Soldier from the Wars Returning by Charles Carrington

Carrington, Charles. Soldier from the Wars Returning. South Yorkshire, Great Britain: Pen
            & Sword Books Ltd, 1965, 2015.

 

Having been a part of both World Wars, Charles Carrington is no stranger to the military. In Soldier from the Wars Returning he gives an accounting of his time as a young soldier and officer of World War I. He did not write this book until fifty years after war’s end, and because of the elapsed time, the reader has the benefit of his perspective of both wars as well as years of research and hindsight, which add further analysis and insight. He first published his memoirs, A Subaltern’s War in 1929. Soldier from the Wars Returning expands on those original thoughts by giving a well-rounded history, not just of his personal experiences, but a comprehensive picture. He includes personal and political backgrounds of men like Haig, Gough, Kitchener, Lloyd George, and Churchill. The reader is able to have a richer depiction of why battles were fought, and why certain decisions and strategies were employed. Typical of Carrington’s no-nonsense attitude, he states in his preface that for those who find fault in his words that further research has revealed to be inaccurate, he rejoins by writing, “Very well. You may be right. But this is what we thought about it in those days.” (p. 11)

Professor C. E. Carrington enlisted in the army in 1914, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. At seventeen he was too young to be sent to France and spent over a year training in England. Eventually he made it to France and to the Front. He fought in big battles like the Somme and Passchendaele. After demobilization in 1919 he continued his education at Oxford studying history. He received his BA in 1921 and his MA in 1929. During the years following Oxford he published A Subaltern’s War and worked as Educational Secretary for Cambridge University Press. War would find him again though, and in 1940 he returned to service. During World War II he served as a Lieutenant-Colonel on the General Staff. After the war he went on to publish four more books including this one, Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work, The British Overseas: Exploits of a Nation of Shopkeepers, and Soldier at Bomber Command. He had several important professions including Professor of British Commonwealth Relations at the Royal Institute of International Affairs from 1954-1962.

The first few chapters are devoted to England’s state of military readiness, the Boer War, including two of the most insightful chapters, The First Year, and Kitchener’s Army. Carrington does a masterful job of recounting Britain’s war preparedness. He fought at the Battle of the Somme, so the experience is seen through his eyes, with the edition of fifty years of wisdom. It is fascinating to mesh a young soldier’s naiveté with a veteran’s comprehension. He takes the reader through the trenches, open fighting, Passchendaele, soldiers and politics, and England in 1918. He has added a chapter on Italy after the armistice with a solid description of the pop-up mutinies caused by slow demobilization. A favorite chapter, Some random recollections, contains information that might already be known, but it is so varied the reader is sure to find something new. A few items that are touched upon are the long, tedious marches, and the censoring of letters. In the section titled trench kits, he amusingly writes “Body-armour could not cover very vital spot and when advancing under fire I always felt a strong genetic urge to snatch the helmet off my head and hold it in front of another part of my person which might yet do more for humanity than my brains.” (p. 158) He adds the provocative sex life of soldiers, in which he explains that he would not have dared to include in the 1920s, but for the 1960s seems a must. Scavenging the belongings off the dead are discussed in all its gloomy detail under the topic of The Ethics of Scrounging. “Your end in battle is to compel your enemy to submit and if you succeed his body and his possessions are at your disposal.” (p. 183)

The book jacket will lead one to the belief that this is a personal account of World War I. It does have personal accounts, but it is by no means a memoir. A more accurate description would be a political history of the Great War peppered with personal anecdotes. Regardless of the works’ label, this book has great value of the mechanics of the war and the men who drove it.

The fifty years that have passed since the war and this book are a definite boon to the reader. As a history, he uses each of these years wisely in dialogue spent with other veterans, and the ability to compare the two wars with such realism that can only be obtained from one who lived through both. Where the reader might begin to see issues is in the perspective. One moment he writes through the eyes of a teenager while having conclusions that could have only come from hindsight. He does not always make clear, and only by virtue of assumption, does one realize that an eighteen-year-old could not have comprehended the political machinations surrounding the war effort.

There is also the issue of Haig worship. Carrington’s skewed leanings toward Haig, where he only mentions his virtues and none of his vices, would not be a problem if this were a memoir, but as stated earlier, this is a history, and therefore deserves a balanced biography. Haig did have many good qualities, but he was uncomfortable with WWI technology and made costly mistakes throwing men away needlessly. Carrington blames others quite frequently for Haig’s expansive mistakes. He also uses Haig’s diaries to substantiate many of his claims, but unfortunately never quotes from them to corroborate the theories. This was a missed opportunity.

Beginning on page 220, a story emerges of Carrington during a leave to London in early 1918. He writes that he “…grew tired of upper-middle-class society,” and decided to get fake papers identifying himself as just a private soldier of no import. (p. 220) He rented a cheap West-end hotel room and mingled with the lower classes. One would assume he was a famous person of such import, that his war escapades were so renown, he needed to escape the limelight if only for a moment. He admits to his “secret history” that he played on three different occasions during the war “…with varieties of style.” (p. 221) Why, and what relevance to the book? These accounts seem fictitious and perhaps, egotistical.

Another issue that should be broached is the story of his twenty-first birthday. I will preface this with Carrington’s own thoughts earlier in the book where he makes it quite clear that clerks, army school instructors, and entertainers fall into a trench-dodger category. “Huma beings are skillful at hiding themselves away in crannies where they can avoid unpleasantness, soldiers not less than other men…” (p. 179) Move forward a few chapters, and he tells the story of receiving his orders to go back to the front regrettable coinciding with his birthday. He chose to, and it is unclear exactly how he convinced the A.G. at the War Office to grant permission, create an issue whereby his embarkation was delayed. He writes that he was uneasy being thought of as “dodging the column.” (p. 226) He doesn’t believe anyone will trust that he only meant to grab a couple of days for his birthday celebrations, and yet he cannot state enough how eager he is to see his fellows in his ‘beloved’ First-Fifth. It is a strange addition and does not add to the work.

Though his memoirs were published in an earlier work, it still would have been welcome to have heard directly from the young soldier’s words to help create that personal feel that only primary sources can do. In the preface the author mentions long memories can be treacherous. He likens this to Shakespeare where “…he wrote of old men remembering with advantages.” (p. 12) This brings up the final criticism, and perhaps the most disturbing. He admits that a story he relates in Chapter 14 could not possibly have happened. That once he worked out the dates, he and his brother Hugh could not have been witness to General Maurice’s debate in the House of Commons, 9 May 1918. He describes how hypnotizing Lloyd George was. “It was enchantment, utterly unlike the outflowing humanity, the homely phrases, the comfortable words and easy tones with which Churchill was to console and inspire us twenty years later, tones and words that we shall never forget.” (p. 216) He wasn’t even there by his own admission. Why keep the story? Why not write about the debate utilizing accounts by others, from those that had attended? This was a grave miscalculation on Carrington’s part, and it is worrisome considering the rendering of other such ‘memories.’

Despite these few foibles, the reader will find Carrington’s viewpoint of World War I history an easily understandable read. It is worth repeating that the insights shared are thoughtful and thought provoking. One might not always agree with his conclusions, but the debates awaiting the readers of this work are exciting to ponder. The author does prove his point that history will keep changing as long as man continues to research.

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