Last One Over the Top ...

Bertie and Sir John French

 
 

"When all else fails," Bertie's great-grandfather, the renowned Victorian warrior Sir Harry Flashman once said, "blame the French."

Bertie took his advice to heart, but only inasmuch as it applied to another French ... namely Sir John, who would become 1st Earl of Ypres after being wrestled from the top army job by Sir Douglas Haig.

Historians argue about the impact that Sir John made on the war. He is accused of being utterly unprepared for the holocaust of industrialised death that was launched upon troops who still formed Napoleonic defensive squares on the battlefield. The French troops wore bright red trousers that would not have looked out of place on the battlefields of Waterloo and Quatre Bras. Which, incidentally, were only a stone's throw from the first military action of the war. French military purists argued against making their soldiers look a little less like fairground shooting targets by arguing: "Le pantalon rouge - c'est la France!" ("Red trousers - that means France!") No, I don't get it either.

The fact was that Sir John was a man of his time, who was unable to see into the future, and the only skills he could bring to bear in his experience of command were the (relatively speaking) scuffles with the Boers in South Africa. So when it came to mechanised death, destruction, Big Berthas, barbed wire and the impact of machine guns on human flesh and blood ... well, I think he may have panicked. And I would go one step further and say: I would have done exactly the same thing in his place.

Bertie speaks very warmly of Sir John - when he isn't lambasting him, that is - and it appears that despite the gruff bulldog exterior, Sir John was a likeable man with a genuine regard and affection for his troops. After the battles of Mons and Le Cateau, when it looked as if the Expeditionary Force were going to be destroyed, Sir John's principal thought was to remove his troops from danger.

Alright, so maybe directing then towards the Channel Ports was a step too far ...

Now read on ...
***

Friday 21st August 1914

Nimy, north of Mons, Belgium

 

I rattled north over the railway bridge at Nimy, a lone horseman crossing the canal and leaving the solid streets and flimsy barricades of Mons behind me; and along with them the comforting presence and strength of the British Army. Just north of Mons, the canal dividing the town from what we assumed now to be German-held territory looped around in a great salient, and the town within and surrounding villages were now thick with khaki, Tommies digging rifle pits, filling sandbags and constructing gun emplacements in fevered expectation of the hammer blow from the German Army, now to the north-east of us.

I don’t need to dwell on the fevered activity that got us over here lock, stock, and barrel before you could even say lock, stock and barrel. Churchill and Haldane and, yes, even Wilson, had all done their homework and they managed a herculean effort to shift 100,000 soldiers and assorted hangers-on from the South-East of England to Belgium. The last few days in England before we got out marching orders were bizarre and unreal. The diplomats all shut up shop, their job done (or botched, depending on your viewpoint), and it was time for the military to take over. We all knew we were going, but we didn’t know where, and we didn’t really know when. It was then I got a sneering telegram from the commander of 2nd Cavalry Brigade, Brigadier de Beauvoir de Lisle, asking me if General Wilson could possibly spare me from my vital work at the War Office, might I please shift my arse down to my regiment at Tidworth, because between you and me, old chap, we’ve got a bloody war to fight.

It was fair enough, I suppose, and I was packing my traps absently, as if for an extended spell in barracks, when the thought suddenly struck me: this ain’t training, or barrack-walloping! It’s war! The thought made me come over quite dizzy, and the old familiar nausea gripped my throat again. My only comfort was that I was now well in with the top brass in HQ, and Sir John French had even condescended to call me “laddie”. No greater protection hath any man than his commander-in-chief calls him “laddie.” Or so I thought anyway.

In fact, I found Sir John uncommon friendly, and he seemed delighted to see me too, a day or so after war had been declared, when Grierson nabbed me at Army HQ at the Savoy (if one has to go to war, one may as well go to war with style), and manhandled me in the direction of the great white chief himself. Grierson was an interesting chap: my favourite officer at Aldershot, by a long chalk. He was the happy, laughing type, his jacket buttons straining and a large roll of fat bulging out at the stock of his collar, the mark of too much officer poured into too little uniform. He enjoyed a good laugh and, I suppose, in every respect, he was the antithesis of the stereotypical common-or-garden crusty general (Generalis crustiferus). I mean, the chap was one of two Corps commanders, for heaven’s sake. In field command terms, second-in-thingy only to Sir John French himself!

Consider, if you will for a moment, any other general in the British Army to whom you could say Ooh look, sir, you’ve got gravy dribbling down your chin, and not walk away with at least a summary court-martial? I said exactly this to Grierson when he spotted me and called me over to his table at the Savoy; he simply gave a self-deprecating chuckle, and mopped his clock with an almighty napkin. Not a trace of embarrassment. Not a hint. And why should he indeed? He chatted easily with me about horses, and cricket, and rugby, and Vardon’s chances in the Open as we cooled our heels outside the hallowed door of the commander-in-chief. All in all, I was pretty easy, loafing and jawing with Grierson, when the door slid open and out popped Grierson’s colleague and the other Corps commander: Sir Douglas Haig.

