Rally to the colours….

This has to be of the funniest stories I have ever read. But it is not only the humorous language, the vividly-drawn and unforgettable characters and the sparkling wit and repartee – especially at the end – that causes me to recommend it, it is also the picture it presents of the character of the British officer cadre an year into the Great War, the eccentricity displayed by men in tension, and of course the needs and requirements of media – so succinctly expressed by the author through the journalist in the story – who seems related to me, as does the right-hand man – in the beginning, that is.

But you read on and see what you make of it….

~~~~ Uplifted by reports of an occasion where the leader of an attack mounted by the London Scottish at Neuve Chapelle had punted a football ahead of him to give encouragement to his men and introduce an element of unusual interest to the undertaking, the editor of a London newspaper in 1915 instructed his correspondent in France to write a series. It was to be about the use of similar eccentric adjuncts to leadership in battle, and about who used them.

It would be a natural, said the editor. The readership would love it. Real-life illustrations of the British capacity to rise to the occasion, leaven heroism with humour, adapt tradition and sporting skills to the conditions of war, demonstrate the national individuality, that sort of thing.

The correspondent sought assistance from the press officer at GHQ, who was helpful. The press officer did some research, made some enquiries, and handed over a list of likely candidates for inclusion in the series. There was a minor problem about most of them, he said. They weren’t available for interview. One was dead, some were wounded, two were on leave in England, and the other either too busy with their units in the Line or too shy to be willing to talk to a newspaper. There was, however, a rich body of material on file  about each. Why didn’t the correspondent base his articles on that? The press officer would continue to scratch around to see if at least one or two personal interviews could be arranged.

That suited the correspondent. It cut down on the work. Whatever he wrote would be minced into some form of propaganda, distorted in the interests of circulation figures and patriotic emotionalism. He settled down to sift through the material.

There seemed to be a surprising number of officers who went into action blowing hunting horns, bagpipes and bugles, and one oddity who did so whilst playing a saxophone. There were those who waved hunting crops, others with imperial ancestors or experience who brandished knobkerries, scimitars and battle axes, a former Wimbledon contender who carried a tennis racket and belted over unstoppable services from the middle of No-Man’s-Land and a golfer with a mashie-niblick who teed up in front of his company and drove balls over the German wire.

This was all useful grist to the journalistic mill and was written up, with trimmings. One star turn in this galere, the press officer said after further inquiries, was actually both willing to be interviewed and currently out of the Line. He was a major named Pryor, the second-in-command of a battalion  of a Home Counties regiment. Pryor’s speciality during an attack was to wear his grandfather’s tunic. His grandfather had been a Victorian general, and the tunic was scarlet.

The press officer arranged a meeting and provided transport. The correspondent was driven to a farmhouse, now in use as battalion headquarters.

To be continued…..


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