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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Conclusion. May 13, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history, World War One.
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Deneys Reitz. Photo courtesy of Conrad Reitz.

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

*   *   *

A land of bar’d boughs and grieving wind;

Yet would I not forego the doom, the place,

Whither my poets and my heroes went

Before me; warriors that with deeds forlorn

Saddened my youth, yet made it great to live;

Lonely antagonists of Destiny,

That went down scornful before many spears.

Who soon as we are born, are straight our friends;

And live in simple music, country songs.

And mournful ballads by the winter fire…

(From Marpessa, 1897, by Stephen Phillips)

Toward the close of the war, Deneys Reitz was walking along the infamous sunken road near Masnieres and saw “a solitary German machine-gunner, sitting behind his weapon in a shell crater.  Before him lay nearly a score of British soldiers that had fallen to his gun.  The man himself was riddled with bayonet thrusts.  I heard afterwards that he had refused to retire or to surrender, and here at his post he ‘went down scornful before many spears.'”*

The English poet Stephen Phillips is long forgotten, but he was popular in the first decades of the 20th century, and Reitz was familiar with him. Reitz had grown up reading of “warriors with deeds forlorn…lonely antagonists of destiny.”  His father was a loyal reader of Walter Scott and Robert Burns, and members of the family knew many of their poems by heart.  In the Boer War, Reitz had thought of himself and his comrades as “moss troopers” in the style of Scott.

“Scornful.”  The word is harsh, but that is how Reitz felt about the refusal to surrender to fear or to foe.  His unpublished 1903 account of the Boer War has that edge to it all the way through, that disdain, that refusal to give up.  In Commando, the book he published about the Boer War years later, in 1929, he adopted a mellower  tone.  He was an amiable man who loved a good funny story, one who easily made friends, but underneath his anecdotes and his down-to-earth, practical approach, that sense of scorn remained.  That is why he became so attached to his friend George Bissett, who insisted on telling a joke in the face of death.  And this was a place where discouragement was everywhere.

Stretcher bearers, Passchendaele, August 1917

According to one estimate, 65 million men fought in the First World War.  The number is nearly inconceivably large, equal to three times the current population of New York City.  Of that number, 9 million were killed.  It’s hard to measure the experience of one man against this galaxy of lives.  And it’s hard to measure the importance of one battalion that pushed forward a few miles against the enemy line.  But this was a man who deliberately focused on the picture right before him, who made a practice and an art of converting the impossible into the possible.  I can picture him walking quietly among his men in the tense moments just before they dashed over the top, and somehow I know that the men were encouraged by his calm, friendly words and probably, once they got to know him, just by the mere sight of him.

And in this way something invaluable got passed from one man to another, and from that one to the next.  And through his written words, his experience is passed on to future generations of soldiers and, also, to people in other spheres of life who face other kinds of challenge.

One of the questions people often ask about the First World War is: How did men continue to fight in such appalling conditions?  Reitz shows us one way it could be done.  It had to do with maintaining a calm observation of the exterior world rather than focusing on the fear that lurked inside, as it must have done inside every single soldier.  And it had to do with that certain powerful freely chosen refusal that is expressed in the idea of scorn.

Reitz tells us that at the moment of the Armistice, when a wave of cheering swept across the Western Front, “I saw the beginnings of a new era for the world and for my country.”  Surely this unprecedented conflict would usher in a new period of global harmony.  One London newspaper proclaimed that this was the “Greatest Day in History.”  For many people, there must have been an idea not quite spoken that this terrible war in which millions had died must—surely must—have a lasting and positive outcome.  That another even larger war would start in just 29 years was of course utterly inconceivable.

And the consequences of the war were certainly gigantic: the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires smashed, monarchies toppled, new republics created, economies collapsing, African colonies changing hands.  But this wasn’t the war to end all wars, and history keeps bumping forward, carrying us helplessly along.  Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”  He meant not just that history is often nightmarish (wars, plagues, poverty, slavery, and so on), but that we never do manage to awaken—we’re embedded in history, there’s never a way to stand outside our own time and see it with some sort of external truth.  But as we stumble along, we can take heart from the examples of those who went into the worst of the particular nightmare of their own time and emerged unbeaten.

