NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
In queer psychology there was a strange mingling of the pitiful and
comic -- among a division (the 35th) known as the Bantams. They were
all volunteers, having been rejected by the ordinary recruiting-officer
on account of their diminutive stature, which was on an average five
feet high, descending to four feet six. Most of them came from Lancashire,
Cheshire, Durham, and Glasgow, being the dwarfed children of industrial
England and its mid-Victorian cruelties. Others were from London, banded
together in a battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. They gave a shock
to our French friends when they arrive as a division at the port of
"Name of a dog!" said the quayside loungers. "England
is truly in a bad way. She is sending out her last reserves!"
"But they are the soldiers of Lilliput!" exclaimed others.
"It is terrible that they should send these little ones,"
said kind-hearted fishwives.
Under the training of General Pi(1),
who commanded them, they became smart and brisk in the ranks. They saluted
like miniature Guardsmen, marched with quick little steps like clockwork
soldiers. It was comical to see them strutting up and down as sentries
outside divisional headquarters, with their bayonets high above their
wee bodies. In trench warfare they did well -- though the fire-step
had to be raised to let them see over the top -- and in one raid captured
a German machine-gun which I saw in their hands, and hauled it back
(a heavier weight than ours) like ants struggling with a stick of straw.
In actual battle they were hardly strong enough and could not carry
all that burden of fighting-kit -- steel helmet, rifle, hand-grenades,
shovels, empty sandbags -- with which other troops went into action.
So they were used as support troops mostly, behind the Black Watch and
other battalions near Bazentin and Longueval, and there these poor little
men dug and dug like beavers and crouched in the cover they made under
damnable fire, until many of them were blown to bits. There was no "glory"
in their job, only filth and blood, but they held the ground and suffered
it all, not gladly. They had a chance of taking prisoners at Longueval,
where they rummaged in German dugouts after the line had been taken
by the 15th Scottish Division and the 3rd, and they brought back a number
of enormous Bavarians who were like the Brobdingnagians to these little
men of Lilliput and disgusted with that humiliation. I met the whole
crowd of them after that adventure, as they sat, half naked, picking
the lice out of their shirts, and the conversation I had with them remains
in my memory because of its grotesque humor and tragic comicality. They
were excited and emotional, these stunted men. They cursed the war with
the foulest curses of Scottish and Northern dialects. There was one
fellow -- the jester of them all -- whose language would have made the
poppies blush. With ironical laughter, outrageous blasphemy, grotesque
imagery, he described the suffering of himself and his mates under barrage
fire, which smashed many of them into bleeding pulp. He had no use for
this war. He cursed the name of "glory". He advocated a trade-unionism
among soldiers to down tools whenever there was a threat of war. He
was a Bolshevist before Bolshevism. Yet he had no liking for Germans
and desired to cut them into small bits, to slit their throats, to disembowel
them. He looked homeward to a Yorkshire town and wondered what his missus
would say if she saw him scratching himself like an ape, or lying with
his head in the earth with shells bursting around him, or prodding Germans
with a bayonet. "Oh," said that five-foot hero, "there
will be a lot of murder after this bloody war. What's human life? What's
the value of one man's throat? We're trained up as murderers -- I don't
dislike it, mind you -- and after the war we shan't get out of the habit
of it. It'll come nat'ral like!"
He was talking for my benefit, egged on to further audacities by a
group of comrades who roared with laughter and said: "Go it, Bill!
That's the stuff!" Among these Lilliputians were fellows who sat
aloof and sullen, or spoke of their adventure with its recent horror
in their eyes. Some of them had big heads on small bodies, as though
they suffered from water on the brain. . . . Many of them were sent
home afterward. General Haldane, as commander of the 6th Corps, paraded
them, and poked his stick at the more wizened ones, the obviously unfit,
the degenerates, and said at each prod, "You can go. . . . You.
. . . You. . . ." The Bantam Division ceased to exist.
They afforded many jokes to the army. One anecdote went the round.
A Bantam died -- of disease ("and he would", said General
Haldane) -- and a comrade came to see his corpse.
"Shut ze door ven you come out," said the old woman of his
billet. "Fermez la porte, mon vieux."
The living Bantam went to see the dead one, and came downstairs much
moved by grief.
"I've seen poor Bill," he said.
"As-tu fermé la porte?" said the old woman. "Ze
cat, Monsieur, 'e 'ave 'ad your friend in ze passage three time already
today. Trois fois!"
Poor little men born of diseased civilization! They were volunteers
to a man, and some of them with as much courage as soldiers twice their
They were the Bantams who told me of the Anglican padre at Longueval.
It was father Hall of Mirfield, attached to the South African Brigade.
He came out to a dressing station established in one bit of ruin which
could be used for shelter, and devoted himself to the wounded with a
spiritual fervor. They were suffering horribly from thirst, which made
their tongues swell and set their throats on fire.
"Water!" they cried. "Water! For Christ's sake, water!"
There was no water, except at a well in Longueval, under the fire of
German snipers, who picked off our men when they crawled down like wild
dogs with their tongues lolling out. There was one German officer there
in a shell-hole not far from the well, who sat with his revolver handy,
and he was a dead shot.
But he did not shoot the padre. Something in the face and figure
of that chaplain, his disregard of the bullets snapping about him, the
upright, fearless way in which he crossed that way of death, held back
the trigger-finger of the German officer and he let him pass. He passed
many times, untouched by bullets or machine-gun fire, and he went into
bad places, pits of horror, carrying hot tea, which he made from the
well-water for men in agony.
(1) General Pi.