Flashback — and tourbillions in Time (again)

The Imperial War Museum invited me to contribute a post to their Research Blog, and I promptly accepted. I am not, of course, a military historian, and when I started researching the last ten months of George’s life I was expecting to have to travel to and fro to London for weeks to research the Third Battle of Krithia in the IWM’s archives. Not so! I found all the leads and materials I was looking for online, as the Museum’s holdings are superbly catalogued. There were pointers to the specialist literature, even a paper on the Third Battle of Krithia produced by the IWM itself, there were copious photographs (including the spectacular one I reproduced on 4 June), there were artefacts, and I was able to correspond with an in-house expert on Gallipoli. Taking all that together with my own reading of the classic works on Gallipoli, and the three eye-witness accounts of 4 June in Kittie’s possession, I thought I had everything I needed to describe what happened. I based my guest post, therefore, more or less on what I have just said in this paragraph.

But the Museum was concerned that I had not actually worked on any archival material in the building. How right, in the event, they were. I volunteered to go up there ten days ago to look at the papers of the 1st KOSB’s commanding officer at the battle; the war diary of Reeves, the man who shared a cabin with George on the Orsova and was also then attached to the 1st KOSB on the peninsula; a long letter from Jack Harley, a Trinity (Oxford) man ten years younger than George, to whom Clare Hopkins, Trinity’s Archivist, had kindly drawn my attention; and for good measure the war diary of the extraordinary survivor Sergeant-Major Daniel Joiner. I say ‘for good measure’, as Joiner’s diary is copiously quoted by Peter Hart in his Gallipoli (2013) and I couldn’t believe there would be anything in it about the Third Battle of Krithia that he hadn’t reproduced already, but the diary is so vivid and gripping that I couldn’t resist having a read of the original anyway.

I have been pondering the results of this visit to the IWM ever since.

The papers of Major G.B. Stoney, the 1st KOSB’s CO on 4 June 1915, refer to some events described by George in his letters to Kittie, but they do not refer to George by name. 2nd Lieutenant R.M.E. Reeves refers to George being sea-sick on the night of 12 May, like most of the officers, and to sharing a dugout with ‘Calderon’ on the night of 27 May. There is circumstantial evidence in Lieutenant Jack Harley’s letter to his father that he knew George, but no mention of him by name. On p. 243 of Gallipoli Peter Hart quotes Joiner’s account of attacking with C Company on 4 June and taking four trenches.

The really important thing, however, is that although Stoney did not describe the battle at all and Harley was killed in it at the same time as George, Reeves and Joiner did survive it and did describe the whole course of the KOSB’s experience of it on that day, 4 June 1915. Their descriptions diverge from the Official History, and even from Captain Pat(t)erson’s eye witness account presented to Kittie, and they diverge in significant ways.

2nd Lieutenant Reeves, a solicitor perhaps in his late twenties, commanded 14 Platoon of the 1st KOSB. This meant he was in D Company, which was led by Captain Hogan and technically in reserve. George Calderon commanded 8 Platoon in B Company, which was led by Captain Grogan. The Official History, Capt. Pat(t)erson, and books about Gallipoli, talk of two waves of attack, the first at 12.00 consisting of A and B Companies, the second timed for 12.15 consisting of C and D. Naturally, one makes the assumption that in each wave the two companies went over the top simultaneously. However, Reeves says ‘A and B Companies attacked and lost very heavily’ and makes it quite clear that C then went in on its own (presumably in ‘platoon rushes’ as Pat(t)erson puts it), and finally D on its own. Reeves, incidentally, as well as being injured was traumatised by what he saw in the battle and is the only source I (now) know for the precise figure of the 1st KOSB’s losses: ‘Our casualties since Friday [4 June] at 12 p.m. are 19 officers and 432 killed, wounded and missing’ (i.e. probably half the battalion).

Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Joiner was with C Company. He makes it quite clear that the companies went over the top separately — in fact he does not even use the word ‘waves’. ‘A Coy. mounted the ladders ready for the stroke of 12’, he writes, ‘but instead of going forward, either fell back again wounded or killed. The majority in fact hardly got their heads over the parapet.’ This was because ‘on the stroke of 12 [the Turkish machine guns] opened fire right along the top of our parapet.’ To Joiner this seemed such a coincidence that he concluded the enemy knew the plan of attack (Peter Hart advises me to ‘disregard this speculation’). Joiner continues: ‘B Coy. now jumped, they also suffered, and the fate of our individual attack hung in the balance for a few seconds.’ Admittedly Joiner must be wrong to state that ‘everything from the stroke of 12 until we (C Coy.) had joined in the attack was but a few seconds’, because Pat(t)erson as Adjutant directing half of the attack surely knew what he was talking about when he said Stoney waited half an hour before launching the second wave; but equally Joiner must be right to describe A and B Companies as going over the top separately. Moreover, here Joiner’s account squares with Sergeant-Major Allan’s account taken down in hospital in Alexandria by Mrs Ludolf (see my post of 13 July). On the basis of Reeves and Joiner’s war diaries, I conclude that when Allan spoke of ‘two lines’ of attack, and of George being in the second, he was referring to the fact that the two companies, A and B, went over the top consecutively and not as a single, simultaneous ‘first wave’.

