Wheatley returned to London on his motor-bike in the early hours of 4 August 1914, and was in front of Buckingham Palace that evening, when the crowds roared their approval as George V, Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales made their appearance on the balcony.
On the 5th, Wheatley went to the Westminster Dragoons (a territorial regiment, for home service only) to enlist. They had strict instructions only to accept those who could ride horses; Wheatley failed the test. Afterwards he realised that had probably saved his life; as the Dragoons were sent to Gallipoli, and more died than survived.
Wheatley’s second attempt was with the Artists Rifles, in Duke Street: he did not make the required height of 5 foot 8 inches. Next, he was sent to Hoxton, “not a particularly salubrious neighbourhood” (II.41) to try for the London (Territorial) Fusiliers; they had already moved from Hoxton.
It was at this point in August 1914 that Wheatley’s father decided they should all go for a holiday in Wales. When they came back, Wheatley senior met an old friend, Buchan, who was now in uniform. Dennis went to see him, and told him of his attempt to join the London Fusiliers.
“My dear boy,” he said in horror-struck accents. “You cannot possibly go into the Fusiliers—they walk! […] Nobody under the rank of Captain is allowed a horse, and of course you obviously can’t have thought about it, or you would have realised that not only do these poor devils in the infantry have to walk, but they actually carry a pack” (II.50-51).
Wheatley did confess that he couldn’t ride, but Buchan said that he should lie about that, and take private lessons on the side. On Buchan’s advice he filled up a form for a commission in the First City of London Territorial Royal Field Artillery, and after a short interview the Colonel asked him to come along in the morning to give him a hand: the commission would take a week or two to arrive.
He did what was necessary for an officer and a temporary gentleman (the title of his war memoirs): he got his uniform made by a tailor in Pall Mall, and he took riding lessons.
My experience of horses lasted from September 1914 to 13 November 1918. During those years I was with them constantly, and my own view tallies entirely with that of the M.F.H. [the Master of Fox Hounds whom he had just quoted]. The horse’s brain physically is small compared to its bulk, and definitely on a very inferior quality. […] It is of course the stupidity of the horse that makes it dangerous. It is far stronger than it has the sense to realise, and so silly as to be in an almost perpetual state of fright (II.57-58).
Wheatley equipped himself with an automatic pistol (not regulation, but far more deadly) and a pair of wonderful boots left behind by the Baron Goldschmid von Rothschild, who had hurriedly left England just before war was declared.
Wheatley was surprised after the war to be elected President of the Old Comrades’ Association. He was popular, but not necessarily for the reasons he might have hoped.
It was interesting at these reunions to learn what the men had thought of their officers. They certainly did not regard me as a fine soldier but more as a pleasant sort of mascot. When young, I had an enormous appetite for chocolates, so one of their nicknames for me was The Chocolate Soldier—another was Puss in Boots, owing, of course, to my strutting about in the pair that I have already mentioned. Their principal cause for liking me appears to have been a certain fellow feeling because I was always getting into hot water of some sort with my superior officers myself, or doing unconventional things such as halting at a pub for drinks when I had a party on my own and no senior officer present (II.62-63).
On 23 September he was gazetted, and in due course received the King’s Commission: at this time still actually signed by the King. Wheatley trained, and trained his men, first in Woolwich, then in Primrose Hill, and early in 1915 Hampstead Heath.
On 15 May 1915 Wheatley left London with one-sixth of the Brigade, for Ipswich: they were artillery, and thus had no rifles, but they also had no artillery, and no horses. (They did have a regimental band, however, which made up a little for their rather pathetic appearance.) Later in 1915 they began training with actual artillery. By November, Wheatley was bored and fed up, and applied for transfer to the RFC; but it was discovered that he had a common form of colour blindness that disqualified him from being a pilot.
Early in August 1916 he left Ipswich for Heytesbury on the edge of Salisbury Plain. He was getting good reports from his superiors, and hoped for promotion from Lieutenant to Captain; but he was ill, and when his old regiment (renamed the 290th Brigade Royal Field Artillery) left for France on 20 January 1917, they left without him; he was convalescent, and had just celebrated his twentieth birthday.
On 2 February 1917 he reported for light duty to the 6th Reserve Brigade and Biscot Camp in Luton; it was where he met Gordon Eric Gordon-Tombe, who years later was the model for his fictional hero Gregory Sallust. It was not until 8 August 1917 that Wheatley set off for France. He had to give up his constant stream of girl-friends, and restrict himself to brothels; he visited a particularly fine one in Rouen on 17 August, where he breakfasted with his blonde for the night on omelette, melon and champagne. And then he went to Poperinghe, in the Ypres Salient.
To have held it [the Salient], as we did, for all those years was probably the greatest strategic folly ever perpetrated in any way throughout history It cost us a hundred thousand lives and several hundred thousand casualties. And what was the reason for the crazy decision to hang on to it at all costs? Simply because it was the only piece of Belgian soil remaining in the hands of the Allies (II.154).
He was sent to report to Étaples, and managed to miss his train, and fudged his chance to leap onto it. He managed to get to Boulogne, and was told to clean up in the Officer’s Club.
