I’ve written before about Queer People, the memoirs of Basil Thomson, head of C.I.D. during the War. As well as stories about spies, and one of the best surveys of wartime legends and rumours, he likes to write about criminals who made good (demonstrating the morally bracing effects of war).
In one case a man who had been convicted of burglary won the Victoria Cross. He volunteered on a night of heavy rain to crawl to the enemy’s trenches alone and silence a machine-gun post. He told the officer before he left that if he did not return in half an hour the company was free to open fire, “and never mind me.” Just before the interval expired he dropped back into his own trench, plastered with mud from head to foot. Returning again to the Front after the award of the V.C., he was killed in action. I knew the man – a rough, silent Lancashire lad, who had come to grief, I believe, through a love of adventure, and who was as free from egotism, pose, and self-consciousness as any of the men I knew. When the Great Book is opened his crimes, such as they were, will, I think, be found erased on the debit side of his account, and the Recording Angel will have set down virtues which had but a tardy recognition while he walked this earth.
Today’s Daily Telegraph re-tells the story, naming the man as William Mariner, and quoting a previously unknown eye-witness account by Jack Laister, a fellow soldier who helped Mariner in the enterprise:
“I had just had my 18th birthday and that night Mariner said to me: ‘This is it, Chico [Laister’s nickname], got your cutters?’.
“He told me he needed two bandoliers of Mills bombs [grenades] and said ‘I can’t drag a box over no man’s land’. He shook my hand and told me to crawl up to the German wire with him, cut and then ‘for God’s sake get back’.
“Things seemed to be in our favour — it was a pitch-black night although of course we had to tuck ourselves into the ground when the Very Lights[flares] went up.
“We reached the wire and I started to cut, all the time being terrible afraid that if the Germans heard me it would mean certain death for both of us, but they didn’t.
“Then Mariner took off his tunic and his shirt so they didn’t catch on the wire and whispered ‘now get the bloody hell out of it’ and I remember thinking, I’ll never see him again. I crawled back as fast as I could but I had only got half way back when all hell was let loose.
“I never saw anything like it: standing on top of the German front-line trench was Mariner. In the light from the Very Lights I could see him hurling bomb after bomb into the German trench.
“Pieces of bodies, limbs, heads were all flying out and up into the air. Again I thought, that’s the last I’ll see of him because the Germans had opened up with every gun.
“I managed to get back to our line and as I dropped over on to the fire-step, my mates grabbed me and one even kissed me, saying ‘My God, you got back alive’.
“But we all thought we’d never see Mariner again.
“We sat on our fire-step, keeping our heads down and waiting for a counter-attack and after a while we heard people speaking German, which was strange because they were giving the game away. Then, pushed over the parapet, came two Germans who dropped on to the fire-step and Mariner jumped in after them, carrying part of a German machine-gun.”
Mariner was the illegitimate son of a weaver from Chorley. Only 5’3″ tall, he first joined the army in 1900, at the age of 18. After serving in India he was discharged in 1912, and was convicted for breaking and entering. In October 1914, he re-enlisted with his old regiment.
When I wrote about Thomson’s book before, I thought his treatment of this and similar stories showed his need to interpret war as a positive redeeming experience. Does the repetition of the story in today’s paper reflect a similar need today? Or will modern readers take this as a tale from a different, more heroic, now almost unimaginable age? As the war retreats from living experience, legends re-surface with renewed power.