Lieutenant Willy Fraser, formerly of the Royal Flying Corps, has been delegated the most dangerous job on the Western Front – a balloon observer hanging under a gasbag filled with explosive hydrogen, four thousand feet above the Ypres Salient, anchored by a slender cable. Swept across enemy lines after his balloon is damaged, Willy is hidden by Belgian farmers, whom he grows close to during his stay. With their aid, he manages to escape across the flooded delta at the English Channel and return to his duties. But once he’s back in the air, spotting for artillery and under attack, Willy is forced to make an impossible decision that threatens the life of the woman he has come to love.
This novel by James Long is divided into two distinct parts. The first finds Willy Fraser in Berlin during the last few days before the outbreak of the First World War and follows him as he makes his way to Belgium keeping just ahead of the rapidly advancing German war machine. This well researched section tells of the heroic stand of a neutral country which fought hard for every inch of land as her army retreated to the final Yser enclave which the Belgians were able to maintain for the long years of war which lay ahead. This stand by a greatly outnumbered and ill-prepared army allowed the French and British the time to strengthen the border and halt the German race for Paris.
Two years later we find Willy Fraser serving as a balloonist, a role which few people know much about. Mr Long’s detailed research of the few first hand accounts of these men (few of them lived long enough to write about their experiences) is the framework on which this novel hangs. Tethered balloons flying at almost a mile high were sitting targets for enemy planes and artillery whilst the balloonists had to combat terrible conditions as they observed the enemy lines and called in attacks onto the big guns which were turning the trenches into desperate killing fields. There were numerous ways for observers to die – failed parachutes, burning up with their balloons, or being cut adrift and coming down behind enemy lines to name but a few – and life expectancy was short. The historical accuracy of The Balloonist draws the reader in, educating on little known aspects of the war without ever seeming to preach.
Added to the historical background of this novel is the story of Willy’s journey into himself, his character and motives which change as he lives through tumultuous times. It is here that I find the one weakness in the story as there are perhaps a few too many co-incidences bringing the main characters together at key moments but this is, after all, fiction so if you are able to suspend belief at times, and enjoy an action packed and pacey ‘boys own’ storyline you will enjoy The Balloonist.
The most vivid, moving – and devastating – word-portrait of a World War One British commander ever written.
C.S. Forester’s 1936 masterpiece follows Lt General Herbert Curzon, who fumbled a fortuitous early step on the path to glory in the Boer War. 1914 finds him an honourable, decent, brave and wholly unimaginative colonel. Survival through the early slaughters in which so many fellow-officers perished then brings him rapid promotion. By 1916, he is a general in command of 100,000 British soldiers, whom he leads through the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele, a position for which he is entirely unsuited and intellectually unprepared.
Wonderfully human with Forester’s droll relish for human folly on full display, this is the story of a man of his time who is anything but wicked, yet presides over appalling sacrifice and tragedy. In his awkwardness and his marriage to a Duke’s unlovely, unhappy daughter, Curzon embodies Forester’s full powers as a storyteller. His half-hero is patriotic, diligent, even courageous, driven by his sense of duty and refusal to yield to difficulties. But also powerfully damned is the same spirit which caused a hundred real-life British generals to serve as high priests at the bloodiest human sacrifice in the nation’s history. A masterful and insightful study about the perils of hubris and unquestioning duty in leadership, The General is a fable for our times.
The British generals who served during the First World War have a reputation for incompetence and a callous disregard for human life, yet until the late 1920’s they were recognised as heroes – 1 million people went to London to pay their respects at the funeral of General Haig in 1928. It was not until the late 1920’s that novels began to appear criticising the war and those who led it, and it was in this climate that C S Forester wrote ‘The General’ in an attempt to explain what made men launch such catastrophic attacks against the enemy time and time again.
