Private Stephen Graham and Private Isaac Reid

Stephen Graham’s A Private in the Guards (1919) is  one of the very best memoirs by a man who served in the ranks. It also puts forward a tough philosophy of warfare.His book’s first sentence is: ‘The sterner the discipline the better the soldier, the better the army.’

Although he was, as a private, on the receiving end of this tough system, by and large Graham endorses it. In the Scots Guards in 1917, he was among conscripts, ‘some of whom in a true and sensible national economy would never have been sent to fight,’  and these were turned into soldiers fit for an elite unit by means of brutality: ‘the humiliation of recruits by words or blows’ and ‘the use of glaringly indecent language’.  Graham deplores these but ‘in wartime the problem of breaking in those who were never intended by Nature to be soldiers was so difficult that some of these ugly things became useful.’   This recognition of awkward moral paradox is Graham’s characteristic tone. He understands what is needed to win a war, and also the human cost of it. ‘You drilled to the breaking point, and then you went on drilling.’  He confronts us with a unit whose unofficial ethos was that ‘a good soldier was one who would not take a prisoner’  and in which ‘men who were not in themselves brutal cultivated brutality to get the army tone.’

He himself takes on the army tone when he uses the first person plural to identify with the toughest of all punishments:

‘We shoot our cowards at dawn, we shoot also sentries found asleep at their posts, we make an example and give the death penalty to officers or men making mistakes which have led to disaster.’

Graham illustrates the regiment’s code clearly by exploring an anecdote from earlier in the War, before he enlisted. During the battle of Neuve Chapelle,‘Private X’ was dazed by shellfire, and ‘straggled in later, and was unable to give an account of himself.’  ‘Sergeant-Major Y’, a dour martinet who ‘through army training, had become the sort of man who presented every fault in the worst possible light’,  reported him as a deserter; a court-martial took the sergeant-major’s testimony against the confused account of the private, and he was sentenced to death. His fellow-soldiers know the sentence is unjustified, but some of them are commanded to form the firing squad:

And not a man has mutinied. Such is the force of the discipline. The mutiny has only been in the heart.

According to Graham, the execution has two effects. The first is that because the battalion feels humiliated, its ethos intensifies, with even greater ferocity, both in discipline and in fighting spirit. The second is that ‘Sergeant-major Y’ became a marked man, sent to Coventry and forced to drink alone. When he was mortally wounded at Festubert, ‘no one would give him a drink of water, though he kept asking for it.’  He is buried apart from the other eighty soldiers who fell in the battle.
‘It is a matter of esprit de corps’ is Graham’s summary of the incident. The sentence is unfair, but discipline prevails. The men’s revenge on the sergeant-major comes from the same spirit that wins them honours in battle. Graham’s memoir shows honour and brutality inextricably linked by warfare.

The unfortunate private seems to be Isaac Reid, executed at Laventie in April 1915. I wonder if there is any independent evidence for the fate of the sergeant-major, or if Graham is just retailing regimental folklore.


  1. Toby Neal
    Posted June 15, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    I am a journalist on the Shropshire Star. A local Great War researcher, Phil Morris, has just sent me details of the entwined lives of Shropshire soldier James Lawton, and Reid. It was Lawton, an Acting CSM, who gave evidence against Reid. Lawton was (according to Phil Morris) badly wounded by shell splinters at Festubert on May 16, 1915, and died the following day, aged 35. Phil has sent me lots of background details of the case and the soldiers, but nothing about any ‘revenge’ by Reid’s comrades – I came across your site by chance by googling Reid’s name.
    Thought you might find confirmation of the existence and name of Sergeant Major Y of interest.
    Toby Neal

  2. Posted June 15, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Many thanks for this. I wonder if it will be possible to find out more about Lawton. I’ll try looking in the archives.

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