Disenchantment's Haig: Only Competent
CE Montague, Disenchantment (1922)
Disenchantment is the story of one man’s war, starting in 1914, until the post-war troubles of the early 1920s.
Charles E Montague was 47, and had been a journalist for 25 years with the Manchester Guardian, when he volunteered in 1914. Although he writes in the third person, he is clearly telling his own story, and the reader learns that he trained with Kitchener’s New Army, was stationed, for a time, at a base depot, witnessed the battles of attrition of 1917 and the final push to victory in 1918, and listened to Haig’s final speech to the men on the bridge at Cologne. However, although the author writes from personal experience, he speaks as everyman, documenting the disillusionment and death of the dreams of those men who joined up in 1914. In this way, Disenchantment is the English equivalent of All Quiet on the Western Front, although it is less narrative and certainly more ‘hifaluting’.
The book is a dense book, difficult to read, full of allusions to events, perhaps well-known then but now obscure, packed full also of references to Thucydides, Shakespeare and other allusions of a classic liberal education.
Montague begins by describing the enthusiasm and illusions with which the New Army joined up:
of those volunteers of the prime were men of handsome and boundless
illusions. Each of
them quite seriously thought of himself as a molecule in the body of a
nation that was really, and not just figuratively, “straining every
nerve” to discharge an obligation of honour…
All the air was ringing with rousing assurances.
France to be saved, Belgium righted, freedom and civilisation
re-won, a sour, soiled, crooked old world to be rid of bullies and
crooks and reclaimed for straightness, decency, good-nature, the ways of
common men dealing with common men.
What a chance! (pp.2-3)
Although many of the volunteers were educated men who came from responsible jobs, the simple routines of army life were actually welcome – in the same way that people in senior jobs find joy in chopping firewood or painting tool-sheds: ‘their minds would get a rest’. But this enthusiasm and ingenuousness was just the backdrop against which a mounting tragedy would take place:
seems hardly credible now, in this soured and quarrelsome country and
time, that so many men of different classes and kinds, thrown together
at random, should ever have been so simply and happily friendly,
trustful and keen. But
they were, and they imagined that all their betters were too.
That was the paradise that the bottom fell out of. (p.12)
The process of disillusion begins almost immediately. The drill sergeant leads his men on a training march – only to the nearest pub; or accepts payment for extra training, assuming that it is in fact a bribe for a cushy job; or a lecture by the company commander only demonstrates his ignorance and pride. At the Front, everyone lets the soldier down: the chaplains who do not feed their sheep, the politicians who do not deserve their positions, the newspapers which not only lie, but give too much away to the enemy. Conscription ‘dilutes’ the New Army with shirkers, “kickers” and “lawyers”, and men who fall asleep on guard duty or desert. The soldiers realise that they are being lied to – certainly they realise that the Germans were not the evil butchers they were made out to be. Montague describes (p.97) going into the German ‘corpse factory’ at Bellecourt – where, allegedly, human bodies were boiled down for the fat – and finds it to be just another German dugout destroyed by shell-fire:
you took his trench it might be no better…
They never contained the right things – no poison to put in our
wells, no practical hints for crucifying Canadians; only the usual
stuffing of all soldiers’ pockets – photographs and tobacco and bits
of string and the wife’s letters, all about how tramps were always
stealing potatoes out of the garden, and how the baby was worse, and was
his leave never coming?... One troubles to think what the really
first-class haters at home would have said of our army if they had known
at the time. (pp.149, 151)
And, through all this, there was the desperate, endless work, so over-driving the men that ‘a man would march all right till the road fetched a bend, and then he would march straight into the ditch in his sleep’ (p.54) – echoing the ‘men marched asleep’ of Dulce et Decorum.