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

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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ The war’s final weeks. May 6, 2010

Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
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11:00 a.m., 11/11/18

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

Between October 10 and November 11, Reitz and his battalion shifted position eastward a mere 15 miles, from Cambrai to near Le Quesnoy.  But in this conflict that had sometimes measured progress by a few yards east or west, those 15 miles told of a foe collapsing into final defeat.  It was the last month of a war that had been grinding on for 53 months, and those last days were flashing past as quickly as grains of sand from an hourglass.

With Bissett gone, Reitz was transferred back to the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers as C.O.  At the same time, he was promoted to the rank of colonel.  He doesn’t bother to call attention to this event, but I see on p. 286 of my edition of Trekking On that he is “Major D. Reitz” in a battalion order, and then on p. 292 this passage appears: “…the three colonels of [the 8th] Brigade—Henderson of the Royal Scots, Burne of the Shrops., and I—were granted four days’ recuperative leave…”*

On October 10, the 2nd and 4th Armies advanced and, in heavy fighting, took over Cambrai.  Once the city was secured, Reitz’s brigade, which had already been fighting southwest of Cambrai with the 3rd Army, was withdrawn for a week’s rest, and the three colonels were granted leave, as mentioned above.  Reitz notes that he and Burne of the Shrops. had both been present at an event in the Boer War: “He was with the British convoy that we had sacked and burnt at Middleport [Middelpost] in 1902, so we had many things in common.” This seems a slightly humorous remark.  In that remote spot in the Karoo desert, Burne would have been one of a long dusty file of “khakis” accompanied by artillery and supply wagons, while Reitz was a desperate Boer riding a mule for lack of a better mount, darting through the rifle-fire into the ruins of the convoy to scavenge for clothing and equipment.  He ended up with quite a prize—a beautiful Arab mare that had belonged to an English officer.

On October 20 the brigade moved eight miles east to Cattenieres and for the first time found itself in country that was no longer devastated, in fact even  occupied by civilians.  Villages consisted of actual recognizable buildings rather than piles of rubble.  But plenty of fighting was still going on.  On the 23rd, the brigade attacked German positions at Vertain and Escarmain.  At this stage, the demoralization of the enemy became quite evident.  “As soon as [the enemy soldiers] saw the curtain of bursting shells move on beyond, they came running towards us, hands in air, and our role was practically confined to following in the wake of the barrage and receiving the prisoners in batches as they came to meet us.”

The next days were spent in small actions supporting a broad advance to the Valenciennes-Le Quesnoy rail line.  Although the Germans were generally retreating, they persisted in peppering the Allies with shellfire and gas canisters.  “As it was impossible to live in box respirators our losses from gassing rose at such an alarming rate that in the four days ending October 29th we had to send two hundred and seven men to hospital.” The 1st R.S.F. held a position in fields and orchards near Ruesnes, where, among the peaceful trees, poison gas settled densely in the hollows.

On one occasion, Reitz sent a night patrol out to determine enemy positions.  When the men did not return, he went out looking for them.  In a sunken lane, as in a strange tableaux, “I found the entire patrol lying in various stages of gas poisoning…. They had struggled along until the last man who could see gave out and they were brought to a standstill.”

Reitz himself went out on solitary patrol the next night, having decided that his eyes were in better shape than those of other possible scouts. He crawled among German rifle pits, unsure whether he would find them still occupied or whether he might find himself looking down the barrel of a Mauser rifle. After anxious moments, he found the position unoccupied and went on carefully until he spotted two machine-gun crews, thereby fixing the closest location of the enemy.  For this patrol he was awarded a bronze sprig, “the nearest approach to military honours I attained during the war.”

The brigade re-encountered old friends: the New Zealanders, beside whom they had fought in the preceding weeks (see last installment).  As it turned out, the New Zealand Division was to stage a daring capture of Le Quesnoy on November 4, using ladders to scale the high walls of the medieval village, held by the Germans since the very start of the war.  Several streets of this little French town were renamed after New Zealand soldiers.

Le Quesnoy as it is today

On the 28th, Reitz went with a runner to La Chappelle to interview a pair of civilians who had escaped Le Quesnoy.  On the return, things became a bit livelier than they’d anticipated.  The enemy suddenly put down a heavy trench-mortar bombardment along the rail line where they were walking, and German infantrymen charged forward with bayonets, yelling as they attacked a force of New Zealanders in the vicinity.  He and his companion bolted for cover, watching as a British bombardment came down and the New Zealanders rushed back in a counterattack.

