> Ah Remembrance Day ! Look – there’s all the ‘royal’ family lined up, chestfuls of medals gleaming (how did they earn them all ? They must have been in every action since the Boer War…), and all the politicians and ex-politicians looking grave – are they thinking about all the people they sent to kill or be killed ? Probably not.
Remebrance Day is a sanitised re-writing of history – The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est, Pro patria mori – and inconvenient or embarrassing incidents are edited out. Here are a couple they won’t want to remember – but we should.
In 1917, at Boulogne, the Number 74 Labour Company – comprising unwilling Chinese and Egyptian personnel – stopped unloading supply boats at the port, downed tools and went on the rampage.
General Haig ordered swift, harsh reprisals which resulted in a total of 27 unarmed strikers being shot dead, 39 wounded, and 25 imprisoned. The colour of their skins seems to have determined the fate of the Boulogne rebels, who were considered to be unworthy of the luxury of courts martial.
Corporal Harry Rodgers was one of many British soldiers ordered, in the words of one of his officers, to “kill those foul foreigners” by shooting on sight. He remembered:
“It was a wretched, pitiful business. The poor bastards had been little more than slaves, earning 0ne penny a day compared to our shilling a day, which was bad enough.
They were nearly all illiterate peasants without the slightest notion of why they were slaving 18 hours a day in order that one alien country might knock hell out of another.
Our officers instructed us not to accord them even the dignity of rebels. We were under strict instructions to look upon them as pure rabble. If they showed face in the streets in groups of over 3 in number they were to be shot like rabid dogs – and they were, mainly because a feature of the massacre was the clear understanding that if we did not obey orders to kill we, too, could be shot.
The Boulogne affair ought to have been handled by the Military Police, but they were as much hated at the port as they were at the base camp, and it was considered unwise for them to patrol the streets. There was a severe risk of the MPs being ‘accidentally‘ shot by our own troops who felt really sorry for the Chinese coolies as they were known.”
Boulogne’s most fashionable restaurant, Mony’s, was the scene of the worst slaughter. Trouble had started with isolated skirmishes 0n 5 September, the day the 74 Labour Company were out of control. George Soutter was a private in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders:
“That morning I was detailed to go on patrol in pursuit of Chinese and Egyptians who had been repelled when they attempted to raid the Louvre Hotel and a cafe in Rue Edouard VII.
As the attackers were weak through under-nourishment, and without weapons, they had been easily held off in hand-to-hand combat with the waiters and the kitchen staff of the two esthablishments.
It was not anticipated that the mutineers would are approach the exclusive Mony’s, never mind launch an attack upon it, so no special guard had been mounted ouside the restaurant. But just after noon a dispatch rider roared down the street shouting out that they had been seen in the vicinity of the restaurant. Our patrol and two others elsewhere in the town, each consisting of about 30 men, were immediately switched to the scene.
By the time we arrived, the mob was already overturning staff cars outside the restaurant. Inside, (British Army) officers had overturned the marble-topped tables and were cowering and crouching behind them on their hands and knees on the sand and sawdust covered floor.
It was not an ennobling sight and neither was what followed.
Ninety of us opened fire as ordered and the foreigners, who had not even got as far as the restaurant door, fell dead in the gutter.
How many I don’t know. I was too appalled to look. I just wanted to get away as soon as possible. Even today, all these years later, I am too ashamed to dwell on the awful details of that massacre.
Looking back on it all the only slight satisfaction I get is the memory of ‘stray‘ bullets ‘accidentally‘ smashing through the restaurant window. The officers inside had more to fear from their own armed men than they had from the unarmed ‘rabble’ “.
Kill unarmed labourers or face the risk of the firing squad yourself – it was no idle threat. Victor Silvester – who later became a well-known dance band leader – was made to take part in 5 executions of British troops. He recalled:
“The first man I had to help to kill was a private in my own regiment, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, a fact which filled me with even greater shame. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy.
We marched to a quarry outside Etaples at first dawn. The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as a target.
Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order, raised our rifles unsteadily.
Some of the men, unable to face their ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they had tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but he had remained sober through fear.
The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he went on attempting to free himself from the ropes attaching him to the chair. I aimed blindly and when the gunsmoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the intended victim was still alive.
Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. The blood was running freely from a chest wound.
An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man’s temple.
He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word ‘mother’. He could not have been very much older than me. We were told later that in fact he had been suffering from shell-shock, a condition not recognized by the army in 1917.
By the time I had taken part in four more such dawn executions, I did not have to feign illness, like the other executioners. I was screaming in my sleep and physically ill every day. I was put into a hospital and strapped down to the bed to prevent me running away.
I was then sent away from Etaples and all its horrors to the Italian Front. The simple business of being twice wounded there was less injurious by far than all the mental scars that Etaples left with me for the rest of my life.”
> Etaples base was the scene of a six-day mutiny by British and Commonwealth troops in 1917 – hushed up by the powers-that-be, but eye-witness accounts exist. The official records are due to be released in 2017… but who’d bet against them having been ‘lost‘ over the past century ? Interestingly, the Etaples regime had much in common with the current government attitudes towards the unemployed. We might return to this later.
Source – The Monocled Mutineer, William Allison & John Fairley, first published 1978
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March, 1918