‘What a terrible thing is war’

Ninety years on from the opening shots of the First World War, Malcolm Brown examines how the ordinary soldiers' perceptions of battle changed from idealistic enthusiasm to trench-worn despair...

New recruits march alongside armed officers following the outbreak of the First World War. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Somehow we tend to see the British soldiers at the start of the First World War as innocents, marching breezily into the sound of gunfire, buoyed up by a great patriotic tide of emotion, confident they would soon come triumphantly home. Many believed they would be marching down the Unter den Linden within weeks, just as their German counterparts assumed they would be doing the same down the Champs Elysées. Thousands not in uniform clamoured to join before the jousting was over, as it surely would be long before Christmas.

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‘All the air was ringing with rousing assurances,’ wrote one eager volunteer: ‘France to be saved, Belgium righted, freedom and civilization re-won, a sour, soiled, crooked old world to be rid of bullies and crooks and reclaimed for straightness [and] decency’. This was the fictional plucky public schoolboy Tom Brown at war, out to biff the Boche and show the Kaiser what for.

It was not long, however, before the British regulars of 1914, those who were first into the breach, came to see that 20th-century conflict entailed a great deal more than having a bracing, old-fashioned duel with the enemy. For example, in mid-September 1914 artilleryman BC Myatt noted in his diary that he was ‘eager for the front’. Yet by mid-October, as he contemplated the sight of a French township destroyed in the ebb and flow of battle, he was writing: ‘Roll on peace. You never saw such sights, all the houses and shops turned inside out, furniture thrown all over the streets and everything smashed in the houses and cosy little homes ruined. It makes you weep to think what a terrible thing is war’.

Others had reached a similar conclusion even earlier. On 3 September a senior infantry officer, Major Herbert Trevor, in the aftermath of the campaign’s opening battles, commented to his sister: ‘War is a rotten game and none of us would be sorry if it was over…where the fun comes I don’t know’.

Similarly, the first letters of artillery lieutenant Ralph Blewitt to his future fiancée teemed with boyish anticipation, but on 
5 September – by which date the war was only one month and one day old – he wrote to her: ‘About this ‘Romance of War’ one hears such a lot about. Do you know anything about it? Can’t spot it here’.

It was not just during the centre-stage campaigns in France that men found themselves blenching at the realities they faced. In early October, with Antwerp on the edge of surrender, a scratch naval division improvised by the First Lord of The Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was sent to stiffen the Belgian government’s resistance. They could do little to help a country that was breaking down.

On their first morning, Able Seaman Roy Ashenden was on the way to a village on Antwerp’s perimeter that his battalion was meant to defend. ‘It was on the road to Vieux-Dieux’, he wrote, ‘that I first realised what a terrible thing war is. Down the road came the last string of refugees. A poor old woman was sitting down by the side of the road with a tiny kiddie. I spoke to her and she pointed to her bundle of clothes and said, “That’s all I’ve got left in the world, Monsieur, that and the little one. She’s the child of my son who is dead at Namur. The Belgian soldiers have had to destroy my house because it was in the way of the guns and now I’ve no home and la petite to support. What am I to do?” Englishmen at home read our papers over their eggs and bacon in the morning and probably say ‘how terrible’ and forget about the war, it is only over here that they understand the awfulness of it.’

A portrait of British war poet Rupert Brooke, who is known for his idealistic sonnets written during the First World War. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
A portrait of British war poet Rupert Brooke, who is known for his idealistic sonnets written during the First World War. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

A notable member of the naval division was one of the best-known poets of 1914, Sub Lieutenant Rupert Brooke, invited to join it by Churchill himself. Brooke died in 1915 on the way to Gallipoli, but he did witness war’s uglier aspects during the struggle for Antwerp and this certainly took the scales from his eyes. He wrote to his beloved Cathleen Nesbitt: ‘I’m rather dismayed, my dear one, about the way people in general don’t realize that we’re at war. It’s – even yet – such a picnic for us – for the nation – and so different for France and Belgium. The millions France is sacrificing to our thousands. I think…that everyone ought to go in’. He hoped for enemy action against Britain, to rouse people from their torpor: ‘I pray there’ll be a raid, or, at least, a score of civilians killed…’

Yet, ironically, it was after Antwerp that the great patriotic sonnets of 1914 were written: ‘If I should die, think only this of me/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England’. It was as though, having unmasked the demon, he had deliberately clamped the mask back on.

Another poet who promoted the war-as-glory myth was the Balliol-educated Julian Grenfell. Best-known for his poem Into Battle, with its resonant claim: ‘…he is dead who will not fight/And who dies fighting has increase’, Grenfell saw the war as a jolly escapade. He wrote to his family on 3 November: ‘I have not washed for a week, or had my boots off for a fortnight. It is all the best fun. I have never felt so well, or so happy, or enjoyed anything so much. It just suits my stolid health, and stolid nerves, and barbaric disposition. The fighting excitement vitalizes everything, every sight and word and action. One loves one’s fellow man so much the more when one is bent on killing him’.

