14 AUGUST 1964, Page 19

Purgatorial Pains

The Western Front, 1914-1918. By John Terraine. (Hutchinson, 25s.)

The Somme. By A. H. Farrar-Hockley. (Batsford, 30s.)

Her Privates We. By Frederic Manning. With an introduction by Edmund Blunden. (Peter Davies, 21s.) SOME years after the First World War, Siegfried

Sassoon wrote : Not much remains Twelve winters later, of the hater Of purgatorial pains.

A good many winters have passed since then, but there are still very few books which convey a sense or an understanding of the purgatorial pains which Sassoon and his comrades-in-arms endured.

Perhaps one should not look for this from Mr. John Terraine, who is after all a warrior in the field of controversy and not of arms, dedicated to the proposition that Haig was a great com- mander, and that the incredible casualties which his battles involved were the necessary price which had to be paid for the only way, which was Haig's way, by which vidory could be won. His excellent Haig: The Educated Soldier almost convinced one of the truth of this thesis. The Western Front, 1914-1918, is a collection of short occasional pieces which do not add much to what Mr. Terraine has said better in his book about Haig, and one would not have seriously thought they were worth reprinting, particularly because they make the rather sad impression that by now Mr. Terraine is so much the captive of his own theories that they obscure his view of what actually happened on the battlefield.

One would have doubted equally whether Sir Philip Gibbs's war despatches were woi th re- publishing. Gibbs was as good a reporter of war as it is possible for any accredited war corre- spondent to be; but this is not saying very much. For the war correspondent is always and essen- tially in a false position; his instinctive desire to tell the truth is always thwarted by the neces- sity that the truth he has to tell shall be •of a kind which will advance the purposes of those who are waging the war. This continual arriere- pensee in all his reports destroys his value as an eye-witness, and places him in a position in which no good writer would voluntarily find him- self. Gibbs's despatches are full of vividly seen and vividly described incidents; it shakes one's faith in him to discover that some of these in- cidents could not have been seen because in fact they did not occur.

A much more valuable contribution to history is Brigadier Farrar-Hockley's The Somme. The style is plain and terse, soldatesque as Stendhal would have said, and Stendhal himself would have found something to admire in this account of the terrible Somme battle, with its casualties which Brigadier Farrar-Hockley estimates at a total, on both sides, of 1,200,000. Unlike Mr. Terraine, Brigadier Farrar-Hockley is no ad- mirer of Haig's, perhaps because he has • the advantage of himself having commanded forma- tions of troops in action. He is sharply aware of the vast abyss which can divide the plans of higher commanders from the possibilities open to those who have to carry them out. To a very large extent the Somme battle, whatever its strategic objectives, about which military his- torians will continue to argue, resolved itself into innumerable minor actions by small bodies of men trying, with incomparable bravery, to carry out unrealistic orders given by higher com- manders who had neither the knowledge, the experience nor the information to frame a proper battle-plan, nor the communications to control the battle once it had been launched. It is Brigadier Farrar-Hockley's great merit that he follows these minor actions in such exact and meticulous detail that at last a kind of pattern seems to emerge out of the fog of war over the Somme, though it is not a pattern which in any respect conformed to the plans or intentions of the British High Command. The truth is that the course of the battle confounded their expecta- tions and that their own accounts of it are for the most ex post facto justifications of events over which they exercised not the remotest kind of control. In this sense, they may be considered irresponsible for their actions.

As a companion to The Somme, and this is a tribute equally to both books, one could not do better than to read, or re-read, Her Privates We, first published, by 'Private 19022,' in 1930, and now happily re-issued. It describes the ex- periences of one small body of Men 'on the Somme and Ancre fronts in the latter half of 1916; and the events described in it actually happened.' Indeed, they have so much, tdday, the mark of reality that one feels that, with sufficient per- sistence, one will surely find them among the engagements described by Brigadier Farrar- Hockley. But Frederic Manning's book adds another dimension to history because it succeeds in showing that, even in the otherwise futile and purposeless carnage on the Somme, men kept the mark of their common humanity, so that even so terrible an ordeal became a triumph of the human spirit.

What could be better than Manning's descrip- tion of a company just withdrawn from the line?

There was something insolent even in the way they tightened their belts, hawked and spat in the dust. They had been through it, and having been through it, they had lapsed a little lower than savages, into the mere brute. Life for them held nothing new in the matter of humilia- tion. Men of the new drafts wondered foolishly at their haggard and filthy appearance. Even the details kept a little aloof from them, as from men with whom it might be dangerous to meddle, and perhaps there was something in their sad, pitiless faces to evoke in others a • kind of primitive awe. They for their part went silently about the camp, carrying themselves, in their stained and tattered uniforms, with scorn- ful indifference. They may have glanced casually at the newcomers, still trim and neat from the bull-ring at Rouen, who were to fill the place of the dead now lying out in all weathers in the down-land between Deiville Wood. Trone and Guillemont; but if one of the new men

• spoke to them he was met with unrecognising • eyes and curt monosyllables.

It says much for the enduring quality of Her Privates We that the Shakespearian quotations with which Manning headed each of his chapters seem to come out of precisely the same world as that which they describe.