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By Duff Cooper
The History PressCopyright © 2011 The Second Viscount Norwich
All rights reserved.
Nobody ever had fewer relations than Willie Maryngton. Neither his father nor his mother had brothers or sisters, and he himself was an only child. His mother died in giving birth to him on the 1st of January 1900, and his father, a professional soldier, was killed at Villers Cotterets in September, 1914. Willie's childhood was spent at the various military stations to which his father was posted, and his heart was given to the cavalry regiment in which his father served. The little boy could not tell that all the glamour which surrounded that regiment was part of the century he had missed, and that even in the war that was coming the cavalry was destined to play only a secondary rôle.
Willie was at a public school in 1914 when the war broke out, and for a few days he had wild plans of running away and joining the army as a drummer-boy. But news of his father's death, which arrived long after the event, had a sobering as well as a saddening effect, and he determined to concentrate henceforth all his abilities on making himself fit to receive a commission as early as possible. The Officers Training Corps then became for him more attractive than the playing-fields, and, although he had no natural bent for study, the mere name of the Army Class, when he attained to it, inspired him, so that he made up by hard work for what he lacked in ability.
His father had nominated a brother officer to act as the boy's guardian, and when he also fell, without having made any further provision for guardianship, his widow took on the responsibility of looking after Willie during the holidays. The loss of her husband, the care of her children and all the difficulties of war-time had embittered the middle-age of this in many ways admirable woman, leaving her with only one principle in life: the determination to do her duty. She was the daughter as well as the widow of an officer, and the noble ideal of service was the foundation of her character. She had three children; the eldest, Garnet, was three years older than Willie, went to a cheaper public school and was destined for the Royal Army Medical Corps. The youngest was a little girl of two who had been christened Felicity because she was born on the day when her father was promoted to the rank of major.
It was an austere household. There was little money to spare, and Mrs. Osborne, like many people by nature disinclined to spend, had enthusiastically accepted the Government's injunction to economise, and felt every time she saved a shilling a private thrill of pleasure as well as the satisfaction of performing a public duty.
Willie was no burden on the household. Both his father and his mother had had incomes of their own, and he would in due time inherit between two and three thousand pounds a year. Lawyers, whom he never saw, paid his school bills and also paid Mrs. Osborne liberally for his board and lodging in the holidays. She would render meticulous accounts of how the money was spent, and this effort at amateur book-keeping added to her cares, deepening the lines across her forehead and draining the colour from her fine eyes. Neither Willie nor the lawyers looked at the accounts she rendered, but she thought it her duty to render them, and whatever was her duty she would do. For duty was the watchword of this small house, situated between Aldershot and Camberley, and the only problem that could ever arise was to know where duty lay. That once known, the rest was simple.
There was, however, one member of the household to whom neither habits of austerity nor the call of duty made any appeal. If it be true that the criminal classes are largely recruited from the children of clergymen, it is equally easy to discover recalcitrants to the military tradition in officers' families, and even to find the sons of generals in the ranks of the pacifists. Horatio, Mrs. Osborne's second son, was nothing so serious, or so foolish, as a pacifist. He was one of those fortunate people to whom this world seems a vast park of amusement, and who dislike nobody except those who are bent on preventing others from enjoying themselves. To this disagreeable category soldiers, it seemed to Horry, evidently belonged. As a child he had hung about the barrack square and had heard the way in which non- commissioned officers spoke to private soldiers, and he hadn't liked it. He had seen the delinquents paraded for appearance before officers, when they must answer for the crimes of idleness, dirty buttons, unpunctuality, insobriety or absence without leave, and he had felt that those were his friends. He had once heard a drill-sergeant shout at a recruit, 'Take that smile off your face,' and the incident had made a deep impression on his childish mind. In later years he used to quote it to justify his hatred of militarism, saying that any system which discouraged smiling ought to be damned. There was nothing revolutionary in Horry's attitude; he only felt that soldiers, like schoolmasters – no doubt very good fellows in their way – were the natural enemies of those who, like himself, wanted to have fun.
Horry was younger than Garnet and older than Willie, who liked and looked up to both of them, with the respect that boys feel for immediate seniors. And they liked him. Everybody did. They were also, although he was quite unaware of it, impressed by the wealth that was coming to him, and the independence that it would bring. Garnet felt vaguely that a rich friend might be useful to him in his career. Horry thought what a good time Willie ought to have with his money, and hoped that he might sometimes be allowed to share in it.
