R.H. Mottram in the Great War

Mottram back left

In the picture, Mottram is standing at the back, on the left.

In The Window Seat, written forty years later, Mottram recalls the feelings of 1914. War with Germany seemed unthinkable: the royal families were closely connected, and so were many individuals and families.

Then the thing happened, and all dubiousness was brushed away by the invasion of Belgium, with its plain moral, “Britain next, treaties don’t matter” (Window Seat, 215).

Mottram went along with eight others from the bank to enlist. They were sworn in, given a red armband with a crown on it, and sen t back to their civilian jobs: which, actually, in the first days of the War, were rather crucial for bankers. The Bank Holiday was extended, the Stock Exchange closed, the gold sovereign withdrawn; but a panic was averted.

Initially, the volunteer soldiers were in utter confusion. There were no uniforms, no weapons or equipment, just plenty of enthusiasm.

So, while what the Kaiser called “the contemptible little British Army” conducted the retreat from Mons and helped to win the battles of the Marne and the Aisne, we passed golden summer and autumn days in happy activity. Our moral appetites were satisfied. We felt sure we were risking (or preparing to risk) our lives in withstanding a cross military tyranny (Window Seat, 216).

What Mottram joined was a territorial battalion of the Norfolk regiment. He could see that few of the officers were really up to more than home service, so applied for a commission, and was “thunderstruck” to get it.

Our ignorance was blissful. For instance, I, of all people, had become Assistant Adjutant, had a horse to ride, received and dispatched communications of which I had no real appreciation, presided over the early-morning mustering and entraining of drafts. The mass of the men were being pushed through musketry. When I reflect how blankly incomplete my own training and that of the others was, how utterly deficient we were in the habit of soldiering, the stoical close-lipped alterness that trusted no one, expected nothing, but always got in the last and final blow, I marvel and almost shudder (if it were not all so long ago). We conducted our training on a high level of sportsmanship like some very high-class game of football. We made a fine appearance in Colchester and on outré endless route marches and schemes, and missed the sardonic looks of old barrack wardens and habitués of the garrison town who knew what war was like, overseas (Window Seat, 219).

He was posted to Flanders in September 1915, taking the train to “Pop” (Poperinghe), and joined the 9th Battalion Norfolk Regiment, who were pathetically pleased to see the new arrivals: it took Mottram a while to realise that it was because so many of them had been lost at Loos. Mottram moved his men into the trenches, where there was sporadic, but continual fire from the German positions.

Here this narrative ought to stop. By every law of average, by every prediction of probability, I ought to have become a name on one of the myriad crosses of the British Cemeteries in France, now a feature of the landscape of some two Departments of that country. But I didn’t. I have a bullet through my woolly “balaclava” cap. That was near enough (Window Seat, 225).

He summed up his memories of 1915:

In any completely strange environment, the moderately intelligent human being seeks to examine it by his senses. Mine record this. Semi-darkness. (We could seldom raise our head from our shelters in daylight.) Illumination by green star shells, which the enemy fired increasingly and by the sparks struck from every hard object by the rain of bullet fired at us on set lines. Noise. Explosions of all dimension and relate nearness, hissing and whispering; the whiplash crack and shrieking ricochet, stutter of machine fun and ponderous grating of heavy objects moved with difficulty. Odour; carrion and disinfectant, sewerage and chemicals. A sudden wicked sweetness. Gas! A soothing homely whiff of upturned earth. Touch: Wet, sticky hard, cold, the desperate grip of numbed fingers on bolts and triggers. Wet feet, aching head (Window Seat, 230).

Eventually, however, because of his facility with French, he was removed from the immediate conflict, and sent to rove along the border area, investigating complaints about damage allegedly carried out on property by British troops. This gave him the material for The Spanish Farm (1924), which launched his literary career.

In the back areas, unknown to me at that time, was going on the most gigantic expropriation of some of the most tenacious people on earth. Camps and dumps, manoeuvre areas and aerodromes rapidly multiplying in number as well as size, were demanding square miles of the very ground the British troops had come to rescue or defend. Had it been for a fortnight, or even a season, the inhabitants of those countries might have paid their useless rent, or even sacrificed the unexhausted manures, or foregone the profit of shop or warehouse. But when it came to years their temper soured, and they had, in France at least, a solid legal foundation for complaint (Personal Record, 97).

His French liaison officer for a while was the Comte De G. He came to ask Morrtram to investigate a claim by an innkeeper who kept an estaminet on the Paris road near Aire-de-Lys.

“My good Mottram, where is your sense of duty? Here is a claim which must be investigated. Otherwise I shall send it to be chief at Army Headquarters as a case of plundering. Besides, don’t you see what it is—the historic inn, where Athos was besieged in the cellar—until he drank it dry!”
I hadn’t thought of, much less read, The Three Musketeers for years. All that sword-and-doublet business seemed remote enough from the War of shelled latrines, parade-states and delousing stations that I knew (Personal Record, 91).

When he got there the innkeeper saved a piece of sacking labelled O A T S, and swore that this was the name of the  British platoon that had done the damage.

Mottram got some leave over Christmas 1917, and he and Madge got married on 1 January 1918. On return to the Front, he found everyone preparing for a German offensive, and when it came he had to evacuate his office at Hazebrouck and go westwards. Later in the year, he passed through “semi-evacuated, badly-shelled Hazebrouck” (Window Seat 252), and was in Lille shortly after it had been taken from the Germans. And then the Armistice came.

There was for me […] a distinct malaise arising from the fact that the righteous crusade for which I had volunteered in 1914, was by now plainly nothing of the sort. I still clung to the notion that militarism of the German (or Austrian or Russian) kind had been defeated. But there was no longer the urgent call to sacrifice and effort, nor the comradeship in risk and daring that had made the battlefield seem worthwhile. I am not sure that there was not a physical lack—the absence of the familiar noise that had become as much a part of one’s being as one’s own heartbeats. I have heard men say that they couldn’t sleep once the four years of continuous machine fire over the same ground had ceased (Window Seat, 254-55).

He got leave, and saw Madge and his infant son. But then he had to go back, to complete tidying up. He was not demobilised until July 1919, nearly five years after he had enlisted. It was a long war, and even longer, perhaps, for the Frenchmen among whom he had lived. “In the estaminet one market day, I heard it roundly declared that the British would never leave France. They had never had so good a country and had always wanted it. I protested, but was, I could see, not believed” (Personal Record, 123). And he concluded his Personal Record (142):

I can only suggest that it should be explained to the would-be recruit for the next war, that under no possibility can he “fight”. Of the million enlistments of the late War, very few ever saw a German, fewer still can be sure of having personally done any injury to one, and I never met in the field any real hatred of the enemy. Next time fewer still will operate, across great distances, complicated engines directed against centres of population as per map. To call this “fighting” and this associate it with Homeric (or even Crimean) traditions, is to perpetrate a fraud upon the public, upon a large scale. And modern nations can only be stampeded or deluded for short and decreasing periods. When they discover for what they have sacrificed their high standards of comfort and liberty, they will become ominously resentful. It might be as well not to give them reason to be so. Such is the conclusion of my personal record of the War.

My information is taken mostly from Mottram’s The Window Seat; or, Life Observed (London: Hutchinson, 1954) and from R.H. Mottram, John Easton and Eric Patridge, Three Personal Records of the War (London: Scholartis, 1929), supplemented by Stanley Weintraub’s entry on Mottram in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


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