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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Reality of the First World War

In the early stages of the First World War local newspapers published letters from soldiers serving on the Western Front. Some of these letters were highly critical of the way the war was being fought. Others suggested that the nature of trench-war meant that the conflict would go on for many years. This was hugely embarrassing as the government was suggesting that it would be over in a few weeks. This was one of the reasons that so many young men had joined up.

The government reacted by establishing the British War Propaganda Bureau (WPB). Lloyd George, appointed the successful writer and fellow Liberal MP, Charles Masterman as head of the organization. On 2nd September, 1914, Masterman invited twenty-five leading British authors to Wellington House, the headquarters of the War Propaganda Bureau, to discuss ways of best promoting Britain's interests during the war. Those who attended the meeting included Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, Ford Madox Ford, William Archer, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Gilbert Parker, G. M. Trevelyan and H. G. Wells.

All the writers present at the conference agreed to the utmost secrecy, and it was not until 1935 that the activities of the War Propaganda Bureau became known to the general public. Several of the men who attending the meeting agreed to write pamphlets and books that would promote the government's view of the situation. The bureau got commercial companies to print and publish the material. This included Hodder & Stoughton, Methuen, Oxford University Press, John Murray, Macmillan and Thomas Nelson.

As a result of the Defence of the Realm Act that was passed in 1914, all letters that the men wrote had to be read and censored by junior officers. This was a major task as twelve and a half million letters were sent from the Western Front every week.

The government realized that it was also important to control visual images of the war. Only two photographers, both army officers, were allowed to take pictures of the Western Front. The penalty for anyone else caught taking a photograph of the war was the firing squad. The official photographers were told not to take pictures of dead soldiers. That is why the only photographs of dead bodies during the First World War were taken by non-British photographers.

In May 1916 Masterman recruited the artist, Muirhead Bone. He was sent to France and by October had produced 150 drawings of the war. When Bone returned to England he was replaced by his brother-in-law, Francis Dodd, who had been working for the Manchester Guardian. In 1917 arrangements were made to send other artists abroad including Eric Kennington, William Orpen, Paul Nash, C. R. W. Nevinson and William Rothenstein. Masterman also recruited John Lavery to paint pictures of the home front. When people like Nevinson painted pictures that revealed the true horrors of the war, they were not displayed in Britain. However, an exception was made of William Orpen’s painting as it was entitled, “Dead Germans in a Trench”

The general public only discovered the true horrors of the First World War after the Armistice in 1918. This was mainly via the poems of people like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney. However, this work only found a small minority audience.It was not until the publication of Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That" in 1929, that an autobiography attempted to tell the truth about the conditions endured by the men in the trenches. The book was also an attack on the way the senior officers treated the lower ranks. This was followed by books by other junior officers who supported the claims made by Graves.

The most shocking book about the war was Brigadier-General Frank Percy Crozier's A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930). There is a good chance you have never heard of this book. It is rarely quoted by historians who have written about the war. It sold few copies and was never reprinted. The book not only told of what the British soldiers had to endure on the Western Front, it also revealed details of the atrocities carried out by the men. The tone of the book was also disturbing. Crozier was not critical of the men's behaviour, he argued that these acts were inevitable when you put men in such conditions.

Crozier writes of how British soldiers routinely killed German prisoners. He also tells of how soldiers sexually abused French and Belgium young women. He casually talks of how junior officers shot dead their men if they refused to attack the enemy trenches. He also tells of how he arranged the execution of Private James Crozier, of the Royal Irish Rifles, for desertion.

