Close on now —must be. they’d be getting tea ready at home. Had they his field card yet? Fulshaw’s eyes were brilliant with excitement. The first birthday he’d missed at home. They’d send him some of the cake in his next parcel. Must stick near Jack. One up the spout … make sure his safety catch was off. What an uproar. Good job they didn’t know at home exactly what was happening.
The burden of shells lifted, the absence of racket stinging his ear-drums. He heard a whistle, a way off. Fulshaw swept his arm upwards, climbing the parapet. “Come on, lads!”
Bradshaw experienced a moment of indecision. Should he jump over the parapet first, risking getting marked down, or hesitate till the others climbed out? Jerry’s machine-guns would rake the parapet; many got pipped in the head in the act of climbing out. Like that film. He found himself on top, enormously magnified and exposed, and joined in the cramped forward walk of the irregularly formed line. Two others between him and Jack. Better leave it at that. When would that empty feeling in the stomach go? He felt afraid to look in front, and kept his eyes down. They saucered with wonder at seeing a sun-baked face peering up at him from one shell-hole. It smelt. He saw another; a green-white face pressed into the side of the hole, the remainder a limp, ragged bundle of khaki. Some other battalion had been over the same ground.
He raised his eyes slowly over the dry pot-holed surface of No Man’s Land; saw in front what might have been an indistinct row of heads and shoulders, some distance away. Impossible to go straight. Some holes had things to avoid in them. They plodded blindly over the innumerable gougings towards the crackling machine-guns and rifle-fire. The impetuous Fulshaw fell first, in Bradshaw’s path. The little private bent down on one knee, forgetting the order that nobody had to stop with wounded. His officer waved him on, groaning; other hand to groin. Bradshaw had a desire to stay.
“Shall I get the stretcher-bearers, sir?”
The officer’s face grew drawn with pain.
“No, no! Carry on!”
Bradshaw looked round and espied a dud shell. He pulled it up, surprised by its weight, and set it upright on its base near the officer.
“Just to mark the spot, sir. I’ll tell the stretcher-bearers where you are as soon as I see them.”
He passed on, a dozen yards behind the thin, extended line. They looked pathetically ineffective. As he caught up, the back of Corporal Dawkins’ head fell out; upraised arms sagged to earth. Bradshaw slipped in beside Driver without a word. Dawkins killed. He was post corporal at Bouzincourt–handed Bradshaw his mail.
They were men in front there. Germans. Patches of green further behind; unshelled fields. Sergeant Todd called out,
“Don’t bunch up, there …”
Bradshaw saw a wide gap on his right, moved right to lessen it. The next man closed towards him, the unaccountably dropped flat. He crouched lower, an attitude that gave a false impression of grimness and determination — men ready to strike. They were merely trying to minimise their bodily targets.
The spasmodic crackling rippled, then sharply cracked in its sweeping arc. Above it Bradshaw head a choking sob. Somebody fell. The sergeant staggered but kept on. Another sob. Wounds … exhaustion? He didn’t know. But he no longer wondered why men walked to attack, even in broad daylight. The ground was abominably loose and uneven. No real surface. A series of craters and holes, with nothing to walk on but the loose rims.
The line thinned mysteriously; became little bunches of twos and threes. They stumbled on exhaustingly, throats dry. He looked up again. No mistaking them this time; less than a hundred yards away. He prayed for something to happen before he got that far. Chick was right, then? The Germans were safe in their dugouts whilst the ground was writhing under our barrage; ready to nip up when it lifted and catch us coming across?
No shells came to aid them now. They were targets. Sweating gunners would be saying:
“Well, if the bloody infantry don’t do something after that lot, that God we’ve got a Navy!”
The last seventy-five yards might well have been seventy-five miles. They would never get there. Every decent-sized shell-hole clung to Bradshaw’s feet, saying, “Get down to it, you fool. Get down to it! Pretend you’re wounded!” Driver was still there, to the left and slightly ahead. He wanted to draw nearer, but felt that, closer, one or the other would be hit. He knew that the slightest swerve or stumble could put him either in the direct track of a bullet or out of its line of flight. To the end of his days the picture of those stumbling men would remain with him; floundering into shell-holes; climbing out. Faltering, dropping, reeling on. Bent figures stumbling forward with distressful gasps; falling, often remaining down.
Fifty years from the German trench the struggling remnant expended its last ounces of diminishing energy. It gathered, too scattered and demoralised to go farther, into two huge craters, like the sheep that soldiers are.
Their first attack, a washout.
I first stumbled across Other Ranks while taking Prof. Don Emerson’s course on the First World War at the University of Washington. I was in the habit of roaming the stacks of Suzzallo Library, particularly the long aisles of old fiction that sat in a neglected corner of the fifth floor. As a break from studying, I would browse the shelves, inspecting titles that seemed interesting. Even then, I hoped to find lost treasures among those forgotten books.
I recognized the title phrase, used to described the enlisted men in the British Army, from the course, but I didn’t recognize Tilsley’s name. I did, however, know Edmund Blunden, who’d written the Introduction. Blunden’s Undertones of War was one of the memoirs on our reading list. His name suggested this might be something worth reading, so I checked Other Ranks out and read it over the next weekend.
