An Officer on the Western Front: Anthony Fletcher Reads His Grandfather's Correspondence from the Western Front to See How He Maintained Morale and Developed His Leadership

Article excerpt

THE MEMORIAL AT Faubourg-d'Amiens Cemetery in Arras records the names of 35,942 Allied soldiers who fell in that area of the Western Front and whose graves are not known. Seven hundred men of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment, the Sherwood Foresters are listed there. 109 from its 2/5th battalion died on March 21st, 1918, the day that the final German offensive on the Western Front began. Overall, that day, around 78,000 men from both sides were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, the highest figure for a single day's fighting in the whole of the Great War. The 2/5th Sherwood Foresters was one of seven British battalions each of which suffered losses of more than a hundred men. One of those killed from this battalion was Major Reggie Chenevix Trench (1888-1918), my grandfather. This article is based upon many of the 300 or so letters he wrote home to his wife and mother, between February 1917 and the day he was killed.

Poems written by his grandfather at the time of the Crimean War had a bearing on Reggie's upbringing. Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster and Archbishop of Dublin, was an eminent Victorian poet and philologist. His verse emphasised Britain's Imperial responsibility in the world: 'the price of pain and loss, and large self-sacrifice, set ever on high things by Heaven's decree'.

After Reggie left Charterhouse, at seventeen in 1905, he read The Brushwood Boy. This little known work of Rudyard Kipling's, his only pure love story, was a destiny tale, telling of a boy's dreams carrying the promise of adult fulfilment in love and in service to the nation. Reggie called it his favourite story. The story develops around the boy's meetings, which always started at a pile of brushwood stacked near a beach, with the girl who became the love of his life. In his dreams they rode the Thirty Mile Ride.

Reggie seems to have modelled himself on George Cottar, the Brushwood Boy, whose hard and conventional exterior concealed a sensitive inner life. Cottar's qualities were undoubtedly ones Reggie sought to emulate: modesty, gallantry, diligence and dedication. Cottar's subaltern training was in India, where he learnt the adjutant's words 'get to know your melt and they will follow you'. Reggie's military training began when he joined the Inns of Court Officers Training Corps, soon after graduating from Oxford in 1909. He was enormously keen, attending regular summer camps, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in April 1912.

While he was at Merton College, Reggie had developed his appreciation of Kipling. He found 'If' 'jolly inspiring'. Among the favourites on his shelf of red leather-bound volumes were the Sussex tales Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies. He loved the characters that Puck introduced to the two children in his fairy ring. Kipling's stories told of the continuity of land and people, of the English as an island race, strong in custom and tradition. Reggie thrilled to the message of 'The Children's Song', one of the poems with which he interleaved his account of English history:

   Land of our birth we pledge to thee
   Our love and toil in the years
      that be;
   When we are grown and take out
      place,
   As men and women with our
      race.

He found the stories of the Roman centurion Parnesius, defending Hadrian's Wall against assault by the barbarian 'Winged Hats', particularly compelling. These stories, argued Charles Carrington, who wrote a biography of Kipling and himself served in the First World War, 'strengthened the nerve of many a young soldier in the dark days of 1915'.

On the outbreak of war, Reggie's role in the Inns of Court Corps put him in a strong position. The Corps was at once embodied as a territorial force. It embarked on a crash training programme for recruits seeking commissions, who came forward in large numbers. There was no more crucial issue that summer than the training of officers for the Western Front. …