Last One Over the Top ...

Henry Wilson: the Puppet-Master


The War Office Building, Whitehall. (Image Robert Cutts, Flickr:


In July 1914, Bertie used his great-grandfather's (the renowned Sir Harry Flashman's) many and varied Society connections to get a job in the War Office. He was under the tutelage of Lt.-Col. Henry Hughes Wilson, then Director of Operations of the War Office, but soon to become one of the most senior general officers of the 14-18 war. Wilson was a Machiavellian mover and shaker. Well - maybe "Macchiavellian" is too strong a word: he loved intrigue and tangled webs of deceit - and indeed got his fingers badly burned over the Curragh Mutiny incident in early 1914 - but seemed to maintain a dark sense of humour throughout it all. Bertie would grow very fond of Wilson - despite frequently wanting to wring his neck - and the general would introduce him to the most senior military and political figures of the day. 

Bertie's mother - nee Selina Beauchamp - was Sir Harry Flashman's favourite grand-daughter. She was a very modern woman and provided a strong female role model for Bertie. This might explain his respect - verging on worship - for women. In fact, Selina describes Bertie as "melting into an absolute pudding at the flutter of a pair of pretty lashes."

Now read on ...


You see, I tagged myself so securely to Wilson when I was in the War Office that I was almost an extra limb, and where Wilson went, I would surely follow. The problem was, while Wilson was preening himself for the Army Chief of Staff job, Sir John French was busy giving it away to Archie Murray. Murray, it seemed was a safer pair of hands than Wilson, and it seemed pretty clear now that the higher authorities were not going to forgive his dabbling in the Curragh Mutiny quite so readily as others had.

The upshot of this was that, if Wilson was out of favour, so was I, and when the brigadier’s telegram flopped onto my mat, I now had no back-up to tell him to go and get stuffed. Hence the glumness.

I called into Belgrave Square to pack up the two-seater, and of course, my last few bits and pieces before taking off back to Tidworth on the Sunday after war was declared. Boswell opened the door to me, and bade me a very courteous Good-Day.

“Oh, hullo, Bozzie,” I mumbled as I loafed over the threshold. I was distracted. Or was it abstracted? Never mind. My thoughts were all on the trip ahead, then over the sea to France and then – and then – well, no matter, we’d burn that bridge when we came to it. I gave a deep sigh and gazed around, as if just having woken up. “Aged P around, Bozzie?”

“Yes, sir,” says he. “Your mother is upstairs, sir. May I say, sir, that you are looking uncommonly well?”

“Oh, if you must, Bozzie,” I grumped, flouncing through the door. Then, struck by the need to meet a compliment with a compliment, I faltered, and then said: “As a matter of fact, Bozzie, you’re looking pretty dishy yourself.”

He harrumphed with affronted dignity and then directed me upstairs, to my mother’s dressing room, so I moped in there, dragging the old feet and generally looking like Bismarck when the London Conference told him he couldn’t have any more countries to play with. Mama greeted me with her usual contralto trill.

“Bertie! My God, I haven’t seen you in an age!” I blessed the parental fizzog with a filial peck and then slumped in a chaise, lazily draped with a pile of dresses. Funny, the floor was crowded with crinoline too. H’mm, I thought.

“I know, Mumsie,” I groaned. “War Office, you know.” I sat on something hard, and reached underneath me, pulling out a slim bracelet that sparkled with an eye-splitting glare in the bright sunlight flooding in through the bay window. Good God! I thought. Are those diamonds? I caught a glimpse of Mama’s eyebrows in the mirror, beginning to knot together in anger. I kicked myself over the Mumsie bit, but she seemed content to let it pass, and she relaxed her brow into a sympathetic pucker.

“I know, Bertie,” says she, her voice softer now. She was applying varnish and lacquer or some such to her upper works, and being pretty liberal with the powder puff. “It must be simply dreadful.”

No, I thought, it’ll be “simply dreadful” when the shooting starts; but for the minute, it’s just plain “bloody awful”. Didn’t actually say it of course, instead gave a non-committal grunt and looked sorry for myself. I lit up a gasper and ignored my mother’s poisonous glances in the mirror, but again she seemed happy to let it pass and continued troweling on the plasterwork to her foundations.

“Day and night,” says I, continuing my theme of hard, unrelenting work. “And, of course, night and day. Both, I mean. And then there’s – ,” I suddenly came up short, realising for the first time that my mother was dolling herself up as if for a Palace Ball, and it only four o’clock in the afternoon.

