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Tag archive: First World War

“Back Of ’Is ’Ead”

1916: While on night patrol in no man’s land, a grenade exploded in Captain Harold Macmillan’s face. His corporal explained what happened next: “Well, sir. I saw the German trying to run away. So I ’it ’im, and ’is ’elmet came off. Then I ’it ’im again and the back of ’is ’ead came off.”

Source: Alistair Horne, Macmillan 1894–1956 (1988), p. 43

Mail-Order Brides

1915: “If you want any French women there are plenty here, and they are very good looking,” wrote Umed Sing Bist in a letter from France to Sali Seok, in India. “If you really want any I can send one to you in a parcel.”

Source: Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914–18, ed. David Omissi (1999), p. 123

All-In Wrestling

1917: “What surprises me,” Charles Carrington wrote after the war, “is that historians have elevated” the fighting at Broodseinde, during the third battle of Ypres, “into a tactical masterpiece”. To Carrington, in the thick of it, it had been more like “all-in wrestling in the mud”.

Source: Richard Holmes, Firing Line (1985), p. 155

Round Of Drinks

1915: To curb alcohol consumption, Britain’s Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) made it illegal for people to buy each other drinks. A Liverpool man was sentenced to three months’ hard labour for treating a friend, and in Bristol a husband was fined 9 shillings for buying a drink for his wife.

Source: Norman Longmate, The Waterdrinkers: A History of Temperance (1968), p. 269

Multiple Deaths

Ferdinand Foch, portrayed in 1918

1914: The French dead from fighting near the Belgian border on 22 August included Germain Foch, the only son of corps commander General Ferdinand Foch, and, on the same day, the general’s son-in-law, Captain Paul Bécourt.

Source: Martin Gilbert, First World War (1995), p. 56

Cordite And Conkers

1917: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

“In present circumstances it is felt that school children could give most valuable assistance in collecting the [horse] chestnuts . . .”

What could possibly link the Balfour Declaration with a Board of Education circular urging British youngsters to gather conkers? The answer: cordite, acetone, the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum and the chemist (and ardent Zionist) Chaim Weizmann.

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Graves Gets Cold Feet

1915: “I only once refrained from shooting a German,” Robert Graves recalled. “While sniping from a knoll in the support line, where we had a concealed loop-hole, I saw a German, perhaps seven hundred yards away, through my telescopic sights. He was taking a bath in the German third line. I disliked the idea of shooting a naked man, so I handed the rifle to the sergeant with me. ‘Here, take this. You’re a better shot that I am.’ He got him; but I had not stayed to watch.”

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 112

Body Bag

1916: Inspecting the trenches of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles after a night of intense shelling, Colonel F.P. Crozier passed a soldier carrying a bulky sandbag. Crozier was suspicious. Thefts of rations and stores from the front line had been increasing, so he challenged the soldier, “What have you got in that bag?”

The soldier replied, “Rifleman Gundy.”

Source: F.P. Crozier, A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land (1930), p. 94

“Yes. I Remember . . .”

1914: Don’t be overly nostalgic about the summer of 1914, warned Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory. And yet, in almost the same breath, he described it as “the most idyllic for many years”: a time for strolling in the countryside, a time for sipping tea at wicker tables under shady trees, a time when books could be left outdoors all night without fear of rain.

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Target Practice

1916: When the British attack lost momentum on the first day of the battle of the Somme, Lieutenant R.A. Heptonstall found himself stranded in no man’s land. “From my shell hole I could see a dead man propped up against the German wire in a sitting position.” A German rifleman whiled away the time taking pot shots at the corpse “until his head was completely shot away”.

Source: Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916 (1988), p. 218

Drinking To Victory

Ngiam Tong Boon’s contribution to the war effort, photographed by Paul Fenton

1915: Behind the Long Bar of Raffles Hotel, in Singapore, bartender Ngiam Tong Boon reputedly created – his personal contribution to the war effort – the Singapore Sling cocktail.

