The destination for history

The boys who won the First World War


Officers of the line, many fresh from public school and the rugby and cricket fields, have not been given enough credit for their achievements in World War I – until now.

Much recent writing on the Great War has veered between the highest-ranked and the humble: a determined rehabilitation of Haig and his generals at one end, with plain-spoken voices from the ranks at the other, whether individual Tommies who survived to tell their oral history, or whole battalions of ‘Pals’. Even those who could not speak have their say: horses, dogs and other mute beasts burdened by war have filled page, stage and screen of late. Lost in all this has been the story of the men arguably most responsible for British obduracy and eventual success – the officers of the line. However, recent published studies are beginning to give due credit again to the achievements of this overlooked group. A distinctive voice is now being heard again.

Many of these officers were products of the public school system which modern educational politics has often been embarrassed to discuss. Remarkably few were angry poets with strident voices. Professional and university historians perhaps feel too that they have graduated from studying the familiar characters of the GCSE curriculum staple, Journey’s End; in so doing they neglect the many thousands of officers – from subalterns to half-colonels – who quietly led and cared for their men in the field and sustained morale in the face of all that the enemy, horrifying battlefield conditions and uninspired strategists could throw at them. They did so at a tender age, many fresh from public school and the rugby and cricket fields; under fire and frustration they showed maturity beyond their years. These are the boys who won the war.

Journey’s End playwright and Kingston Grammar boy R C Sherriff, who initially resented the exclusion zone created by public schools in early officer recruitment, was later magnanimous with his praise. The testimony of one who was at the Somme and Ypres and won the Military Cross is worth that of many latter day armchair academics. He judged that it was the line officers’ achievement to sustain a fighting force that would soak up punishment for four whole years until the weakened opponent was too exhausted and demoralised to carry on. Ranker Alfred Burrage concurred in his Memoir of Private X: ‘I who was a Private, and a bad one at that, freely own that it was the British subaltern who won the war.’

Casualties amongst this officer class were notoriously and disproportionately high. Their voices may therefore not be heard through reasoned memoirs or interviews in later life when memory may have dulled, survivor-guilt unsettled or the passage of time brought a more reflective mood; in the surviving wartime letters of these dead leaders, we hear a voice fresh and immediate, free of historical filters. It is often angry, but always conscious of duty and the need to carry on. We must listen carefully to this valuable contemporary record.

Social class barriers were decisively breached under the common denominator of alternating terror and tedium in trench life. These officers maintained a fine balance between the necessary authority of command and military discipline, and a shared humanity and compassion for their men. They did not all share Wilfred Owen’s presumption to give them a voice in poetry.

Where they did find their own voice – privately but nonetheless impressively, in the face of censorship and rigid military hierarchy – was in their views on the senior leadership. Many of their criticisms were – aptly – trenchant; nor can they be dismissed as the customary complaining of overworked ‘middle-managers’, or men uncomfortably thrust into unexpected responsibility. Guy du Maurier, who commanded a battalion of Royal Fusiliers at Ypres, was a career soldier who had fought in Burma and killed in the Boer War. Before this war he had found his voice on the London stage: his stage sensation of 1909 – An Englishman’s Home – had alerted the British public to the danger of military unpreparedness and boosted recruiting for the new Territorial Force.

From his hut at Kemmel he confided to his wife his contempt for the General Staff, the inanity of administrators and rigid military doctrine; the welfare of his men was always top of mind, however weary from incessant admin. So too Lt Col Broadrick of the badly damaged 6th Borders at Gallipoli, who could only write to his mother of his few surviving men’s need for comforts like Woodbines, or the financial security of bereaved families at home. Only when he too was killed did the letters stop. The common humanity and mutual respect of officers and men under fire was poignantly expressed by one East Yorkshires private of his Captain, caught out by a Turkish sniper: ‘He was a Gentleman and made tea for ten of us’.

The professional du Maurier said of one exemplary subaltern, a gentleman amateur: ‘Absolutely no previous training as a soldier is wanted at this game – only a stout heart – a grip of men and a calm cheerful nature.’ If their relationship to authority – whether House, School, Regiment, King or Country – was one of unquestioning obedience, then these boys also took thoughtful responsibility for the men on their team and felt genuine obligation towards those less privileged than themselves. Arguably, war exposed them as never before to the lower classes and trench life had a levelling effect. Energetic and youthful, they led enthusiastic games of rugby or football to keep up morale and break down social barriers. Many had flaws and weaknesses – if only from inexperience – which war would magnify and sometimes fatally expose, but they played the game as best they could. There were more Stanhopes than Flashmans. 

By Stephen Cooper

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