Willie was distressed that Garnet should have chosen to go into the R.A.M.C. What he found difficult to understand was why such a big and powerful fellow as Garnet, bigger and more powerful than he would ever be, one who played football for his school and had won boxing competitions, should join a branch of the Service that was not actually engaged in fighting.
'I must say,' he said one day to Garnet, greatly daring, 'that I shouldn't care for your job – stuck somewhere well behind the lines, cutting people's legs off, with the supply of anaesthetics always running out.'
It was difficult to provoke Garnet. Conscious of his own strength and satisfied with his own wisdom, he could take as much teasing as a large St. Bernard dog. He looked at Willie with mild contempt.
'Stuck well behind the lines!' he echoed. 'That's all you know about it. Perhaps you'll be surprised to learn that the only man in the Army who has won two Victoria Crosses is a Medical Officer.'
This came as news to Willie, but he wouldn't own it, although he felt that the bottom had been knocked out of his argument.
'Yes,' he said, a little flustered, 'but decorations are all a matter of luck,' quoting something he had heard his father say more than once. 'All I meant was' – changing his ground – 'that the medical profession is one thing and the military profession another, and I'd rather go in wholeheartedly for one or the other.'
'Would you indeed?' replied Garnet calmly. 'Well, I prefer to go in whole-heartedly for both.'
This seemed to end the conversation, but Garnet, seeing that Willie had nothing more to say and was feeling snubbed, crushed and crestfallen, went on, out of the kindness of his heart:
'And you see, my boy, one has got to think of the future. A day comes when the Army doesn't want you any more. They turn you out in the cold with a pension which you can't live on if you've got a wife and brats. It'll be all right for you, no doubt, because you've got a bit of money of your own. But lots of chaps find themselves right up against it and don't know where to turn for a living. An officer of the R.A.M.C., on the other hand, is a member of a great profession which he has been practising all his life. He has had lots of experience, tried all sorts of climates and had a jolly good time. Then he buys a practice in some nice part of the country and settles down to a happy old age, while his pals, who've never been taught to do anything but fight the enemy, are trying to become secretaries of golf clubs, and when they succeed they add up the accounts wrong and go to prison for peculation.'
This was a long speech for Garnet, but it was a matter to which he had devoted much thought. While Willie was still considering the new possibility of being obliged to leave the Army before he wanted to – he had hitherto believed that soldiers remained soldiers until they died – Garnet went on:
'And you know, Willie, my grandfather was in the R.A.M.C., which is another reason for joining it – and a jolly good one, too. I've heard tell that he was one of the most popular officers in India. He was known all over the country. They called him the Deliverer of Bengal.'
Willie laughed, too, but he didn't know why. The nickname given to Garnet's grandfather sounded very splendid to Willie – like the title of a novel by G. A. Henty. But it must be funny if Garnet laughed, for he did not laugh easily. Willie wondered whether it were something improper. Things usually were if he didn't understand them, but Garnet, unlike Horry, was not amused by impropriety.
Willie took his problems to the latter for solution. The gynaecological joke was explained, but Willie didn't think it funny, and when he asked what Horry meant to do if he had to leave the Army before he was a very old man, Horry answered:
'See here, little Willie' (an unkind nickname in those days, for it meant to the British public the German Crown Prince), 'the Army's problem about me is not how long they are going to keep me, but how they are going to get me into their clutches. That's what's worrying the War Office and keeping General French awake at night. They'll have to make this war last as long as the siege of Troy if they hope to get Horry Osborne into the ranks.'
'Into the ranks!' exclaimed Willie. 'But don't you want to be an officer?'
'No, I do not,' said Horry.
'But what else can one be,' asked Willie, 'except a barrister, or go into the Diplomatic Service? Surely you wouldn't be a doctor or a clergyman?'