Later, an officer, Rochdale by name, who once went to Amiens for ten days on private business, is sitting in the redan dugout at 2 a.m. with his company commander. I enter. They show me a peculiar German rifle grenade and say it is of new design. As Rochdale understands bombs I suggest he takes it down and examines it when we come out to rest. He agrees. The big trench mortars then start. Everything is shaken, including Rochdale's nerves. We are short of subalterns. Rochdale has been sent out earlier to put a notice on the German wire, by order of Corps headquarters, a propagandic move to inform the front line men that their families are starving at home. Now the trench mortaring is too much for him. He rises, rushes past me, and bolts down the trench in front of his men as fast as he can go. After daylight he is discovered in a disused French dugout behind the lines, asleep - apparently a deserter, as absence and evasion of duty are the two chief factors which go to constitute the offence. There is the additional fact that he has shown apparent cowardice in action, in front of his men. It is just as futile to be half a mile away from the duty point as sixty kilometres. I have already a private soldier absent. He will no doubt be caught and tried. What about this officer? I see him and put him back for trial by court martial for cowardice and desertion. He is tried and found guilty of one charge or both. Meanwhile the private - Crocker - is caught by the military police, a long way back. He too is tried. I sign the charge sheet of both these men. Promulgation, where death sentences occur, is a long and painful job. One day we received a wire. Rochdale is to be "released from arrest and all consequences." They try to send him back to duty but I refuse to receive him. I am asked my opinion as to whether sentence of death should be carried out on Crocker. In view of certain circumstances I recommend the shooting be carried out. At last I receive the orders and documents relative to the execution. We leave the line for four days' rest at Mailly-Mailly.

In the afternoon of the first day out we parade in hollow square. The prisoner - Crocker - is produced. Cap off he is marched by the sergeant-major to the centre. The adjutant reads the name, number, charge, finding, sentence and confirmation by Sir Douglas Haig. Crocker stands erect. He does not flinch. Perhaps he is dazed: who would not be? The prisoner is marched away by the regimental police while I, placing myself at the head of the battalion, behind the band, march back to billets. The drums strike up, the men catch step. We all feel bad but we carry out our war-time pose. Crocker didn't flinch, why should we? After tea the padre comes to see me. "Might I see Crocker?" he asks. "Of course, Padre, but don't be too long-winded," I say seriously, "after you have done anything you can for him tell his company commander. But I don't think his people should be told. He can go into the died return. War is all pot-luck, some get a hero's halo, others a coward's cross. But this man volunteered in 1914. His heart was in the right place then, even if his feet are cold in 1916. What do you say?' "I quite agree," answers the good man, much too overcome to say more.

Now, in peace time, I and the rest of us would have been very upset indeed at having to shoot a colleague, comrade, call him what you will, at dawn on the morrow. We would not, in ordinary circumstances, have slept. Now the men don't like it but they have to put up with it. They face their ordeal magnificently. I supervise the preliminary arrangements myself. We put the prisoner in a comfortable warm place. A few yards away we drive in a post, in a back garden, such as exists with any villa residence. I send for a certain junior officer and show him all. "You will be in charge of the firing party," I say, "the men will be cold, nervous and excited, they may miss their mark. You are to have your revolver ready, loaded and cocked; if the medical officer tells you life is not extinct you are to walk up to the victim, place the muzzle of the revolver to his heart and press the trigger. Do you understand?" "Yes Sir," came the quick reply. "Right," I add, "dine with me at my mess to-night." I want to keep this young fellow engaged under my own supervision until late at night, so as to minimise the chance of his flying to the bottle for support. As for Crocker, he leaves this earth, in so far as knowing anything of his surroundings is concerned, by midnight, for I arrange that enough spirituous liquor is left beside him to sink a ship. In the morning, at dawn, the snow being on the ground, the battalion forms up on the public road. Inside the little garden on the other side of the wall, not ten yards distant from the centre of the line, the victim is carried to the stake. He is far too drunk to walk. He is out of view save from myself, as I stand on a mound near the wall. As he is produced I see he is practically lifeless and quite unconscious. He has already been bound with ropes. There are hooks on the post; we always do things thoroughly in the Rifles. He is hooked on like dead meat in a butcher's shop. His eyes are bandaged - not that it really matters, for he is already blind. The men of the firing party pick up their rifles, one of which is unloaded, on a given sign. On another sign they come to the Present and, on the lowering of a handkerchief by the officer, they fire - a volley rings out - a nervous ragged volley it is true, yet a volley. Before the fatal shots are fired I had called the battalion to attention. There is a pause, I wait. I see the medical officer examining the victim. He makes a sign, the subaltern strides forward, a single shot rings out. Life is now extinct. We march back to breakfast while the men of a certain company pay the last tribute at the graveside of an unfortunate comrade. This is war.

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