11/04/2014 11:17 BST | Updated 11/06/2014 06:59 BST

Heard Again: The Forgotten Voice of the Boys Who Won the First World War

Much recent writing on the Great War has veered between the highest-ranked and the humble: a determined rehabilitation of Haig at one end, with plain-spoken voices from the ranks at the other, whether individual Tommies who survived to tell their story, or whole battalions of 'Pals'. Even some who couldn't speak have had their say: horses, dogs and other mute beasts burdened by war have filled page, stage and screen.

Lost in all this has been the story of the men arguably most responsible for British obduracy and eventual success - the officers of the line. However, studies are beginning to credit the achievements of this overlooked group. A distinctive voice is now being heard again.

Many of these officers were products of a public school system which modern educational politics is often embarrassed to discuss; very few were angry poets with strident voices. Academic historians perhaps feel that they have graduated from studying familiar characters from that GCSE staple, Journey's End; in so doing they neglect the many thousands of officers - from subalterns to half-colonels - who quietly led and cared for their men in the field and sustained morale in the face of all that the enemy, horrifying battlefield conditions and uninspired strategists could throw at them. They did so at a tender age, many fresh from school and the sports field. Under fire and frustration they showed maturity beyond their years. These are the boys who won the war.


Journey's End playwright and Grammar school boy R C Sherriff, initially resented the public schools bias in early officer recruitment, but was later magnanimous with his praise. The testimony of one who was at the Somme and Ypres and won the Military Cross is worth that of many latter day armchair academics. He judged that it was the line officers' achievement to sustain a fighting force that would soak up punishment for four whole years until the weakened opponent was too exhausted and demoralised to carry on. In his Memoir of Private X, Alfred Burrage agreed: 'I who was a Private, and a bad one at that, freely own that it was the British subaltern who won the war.'

Fatalities were disproportionately high - 19% against 11% of all serving. These voices are not heard through reasoned memoirs or interviews in later life when memory may have dulled, survivor-guilt unsettled or passage of time brought a more reflective mood. In their surviving wartime letters, we hear a voice fresh and immediate, free of historical filters. It is often angry, but always conscious of duty and the need to carry on. We must listen carefully to this valuable contemporary record.

Social class barriers were decisively breached during the alternating terror and tedium in trench life. These officers maintained a fine balance between the necessary authority of command and military discipline, and a shared humanity and compassion for their men. They did not all share Wilfred Owen's presumption to give them a voice through poetry.

Where they did find their own voice - privately but nonetheless impressively, in the face of censorship and military hierarchy - was in their views on the senior leadership. They cannot always be dismissed as the complaints of overworked 'middle-managers', or men uncomfortably thrust into responsibility. Guy du Maurier, killed commanding his Fusilier battalion at Ypres, was a career soldier who had fought in Burma and killed in Africa. Before this war he found his voice on the London stage: his sensation of 1909 - An Englishman's Home - alerted the British public to the danger of military unpreparedness and boosted recruiting for the new Territorial Force.

From his Kemmel hut he confided to his wife his contempt for the General Staff, the inanity of administrators and rigid military doctrine. His men's walfare was always top of mind, however weary with work. So too Lt Col Broadrick at Gallipoli, who could only write to his mother of his few surviving men's need for comforts like Woodbines, or the financial security of bereaved families at home. Only when he too was killed did the letters stop.

du Maurier said of one exemplary subaltern, a gentleman amateur: 'Absolutely no previous training as a soldier is wanted at this game - only a stout heart - a grip of men and a calm cheerful nature.' The common humanity and mutual respect of officers and men under fire was poignantly expressed by one East Yorkshires private of his England rugby International Captain Jimmy Dingle, caught out by a Turkish sniper: 'he was a Gentleman and made tea for ten of us'.

They took thoughtful responsibility for the men on their team and felt genuine obligation towards those less privileged than themselves. Energetic and youthful, they led enthusiastic games of rugby or football to keep up morale and break down social barriers. Many had flaws and weaknesses - not least from inexperience - which war would magnify and sometimes fatally expose, but they played the game as best they could. There were more Stanhopes than Flashmans.