The Somme
The Coward

A. D. Gristwood
(South Carolina)
The TLS tells us that there is a new biography of Sir Douglas Haig, the English general who, with the complicity of German military, between 1916 and 1918, assassinated hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the trenches of Flanders. According to the title, Architect of Victory, through his tactics, Haig made possible the surrender of the Germans on 11 November 1918.

The reviewer in the TLS disagrees. He offers the idea that Haig was "either criminally negligent at the Somme or insensitive to the genocide in the trenches." At Haig's death in 1928, "hundreds of thousands of British citizens throughout the country wept in genuine sadness for their loss."

The reason, no doubt, is that the truth of Verdun, Passenchendaele, Ypres, the Somme was just beginning to leak out. British censorship had been thorough, very thorough for the four years of the war --- no photographs, no stories of the true conditions of the trenches; no revelations of the incompetence of the General Staff. One suspects that if the two titles under review here --- The Somme and The Coward --- had been available earlier, to more, the English --- rather than weeping the death of Haig --- would have given a round of huzzahs.

§     §     §

World War One was what they now call a "break point." It was precipitated by the murder of a democratically-inclined nobleman of Austria-Hungary by a bumbling anarchist, Gavrilo Princip. "Princip" means "the beginning." Thus the dark days began on 28 June 1914 (St. Vitus day!). Few doubt that a reunion of the nobles in the summer of 1914 could have brought the world back to its righteous order. One critic has said that the tragedy of WWI and the 10,000,000 dead, wounded, dispossessed and maddened came about because the crisis arrived during summer season when the royalty were busy with their foxes and the ministers with their mistresses.

World War One became thus the last hurrah of a royalty who had rightfully, and rather well --- considering --- ruled the Old World. The governance of the masses had been in hands of those who were born to the manor.

Thereafter Europe and much of the world become the provenance of an ill-mannered petite bourgeoisie represented by the Weimar Republic, the rabble of the Third Republic, Lloyd George's Labor government in England, and later, the military cliques of Mussolini, Franco, and Salazar, and, more ominously, the lower-class warlords Hitler and Josef Stalin.

§     §     §

A. D. Gristwood was a poor accountant with a profound loathing for war who was sent into the killing fields of Flanders in late 1915. He served honorably for two years, and wrote of his experiences in the trenches ten years after the fact. In two brief books --- The Somme, The Coward --- he tells, with honesty, and no little artistry, the truth of the life of the trenches and the bunkers. His is the story of the daily pounding, the stink and agony of living under the gun and the bomb and gas attacks, a twenty-four hour seven-days-a-week thirty-days-a-month job of being a muck soldier, fearing moment by moment the "whizz-bangs," mustard gas, machine gun, shrapnel, rifle-fire, tanks, and, most hideously, (as one recent critic has noted) being wounded by body parts of nearby comrades blown up by long-distant shell-fire.

There are few other accounts that I have run across --- fiction, reportage, history --- that give such an accurate picture of trench life: what it does to the body, what it does to the mind and the soul. This should be required reading for those who compete to be scholars of 20th Century history, for this is the unvarnished truth of what life was like for the young men, the flower of Western Civilization (the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, high Victorian Romance) who got trapped in the rote machine known as "modern warfare."

Two millennia of western culture, and what do we get: "These woodlands of the Somme represented the apotheosis of Mars. There lay the miscellaneous débris of war --- men living, dying and dead, friend and foe broken and shattered beyond imagination, rifle, clothing, cartridges, fragments of men, photographs of Amy and Gretchen, letters, rations, and the last parcel from home."

    Shells hurling more trees upon the general ruin, the dazing concussion of their explosion, the sickly sweet smell of 'gas,' the acrid fumes of 'H.E.,' hot sunshine and mingling with spouts of flying earth and smoke, the grim portent of bodies buried a week ago and now suffering untimely resurrection, the chatter of machine-guns, and the shouts and groans of men.

"And the final sweet trespass of nature invading the barren stretch of war: Such were the woods of the Somme, where once primroses bloomed and wild rabbits scampered through the bushes."

This is a report on trench and bunker life, but there is something more out of a chamber of horrors, worse than the plague years, the Black Hole of Calcutta, Vlad the Impaler. The core of the two novels involves care and feeding of the millions of wounded that poured from the trenches. In The Somme, Everitt, wounded at Combles, is moved back through a series of dressing stations to the General Hospital at Rouen. The hero (or antihero) in The Coward wounds himself at Bois de Coucy, and his journey back to the hospital at Rouen is impelled by the fact that if it is discovered any place along the way that the wound was self-inflicted (he shot himself in the hand) he will be court-martialled and immediately hung.

§     §     §

Gristwood came to know H. G. Wells after the war, and his style is remarkably like his mentor's. One thinks of the opposing worlds of "The Time Machine," the morlocks, white and bestial, living underground, feeding on the flesh of the Eloi, the flower-children living above, singing and dancing in the dales. "Behind us lay the Abomination of Desolation," writes Gristwood in The Coward: "a land of scorched and cratered meadows of shattered riven hedgerows, and homes abandoned and made desolate. The smoke and reek of War hung over it; the fair face of the earth was warped and cankered in a long-drawn agony." At the same time,

    Here the sun shone blithely from a sky of forget-me-not blue, the trees and fields were whole and airy, the noise of the guns lay behind us like a dying storm. For the first time for four long days and nights we could rest, and linger by the way, and watch the shadow of the clouds upon the meadows ... Our way wound through woods full of the fragrance of damp leaves by narrow paths of mingled shade and sunshine. Fragile nodding anemones and the yellow stars of Wordsworth's celadines smiled bravely at the sun. The "lambs' tails" hung in clusters from the hazel-bushes, and the honey-scented flowers of the palm were packed in mustard-yellow clusters upon tough leafless branches. Larks sang high above the tree-tops.

§     §     §

There is a rather opaque introduction to these two novelettes from one Hugh Cecil, presumably drafted by the University of South Carolina Press to frame the setting of the novels with a brief biography of Gristwood.

Unfortunately, Cecil doesn't seem to much care for the writing, nor does he address its virtues and power. He cites the author's "disparaging account of the army," a "lack of balance in his low estimate of human nature," and an absence of "an essential element of tragedy." Historian Cecil, obviously a gung-ho militarist, takes two of the most gripping tales out of WWI ... and doesn't get it. He wants, perhaps, a tale of bravery in the line of fire, of man's noblest spirit rising up at time of crisis, a crown in the diadem of Empire and Humanity. Perhaps he has never seen war; he certainly has never participated in the nerve-jangling, heart-wrenching, soul-frying never-ending terror of mayhem that was life in the trenches of WWI. His view of the worth of these two books is not only flawed, the introduction he cooked up is damnably otiose. For in the midst of unbearable horror, Gristwood has found a beauty which, so brief, so painful , it brings to mind the words of Camus,

    Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.

--- George Ball
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH