“This book is an attempt to fill a gap,” John Baynes writes in his introduction to Morale, his classic study of the 2nd Scottish Rifles in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. “In all the mass of histories, studies, memoirs, biographies and novels which have been published about the First World War little has been done to investigate the most interesting field of all–the morale of the front-line soldier.”
Had Baynes attempted a sweeping study of morale in general, or even morale in combat, or even of morale in combat on the Western Front, I doubt that anyone would remember his book. But Baynes recognized early on that “the subject is too big”:
I decided that I would rather stick to something small and try to get near the truth, and being a Regular serving officer in the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) I naturally chose to study my own Regiment. I decided to look at one battalion in one battle–the 2nd Battalion at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, 9 to 15 March 1915. This battalion, which always referred to itself as the 2nd Scottish Rifles and did not normally use the name Cameronians, started the battle about nine hundred strong on 9 March. Six days later it came out of action. By this time the hundred and fifty men left were commanded by the sole surviving officer, a 2nd Lieutenant.
In approaching his subject, Baynes is guided by Edmund Blunden’s admonition in his poem, “Victorians”: “… read first, and fully shape/The diagram of life which governed them.” The officers and other ranks of the 2nd Scottish Rifles, as he carefully pieces together the “diagram” of their life, are particular, not representative men. He begins by introducing us to the battalion as it stood, garrisoned on Malta, at the start of the war. It numbered about a thousand officers and men–large enough a unit to be self-sufficient by the standards of the day, small enough for there to be a strong level of familiarity among the members–fewer than thirty in total–of the officers’ mess, among the NCOs–roughly fifty–and among the men in each of the four companies.
The battalion was somewhat exception in that it came late for a Regular Army unit to the front, having spent some years in the relative isolation of Malta. The men averaged over five years’ service. The routines of garrison life–the day in, day out grind of inspection, drill, and firing practice–was certainly monotonous and unwelcoming to the imagination, but as Baynes shows, it was remarkably effective in reinforcing the men’s “bloody-mindedness”:
When using the term I do not mean a surly refusal to do what is ordered but a refusal to give way to conditions which might be expected to make a man sour. It has an element of rebellion in it, of course, but the rebelling is not so much against authority as against difficult circumstances. As things get worse the man with this quality becomes more determined to stick them out.
The battalion’s six days in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle put its bloody mindedness to an exceptional test. After marching up to the front trenches through the night of 9-10 March, it stood, waiting, for over two hours, until the artillery fell silent and the attack began. It was a classic example of the disastrous tactic of sending hundreds of men clambering over the top:
Almost at the same moment came another noise: the whip and crack of the enemy machine-guns opening up with deadly effect. From the intensity of their fire, and its accuracy, it was clear that the shelling had not been as effective as expected. Worse than its lack of effect on the enemy was the fact that it had scarcely touched the wire. Instead of being broken up, the wire and the thick hedge looked just the same as they had before the bombardment.
The attack began at 8:05 AM. By 9:30 AM, all but two officers were dead or wounded, and over thirty of the NCOs. Three hundred fifty or so of the other ranks were killed or wounded. They had managed to advance about a three hundred meters.
Further assaults during the day were able to secure the German’s front line of trenches, but progress stopped after that. By the afternoon of 12 March, General Haig, then commanding the First Army, issued orders to “push through regardless of loss, using reserves if required.” Unfortunately, the 2nd Scottish Rifles had no reserves by then, and as Baynes remarks, “From here the story of the battle becomes a sorry tale, except for the courage, willingness, and effort of the soldiers who tried to do the impossible.” On the night of 14-15 March, 2nd Lieutenant Somervail and one senior NCO led one hundred forty-three men back to their billets.
Baynes completes his account of the battle and his assessment of its significance (he calls it “a failure but not a waste” in that it demonstrated the combat integrity of the British forces in the first major offensive action after the stalemate of the previous fall) by page 91 of the book. Then the most interesting material begins.
Over the next seven chapters, he focuses on the battalion and the various factors that reinforced–or undermined–its ability to remain intact, on duty, and engaged in the battle for over four days after losing over three-fourths of its men. He describes the officers, who sat roughly half-way up the social and economic hierarchy of the Regular Army. They came from upper middle class families and good schools but not great wealth. They believed in sport and maintaining existing values and social distinctions. They were not bullies or martinets, however, and the worst thing one could say of a fellow officer was that he didn’t take care of his men.
The NCOs and other ranks came from poor working class areas in Glasgow and the surrounding Lanarkshire. The Army was generally considered a step up in the world:
One could almost say that for them the whole of their lives had been a conditioning for the trenches. As children they had learnt to live happily with so many of the things that made life at the front unbearable for those reared in gentler surrounding. Cold, ragged clothes, dirt, lice and fleas, bad food, hard beds, overcrowding, rats, ugly surroundings; these were nothing new to someone whose boyhood had been passed in a Glasgow slum.
Duty in the Army brought order and cleanliness to his life, a healthier diet, and regular exercise. The Army–particularly in the person of his Sergeant–was interested in him: “people cared whether he wore his uniform correctly, whether he progressed in his training, and whether he was a credit to the Regiment.” The Regiment, in fact, was, according to Baynes, “the quintessence of the morale of the pre-1914 Army.”
Discipline and drill were also significant factors. Maintaining a marksman’s rating was one of the few ways in which a private could make a little more money, and hours were spent every week in “pokey drill”–loading and unloading dummy rounds to increase firing speed. Many British Army regulars achieved such a rate of fire that the Germans believed their battalions were equipped with dozens of machine guns (they averaged two guns per battalion, in fact).
The strength of the class system prior to the war was another factor. The officers and men of the 2nd Scottish Rifles came from a world in which class structure and the inherent right of the more privileged to command those in the lower classes was accepted. Many writers have argued that the experience of combat on the Western Front, particularly the relentless years of futile “over the top” attacks, ultimately undermined this acceptance, leading to strikes and the rise of the Labour Party afterwards. But in the early days, when the battalion marched into its first battle, class was, Baynes argues, a greater factor in morale than religion, morals, or patriotism.
Since its first publication in 1967, Morale has come to be recognized as an essential text on its subject. Although only reprinted once, in 1987, you can find it cited in numerous articles in British, American, Canadian, French, and even Israeli military journals. To use it as a guide for dealing with the morale of combat troops in other situations, though, is, I think, a mistake. One could never–should never–attempt to reproduce the factors that enabled the 2nd Scottish Rifles to remain intact through devastating losses.
What makes Morale a book worth rediscovering is not its value as a source of instruction but its high merit as an attempt by one author to deeply understand his subject. Although examining the battalion’s morale provided Baynes with the motivation to undertake this book, I would argue that its greatest value is in offering an exceptional example of reconstructing, in Blunden’s words, “the diagram of life” which governed a particular group of men in a particular time and a particular situation. This is the kind of history that helps remind us that, as David McCullough puts it, people in that past “didn’t live in the past”: “They lived in the present. It is their present, not our present, and they don’t know how it’s going to come out. They weren’t just like we are because they lived in that very different time. You can’t understand them if you don’t understand how they perceived reality and you don’t understand that unless you understand the culture.” And for understanding the culture of the Regular British Army at the start of the First World War, I can recommend no book more highly than John Baynes’ Morale.
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