THE P.B.I.

By Major-General H. Essame, C.B., D.S.O., M.C.
The Army Quarterly and Defence Journal, Volume C, April and July, 1970

"I learnt what one ought not to do, and that is always something" — Wellington on his experience in the 1794 campaign.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have very kindly given me three 1/200,000 maps of the old front line of World War I showing the British cemeteries. Across all three stretches a belt of little violet circles, each representing a cemetery; all the way from Ypres to St. Quentin. The rash is particularly dense around Ypres, Arras and Albert. Here lie over half a million British soldiers, mostly infantry—the P.B.I. of that particular war. Having spent two and a half years with an infantry battalion on the Western Front, I still wonder why fifty years later I am not in one of those cemeteries. The total casualties of my division were 2,927 officers and 60,931 men. The old front line, in fact, was my university—I was there from 19 to 21—perhaps therefore it is not impertinent for a younger generation to ask me what I learnt from my experience and what made life tolerable. How did it come about, the standard of generalship being what it was, that the British Army, unlike the French, retained its discipline and its will to fight to the very end?

The infantry division of World War I was organized as three brigades of four battalions, each as today about 800 strong. There was also a pioneer battalion primarily designed to provide labour for the Royal Engineers but also available and frequently used in the normal infantry role. The Vickers machine—guns were concentrated in a battalion under divisional control. There were eight batteries of six guns each in the divisional artillery, 75 per cent of which were 18 poundcrs and the rest 4-5 howitzers. Medium and heavy artillery were under corps and army control. The C.R.A. also controlled four batteries of medium mortars. Each brigade had a battery of light Stokes mortars. The latter were plain steel tubes with a spike at the bottom. A sporting cartridge was attached to the base of the shell, which was slid down the tube—and one hoped for the best. Increased range was obtained by adding rings of ballastite to the cartridge. I commanded four of these contraptions for a short while, but I cannot say I ever loved them as a gunner loves his guns. My arrival in any part of the line was greeted with marked coldness on the part of the permanent residents because when firing started all available German guns opened up on the area.

Within the division there were Royal Engineers more or less on the scale provided today. 'When not in the front line, the infantry provided vast numbers of working parties in the forward area, every night work ing under engineer supervision. The engineers therefore were most undeservedly unpopular. One infantry working party passing another in the dark would shout, "What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?" and the reply would invariably be, "Carried sand bags for the . . . . R.E.s." All transport was horse drawn and included a gigantic divisional ammunition column which snarled up the traffic in the rear areas.

An infantry battalion consisted of a small headquarters, a signal section, a pioneer section, a provost section, a stretch-bearer section and four companies—each 126 strong and organized in four platoons. The regimental transport was based on the horse-drawn limber and each company had a brace of mules to carry small arms ammunition.

The soldier's individual weapon was the short Lee-Enfield ride. This was accurate, easily handled and capable of delivering 15 rounds a minute in skilled hands. We also had the Mills grenade still in use today and the Newton Pippin rifle grenade, which, fortunately for all concerned, is not. finally there was the Lewis gun, one to each platoon, a primitive light automatic with a revolving magazine, rather like a frying pan, which speedily became useless in mud. It also had a wide range of stoppages affording great scope to the mechanically minded.

The load on the man was formidable—62 lb. and more in winter. Apart from his weapons the infantryman had to carry a pick or a shovel, wire cutters, a Very pistol and cartridges, flares for signalling to the air, a brace of sandbags, an anti-gas respirator, and if he was a rifleman, 170 rounds of S.A.A. Add to these his personal necessities: a heavy greatcoat, a ground sheet, three pairs of socks, a spare woollen undervest and long pants of immense thickness; an iron ration of a 1-lb. tin of corned beef and two packets of super-hard biscuits. The steel helmet was heavy and produced headache.

In summer the greatcoat was usually not taken into action. Each man also had a heavy mess tin, a knife, fork and spoon, an enamel mug and his washing and shaving kit. In winter, leather jerkins and gum boots of thigh length were added for good measure.

There was one cooker for each company. This was a horse-drawn boiler on wheels burning coke and capable of producing either stew or tea. In consequence, there were always tea leaves in the stew while the tea had a strong flavour of onions. In a static position, small iron dixies were carried into the front trenches and the cooking was done on coke fires which gave no smoke but were liable to asphyxiate the unwary in a confined space. These, however, were luxuries not available in an attack. Before a battle, the bacon ration was boiled and distributed cold. The tea and sugar were carried mixed in sandbags. Corned beef, biscuits and tinned jam in generous quantities were the normal diet, plus a vast ration of cheese. Whale oil in quantity was also usually provided on a lavish scale for rubbing the feet to prevent trench foot. Used with pullthrough rag it made a useful little fire on which a mess tin of tea could be brewed. I can still recollect how intensely I longed for a hot drink during the battles of the Somme, Passchendaele and the March retreat.