You’ll forgive me if I take a deep breath here, and pause for a second. Always have to when I think or talk about that fellow. Haig, I mean. As soon as his boots stepped onto the carpet of the ante-room, I felt a shock wave of frost hit the floor, travelling immediately from the epicentre, and slapping a chill on walls, doors, furnishings and on every living thing in the room. And I mean every living thing: there was even a big fat fly bumbling against the window pane in a vain attempt to escape from the man. I knew how it felt. Coming under that ice-blue eyed stare is a deuced unpleasant experience, especially the first time. I had never met the chap, didn’t know him from a hole in the ground, but as soon as his stare touched me, I had an overwhelming feeling that I had to throw myself at his boots and beg forgiveness. And I’m not the guilty type, either. Thankfully, he didn’t linger, paying me almost as much attention as the poor insect, turning his cap slightly in his hands before screwing it firmly on his head, nodding briefly at Grierson and disappearing. The room warmed immediately. The fly and I looked at each other and shuddered. I took comfort in the hope that I would probably never have to run across him again (ha!), and followed Grierson in to Sir John’s inner sanctum.

You may have heard of Sir John French, or seen photographs of him from the time. You know the kind I mean, faded, yellow, scratched and going all curly at the edges. And the photographs too, of course. No, of course I don’t mean Sir John. He wasn’t exactly small: compact, I think would be a better word. And of course he had that striking white hair and splendid white moustache. The chap had been a hero of the Boer War, and was seen as just about the best gosh-durned soldier the British Empire had ever seen. He was certainly courteous to me, and he gave me a beaming smile, walking around his vast desk, spilling over with files, maps, books and newspapers, and gripping my fin, pumped it heartily.

“Lord Albert,” says he. “Lord Albert, Lord Albert.”

“That’s me,” says I, brightly.

“Welcome to Headquarters! So - ,” he propped one hip up on the corner of his desk and began sucking at a pipe, looking me up and down as he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt against the sticky afternoon heat. “So – Flashy’s young chap, what?”

“Yes sir,” says I, at a loss for anything else to say. To tell the truth, I was a trifle tongue-tied, and wasn’t expecting to be acknowledged, let alone addressed in such cordial terms.

“I wonder - ,” he looked thoughtful, and tapped at his lip with the pipe stem, “ – when did I last see your great-grandfather? Isandhlwana was it? Tel-el-Kebir, perhaps? Omdurman?”

“Guards Club, actually, Sir John,” I piped up. He laughed. No – he chuckled.

“Of course, of course,” he said, shaking his head absently as if in some half-remembered recollection. He pulled up close to me, and dropped his voice in a conspiratorial, yet playful manner.

“Tell me – ,” says he, “ – excited?”

“No, sir,” says I, “I mean – yes, sir.” He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder.

“Stick with me, laddie,” says he, strolling easily back around the desk to his heavy wooden chair, “and I’ll make sure you see some fun.”

“Yes, sir,” says I, saluting fit to make my eyes water. “Thank you, sir.” And taking Grierson’s lead, I turned to leave, vaguely unaware that Sir John’s Chief of Staff was bent over a stack of papers on a smaller desk at the diagonally opposite end of the room. Funny, thinks I, doesn’t look like Wilson?

“Murray. Archie Murray,” says Grierson, in response to my question, after he had shushed me and scooted me back out to the corridor and out of earshot. “Seen as a safer pair of hands.”

“Safer than Wilson? – I mean General Wilson?” I corrected hastily. Grierson gave me a queer smile.

“Your pal Wilson – ,“ (how come everybody thinks he’s my pal?), “- is not very popular around Whitehall these days,” says Grierson, puffing and wheezing and laboriously tunnelling into his too-tight tunic pockets to fish out a battered packet of cigarettes. He offered me one and we both lit up, huffing out enormous blue clouds of smoke into the hot, stale, dusty interior of the hotel. “Wilson has played one too many of his mind games and power plays for the PM’s liking, so - “ he shrugged and plucked a shred of tobacco from his lip, “ – Murray gets the job, and Wilson has to cool his heels.”

“Gosh,” I said. “I jolly well suspect that old Wils – I mean, that General Wilson’ll be pretty sore about that.”

“You and me both, Beauchamp,” says he, grinding the butt of his gasper into a huge glass ashtray and throwing a paternal arm around my shoulders as we walked down to the lobby. “You and me both.”

