London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Seventh Manchesters Introduction.

Seventh Manchesters index 


Captain Wilson's book continues the story of the 7th (1st 7th) Manchesters, which is recorded in my own book "With Manchesters in the East," from July, 1916 until November, 1918. It is written with intimate knowledge and much understanding, and will be enjoyed by all his comrades. It was the good fortune of the Manchester Territorials (127th Brigade) to belong to the first Territorial Division (the 42nd), that ever left these islands for active service, and this active service eventually took place on three fronts. The 7th Battalion garrisoned the Sudan and fought through the Gallipoli campaign. It recruited its strength at Suez, and then helped to clear the Sinai Peninsula of the Turks. Finally it served for two and a half years in Flanders. It translated its motto, "We never sleep" into its daily life.

This volume will be a useful supplement to any general history of the War. It is based on the diary of a Regimental Officer, who won considerable distinction in the field, and whose eyes missed little of consequence. It is of even more value as evidence of what men of essentially civilian habits and traditions can achieve as soldiers. The numbers of the 7th Manchesters were never fully up to strength after April, 1915, and for many months at a time while in the East they fell to vanishing point. Yet from the day in September, 1914, when the original first-line Battalion sailed from Southampton for Port Sudan in the "Grantully Castle," each successive draft was of the same mould. The men came from the same neighbourhood, were of the same capacity, and had been bred with the same ideas. Their devotion was founded on a sense of duty. They were personally utterly remote from what is called militarism, and saw little fascination in its pomp. The survivors are now absorbed once more in the undramatic industry of Lancashire. There is nothing to indicate to an observer that they have ever left it. The last time you saw your tramway conductor may have been as a bomber in "the western birdcage" on Cape Helles; your fellow passenger may have last talked to you as your "runner," when you tramped along the duckboards from Windy Corner to Givenchy. What such men did for England will therefore illustrate for all time the potentialities of a Territorial Force.

Captain Wilson's style of expression and cast of thought are, in my view, true to type. He is the Lancashire man of action, who affects no literary arts. These pages are bare of heroics. There is a soldierly brevity in his account of even of the bravest exploit. There is also plenty of quiet humour. The reader will search vainly for any "villain of the piece." The "Hun" is to Captain Wilson, as to the normal British officer, just a "Boche" and no more; to the rank and file he was simply "Jerry." If you want adjectives, you will have to look for them in _John Bull_ or listen to speeches in the House of Commons.

For all who were in authority over him, whether Corps Commanders or Divisional Generals, Brigadiers or temporary Commanding Officers, Captain Wilson has a good word. A reader unfamiliar with soldiers' psychology might deduce that all his superior officers had been invariably models of judgment and efficiency. He would possibly be quite wrong; but it is most fitting that this book should be framed on such lines, for they are the lines which our soldiers have never failed to accept. The rough is taken with the smooth. If ever there has been incompetence men have simply blamed the system and cursed the War Office. If they happened to have been five minutes in France they might have philosophically added "c'est la guerre." The actual individual responsible has not been worth worrying about. Thus even with regard to this mere side issue, the author's story reflects a cardinal attribute of the national character, and therefore in its essence conveys the truth.

In my opinion, it is not, however, the whole truth. There is no reason why England in her reconstruction should forget that want of sympathy with the Territorials, which far too often marked men, to whose hands their fortunes were from time to time entrusted. This vice should be borne in mind not because the memory is bitter; but because by remembrance we may make its repetition in later wars impossible. Territorials ought never to be ousted from the command of their own units, or to be excluded from staff appointments, merely because they are not Regulars or because they fail to comply with needlessly drastic and therefore non-essential codes of discipline. Discipline is, in fact, degraded into servitude when it becomes a mere fetish. How fallaciously it may be construed could often be seen in the tendency among powerful martinets to "drive a coach and four" through the law and procedure which regulate trials by Court Martial. The need for the "standardisation" of all infantry units in France was quite genuine; but unimaginative men in authority could make "standardisation" a burden to the spirit, and the picture of some men of this class, which is painted in A. P. Herbert's novel. _The Secret Battle_, is founded on the truth. We have all seen such cases. The grinding necessities of the Western front ended the joyous amateurism, which a Territorial unit was able to preserve through all its vicissitudes in Eastern warfare, but they did not require the prevailing banishment of individuality and of the exercise of intellect from Regimental life.

After landing in France the 42nd Division had to make a new reputation by rising from the ruck, and it is very notable that the personnel of the 7th Manchesters, as of the other units in the Division, although almost completely changed from the personnel of the Battalion when in Gallipoli and drawn from a later generation of recruits, achieved equal distinction and much greater technical efficiency. This fact points to the wonderful resourcefulness of the English people. Historically it shows how thoroughly our Army of 1917-18 was professionalised.

The later chapters of Captain Wilson's book detail very brilliant fighting by our men, which it would be idle and impertinent to praise. Such "crowded hours" are not, however, and never have been the most typical of a soldier's life. Infinitely more numerous were the hours of endurance and privation, which the 7th spent among the broken ravines of Gallipoli, among the dreary mud flats on either bank of the Yser, among the desolate craters in front of Cuinchy and Le Plantin. In their patience and fortitude amid these wastes lies their strongest title to the gratitude of Christendom.

Peace is already dimming men's memories of the War as effectually as the grass is covering the ruins of devastated France. The Manchester Territorial is back at his job. The broken home no longer feels the same first poignancy of grief. "Man goeth forth unto his work and unto his labour until the evening," and it is a good thing for the world that he does. Nevertheless, all men and women who cherish associations with the 7th Manchesters will, I think, read and re-read Captain Wilson's work for many years to come. From amid all the hardships and miseries of soldiering which the Englishman readily forgets, the light of self-sacrifice shines upon the human race with a never fading beauty. Herein lies the true romance of war. As the reader turns over the ensuing pages he cannot but realise something of the cumulative drudgery and hardships which these men endured for their country.

To the 7th Manchesters themselves they mean much more. The very place names of our warfare recall the memory of the comrades whom we have loved and lost, the early enthusiasms which we shall never feel again:--Khartoumn, Gallipoli, Shallufa, Suez, Ashton-in-Sinai, Coxyde, Nieuport, Aire, Béthune, Ypres, Bucquoy, Havrincourt. When we are very old, many of us will still conjure up the tune of "Keep the Home Fires Burning" on the lips of tired men beneath the stars on Geoghegan's Bluff; the thud of the shovel falling upon the sand ridges of Sinai while a blazing sun rose over Asia; the refrain of "Annie Laurie" sung by candle-light in some high roofed barn behind the lines in Belgium.

I hear them now.