I had already become fascinated by the breakdown in class structures that resulted from the meatgrinder of trench warfare, but I found Other Ranks unique among the remarkable British memoirs of the Western Front. Blunden’s own book, along with Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality, Siegfried Sasson’s trilogy, and other well-regarded first-hand accounts, were all from the perspective of educated, upper-class officers. Until oral histories of ordinary soldiers began to be published in the 1960s, hardly any corresponding accounts could be found to speak for them.
For that alone, Other Ranks would be worth remembering. But this is more than just an authentic memoir of the life and deaths of men in the front line: it is a powerful piece of prose. Tilsley’s style is careful, economical. Nothing is overstated. His sentences are often short, almost telegraphic. The poetry is between the lines.
Although written as a novel, Other Ranks opens with a brief disclaimer: “None of the characters in this chronicle is fictitious.” We can assume, then, that Dick Bradshaw, from whose viewpoint the story is told, represents Tilsley. If so, then Other Ranks is all the more remarkable for its success in portraying the evolution of Bradshaw’s outlook from naive draftee to seasoned veteran.
In the very first paragraph, Bradshaw imagines “an inspection, when some great general would stand before him and say: ‘Fight for England–you? Run away, boy, and come back when you’re a man!” Still too young to shave, Bradshaw is a quiet, respectful lad, probably from the family of a clerk or shopkeeper. He and his buddy, Jack, watch guardedly as the older men in their company of Lancastershire draftees indulge their vices: drinking, gambling, smoking, whoring–and, most of all, boasting. Both fear being shown up as unfit to be soldiers.
The book opens as Bradshaw’s “C” Company leaves the depot at Etaples and heads for their first engagement at the front: a late and futile attack in the Battle of the Somme. The excerpt above describes climactic moment of going over the top, the infantry assault across No Man’s Land, a tactic that claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties in the course of the war and almost never succeeded.
Over the next fourteen months, “C” Company carries on, alternating between stints in the front line and carrying out tedious chores at bases “down the line.” As Tilsley writes, “down the line,” “up the line,” and “in the trenches” “were elastic phrases. To the infantry, Poperinghe [ten miles from the front] was down the line; to non-combatant units, up.”
The unit experiences the miserable and perilous lot of what was known as the P.B.I.: the Poor Bloody Infantry. A wounded Highlander Bradshaw encounters near the end sums up their unenviable lot:
And of all the lousy jobs in this bloodstained war is anybody so mucked about as the P.B.I.? You exist like a pig for weeks on end, grovelling and nosing and snivelling for rations. Your constitution is steadily undermined month after month by insufficient grub. Your body is lousy and dirty, and covered with disgusting sores. The hair on you is a nesting and breeding-place for chats and crabs, and has to be shaved off. You’re unclean; degraded. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry from the R.E.s [Royal Engineers] can muck you about. You have the most dangerous, tedious, monotonous, and thankless job of all, and you get less pay than anybody else.
Though he proves a worthy soldier and earns promotions to corporal and sergeant, Bradshaw loses any illusions he had about the war and his leaders. He goes from thinking of “great generals” who will size him up to referring to virtually everyone above the rank of subaltern as “The older men who use, and misuse, us….” As he writes in his diary at the close of the book,
So now, after nearly two years in the army and fourteen months overseas, I am returning as a wounded Tommy who has done his bit. The irony of it! I came here with a duty before me–to kill Germans. For months I received instructions on how to drive home into my adversaries’ bodies the long pointed blade of steel recently discarded. There has never been blood upon its surface; only a little mud and dust. Hardly more potent has been my rifle–and both have been carried many wearisome miles. My service has been a washout; undistinguished. Yet I have seen many dead men and boys–so many that the sight ceased to shock. Not normal dead, but cruel mutilations that were never on God’s earth meant to be.
Published in 1931, Other Ranks was late and lost in the wave of war memoirs and novels. The Times Literary Supplement gave it a brief, polite review. Never released in the U.S., it soon vanished. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory missed it, as did other studies of war literature by Bernard Bergonzi and Samuel Hynes. Aside from a rare copy that pops up now and again for hundreds of dollars, it sits collecting dust on the shelves of scholarly libraries like the one where I found it. If I could choose only one book from this site to be reissued and rediscovered, this would be it. Not only in recognition of its exceptional balance of honesty and discretion, but in tribute to the sacrifice of a generation of Other Ranks.
- · Times Literary Supplement, 16 April 1931
- Mr. Blunden remarks that Mr. Tilsley “misses nothing.” He has, indeed, a very keen eye. Like most “other ranks” who have written of their experiences in the War, he had had an upbringing and an education superior to that of his fellows. He was one of those who believed that the Army could not make soldiers of his kind, and admits that when he saw a German raiding party approaching he forgot in his excitement to take off his safety-catch. Perhaps for this reason he displays at times a pessimism regarding the respective qualities of British and German troops which is at war with his pride in the 55th Division…. Mr. Tisley’s description of an attack on the Somme is as vivid as anything of the sort that has been written.
Locate a copy
Other Ranks, by W.V. Tilsley
London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1931
Dust jacket image courtesy of Great War Dust Jackets: http://www.greatwardustjackets.co.uk/.