'There are more professions in heaven and earth, little Willie,' said Horry, looking very profound, 'than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'
So Willie's conversation with Horry ended, as had his conversation with Garnet, with a remark that he couldn't understand.CHAPTER 2
The war went on and the boys grew up. Willie passed into Sandhurst at the earliest opportunity. His arrival there in August 1917 coincided with a prolongation of the course, which had formerly lasted nine months, and in future was to last a year. This was a cruel blow to him. It meant three further months away from the front. He had seriously thought of going through a course in a temporary officers' training corps, which would have lasted only four or six months. But it might have prevented him from getting a regular commission after the war, and the thought that his father had been at Sandhurst had clinched his decision, which he now regretted.
He did not distinguish himself at Sandhurst except by hard work and devotion to duty. He had hitherto had very little opportunity of riding, which he now took to with enthusiasm. He was not, and never became, a fine horseman, but he knew no fear, and the frequency of his falls became a legend. These, combined with his keen enjoyment of work and play, his easy good-nature and his guileless modesty, made him one of the most popular cadets of his year. The fact that he had plenty of money and no hesitation in spending it may have added a little gilding to his genuine charm.
He enjoyed that year. There are few more precious moments than those in which a boy feels for the first time the independence of manhood, when he can take decisions for himself, has no longer to ask permission or account for every action.
One anxiety only marred his happiness, and even made it difficult for him sometimes to share sincerely in the alternate rejoicing and gloom of his companions. When, in the autumn of 1917, orders were given for the church-bells to be rung in celebration of a British victory they brought no message of cheerfulness to Willie's heart, and when, in the following spring, the French and British armies were driven back, until it seemed that the retreat might turn into a rout, he could not suppress a secret thrill of satisfaction. That England could lose the war was not a possibility that ever entered into his calculations. When one of his companions suggested that this might happen he was not even angry, but looked upon that cadet ever after with indulgent pity, as someone who was not in possession of all his wits.
What Willie feared was not defeat but that the war should end before he crossed the Channel. It was not unnatural. During the four most formative years of his life he had had only one ambition. To go into battle with his regiment had been for him the summit of human desire. That regiment had seen comparatively little active service during the previous half-century. Willie had read its history again and again. Perhaps another fifty years would pass without a great war. He had seen somewhere a book called The War to End War. The title had sent a shiver of horror down his spine. And he had heard with deep dismay people talking about a League of Nations, which would make war impossible. So all the news that seemed good to others seemed bad to him, and whatever brought hope to most of the world brought him despair.
At the end of the following summer Willie left Sandhurst. He had acquitted himself with credit there, if without distinction, and he had made many friends. It was a proud day when he received his commission, and an anxious one when he presented himself to his regiment. Friends of his father ensured him a good reception among the senior officers; and among the junior ones he already had friends of his own.
The regiment had suffered casualties during the enemy offensive in the spring. There was a shortage of officers in France and every reason to suppose that Willie would find his way there within two or three months. Such leisure as he had from training was therefore devoted to the purchase of kit. No bride ever selected her trousseau with greater care and delight than Willie devoted to the buying of the drab little articles that compose an officer's kit. He never tired of consulting those with experience of such matters concerning the latest gadgets, and he was interested in the smallest details of such objects, from periscopes to writingpads.
If only the news from the front had been less favourable he would have been the happiest of men. But he consoled himself with the thought – a thought which depressed so many others that it was only the swing of the pendulum, that pendulum which had swung so often and so far since August 1914. There had been similar waves of optimism, like that which had followed the Battle of Cambrai only a year ago, when many had prophesied that the war would be over by Christmas, only to find that six months later the Allies were seriously thinking of abandoning Paris, and pessimists whispered that the war was lost.
These hopes and fears were for a while expelled by the exultation with which he received orders to be ready to go to France with the next draft. Earlier in the war officers had been granted a week or more 'draft leave' before going overseas. This had now been abolished, but there were few if any duties imposed on those who were awaiting departure. Farewells to relatives – a tiresome obligation or a trying ordeal – filled the time of most young men in these circumstances. But no such obligation or ordeal awaited Willie. So that these were idle, happy and proud days for him. He frequented the military club to which he now belonged, and could not suppress a little swagger when he informed his acquaintances that he might be off 'any day now'. The departure of the draft was twice postponed, to his extreme annoyance, but at last the day was fixed, and Willie, who had promised to spend his last Saturday to Monday at Mrs. Osborne's, travelled down to Camberley on November 9th.
Excerpted from Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper. Copyright © 2011 The Second Viscount Norwich. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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