Cauldron

“The General Who Wept” - Battle of Passchendaele - Jul 31, 1917 – Nov 10, 1917

Episode Summary

“Harry Devers leaned up against the bonnet of his muddy, dinged up and dented Vauxhall D-type. The large, boxy staff car had a certain beauty and grace to it, and Harry had been in enough close-run situations while driving her that he'd grown to trust her. Of course, that hadn't always been the case…” This is the tale of the "General that Wept," a famous story that comes from the First World War. First reported by B.H.Lidell Hart and the corroborated in David Lloyd George's memoirs, the story tells of a decision making officer that was driven to the front lines at the end of Passchendaele. The man was a respected paper pusher and more a soldier of theory than of mud. So far removed from the realities of the war he was directing was this man that upon seeing the front, he uttered the famous question, "We sent men to fight in that?" The story goes that his driver, a veteran of the battle, responded laconically, "It gets worse farther up." The people involved and even the veracity of the story has been debated since first reported. Regardless of the truth, the tale has stuck in our collective memory of the war. The idea of "lions led by donkeys" was solidified by this apparent evidence and has been a considerable narrative of the Great War ever since. Whether or not it occurred, at this stage, doesn't matter. What matters is that for decades, the idea that the men in charge of making the decisions on the Western Front seemed oblivious to the horrors they ordered. Harry Devers is a fictional soldier. Through him, I thought it would be interesting to reimagine this famous tale from the muddy front itself. Any errors are mine and unintentional.

Episode Notes

The General That Wept - Battle of Passchendaele - Jul 31, 1917 – Nov 10, 1917


 

“Harry Devers leaned up against the bonnet of his muddy, dinged up and dented Vauxhall D-type. The large, boxy staff car had a certain beauty and grace to it, and Harry had been in enough close-run situations while driving her that he'd grown to trust her. Of course, that hadn't always been the case…”


 

This is the tale of the "General that Wept," a famous story that comes from the First World War. First reported by B.H.Lidell Hart and the corroborated in David Lloyd George's memoirs, the story tells of a decision making officer that was driven to the front lines at the end of Passchendaele. The man was a respected paper pusher and more a soldier of theory than of mud. So far removed from the realities of the war he was directing was this man that upon seeing the front, he uttered the famous question, "We sent men to fight in that?" The story goes that his driver, a veteran of the battle, responded laconically, "It gets worse farther up."


 

The people involved and even the veracity of the story has been debated since first reported. Regardless of the truth, the tale has stuck in our collective memory of the war. The idea of "lions led by donkeys" was solidified by this apparent evidence and has been a considerable narrative of the Great War ever since. Whether or not it occurred, at this stage, doesn't matter.  What matters is that for decades, the idea that the men in charge of making the decisions on the Western Front seemed oblivious to the horrors they ordered.


 

Harry Devers is a fictional soldier. Through him, I thought it would be interesting to reimagine this famous tale from the muddy front itself. Any errors are mine and unintentional.


 

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This weeks sources - Passchendaele by Nick Lloyd, Passchendaele by Steele and Hart, The First World War by John Keegan

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Episode Transcription

Harry Devers leaned up against the bonnet of his muddy, dinged up and dented Vauxhall D-type. The large, boxy staff car had a certain beauty and grace to it, and Harry had been in enough close-run situations while driving her that he'd grown to trust her. Of course, that hadn't always been the case.

 

Most of his life, Harry had worked in livery yards as a stableboy. He loved how, with a horse, you could see them thinking, with a horse, there was a mutual understanding and a bond. You hold me; I'll guide you. When the business in Sarajevo happened, Harry did his bit and joined. Sure he wanted to do the right thing, but what he didn't tell his family was that he really just wanted to get away. The war, he was told, would be quick and easy. So, Harry thought, it'd be a cheap way to see the world.

 

At first, he'd worked with horse teams pulling artillery, but one day he was forced to pilot free, a bogged down lorry. It was stuck in some rather hungry mud. In the process, Harry proved himself a skillful driver, and he was quickly reassigned. He hated the machines in the beginning. Couldn't tell what the bloody things were thinking or how to handle them. Harry didn't feel any kind of bond. Over time though, Harry came to love the power and strength that came with the roar of the engine. These metal beasts could really go. Sure they were a touch temperamental and fussy, but Harry Devers, the self-identified horseman, was converted.

 

Driving the dull green Vuaxhaul was by far his favorite job to date. Harry could work magic with her and had, at times, pulled the proverbial hare from cap. Outside of having a posh car to speed around in, though, the  Vauxhall represented safety. As a lorry driver, Harry had just spent the last three months driving supplies in and out of the devil's bowl. Night after night, Harry dodged death on the narrow supply roads in and out of the ruins of Ypres, known to Harry and his chums as Wipers. Because the Bosch had artillery on the ridges to the East of the demolished town, every night was a gamble. He would drive artillery ammunition into enemy firing range at sundown and then load up the wounded. Trying to make the lorry small and quiet, he would then creep back to "the base," the area behind the Front, and by sun-up, he'd be safe from shelling. Harry could make the trip in 60 minutes or less if there were no issues. That was rarely the case.

