John Glubb’s ‘Into Battle’

Not everyone was pleased when the Armistice ended hostilities on 11th November, 1918. John Glubb, a young officer in the Royal Engineers, wrote in his diary:

Alas, the war is over, at the time when it was beginning to be exciting and enjoyable, after all these years.

Glubb was annoyed that the recent months of moving warfare had not allowed him as many opportunities as it might have done. Only a few days earlier, he had written:

We shall accompany the advance guard, of course, and it should be quite exciting, if only we can overtake Bre’er Boche. I always have looked forward to a chance to bring my pontoons into action and slap down a bridge under enemy fire!

When Glubb published his wartime diaries in 1978 he not only chose ‘Into Battle’ as his title, but printed as his epigraph all of Julian Grenfell’s paean to the thrill of warfare (‘And he is dead who will not fight;/ And who dies fighting has increase.’). Few prose accounts of the war are so true to the spirit of Grenfell’s poem.
In a preface, Glubb explains how he came across ‘a bundle of old exercise books, full of faded writing in pencil’ – his diaries from sixty years before:

At a time when survivors who actually fought in the war are becoming fewer and when the war itself is often misrepresented to support modern political propaganda, it seemed to me that these artless pages, written day-by-day in trenches and bivouacs, might not be entirely lacking in interest.


Glubb was from a military family (his grandfather had been a hero of the Indian Mutiny and his father was a regular officer in the Royal Engineers, who later became a Major-General). In 1915, aged just eighteen, John Glubb was himself commissioned in the Engineers, and arrived in France in November of that year. Within a year, the high casualty figures among officers in his unit put this very young man in temporary charge of a large number of sappers, doing difficult and very dangerous work.
On occasion he admits to being terrified – for instance, when he lost his sense of direction while on night patrol in no-man’s-land, and did not know whether he was moving towards the British trenches or the German. More often, though, he describes being thrilled and fascinated by the processes of war. He describes a brilliant attack by German aeroplanes with unalloyed admiration.
The diary chronicles the frustrations and hardships of war, but throughout it all Glubb is fascinated by the challenges and techniques of warfare. One of the engineers’ tasks was trying to enable supplies and reinforcements for advancing troops by laying tramlines across the shell-blasted morass of No-Man’s-Land (where roads were quite impossible). The description of this operation is fascinating.
At Arras, Glubb was severely wounded in the throat and jaw. The account of his journey back to England is the most gripping part of the book.

I could feel something long lying loosely in my left cheek, as though I had a chicken bone in my mouth. It was in reality half my jaw, which had been broken off, teeth and all, and was floating about in my mouth.

On the battlefield he had seen death and suffering, but now he saw worse: ‘I realised vividly now that the real horrors of war were to be seen in the hospitals, not on the battlefield.’ Eventually Glubb arrived at Sidcup in the care of Harold Gillies’s plastic surgery unit; his jaws were cemented together, and he became eager to return to France.
He went back in time to be part of the last hundred days, the war of movement very different from the static trench warfare of the previous four years. This was exhausting but exhilarating, and his military enthusiasm survived four years of war.
After 1919 he stayed in the Army, was posted in Iraq (then governed by Britain under a League of Nations mandate) He became an officer of the Arab Legion, a force organised by the British to keep peace in the region. Later he became an eminence grise in the Middle East, and was famously known as Glubb Pasha.

‘Glubb Pasha’ in 1954

Suggestion to A-Level students: If your teacher tells you that Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’ expressed the mood of the early days of the War, but that after the Battle of the Somme the whole army became disillusioned and despondent, a useful response might be to adopt a puzzled and serious expression, and ask: ‘But what about John Glubb?’

2 Comments

  1. Skywatcher
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    It’s a little like an introduction I read to Buchan’s MR STANDFAST. The person writing the introduction (who hadn’t been born in the era of WWI) complained about the author’s wrongheaded view of the trenches, despite Buchan’s personal involvement in the War. I suspect that Glubb just doesn’t fit into the picture that people want to have of WWI. I’m sure that one of the many, many reasons that modern critics don’t like Bulldog Drummond is because of the idea of a hero who actually misses the War.

    Oh, and a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

  2. Marie
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    A diary should hardly be seen as an objective historical account. People may or may not like it, but it’s the man’s view on the war he fought in.


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