‘Whatever is written from Autumn 1915 to 13th November 1916,
will be authentic but I will leave out as far as possible most of the gruesome side of war’ (30).
After completing an extensive training program, detailed in War and Memory I, Cecil George Harwood arrived in Northern France in the Autumn of 1915. Although Cecil expresses an intention to focus upon the ‘lighter side’ (30) of the First World War, his writing undergoes a noticeable tonal shift at this point. Cecil’s remembrance of the conflict is shaped by personal trauma; he is highly selective of the anecdotes that he chooses to include, mediating the distressing reality.
But as Cecil insists, ‘there were plenty of laughs out of it all’ (29). On the 9th of October, 1915, Cecil celebrated his 21st birthday in a barn, ‘near to Armentieres’ (30). Determined not to let the infestation of ‘rats’ (30) and the ‘nippy’ (30) cold nights dampen the occasion, Cecil and 22 of his comrades gathered to celebrate. ‘I had several food parcels from home, so we somehow made tea, spread every-thing on the ground sheets and had a 21st birthday party’ (30).
In his 1963 novella, The Power of the Dead, Henry Williamson addresses wartime comradeship. The protagonist, Philip Maddison, mirrors Williamson’s own experiences as an officer in the First World War. He recalls that, ‘the real war was the comradeship, the great chance to know the best of friendship’ (Williamson, 15). Cecil’s writing provides a tangible insight to the inseparable friendships forged on the Western front. Cecil writes of his surprise and good-fortune, when by a twist of fate, he was reunited with a familiar face from his hometown. Having spent one week in an ‘isolation camp’ (31), undergoing treatment for a mild case of ‘scabies’ (30), Cecil was finally ‘allowed out’ (31). He emerged to find a solitary figure, an old friend. When Cecil tells of tells of their reunion almost 60 years later, he portrays the unimaginable bond that the soldiers shared. The loss that he endured is only briefly mentioned, yet still painfully felt:
‘[We] called to each other by name. We were pals at home and had not seen each other since I enlisted in 1914. In the evenings for the next fortnight we met and talked of days left behind. Between us we got up-to-date on things happening at home. It was a great fortnight, we were real pals, I never met another whom I could confide in as a brother. Little did we know that we should not meet again on this earth’ (31).
At the latter end of 1915, Cecil’s regiment had moved to Givenchy, where had their ‘first encounter with the enemy’ (31). Cecil’s account of combat, the unnerving ‘whiz of passing bullets… both sides were at it’ (32), suggests that the violent scenes were too chaotic, too nightmarish, to precisely depict. He decidedly favours the functional details of trench warfare, ‘everything that came up to the line was brought by teams of mules, food, water, rations and guns all moved that way’ (31), through trenches ‘6ft to 7ft deep’ (31).
On the 13th of November 1916, ‘the day came at last’ (36). The Hertfordshire Regiment were to join the forces at the Battle of the Somme. In this section of his memoir, Cecil’s representation of the ‘soldier hero’ (Roper, 201) is ‘formulaic’ (Roper, 201). Confronting their fate, Cecil illustrates the unwavering bravery and courage of hardened soldiers, ‘some would return, others we hope would travel to tat land we have never seen, but taught to believe in. As we took up our positions a generous tot of rum was handed to each man, just to make one feel good’ (36).
But Cecil quickly ran into trouble, ‘over the top and into no mans land and the mist’ (36). The men ‘lost each other’ (36) and Cecil found himself ‘in enemy lines’ (36). It was here that he took a disastrous blow, ‘I felt a stunning blow in my face and down I went… I could not move a limb and all I could do was gaze up at the sky’ (36). Naturally, Cecil does not remember his rescue from the battleground, ‘out of the line of fire to the dressing station’ (37), yet he ‘fully endorses’ (37) that visions of his ‘former life’ (37) passed ‘through his brain as if it were a film’ (37).
Cecil was honourably discharged, ‘put on a Hospital ship for Blighty’ (38) and taken to West Vale Hospital, Halifax, where he was examined; ‘I was dead weight and when they got me on to my feet, I promptly fell over again’ (37). A ‘piece of jawbone’ (39) resting ‘on his spine’ (39) was identified as the cause of his paralysis. Cecil’s injuries were so severe, he ‘could not speak’ (39), but it wasn’t all bad. He confesses that ‘the time spent in hospital was pleasant, one was apt to forget wounds and the nurses without exception, were ever so kind and gentle’ (39). Cecil was ‘spoilt’ (39) by the nurses, and ‘almost carried about’ (39).
If operated upon to remove the shrapnel, there was a ‘100 to 1 chance’ (41) that Cecil ‘would never walk again’ (41). Because of this increased risk, the surgeons refused to go ahead. However, ‘there was improvement each week in all parts of [Cecil’s] body’ (40). A miraculous recovery, as Cecil’s mobility gradually returned. ‘I could begin to use my right arm and the right leg was stronger but my left side remained stubborn… My jaw began to loosen up and I could just feed myself with the right hand’ (41). Dr. Robertson ‘was pleased with [his] progress’ (41) and in early 1917, Cecil was discharged from West Vale Hospital to continue his rehabilitation closer to home, with regular appointments at a hospital in ‘Acton run by the War Office’ (42). Upon his discharge, Cecil was ‘given hope of 10 years of active life’ (42). He recovered to full mobility, and when writing at the age of 83, is ‘still able to get around on [his] own’ (42).
Unlike later autobiographers such as Charles Whiten Sanderson, born in 1906, Cecil does not document the Second World War in great detail. He briefly mentions his responsibilities conducting ‘patrol routines’ (74) as a member of the Special Constabulary, for which he volunteered in 1938. For Cecil, the greatest impact of the Second World War was the evacuation of his two sons, as noted in Home and Family.
‘So “Goodbye” to all my friends in and out of hospital and on to the next period of my existence’ (42).
309 HARWOOD, Cecil George, ‘Down Memory Lane’, TS, pp.104 (c.65,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Constantine, Stephen, Maurice W Kirby and Mary B Rose, eds. The First World War in British History. London: Edward Arnold, 1995.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.
Harwood, Cecil. ‘Down Memory Lane.’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 1:309. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10964
Roper, Michael. ‘Re-remembering the Soldier Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War.’ History Workshop Journal. 50.3 (2000): 181-204.
Tilstone, Hannah. ‘Charles Whiten Sanderson (1906 – 1990): War and Memory (Part One).’ Writing Lives. Web. Accessed 24th April 2018.
Williamson, Henry. The Power of the Dead. London: Panther, 1963 as quoted in Hanna, Emma. ‘An Unhealed Wound: Britain and the First World War’. The Great War on the Small Screen. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009.
- ‘Soldiers Relaxing’: Artuk.org
- Diggers Dialect: BL.uk
- The Battle of the Somme: Rarehistoricalphotos.com
- Cecil George Harwood’s Medal Roll Index Card: Image permissions given by Brian Harwood, contacted via Ancestry.co.uk