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Authors: Peter Englund

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BOOK: The Beauty and the Sorrow
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, 6
Sarah Macnaughtan looks for company in Veurne

They get up at seven o’clock and join the queue for the washbasin in the bathroom. It is a small house and it is in a state of increasing dirt and disorder. When they took it over, all eighteen of them, they found some toys left behind on a mat, a saucepan on the stove, and only three beds—unmade since the owners had fled in haste. (There is also Jane, a happy dog with a red coat that one of them found when out on a job.) Most of them sleep on the floor in the unheated rooms and it is very overcrowded. All this is less of a torment than Sarah Macnaughtan expected. She is a very private person, used to living alone and quietly, and up to now she has found it trying to eat and sleep and work in a group: “I find the communal spirit is not in me.” Recently, however, she has surprised herself by starting to look for company, even literally following people around, staying close to them in a way that definitely feels a little embarrassing, but she cannot stop herself doing it. Then it is her turn to use the bathroom. She has to pump for a long time to get any water. She washes. The water is very cold and she notices that the drain seems to be blocked.

Later they all gather in a large room in the butcher’s shop next door and have breakfast before walking to the deserted seminary in which the
new field hospital is located. Since the fall of Antwerp Macnaughtan has been accompanying the retreat south-westwards along the coast. Her original unit—Mrs. St. Clair Stobart’s Ambulance Unit—has returned to England, but she has hung on stubbornly and joined a different group of volunteers, Dr. Hector Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps. She celebrated her fiftieth birthday a week ago.

Antwerp came as a shock to her. Partly because of the defeat itself, partly because of the appalling things she saw—they seemed to be endless and she was not really prepared for them—and partly because of the fact that many, many, oh so many men (and many of them British) did not behave at all in the way she had expected. People lied, bolted, hid away, showed themselves to be cowardly, and some even deserted. The fact that the British press managed to portray the retreat of the British Naval Brigade from the city as some sort of inverted triumph has upset and annoyed her: “I find the conceit of it most trying. Belgium is in the hands of the enemy, and we flee before him singing our own praises loudly as we do.”

She has begun to toy with the idea of not just writing about her experiences but also going out on some kind of lecture tour at home. Her main audiences would be the workers in the munitions industry and her aim would be to make them recognise the seriousness of the situation. She has heard numerous scandalous stories of slackness and carelessness and self-interest and greed. This war can actually be lost.

At eight o’clock the first brown-painted ambulances rumble away but most of the people hang around for a while longer in “a courtyard filled with motors and brancardiers [male helpers] and men in uniform, and women in knickerbockers and puttees, all lighting cigarettes and talking about repairs and gears and a box of bandages.” It is ten o’clock before the last of the ten vehicles leaves to gather the latest harvest of wounded men. As usual, the noise of the artillery hangs in the background. The day before yesterday the Germans abandoned some of their positions on the Yser, beaten not so much by the Belgian army (which has its headquarters in the town here) as by flooding. Unusually heavy gunfire was heard from the south-east and the town of Ypres yesterday.

The work she has to do is still of a fairly everyday sort: cleaning, serving food, distributing clothes. Macnaughtan hopes to be allowed to go out with the ambulances but she almost certainly recognises that she is physically far too weak for that job.

The weather is fine. In the afternoon she decides to go back to the house. She is intending to work on her diary and to rest a little. But it does not happen. She cannot be at peace. She feels anxious and nervous. She pulls herself together and writes, but something is not right with her. “I feel as if all the time I was living in some blood-curdling ghost story or a horrid dream. Every day I try to overcome the feeling, but I can’t succeed.” Yesterday it was one of the wounded men shouting at her that he wanted her to kill him. Today the cheerful French lad with the lovely teeth (the one who makes their coffee at lunchtime) was put against a tree and shot as a punishment for threatening a French officer with a revolver during the night—the boy was apparently drunk at the time. Finally her anxiety gets too much for her and she rises, puts her diary under her arm and walks back to the seminary. She needs company: “I find that unless I am with somebody the ghosts get the better of me.”

By dinnertime the brown-painted ambulances are beginning to return, one by one, at irregular intervals. Weary and dirty, the drivers and stretcher-bearers get out of their vehicles. Greetings are exchanged, and questions asked. “Did you get many?”

Dusk is falling. It is dark by six o’clock.

, 8
Alfred Pollard digs a trench outside La Bassée

They are not really needed here and sending them forward to dig is mainly a way of keeping them occupied until they receive new marching orders.
No one tells them to take care.

There is, after all, so much that is new and unfamiliar. The front line in the west has now become genuinely static and it is only up in Flanders that real fighting is still going on: the First Battle of Ypres. Instead, both sides are mostly occupied digging themselves in, which is not always as simple as it sounds. Since no one foresaw this strange war of position there was very little training for it and there was even less experience.
Later on Pollard remarks that “the trenches in 1914 were terrible”: drainage and refuse collection do not function and there are no shelters or bunkers, only small sections of roof that at best keep out the rain but hardly do more than that. The whole landscape of a war of position is new—not least this deceptive emptiness. Where, in fact, is the enemy? There is no sign of him here. And where is the war itself in all this silence?

So they just trudged off to this position about half a mile from the front line, checked that there was no sign of the enemy and that they were not likely to be under threat, and they started to dig. On the first day the Germans let them get on with their picking and shovelling, without any cover (there was none, in any case), within sight, and in bright sunshine. On the second day, however, the Germans obviously thought that enough was enough.