This is a story of human nature rather than military strategy, revealing the thought processes and perceived obligations of an officer during the First World War with such clarity that it reads more like a biography than fiction. Mr Forester has written a well-researched revelation of life on the front line, getting to the heart of the conversations of soldiers and the planning of the disastrous attacks which killed so many. The development of tactics and arms from the end of the use of cavalry through the introduction of machine guns, reconnaissance planes, and tanks is shown through the perfectly normal feelings of scepticism which always accompany new ideas and inventions. ‘The General’, which takes Curzon from South Africa to northern Europe, gives the reader some understanding of how difficult it would have been for officers of the ‘old school’ who had last fought during the Boer War to face the nightmare of trench warfare which the author describes in word pictures which are all the more real for their simplicity.
The character of Curzon is rather awkward, socially limited and lacking in imagination, yet he is single-minded in his loyalty to his men and his desire to be the best officer possible. He is respected and admired by his men, a dedicated and hard-working professional, but his tragedy is that he is unable to grasp the changing nature of warfare and use it to his advantage even though he does take the unusual step of appointing civilian conscripts rather than the traditional officer class to carry out new roles in logistics, chemistry, train scheduling etc.
This novel criticises the lack of imagination in the planning of the war – if an attack fails then just do the same thing again but with more men and more guns. Curzon sees the tragic and appalling loss of life as indispensable to victory and so accepts them in a way which may seem callous to us but which is perhaps intended to show how each aspect of the General’s role was compartmentalised as he focused on final victory, he buries his reaction to the death of his men in order to carry out his duty and ‘finish the job’. The reader has to face the same dilemmas as the General himself – should Curzon have surrendered positions to save lives? Would defeat have been better?
The General shows that the perception of cowardly generals leading from behind the lines is unjust. In fact most generals visited the front lines regularly, for some it was almost every day, and more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured during the course of the war. A General serving during the First World War would have been considerably closer to the action than generals are today. (About 12% of ordinary soldiers in the British army were killed during World War 1 as opposed to 17% of its officers).
The General paints a portrait of a man who was not wicked or incompetent and who elicits some sympathy from the reader. It is not really possible to love Curzon, but he can be seen as a tragic figure who did the best he could for his country in a particular time and place. As we are currently commemorating the centenary of the ending of the First World War in November 1918 it is perhaps a fitting time to read this novel and reflect.
Following on from my previous article about the Royal Army Medical Corps I wanted to pay tribute to one of the heroes from the Corps who dedicated his life to helping those who had been wounded in battle, Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse.
Chavasse was born in Oxford on 9th November 1884, 20 minutes after his twin brother Christopher. The family moved to Liverpool when their father, Rev. Francis Chavasse, was made Bishop of Liverpool. Both boys did well at school where they excelled at sports, before going to Trinity College, Oxford. After graduating with a First-class honours degree Noel continued to study medicine at Oxford, and during that time both he and Christopher represented Great Britain in the 400 metres at the 1908 Olympic Games. In 1909 Noel joined the Officers Training Corps Medical Unit at Oxford University, later being promoted to Lance-Sergeant. He passed his exams to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and was awarded the Oxford University’s premier medical prize, the Derby Exhibition. In 1913 Chavasse joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a Surgeon-Lieutenant in the Territorial 10th Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment.
When war broke out in 1914 Chavasse, like many other young men, was eager to serve and was happy to be in France by the end of the year. He initially wrote home to say that as he was not particularly heroic he was pleased that doctors were not allowed in the trenches so he would run little risk. Yet the young doctor soon saw the horrors of trench warfare as men were rotated back from the frontline in terrible condition, and he wrote home to say that they all came to hate the war worse than they had thought they could. Yet, despite everything, Chavasse continued to work hard, being amongst the first doctors to use the new anti-tetanus serum to help the wounded, and when the troops in nearby trenches were terrified by the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans he arranged for his father to send a gramophone to help raise their spirits.
For a man who did not feel heroic Noel Chavasse was to become the most highly decorated officer of the First World War. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Bellewaarde near Ypers on 16th June 1915 where he spent 12 hours helping to treat and rescue casualties in no man’s land (more than 1,000 men died during that offensive). Chavasse was promoted to Captain in 1915, and was also mentioned in despatches later that year.