When I got there I was amazed at its spaciousness and luxury, and I soon saw that it was equipped with all the comforts that we people from up the Line associated with the base-wallahs, who permanently formed the bulk of its membership. They were a breed apart, the civil servants of the Army and the chicken-hearted who had wangled the soft jobs well away from discomfort and danger. There were scores of them there, drinking their evening apéritif, impeccably dressed, a few in beautifully cut pale fawn Bedford cord riding breeches and field boots polished to mirror brightness, the majority in perfectly creased slacks. I had hardly entered the place before a Lieutenant-Colonel came up to me and sternly informed me that, as I was under arrest, I had no right to use the club. For a moment I was utterly nonplussed. Then I remembered that, while under arrest, an officer is not allowed to wear his Sam Browne belt or spurs. Nervously I told my story. With scant sympathy he then told me where to find the wash room (II.167).
Not only had Wheatley lost his Sam Browne, but his hair was matted, his face streaked in coal dust, and his clothes sopping. And his journey was by no means over: and every time he arrived at where he had been sent, he discovered that his goal had moved on. By the time he arrived and he met his new staff captain—he was coatless, hatless, Sam-Browne-less, covered in mud, and, he thought, days late—he was informed with immense kindness that he needn’t have hurried, and that he should rest and eat.
In due course I was told about the ammunition dump that I was to take over, and what my duties there would be. Then between them they equipped me to go on my way to my new charge. The Major lent me a trench-coat, the Staff Captain provide d me with a tin-hat and a gas-mask, and the General commanding the artillery of the IVth Corps sent me the final two miles to my destination in his Rolls-Royce (II.182).
While looking after his ammunition dump, he wrote 80000 words of his first (never to be published) novel.
On 20 November 1917 a big attack began: the battle of Cambrai.
That day was one of the most exciting I have ever lived through. For perhaps the only time in the whole war, brains had been employed by someone on the British General Staff, to plan a great offensive, instead of sticking to their pig-headed belief that a sufficient mass of human bodies could overwhelm an enemy securely dug-in behind deep belts of barbed wire and concrete pill-boxes (II.191).
It looked at the time as if this offensive could lead to the end of the War; but it fizzled out, and the stalemate resumed. Wheatley was sent to the Third Army Artillery School in St Pol, for more training (he spent much of it in bed with bronchitis). He did manage to celebrate his twenty-first birthday on 8 January 1918, with a case of champagne sent by his father.
His father was 45 at this point, and still worried as that was now within the conscription age. He had become a Grey Angel: touring the streets and the stations in a grey uniform, and packing soldiers off to their home, all to avoid them “from spending a night in the great big wicked capital with a girl” (II.203).
In March 1918 Wheatley got involved in the British fall-back in the face of the German offensive. Wheatley was ordered to Aubigny, which (unknown to the officer who gave him the order) the Germans already occupied; he and his men narrowly avoided contact.
I heard a droning behind me and saw a German aircraft only about two hundred feet up bearing down on me. […] He opened fire, and his bullets spattered the road on both sides of my horse. Like an idiot, instead of turning about so that he would have a minimum time to shoot before flying over me, I set spurs to my mount and galloped madly down the hill. My orderly followed suit most sedately,. Our luck was in: the Hun passed over without hitting either of us (II.212).
The German advance continued.
By then I had again developed bronchitis, although actually this was not the normal type of that ailment. The Germans were putting over hundreds of gas-shells. They just came down in the mud with a plop and were fractured by a small explosive charge. The chlorine gas they contained then trickled out and was soon absorbed into the atmosphere. We were, of course, aware of this and during periods when the air became heavily polluted wore our gas-masks. But one could not eat in them and they were a heavy handicap in many ways, so for most of the time we went about without them on. My cough got worse and worse so early in May, as Colsell had at last returned from leave and taken over from me, I threw in my hand and reported sick. Our doctor took a dim view of my case and at once had me sent down to a base hospital in Boulogne (II.225)
The hospital was a dreadful place, but, one day, on 15 May, Wheatley, half-conscious, was put onto a stretcher and loaded into a ship, that took him home to “dear old England” (II.226). He was taken to recover in Sussex Lodge, in Regent’s Park, which was luxury compared to the equivalent in France. He was allowed out for the first time on 18 June and, incorrigible as ever, headed for the Regents Palace Hotel, “known as the best place to pick up girls” (II.230); unfortunately the girl he picked up and took to a private room in Kettners turned out to expect to be paid. Since he had spent all his money on champagne and the room, she graciously gave him her address and accepted his promise to send her something.
At the end of August he was pronounced fit, and ready for light duty. He was sent to Catterick in Yorkshire. He was there for the announcement of the Armistice, and got “incredibly tight”. He went on leave; on 1 January 1919 he reported for work again at his father’s office.
I have relied on the second volume of Wheatley’s own memoirs (which have overall title of The Time Has Come… The Memoirs of Dennis Wheatley) the second one has the title Officer and Temporary Gentleman, 1914-1919 (London: Hutchinson, 1978).