Aubrey Smith, a ranker in the London Rifle Brigade, was stationed in Erquennes, a small village near Mons on the night of 10th November. Rumours had been circulating about a possible armistice to be announced the following day but he and his fellow soldiers had learnt to treat such rumours with the disdain that someone who had endured four years of trench warfare and the promises, lies and disappointments that was part and parcel of a soldier’s existence. The morning of the 11th dawned and the rumours persisted although most had become so cynical that they agreed with one Corporal Figg that it was just a staff dodge to cheer the brigade up preparatory to being ordered over the top. However as the hours passed by the possibility that there would indeed be an armistice became more and more distinct. He writes:
Then the minutes ticked on and a clock struck eleven. Immediately the bells of the village church rang out and women came to their door-steps literally weeping for joy; a feeble cheer went up from the section and the men gathered in knots to discuss the turn of events. We were really too stunned for much gesticulation. To think there would be no more shells, no more bombs, no more gas, no more cold nights to be spent on picket through fear of lighting a fire. Of all the incredible announcements that had ever been made to us, this left us the most staggered. It must be only a dream! Surely we should hear the distant sound of guns in a minute or so, which would prove we had been deluded.! We strained our ears for distant gunfire…Silence! Only the sound of the church bells in other villages proclaiming the event. Armistice signed! If only we were in England now!
(Four Years on the Western Front. Odhams. 1922)
The problem was that Aubrey Smith was not in England and that the army’s inefficiency in demobilising would mean that he would be stuck in Erquennes and then Harmignies (a village only wrenched from the Germans on the afternoon of November 10th) until mid January 1919. The weeks went by and the horrors and deprivations of the last four years began to sink in with those still awaiting the papers announcing that they could get on the train that would take them to a Channel port and home to England seemingly stuck in a new no man’s land of a Flanders town where, although some of the townsfolk were happy to see the British there were others who had been more content with the German occupiers. Memories of the first flush of excitement when enlisting, the training and embarkation for Flanders were flooded out by the death of so many friends, shot, blown to bits or drowned in the mud. That precarious bubble of just wanting to keep on living even for just one more day was suddenly pricked by the reality of a life that they suddenly realised was never going to be the same again.
As it was deemed important to get the mining industry back up and running It had been decided that anyone with a mining background should be the first to be repatriated to the UK so in some cases recruits that had only been in the brigade for a very short time – in some cases a couple of weeks – were the first to receive their demob papers. This, as one can imagine, caused a fair amount of resentment among those who had been in the front line for four years. Added to this was the continuing problem of rations which had not been increased since November 11th. The approach of Christmas partly lifted their cheer when it was announced that there would be a special dinner for the troops with a “big surprise”. Aubrey details the Christmas dinner thus:
- One-eighteenth part of a scraggy turkey (no gravy)
- 3 1/2 ounces of pudding (unsweetened custard)
- One eleventh part of a chestnut
- 3/4 of a fig
- The big “surprise” turned out to be paper chains hung across the mess.
It is little wonder that the atmosphere turned mutinous soon after. He likens the “bolshevik” talk among assembled troops as much more revolutionary than that which took place after what her terms “the impossible night of September 3rd 1916 ” on the Somme. Concert parties were arranged to try and defuse the tension but troops would barrack the performers so much that they were brought to a swift end. It would appear that the powers-that-be sensed serious unrest was likely – bearing in mind the Russian revolution had occurred just over a year before – and demob papers were finally and swiftly distributed. On the 12th January 1919 Aubrey Smith was finally on his way home and almost to the day four years after he left he stepped off the boat at Southampton. All equipment had to be handed back – bayonets, rifles, respirator, mess tins. Aubrey had lost the lid to his mess tin. He was charged 4d against the pay due to him.
There Aubrey Smith’s story ends but what happened next to many of those who returned is a part of history which is often overlooked but which is ably described by two authors, H.M.Tomlinson and Peter Deane.
Major J.M. Tomlinson was an official correspondent for the War Office and spent a lot of time with the troops in Flanders. His observations and impressions were to appear in perhaps his most famous book on the First World War, All Our Yesterdays, published in 1930. However he wrote a series of essays which were collected much earlier (“Old Junk”. Melrose. 1918). One short piece entitled “On Leave” details how he saw the world on arrival at Victoria Station, London while on a short leave from the Front.