In 1916 Chavasse was awarded the first of two Victoria Crosses. His unit suffered heavy casualties at Guillemont on 9th August with 230 out of 600 men killed, wounded or missing. Chavasse worked for more than 24 hours, disregarding sniper, machine gun and mortar fire to tend the wounded, bury fellow officers and collect ID from the dead. Although wounded in the back by two shell splinters, he refused to retire behind the lines and worked on, rescuing men from as close as 25 yards to the German line. His VC citation read:
Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, M.C., M.B., Royal Army Medical Corps.
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.
During an attack he tended the wounded in the open all day, under heavy fire, frequently in view of the enemy. During the ensuing night he searched for wounded on the ground in front of the enemy’s lines for four hours.
Next day he took one stretcher-bearer to the advanced trenches, and under heavy shell fire carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being wounded in the side by a shell splinter during the journey. The same night he took up a party of twenty volunteers, rescued three wounded men from a shell hole twenty-five yards from the enemy’s trench, buried the bodies of two officers, and collected many identity discs, although fired on by bombs and machine guns.
Altogether he saved the lives of some twenty badly wounded men, besides the ordinary cases which passed through his hands. His courage and self-sacrifice, were beyond praise.
In a letter to his parents Chavasse described his work at the front line: “We found a man bleeding badly from one arm and held the main artery, and then we put a tourniquet on with a respirator string. Then I found that the arm was all but off and was only a source of danger. So I cut it off with a pair of scissors and did the stump up. We had to do everything by the light of an electric torch and when we got a stretcher it took us two hours to get him out of the wood… The mud was fearful. While I and my Corporal were dressing a case we both sank up to our knees in the mud of the trench. Men had to be dug out and some poor wounded of another battalion perished in the mud…We had one sad casualty. A poor fellow was crouching at the bottom of the trench when there was a slip which buried him, and he was dead when he was dug out. Both his brothers have been in the Scottish and have been killed. His mother committed suicide after the death of the 2nd. There is only a sister left.”
Chavasse’s second Victoria Cross was awarded for his actions during the period of the 31st July to 2nd August 1917, at Wieltje in Belgium. On 31st July Chavasse’s unit were trying to recapture Passchendaele Ridge at Ypres, and whilst tending the wounded he was hit in the head but refused to be sent from the line. The weather was terrible and he was under constant heavy fire, but time and again Chavasse went into no man’s land to help the wounded. Early on 2nd August he was resting in his first-aid post when it was hit by a shell. Everyone in the post was killed or wounded; Chavasse himself had at least six injuries but crawled for half a mile to get help for his colleagues. He was taken to a casualty station suffering from a serious stomach wound and died there at 1pm on 4th August 1917, aged 32. The citation for his medal read:
War Office, September, 1917.
His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of a Bar to the Victoria Cross to Capt. Noel Godfrey Chavasse, V.C., M.C., late R.A.M.C., attd. L’pool R.
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when in action.
Though severely wounded early in the action whilst carrying a wounded soldier to the Dressing Station, Capt. Chavasse refused to leave his post, and for two days not only continued to perform his duties, but in addition went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out.
During these searches, although practically without food during this period, worn with fatigue and faint with his wound, he assisted to carry in a number of badly wounded men, over heavy and difficult ground.
By his extraordinary energy and inspiring example, he was instrumental in rescuing many wounded who would have otherwise undoubtedly succumbed under the bad weather conditions.
This devoted and gallant officer subsequently died of his wounds.
One soldier who witnessed Chavasse’s actions said “Gee! He did work! I was beginning to think he was not human, because nothing made him flinch or duck…The first wound that he received was in the head, and all he did was to take his tin hat off, put a bandage around his head, and carry on…This he did all day and all night until the next wound he got, in the side, did for him…a VC is too small a reward for such a man”.
Chavasse is buried at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, Vlamertinge. His military headstone is unique as it depicts two Victoria Crosses, underneath is an inscription chosen by his father: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Chavasse’s heroism is still remembered by the people of Liverpool where he came third in a BBC poll in 2003 to find the 100 Greatest Merseysiders, above Bill Shankly, George Harrison and William Gladstone, and behind only Ken Dodd and Lennon and McCartney.
Chavasse has had at least 16 memorials dedicated to him, more than any other VC holder, including one at Liverpool Cathedral. He is the only VC and Bar of World War I and one of only three since the honour was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1857.
