The War the Infantry Knew: 1914-1919 by Captain J. C. Dunn
‘[T]he War came with the suddenness of a thunderbolt,’ wrote Sergeant-Major Boreham of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in August 1914. As the drums beat louder, this veteran of the Boer War in South Africa found he was unable to share the enthusiasm of his younger comrades: ‘The first thing that came to [my mind] was the recollection of being verminous in South Africa, and the intense horror of being so again.’
That this and many other such intimate thoughts should exist in one outstanding chronicle is thanks to another survivor of the Boer campaign, Captain James Churchill Dunn, a Scottish physician who served as Regimental Medical Officer to the 2nd Battalion of His Majesty’s 23rd Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, from the 7th of November, 1915 to the 22nd of May, 1918. Having kept many of the Fusiliers alive during the war, this remarkable man spent his first 20 post-war years making sure their memories would never fade.
In compiling The War the Infantry Knew: A Chronicle of Service in France and Belgium 1914-1919, Dunn drew on the letters and diaries of 50 members (mostly captains) of the 2/R. Welch Fusiliers, as well as those of a handful of soldiers from four other battalions. One source he exploited very little was his own writing. Though he did provide many words of context, Dunn included only three excerpts from his private diary. This is wholly in keeping with a personality that, while fearless and, at times, forceful, contained no desire for fame. It is with this remarkable character that one must begin if one is to fully comprehend the immensity of The War the Infantry Knew.
Compensating for Dunn’s modesty, Keith Simpson MP, in his fine introduction to the book, gives a careful overview of the New Zealand-born doctor. Dunn’s ability to dodge death (he was immobilised only once, during a gas attack six months before the armistice) appears to have been acquired at birth. Three or four months after their son was born, Dunn’s parents were killed during a Maori uprising. The baby Dunn was discovered by a neighbouring sheep farmer and sent back to Scotland.
In 1897, after completing his medical degree and earning his M.D. qualification in Edinburgh, Dunn moved to London. When the Boer War began in 1899, he volunteered for service not as an army doctor, but as a solider in the Yeomanry. The veterans of this important if slightly anachronistic unit (merged into the Territorial Force in 1908) provided much-needed experience in the early days of the First World War, and some telling criticism as the fighting dragged on. ‘Kitchener and the War Office have learned nothing, or forgotten everything that the raising, training, and service of the Yeomanry and C.I.V. [City Imperial Volunteers] in South Africa proved,’ writes Quartermaster-Sergeant F. Powell in November, 1915. ‘Those lessons entered into my marrow. Every blunder of that small-scale rehearsal has been repeated in this war, and they’re all repeated in this absurd division.’
During his one-year stint in South Africa Dunn earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery. 15 years later, it was, above all, Dunn’s courage that made him such a well respected figure in the 2/R. Welch Fusiliers. Numerous accounts attest to this, including an original one from Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon.
Though he served with the Second Battalion for just one month in 1917, Sassoon was sufficiently influenced by Dunn to honour him with the poem ‘A Footnote on the War’ (On Being Asked to Contribute to a Regimental History). As its title suggests, the poem was Sassoon’s response to Dunn’s request, made in 1927, for an account of his time with the battalion. In the third stanza Sassoon writes of his former medical officer:
We’d got a Doctor with a D.S.O.
And much unmedalled merit. In the line
Or out of it, he’d taught the troops to know
That shells, bombs, bullets, gas or even a mine
Heaving green earth toward heaven, were things he took
For granted, and dismissed with one shrewd look.
No missile, as it seemed, could cause him harm.
So on he went past endless sick-parades;
Jabbed his inoculation in an arm;
Gave “medicine and duty” to all shades
Of uninfectious ailment. Thus his name
Acquired a most intense, though local fame.
The poem was Sassoon’s way of declining Dunn’s solicitation, a decision he quickly reversed. His 12-page account of life with the 2/R. Welch Fusiliers, which would eventually become part of his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, here forms chapter 12, ‘A subaltern’s service in camp and in action.’
‘I could hardly have begun my acquaintance with the Battalion under worse conditions,’ Sassoon writes of his first days. After mud and smoke, awful tea, lost luggage, a stolen trench-coat and the fact that he ‘had been posted elsewhere than to the 1st Battalion which I regarded as my spiritual home in France,’ Sassoon felt ‘inclined to grumble.’ Worse was to come when, ‘that well-known M.O., Captain Dunn, greeted me with a double anti-typhoid injection.’
