In his book A Minstrel in France in which he describes his time in France giving concerts to the troops, the Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder freely discusses his emotional response to the death of his son Captain John Lauder. John Lauder is a constant presence in the book, leading his father onward to support the troops, not just Scottish ones, but Canadians, English, and others. Lauder reports conversations with his son about the fighting, he quotes from his letters and tells stories of John’s childhood. The Lauder family were as distressed as any other family by the news of their son’s death, but Lauder is something of a rarity in putting into print his emotions and the possibility of expressing them in action.
And when I thought of the Germans who had killed my boy a terrible and savage hatred swept me, and I longed to go out there and kill with my bare hands until I had avenged him or they had killed me too. (Chapter 8)
It was all I could do, I tell you, to restrain myself – to check that wild, almost ungovernable impulse to rush to the guns and grapple with them myself – myself fire them at the men who had killed my boy. I wanted to fight! I wanted to fight with my two hands – to tear and rend, and have the consciousness that I flash back like a telegraph message from my satiated hands to my eager brain that was spurring me on. (Chapter 15
And following lunch on a visit to a Canadian gun emplacement there comes the opportunity to actually realise the deep desire for revenge:
And so we sat and talked, as we smoked, after the meal, until the Major rose, at last, and invited me to walk around the battery again with him. I could ask questions now, having seen the men at work, and he explained many things I wanted to know – and which Fritz would like to know, too, to this day! But above all I was fascinated by the work of the gunners. I kept trying, in my mind’s eye, to follow the course of the shells that were dispatched so calmly upon their errands of destruction. My imagination played with the thought of what they were doing at the other end of their swift voyage through the air. I pictured the havoc that must be wrought when one made a clean hit.
And, suddenly, I was swept by that same almost irresistible desire to be fighting myself that had come over me when I had seen the other battery. If I could only play my part! If I could fire even a single shot – if I, with my own hands, could do that much against those who had killed my boy! And then, incredulously, I heard the words in my ear. It was the Major.
“Would you like to try a shot, Harry?” he asked me.
Would I? I stared at him. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was as if he had read my thoughts. I gasped out some sort of an affirmative. My blood was boiling at the very thought, and the sweat started from my pores.
“All right – nothing easier!” said the Major, smiling. “I had an idea you were wanting to take a hand, Harry.”
He led me toward one of the guns, where the sweating crew was especially active, as it seemed to me. They grinned at me as they saw me coming.
“Here’s old Harry Lauder come to take a crack at them himself,” I heard one man say to another.
“Good for him! The more the merrier!” answered his mate. He was an American – would ye no’ know it from his speech?
I was trembling with eagerness. I wondered if my shot would tell. I tried to visualize its consequences. It might strike some vital spot. It might kill some man whose life was of the utmost value to the enemy.
It might – it might do anything! And I knew that my shot would be watched; Normabell, sitting up there on the Pimple in his little observatory, would watch it, as he did all of that battery’s shots. Would he make a report?
Everything was made ready. The gun recoiled from the previous shot; swiftly it was swabbed out. A new shell was handed up; I looked it over tenderly. That was my shell! I watched the men as they placed it and saw it disappear with a jerk. Then came the swift sighting of the gun, the almost imperceptible corrections of elevation and position.
They showed me my place. After all, it was the simplest of matters to fire even the biggest of guns. I had but to pull a lever. All morning I had been watching men do that. I knew it was but a perfunctory act. But I could not feel that! I was thrilled and excited as I had never been in all my life before.
“All ready! Fire!”
The order rang in my ears. And I pulled the lever, as hard as I could. The great gun sprang into life as I moved the lever. I heard the roar of the explosion, and it seemed to me that it was a louder bark than any gun I had heard had given! It was not, of course, and so, down in my heart, I knew. There was no shade of variation between that shot and all the others that had been fired. But it pleased me to think so – it pleases me, sometimes, to think so even now. Just as it pleases me to think that that long snouted engine of war propelled that shell, under my guiding hand, with unwonted accuracy and effectiveness! Perhaps I was childish, to feel as I did; indeed, I have no doubt that that was so. But I dinna care!
There was no report by telephone from Normabell [Major Normabell, his previous guide] about that particular shot; I hung about a while, by the telephone listeners, hoping one would come. And it disappointed me that no attention was paid to that shot.
“Probably simply means it went home,” said Godfrey. “A shot that acts just as it should doesn’t get reported.”