“This little episode was the last fight I witnessed in the Great War,” he wrote.

The next day, the 1st R.S.F. were relieved by the Staffords.  “When we marched through Solesmes we were, I think, the first troops back from the firing line of those who had helped to drive the enemy out of range, and the civilian population warmly welcomed us.  Flags waved and people ran cheering beside us.  Our pipe band played, and I rode at the head of the column with my tin hat cocked, pretending I was used to ovations.”

Suffering from the effects of poison gas, Reitz was allowed to convalesce at a nearby field ambulance for the next days.  When he returned to active duty, the British line had advanced significantly.  On November 10, the 1st R.S.F. were instructed to reinforce a unit that was fighting in the direction of the Mormal Forest.  Now came word that the Germans were asking for peace terms—but the battalion were still to proceed with the attack.

“At daybreak on the morning of November 11th we marched out.  In front and behind us were thousands of other troops going forward, and one could feel the suppressed excitement in the air….  By 11 o’clock we were in the battle zone, British and German guns were firing, and there came the crackle of rifles and machine-guns ahead.  Suddenly, far off, we heard the faint sound of cheering borne upon the wind…”

The men of the 1st R.S.F. stayed relatively calm amidst the wild cheering of the other troops.  Reitz felt gripped by great ideas.  “I saw the beginnings of a new era for the world and for my country.  Splendid visions raced through my brain which I felt an urge to communicate.  I told Shaw to form the Battalion in a hollow square beside the road and, sitting my horse, I prepared to address the men.  When I faced them, however, I was overcome by stage fright; the inspired thoughts of a moment before had vanished completely and I could only stumble through a few halting phrases.”

* * *

In the next and final installment, I will return to the question raised in the Introduction:  Against such a massive event as the First World War, with all of its horror and all of its loss of life, how are we to measure the experience of a single individual?  And—a related question—how can the experience of that individual give us a way to understand the war?

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

Ruesnes cemetery


Deneys Reitz in WWI/ The loss of a friend. April 23, 2010

Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
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Cambrai during the war: pastel by A. Smith.

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

Once the brigade had pushed through the Hindenburg Line, Reitz took advantage of being off duty to roam a short while about the vicinity, looking through his field glasses at the movements of troops.  He could see flames rising from Cambrai, four miles away, and he watched as Allied troops advanced toward Graincourt and captured it in a burst of heavy fighting.

When he returned to the 1st R.S.F., he found General Fisher waiting for him with the news that the 7th Shropshires had lost their colonel, and that he was to become their C.O.  He was sorry to leave Bissett and other friends in the Fusiliers, but he remained in the same brigade and only had to walk a short distance to take over his new responsibility.  The 7th Shrops. were ordered to march to a ridge several miles south of Cambrai, which the Germans were still vigorously defending.

“We were faced with the novelty of having to bivouac on a bare hillside without trench or shelter.  The men were new to this kind of thing… they were at a loss, and stood about helplessly.”* The scene must have been amusing for Reitz, who had spent the three years of the Boer War fighting on the open veld without so much as a tent most of the time.

“I started all hands to break out timber baulks from some old gun pits that we found, and soon had everyone cheerfully sitting around blazing log fires, cooking their suppers.  My attempt to teach the men how to make themselves comfortable was well rewarded, for in going the rounds after dark I heard a voice say: ‘Lads, I would like to go big-game hunting in Africa with our new C.O.'”

Reitz was certainly a skilled hunter, though he was not a collector of trophies, and his experience in big-game hunting was largely limited to teaching his two boys in the 1930s how to hunt lion.  He had grown up reading the books of the famous hunter Frederick Selous; strangely enough, he actually met Selous during his stint fighting in German East Africa. Selous was killed by a German sniper just a few months later, January 4, 1917, on the Rufiji River.

