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The War Memoirs of Earl Stanhope

General Staff Officer in France and Flanders
1914-1918
by
Lieutenant Colonel Earl Stanhope, DSO, MC
Edited by Brian Bond

 
 

The 7th Earl Stanhope (1880-1967), politician and generous donor of Chevening, his great country house in Kent, to the nation, was also an able soldier who served for four years on the Western Front. His tremendously interesting war memoirs, written soon after the events they describe, are published now for the first time in a limited edition of 300 numbered copies.

A career as a professional soldier in the Grenadier Guards was brought to a premature close by the early death of his father, when Stanhope resigned (1908) to run the scattered family estates in Kent, Devon and Derbyshire.

Recalled in August 1914, by November he was in France commanding a company of the 1st Battalion in waterlogged ditches on the Sailly-Fromelles road. He was ordered to join the staff in February 1915 and most of his active service was spent at Corps headquarters, but he later wrote: "I rejoice that I spent the first winter of the war in the trenches with the Grenadiers. Without that experience it would have been well-nigh impossible to realise, as a staff officer should, the point of view of troops in the front line."

This telling statement reveals much about Stanhope’s attitude towards his job and concern for the men influenced by the work and decisions of himself and his colleagues on the Staff. He was a conscientious officer who made a point of studying his sector in detail, visiting the front line trenches as often as he could get away from the office – almost  on a daily basis when he was able. He was not alone.

His experiences belie the generally held belief that staff officers were over-promoted, over-decorated “gilded popinjays” with scant regard for casualties and fighting conditions at the sharp end.

Working at Corps HQ allowed Stanhope to see a bigger picture than the regimental soldier, and he inevitably treated casualty figures with dispassionate professionalism, but he was deeply affected by the death of his brother during the Battle of the Somme.

Stanhope’s memoirs are a most unusual and therefore valuable survival, there being very few published records of the work of staff officers in France. During his long service with V and II Corps, followed by a stint at Second Army, Stanhope developed an intimate knowledge of the Ypres Salient. He was involved throughout the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 and most of Third Ypres in 1917. He played a part in planning the Battle of Messines and many other operations.

He served on the Somme and Ancre during 1916 and during the German retreat on that front in the spring of 1917 – a most interesting period. His final service in France, from January to May 1918, was on the Military Section of the Supreme War Council at Versailles, involved in forward planning without the day-to-day pressure of work at Corps HQ.

Stanhope’s narrative eloquently demonstrates the commitment and concern displayed by nearly all officers he worked with at various HQs during his lengthy period of front line service. The exceedingly long hours worked and the underlying stresses and fatigue are evident, although Stanhope rarely complains. Long periods of dedicated work are relieved by occasional moments of hilarity and several elaborate practical jokes were perpetrated. Good natured chaffing formed an important part of mess life and demonstrably cemented effective working relationships.

In the course of his memoirs Stanhope paints fascinating pen portraits of the officers he worked with and the numerous commanders under whom he served (among them Plumer, Allenby, Hubert Gough, Claud Jacob). His judgment is, generally speaking, balanced and fair, but he reserves his most critical scorn for GHQ, “perched on a hill almost as far away as it could get in splendid isolation like the Lhamas of Thibet.”

He was convinced that the Corps Staff was the most interesting in which to serve. He felt that divisions and brigades, though closer to the action, were incomplete as fighting formations and too physically restricted to get a general grasp of the situation. By contrast, each Corps had its own heavy artillery and a squadron of aeroplanes and could call up, when required, tunnelling companies, gas companies and tanks. A Corps was in close touch with the fighting units below it and, in principle at least, its staff should frequently visit the forward area and the trenches. These latter opportunities were seldom available to the general staff of Armies because they were too far back.

Stanhope, in the opinion of his Editor, Professor Brian Bond, “takes the reader through a fascinating journey on the Western Front.” The following brief extracts will convey the accuracy of this assessment:

EXTRACTS

In the trenches, winter 1914: ‘Gradually the morale of the Company improved as their hatred for and determination to beat the Germans (rather than successfully to withstand them) increased, and I was glad when I was asked one day by several of the men if they thought they could be allowed to attack the German trenches and if successful be sent home. Poor devils! Little did they realise that they were in for four years more of war… After the men had finished their work, I used to have many a talk with them over the braziers, the buckets with holes in the sides filled with red-hot coke over which they cooked their mess-tins and tried to get warm, and got to know them pretty well. They were a magnificent lot of men with tremendous esprit de corps.’

Joining V Corps HQ, Poperinghe, February 1915: ‘Having had a tub and a further brush up, I again returned to the office, but was told I had better take the afternoon off to have a clean up. This was altogether too much for me, and so I said I hoped I had not been taken away from my battalion in order to have a loaf. I wish I could describe the glare with which Major Knox, the GSO 3, received this remark and his gruff remark “You will find plenty to do later on,” and he certainly didn't understate the case. Trying in many ways as trench life was, the life on the staff was more wearing, and after a prolonged crisis, more permanently exhausting.’