My battalion when I joined it before the battle of the Somme, although nominally regular, included a bare thirty of the pre-war members who had landed in France in 1914. From July, 1916, onwards the commanding officers were usually pre-war regular captains or subalterns. Once, but not for long, we had a Territorial. The remainder of the officers were second lieutenants who had joined since the outbreak of war, some straight from school and university, others returned from Africa, Canada, the Argentine and Australia whither they had gone to seek their fortunes. There were a surprising number of the latter from middle class families —men who could not endure the stuffy atmosphere of life before 1914 in the United Kingdom, which was the fate of most young men who lacked private means and professional qualifications. There were also a few promoted regular N.C.O.s, stout men in a tight corner but often handicapped by lack of education. With the exception of two majors from the Reserve, who in due course were killed commanding the battalion, practically all the officers were under thirty. Men over that age usually did not survive the exposure and fatigue for long.

The warrant and non-commissioned officers had for the most part risen from the pre-war Regular ranks or were men who in civil like were accustomed to take the lead—foremen in quarries, in brickyards, in the building trade and in factories, a magnificent breed bursting with practical sense, unruflied and carrying their authority without effort. The impression which remains with me of the rank and file is above all one of immense solidarity and good nature. Order them to go forward and they would go forward however intense the fire; order them to stand fast and they would stay to the end. For the most part they were good-humoured men who sang on the line of march and went to sleep on the slightest provocation. They were kindhearted and generous, as quick to go to the aid of a wounded enemy as of a wounded friend. They had one supreme quality, a capacity to endure without flinching prolonged bombardment and exposure greater than that of the soldier of World War II. The link between junior officer and man was very close; it is true to say that it was a platoon commanders' war. The horizon of both did not extend far beyond the confines of their battalion. Both felt in a dim way that they were morally superior to, other men who lacked their experience, as indeed they were. This spirit still survives amongst old soldiers of World War I.

In those days almost every canon now considered axiomatic for the maintenance of morale was violated. The troops scarcely ever saw their higher commanders, let alone heard them speak. I personally only saw Haig once in two and a half years on the Western Front—a dominating but dumb figure on a magnificent horse. When they did speak to the troops, in my experience at any rate, they lacked the common touch and did not always tell the truth. To be told before an attack that the enemy's morale is cracking and then find that he is still capable of wiping out 50 per cent of your unit does not create confidence. On many occasions troops were put into battle after days and nights exposed to wind, rain and shell-fire or a long series of working parties. Attacks once started were continued in rain and mud long after the initial surprise (if any) had been lost and when even to the troops themselves it had become obvious that the battle had no future. In action men went for days without a hot drink: many of the wounded died as much from exposure as from wounds. Many were thrust into murderous attacks without any previous battle inoculation. Only too often troops who had failed to take their objectives were ordered to try again and in the same way. All the infantry were overloaded. It was not realized that hot food or at least a hot drink at least once a day is as important as ammunition. On the Somme, at Passchendaele and in the March and April retreats of 1918 men went for days without it. The higher command and the infantry battalions lived in different worlds.

Judged by the standards of World War II and since, the troops of World War I were virtually untrained. Looking back, it is surprising how little thought was given to training in World War I. In World War II troops in North-West Europe, when not in direct contact with the enemy, trained and trained and trained. It was realized that men should be given no leisure to speculate as to their future prospects in eternity and that they were better employed in training calculated to accelerate the departure of the enemy in that direction.

With all these handicaps how then did it come about that Britishmorale in World War I never cracked? The answer is platitudinous. The infantry were simpler men in a simpler age than their descendants of World War II and today. They had faith—faith that in battle three things matter—courage, discipline and comradeship. They held that courage is the supreme virtue, that it is better to die than to lose one's self-respect or the respect of one's fellowmen; that a man's duty overrides all other considerations and come what may a man must never let his comrades down. The trenches themselves provided an admirable selection board for junior leaders: in them, by a process of natural selection, the real leaders emerged. The ties between officer and man in the old front line were unbreakable. It was on these simple concepts that Alexander, Montgomery and Slim, all familiar from first-hand experience with the mistakes made in World War I, built up the morale of a more temperamental generation in World War II.

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