The papers of Captain CJ Paterson, adjutant of the 1st Battalion, South Wales Borderers, who died of wounds on 1 November 1914, offer a somewhat different viewpoint. His personal war diary was printed for private circulation in 1915. Its Foreword, by one ‘HH’, presumably a family friend, is an uplifting eulogy with a noticeably strong whiff of Grenfell about it.

HH refers to the stresses of mobilisation  ‘borne without murmur’, and the hazards of the ten-day slog from the Franco-Belgian border to the outskirts of Paris (the Retreat from Mons), but then celebrates ‘the joy of turning to face the enemy after those days of retirement – a penance which culminated in the 15 days’ glorious fight round Ypres, a fight which will rank in history with the desperate fighting retreat from Corunna…and with the dogged heroism of Inkerman and Waterloo’. He adds: ‘Throughout the diary there is little thought of personal comfort or of personal sacrifice, least of all of personal glory, only an absorbing sense of duty’.

HH’s comments hardly do justice to the more searing passages of a diary which leaves one in no doubt that its author thought, soon into it, that this was a particularly lousy war.

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British soldiers lined up in a narrow trench during the First World War. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On 16 September Paterson wrote: ‘Here I sit outside our Headquarters’ trench in the sun. All should be nice and peaceful and pretty. What it actually is, is beyond description. Trenches, bits of equipment, clothing (probably bloodstained), ammunition, tools, caps, etc., etc., everywhere. Poor fellows shot dead are lying in all directions. Some of ours, and many Germans. Ghastly, absolutely ghastly, and whoever was in the wrong in the matter which brought this war to be, is deserving of more than he can ever get in this world’. Another young officer similarly disillusioned was a Lieutenant Rowland Owen of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. On 29 September he wrote to his parents (the ‘John’ referred to being his fire-eating naval brother): ‘I have not met a single man (or horse) of the English, French or German armies who is not dying for the war to finish! John and the Kaiser alone want to keep on. I often feel that this war has done a lot towards the world’s peace. You see, if all goes well, we ought to win the victory which swallows up all strife, like Waterloo; and that ought to keep the peace for, say, 
50 years. By that time the really universal feeling against war will manage to make soldiers a thing of the past’.

A new style of war

What was it that so disturbed these brave, intelligent young officers of Britain’s Expeditionary Force so soon after the conflict began? The answer would seem to be the shock of a warfare far more brutal, more impersonal than anything they had expected. The machine had become more important than the man. Dash and the flash of steel were out; the big guns, the shells that struck without warning and turned men into mincemeat, were in.

The real revolution came with the Battle of the Aisne, which began in mid-September. In that month-long struggle, many recognised – even the not always percipient British Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir John French – that the rules had been altered. In a despatch to King George V dated 2 October, French predicted that in the campaigns to come, ‘the spade would be as necessary as the rifle’. In brief that meant trenches: war as a close encounter of a siege kind between forces dug into the ground and gripping each other by the throat, only separated by skeins of barbed wire, and the dreaded danger-strip which would shortly acquire the haunting name of No Man’s Land.

Thus the stage was set for a style of warfare which continues to shock and amaze almost a century later, so that people visiting the relics of old trenches in France and Flanders can wonder, ‘How could this be, how could men survive the ordeal these relics represent without suffering mental breakdown?’ Some did just that; before 1914 was out, doctors were recording cases of both officers and men showing symptoms of what would become known as shell shock.

Yet it would be wrong to think that even after the First Battle of Ypres, which, adding to the attritional impact of the Aisne, completed what was in effect the annihilation of the old British Army, romance was dead among the professionals on whom the brunt of the fighting fell in 1914.

Hence this letter by Captain EWS Balfour, Adjutant of the 5th Dragoon Guards, written on 3 December: ‘There is some provision of nature with us now which stops us minding anything as long as the Germans don’t get on. You can’t for long go on looking at the sordidness, for romance comes knocking much too loudly and insistently – the realisation of the ends involved, the line of guns from here to Belfort which we have heard unceasingly for sixteen weeks: the eleven German Corps against the four English ones, but much more the people who have died’.

As for those for whom war was ‘found out’ in the first campaigns, whatever their personal views they had no thought of protest, nor of any symbolic 
laying down of arms. One noted soldier of the time, General Sir Tom Bridges, is credited with the statement, as keynote in its way as the trenchant prediction of Field Marshal French: ‘Our motto was, “We’ll do it. What is it?”’ That spirit too was central to the men who went to war 90 years ago, in August 1914.

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Malcolm Brown’s book, The Imperial War Museum Book of 1914: The Men Who Went to War, is to be published in October by Sidgwick & Jackson. Letters quoted with the permission of the copyright holders and the Imperial War Museum.