in 1940, as sailors at Scapa Flow and in the Atlantic and Arctic convoys, or as soldiers in Afghanistan. We are not making historical judgements, which would leave us all shame-faced, neither are we in the business of apportioning blame. Like Donald Soper, we acknowledge all our mistakes of yesteryear, and then re-commit ourselves to what J F Kennedy described as the hourly, daily, weekly, task of constructing a peaceful future. Sometimes that can only be done by fighting for freedom, as in Spain in 1936 or, more recently, and where I am now, in Hungary, in 1956.
That’s why, when I taught at Sidcot School in the nineties and noughties, I wore both a white and a red poppy together, despite the historical problems associated with both. These days, I am happy to wear the red poppy on its own for the weeks before Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, as a commemoration of those who gave their lives in the wars of the twentieth century, for whatever motivation, since it is not my place to judge them, or question their judgement or bravery. I try to honour their ‘sacrifice’ through my own commitment to make warfare something only referred to in the past tenses, something I hope that my children and grandchildren, yet unborn, will never have to deal with in their personal present or futures. As nurse Edith Cavell wrote on the eve of her death by firing squad in 1915, ‘patriotism is not enough’, but it does, at least, take us beyond our own narrow self-interest.
Artificial poppies left on the Waitati cenotaph on Anzac Day 2009. Most are poppies of the Royal New Zealand returned and Services Association Inc; the white one is promoted by ‘White Poppies for Peace’, a New Zealand peace group. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)