The Great War: Was it a Waste?
All Quiet on the Western Front is the latest adaptation of the Erich Maria Remarque work which has been filmed three times, first in 1930, then 1979 and now the current version, which has won nine Academy Award nominations, and 14 BAFTA. Remarque was a veteran of the Great War, and his novel was one of those burned by the Nazis. Whilst watching this powerful film, I was constantly thinking of my two great uncles who were killed, and my grandfather who was seriously wounded. The movie depicts trench warfare and the attacks over the horrifying terrain of no man’s land. Bodies, both human and animal, tree stumps, artillery craters and mud provide a disturbing landscape which greedily consumes yet more casualties as another attack is swatted aside by machine guns and barbed wire.
Not being a historian of the First World War, I’m unsure as to the accuracy of this dramatisation, and in a recent, hugely fascinating conversation with Gary Sheffield (for the Aspects of History Podcast), for the British at least, the idea that all those young men died for nothing was shown to not be the case. But the film is why I was reminded of my relatives, one of whose story is extraordinary, but also tragic.
Ion Carter, my paternal grandfather’s elder brother, was born in 1894, the son of John Carter, a senior army officer. An artistic fellow, who loved acting, he was accepted into the London School of Dramatic Art. Within a month of the war starting in August 1914, he had joined up as an officer in the 10th Essex Regiment. He survived the First Ypres (around 8,000 didn’t), but it seems that within only a few months, not all was well with Ion and by February 1915 he had resigned his commission.
This seems to have been an unusual event, and on closer examination reveals the circumstances surrounding what was viewed at the time as nothing short of absolute disgrace. Ion, in early 1915, was presenting cheques at military and civilian establishments that could not be honoured. On the 16th January, one particular cheque gained him £1-10-0 in cash, but this too bounced. His Commanding Officer now got involved, and in a meeting with him, Ion assured the CO he was unaware his account was overdrawn. I’m at this point reminded of a line which I think belongs to Oscar Wilde, “no gentleman has the slightest idea of what his bank balance is,” a motto to which I’ve adhered to this very day.
Sadly this excuse was exposed again and for a final time Ion’s cheque payment for his mess bill bounced. His parents were informed, and they duly paid up, but his reputation was trashed and his resignation offered on the 6th February 1915, which his CO ‘strongly recommended’ be accepted. Up until now, whilst embarrassing the story is perhaps not rare, but what came next is.
Ion went AWOL, for whilst he had resigned, it had not yet been accepted. A record exists from HQ 18 Division from the 12th March which states, “it seems possible that, being ignorant of all military regulations, he may have considered himself free to go away as soon as his resignation was handed in. As the dishonoured cheques have now been paid, and in view of the fact that 2nd Lt Carter has four brothers in the service who would keenly feel any publicity in this matter, I venture to suggest that his commission be cancelled, and no further action taken.” He was probably lucky not to have been shot for desertion.
Nothing more is heard from Ion, and he was cut off by his father (John Carter was a colonel in the British Army), a relationship which was never reconciled. On the 31st March 1915 the army closes his file as a resignation, and history forgets about Ion Carter.
Or does it? On the 2nd December, 1915, Christopher Arthur Valentine signed up as a private with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders at a Glasgow recruiting office. Despatched to France, despite his relaxed approach to the drab necessities of life he became a highly successful soldier. He was promoted to corporal, and then sergeant throughout 1916. Letters survive in which he describes his family problems as down to his desire for an acting career, and refers to Valentine as his stage name. He wrote poetry and had met and ‘loved’ Rupert Brooke (Brooke died of sepsis in Greece in 1915). Despite his relationship with his father having broken down, Ion continued to write to his mother and at least one of his brothers. In early 1917 he was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry, but on the 3rd May, during the Battle of Arras, he was shot in the eye and killed. His body was never recovered, but his (stage) name can be found on the wall Faubourg D’Amiens CWGC Cemetery.
There may be plenty of stories like this, and of course we’re familiar with those more commonplace such as that depicted in All Quiet on the Western Front. For the Germans, the ‘stab in the back’ myth which is presented so effectively in the film meant their casualties were viewed as a lost cause. It’s different for us in Britain. For Ion, and his younger brother Desmond, I don’t accept they died for nothing, and I certainly don’t think young men at the time volunteered for what many now see as a dreadful waste. The German regime was an odious one, as Belgian civilians would verify, and the sacrifice of so many was for a just cause. It is a sad fact that military technology of the time had far outpaced military strategy. By 1918 that gap had been shortened, and as Sheffield highlights in his book Forgotten Victory, the British victories of that year deserve to rank alongside Waterloo and Agincourt.
Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History. You can listen to his conversation with Gary Sheffield on the Aspects of History Podcast.