Saturday, 1 June 2013

"With Haig on the Somme", D. H. Parry

May was a month when things related to the Great War bubbled up.

Across the media we had the mild kerfuffle of sundry cultural commentators protesting the UK government's plans to 'celebrate' the outbreak of war in 1914, and on a personal level, while driving to Spa in Belgium, we listened to Anthony Price's marvellous "Other Paths to Glory", which  probably warrants a piece dedicated to it specifically. Spa of course is where General Ludendorff commanded the German Army from in 1918, overseeing the ebb, flow, and ultimate collapse from the Grand Hotel Brittanique (a strikingly small building, now hosting a rather disappointing bar, pictured below) in that small but charming Belgian town. All of this puts one in mind of the 1914-18 war, and as such Parry's period piece, first published in 1917, and now available free in the public domain, provides an interesting view into how the war was represented at the time.

While the style throughout is more redolent of what Capt W E Johns would adopt with his Biggles series there are some serious points to be found here, most notably the running theme throughout the book of how successive elements of the Somme offensive were betrayed by German espionage and 'Hunnish dirty tricks'; intriguingly presaging the post-1918 German theories of betrayal in refusing to accept more mundane factual explanations of how events turned out.

Hard work too is put into vilifying the German character. Sometimes this reaches absurd degrees, not content with stealing plans for the British offensive from the Dashwood family home, the German spy steals three boxes of his host's cigars. This leads to the rather strongly worded assertion that
A German isn't a human being when you come to look at it - he's just a mean beast, a bully when he's top dog, and a grovelling worm when he's cornered.
which as abuse is perhaps trumped only by the description of a German woman's laughter
The unrestrained laugh of a German woman is the index to the German character. It is one of the most horribly unmusical sounds on earth.
This jingoistic tone of morality and an attempt to cast a clear notion of right and wrong does lead to some elements of strangeness, and a hark back to a more chivalrous age which one suspects was long gone by 1916. When a German prisoner in no-man's land gives his word that if his side does not make a breakthrough he will report to the British trenches it conjures up a vision of World War 1 as a version of the Combat of the Thirty writ large; a nice idea, but one I imagine with no grounding in reality. This continues, with recapitulations of the 'men against fire' theory, that moral fibre could allow infantry to cross killing fields of fire, and that cavalry, given the chance, could carry the day.

Oddly some of the more fantastic elements of Parry's novel are grounded in lesser known parts of the war's history. The highly unlikely seeming element of Dashwood accompanying a French pilot on a raid on a Zeppelin shed in the Black Forest in actuality owes a lot to Noel Pemberton Billing's raid on Friedrichshafen in November 1914 (engagingly told in Ian Gardner's "The Flatpack Bombers"). 

There is also value in extracting some small elements of detail from the text. Price, in "Other Paths to Glory", talks about the chain mail armour worn by tank crews on the Somme, which is a little known piece of colour, borne out by a little digging (see this exhibit from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, not visited by me since 1978, but I remember it being rather good), and Parry refers to "medieval looking" trench helmets; maybe the Combat of the Thirty was not completely alien to the Somme.

On a lot of levels this is a terrible book, the direct descendent of the worst excesses of pre war invasion scare literature, but in this light it is still of value. Where tracts such as "The Battle of Dorking" brought into vision a Great Britain that had already lost, "With Haig on the Somme" conjures up a Britain that was striving to win. Don't read this as historiography, and if you want a rip roaring tale of World War 1 adventure, read Biggles or John Buchan, but for an insight into how consent for the Great War was manufactured in 1917, read this with your eyes open. 

Statue of General Haig outside his wartime headquarters in Montreuil sur Mer.

Outside Ludendorff's headquarters in Spa.


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