This is Pollard’s third month in the army. At five o’clock in the afternoon of 8 August he left the insurance company in St. James Street where he worked as a clerk, never to return. It was an easy decision for him. A day or so earlier he had been standing in a great crowd of people outside one of London’s big army barracks and he had watched a unit of the Guards march past on their way to war. Everyone was cheering and shouting, him too, though there was a lump in his throat as the soldiers marched past in perfect step, their arms swinging rhythmically. He was not weeping with pride as many of the others were, nor was it that he was moved by the sudden gravity of the moment, a recognition that the country had been thrown into war without any real warning—and a big war, at that, not one of those distant colonial adventures but a colossal war that threatens to turn the world upside down. Not only threatens to do so but promises to do so, which is why some of the people were cheering: the war stood for a promise of great and radical change. But that is not what moved Pollard so deeply that he started weeping. His tears were tears of envy. He wanted so much to be one of them. “How could I be left behind?”

To many people the war really came as a grand promise of change, and it appealed to Pollard in a number of ways, not the least of which was that he was thoroughly fed up with his job and had even been thinking about emigrating. But now the war had come instead. He was twenty-one years old.

He and all the others had queued for almost three hours. When the gates of the recruiting centre finally opened, he and another man—an
acquaintance from the tennis club—pushed and elbowed their way through and then sprinted for all they were worth to the main building in order to be first. After all, what if the number of places was limited? And what if it was all over before they even got to the front? (His brother enlisted as a volunteer in the same unit at first, but then deserted in order to join a different unit under an assumed name simply because this second unit was expected to be one of the first sent into battle.)

Pollard loved the drill, found the long marches “rather fun” and could hardly control his excitement when he was given his rifle: “I was armed. It was a weapon designed to kill. I wanted to kill.” He often sat playing with his bayonet in secret, testing the edge: “The desire to get to the front had become an obsession.” They marched through London to the sounds of a military band. Weapons training consisted of firing fifteen shots. The order for departure came so suddenly that he did not have time to let his parents know. As the train to Southampton passed through a station, he threw a short message addressed to his mother out through the window. It reached her.

After all this waiting Pollard is at the front at last. Digging. For the second day in succession. The air is filled with the smell of earth and rotting leaves. Suddenly there is a noise “like an express train travelling at an incredible speed,” followed by a ringing, metallic detonation. In front of them, not far above the ground, he sees the billowing, swelling cloud from a shell-burst. Pollard leans on his spade and stares “fascinated”:

I was really under fire. My pulses raced with excitement. A second shell followed the first. Then a third. There was a commotion a little way along the line. Men were running. Someone rushed by calling for the doctor. A direct hit. We had suffered our first casualty.
, 13
William Henry Dawkins writes to his mother from HMAT

Heat and a sea wind. Life on board the troopship is strange. He has probably never lived so comfortably before. Even though William Henry Dawkins is no more than a newly commissioned lieutenant he
is nevertheless an officer and has therefore been given a first-class cabin of his own on board a ship that until just a month ago was one of the Orient Line’s best and most modern vessels. So there is a shower and a hot bath and he is not far from the beautiful dining room in which they serve three excellent meals a day: “Our meals are better than could be had in the best Melbourne hotel.” There is a ship’s orchestra to play for these uniformed passengers.

The only thing to disturb the idyll is the stink of the horses down in the hold. That and the temperature, which rises as HMAT
and the other ships in the great convoy steam their way northwards across the Indian Ocean beneath a fiery sky. Many of the other ranks sleep on deck at night, hoping it will be cool. Since leaving Australia Dawkins has celebrated his twenty-second birthday. A photograph taken immediately before embarkation shows a young man with a gentle smile, oval face, narrow nose and open, inquisitive gaze. He has just started wearing a moustache and his uniform tie is tied in a four-in-hand knot.

But even though he and the other officers are literally living in luxury their existence is far from idle. They usually rise at quarter to six in the morning and the days are spent in physical training, instructing the soldiers, holding sporting competitions and running courses in subjects such as boxing and French. (The idea is that he and the 20,000 Australians and 8,000 New Zealanders in the convoy will be sent to the Western Front.)
Le prochain train pour Paris part à quelle heure?

At the start of the voyage the war was very far away.
At first the vessel sailed with its full peacetime illumination, which in the case of a beautiful liner like the
meant that the ship was lit up at night with thousands of brightly coloured lamps. But now the ship has a strict blackout: they are even forbidden to smoke on deck after sunset. They are afraid of the German cruisers, which are known to be freebooting in the Indian Ocean: their ghostlike and unforeseeable raids across the breadth of the ocean have already sunk almost twenty Allied merchantmen. The convoy’s departure from Australia was, in fact, delayed because a squadron of German cruisers was known to be in the region.
Now they are heading north-west, surrounded by an escort of Allied warships. When Dawkins looks out over the starboard rail he can see the Japanese cruiser
, whose wide funnels, for some reason, emit much denser smoke than the British and Australian vessels. The thirty-eight ships in the convoy make an impressive sight and today Dawkins is sitting in his cabin writing to his mother:

It is wonderful the power of Britain at sea. This huge convoy just proceeds uninterruptedly on its own course in its own time. Then again a lone ship like the
runs its usual mail course to Australia and back. Again cruisers flying our flag appear at odd moments from odd places. All these things point to a complete mastery of the sea. Today we heard of the fall of Tsing-tao and there was a pretty exchange of compliments between ourselves and the Jap battleship.

William Henry Dawkins had intended to be a teacher. His family had neither money nor any tradition of education (when he was born his mother was a seamstress and his father a workman), but his parents recognised that he was a bright child and, with the help of a scholarship, he was able to continue his education at a boarding-school in Melbourne. At the age of just sixteen he began to serve as pupil teacher
at a school no more than twenty-five miles from his home. He would probably have been happy in the teaching profession, which he was actually very keen on, if he had not happened to see in the paper that an officer-cadet school was to be opened in Duntroon. He applied, took the examinations and, to his own surprise, was accepted.

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