Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER
Britain's First Soldier
ARMISTICE DAY, November 11, 1918.
Hundreds of thousands of us who had been soldiers for the duration alternately cheered with excitement and felt a sinking feeling in the stomach. What would we do now in the peace that stared us in the face?
Among the men who faced this problem was Viscount Gort of the Guards, known for some mysterious reason by all ranks as “Fat Boy” Gort.
He was thirty-two years of age. He was rich, with an income that denied him nothing. He had won the V.C., the D.S.O. (three times) and the M.C. Military glory' could give him nothing more.
“What are you going to do?” asked his friends.
“If possible,” said Lord Gort, “I shall go to the Staff College for a course and learn something about soldiering.”
At that time he had risen to the rank of general and was the idol of the Guards. His bravery had become an immortal legend. Tributes had poured upon his head from all the great generals of the war.
But it was not easy to reach the Staff College. The Army was overcrowded and economy was in the air. Only a selected few could be chosen from the veterans to go to Camberley. However, Viscount Gort, now reduced to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, was among the fortunate ones, and he duly went back to school to learn about the profession in which he had risen to such heights.
A friend of his asked him why he was doing it, and argued that actual experience of war such as he had had must make tuition ridiculous.
“Not at all,” said Gort. ‘The three things that win wars are the spirit of the troops, the co-ordination of all ranks and the co-ordination of all departments of the Army. You can fight in the front line for ten years, but what do you learn of transport, or food supplies, or all the essential business that goes on behind the line?
What does a Director of Military Intelligence know about the duties of a quartermaster general? How many men are necessary behind the line to keep a soldier in France? And how many to keep on fighting in North Africa or in Asia? These politician blokes are always throwing armies all over the map, but they only see the end and never the means. I’m going to learn the whole story’ about war.”
So far I have drawn the picture of a stern, brave, purposeful and clear-headed militarist.
As an example to all young men I wish I could narrate that he was a model of decorum at the Staff College, that he gave no trouble to anyone and was given another medal for good behavior.
But at this stage I must introduce you to quite another Viscount Gort, the man with the physical vitality of a bull and the ebullient spirits of an undergraduate.
They say that his arrival sent the Staff College into some alarm, convinced that the war had broken out again. Lord Gort had a car which was fearfully and wonderfully made—possessing, so he claimed, no less than 100 horsepower.
As an example of internal and external combustion it has probably never had an equal. In no time the College had christened it “Gort’s Chitty-Bang-Bang,” and its ultimate collapse was mourned by an entire countryside who could hear it coming ten miles away.
W'ithin a few hours the irrepressible Gort had formed what was called ‘The Red Guard" in the mess. This band consisted of a number of his cronies from the trenches, and their escapades off duty were as astonishing as they were varied.
However, a new pupil arrived in the personality of a colonel who had been serving in Russia, and he promptly formed “The White Guard” to checkmate Gort’s Reds. The mess was wrecked so frequently by these conflicting forces that the servants accepted it as the inevitable rather than the unusual.
But that was Viscount Gort off duty. During the lectures he fastened on every point and aspect of the subject with an avidity that almost embarrassed the instructors. His brain and heart and soul were in soldiering. With the rest of the world weary of war and predicting a century of peace, this man who had lived with death and laughed at it was studying soldiering like some poor Scottish undergraduate who had to pass his exams or starve.
Where Humor Ceases
TT IS an astonishing contrast, Gort the soldier and Gort -*■ the gamin. There is humor to him in everything but soldiering. There his capacity for humor comes to an abrupt stop. A dirty button or an unshaved chin on parade rouses him to a deep, abysmal anger. To him all derelictions of duty were shirking, whether on the barracks square or in the face of the enemy.
He had, and has, many critics in the Guards. His whole personality and career are against the dilettante tradition that still lingered after the war, but which has almost disappeared now. He had no use at all for the young man who proposed to put in a few years in the Brigade to give him a social distinction in later years.
A. Beverley Baxter, M.P.
There were some who said that he was inhuman and regarded men as automatons. How true is that?
In 1931 a widow died. She had been married to a captain w'ho had been killed in the war. She bequeathed her small fortune to Lord Gort in these words:
“I wish to express to Lord Gort that the great happiness of my life has been in watching his fine character develop, his successful career, and the use he has made of his talents, wealth and position in the unselfish service of his country.” In a Somerset village there is a family which Lord Gort has kept in touch with since the war. They are the parents of his orderly, Ransome, who was killed in France.