In this video athlete Sally Gunnell talks about Noel Chavasse.
As part of my background work for the novel I am currently writing I have been researching the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) which has proved to be a fascinating subject. Their Corps Day is 23rd June so it seemed appropriate that my article this month should be about these brave men and women who serve our soldiers in so many different ways.
The Royal Army Medical Corps (affectionately known as the ‘Linseed Lancers’) serve both at home and wherever in the world the British Army is on deployment as they are responsible for ensuring that servicemen and women, and their families, are fit and healthy. Members of the Corps not only provide emergency care on the front line or during humanitarian operations (such as after earthquakes or hurricanes) but are also responsible for providing routine treatment or long term care for soldiers as well as instituting health programmes and preventing disease.
The RAMC is non-combatant and subject to the Geneva Conventions. As such Corps members do not take part in attacks and are only allowed to use their weapons for self-defence. This has led to two traditions which make the RAMC stand out when on parade; firstly, officers do not draw their swords but salute with the right hand whilst holding their scabbard in their left; secondly, other ranks do not carry weapons when on parade. The Corps is also identifiable by its insignia which shows the Rod of Asclepius (a rod with a serpent entwined round it which was carried by Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine), above the rod is a crown, and below it the Regimental motto In Arduis Fidelis (Faithful in Adversity).
The Royal Army Medical Corps was formed by Royal Warrant on 23rd June 1898 (120 years ago today) but the history of army medical services goes back much further than that.
A Standing Regular Army was only formed in Britain after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and it was at that time that each infantry and cavalry regiment was assigned a Regimental Surgeon with a Warrant Officer as his Assistant. Although this was a step forward in the treatment of soldiers the Duke of Marlborough wanted to give even better care to his wounded men and so set up ‘Marching Hospitals’ to accompany his armies during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), but it was not until the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon (1808-1814) that the army medical services were organised on a more formal basis.
During the Napoleonic Wars Sir James McGrigor made changes to the army medical services in an attempt to make them more efficient, he continued that work following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Thanks to Sir James a system of casualty evacuation was set up which included the setting up of pre-fabricated huts to treat the wounded, and McGrigor’s system of registering casualties is still the basis of the recording of medical statistics today. McGrigor also set up the Benevolent Fund and the Widows and Orphans Fund to care for soldiers and their families.
Britain was at peace for almost forty years after the Battle of Waterloo and, unfortunately, during that time many of the lessons of the Napoleonic Wars were forgotten. When the Crimean War began in 1854 civilian departments were given responsibility for medical support and often met to make plans without consulting with anyone from the army. Needless to say, the results were disastrous. At this time a medical officer would be commissioned and wear the uniform of the Regiment he was assigned to but held no rank and so was under the command of his Colonel. The medical officer had no trained staff to help him treat the wounded, just a few men from the Regiment who he would try to give basic first aid training to. The lack of care meant that many soldiers died from wounds and disease who could have recovered under a better system. The telegraph (developed in the 1830’s and 40’s) meant that people back in Britain soon learned of the inadequate care being given to our troops abroad and the scandal caused a national outcry which led to Sir Andrew Smith, (the Director General of the Medical Services) urging the War Office to set up a proper medical corps. The response of the politicians? To create and send to the Crimea an ambulance force made up of 300 old army pensioners. Smith said that they could hardly carry themselves and would not be able to care for the sick and wounded. Smith’s prediction was proved true as the new corps was depleted by deaths from cholera with many of those surviving turning to alcohol. Smith finally saw progress when the Medical Staff Corps was formed in 1855, the instruction was that it should be made up of ‘Men able to read and write, of regular steady habits and good temper and of a kindly disposition’.