So how does this change our picture of George Calderon going to his death?

Instead of the image of him leading his platoon forward with the customary shout in one long line of two companies constituting the ‘first wave’, we have the image of A Company being slaughtered and wounded on his right before his very eyes, in many cases before leaving the front trench, and then, with the rest of B Company, having to summon the courage to take their place… In a word, the situation when George had to go over the top was even worse than I imagined. According to these war diaries, by now the trenches (which were more like ‘sangars’ and only four foot six deep) were beginning to collapse and the scaling ladders could not be used. As it happens, B Company were luckier than A Company, but still there is no reliable evidence that any reached the first Turkish trench. When C Company attacked, Joiner writes, the ground was already ‘littered with dead’.

The end of my post of 4 June 2015 will have to be rewritten. The photograph that illustrates it must be of C or D Company going over the top, as there are no wounded or dead visible. The map is still accurate to the best of our information. Hogan is described by Reeves as wounded, together with Lieutenants Deighton and Thompson of D Company, and I am not at all surprised, after reading Reeves’s account, that Hogan should not know the fate of George forty minutes earlier. Also, one can well understand why, in the absence of evidence that George himself was wounded or reported killed, Hogan thought he might have been captured.

*                    *                    *

Where does all this leave us?

There is a clear discrepancy between the official and officers’ accounts AND the personal and privates’ accounts of the 1st KOSB’s action at noon on 4 June 1915. But this is not to say that the first set of accounts wilfully distort or sanitise the facts. Their ‘perspective’ is simply different. Given the length of the Official History of the Gallipoli campaign, it is understandable that the facts should be somewhat compressed. On the other hand, it was fixed in the tabulated order of battle (see my post of 4 June) that there would be two ‘waves’, one at 12.00 and the other at 12.15, and it is tempting to think that the official and officers’ accounts wanted to believe the orders had been rigidly followed. Thus although Captain Pat(t)erson was present as the 1st KOSB’s Adjutant directing half the forces, the way he thought about what he witnessed may have been pre-set by his orders.

However, we are also dealing here with two distinct chronotopes — ways of presenting time. The Official History is, by definition, an historical narrative: a tight nexus of events presented within a longish sweep of time (two years). For that purpose it is natural for certain details and complications to fall away. I would suggest there was a tendency among officers to see events more historically, too. Perhaps the higher up the military ladder you were at Gallipoli, the more you saw events with ‘helicopter vision’ (and the more unmoved you were by the casualty figures). It is, of course, implicit in the historical chronotope and mindset to see events as past (cf. the lady in my ‘Dialogue’ of 18 July).

By contrast, NCOs Joiner and Allan, and 2nd Lieutenant Reeves, present personal time, discrete from historical time; their accounts are limited to the small segments of time that they experienced. They actually waited for their turn to go over the top, they did go over the top, whereas Stoney and Pat(t)erson only observed and followed when it was safe. In terms, then, of the synchronic reality of the battle for the 1st KOSB — what it looked like and felt like to attack ‘in the present’ — Joiner’s, Allan’s and Reeves’s accounts are more authentic, or more emotional and, dare one say it, more empathetic. According to their accounts, it wasn’t a case of two ‘waves’ storming forwards on cue with hurrahs and officers waving revolvers and walking sticks, it was a horrific mess left on or in the trenches. Two companies, A and B, walked at an interval into walls of lead and the fate of the 1st KOSB’s attack hung in the balance until Stoney actually postponed it by twenty minutes and the progress made by the troops to left and right of them enabled C and D Companies to carry the day.

Yet again we are discussing Time. What I have called ‘tourbillions in Time’  — starting halfway in, flashbacks, flashes forward, ‘greater time, lesser time’, different ways of looking at time — sweep through my biography of George Calderon. There is no space here to discuss whether our brains are programmed to think of time in various ways, or whether these ways are simply cultural constructs (Stone Age, Greek, Aztec, Buddhist, historical, Einsteinian…). I will, though, conclude by touching on one form of time that has always been at the heart of this blog. Do we sometimes think of time circularly simply because of the cycle of the year? Why do we ‘re-experience’ events at their anniversaries? Why have I been able to claim right from the start of this blog that it tells George and Kittie’s life ‘in real time’, when in fact that merely means ‘as it happened exactly 100 years ago’?

*                    *                    *

Note. The phrase ‘tourbillions in Time’ is taken from Robert Graves’s lyric ‘On Portents’.