“It is difficult to put the story of this noble soul into words,” he said after the orderly had been killed. “He was a young upstanding Guardsman of the very finest type. He was one of the finest men that ever lived. More than that, he was a comrade of mine.”
The official story of Gort’s V.C. has been published many times, but it is in his own story of Ransome’s death, which he told at a public dinner in the spring of 1919, that we get the character of the man and the epic quality of the achievement:
“We were at Flesquieres last September 27th, and the morning we attacked, Ransome was with me from the very beginning, and when I was first hit he was there to bind me up.
“After that we carried on and I was hit again. All the time he was with me, and this time he applied a tourniquet, which undoubtedly saved my life.
“Again we carried on, and when the attack was over and our objective gained, I was able to turn back. Ransome came with me.
“Thirteen hundred yards away a couple of German batteries were firing point-blank at us. I was an easily discernible mark, covered in bandages, and Ransome helped me along.
“They threw shells deliberately at us, and one blew his arm off and made a terrible gash in the leg. It was little I could do for him, but I carried on until I found the Irish Guards and came across a doctor. We went back to Ransome. Even then, under the heavy fire, his one thought was for me. We bandaged him up, and as we started off to the dressing station, he said:
“ ‘Get out of this, sir, as quick as you can, do!’
“Those were his last words. He died before we reached the station. That was an example of the comradeship of my comrade.”
Those who say that Viscount Gort is without humanity should read those words. It is as fine a story as the literature of bravery and devotion holds.
He Does Things With Gusto
'"THERE IS another standpoint from which he has been criticized. It is said that a man can only win the V.C., three D.S.O.’s and the M.C. by a combination of recklessness and preposterous luck.
Field-Marshal Lord Cavan, under whom Gort served in the war, agrees to half that proposition. ‘The first thing you can say about a man with those medals,” he once said to me, “is that he has no right to be alive. By all the laws of averages, he should have been killed half a dozen times.”
Another officer who served under Lord Cavan (equally mysteriously known as “Fatty” Cavan) denied that Lord Gort was reckless.
“Gort won his decorations,” he said, “simply by carrying out his duties as a soldier to their
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ultimate extent. He did not enjoy attacking a machine-gun post any more than the rest of us. But his attitude was that if the post had to be taken, then neither man nor devil, neither fire nor sword, should prevent it. As long as there was breath in his body or blood in his veins, he would go on.”
Perhaps the truth lies between the two extremes of view. Certainly Gort is the most thorough of soldiers, with a passionate devotion to duty, hut there is that immense physical vitality which makes him glory in contest and conflict.
This has been demonstrated in his attitude to sport. He goes at every game with immense gusto. In the hunt he is always up with the hounds, but he is by no means a first-class rider. At golf he hits rather than swings, and when he boxed he
concentrated entirely on attack and not on defense.
He is Dumas’ Porthos reincarnated with D’Artagnan’s brains.
Lord Gort is a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, but even on the water he looked for hardship rather than comfort.
In 1925 he took part in a 6(X)-mile yacht race which began at Ryde and ended at Plymouth, with 300 miles being in the open Atlantic. As the yachts were confined to those not exceeding fifty tons, the hazard of the game can be imagined.
Someone asked Gort at the time why he was entering with his little craft. His answer gives an interesting insight into his character:
“There is precious little comfort about it. Cooking is impossible in so small a I
vessel, and everything under the hatches will probably be wet through. But then weather at sea is not always bad, and surely the true basis of real sport is that spice of danger which makes men what they are and forms their character.”
No. I do not think you can leave out of Gort’s personality the lure of danger’s bright eyes.
But we have left our hero at the Staff College, breaking up the mess with his Red Guards, startling the countryside with "Chitty-Bang-Bang” and studying hard at the strange business of soldiering.
At the end of the year a number of those passing out would be chosen to remain as instructors. Perhaps it was not surprising that Gort was among those selected. The spirit of the gamin had to be exorcised. No longer could he break up the mess, or explode firecrackers at embarrassing moments.
Responsibility had claimed him for its own.
Six years later he was Chief Instructor of the Staff College and raised to the rank of colonel. There were murmurings and mutterings. This was one of the plums of the Army, and it had gone to a man not yet forty years of age.
No one who had served or studied under him was surprised. He had made himself a great tactical, as well as practical, soldier. His vitality would be certain to reinvigorate the rundown military machine of Britain. Yet it is safe to say that the public knew nothing about him. Deeds of valor in the war were out of fashion. Anyone discussing the war was a bore. The piping times of peace, disarmament and collective security were upon us. What did it matter who was the head of the Staff College?
