#whitefeather diaries

Soldiers against officers

Wednesday 4 November 2015

In today's entry we saw Hilda interacting with a soldier while being glad that he was “not killing people at present”. Not all soldiers were uncritical of the war or the army leadership. As the war went on, many soldiers became more outspoken, either against the war itself or of the way it was being conducted.

One of these was Albert Rochester. He was a railway worker who had volunteered for the army in 1914. By 1916 he was becoming angry about the nature of the war reports in the Daily Mail. He accused the Mail's war correspondent of writing “ridiculous reports regarding the love and fellowship existing between officers and men”. He wrote a letter to the Daily Mail in December 1916. Here's an abridged version. 

In the infantry arm of the service, there are no less than 60,000 (or 3 complete divisions) of men employed as servants. Look next at the Infantry Brigade Headquarters staff – comprised of six officers. Those half dozen men retain around them fifteen to eighteen servants, grooms, mess waiters, etc.

Each general, colonel, major, many captains and subalterns have their horse and groom... It is generally recognised that those animals are to officers in France practically useless, excepting for a once-a-fortnight canter. I leave my readers to guess what those horses and grooms are costing the nation in fodder, rations, saddlery, etc.

Probably if a roll call was taken of the batmen, grooms, servants, waiters, commissioned and non-commissioned ‘cushy’ jobs, it would be found that quite half a million men were performing tasks not necessary to the winning of this war.

I ask then, as a soldier, on behalf of millions of citizen-soldiers, that the officer be regarded as NOT of royal blood; that he be expected to clean his own boots, get his own food and shaving water. It may generate within him more respect for his rank and file brethren. And certainly release men for more essential military work.

Albert's letter was stopped by a censor and never reached the Daily Mail. He was court-martialled and convicted of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline”. He was sentenced to ninety days in military prison and given a range of punishments. At one point, he was required to clear away the equipment used for the execution of three soldiers convicted of ‘cowardice’.

After the war, Albert denounced the war, praised those who had campaigned against it and became involved in the peace movement.

Source: Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain (Macmillan, 2011)

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Wednesday 4 November 2015

Hilda's letters from France contain almost no reference to the reactions she received as a female doctor, despite this being unusual at the time. At a time when most people had never travelled in a car, Hilda further challenged gender roles by regularly driving one. Here's one letter from May 1915, sent to her friend Edith in London.