Next entry: 21 July 1915

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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4 Responses to Flashback — and tourbillions in Time (again)

  1. jennyhands says:

    ‘Tourbillions in time’ (a powerful concept) is surely enough to explain the differences in the narratives. But I was also made to think of Captain Pat(t)erson and others recounting in 1915 the events which had devastated relatives back home. Pat(t)erson wouldn’t have wanted to tell Kittie that George had led his platoon over the top through numerous warm and bleeding bodies of men slaughtered only moments before. And, even without considering the impact on relatives of an appallingly messier version of history, I’m thinking that an account where orders were “rigidly followed” would seem to be the most appropriate to honour the sacrifice of the dead, avoiding any stain of doubt on these men and perhaps safeguarding the award of posthumous medals.

    Here in 2015, these new perspectives add a shocking twist. I’d just like to add my thanks, as a non-historian, for this astonishing blog. I’ve been riveted by the still-unfolding tale since the start of June.

    • This beautifully expressed Comment is a valuable corrective, I find, to the way I, and perhaps others, have fallen into thinking about the story at this late stage. Thank you! We are focussed on Kittie’s point of view (it is such a pity that we have no information about Clara’s, George’s mother’s, response). We are perhaps amazed at Kittie’s proactivity and energy in seeking ‘the truth’ about George’s fate. But did she really want to know ‘the truth’ in the kind of detail that the closest military sources possessed and that we tend to want today? I doubt whether she, stalwart stout and staunch though she was, could have taken it. Even though she might not have known that, others such as Gertrude Bell, Capt Labouchere, Capt Pat(t)erson, Coote Hedley and Percy Lubbock did, and they ‘protected’ her from it. In the intimacy of Kittie’s story I/we have also perhaps forgotten that, for complex reasons, the Edwardians were masters of ‘news presentation’ and ‘spin’. I think you are probably right, therefore, about an account that closely followed the orders of the day being perceived as ‘most appropriate’ to the purposes you mention.

  2. Clare Hopkins says:

    I have no doubt you are right that we think of time circularly because the rotations of our planet give us both the waking/sleeping rhythm of the day, and the seasonal pattern of the year. Like all living organisms we run on a 24 hour cycle. Religions have always provided an annual round of ceremonial rituals, whether linked to the movements of the stars (Stonehenge) or the fluctuations of distant rainfall (the Ancient Egyptians and the River Nile). The Jewish/Christian calendar nicely combines its major festivals with key agricultural tasks. And even before the sophistication of counting days, individual memory surely linked certain events with particular points in the cycle: a baby born at berry-picking-time or a tragic death at a midsummer vigil.

    But our society’s obsession with the marking of national anniversaries feels like something else. We are all pawns in this game. There has been a rich diet of commemoration on our TV screens and in our newspapers in the past few months, ranging in time from the 7/7 bombings of ten years ago to the Battle of Waterloo, since when two centuries have passed. We have also been exposed to extensive coverage of the Battle of Britain – 75 years – while coming up in the autumn will be the sexcentenary of Agincourt. I suspect that, apart from those directly affected by terrorist attacks, few of us would have given much thought to these events if they had not been brought to our attention by reporters and journalists. On the other hand, editors are presumably providing fodder that they know their readers and viewers will appreciate.

    The coverage is broadly the same: facts, dates, statistics, and stories of individuals’ experiences. But our empathetic response to each is rather different. In a previous post you wrote about the ‘catch of emotion’ engendered by the process of commemoration. That catch seems particularly exquisite when we reflect on the events of ‘exactly 100 years ago’. Let us consider the poppies at the Tower, or the innumerable WW1 forums run by military enthusiasts – or even, just now, our feelings as we lingered over these new and harrowing details of the Third Battle of Krithia, and recognised the immense courage that George Calderon must have shown in the final moments of his life. Britain it seems cannot get enough of World War One… I would like to suggest that this is an example of the Goldilocks Principle at work.

    It is right that we remember and reflect on the horrors of 7 July 2005, but the victims’ stories are shocking; the injuries are all too obviously life-changing; the grief is raw; and it is frightening to remember the unfolding of that day, because it may well happen again. We experience great empathy, but it is painful. The anniversary of 7/7 is Too Recent. Re-enactments of Waterloo on the other hand may be extremely interesting and important for our understanding of European history, but the commemoration is emotionally dry and we find it hard to connect with soldiers who lived and fought in that pre-combustion engine world. The Napoleonic Wars are (were?) Too Long Ago.