But I was disappointed, just the same. And yet the sensation is one I shall never forget, and I shall never cease to be glad that the major gave me my chance. The most thrilling moment was that of the recoil of the great gun. I felt exactly as one does when one dives into deep water from a considerable height.
“Good work, Harry!” said the Major, warmly, when I had stepped down. “I’ll wager you wiped out a bit of the German trenches with that shot! I think I’ll draft you and keep you here as a gunner!”
And the officers and men all spoke in the same way, smiling as they did so. But I hae me doots! I’d like to think I did real damage with my one shot, but I’m afraid my shell was just one of those that turned up a bit of dirt and made one of those small brown eruptions I had seen rising on all sides along the German lines as I had sat and smoked my pipe with Normabell earlier in the day.
“Well, anyway,” I said, exultingly, “that’s that! I hope I got two for my one, at least!”
But my exultation did not last long. I reflected upon the inscrutability of war and of this deadly fighting that was going on all about me. How casual a matter was this sending out of a shell that could, in a flash of time, obliterate all that lived in a wide circle about where it chanced to strike! The pulling of a lever – that was all that I had done! And at any moment a shell some German gunner had sent winging its way through the air in precisely that same, casual fashion might come tearing into this quiet nook, guided by some chance, lucky for him, and wipe out the Major, and all the pleasant boys with whom I had broken bread just now, and the sweating gunners who had cheered me on as I fired my shot!
And with that Harry proceeds to give a concert, using an enormous shell crater as a theatre. It was a gruelling tour, with as many as six concerts a day, and up to 1,200 in the audience; and it included a trip to his son’s grave.
It is interesting to compare this with the poem by Apollinaire Peu de Chose, discussed in a blog in April 2016, describing the distancing effect of the artillery war and the randomness and ‘inscrutability’ of this kind of conflict, the breakdown of cause and effect. And interesting also to see Lauder teetering on the edge of the idea of the futility of it all and the realisation that the intended victims of his shot would be so similar to his son; though this is perhaps the wishful thinking of a modern reader – there is some frustration that his reaction is not that what he has done is the same kind of thing that some one has done to his son, but a reversal of that direction, that what he has just done might have a response from the German guns, that someone might do the same to him. The tit-for-tat becomes a source of fear rather than reflection.
There are many ways this story, this action, could be read: as artillery franc-tireur activity, or artillery warfare as part of total war in which civilian munitions workers were as much part of the conflict as a civilian firing a gun (is there something mocking in the soldier’s comment on civilian involvement in ‘“Here’s old Harry Lauder come to take a crack at them himself,” I heard one man say to another.’?), as the privileging of the socially powerful, as part of Lauder’s war effort as a metonym for the revenge desire felt by so many bereaved families (Lauder’s book was published in 1918). It can be compared with two other texts about civilian involvement in artillery firing.
This from Arnold Bennett’s Over There: War Scenes on the Western Front (1915), in which Bennett writes as a journalist embedded with the French Army; in this section he and his party are being shown ‘the illustrious “seventy-five”’:
He is perfectly easy to see when you approach him from behind, but get twenty yards in front of him and he is absolutely undiscoverable. Viewed from the sky he is part of the forest. Viewed from behind, he is perceived to be in a wooden hut with rafters, in which you can just stand upright. We beheld the working of the gun, by two men, and we beheld the different sorts of shell in their delved compartments. But this was not enough for us. We ventured to suggest that it would be proper to try to kill a few Germans for our amusement. The request was instantly granted.
“Time for 4,300 metres,” said the Lieutenant quickly and sternly, and a soldier manipulated the obus.
It was done. It was done with disconcerting rapidity. The shell was put into its place. A soldier pulled a string. Bang! A neat, clean, not too loud bang! The messenger had gone invisibly forth. The prettiest part of the affair was the recoil and automatic swinging back of the gun. Lest the first shell should have failed in its mission, the Commandant ordered a second one to be sent, and this time the two artillerymen sat in seats attached on either side to the gun itself. The “seventy-five” was enthusiastically praised by every officer present. He is beloved like a favourite sporting dog, and with cause. (pp45-6)
Well, certain phrases jump out: ‘this was not enough for us’, ‘to try to kill a few Germans for our amusement’, ‘The prettiest part of the affair’. But also how the process is likened to hunting, with the analogy of the gun as sporting dog.
Finally, an anonymous diary by a nurse on the retreat eastwards from Antwerp in 1914; at one point in November she finds herself near a gun emplacement: ‘The Major looked down at me and said, “Would you like to have a shot at the Boches?” and I said “Rather!”’
(A War Nurse’s Diary, (1918), p. 59)