Jon Gower reviews the latest title in Parthian’s Library of Wales, by Frank Richards
Robert Graves first became aware of the writing talents of Frank Richards when he was in the trenches, a couple of days after the Battle of Loos in September 1915. Graves was censoring letters home and came across one from Richards which he had to pass on to a colleague for a second opinion before letting it through. ‘Every word is true,’ said the regular officer sharing Graves’ dug-out ‘…and the regular communiqué will be all lies, and people at home ought to know what really happened. Graves would later read Old Soldiers Never Die and conclude that it is about “the army not the war.”
Private Frank Richards, a Monmouthshire man, was one of the first soldiers to arrive in France after war was declared and he saw action in many of the bloodiest battles – in the Somme, at Loos and Ypres, at Polygon Wood and along the edges of the fearfully well-constructed and German-held Hindenburg line. Despite astronomical odds Frank Richards survived both the killing fields and woods – for so many of the worst slaughters were in woods, not least in Mametz, where the statistics of the fallen still stun us today.
In 1933 Richards wrote his clear-eyed account of the life of an ordinary soldier, Old Soldiers Never Die. It is, as Peter Stead says in his foreword, an “astounding” memoir, explaining how the army functioned at the front line and kept its supply lines open.
The book starts with a group of old soldiers swapping tales in the Castle Hotel in Blaina, trying to outgun each other in terms of both exploits and adventures, from the Boxer Rising through Burma to the Boer War. But Richards’s book is in no ways boastful, nor is it couched in heroic language. It tells us about the day-to-day deprivations and of the soldiers who would happily get shot in the arm or leg to get their ticket home. Along the way we find out things we did not know, perhaps, not least the fact that even in the forward trenches French newspaper boys would sometimes appear in a lull between artillery barrages to sell copies of English newspapers to the shell-blasted troops. We find out what iron rations were, being a fighting man’s daily food supply, consisting of four army biscuits, a tin of bully beef and a small portion of tea and sugar. There are striking images, such as the terror-stricken twelve year old boy pushing his grandmother along in a wheelbarrow, or the size of the trench system which was home to Richards for four years, stretching as it did from the North Sea all the way to Switzerland and the deep humanity of the Christmas truce, and the football games in no-man’s land. It wasn’t all grim, with nerves set on edge:
“I had some glorious days in the villages some miles from the huts. We at least were getting all the enjoyment we could before going back to the blood-tub where we never knew what might happen to us.”
The accounts of the battles and the wearying longueurs in between are leavened by a sharp if gallows humour, and when anyone “offers up prayers” for someone they usually mean quite the opposite, so that those offered up for the soul of a cruel colonel “would have been a revelation to any bishop who could have overheard them.” There are laughs to be had when Richards dons some women’s bloomers, for hygiene purposes, but they soon turn sour when lice multiply therein. We have the comedy of nicknames, from Deadeye Dick to Buffalo Bill and a wealth of slang, from “bun puncher” through “Bible puncher” and “sap-head” to “wad shifter.” But there’s nothing whatsoever to laugh about when it comes to the poor equipment they’d been supplied with, from poor grenades to poor gas masks and when the deadly statistics kick in – 1500 men from Richards’ Brigade killed in an hour – it sets the reader’s mouth in a grim lock. Yet for all the suffering there are sufficient asides and interludes to make this quite a warm-hearted book, leavened with the yarns or Chinese whispers that kept a soldier’s spirits up, such as the rumour that Berlin was about to fall to the Russians.
As we commemorate the First World War, this is a gripping and pellucidly well written account of the quotidian reality of life in the trenches, with the real and present dangers of mustard gas and incoming shells, of sniper bullet and the deadlier aim of officer stupidity. It is honest and tellingly true, a report from the front line by a survivor who lived to tell the tale, and did so to great effect.