This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War.
In January 1917, junior officer A.P. Herbert learned that a counterpart in another battalion of his division had been shot by firing squad for desertion. This disturbing news festered within him and, when he was soon thereafter wounded and sent home, he wrote a novel about a character who suffers the same fate. He titled it The Secret Battle.
Herbert and the man who was executed, Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, had both joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. But they were not destined to serve on battleships. Before the end of 1914 it became obvious that the navy had far more recruits than it needed, and most of the hapless volunteers were transferred to a unit called the Royal Navy Division. It was actually infantry, despite a pretense that many would serve in naval landing parties at Belgian ports.
Herbert went to Gallipoli in May 1915, was eventually invalided home—probably with severe dysentery, a rampant problem there—and served with the Admiralty intelligence before rejoining the RND. The British command had pulled the plug on the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, and the division now occupied trenches in France.
In November 1916 they would participate in the final major battle of the Somme, taking Beaucourt sur l’Ancre with huge losses. Herbert was one of 20 to answer roll-call the next day out of his battalion’s 435 officers and men.
Edwin Dyett had a very different experience. From the sketchy details I have available, it appears he did have naval duties until the six-month-long Somme offensive got underway in July 1916. I can imagine Dyett’s sense of dread when he learned that he was to become one of the countless thousands fed into the Somme’s bloody trenches, where more than 400,000 British soldiers died. Unlike Herbert, he had no combat experience, and one account states, “Both he and his superior officers quickly learnt that he was ill-suited for land warfare, and he was held in reserve.”*
Apparently he begged to be returned to the naval sector—to no avail. In November he was ordered to join the front lines on the Ancre, but he returned to headquarters saying he hadn’t been able to find his unit. Ordered to try again, he wandered across the devastated terrain. When he was found, he claimed once again he’d lost his way. He was arrested for desertion, court-martialed, and executed. His final letter home said, “Dearest Mother mine… my only sorrow now is for the trouble I have caused you and Dad…. Please forgive my mistakes… I am sorry for the dishonour I have brought on you.”**
The central figure of The Secret Battle, Harry Penrose, sees quite a bit of action. He enters the war an enthusiastic, idealistic man who repeatedly demonstrates bravery. But the constant exposure to shellfire, the nightmare experience of seeing his comrades mutilated or killed, the discomfort of the trenches, eventually wear him down mentally and physically. Yet he remains determined to do his duty and, after recovering from a wound in autumn 1916, turns down an offer of a noncombat position with military intelligence. He returns to the front lines and is immediately ordered out with a supply party by his C.O., who dislikes him. Persisting through severe shellfire, Penrose leads the party forward, but they duck for cover again and again beneath the banks of a sunken road. Under a vicious bombardment, they run for cover to a dugout—where they are met by one of Penrose’s fellow officers, himself sheltering from the shelling.
This man, Burnett, is regarded as “bogus” by many in the battalion, and he, too, dislikes Penrose. Full of swagger, he’d been shown up as a fake on an occasion when he’d begged off on a mission that Penrose completed successfully. He reports to the C.O. that Penrose ran away from the combat area; Penrose is duly arrested, court-martialed, and executed by men of his own unit.
Herbert has taken the incident of execution for desertion and asked the question, “Isn’t it possible that even a brave man could find himself in circumstances where he faces this charge?” He has created two characters that illustrate aspects of his own self: Penrose and the nameless narrator, a good friend and associate of Penrose, who observes and records the fatal chain of events.
Herbert wrote the book very quickly in early 1917 when he was home recovering from a wound. It has the peculiarity that it lacks an objective framework. It does nothing to explain developments in terms of named historical events. For instance, it describes brutal fighting on the slopes of Achi Baba at Gallipoli, but I had to do some searching to figure out that Penrose’s unit (and probably Herbert’s) fought at what is now known as the Third Battle of Krithia, June 4, 1915. When it comes to the battle on the Ancre at the Somme, Herbert has the narrator say: “I shall not tell you about it; it is in the histories.”
It is as if Herbert has become mortally weary of all the usual blather about battles “bravely fought” by such-and-such regiment, led by so-and-so, men falling for the glorious cause, etc., etc. For him it has been an experience shared with fellow human beings who have all the usual dreams and all the usual shortcomings, who do the best they can under extraordinary hardship, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.
The Secret Battle contains a beautiful scene early on, when Penrose and the narrator have recently arrived at Gallipoli. Penrose is overjoyed to find himself in a region of historical significance that dates back to the ancient city of Troy. One sunny afternoon they climb the central ridge of the peninsula to get a view of the Dardanelles, that narrow strait connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara and the gateway of Constantinople. (It is, of course, the strategic significance of this place that led the allied forces to wage war there against the Turks.) They walk over dry, scrubby terrain, finding the ground littered with spent cartridges left behind by Turkish riflemen. They pass groves of cool, shady cypresses and terraces of olives and vines. The landscape is etched out clearly. They see all the outlines of the peninsula neatly laid out, the inlets and the bays.
But what caught the immediate eye, what we had come to see and had sailed hither to fight for, was that strip of unbelievably blue water before us, deep, generous blue, like a Chinese bowl. On the farther shore… we could see a wide green plain, and beyond and to the left, peak after peak of the mountains of Asia; and far away in the middle distance there was a glint of snow from some regal summit of the Anatolian Mountains. That wide green plain was the Plain of Troy.
Oh, how things would change for the two of them as the terrible conflict dragged on.
* Neil Prior, “WW1: Edwin Dyett from Cardiff shot by his own side for desertion.” BBC News, September 8, 2014.