 

***

 

When I popped into the War Office to take my leave of Wilson, I kept schtum about his not being picked - for the first fifteen, I mean. I managed to slip silently into my office, probably the only thing silent about the War Office those days, as there was continual traffic, buzz and noise between there, the Admiralty, Whitehall, and the BEF Headquarters at the Savoy. I was just packing by old battered copy of “Wisden” into my older, more battered briefcase, when the door swung open and there was the chap himself. I had hardly room to turn and salute, but he waved me down, his hands stuck deep in his trouser pockets, and hooked the door with the back of his heel to close it. General Wilson was not on parade. He had something on his mind beside his hair, and he jiggered uneasily at the window, looking out at the sunshine.

“Beauchamp?” he started, but seemed to think better of it.

“Hullo,” says I. He started again, paused again, and then let out a deep sigh.

“Beauchamp?” he started again.

“That’s me,” says I.

“Beauchamp, I’m sure you know by now – “, he began, thought, and then spoke again, “– I’m sure you know by now that General Murray has been given the Chief-of Staff job.” Well, there was no point in denying it; talk of the whole BEF, really, so I just nodded and kept my gob shut.

“Without my – um – assistance,” he went on, warming to his theme, “I suspect that Sir John will be constrained to – ah – act contrary to his judgement, and – and indeed his values! I fear that without the appropriate guidance – I mean mine, of course, - the General Staff may – may – “

“ – make a frightful bags of the whole show?” I finished for him, and he laughed. Now, I may not be blessed in the intellect department, and God knows there are times I barely know enough to come in out of the rain, but Wilson’s self-indulgent mewling struck me as the most delusional codswallop that had ever dripped soggily onto my ears. Still, the chap was a general, so I gave him my most winning smile and looked at him like a terrier, expecting a biscuit.

“I mean, Sir John French is talkin’ about takin’ us into Belgium!”

“Ah?” says I, in polite inquiry, for my mind was already wandering. To the girls walking up and down the streets outside our window, if truth were told, but luckily Wilson was too caught up to notice.

“Lord Kitchener, in fact, considers that Sir John is an idiot – a judgement that I am happy to share – and that the Army needs to be in France. Amiens, specifically, just as I advised originally.” He paused for breath. “But Sir John would have us at Mons, too far ahead of ammunition and supplies to be of any bloody use.”

There was more in the same vein, but to be honest, I wasn’t listening. There was little love lost between Sir John and Wilson, the most brain-compromised blind simpleton in a dark room at midnight could tell as much. I had little time for self-pitying vapouring at the best of times, and over the years have learned to close my ears, but to consider the speaker with something looking like rapt attention, nodding at appropriate intervals and chipping in with: “I see,” “I say, is he really?” “Oh, too bad,” and “Worcesershire, for preference,” but of course the last is to be used only in specific social situations. Wilson was bleating on and on, so I threw all my resources into play.

“Still – nicest looking gels in all the world,” he finished up, obviously expecting a comment on my part. Needless to say, I wasn’t listening.

“I say, is he really?” I hazarded, only to learn that what I though was a non sequitur was actually a lengthy treatise on the comparative attractions of French and English women. Wilson didn’t mind, it seemed, because he gave me a fatherly punch on the arm and a penetrating stare.

“I like you, Beauchamp.” he stated. My blood ran cold, and my mind jumped from admiring the female form to a flurry of self-protection. I didn’t realise that Wilson was – was, well – was – a chap like that. I mean to say.

“And – I like you too, Sir,” I churned out, slowly, checking my exits. Wilson turned back to the window.

“You – you’re a simple chap,” says he.

“Um – er - ,” I said. What else could I say? Thank you?

“In the best sense, I mean,” continues Wilson. “Know what’s right and what’s wrong. Good school, good family – right side of the fence, is what I mean to say. That’s why – “ he bent close to me to whisper in my ear, as I angled myself away from him as far as was politely possible, “ – that’s why I need you to put in a good word for me to old Frenchie – Sir John French, I mean,” he corrected hurriedly. “I should be forever in your debt.”

I heaved a sigh of relief, and struggled to contain a snort of laughter. The thought that I could have any influence on the saintly commander-in-chief was laughable, but I fairly glowed with the thought that the famous HH Wilson was coming to me for help. Me, who had hardly spent a wet week in the services! But of course, I looked thoughtful and pious, and nodded. I stopped short of patting him on the shoulder and calling him “Henry”, but gave the impression that I would leave no turn unstoned in the pursuit of his elevation to Sir John’s deputy.

“I knew it!” he beamed. “You’re a white man, Beauchamp!” He swivelled around, rather more briskly than one would expect from a man of his age, and virtually skipped out the door. White man, eh? I thought, staring back out at some of the lookers in the street. Not really – getting more yellow by the day.