In June I shall be giving a paper at the Sheffield Hallam Culture Wars conference, about critical responses to the detective fiction of Dorothy Sayers; recently I have been discovering (more than somewhat irrelevantly to the argument of the paper) a little about Sayers’s husband, Atherton Fleming.
I already knew that he was a journalist, and that he was a difficult man, whose temper and drinking were ascribed to his experiences in the War. What I did not know was that in 1919 (before he met Dorothy Sayers) he had written a book: How to See the Battlefields.
It is a guide for battlefield tourists, but rather different from the objective guidebooks available today. ‘What I am going to attempt to describe is that swath of battlefield which is sacred to our own troops,’ he writes, and that sets the tone, since there is no attempt to hide his commitment to the war or his admiration for the soldiers:
Passchendaele itself there will be some difficulty in finding, although there ought to be a bit of the church left ; but it is worth visiting, if only to show some slight mark of respect to the thousands who fell there in the last weeks of 1917. I think the very limit of human endurance was reached during the Passchendaele “stunt,” for if ever man had a foretaste of hell it was surely there. There are many who have reason to remember this place. When you go there try and realise what it must have meant — and cost — to storm the ridge with the weather conditions at their very worst, with no cover worth mentioning, and the enemy fighting all he knew.
Sometimes the associations of places are very personal: when, for example, he writes of the difficulty a postwar visitor might have in imagining the terrain of the Somme in wartime:
Many of the alleged roads and tracks which, in the wet season — and that was every time we made a “push” — were up to the knees in mud, will now be in a much better condition, and, as a matter of fact, parts of the front will look quite as if a really comfortable sort of a war could be carried on with a minimum amount of trouble and inconvenience. If any of you get this idea in your heads when you are in these places just take a visit to the nearest big cemetery and see the names of the men who belonged to some of the finest fighting stock in the world. They found it difficult enough to advance. and if they could not advance no other men on earth could. They could not go forward, so they died. My own brother was one of them. He lies near Pozières.
Fleming was commissioned in the Royal Army Service Corps, and defends the corps against suggestions that they had an easy time in comparison with those more directly involved in fighting:
How the batteries ever got ammunition at all beats me hollow. And yet there are people who still think that the A.S.C. (M.T.) had a soft job! Some of them had, no doubt, at the bases, but what about the poor devils who — many times — worked forty-eight hours on end, at least half of the time under shell-fire, plunging and wallowing in and out of shell-holes, lorries heavily laden with shells and cartridges, well over the axles in mud, no lights, and very often no food, and not the slightest protection in the way of trench or dug-out when the road was under fire ? And yet, in spite of it all, the guns were fed and the shells arrived at the batteries somehow or other ! When looking at these roads and tracks in the Somme area — roads up to the battery positions — try to imagine what it must have been like to work without lights at night — battery positions cannot be reached in the daytime except on certain occasions — and when the least error of judgment or sleepiness on the part of the drivers might precipitate both lorry and contents into some huge shell-hole or mine crater. The job of driver on a heavy battery ammunition lorry was no sinecure, and the gunners themselves — to do them justice — are the first to admit it.
The book can be downloaded from archive.org, and I shall make sure that it’s on my Kindle next time I visit the battlefields.