“I say, Mama,” I said cautiously. “You’re looking jolly nice.” Her reflection in the mirror gave an acknowledging bow of the head, and I saw her eyes crease with her smile. “Where are you going?”

“Out,” says she, dabbing at the corner of her lips with a tiny brush, and making “O” shapes in the mirror. That’s my mother, I thought, master of the bleedin’ obvious.

“I know ‘out’,” I countered, with heavy sarcasm. “I can see ‘out’. The dogs in the street know you’re going ‘out.’ The question for the defendant is ‘out - where’?” She patted at her lipstick in a final flourish.

“I wish to refer the Right Honourable Gentleman,” she quipped, obviously well pleased with herself, “to the answer I gave some moments ago.” I laughed. So that was her game, eh? She was looking at me in the mirror now, smiling all over her face, well pleased with her wit. I am ashamed to admit it now, but in a fit of competitive petulance, I had an overwhelming desire to burst her bubble.

“I’m being called back to barracks,” I said, almost lazily, striking a match to another cigarette. “Off to France, you know. The War.”

Well, I couldn’t have had a greater impact if I’d smashed her dressing table with a sledgehammer. She spun round to look at me, her jaw dropping, the laughter dying from her face.

“Oh – Bertie!” she gasped. “When?”

“Oh, soon,” I said, in as nonchalant a manner as I could blowing a lazy smoke ring towards the ceiling.. “Today, really. Now, in fact.” She was gaping at me, and I could see her big brown eyes film over with tears, and all of a sudden, I regretted my childish heartlessness. It was the eyes, I think. They get me every time. Damn woman should have a licence for them. “Um - ,” I said, now trying to row back and say something comforting as Mama begin to cry, great gulping sobs that came from the depths of her nether apparel. “Er – “. It wasn’t any good. Close to tears myself, it was as much as I could do to grab her and hold her while she shook against me, weeping now and trying to catch her breath.

“I – I -,” she began, gulping. “Bertie, I didn’t know – that you w-would be going so soon, I mean.” I mopped vaguely at her nose, not wanting to rearrange the artwork, but trying to make the odd comforting moo. “I th-thought we’d have more t-time! To say – to say g-goodbye, I mean.”

“Hush, Mama,” says I, holding on to the pliable parent as she began to dry up somewhat. “No need to say ‘goodbye’ and all that rot! Don’t cry – don’t sigh - why, I’m tickled to death to go!” A smile broke through on her face, like a bolt of sunshine through the rain clouds. “Anyway, it’ll all be a piece of cake. Just show up, give Johnny Boche the right-about, kick a few arses, then huzzah! for Brussels in time for tea!” She gazed at me archly.

“I think you mean ‘Berlin’, don’t you, Bertie?” she murmured, with a playful smile on her face. Well, of course I did, and I corrected myself hurriedly, geography never having been my strong suit. Looking back on it now, it is truly amazing the drivel you can come out with at times. Mama was looking a little brighter now. The joking banter was what she needed (no discussion of course of what I needed, I was only the poor bastard going out there).

“They say,” she whispered, dabbing at the corner of her eyes now with a handkerchief, “they say it will all be over by Christmas.”

Yes, but Christmas of what year, I thought to myself. 1927? But I didn’t say that. Instead, I lit a lofty gasper, stuck a fist into the old trou and assumed a posture of airy discourse.

“Bound to be,” says I, waving my cigarette in the air. “Sooner, in fact. Hallowe’en prob’ly!” She was laughing now, I was glad to see. “Sooner even! Saint Esmond’s Day. Third Sunday after Septuagesima!” She was smiling broadly at me now, and I was laughing. Funny, I felt a little brighter. Actually, I felt pretty good, and as we both guffawed – well, I guffawed, she laughed in a musical chromatic descent – I began to feel easier in my mind. Our laughter subsided into an easy silence, and Mama stretched out a hand to cradle the side of my face, like she used to years ago, and gazed deep into my eyes.

“Bertie,” she said simply.

“That’s me,” says I.

“My handsome Bertie,” says she.

“Still here,” says I, welling up a little now.

“Come home safe,” she said. I nodded, afraid to speak, and gave a silent nodding discourse, with eyebrows, as to how I safe I was going to be, and how the whole thing was as easy as falling off a log, and T’chah. She slipped her hand from my face and gazed out of the window, seemingly deep in thought, but in fact to give me time to de-well myself and clear my throat. Dashed thoughtful, my mother.

“Bertie,” she said eventually, glancing back at me. “Promise me you’ll do something for me?”

“Anything, Mama,” says I, all bright-eyed again and eager as a pointer, “anything.”

“Put out that blasted cigarette.”