Eric Linklater in the Great War

Linklater FanfareMy material comes from Linklater‘s The Man On My Back: An Autobiography (London: Macmillan, 1950) and from his Fanfare for a Tin Hat: A Third Essay in Autobiography (London: Macmillan, 1970). Just after Easter 2014 I stood in front of a museum case in the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall. A label said that it contained Linklater’s tin hat, and his kilt. The kilt was there: no sign of the tin hat. Linklater wrote (11):

The end of my four or five months of active service, as a private in the Black Watch, came when I was hit on the head by a German bullet. I fell unconscious on friendless ground, but quickly recovered. My fingers were numb, and I could not pull the little roll of lint or gauze—the dressing for a wound—from the cotton envelope which enclosed it. I pressed the whole envelope to my bleeding head, clapped my helmet on top, fastened it by a chin-strap, and with some difficulty made my way to a Regimental Aid Post. There I was encouraged to take a closer look at my helmet, for one of those in attendance at the R.A.P. loudly exclaimed, “Here’s a bloody good souvenir, if you can get away with it!” — “It’s mine,” I said, “And I’m bloody well going to keep it.” There was a neat little hole where the bullet had made its entrance; there was a large and jagged hole where the bullet, flattened and disappointed by the density of my Nordic Skull, had forced an exit and gone off in the general direction of Ypres. With the determination of the slightly insane I kept possession of my helmet, and I still have it.

The Kaiser’s war, Linklater explained (FTH 45), grossly interfered with his education in the grammar school in Aberdeen. He had joined a Territorial battalion of the Gordon Highlanders in April 1914, while at school, and did musketry, and drill, and once went on manoeuvres outside Aberdeen.

We saw a gallant sight: such a brave and warlike sight as none of us ever saw again. For our Captain drew his sword, and waving it in the morning air—that now a bar of dullish rose illumined—cried in a high voice: “Charge!” What followed I cannot say, whether hand-to-hand fighting or sudden surrender, for I was late in arriving, and when I came to the top of the hill, all was friendship and congratulation. But I had already seen what was truly interesting, and that was the narrow light that flickered for a moment on the Captain’s sword. It was the latest gleam of the romantic sun that gilded battlefields in the nineteenth century (MMB, 21).

He was called up in August 1914, “and promptly humiliated”. He was fifteen, and wore spectacles. “Now in those proud days, spectacled soldiers did not exist—spectacles in the infantry would have been as indecent as drawers under a kilt—so back to school I went, deeply hurt and sadly out of temper” (FTH 45). He was rejected for short sight (MMB 22). He tried “more than once” more, and more than once was rejected.

Nowadays it is difficult to believe that Rupert Brooke, with a voice suddenly inspired, spoke for a whole generation; and young people deride the mere thought of it. Truth, however, is independent of belief,  and derision might be silenced in Rupert Brooke’s old-fashioned patriotism were given a modern name. If, for example, it were called “protest”. Nowadays, in schools and universities, there is a widespread protest against the forms and conventions of our own soccer; and protest is regarded as a contemporary phenomenon. But in 1914 protest was louder, more general, and much angrier than it is today. It was, however, all directed against the insufferable pretensions of the German Emperor and the brutal behaviour of his marching armies. Indignation was fierce and popular, and everyone was delighted when Brooke, raising it to a higher plane, identified it with patriotism, and simultaneously made patriotism righteous (FTH 45).

Twenty years earlier, in his first attempt at autobiography, he put it very differently:

At sixteen I had the purity and strength of unadulterated silliness. Not only was I blindly patriotic—the war against Germany was a glorious crusade—but a fervid imperialist. I would brood on a map and colour with my heart’s red the wilds of Africa, the wilderness of Central Asia. I would limn with the rose of might-have-been all the territory that England had ever held and lost, from Aquitaine to Massachusetts. But not in greed only, or for glory, but because I believed most passionately that Britain held all the virtues in one hand and most of the world’s destiny in the other (MMB 23).

Conscription turned him into a cynic overnight (MMB 24).

While he was still at school he heard of the death of his father. He was commanding an armed merchantman, that had delivered munitions to Vladivostock, and was delivering another cargo, when his ship was attacked by a U-boat in the South Atlantic. His ship’s guns kept the U-boat at bay, but he fell ill. He was put ashore at Colombo, and died of pneumonia.