Source: Ilsa Sharp, There is Only One Raffles: The Story of a Grand Hotel (1981), p. 122

Cannibals And Barbarians

Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski photographed with inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands in 1917 or 1918

1914: Bronisław Malinowski made better use of the war years than he would have done slopping about in a trench in Galicia or the Carpathians. While conducting anthropological research in Papua and the nearby Trobriand Islands he met an old cannibal who had heard of the conflict raging in Europe. “What he was most curious to know was how we Europeans managed to eat such enormous quantities of human flesh, as the casualties of a battle seemed to imply. When I told him indignantly that Europeans do not eat their slain foes, he looked at me with real horror and asked me what sort of barbarians we were to kill without any real object.”

Source: Julius E. Lips, The Savage Hits Back or the White Man through Native Eyes (1937), p. vii

“One Of The Best”

1918: The epitaph to Second Lieutenant W.L. Smart of the Lancashire Fusiliers consoles us that “to live in the hearts of those left behind is not to die”. Subaltern Smart was killed on 29 August 1918 and is buried at the Mory Street cemetery south of Arras. Personal inscriptions in the British military cemeteries of France and Belgium convey immense grief and tenderness. The inscription on the nearby grave of Private T.M. Finn of the Irish Guards, killed two days earlier, reads: “I loved him in life how I love him in death”. Serjeant S. Bates of the Manchester Regiment, who died on 29 March 1917 at the age of 20, is remembered simply and touchingly as “one of the best”.

Source: Personal diary

“Out Of The Vents Rushed Steam And Oil And Air”

Tug alongside a scuttled German destroyer at Scapa Flow

1919: For the children of Stromness, in the Orkneys, conditions on 21 June were ideal for their school outing – a warm, windless day, a clear sky, a gentle swell on the sea. Once the children had embarked on the Flying Kestrel, the Admiralty tender cast off and steamed out into Scapa Flow, past the long lines of German warships interned there since the armistice.

“We came face to face with the German Fleet, some of them huge battleships that made our own vessel look ridiculous,” recalled James Taylor, one of the schoolchildren. He was 15 years old; 20 years later he wrote a vivid account of what happened next.

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“Good English Tea”

1918: As the First World War drew to a close, the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, abdicated and fled the country. On 11 November he arrived at Amerongen, in the Netherlands. For someone who had just lost a world war and an empire, and faced a long exile, he was in buoyant mood. He rubbed his hands together and said, “Now give me a cup of real, good English tea.”

Source: Norah Bentinck, The Ex-Kaiser in Exile (1921), p. 23

Dead Giveaway

1914: Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, in action for the first time, noticed the August sun glinting on the metal cooking pots on top of the tall packs of the French infantry as they tramped through fields of not-yet-harvested grain to where he waited in ambush.

Source: Erwin Rommel, Infantry Attacks (2006), p. 11

Village Revelry Comes To Unhappy End

1919: That summer, Patrick Leigh Fermor was staying in the Northamptonshire countryside. On 18 June, he joined celebrations to mark the end of hostilities. He was only four, but the day stuck in his memory.

In late afternoon, the villagers lay on the grass in a meadow and sang “Keep the home-fires burning” and “The only girl in the world”. After dark, they lit an enormous bonfire, surmounted by a straw dummy of the kaiser. Everyone joined hands and danced by the light of the fire and cheered when the flames reached the dummy; boys scampered in and out of the crowd, waving sparklers and lobbing bangers.

The celebrations came to an unhappy end, however. One of the boys capered about with his head thrown back and a Roman candle in his mouth. The firework slipped between his teeth and down his throat. The grown-ups rushed him to a nearby brook, but it was too late, and he died in agony, “spitting stars”.

Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977), pp. 35–7

Dastardly Dachshund

1914: Some Britons marked the outbreak of war with loutish displays of anti-German feeling. Graham Greene reported that a dachshund was stoned in the high street of his hometown. (Would the attackers have been quite so brave if, instead, the dog had been a Dobermann pinscher?)

Source: Graham Greene, A Sort of Life (1971), p. 64