By 1917, the disillusionment is fairly complete: ‘One leaf that had gone pretty yellow by now was the hope of perfect victory – swift, unsoured, unruinous, knightly’ (p.130). There is nothing heroic about Montague’s war. He describes the men at base allegedly too sick for the front line, and the bitter, sarcastic doctor who had to examine them:
relegated me for some weeks to a base and gave me the job of marching
parties of crocks, total and partial, real, half-real, and sham, across
the sand dunes [to go before a Medical Board]…
Hither, to all the divisional base depots and into the ultimate
dust-hole or sink that was called “Base details”, there gravitated
most of the walking wreckage and wastage, physical and moral, of active
warfare: convalescent, sick and wounded from hospital, men found too old
or too young for trench work, broken-nerved men smuggled out of the way
before disaster should come, and malingerers triumphant and chuckling,
or only semi-successful, suspect, and tediously over-acting…
Above all, there was the ongoing slaughter of men:
squadrons of horse were sent to charge, in column, up a straight,
treeless rising road for half a mile and take the little wood at the
top. There were many
machine guns in the wood… No
horse or man either got to the wood or came back.
Attitudes towards the Staff
This disillusionment was a process that was bound to undermine the soldiers’ faith in their officers:
themselves, in each of their units, they saw what was coming.
Some day soon they would be put into an attack and would come out
with half their number, or perhaps two-thirds, and nothing gained for
1 Is this a dig at Haig? Haig was a keen polo player, and had played for his Oxford College and his regiment, the 7th Hussars ('the finest polo team in the army'). Leon Wolff says that Haig in his middle twenties had 'hardly a thought in his head but for polo, hunting, the social pleasantries, and more polo' (In Flanders Fields, 1959)
Thus the author can understand that men might become bitter about their officers:
you are an infantryman, the Brass Hats above you are, in your sight, a
kind of ex officio children of
perdition… They were the
men who, when troops had been marching in full kit on the high-cambered,
generals were cocooned from the war, safe at GHQ in
war has pushed the right place for them [the generals] further and
further away from the fighting, away from the men…
Some senior officers visited the lines, or smuggled themselves secretly into attacks; some were killed doing so. But it was too easy for the ordinary men to declare that ‘the red tabs of the Staff were the “Red Badge of Funk”’ (p.48). Also, it was easy for men at the front to see how their leaders were terribly isolated from the realities of the war: ‘There was yet another special check during the war upon love and respect for higher commands. There were so many things of moment which they were the last to find out.’ (p.39) – basic common sense things, such as that a hand-grenade was better than a rifle, that bayonet parry-and-thrust was no good in hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, and that rapid-firing guns were better than single-shot match-shooting rifles.
unprecedented number of the most healthy, high-spirited, and nationally
valuable Englishmen in the prime of life were telling one another that,
among those whom they had hitherto taken more or less completely on
trust as their “betters”, things were going on which must make the
war harder for us to win… The
faith of the general mass of the English common people in [the ability
of their “betters”] was now pretty near its last kick.
The lions felt they had found out the asses.
and the Senior Command
Out of this, Haig comes – at first apparently – barely-scathed, although it is a two-edged exoneration:
was a name and no more, though a name immune in a mysterious degree from
the general scoffing about the demerits of higher commands.
Few subalterns had seen him.
No one knew what he was doing or leaving undone.
But some power, not ourselves, seemed to recommend him to mercy
in everyone’s judgement… The
front line gave him the benefit of every doubt.
God only knew, it said, whether he or somebody else would have to
answer for Bullecourt or Serre.
It might not be he who had left the door lying open, unentered,
for two nights and days, when the lions had won the battle of Arras that
spring, and the asses had let victory slip till the Germans crept back
in the dark to the fields east of Vimy. (pp.138-9)
There is even an acceptance of the competence of the commanders:
Second Army Staff’s direction of the autumn’s almost continuous
battles was of a competence passing all British precedents.
Leap-frogging waves of assault, box barrages, creeping barrages,
actions, interactions, and counter-actions were timed and concerted as
no Staff of ours had done it before.
The intricate dance which has to go on behind a crowded battle
front, so that columns moving east and west and columns moving north and
south shall not coincide at cross roads, was danced with the
circumstantial precision of the best ballets…
Sense, keenness, sympathy, resolution, exactness… and yet –.