The First German Gas Attack at Ypres: ‘The civilian population, most of which, despite our suggestions, had persisted in remaining in Ypres, were streaming out of the town in all directions – mothers carrying tiny children and leading others by the hand – fathers with a hand-cart filled with such family possessions as they could hurriedly collect – struggling across the fields, and old women tottering along with their family treasures bound up in coloured handkerchiefs. Amongst it all was Thomas Atkins – Gentleman, carrying children, helping old women, encouraging and cheering everybody and behaving exactly as if he had never done anything else all his life.’

Second Battle of Ypres: ‘GHQ… was largely composed of cavalry officers, and when they knew that the cavalry had been engaged they kept on asking over the telephone what had happened to their friends. When the reply came back, in the majority of cases killed, missing or severely wounded, the consternation of GHQ was remarkable, and I myself heard General Allenby tell someone over the telephone… that the fuss being made by officers at GHQ was discreditable. It was only then that GHQ began to realise that V Corps had for weeks been fighting for its life. At last, therefore, we began to be supplied with artillery and other essentials.’

Trench Walking by Staff Officers: ‘it is questionable whether in 1916-1917 trench walking was not overdone and whether the Staff would not in many cases have been of more value to the fighting troops if they had thought out more fully in their offices the information they had acquired by reports and from personal information. The juste milieu is of course difficult to define. Not to go up enough to the front line is to lay oneself open to a charge of lack of courage and the reproach, often made by the fighting troops, that staff officers never came in to the trenches. As a matter of fact staff officers often passed along unobserved, as I for instance seldom called in at battalion or company headquarters, fearing to disturb officers snatching well needed sleep; the inevitable offer of a drink, which I didn't want and which though perhaps hard to replace, caused offence if refused; I thus often missed all officers in a battalion sector. On the other hand that which fighting troops wanted was that their wants should be foreseen and met, that plans should be carefully and thoroughly thought out and that they should always be given “a good show.” This could only be achieved by much work and hard thinking based on accurate information, and was a result which could not be arrived at by sitting perpetually in an office nor by mere trench walking.’

Gas Casualties: ‘I was ordered to go to the hospital to interview the men who had been gassed and to find out why the casualties had been so heavy… Never shall I forget the horror of that visit. There were two or three hundred men lying on the ground in the courtyard outside the hospital, some of them already dead and others coughing themselves to bits. One saw strong men writhing in agony to get their breath with yellowish froth oozing from ears, mouth and nostrils, and had I met a German prisoner in the street just after that, it would have been almost impossible to resist trying to strangle him with my bare hands.’

Planning Messines: ‘Within six weeks of our taking over the front, I had visited the whole front line in front of Messines and Wytschaete and had got a fairly good grasp of what was required for the attack on the German positions, but we were all of us irritated and annoyed when General Gough’s staff used to come and ask us questions about our plans and want to be taken out, when all the time we were under Second Army and actually responsible to them. Nevertheless, the contact was useful, as later on we were moved down to the south and came under General Gough’s command and found we already knew his staff.’

Battle of the Ancre, 1916: ‘On November 17th I went up to try and find out what was the situation and had the worst day I experienced during the war. Coming into Brigade Headquarters I found that neither the Brigadier nor his staff had yet been up to the line and had only a very hazy idea where it was, so I walked on with my orderly into Beaumont Hamel and up the road towards Serre. Nobody seemed to know where the battalion headquarters were placed as everything was in chaos and a certain amount of shelling was going on.’

‘ Finally I found a German dug-out… and going down the steps found a young adjutant sitting at the bottom. After a short talk with him, he offered me a cigarette which I refused and I then asked him whether he was not sitting in the dug-out where the Germans stored the whole of their explosives for mining purposes and discovered, as I expected, that he was seated on a whole pile of bags containing gelignite smoking a cigarette. Coming out of this I wandered further up the road towards Serre and asked where the trenches ran in from the north-west as I could not see them and was definitely told that they came right down to the road and that it was possible to go along them in daylight.’

‘ My orderly and I therefore walked on until I found myself amongst many of our dead with no sign of trenches anywhere and the trees of Serre beginning to appear over the top of the ridge. I turned to my orderly and said, “If we don't watch it, we shall walk into the German lines,” and had hardly spoken when the enemy opened fire on us from little over 100 yards away, we being fully exposed in the open. We dropped into a shell hole and remained there some time until they stopped shooting and eventually made a bolt for it in the direction from which we had come… I then went into a trench off the road and the Germans began to shell with field artillery, the shells dropping fairly near the trench. Finally the fragments of one shell which burst behind me struck the officer to whom I was talking in the throat and another close by in the arm. How the pieces got past my head without hitting it I don’t know. Eventually coming out of Beaumont Hamel, a German shell which burst quite a long way off and of which I had taken little notice, hit me with a piece of iron on the steel helmet just over the right temple, and my head being down at that moment I got nothing worse than a hard rap on the head from a piece which had I not been wearing my steel helmet would have killed me… I had been able to get a good deal of information as to the gap in our line through which we had nearly walked, and also to advise battalions as to the position of their jumping off tapes on which the attack for the following morning was to line up.’