And there can be no doubt about it, as you stand there a trifle dizzy in London once more. You really have come back from another world; and you have the curious idea that you may be invisible in this old world. In a sense you know you are unseen. These people will never know what you know. There they gossip in the hall, and leisurely survey the bookstall, and they would never guess it, but you have just returned from hell. What could they say if you told them? They would be embarrassed, polite, forbearing, Kindly and smiling, and they would mention the matter afterwards as a queer adventure with a poor devil who was evidently a little overwrought; shell shock, of course. Beastly thing, shell shock. Seems to affect the nerves.
They would not understand. They will never understand. What is the use of standing in veritable daylight, and telling the living, who have never been dead, of the other place? Between that old self and the man they see, there is an abyss of dread. He has passed through it. To them the war is official communiques, the amplifying dispatches of war correspondents, the silence of absent friends in danger, the shock of a telegram, and rather interesting food-rationing.
The sense of anger fair leaps from the page and one feels it is the author’s immediate and vitriolic response to all the horrors he has witnessed. In just nine pages Tomlinson rips into the society that he now discovers is waiting for the troops back home. The closing passage is most damning of all:
What is the matter with London? The men on leave, when they meet each other, always ask that question without hope, in the seclusion of their confidence and special knowledge. They feel perversely they would sooner be amid the hated filth and smells of the battleground than at home. Out there, though possibly mischance may suddenly extinguish the day for them, they will be with those who understand, with comrades who rarely discuss the war except obliquely and with quiet and bitter jesting. Seeing the world has gone wrong, how much better and easier it is to take the likelihood of extinction with men who have the same mental disgust as your own, and can endure it till they die, but who, while they live in the same torment as you, have the unspoken but certain conviction that Europe is a decadent old beast eating her young with insatiable appetite, than to sit in sunny breakfast-rooms with the newspaper maps and positive arguments of the unsaved!
This theme was taken up in a novel entitled “The Victors” (Constable 1925) written by Peter Deane. Deane was, in fact, a pseudonym for Pamela Hinkson, daughter of Katherine Tynan. It tells the story of one Michael Foster and is written as if by a fellow officer returning from the war. It begins thus:
I am writing the story of Michael Foster because I imagine that what happened to him was exactly what happened to to thousands of others of his generation. And Michael said “only people who have been in it know” and that was exactly the phrase we had used so often about the War; but Michael was not thinking about the War. I think at that moment he had almost forgotten it. And when he did look back it was not with horror, but with a sort of amazed wonder at what a jolly world it was then, and a feeling of how simple everything would be if only they would start another war tomorrow.
We follow the story as Michael attempts to regain a foothold in London after 1919. The jobs are few and far between and for a while he does a stint as a sales representative for men’s hosiery and then gramophones. None of the jobs last long and he ends up in lodgings near Victoria Station subsisting on meagre rations and the occasional hand-out from friends. One day, he puts a shilling in the meter, locks the door and turns on the gas.
It is one of those queer coincidences in life that I came across my grandfather’s death certificate shortly after I had read “The Victors”. I had known he had begun training to take Holy Orders for the priesthood in 1913 but he volunteered to be a stretcher bearer at the Front at some time during WW1 before transferring into the RFC. He survived – but of his exploits he never spoke. There are some pictures of him sitting in a crashed plane but beyond that little or nothing is known of what he experienced or saw. After 1918 it was expected he might go back into training for the priesthood but he declined and ended up running errands for my great grandfather who had a highly successful accountancy business in Birmingham. He owned a number of properties and my grandfather was tasked to collect rent from the tenants on a weekly basis but that was all he was capable of doing. From then and for the rest of his working life – some 40 yerars – his title was simply “Office Clerk”. And that was what I saw as his occupation on the death certificate.
For that generation that came back from the War not only had the Edwardian world they had enjoyed as children utterly vanished – in less than 10 years – but they returned to a country that was unaware of or, perhaps worst of all , unwilling to recognise the sacrifices that had been made. They were damaged goods, not right in the head, aggressive or just plain surly. They were abandoned.
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, I am lost to the world
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben, With which I used to waste so much time,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen, It has heard nothing from me for so long
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben! That it may very well believe me dead!
And if you want to hear Mahler’s rendition of this poem you will find it here:
© Roger Ackroyd 2018