And then came that incredible December in 1937 when Mr. Hore-Belisha took up his broom and swept out the War Office. When the house-cleaning was over, Lord Gort (he had been raised to Major-General in 1935) was Chief of the Imperial General Staff—Britain’s first soldier. And at the outbreak of the present war he became Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the field.
A new broom notoriously sweeps clean, and I have no doubt that Belisha’s broom did its work too thoroughly. In that holocaust of senior officers, there disappeared much valuable experience and good judgment.
The new War Secretary, however, had made up his mind to create a new spirit and a new technique at the War Office. And he was willing to sacrifice the claims of experience and seniority to make room for the great Gort.
They had met in Switzerland on the slopes. They met afterward in London. What was there about the soldier that so impressed and fascinated the politician?
A Great Soldier on Duty
MAY I make a suggestion to the readers of Maclean’s? Come with me to the War Office and we shall have a look at the Commander-in-Chief in all his glory.
The War Office under the Belisha-Gort regime is unlike any other Government department. The commissionaires salute and open the door of your car. As you enter the building with its magnificent stairway, the commissionaires on duty spring to attention.
They give the impression at once that they regard your visit as important and agreeable. Upstairs there is a whirlpool of activity. Generals, secretaries, clerks walk briskly from one room into another. Everyone speaks quickly and moves quickly. And the air of courtesy is as striking as the vitality.
Lord Gort comes toward us. His shoulders are squared and his head leans back, almost giving the impression that he is walking uphill. He is fifty-three years of age. thickset but without even a suggestion of corpulence. His features are powerful
but calm. It is his eyes which immediately arrest one’s attention.
They are china blue—but the lightest possible shade of blue. In his tanned face they stand out by contrast. Once before 1 have seen eyes exactly like his. They belonged to Billy Bishop, the Canadian V.C. airman.
He has a massive desk, but he does not invoke its advantage in talking to a visitor. Instead he comes around to a tiny table. You sit at one end and he the other. His whole manner seems to say: "Let’s talk this thing over as equals. I am sure your opinion will prove valuable.”
There is nothing nervous about his vitality. He has himself under perfect control. What is more he has his subject in the same condition. The French Army? His face lights up with the memory of the time when he was attached to the French General Staff. “Their generals are brilliant, but their corporals are magnificent.” His large mouth breaks into a smile as he describes the French corporal who is friend, counsellor, guide and martinet to his men.
As for the Germans? They have not the same reserve of trained officers and N.C.O.’s as the French. It is always necessary with the Germans to understand the personality of the general directing an action.
So he goes on in short sentences, unfolding his views on the business of war, the business that has engrossed and obsessed him from the day that he left Harrow to go to Sandhurst.
A soldier and the descendant of soldiers.
His ancestor, Maurice, Lord of Prendergast, fought with Strongbow in Ireland in 1169. Another ancestor was an officer under Charles I in the Civil War. The second Viscount Gort defeated the French in a battle in 1798.
On his mother's side he is descended from the famous Robert Surtees who gave “Jorrocks” to the world.
But all that and his own domestic life are unimportant. John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, is first last and only a soldier. He has found his vocation in life as truly as Paderewski when his fingers touched the keys of the piano, when Dickens felt the mystery of words and when Wagner realized that he would become king of music.
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The Rest Cure
WHEN we rush through the day without even thinking of resting, we carry the same agitation to bed at night, and are unable to get refreshing sleep. For the mind that is restless all day cannot be tranquil during sleep.
Even contact with other people is a source of more or less fatigue. When we are already exhausted, often their mere presence gets on our nerves. The effort of adapting ourselves to others causesalossof nervous energy. It is easy to overdo talking.
Sometimes a person can go for a long while with less rest and sleep than he needs; but the break will finally come, and it may require a long time to repair the damage. Irritability; lack of power to concentrate; twitching of the eyelids; trembling of the hand when holding some object, are visible protests that our nerves need rest.
Physical rest in bed is essential, away from iieople, the telephone, the newspaper —everything that attracts attention, or stirs the imagination.
Also when the nervous system is fatigued the digestive system is tired. Therefore when one or more days of rest is required the quantity of food taken should be greatly reduced. But it requires intelligence and character to rest in bed with little to eat and only oneself for company. — Health Culture.