Perspective: Carnage Cruelty and Cricket on This Day; the First World War Memoir of a Warwickshire Soldier Provides a Stark Dissection of Militarism for the Post-September 11 Generation, Says Richard McComb

The Birmingham Post (England), December 14, 2002 | Go to article overview

Perspective: Carnage Cruelty and Cricket on This Day; the First World War Memoir of a Warwickshire Soldier Provides a Stark Dissection of Militarism for the Post-September 11 Generation, Says Richard McComb


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.

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