Brigadier-General F.P. Crozier was not the kind of soldier who let ethical niceties get in the way of military success. Describing typical trench raids in his memoir A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land (1930), he writes:
As we require only one prisoner on each occasion, and as more are a nuisance, all other enemy soldiers encountered must be put to death.
All – it is implied – includes those offering to surrender.
What are our weapons? The pistol, the rifle, the bullet, the bayonet, knuckle-dusters, hook knives with which to rip up, daggers for the heart, butchers’ knives for the throat, the bomb for random work, once the prisoner has been extracted and bags of aminal thrown into the dugouts, served up with time fuses, to blow whole companies to smithereens. Tear gas bombs to cause temporary blindness, egg bombs charged with deadly poison to pulverise the lungs and stop the breathing complete the outfit. We moderns are extraordinarily unkind to each other in war – and in peace!
Few soldiers are as brutally candid as Crozier about the nastiness of their trade, and about the necessity of ruthlessness if victory is to be secured.
As a young soldier in the Boer War, he had learnt a lesson from Spion Kop.
They were told by superior authority to take and hold Spion Kop. They took it without loss. They didn’t hold it. Had they done so they would have relieved Ladysmith and saved the lives of men and women starving and dying of sickness. they retreated. [….] The responsible officer on Spion Kop was not told to retreat. There was a complete lack of intellectual discipline.
Crozier is unimpressed by the excuses offered for the retreat: ‘lack of ammunition, lack of food, water, artillery support, as well as too much enemy shell fire which apparently could not be helped’.
In the Great War, he became a martinet who instilled these principles into his officers and men – threatening fleeing soldiers with his pistol when necessary (and on one occasion, shooting a subaltern). By the time he wrote this book, however, he had become a convinced supporter of the League of Nations Union, active in the campaign for world peace. The ‘nastiness’ of war, which he had accepted as an important part of his job, now becomes a crucial argument for outlawing war forever. If the politicians want war, they must accept that it involves cruelties and atrocities.
The book is similar to Stephen Graham’s A Private in the Guards (1919), in its insistence that victory can only be achieved through a totally uncompromising attitude and tough discipline. It is less closely argued than Stephen’s book, though, and relies a great deal on self-assertion. There are many conversations and events described where one would like to read accounts from the other person’s point of view.
Capital punishment for desertion is one of the things that Crozier considers necessary, and there is a grim account of a court-martial and execution here, including a description of how the man was made insensible with drink the night before, so that he was unconscious.
He has already been bound with ropes. There are hooks on the post; we always do things thoroughly in the Rifles. He is hooked on like dead meat in a butcher’s shop.
Reading descriptions like this, one wonders whether the bluntness is an effect laid on by the later, pacifist, Crozier, or whether it represents his actual attitude at the time. Sometimes there are hints that during the War he was conscious of having to put on an act, to convince his men and himself (‘My upper lip is stiff, my jaws are set.’). At other times his warlike pose seems no pose at all but deeply ingrained.
While the more typical books of the ‘war books boom’ from 1928-1930 concentrated on communicating the suffering of the individual soldier, Crozier’s book makes us aware of the soldier not as passive victim, but as inflicter of suffering on others.
In his emphasis on toughness, and on the necessity of cruelty, even to the extent of committing war crimes such as the shooting of prisoners, should we take him as typical of Great War soldiers? I think not. Stephen Graham suggests that this kind of uncompromising attitude was found in elite formations such as the Guards, but probably not elsewhere.
Richard Holmes, in Acts of War, makes an interesting point about the German attacks of 1918:
The remarkable thing about the German March offensive was not how many British soldiers were killed when trying to surrender, but how few. Survivors’ testimony indicates that the Germans were remarkably scrupulous about accepting surrender in circumstances when in hot blood they might easily have killed out of hand.
There is no reason to suppose that most British soldiers acted less decently than their enemies in such large-scale actions. The particular circumstances of the trench raids described at the start of this post (a small number of men invading enemy territory, unable to take more than one prisoner back, and in great danger from any enemy soldiers left alive as they made their way back across No Man’s Land) made the summary execution of any other men they found a military necessity. Crozier is right in suggesting that war inevitably brings situations where survival depends on the ability to be ruthless.
But in case we feel morally superior to Brig.Gen Crozier, we should note that, in his experience, when it came to the interrogation of prisoners ‘the thumbscrew has long since ceased to play its part in the extraction of wanted information.’ Could any writer of the twenty-first century still make the claim that torture had disappeared from the world?