 

Almost every night, the roads flooded, or the enemy took successful potshots at the vehicles coming and going from Wipers. It was the reason Harry had been reassigned to a Vauxhall staff car in the first place. One night a lucky German shot hit the road in front of his lorry. Harry swerved to miss the fresh crater. He was lucky, thrown right from the truck. The wounded he was transporting were not. The truck slid into a sinkhole on the roadside; another expertly sighted artillery round slammed into the cab. The entire thing burst into flames, and slowly as the burning vehicle sank, the screams mingled with a high pitched sizzle. The whole lorry was on fire, and as it sank into the muck, the fire was extinguished, along with the screams. Harry was dragged away from the horrifying scene, weeping and moaning uncontrollably.

 

"Lad, you seem a bit broken at the moment." said his CO. Harry was lying in his cot, staring blankly at the barrack ceiling. The CO went on "Not to worry though; I've just the thing to get you shipshape! A short stint running the ink slingers and pen pushers about, and you'll be right as rain!" And that is how Harry Devers, the horseman turned lorry escape artist became a chauffeur to the high and mighty.

 

Today's orders were pretty straightforward. Harry was to meet some high ranking officer near the Cloth Hall, or what remained of it, and bring said officer to the Front. The battle around Wipers had been raging for months and was now dying out. Harry had heard that the little town of Passchendaele was finally in Allied hands. The Huns, it appeared, had been pushed back but not beaten. The lines were stiffening back up as both sides prepared for another long winter. The war, once again, would not be over by Christmas.

 

As he leaned against the Vauxhall, Harry looked around. There wasn't much to see. Rubble-strewn about, mounds of rubble where buildings once stood, human rubble piled around the field hospitals. The roads going to and from the Front were bustling. A stream of wounded came into town, while a river of war went out. Fresh men, guns, ammunition, vehicles, supplies of every kind flowed towards the East, further proof the fighting wasn't near to over. As he scanned the devastation, men and earth alike, Harry heard a sudden rat tat tat. The noise surprised him; he pushed off the car and spun towards the sound. The shock vanished as Harry snapped to attention. A tall, polished, trim man was pointedly slapping his walking stick on the staff cars bonnet. "My ride, I presume?" said the crisp looking officer in Front of him.

 

"Sir!" Harry cracked off a salute and ran around to the passenger door and opened it. The man that brushed passed him into the car was a Lieutenant General and the cleanest thing Harry'd seen in weeks. His uniform was the same color as Harry's Vauxhall, a dull olive green. But where the Vauxhall's green was splattered with mud, blackened by smoke, and stripped to the metal by countless dings from shrapnel, the Lt General's green was immaculate. To Harry, it looked as if the man's uniform had just come out of a box. He even smelled clean; the zippy burn of aftershave wafted past Harry as he closed the door and moved around the car to the driver's side. Harry hadn't showered or changed his clothes in over two weeks. The fact that he must have wreaked and some of his lice was bound to get on the officer's uniform didn't bother him. In fact, Harry kind of liked the idea.

 

Driving a Staff Officer to the front was rare, even unique. Harry had never done it before and knew of only one general that made it a habit. Plumer was loved by his men and seemed to need to be at the front with his men. No Alexander or King Arthur, sword waving above his head, but General Plumer was more the type that wanted to see what the men were dealing with, living in. It's why Plumer's men loved him, he cared for them, and if he didn't live in the slop with them, he at least knew what his orders meant for them. The fellow Harry was driving today, clearly had no idea what his orders actually meant, or what they would do or had done to the men that had to carry them out.

 

The older man in the crisp green uniform, with its blood-red bars, had set his jaw and stared straight ahead as soon as they had started on the road. Harry Devers was no dummy, and he could tell when a man thought conversation, even the barest pleasantries, was beneath him. So the former stableboy held his tongue and did his job. The two men drove into the sea of mud and muck in the awkward silence of people parallel but completely alien lives. The aforementioned river of war was just a giant traffic jam of men and machines, but the staff cars insignia worked like a charm. All obstacles in front of the car, even the wounded,  had to move aside as the Vauxhall carried the man that had ordered this madness closer to his creation.

