Six Weeks: For a time, this was the life expectancy of a junior infantry officer on the Western Front in 1914-18.
I was in London last week researching my next book, the second in my trilogy of Secret Service Bureau novels set in World War 1. Between archives, I visited my agent, Julian, who mentioned ‘Six Weeks’, a book by John Lewis-Stempel about ‘the short and gallant life of the British Officer in the First World War’. It tells the story of a generation of young men just out of school who went straight from the classroom ‘to the most dangerous job in the world – that of a junior officer on the Western Front’.
For years now the First World War Officer has been characterised as a Black Adder style dimwit, a chinless wonder with little understanding or care for his men. Fiction, television and stage have concentrated on the ‘lions’, the ordinary soldiers, and the generals, who are vilified as ‘donkeys’. There has been little of substance written about the junior officers who led by example and were first over the parapet. ‘Six Weeks’ tells their story. For those who caught and appreciated, the BBC’s ‘Parade’s End’, ‘Six Weeks’ is the story of hundreds, thousands of young men like Christopher Tietjens. They were commoner than you might suppose.
‘The British junior officer won the war’, Lewis-Stempel writes. ‘As 2nd Lieutenant Adams was told by a fellow ‘sub’ in the Royal Welch Fusiliers as they sat around in their billets at Morlancourt on the Somme in 1916, ‘You know as well as I do, Bill, the only way to run a company is by love’. ‘ Junior officers lived alongside and cared for their men, fought with them, led by example and died in even greater numbers.
At home, we have a picture of 2ndLieutenant Douglas Lindsay, a great uncle of my wife’s, who, on September 25th 1915, led his men over the top at the battle of Loos and was killed by enemy machine gun fire. He lasted less than two weeks at the Front. Lewis-Stempel’s moving book tells of the debt owed to young men like Lindsay who kept the British armies fighting for what almost no one doubted was a just and honourable cause: The rights of small nations and the security of Europe.