    The battles of World War One however belong to the generation of our grand- and great-grandparents. We do not have to look in the eyes of the maimed and traumatized soldiers who returned, and nor do we meet with the widows and mothers of those who fell. But we know a great many intimate details of their lives. The world they inhabited was (is!) not so very different from ours. Only a little imagination is needed to put ourselves in George and Kittie’s shoes. Postmen still deliver letters; news organisations pump daily updates and propaganda directly into our homes; machine guns remain standard weapons of war. Intense empathy is easy; and, if we are honest with ourselves, the personal-but-not-too-personal relationship that we have with World War One even makes that empathy an enjoyable sensation. Exactly 100 years ago, then, is Just Right.

    It will not always be so. If we roll forwards to 2115, the grim attrition of trench warfare will probably seem as distant and strange to our descendants as the cavalry manoeuvres of 1815 are to us. And perhaps the term ‘9/11’ will have replaced ‘the First Day of the Somme’ as that terrible historical event that needs no explanation…

    Well, I’m not sure what to conclude from these musings. Except that this year is surely Just The Right Time to publish a life of George Calderon!

    • Dear Clare, I feel this is in more senses than one the ‘last word’ on this subject…and with your permission I would like to put a link in from my post about Commemoration (3 July) to your superb Comment here, when the blog becomes a website after 31 July. I feel that future visitors will appreciate accessing the two takes on the subject together. You have, I know, been very involved in the commemoration of Trinity College’s fallen in the first year of the Great War, including George; you have greater experience of this subject, probably, than any other of us ‘Calderonians’; and you have manifestly thought both broadly and deeply about it.

      I agree with you in feeling uncomfortable about our society’s ‘obsession with the marking of national anniversaries’. We seem to be more exposed to this activity than ever. Of course, one could say we can choose whether to become pawns in it, or not, and one could question whether the media are creating the demand or satisfying what is a genuine one on the part of their readers and viewers. But your suggestion that ‘intense empathy is easy’ and that in the case of WW1 such empathy can become ‘an enjoyable sensation’ has a disturbing resonance of truth. That is why as far as I am concerned empathy has to be intelligent, critical; the ‘limits of empathy have to be true understanding’, though there may be no limits to compassion. This may seem a contradiction in terms, but not so much for males who spend a lifetime learning empathy in the first place!

      My instinct is to analyse what it is we are commemorating in each of the examples you give. In the case of 7/7 I feel it is the triumph of people’s spirit over the evil that was perpetrated on them, the courage the victims and services displayed to the rest of us, which personally I find an inspiration for what we know ‘may well happen again’. When George was on his way to Lemnos on the Orsova he and a Canadian soldier agreed that in the first year after the war they would hold a dinner on that very ship ‘on Waterloo Day’. I doubt whether this was because they felt much empathy with their predecessors in the British Army of 1815. More likely they just wanted to celebrate winning. And I would agree with them, because of the importance of Waterloo to Europe’s history. But Agincourt? Extraordinary victory, amazing leadership, we should remember the fact that it happened, but commemorate it? I certainly don’t feel enough about it to want to do that.

      Where the ‘Great’ War is concerned, I am tempted to say that it is the static nature of its butchery and the ghastly tragedy of its causation that forever ‘get’ to us and which we are commemorating. Even though more people died in the Second World War and it went on longer, warfare by then had become mobile again and what I feel we want to commemorate there is similar to Waterloo, namely the triumph with great difficulty over a European tyranny. A part of me says, then, that each of these national anniversaries is commemorated for different reasons, some of which I don’t share (e.g. in the case of Agincourt or Bosworth), but a part of me feels you are absolutely right about the Goldilocks Principle applying to WW1: our knowledge of its world is intimate but not too intimate, perhaps, and it is curious how difficult it is to think with any sense of connection beyond one’s grandparents, whom one may have known, to ancestors one didn’t. Yes, exactly 100 years ago is the perfect circle.

      All I think I can add is that George and Kittie had interestingly opposed views on anniversaries. Archie Ripley, Kittie’s first husband and George’s Oxford friend, was born on 31 December 1866 and died on 23 October 1898. At the end of 1898 Kittie was depressed and fraught at the approach of what would have been Archie’s thirty-second birthday AND the beginning of her first new year without him. George’s response, in a letter sent to her on New Year’s Eve (!), ten weeks (!) after her husband’s death, was fearsome: ‘There is no sorrow in this anniversary — nor in any anniversary. […] Anniversaries are nothing — mere conventions: tomorrow is nothing; the New Year without Archie or with him is only a new number at the top of the newspaper.’ His attitude to time was famously linear and ‘positivist’. By contrast, on 11 May 1917 Kittie wrote a highly emotional letter to Violet Pym apologising for not answering Violet’s letter sooner, because ‘he sailed last night two years — and there ended sight — but letters will go on till June the 4th and one just lives every minute of them’; in other words the ‘circular’ view of Time was second nature to her. I feel sure George would be scathing about our present-day obsession, but even so he wanted to hold a dinner to commemorate Waterloo…

      Thank you so much for your closing words, too; I just hope that events overtake your words’ anniversary!

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