Thursday, March 09, 2006

You're a guest at the Somme

It is about 1917. Your tour guide is C.E. Montague, who was the chief leader-writer of the Manchester Guardian back when it was the only paper of weight in England consistently to oppose the Boer war. When the first world war broke out he dyed his grey hair black and volunteered for the trenches. After a few years they imposed an age limit on that; he has ended up as a censor and press officer. This account is from H.M. Tomlinson's introduction to Montague's posthumous A Writer's Notes on his Trade:

One night H.W. Massingham arrived at our chateau, on a brief visit. He was the editor of the Radical Nation, a weekly political and literary review which fought nonsense with such knowledge and persistence that for a time the Authorities declined to allow the soldiers to read it. Montague was a Radical. Probably the opinions of both of them about war approximated; they approached each other, at that time, even over that particular war. I am sure Massingham was not able to guess that. Montague made no sign. The next morning, early, the three of us set forth for Courcelette, on the Somme. It was bitterly cold, and Massingham, frail, and not then in the best of health, had had enough of it long before we reached the ruined town of Albert. This is not the place to do more than mention the fact that the battleground of the Somme was unattractive. I saw Massingham's eyes full of horror as he glanced over the landscape, at the point where Montague judged we had better leave our car. A leg bone with the boot still on it was sticking out of some rubbish beside us. Montague was beginning to look cheerful. The day was grey and the wind was north-east. Shells were falling into Devil's Wood, shells were falling on La Boisselle. Montague turned to our driver with instructions for him.

"We shall be back in about two hours. If they are shelling this road, don't come to us. We will come to you."


Massingham overheard this item of local interest with deep curiosity. Had Montague but known it, he would have taken the driver aside and whispered it; but he really appeared to suppose that any man would value an opportunity such as now offered. On we went.

We came to what used to be the windmill, on the Pozières ridge. Nothing showed there but tumbled rubbish in the universal mud; but as we drew level with it four nine-inch howitzers and two six-inch naval guns went off together, and slightly lifted me from my feet. All in the work of such a day! But Massingham was not used to it, and he was visibly shaken. One would be, even without neuralgia, and he had some. Montague, however, was getting brighter and brighter. He had no eye for Massingham. His gaze ranged the horrid landscape for inspiriting signs that it might oblige us with a display of its common routine of eruption and disaster, for he desired to satisfy the interest of a brother Radical; therefore he never noticed that Massingham already was more than confirmed in all he had ever thought of battle.

We passed an aeroplane which had crashed, and beyond that the track rose again to a ridge; and over the ridge was the enemy. Montague stopped, and inspected Massingham, who was in a blue-serge suit and dark overcoat. Montague spoke. "On the top there," he said, "the enemy will be able to see us. He mightn't waste shells on three soldiers, but if he saw a civilian he would guess an important visit was being made, and he might hand us a bouquet. We'd better go back to the battery and borrow a khaki overcoat for you, before we go on."

"But," expostulated Massingham, "I don't want to go on. I've seen all I want to see."

Montague's disappointment was manifest. He was just beginning to enjoy himself. Could Massingham ever again have such a chance as this to see how very bad the worst could be? Why waste such a day?

It may add something to know these men were old colleagues, as well as fellow radicals. Massingham was editor of the liberal Daily Chronicle when the Boer war broke out. He opposed it. His proprietors told him to change his mind or resign. And when he resigned, he found refuge as a London and parliamentary correspondent for the Guardian.

[A Writer's Notes on his Trade, by C.E. Montague, London, 1930. Highly crafted craft essays, still full of valuable perception, but also illustrative of how different posh journalism was in his day. A capacity for instantly producing apposite quotes from Walter Scott will no longer help you get a job; he writes as if it does, both in style and content. Past notes on Montague here and here. ]

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