A Private in the Guards (1919) by Stephen Graham

Discussion in 'The Book Club' started by exspy, Jun 12, 2017.

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  1. At the beginning of July, 1917, and at the age of 33, author Stephen Graham made the decision to enlist as a Private in the Scots Guards. This book is the story of his time as a soldier in Britain, France and Germany.

    Prior to the war Graham had already established himself as a successful travel author and was living a nice cultured life in London. Being single and having missed conscription he came to the realization the he needed to do his part in the conflict. What was unique to me is that he came to this decision after the horrors of the Somme the previous year were already known and while 3rd Ypres was in progress. In other words, he knew that casualties were high yet enlisted anyway. He deliberately chose going into the ranks rather than trying for a commission because he knew that it was in the ranks where he would meet those who make up the backbone of the nation, ie the real Englishmen. (Graham comes across as a bit of a Bolshie but as he was willing to put his body on the line for God and Country I can overlook this part of his life.)

    The book is divided into two parts. The first deals with his six months training at the Guards Depot in Caterham, to which he refers throughout as "Little Sparta." Interestingly the Guards were still taking a full six months to train their soldiers even though the war had been going for three years and the need for reinforcements was dear. No dropping of standards there. The emphasis on drill, discipline and cleanliness was strict. Rifle drill to the point of bleeding hands and bruising on the body. Leave was rarely given, and only for a few hours at a time.

    Another facet of the training he presents were the number of Americans in his squad. Even though the US was a belligerent by this time, there were many Americans training with him and it doesn't appear that they were much of a rarity at Caterham. Graham was proponent of strict discipline, the stricter the better, although he felt the practice of spitting into a recruit's ear was something with which he could not agree. (This theme of discipline to achieve victory is also dealt with in the novel The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Montserrat. Ericson, by the time of his second command, realizes that nothing but total, strict discipline will see the Allies overcome the Axis, but I digress).

    After completing his six months at Depot the newly minted Private Graham is assigned to a battalion at Wellington Barracks performing guard duties for three months. It's while at Wellington that he got to spend his off duty evenings at his comfortably furnished London apartment. It's also where he learned that he could purchase or avoid duties from accommodating Sergeants, for the right price. Finally, after three months mounting guard he was selected for an overseas draft. Those soldiers selected for France got to put up the red and white SCOTS GUARDS flashes on their uniforms indicating they were for it.

    His recollections of his time in France from April to November, 1918, are illuminating, as are his views on Germany and the Germans. He likes the German people more than the French, although he was already aware during his time occupying the country that they, the Germans, were not a defeated people and that the conflict had not truly resolved itself.

    I remember more about Graham's time training than his experiences in the war. Maybe because reminisces about training by others aren't dealt with as thoroughly as he did it.

    Overall a recommended read whether you're a Guards fan or not. Well written, flows at a decent pace, and very entertaining.


    The first paragraph of the book: Notes On Discipline
    The sterner the discipline the better the soldier, the better the army. This is not a matter of debate at this point, for it is a well-established military principle and all nations act on it. A strong discipline is the foundation of heroic exploits in the field. It time of necessity, when a thousand men must fight to the last though all be wounded or killed, in order that a much larger number may march into safety, it is only a strongly disciplined body that will not accept prematurely the chance to surrender. When small parties of men get cut off from the main body or lose themselves in the enemy's lines they can nearly always injure or kill a few of the enemy and sometimes many before they themselves are put out of action. It is only men who have been taught never to entertain the thought of surrender who will do this. Poorly trained troops are always ready to "hands up." When in general action of any kind the front-line troops frequently find themselves in face of what seems inevitable death, and the impulse may come to stampede and run for it, causing endless confusion in the rear and giving the battle to the enemy. But sternly disciplined troops know that if they run from the face of the enemy they will be shot down from behind, and indeed they would themselves be ready to shoot down inferior troops stampeding through their lines. They do not entertain the hope of escape, and consequently their minds are at rest - as the mind of the machine-gunner voluntarily chained to his machine may be said to be at rest. The avenue to the rear is absolutely closed in the mind. Such equanimity is produced by discipline. Stern discipline can manufacture collective heroism.
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  2. Read some excerpts from this book ages ago, I think in Brian Bond's Survivors of a Kind. Definitely going to read the whole thing soon.
  3. I'd agree with that, with one proviso. "Discipline is a means to an end; it ought not to become an end in itself." If, for example, you look at Hitler's attitude during the Second World War once things started to go wrong for the Wehrmacht, the result of it was inflexibility and bloodymindedness on his part to the point where, although the Allies had plans to assassinate him, they shelved these plans because Der Fuhrer was worth so many Divisions to them. Instead of arresting the reverses, he just made things go to hell in a handbasket.
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  4. Case in point, during the Soviet Operation Bagration Minsk came under threat. Hitler promptly declared the city a fortress to be defended to the last man and the last cartridge. The Russians did exactly what the Wehrmacht had done during its salad days, they just flowed past the city, cutting it off from all resupply of fuel, ammo, and reinforcements. Then when it had been sufficiently weakened, they attacked and some of the German survivors recall to this day the despairing cries of their comrades, "No fuel, no ammo!" And that was soon that.
  5. Try to get Your hands on 'Theres A Devil In The Drum' By John F Lucey. I suspect You'll like it. Its in the same genre.
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  6. Thanks for the heads up. I'll keep a look out for it.

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  7. For information, Pte 17021 GRAHAM S 2SG was awarded the British War and Victory Medals in Feb 1920.
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  8. Momba Womba

    Momba Womba On ROPs

    Perhaps also Old Soldier Sahib
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  9. A very good book, I'm re-reading it at the moment . Some great excerpts here :

    Kill or be Killed – October 25, 1914
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