Words of endurance: The Secret Battle

Stretcher bearers, Thiepval Ridge, Battle of the Somme

Stretcher bearers, Thiepval Ridge, Battle of the Somme.

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.

A.P. Herbert.

A.P. Herbert.

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.

French 75 mm gun, 3rd Battle of Krithia, Gallipoli. This conflict figures in "The Secret Battle."

French 75 mm gun, 3rd Battle of Krithia, Gallipoli. This conflict figures in “The Secret Battle.”

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.”

Interrogation of Turkish prisoners, 3rd Battle of Krithia.

Interrogation of Turkish prisoners, 3rd Battle of Krithia.

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.

Satellite image of the Dardanelles, with Gallipoli on its northwest side.

Satellite image of the Dardanelles, with Gallipoli on its northwest side.

* Neil Prior, “WW1: Edwin Dyett from Cardiff shot by his own side for desertion.” BBC News, September 8, 2014.

** Prior.

About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in History, World War I and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Words of endurance: The Secret Battle

  1. I wonder if he thought the time frame unneccessary…. I read this years back and recall it as a polemic. Herbert’s first public campaign, perhaps.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I think it was unnecessary to the story he wanted to tell, which had to do with interior life. I didn’t mean that as a negative about the book. It was just that for my own purposes I wanted to determine times and places. I don’t see the book as a polemic as much as a thought-provoker. I considered adding info about his later public life, his humorous activism about the law, but decided to leave it out.

  2. It was an extraordinary time. I wish I could have known some of the men who lived through it. It is not so much the experience of war that is so amazing. I think people adapt as best they can under conditions beyond their control no matter how horrendous. What amazes me is their ability to re assimilate into civilized society once it is all over. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • Jenny says:

      Most do re-assimilate, but some don’t, due to some combination of their psychology and the particular events they experienced. That is a very deep subject. They called it shell shock then, they call it PTSD now.

  3. And his sterling work on divorce reform…but you are right it would have detracted from the meat of your post.

  4. patholscher says:

    Of course, Troy, in its own day, was the scene of its own carnage, made romantic now principally by the passage of time.

    • Jenny says:

      And by the fact that the greatest war poem ever written addressed that ancient conflict.

      • patholscher says:

        Indeed, how very true.

        Although I have a thesis that the Trojan Wars can be best explained by the combatants, on the whole, probably being quite young. Looked at that way, the entire spat is sort of like a junior high cliche match. That is, Helen is the cool girl, she gets taken by new rival, now all the guys who are in her jilted husband’s circle of friends have to go with him to try and grab her back. But, by the time they get there, they’ve lost interest, and being all teenage boys, they mostly just mill around endlessly until they run out of food and direction and have to go home. The Illiad is their excuse of what they did, and the Oddessy is their excuse for taking forever to get home.

      • Jenny says:

        That’s a nice, amusing take on the Trojan Wars, and it actually makes a lot of sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of ancient wars followed the same pattern. What is fascinating is from that rather everyday series of events came the brilliant poems of Homer, which turn the story of Troy into something extraordinarily deep and haunting. I studied a bit of ancient Greek in college and read some in the original. For some reason our professor picked up the story of the Cyclops in the Odyssey for us to read, and I still have my copy, with a stripe of grimy pages where we went over those lines again and again, deciphering the grammar. In recent years I picked up the Robert Fitzgerald translation of the Iliad and read that. It is an excellent translation. I did a piece on my Endless Streams and Forests blog about the opening lines: http://streamsandforests.wordpress.com/2008/12/08/beside-the-tumbling-sea/

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