Finally, with the help of a disenchanted friend, Captain James Stewart, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who advised Linklater not to go into the infantry, he was pronounced fit, though not for foreign service, and joined the infantry. It was a Yeomanry regiment stationed in the north of England.

This early period of my service was, I think, one of the happiest seasons of my life. With the coming of spring we went under canvas, and for several months enjoyed what was really a well-arranged picnic with intervals of factitious excitement. […] because we were dismounted Yeomanry, and had bicycles instead of the discarded horses, we enjoyed unusual mobility; and being under a Brigadier who believed in large-scale exercises, we were constantly engaged in mimic warfare over a wide area of woodland and high-rolling countryside and cliffside villages. […] It was, perhaps, of dubious worth as a preparation for trench warfare, but it was very good fun (MMB 30).

When he heard that they were sending a small draft to the Black Watch in France, he made a few adjustments to his own medical record (improving his eyesight and adding a year to his age) and, using his own authority as Orderly Corporal, added his own name to the list of those sent abroad.

Most of the thirty or forty men who went were NCOs and good at drill. When they arrived in Boulogne, they gave a demonstration before the general:

So, for another twenty-four hours, our advance into the freezing mud of Passchendaele was deferred until we had performed again our balletic manoeuvres for the pleasure and instruction of General Whatnot. The war—in which no one had ever been called on to form a hollow square—was then in its fourth year (FTH 54).

And then, to Passchendaele, “a landscape of incommunicable horror, so stark a denial of life that nowadays I sometimes wonder, not why, but how we ensured such insufferable discomfort” (FTH 54). They sat in freezing mud and water for weeks, and there was seldom enough to eat. The Americans were selling thousands of tons of “pork and beans”, in tins “that contained a sliver of pig-fat on a muddy concentrate of nature’s most repulsive vegetable” (FTH 54), and sometimes that was all there was to eat. The British soldiers had respect for the German soldiers; but little respect for their own government, and none at all for the French (who were “deplorably casual in their disposal of the dead”: FTH 55).

Linklater left the Ypres Salient in the thaw, in the rain, and marched to the Somme. An intelligent commander suggested that the men would get more protection from the rain if they wore their kilts as cloaks.

So we said goodbye to Passchendaele with a flutter of grey shirt-tails dancing behind our bums; and forty-eight hours later, when the thaw had created a vast quagmire in which fierce streams ran wild, the battalion that relieved us lost a score of men, not from shell-fire, but by drowning (FTH 56).

Linklater is the only memoirist I have come across who remembers the presence of horses with some affection:

All transport depended on horses, and the smell or horse-lines was a rich, invigorating and delightful smell that did much to dispel the hot stench of battle, the sour and dispiriting odours—in areas which the French occupied—of death. But in conflict with that warm, good smell there was the occasional sight of gun-teams running into shell-fire, and the scream of wounded horses was more painful by far, and seemed more pitiable, than the quiet and decent complaint of a dying man. Mules—those intractable, anarchic creatures—could take dreadful wounds and gallop on; horses showed a tragic susceptibility to pain. Somewhere I have read that the weight of fodder for our horses, carried from England to France, was greater than the tonnage of ammunition so transported. I do not know if that is true, but certainly there was fodder enough to create, in the horse-lines that stood a little way behind the battle areas, a rich and comforting air that seemed to naturalise—almost to domesticate—the destruction of war. It was the ancient smell of the farmyard, where the midden rises as the year increased, and dung is the promise of health for another season (FTH 56-57).

In the Somme area nothing much happened, but

I discovered, to my great distress, that I was not nearly so good a soldier as I had thought. I was, in fact, a very poor and useless soldier, bewildered by the savagery and squalor of my surroundings, and ill-at-ease among my fellow privates who were a far rougher sort than the bicycle-riding Yeomanry at home. I was so miserable that I scarcely had the heart, if I was detailed for a ration party, to steal an extra loaf of bread of tin of jam. I did; but there was no pleasure in the theft. It was a furtive snatch, not bold-eye freebooting as it should have been. I was dismally constipated until a blest pair of bullets from a German sniper so frightened me that a sudden cure was effected; and being multitudinously lousy, I could get no proper sleep (MMB 26).