 

As Harry pressed the pedal and drove on, the scenery became more and more the visions of the macabre he knew all too well. The front had rolled East with the fighting but had left the detritus of battle along the way. As far as the eye could see in every direction, dents in the earth. Some big enough to swallow a house. The craters covered the ground in every direction. Bizarre almost art like formations were created when shell holes built on other shell holes and made strange lunar-like sculptures. Whispy outlines of trees rose from the misery like the early morning tendrils of a campfire's smoke. Black barbed wire mounded and stretched penning in the men but not the battlefield. Bodies, bits of bodies, and the sunken form of what was once bodies were everywhere. The closer Harry drove to the front, the fresher the corpses were, which meant they had faces, noses, limbs, eyes. The older ones were almost better; Harry could imagine they were just mounds of mud. But as they drove on, his imagination failed.

 

Harry had seen it all, had lived it, yet still, he could feel the blood drain from his face. His lips went cold and dry. The horror was real, but he had a job to do. This bastard wanted to see what he had done and who was Harry to deny him. They drove on. As they passed an unusually large shell hole, Harry slowed the Vauxhall down. The driving was tricky here if the mud gave way the car, Harry, and his immaculate passenger would all slide into a slow death with no one to save them. Harry was firm but deliberate in his handling of the car. He punched the accelerator the last ten feet to push them past the dangerous ridge. As they zipped on, the massive hole in the world that they had just skimmed around collapsed. Hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds of sludgy earth, slid into the inky water and disappeared. Had the Vauxhall been with that mud, both men would have been bloated, floating corpses by the end of the week.  Harry saw the Lt Gen's face go sheet white, and he was clutching his riding crop so hard Harry thought he'd break it. They drove on.

 

They'd gone 15 minutes further when they had to stop. A skeletal horse was wild-eyed and scrambling in the middle of the road. There were a few riflemen around, but they did nothing. Harry knew this wasn't a matter of heartlessness. Quite the opposite, these men had killed and seen killing, they were hardened to battle and death, the very edge of the allied sword. These men just could not bring themselves to kill the miserable, poor horse. She had been pretty too, Harry could tell right off. At some point, she'd had strong, sinewy muscles encased in a silky black coat. Now the former beauty seemed to be infected and infested with whatever the Western Front had to offer. Her hind legs trailed limply behind her as she dragged herself forward.

 

The horse's eyes rolled and bulged, looking for the kind of help that could only come one way. The poor sweating wretch dragged and huffed a few more feet, then it's front legs gave, and she collapsed. Harry stopped the car and waited for someone to do what had to be done. None of the men on the roadside moved; in fact, they all turned away or stared into the ground. Harry slowly rode the brake to a stop a few feet from the weakly scrambling horse in the road.

 

Harry didn't blame the men. This was the way of things now. He knew it. They knew it. The Horse would learn it. Harry quickly but deliberately walked up to the poor animal. She was frothing and gurgling. There was a track of machine gun across her body; some of the shots had punctured her lungs. Death was coming; Harry just had to decide when. Quickly he pulled his revolver, placed the barrel between the pretty young horse's eyes, and pulled. The frothing stopped. The legs kicked twice, then relaxed. There was a moment's peace on the Western Front for one beast. Then Harry looked around through eyes that seemed to be drowning and called out. "Give us a hand here!" He said, gruffly but light enough to turn heads. "The LT Gen needs to move along. A Heave and a Ho and Bob's your Uncle. Gently, now, she was a fine dignified-like beast in her prime, let's give her a bit of rest, eh chaps?"

 

Harry and the men dragged the gangly animal to the edge of a shell hole and rolled her in. They stood up and watched as she rolled a few times and splashed into the mess below. The horse joined the others in the muck. Harry didn't' stay to count, but there were probably 8 or 9 other horses in the pit. And Harry ignored the human shapes that drifted about in the black pool below. He turned to walk back to the car but pulled up quick. The perfect brown leather boots and shiny buckles, the immaculate olive green uniform and bright red bars in front of him gave Harry pause. He hadn't expected the Lt General to leave the car, let alone walkabout. As he took in Lt Gen Kiggel's face, something was different. Harry followed his eyes. The General was looking at the black sea of muddy holes, of the ivy-like barbed wire, of men and beast, partially decayed in and out of water. Harry looked back at the man he was driving forward and was shocked. The general's cap had gone to his side,  just barely held by the older man's limp fingers. The big burly mustache that had laid still the entire drive was shivering and shaking. Harry noticed the man's gray eyes streaming tears and staring straight at him.

 

"We sent men to fight in that?!" The general's arm limply gestured to the long-dead Flemish fields before him. His understanding of the world seemed to evaporate, in the same second, replaced by the knowledge of what he'd done.

 

Harry didn't hate the man. He found it hard to hate anyone, except maybe those bastards that shot up that horse. Or any horse for that matter. But Harry did want this man, that had called for more attacks without knowing, told his men to do more without seeing, to finally understand. He needed to understand what Harry and the others, and the horses, and even the new-fangled machines knew. He looked into the gray eyes and simply said: "It's worse further up."