Sassoon’s fellow soldier and poet, Robert Graves, also served in the famous battalion. In a letter to Graves from October 1925, Dunn wrote of his on-going project, ‘The idea is to make the history something between a popularly written text book that can be used for purposes of instructing recruits, & a real good story of the life lived by the men from mobilisation to armistice.’ The former comrades corresponded regularly until Dunn’s death in 1955, but, for better or worse, Graves’ accounts of the conflict do not feature here.
How could this be? How could Dunn omit one of the War’s most famous writers and critics – a man who, after all, served with the Fusiliers for two years? The short answer is Graves’ memoir Goodbye to All That. As Simpson explains, when it was first published in November 1929, Graves’ book incurred the wrath of Sassoon and the distaste of Dunn. The former was furious that Graves had included one of his unpublished poems, while the latter was put off by Graves’ literary embellishment and stretching of the truth. Dunn did have Graves’ permission to draw on Goodbye to All That, but, wary of upsetting the ‘tone’ of his book, published The War the Infantry Knew without any of Graves’ first-hand accounts.
That is not to say that the great writer is anonymous. Far from it. Mentions of him, while few in number, are rich in detail. An entry for the 10th of November 1915, for example, reads:
A. Company H.Q. was the cellar of a house near Braddel Point. Among the occupants were two much-made-of-kittens and Graves. Graves had reputedly the largest feet in the Army, and a genius for putting both of them in everything. He put one on a kitten: it was enough. Not long afterwards he and “Dirty” were transferred to the 1st Battalion.
Graves’ participation in the War would end during the Somme Offensive of 1916. ‘Graves had a bad chest wound of the kind that few recover from,’ reads an entry from the 20th of July. Indeed, “officially” Graves didn’t recover: he was pronounced dead, and his next of kin was informed. This caused an outpouring of grief that Graves – clinging to life – found very moving. The entry for the 31st of July reads: ‘Now Graves writes to the C.O. that the shock of learning how much he is esteemed has recalled him from the grave, and that he has decided to live for the sake of those whose warm feelings he has misunderstood.’ It is the last we hear of Captain Robert von Ranke Graves.
Warm humour, amusing details and an economy of words even amidst carnage are common features of this magnificent book. ‘During the search… Pattison – hearing a shell coming – dropped on his face. When the dust and smoke had cleared he was in the fresh shell-hole of a 5.9 in a sitting position. Collecting himself, he remarked, “That one nearly had me.”‘ Heartbreakingly, just a few lines later we encounter men who did not have the chance to display such wry stoicism:
The ground was strewn with dead and wounded in numbers diminishing with the distance; many of the wounded were crawling back through the grass. Gas was still rising from cylinders in our trench; and, drifting up from the right, it came back over our line and fell into the trench for lack of a breeze to disperse it: thus many of the helpless wounded were gassed.
The above passage exemplifies another impressive feature of the book: the quality of the writing. It is remarkable that in his hell of Somme mud and German shells in the winter of 1917 a captain could describe the previous 24 hours with the following poetic concision:
The morning was damp and misty. I stood garter-deep in liquid mud retrieving articles from an advanced aid-post… After lunch the Brigadier paid a flying visit. He had left his usual aplomb behind, and we were not inclined to talk. Next, we learned by telephone that there was to be no release yet from the caprice of the abstract tactician who from far-away disposes of us: someone playing fantastic tricks with reality had substituted 30 seconds shooting by two unregistered trench-mortars for the impotent batteries of guns. This was confirmed in an amended Brigade Operation Order, spread over an extra half-sheet of paper. There are times when foolscap is fitting, and ironic mirth is a safety-valve.
The grinding tedium captured in this passage (from a section fittingly titled ‘Winter, a hard one’) was something Dunn felt compelled to feature. In a letter to the poet and soldier Edmund Blunden in March 1931, he wrote:
I have found that even intelligent people have the strangest idea of a battle as a battalion wages battle: to them it is hours of physical exertion & of maiming. 5, 10, 15, 30 minutes of activity & 23 hour & 30, 45, 50, 55 minutes of idleness during which there are noises on or off & there may be accidents, are scarcely credited.
Rest assured, nobody (intelligent or otherwise) could fail to be moved by these stories of infantry life during the most significant event of the 20th century. If you have time to read only one Great War book during this centenary year, make it this one.