Ludendorff’s 62 divisions attacked early in the morning of 21 March 1918. Linklater was not there, as he had developed trench-fever: for all that he scorched the folds of his kilt with a lighted candle, and wore shirts washed in unpleasant chemicals, the lice survived, and attacked him. He was in hospital in Rouen with a very high temperature; but he recovered quickly, and rejoined his regiment on 23 March. Linklater’s regiment had lost a lot of men, so many that he ended up in a composite regiment formed from the remnants of several others. He worked in Signals for a while: that is, he delivered messages by hand. And then (ironically, given his eyesight) he was made a sniper. Many years later he was asked if being a sniper felt like being a murderer, or an assassin.

It was nothing like that. For the three weeks in which I lived an almost solitary life, remote from my platoon, my sniping, against an ever-probing and often advancing enemy, was much more like a succession of deliberately invited duels in which I had, admittedly, the initial advantage of choosing my position, and the inherent advantage of being a better shot—as things turned out—than most of the Prussian Guards who opposed us. We thought, or pretended, they were Prussian Guards, but they may, in fact, have been Saxons or Bavarians. Whoever they were, they were very active, and more numerous than we. But, whether Prussians or Bavarians, their musketry was not of the highest class […] My few weeks as a sniper gave to my life an excitement, an intensity, which I have never known since. I have, on the whole, had a happy life, and I have known much pleasure. But in my nineteenth year I lived at a high pitch of purpose, a continuous physical and mental alertness, that has never again suffused my brain and body—and which, in later hearts, my body and brain could not have sustained (FTH 66-67).

Linklater tells the story of a boozy sing-song he had at this time with a number of fellow-soldiers, assisted by Corporal Alexander, whose bravery had won him the DCM, and who had a sweet and melodious voice. Alexander taught the others some new songs, and then, with the rum finished, left the dug-out and shot himself in the lower leg.

In my little experience of active war, Corporal Alexander was the only man I knew who escaped from the trenches by so dire a method; and except for a reckless, medal-seeking company commander and some dourly resistant sergeants, I met no one braver (FTH 71).

The court of enquiry, many weeks later, resolved to remove his DCM as punishment, without taking him to a court-martial.

Linklater was shot in the head a few days later. His description of the event is at the top of this page. After putting a dressing on under his helmet, he wandered off, fell into a waterlogged trench, and nearly drowned. He threw away most of his equipment, and wandered off again, eventually finding his battalion. His wound was dressed, and he was left among the dying men. But then he was put in an ambulance, whose jolting was an agony, and eventually had to get out and walk to a train.

Watching us were thirty or forty men of the Chinese Labour Corps. Moon-faced, tickle wadded coolies like those I had been warder among in the long hut at Calais. The same men, perhaps. They began to laugh at us. We were a ludicrous company, tottering and misshapen, roughly bandaged; but only the dreadful sanity of China could have seen the joke, I think. Thin of voice, the coolies tittered with laughter; then, as their mirth grew, doubled-down and held their sides, or clapped each other on the back. Peal upon peal their laughter ran, and they pointed to the saviours of the western world (MMB 48).

He had an operation in Boulogne, and less than a month later was transferred to England. Tickets were attached to the wounded men’s beds, indicating whether they were a stretcher case or a walking-wounded: the latter could stay on deck for the cross channel trip. Linklater’s neighbour was asleep, so Linklater swapped tickets, and was able to go up onto the deck,

and saw a pretty sight in consequence. A German aeroplane, flying very high, aimed a couple of bombs either at the ship or the harbour, and promptly a fleet of little scarlet seaplanes, like a whirlwind of red roses, went up to the attack and drove them off. An exciting and gallant spectacle, and the last pleasure I had for some time (MMB 52).

“There’s no need to worry,” he wrote to his mother, “I was hit on the head, but though the bullet pierced my helmet it travelled idly round my skull and went off again” (FTH 72). He had a second operation, “in a dismal hospital in the far east of London”, and narrowly avoided death. He destroyed all his letters home much later, but read them first:

In none of my letters was there any trace of self-pity. It is true, of course, that in that war no one who found himself, still alive, in a hospital bed, felt much impulse to self-pity—for all but the most painful of beds were preferable to the trenches—but my distant relation, the young man who was my predecessor [he was writing about himself fifty years before], deserves a little credit for reticence. He was facetious, in a manner I found embarrassing as I tore up his letters, but he never asked for sympathy. Sometimes he demanded money and cigarettes, but never pity (FTH 72-73).

After recovery, Linklater spent a little while in the Reserve Battalion of the Black Watch, stationed first in Edinburgh Castle and then in Fort George, on the Moray Firth, and early in 1919 he was demobbed, and became a medical student at Aberdeen University.


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