Alfred Duff Cooper is best known as the politician who became Minister of Information in the Second World War – but his diaries of the First World War make excellent reading for anyone interested in stories of the upper class at war.
A young man of talent and connections, until 1917 he was employed, and, it would seem, needed, at the Foreign Office, but it became obvious that the F.O. was likely to be ‘combed out’, and that he, as the youngest of the permanent unmarried staff, would be allowed to go. The thought fills him, he says, with exhilaration:
I always wished to go to the war though less now than I did at first. I envy the experience and adventure that everyone else has had. I am not afraid of death though I love life and should hate to lose it. I don’t think I should make a good officer.
Before this he had had a ‘feeling […] that I am missing something, the vague regret that one feels when not invited to a ball even though it be a ball that one hardly would have hoped to enjoy.’
Cooper had clearly been working hard at the Foreign Office, but lived a life of luxury (and hard drinking). One of the interests of his diaries is his description of sumptuous meals consumed by the elite at a time when the populace was encouraged to observe meatless days and to drink Lloyd George’s weakened beer. Cooper has a considerable sense of entitlement. Deciding that he wopuld like to be in the Grenadier Guards, he goes to see an acquaintance at Wellington Barracks, and is told that he should consider the matter as practically settled.
Going for training at Bushey in July 1917, he is disappointed that ‘The men here are not only men applying for commissions in the Guards, but for all regiments – and a great many, the majority of them, have risen from the ranks.’ These men ‘smoke sickening cigarettes and some of them slept in their shirts’.’ He is given ‘a common private’s uniform with terrible boots’. He writes that ‘the strangeness, roughness and degradation of it all appalled me’, but records that ‘With some difficulty I found a man willing to black my boots and polish my buttons for me.’
After a while an influx of new recruits means a shuffling of rooms, and he is allocated a room with just three others: Brassy, an ‘attractive boy’, fresh from Eton; Archibald Browne, partner in a bank and ‘quite amusing with an enormous repertoire of indecent stories’; and Boyle, a ‘tiresome boy who has been to Marlborough and then for two terms at Bailliol of which he is inordinately proud and can talk of nothing else.’
Cooper comments: ‘It is a great relief to have got away from the other lot with whom it was really quite impossible to bridge the gulf. It is so much pleasanter to sleep with people who wash regularly and speak English.’
On November 22nd he records that he is gazetted, ‘and so am at last a full blown Officer in the Grenadiers, which seems strange and improbable.’
In April 1918 he arrives in Boulogne, and in May spends a fortnight in the line.
We had a good deal of excitement at night and were often severely shelled. I was glad to find that I was no more frightened than other people and I really think less so – especially, I must confess – after dinner.
On the whole, ‘the line was not as bad as I had expected – the dirt is the chief inconvenience and the difficulty of washing.’
When the time comes for serious military action, he turns out to be rather an effective soldier.
A machine gun is holding up British progress, and Cooper is ordered to take his men to knock it out:
It was rather an alarming thing to be told to do. However I got my lewis gun up to within 80 yards of it creeping along the hedge. The lewis gun fired away. When it stopped I ran forward. Looking back I saw that I was not being followed. I learnt afterwards that the first two men behind me had been wounded and the third killed. The rest had not come on. One or two machine guns from the other side of the railway were firing at us. I dropped a few yards away from the gun I was going for and crawled up to it. At first I saw no one there. Looking down I saw one man running away up the other side of the cutting. I had a shot at him with my revolver. Presently I saw two men moving cautiously below me. I called to them in what German I could at the moment remember to surrender and throw up their hands. They did so immediately. They obviously did not realise that I was alone. They came up the cutting with their hands up – followed to my surprise by others. There were 18 or 19 in all. If they had rushed me they would have been perfectly safe, for I can never hit a haystack with a revolver and my own men were 80 yards away. However they came back with me like lambs.
A couple of days later he is part of a major attack:
The attack itself was beautiful and thrilling – one of the most memorable moments of my life. The barage came down at 4 a.m. A creeping barrage – we advanced behind it. We kept direction by means of a star and a huge full moon shone on our right. I felt wild with excitement and glory and knew no fear. When we reached our objective, the enemy’s trench, I could hardly believe it so quickly had time passed it seemed like one moment. We found a lot of German dead there. The living surrendered.
On leave in Paris, he lives the high life, dining at the Ritz, and visiting exclusive places:
In the afternoon I went to 18 Rue Pasquier – an establishment I knew before the war and which apparently has if anything improved since. There I was satisfied by a fair thin girl – rather like Nancy but better looking.
He is on leave in November when the Armistice is declared:
All London was in uproar – singing, cheering, waving flags. In spite of real delight I couldn’t resist a profound melancholy, looking at the crowds of silly cheering people and thinking of the dead.
I took a look at Cooper’s diaries because I had recently enjoyed his only novel, Operation Heartbreak (1950). It’s one of those novels whih link the two wars. The hero, Willie Maryngton is a young man who enlists in 1918, but the war finishes before he has a chance to fight. Since that has been his great ambition, he is disappointed, but continues in the peacetime Army, though growing disillusioned by the lack of challenges, and by his failure to achieve advancement. He leaves the Army – but then the Second War comes. He strives to get back, but now he is considered too old, and unfit for the work he craves. How he comes to play a part in an essential episode of the war (I won’t say more since this is a book where one wants to avoid spoilers) makes for absorbing reading. It is a very well-written novel, leaving one wishing he had produced more.
It is published by Persephone, and I probably would never have read it without the Persephone seal of approval (I have never yet regretted a Persephone purchase) since I was rather prejudiced against Duff Cooper because of his part in the hounding of P.G. Wodehouse after those stupid Berlin broadcasts. Mind you, Wodehouse got a neat revenge. In one of the Wooster novels, when Gussy Fink-Nottle is arrested on Boat Race night, he gives the police the silliest false name he can think of – “Alfred Duff Cooper”.