Tuesday, 6 September 2016

'Undismayed by deadly fire...there were no cowards nor waverers'

Lieut-General Hunter-Weston's message
of praise for his troops at the Somme
(the notes at the end are my grandfather's)
I recently discovered in my family archives a fascinating letter that once belonged to my grandfather, who fought in the trenches during the Great War. It was an official message from Lieutenant-General Sir Alymer Hunter-Weston praising his troops for their conduct on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Dated 4 July 1916 and addressed to 'All officers, NCOs and Men of the VIII Army Corps' (which he commanded) Hunter-Weston wrote:

'It is impossible for me to come round all front line trenches and all billets to see every man as I wish to do. You must take the will for the deed, and accept this printed message in place of the spoken word. It is difficult for me to express my admiration for the splendid courage, determination and discipline displayed by every Officer, NCO and Man of the Battalions that took part in the great attack on the BEAUMONT HAMEL-SERRE  position on the 1st July. All observers agree in stating that the various waves of men issued from their trenches and moved forward at the appointed time in perfect order undismayed by the heavy artillery fire and deadly machine gun fire. There were no cowards nor waverers, and not a man fell out. It was a magnificent display of disciplined courage worthy of the best traditions of the British race.'

Lieut-General Alymer
Hunter-Weston: history
has not judged him kindly
The message casts a heroic light on an attack that was, in reality, little short of disastrous, for it was Hunter-Weston's Corps that suffered the greatest number of casualties on 1 July 1916 while failing to achieve any of its objectives. History has not judged the man kindly; Hunter-Weston is often spoken of as one of the Great War's 'donkey' generals, and he is believed to have inspired this damning poem by Siegfried Sassoon:


'Good-morning; good-morning!' the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
'He's a cheery old card,' grunted Harry and Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Pte Edwin Wood -
my grandfather
It would be interesting, however, to hear my grandfather's opinion. As a volunteer soldier, Private Edwin Wood willingly enlisted to fight for King and country and was obviously proud to have in his possession Hunter-Weston's letter, otherwise he would not have kept it. Not all soldiers viewed the conflict in the same way as Sassoon and his fellow war poets. Men like my grandfather saw it as their duty to follow orders without question and accept their fate without protest. And - however heavy the price, and whether or not it was justified - this was the attitude that won the war.

However, it is possible that the General's message was not actually intended for my grandfather. Edwin Wood served with the 4th Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment which, as part of the 48th Division, came under Hunter-Weston's command. But although two battalions from the 48th Division were involved in the first day's attack, the 4th Gloucesters were not; they didn't see action until a few days later.

Perhaps Hunter-Weston's message was nevertheless distributed to all men of the 48th division. Or maybe this one was actually sent to Edwin's younger brother, Private Fred Wood, who served with the 1st Battalion, the Somerset Light Infantry. His battalion was also under Hunter-Weston's command and Fred was one of the first to go over the top on the first day of the Somme. But sadly he never returned and after initially being posted missing in action, he was eventually presumed dead.

If the General's letter was, indeed, intended for Fred, then it may have been kept by my grandfather as an epitaph to his 19-year-old brother who sacrificed his life on that terrible day... 'There were no cowards nor waverers, and not a man fell out. It was a magnificent display of disciplined courage worthy of the best traditions of the British race.'

You can read more about the experiences of ordinary soldiers like Edwin and Fred Wood in my book Letters from the Trenches.

Private Fred Wood, missing in action