The Medical Service continued to evolve, and by 1873 doctors who wanted to sign up needed to be qualified, single, and at least 21 years old; they also had to pass exams in physiology, surgery, medicine, zoology, botany, and physical geography including meteorology, as well as reaching a number of other standards including having been present at 12 births and having dissected the whole body at least once. Despite the changes, well qualified army doctors still did not hold military rank which often left them feeling excluded from decision making, they also had to serve longer in India than other members of the British Army (6 years at a time) and received less pay when serving there. Many members of the service felt that their treatment was discriminatory and they needed to have an identity of their own which would give them some kind of parity in service and in the awarding of honours. Finally, the two distinct parts of the Army Medical Services – the Medical Staff Corps (ordinary ranks) and the Medical Staff (officers) – were reorganised into the Roya Army Medical Corps by Royal Warrant on 23rd June 1898; officers were now given executive and administrative powers and the Corps was soon serving in the Sudan, and in South Africa during the Boer War when the Corps lost 743 officers and 6,130 soldiers in other ranks.
Many of the soldiers in South Africa were treated by civilian doctors who volunteered their support; their hospitals were much more efficient than those of the RAMC and, at the end of the war, some of those volunteers campaigned for the radical reform of the Corps. Alfred Fripp was key to this as he was friends with the new king, Edward VII, who made sure that the army paid proper attention to Fripp’s ideas. Fripp, and his colleague Cooper Perry, were instrumental in setting up the Hospital and Medical School at Millbank, London; in 1903 both were knighted for their services to the RAMC Committee of Reform. During the Boer War the medical services had treated 22,000 wounded soldiers yet spent far more time and resources on the 74,000 who suffered dysentery or typhoid fever. It became clear that the Corps needed to focus on preventing disease as well as treating the wounded, and by the outbreak of the First World War an anti-typhoid vaccine had been developed which had such an impact that a disease which had killed 8,000 in South Africa had a negligible effect in the trenches of Northern Europe.
Sir Alfred Keogh (who had worked with Fripp and Perry on the RAMC Committee of Reform) was made Director General of the RAMC from 1904 -1910 and worked hard to ensure that the medical services were seen not as something separate from but as an essential part of the British Army. Keogh was again made Director General of the Corps (1914 -18) and presided over its rapid expansion. At the outbreak of war there were approximately 9,000 members of the ranks, at the end of the war there were around 154,000 as well as 13,000 RAMC Officers in service in all theatres of the war. Thanks to Keogh’s planning a chain of evacuation was set up to move the wounded back down the line through a series of posts, which streamlined and speeded up the care which could be given to wounded soldiers. A patient would typically go through the following posts:
Regimental Aid Post
Advanced Dressing Station
Main Dressing Station
Casualty Clearing Station (some could take up to 1,000 patients at a time)
Hospital (either in France or England)
Please click here to see a remarkable video showing the work of the RAMC during the First World War. The film is held by the Imperial War Museum.
By the Second World War the RAMC was much more mobile and able to work more effectively on the front line, there were also developments such as the use of penicillin and blood transfusions which helped to improve the survival rate of the wounded. Since the end of the Second World War the RAMC has served with the British Army wherever they have been posted, from Northern Ireland to Cyprus, Korea to Afghanistan, and many more. There are a variety of careers open to anyone wanting to join the RAMC. Officers can serve as doctor, pharmacist, physiotherapist, environmental health officer, medical support officer, or a technical officer (e.g. biomedical scientist, radiographer, clinical physiologist etc.) whist ordinary ranks can serve as combat medical technicians, emergency medical technicians, pharmacy technicians and many more.
It takes a special kind of courage to be in the middle of a battle and not to focus on the enemy but on the wounded instead; this has been recognised by the awarding of 29 Victoria Crosses to medical personal as well as 2 bars (a bar means that the recipient has been given a second Victoria Cross, and only 3 have ever been awarded). The corps also has one recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Iron Cross, one officer was awarded the George Cross in the Second World War, and Private Michelle Norris became the first woman to be awarded the Military Cross following her actions in Iraq on 11 June 2006 when she was aged just 19.
In1856 Queen Victoria laid a Victoria Cross beneath the foundation stone of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital in recognition of the courage of those who have fought and died for their country. When the hospital was demolished in 1966 the VC, which is known as ‘The Netley VC’, was taken to the Army Medical Services Museum in Aldershot where it is now on display.
Those members of the Royal Army Medical Corps who have been awarded the Victoria Cross have truly lived up to the motto of the Corps – ‘Faithful in Adversity’.