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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Arrival in the trenches. March 26, 2010

Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
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Reitz arrived near Bapaume after the road had reached this state

Reitz arrived near Bapaume after the local road reached this state

This is the eighth part of a series that starts here and alternates with other posts.

German East Africa had been a “sideshow” in which men struggled desperately for their lives while the rest of the world knew and cared little about it.  In an interesting symmetry, the men fighting there forgot about the outside world.  Reitz wrote, “We had been in the wilds for so long that we had almost forgotten that there was another war, so remote did things in Europe seem to us.”*  For a man who’d grown up on the dry Free State veld, the dense tangles, the rains, the dark jungles of German East were the opposite of everything familiar.  Years earlier, fighting had meant seeing miles through crystalline air, making out small figures of the enemy etched against the skyline.

But after he’d put in his year in German East (February 1916 to February 1917), he opted not to settle in for a well-deserved rest back home in the Free State.  He would embark for the Western Front.  He said, “With the greatest war in the history of the world going on in Europe, I did not feel that I could return to a quiet village life, so I decided to go overseas.”

His plan was to enlist in the British army as a private: “I had lately come to hold the view that it was one’s duty to share the dangers of the greatest crisis in human history with the common run of men.” So he sailed to England, figured he might as well do a bit of sightseeing in London, then after a week went to a recruiting office in Chelsea.  The doctors examined him, told him he had a malarial heart, but passed him for service anyway.

But, as it turned out, his effort to slip anonymously into the ranks was unsuccessful.  Too many people became aware that he’d arrived in the UK, and strings were immediately pulled.  It started with an uncle who thought he should have a place as a lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards; then Jan Smuts arranged that he should report for senior officer’s school at Aldershot with the rank of major.

Typically enough, Reitz made fun of himself.  “I was getting used to rapid promotion.  During the South African War I rose from batman to Chief of Staff in twenty minutes.  During the rebellion I jumped overnight from village lawyer to Commandant of a district, and in East Africa I unexpectedly found myself a colonel.  Now I had graduated from Private to Second Lieutenant, to Major, in the course of a week.”

Everything seemed unfamiliar.  Having grown up on horseback, his first thought was to join the cavalry—but the cavalry were about as useful for trench warfare as sabers against machine guns.  In fact, most British cavalry in those days were engaged in patrolling rebellious Ireland—the Easter Rising had occurred just a year earlier—and he had no interest in playing that role.  Boers and Irish had a long history of mutual sympathy.

So he spent months in infantry drills, taking courses in “Stokes’ mortars, Lewis guns, bombing, mapping, air photography, night scouting, trench-making, gas, smoke screens” and many other things particular to this war that was utterly unlike any ever fought before.

Major General John French at the time of the Boer War

Toward the end of his time at Aldershot, Reitz’s body of officers-in-training were reviewed by John French.  This was an episode that might have caused resentment in another sort of personality.  French had played a significant role in the Boer War, and it was his cavalry that had nearly captured Reitz and his exhausted comrades near the Stormbergen in the Cape Colony.  As an aide to Smuts, Reitz had actually met French in person aboard a train, May 1902, that was puffing its way toward Vereeniging for the peace talks.  French had tried questioning them, hoping for some careless admission that would help the British in their negotiations.  The silent, impassive Smuts was probably the last person in the world who would brim over with impulsive revelations.  French had been irritable back then: now, 15 years later, he had made questionable decisions as the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France.  He’d been replaced by Douglas Haig, and returned to England to command the British Home Forces, in which capacity he oversaw the suppression of the Irish uprising.

In August 1917 Reitz completed his training and finally went to France.  A battle of nearly unimaginable scope had been grinding on, not far away, for two months then—3rd Ypres, or Passchendaele—it would continue until November.  But British command did not send a new officer such as Reitz directly into that bloodbath.  For him, it was a massive event just offstage that sent continuous ripples in his direction.

As he rode the train slowly toward the front, he passed through a landscape that had gone through a kind of entropy.  Distinct objects with distinct functions had dissolved into formlessness.

An example of entropy: Passchendaele before and after

Reitz was assigned to the 7th Royal Irish Rifles, then in rest billets at Ervillers, between Arras and Bapaume.  The second in command had been recalled for service in Ireland, and the colonel in charge had applied for a substitute.  He was quite surprised to be sent a South African, but Reitz had a gift for easy friendship, and one reads between the lines that he was soon accepted by the battalion. The very next day the 7th Royal Irish were ordered into the front line.  For the first time Reitz entered the trenches, for nearly a mile following the communications trench that ran perpendicular to the line of fighting.  They occupied a segment of the Hindenburg Line that had been captured in the spring offensive at Arras.

Reitz set about exploring the portion of the line for which his men were responsible.  His new home featured a grim sort of decor.  “On every side lay relics of the recent battle; broken rifles, machine-guns and mortars, bloodstained tatters of clothing, and out in no-man’s-land were withered corpses that could not be fetched in, and several derelict tanks.”

(To be continued)

*All quotes from Trekking On.  In The Trilogy of Deneys Reitz, Wolfe Publishing, Prescott AZ, 1994.

The "Carriere Wellington": now part of a museum


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