Byline: Richard McComb
The date stamp at the front of the book showed it was last taken out of Birmingham Central Library in 1938. As far as I know, it may have remained unread for more than 60 years.
A Subaltern's War, first published in 1929, was written under the pseudonym Charles Edmonds. It drew on the reallife exploits of Charles Carrington, who served in the 1/5th Battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, during the First World War.
Carrington used his war journal, the letters home to his mother and battalion papers to compile the work.
The name of the author was unknown to me until I read a new history of the 1914-18 conflict. I became intrigued about Carrington after reading his contributions featured in Max Arthur's Forgotten Voices of the Great War. In the book, Carrington gave an account of a cricket match played between British and Australian troops at the Western Front in 1917. The description appeared alongside a picture of soldiers from the Australian 3rd Division at Passchendaele.
An impromptu test match was played with bats, balls, bales and stumps on a patch of unshelled ground. The next day, the Germans bombarded the Australians as they came out to play.
Carrington said: 'Some were killed and others were wounded and the ground was ruined. There was never going to be a return match.'
His contributions to the book were transcribed from tapes held by the sound archive at the Imperial War Museum, London. But Carrington also left a written legacy from his time at the Front. A Subaltern's War remains a gripping first-hand account of trench warfare but stands out from the other poetry and prose of the era because of the radical views of its author.
Carrington, who later wrote a biography of Rudyard Kipling, was not pro-war but he viewed with disdain the 'uniform disillusion' of fellow writers such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Graves. He experienced the carnage of artillery bombardments, hand-to-hand fighting and gas attacks but refused to blame the incompetence of commanding officers for the mass loss of life.
As the United States and its allies prosecutes the War on Terror against a new, ill-defined enemy, the epilogue in A Subaltern's War, subtitled 'An Essay on Militarism', is as relevant for the post-September 11 generation as it was post-Great War.
Carrington's views on the nature of warfare and the case for military intervention transcend his age. He was critical of the 'secret army' who spoke of their wartime experience with a 'rough cynicism which it has become fashionable to describe as delusion, disenchantment'. Carrington believed the 'legend of disenchantment is false'.
He insisted there were moments of happiness during the conflict. 'Horror and discomfort, indescribable as they are, were not continuous.' Combat sharpened the senses and made the intervals of peace delightful, he insisted. There was a misconception that soldiers in the Great War suffered more serious injuries than in earlier conflicts, an argument used by humanitarians to outlaw some weapons as 'too horrible'. However, Carrington said: 'All wars fought to a finish between well-matched combatants are equally cruel, whether they are fought with bows and arrows or with poison gas.'
The comments seem particularly timely in light of the United Nation's inspection of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
The worst of the horrors of war was fear, according to Carrington. But 'discipline strengthens the nerve of every man by filling him with courage'. War provided a purpose; peace led nowhere, it was anticlimax.
He doubted war could be prevented while envy, hatred and malice persisted. But Carrington was adamant that 'vote-catching treaties', abuse of friendly nations and the mockery of the armed forces - 'the stock in trade of self-righteous politicians' - was as likely to breed war as prevent it.
Charles Edmund Carrington was born in West Bromwich in April 1897 and enlisted at the age of 17 in 1914. The following year he got a commission and joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment's 1/5th Territorial battalion. The battalion had been formed prewar in 1907 at Thorp Street, Birmingham, and became part of the 143rd (West Midlands) Brigade of the 48th Division.
The division moved to France between March 22-April 1, 1915, and served with distinction on the Western Front until November 21, 1917.
Early in A Subaltern's War, Carrington described how he ate plums among the delphiniums of a vicarage garden and worried that the war wouldbe over before he saw action. It was a belief shared by many new recruits who dreaded being stuck at home with the 'faint-hearts and failures'.
Finally crossing to Le Havre on Christmas Night, he was sent 'up the line' in December 1915 to trenches several miles north of the Somme. He was aged 18 years and eight months.
The experience was likened to a country holiday but Carrington's mood changed dramatically on July 1 at the opening of the Battle of the Somme - 'the most violent and ruthless battle in the history of the world'.
Eating tinned salmon from his messbox, the young subaltern was overcome with despondency at forgetting the battalion gramophone. 'I had failed in my duty as Mess President,' he recalled.
The battlefield was described as a desert of broken chalk with ditches, holes and craters and barbed wire. And although Carrington's views on war may be unconventional, it was not because he was protected from the horrors of battle.
In one stark passage he described how he came across a huge crater at La Boisselle. He wrote: 'In the bottom of it were lying two curious things. They were muddy grey in colour - clothes and boots and faces. They had features but features swollen till the skin was stretched tight over their brows and noses and cheek bones. They lay, not in picturesque attitudes, but in the stiff unreal pose of fallen tailors' dummies; they looked less human than waxworks; all the personality had faded from their faces with the life. Big men they had been; they had now a horrid plumpness. In awful fact they were bursting out of their clothes.
'I felt neither afraid nor unhappy, but fascinated. . . I had seen a corpse.'
During the Battle of the Somme, Carrington recorded that the battalion lost three officers and 45 other ranks with a further 81 wounded - ' a small proportion considering the rashness of the exercise'.
And then there was the randomness of death. Carrington used a clipped style rather than a literary flourish to convey the sight of a killing.
In the Somme, a corporal was shot by a sniper. 'He was alive, and then he was dead, and there was nothing human left in him. He fell with a neat round hole in his forehead and the back of his head blown out.'
Worse casualties lay ahead the following year, 1917, at the Third Battle of Ypres, popularly known as Passchendaele. The fatalities there totalled four officers and 81 other ranks with 177 wounded in Carrington's battalion.
A total of 262 were killed or wounded at Passchendaele - half of those who took part. At the Somme, it had been a quarter.
Among the victims was Carrington's loyal servant Stanley, who was mown down by German machine-gun fire.
The writer fondly recalled how Stanley had saved him half his water ration when he was parched in the July heat and 'his cutting off the heads and cooking the stalks of the asparagus that I had gathered under shell-fire'.
Carrington won the Military Cross and a captaincy for his actions. Such was the muddle of war that the celebrated soldier had expected to face a court-martial.
He was then shipped to Italy but was given extended leave in England in early 1918 and sent to a reserve battalion for the rest of the war. Inevitably, he got bored, pulled some strings at the War Office and got orders to return to Italy. He arrived there as peace was declared.
Charles Carrington, writer, historian, lecturer and veteran of the trenches, died in 1990 at the age of 93.
A Subaltern's War was expanded and reissued as Soldier from the Wars Returning in 1964.
Young recruits to the Warwickshire Regiment at the outbreak of the First World War; Top left: Taking aim in the trenches, left: a grenade assembly shop at Mills Munition Company in Hampton-inArden during the war, right: a recruiting poster…