‘And yet’ sums up Montague’s complaint. The generals were competent, but they did not possess that spark of genius which could defeat an enemy inferior in numbers and not superior in weapons. He speaks of 1917 as: ‘that autumn of war when our generalship seemed to have explored all its own talents and found only the means to stage in an orderly way the greatest possible number of combats of pure attrition.’ (p.151). And he gives a genuinely heartbreaking description (pp.158-9) of observing battles where – whilst ‘still desperately hugging the hope that known causes might not bring their normal effects’ – it was possible to watch wave after wave of brave men – ‘the undersized boys from our slums and the under-witted boys from the “agricultural, residential and sporting estates”’ – climb out of their trenches, walk to their death, take the enemy trench… ‘and then fall back under orders, without any need, the brains of our army failing to know how to use what its muscle had won’ (pp.159-160). For Montague, High Command was ‘saved from disaster by clutching at aid from French brains and American numbers’ (pp.165-6)
Blame and Old Army ways
Who, or what, does Montague blame for this? Again, at first, he appears to exonerate the generals:
was the fault of the war, the outlandish, innovatory war that did not
conform to proper text-books as it ought to have done; and unimagined
war of flankless armies scratching each other’s faces across an
endless thorn hedge, not dreamt of in Staff College philosophy; a war
that was always putting out of date the best that had been known and
thought and invented… (pp.45-46)
But the faintest reading-between-the-lines reveals the irony in his words, and that he really blamed a Regular Army Staff that was lazy, out-of-date, and slow-to-change. An opportunity had been missed. For a time, in 1914, the Old Army had been:
of a sudden by hosts of keen amateurs, many of them quick-witted,
possibly critical, some of them the best brains in the country, most of
them vulgarly void of the old professional habits of mind, almost
indecently ready to use new and outlandish means to the new ends of
But the old guard in the Regular Army had held onto its power and its old ways:
many peers and heirs-apparent to great wealth were becoming hospital
orderlies… Since the
first earthquake and tidal wave the disturbed social waters had pretty
well found their old seemly levels again; the sons of the well-to-do
were making officers; sanity was returning…
the Old Army had won. (p.132)
For Montague, victory was inevitable (p.158) – the result of things already in place before the war started. And in the same way, so was the way the war was conducted – it was:
a part of a larger system of cause and effect, all of its hopelessly
apprehensions were particularly apt to arise of you had spent an hour
that day in seeing herds of the English “common people” ushered down
narrowing corridors of barbed wire into some gap that had all the German
machine guns raking its exit, the nature of the Regular officers’
pre-war education in England precluding the prompt evolution of any
effectual means on our side to derange the working of this ingenious
abattoir. We had asked
for it all… Not they
alone, but all of ourselves, with our boastful chatter about “the
public school spirit”, our gallant, robust contempt for “swats”
and “smugs” and all who invented new means to new ends and who
trained and used their brains with a will – we had arranged for these
easy battues of thousands of Englishmen, who, for their part, did not
fail. To-morrow you
would see it again – a few hundred square yards of ground gained by
the deaths, perhaps of twenty thousand men. (pp.164-165)
Peace and Despair
Ultimately, Disenchantment is a book of despair by a man who found the world he was fighting to save was not worth saving: ‘At the heart of the magical rose was seated an earwig’ (p.227). The war – so full of hope at the start – produced none of the benefits for which the man-in-the-street had volunteered. The lies of wartime propaganda were carried over into the new world – ‘that new lie-infested and infected world of peace’ (p.127). Even victory had been ruined by a ‘shabby epidemic of spite’ (p.185), the rush of politicians to coin votes for themselves, and a worthless peace which did nothing but drive starving Germans ever more to hatred: ‘So we had failed – had won the fight and lost the prize’ (p.189).
Thus Montague explains the troubles of 1922 in terms of the experiences of the War:
is about where we stand as a nation…
Most of us, on the whole, find that effort is less fun than it
was… The limp apathy
we see at elections, the curious indifference in presence of public
wrongs and horrors, the epidemic of sneaking pilferage, the slackening
of sexual self-control – all these are symptomatic… (pp.208-9)
For Montague, given the experiences of the War, is it any wonder that men who were trained to use the bayonet should find it less-than-easy to lay down again, or that there were Dundee rioters, “Bolshevik” miners, Sinn Feiners and Black-and Tans: they are only ‘exhibiting certain normal reactions under certain chemical tests’ (p.34).
At times, it seems that Montague is arguing for a social revolution – the overthrow of the old elites by the ordinary men. But, in the last chapter, he argues only for a better education system, and peace:
is only one thing for it. There
must still be five or six million ex-soldiers.
They are the most determined peace party that ever existed in