His leave had been curtailed and he was summoned to France, to serve in the most terrible war the world has ever known. His mother’s prediction held strong, for Arthur was to survive and, many years later, write about his experiences during and after the First World War.
Arthur (1899–1988) had three great attributes that saw him through. Firstly, he was inventive. On one occasion, when drenched to the skin, he avoided hypothermia by smearing himself from head to toe in whale oil (intended for lamps) before getting dressed again with his sodden uniform over the top. On another occasion he coped with a fever by scrounging a dose of cognac and black coffee from a French civilian and hitching himself on to a cart, to avoid literally falling by the wayside on the following day’s arduous march.
Secondly, Arthur was a positive person with great intellectual curiosity, who sought meaning and an opportunity for learning in every event. A working-class lad, he had been a high flyer at Sir Thomas Rich’s Grammar School in Gloucester before joining up aged 18, and he carried a single-volume encyclopedia called Jack’s Self-Educator around with him while on active service. He often put his education to good use: for example, when herded into a small railway truck labelled ‘Dix chevaux ou cinquante hommes’, he was well aware of the meaning and wittily deduced that ‘whoever decided they could carry fifty men was an optimist or a sadist’.
Arthur’s sanguine nature is reflected in his account of the first day in the Front Line. Despite an exhausting march in pouring rain to ‘the faint but continuous rumble’ of the guns, he records that while ‘digging in’ he wasn’t too bothered by sniper fire from the Germans, ‘perhaps... because I could not believe that on a nice sunny day anyone could actually be shooting to kill somebody.’
This positivity, combined with a healthy survival instinct, saved him on more than one occasion. For example, when trapped in a disconnected trench under heavy bombardment he was the first to climb out and run for cover, attracting personalised shell fire from the Germans. He made it, unlike others who, sadly, hesitated too long, including ‘two men who had come nearly all the way through the war, to within about fourteen days of the Armistice’.
He was well aware of being a participant in significant historical events, as testified by the fact that he collected souvenirs, including a map marked with mud from the battlefield, a postcard found on the floor of an abandoned French schoolroom (referring to ‘Virginie’s first communion’), and an Order of the Day from Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, stating that ‘There is no course but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man’. A caption attached to the latter by Arthur showed how utterly he believed in the cause he was fighting for, as ‘the world depended on the response to the appeal’.
Thirdly, Arthur had a wonderful sense of humour. Alongside the horrors, his memories were permeated by delightfully comic incidents, such as the time when his battalion was ordered to take a bath. He records that ‘an observer could have been forgiven for thinking he was in the Elysian Fields [aka paradise] with about 200 naked men standing around in couples on the green grass.’ The bathing was interrupted by a German shell attack , but Arthur records that as the men capered away to take cover, ‘every man jack was shrieking with laughter.’
Where others might have felt terror and humiliation, he had the capacity to reinterpret events with imagination and a sense of fun.
Arthur was also blessed with a very strong constitution. When convalescing from a dental extraction in a ward full of people suffering from the Spanish flu, he miraculously resisted the virus. On another occasion his whole company was served with rancid beef stew which they considered inedible because the onions were off. Prepared to chance it on account of his hunger, Arthur performed what he described as ‘one of my greatest gastronomic feats for I consumed about three pints of this awful stew’.
We have heard much about the horrors of that appalling conflict, so incongruously termed the ‘Great War’. Arthur’s memoir, however, shows something quite different: the indomitable quality of the human spirit. No doubt some of the stories grew in the telling, but Arthur’s very compelling and entertaining account of this human disaster shows that in even the darkest moments a choice can be made between desperation and determination. His attitude was the archetype of that motto that has been ironically reinvented in modern times: ‘Keep calm and carry on’, although he would probably also have added ‘and have a laugh along the way if you can’.
By Rachel Ann Beckett, grand–daughter of Arthur Stanley Bullock author of Gloucestershire Between the Wars: A Memoir