Frederick Courteney Selous

Here, near the villages of Marcoing and Masnieres—south of Cambrai—the men of the 7th Shropshires exchanged their parapets and firesteps for features of the open landscape that came to be imbued with intensity and, more often than not, mortal danger.  These were the harrowing places that were dealt out as in a deck of fortune-telling cards: the bridge at the Canal de l’Escaut, the cellar beneath the Masniere chapel, the Crevecoeur sunken road, an abandoned German trench named with seeming irony “Mon Plaisir.”  (The name was that of a nearby farm.)  The sunken road would turn out to contain the same sort of horror as another famous sunken road, the one at the Battle of Shiloh.

From September 28 to October 8, the 7th Shrops. were engaged in a series of actions preliminary to the main battle of Cambrai, fought October 8-10 (not to be confused with the Cambrai battle fought in 1917).  In this new, less structured form of combat, they and the 1st R.S.F. were joined by a battalion of New Zealanders, while the third part of their own brigade, the 2nd Royal Scots, seems to have been swept off in a different direction—Reitz doesn’t say.

For a time the Shrops. were based in several cellars in Masnieres, just now evacuated by the Germans.  The town’s narrow streets continued to come under shelling and the firing of phosgene gas, “so we had to grope our way through the dust-laden atmosphere in our box respirators, a difficult process, as everyone knows who has tried it.” The shapes of the buildings above their cellars kept changing as the walls were progressively demolished by shells.  At one point the battalion’s doctor came down to the cellar that had become “Battalion H.Q.,” and immediately collapsed.  “He had been gassed while attending to some men who had been wounded beside the canal, for he had removed his mask the better to see what he was doing.”

Poison gas attack

Just outside the village, men of two other regiments, the King’s Own and the Gordons, were suffering heavy losses as they hunkered down in the “Mon Plaisir” trench.  The Germans were firing on them from the nearby sunken road.  That night, the Shrops., the 1st R.S.F., and the New Zealanders routed the Germans from the sunken road.  Orders came for the C.O.s of the battalions to take some runners and explore the position just beyond in preparation for a possible attack on the next villages, Serinvillers and La Targette.

Just before setting off on this mission, Reitz and Bissett laughed over a few small jokes while downing a hasty cup of tea.  Shortly thereafter, they began working their way along the edge of the sunken road amidst the smoke and flying dirt of heavy shellfire.  Just then Bissett was struck in the side.  Reitz and Shaw, a junior officer of the R.S.F., helped get him down to a dugout.  “He made light of his wound, a jagged hole in his right side from which the blood poured in torrents, but his breathing became stertorous, and although we did not realise it, he was mortally injured.”

As it turned out, the enemy were present in such strength all the way between Masniere and Cambrai, that it was decided an attack on Serinviller would be suicidal for the brigade on its own.  They returned to the ill-fated sunken road, which was still being pelted relentlessly with shells.  Bissett was still there, surviving yet, and now Shaw was able to get a team of bearers to carry him out of danger.  Perhaps they would be able to catch up with him later.

Upon receiving their report, General Fisher saw that the sunken road had become a death trap, and he ordered the men to fall back that night to a position 80 yards behind, where they dug a new set of rifle pits.  “As the Germans never discovered the change they continued to shell the road for the next four days, thinking that we still held it.”

Now came a pause of more than a week while troops of the 2nd and 4th Armies were brought forward in preparation for dislodging the Germans from the vicinity of Cambrai.  “We had the usual narrow escapes while holding the line, and I was once ill for forty-eight hours from gas poisoning, followed by a headache that lasted for days.” Reitz and Shaw decided to see if they could find out what had happened to Bissett.  After considerable detective work, they learned that he had been taken to a casualty clearing station at Crevillers.  On October 6 the C.O. of the brigade lent them a car to go see him.

They were directed to a tent that contained two rows of wounded men in cots.  “We failed to recognise Bissett, and even when the sister led us to his side, we scarcely knew him, so gaunt and altered was he….  I could not speak for fear of breaking down.  Shaw felt the same, so we stood silently looking down on what was but the shadow of our friend.  His eyes were dimmed, and his face pale and shrunken and we could see that the end was very near.  He tried feebly to speak, and muttered something about the Scots Fusiliers and the Arras Road, then he became unconscious, and we went sadly off, knowing that we had lost a brave and good companion.”

“I could not speak for fear of breaking down”: nowhere else do you see those words in the writings of Reitz.

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

Masnieres British Cemetery