A Dispatch Rider of the Great War

Harold Wilbert, Royal Engineers despatch rider. http://www.nam.ac.uk

Harold Wilbert, Royal Engineers despatch rider. http://www.nam.ac.uk

Nothing fortean for Memorial Day weekend, just a letter home written by a dispatch rider of the Great War.


After all, quite the most important things out here are a fine meal and a good bath. If you consider the vast area of the war the facts that we have lost two guns or advanced five miles are of very little importance. War, making one realize the hopeless insignificance of the individual, creates in one such an immense regard for self, that so long as one does well it matters little if four officers have been killed reconnoitering or some wounded have had to be left under an abandoned gun all night. I started with an immense interest in tactics. This has nearly all left me and I remain a more or less efficient despatch-carrying animal—a part of a machine realizing the hopeless, enormous size of the machine.

The infantry officer after two months of modern war is a curious phenomenon. [Author’s note: I do not say this paragraph is true. It is what I thought: on 15th October, 1914. The weather was depressing.]  He is probably one of three survivors of an original twenty-eight. He is not frightened of being killed; he has forgotten to think about it. But there is a sort of reflex fright. He becomes either cautious and liable to sudden panics, or very rash indeed, or absolutely mechanical in his actions. The first state means the approach of a nervous breakdown, the second a near death. There are very few, indeed, who retain a nervous balance and a calm judgment. And all have a harsh, frightened voice. If you came suddenly out here, you would think they were all mortally afraid. But it is only giving orders for hours together under a heavy fire.

Battle noises are terrific. At the present moment a howitzer is going strong behind this, and the concussion is tremendous. The noise is like dropping a traction-engine on a huge tin tray. A shell passing away from you over your head is like the loud crackling of a newspaper close to your ear. It makes a sort of deep reverberating crackle in the air, gradually lessening, until there is a dull boom, and a mile or so away you see a thick little cloud of white smoke in the air or a pear-shaped cloud of grey-black smoke on the ground. Coming towards you a shell makes a cutting, swishing note, gradually getting higher and higher, louder and louder. There is a longer note one instant and then it ceases. Shrapnel bursting close to you has the worst sound.

It is almost funny in a village that is being shelled. Things simply disappear. You are standing in an archway a little back from the road—a shriek of shrapnel. The windows are broken and the tiles rush clattering into the street, while little bullets and bits of shell jump like red-hot devils from side to side of the street, ricochetting until their force is spent. Or a deeper bang, a crash, and a whole house tumbles down.

¾-hour later.—Curious life this. Just after I had finished the last sentence, I was called out to take a message to a battery telling them to shell a certain village. Here am I wandering out, taking orders for the complete destruction of a village and probably for the death of a couple of hundred men [Author’s note: Optimist!]  without a thought, except that the roads are very greasy and that lunch time is near.

Again, yesterday, I put our Heavies in action, and in a quarter of an hour a fine old church, with what appeared from the distance a magnificent tower, was nothing but a grotesque heap of ruins. The Germans were loopholing it for defence.

Oh, the waste, the utter damnable waste of everything out here—men, horses, buildings, cars, everything. Those who talk about war being a salutary discipline are those who remain at home. In a modern war there is little room for picturesque gallantry or picture-book heroism. We are all either animals or machines, with little gained except our emotions dulled and brutalized and nightmare flashes of scenes that cannot be written about because they are unbelievable. I wonder what difference you will find in us when we come home…

Adventures of a Despatch Rider, An Oxford Man With the Motorcyclists. Told by Capt. W.H.L. Watson, 1918

Last year’s Memorial Day post, “Twenty Acres of Skulls.”

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