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Compelling and contradictive: the real Western Front

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Today, many biographers, historians and film-makers have a chilling certainty in the correctness of their judgments on the First World War. It wasn't only an appalling tragicomedy in its making, they agree, but for the poor front-line soldier life in the trenches was one of unrelieved privation and horror.

Of course, no one in their right mind would claim that combat duty would be actively enjoyable in any war, let alone one that left behind some 37 million military and civilian casualties. But a reading of the diaries and letters of some of those most intimately involved at the heart of European affairs from 1914-18 often gives a more nuanced, and gripping, account than the armchair version of a hundred years later.

Take, for example, the words of the cricketer-soldier Lionel Tennyson, the poet’s grandson, which command the natural authority of a man who was twice Mentioned in Dispatches and three times wounded during his service on the Western Front. Aged 24 on the outbreak of hostilities, Tennyson’s life to that point had been largely dominated by a twin preoccupation with fast women and slow horses. Moving almost overnight from the drawing-rooms of Chelsea into the mud and blood of the Marne campaign, he writes in his diary of an experience that combines the familiar hardships and terrors of war with some of the characteristics of an extended French holiday.

Arriving by train at his unit’s depot at Amiens, Tennyson dwells on the ‘especially lovely’ countryside, as well as the well-stocked local shops and market stalls that showed no sign of being affected by the war, and particularly mentions the marble-floored public baths, where he ‘soaked luxuriously before dining at the Brasserie de l’Opera.’

For some time after that, Tennyson continued to record a scene of equal parts pleasure, boredom and intermittent panic. On his fourth evening in France, he was jerked awake from a peaceful sleep when ‘a private soldier in the Inniskillen Fusiliers had a nightmare, and jumped up yelling, “The Germans are on us!” Everyone leapt up, seized rifles, and there was tremendous excitement – I have never been so frightened in my life.’ The next morning, ‘A man came into the camp wounded from the front. He told us Sam Rickman had been killed, many injured, and the whole battalion had been cut up.’ Even then, Tennyson was able to spend the afternoon shopping and to meet up with a Captain Davies, ‘who had had his foot run over by an Army Service Corps wagon which was running away’, before dining at the Café Victor and ‘looking in at the Hotel de Ville, which was very fine’.

The following week, Tennyson and his unit struck camp and took a train to Le Mans. During the journey, he writes, ‘We saw trainloads of refugees pass us coming down from the north, and also trainloads of wounded.’ Once settled in the barracks at Le Mans, Tennyson was called upon to settle a demarcation dispute between the British and French cooks sharing the camp’s galley – ‘such a lot of talking as I have never heard,’ he notes. After two or three more idle days, ‘I paid the men, giving them five francs each. This was the first pay they have had since we left England. I dined at the Hotel de Paris and had a hot bath there.’ Following that, Tennyson writes matter-of-factly, ‘The news came in that we were off at about midnight to the front. This pleased us, as we had been hanging about for some time now ready to go.’ What comes through time and again is the authentic voice of a British soldier making the best of a bad situation. No one is saying that what happened to Tennyson and many more like him over the next four years was, for the most part, actively pleasurable. But it may only be in long perspective that the Western Front has come to be portrayed as one of such unrelieved horror. In many individual cases the truth was more nuanced, with its full share of humanising contradictions, and all the more compelling as a result. 

By Christopher Sandford

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