In the theatre of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Sir Frank Fox´s great grandson, Dr.Charles Goodson-Wickes, the first sitting member of the House of Commons to see active service in the armed forces since World War II, gave a lecture on G.H.Q. It was the heart of the British Army’s Military machine between 1916 and 1919 in the First World War. The lecture followed the unveiling of the restored Haig statue.
Transcript of the lecture:
This lecture follows the most memorable and stirring occasion to endorse Entente Cordiale, epitomised by the restoration of Haig´s statue. That statue is a poignant Anglo-French symbol of our shared endeavours in times of war when our joint liberties have been under threat from malign forces.
As Monsieur Bruno Béthouart, the former mayor stated, Montreuil-sur-Mer was surprised to find itself at the heart of the British Army’s military machine between 1916 and 1919. How curious indeed it was for this charming mediaeval town to become the nerve centre of the Allied planning of the ultimate defeat of the German forces. Life in Haig’s GHQ was described by my great grandfather, Sir Frank Fox, under the nom de plume “GSO”, for serving officers were not allowed to write under their true names.
No remote relation was he to me, few people are lucky enough to know their great grandfather. I knew him well. I was 15 when he died and he was my childhood hero.
As his literary executor, I have taken enormous pleasure in republishing three of his World War One related books, all of which can be bought, I hope, after this lecture.
Let me tell you something about him. Fox was a remarkable man, having first experienced battle as the Morning Post war correspondent in the Balkan wars, he was in Belgium in August 1914 to report the German invasion. So horrified was Fox by the atrocities meted out to the civilian population, the first use of Zeppelins for air warfare and the destruction of historical buildings that he was determined to become a combatant.
During hostilities he had become close to King Albert who invested him with the Order of the Crown and awarded him the Belgian Military Cross.
Commissioned (over-age) in the British Army, he was twice wounded on the Somme and sent to convalesce in England. Whilst there he worked in MI7 (Propaganda) writing to encourage the US to enter the fight. He then pulled springs to get back to France and was posted to the Quartermaster General´s Department. He must have been quite a sight, missing half his right foot, having a withered left arm, and on top of his disabilities, being profoundly deaf from shellfire. I’m not surprised that no photographs of him in uniform survive!
He was awarded the OBE military and was mentioned in Dispatches.
Some Staff Officers were criticised for being “desk warriors” far from the front. At least he was immune from such remarks. Indeed it seems from his account that many Staff Officers were, in his own words, “cropped”, having “taken a knock”. Fox appreciated regular physiotherapy for his wounds at the hospital which is now the Hermitage Hotel, where some of you may be staying. But enough of him for the moment.
What did he record of life here from 1916 to 1919, when Montreuil was the hub of the most extraordinary planning and logistical exercise, leading up to the final defeat of the German army?
I hope you’ll read for yourselves, however, I will pick up one or two points. Montreuil was selected for its all important role owing to its accessibility, both to the trenches, and to Paris, and to London. GHQ was moved here from Saint-Omer in March 1916. The British Expeditionary Force, BEF, with Haig as its commander in chief, could thus communicate with ease with the Secretary of State for War and the government in London. Fox describes its attributes as, quotes “central remoteness”. There was a military population of up to a maximum of 5,000 including 300 regular officers, supplemented by temporary officers referred to irreverently by some as “temporary gentlemen”.
This is the officer’s mess, the building on the left is now, I think, the music academy. The wall has disappeared. That was where the officers, obviously, lived.
The next photograph was the one of the École Militaire which was where the G.H.Q. was based. It is a very fine building but unfortunately it has been demolished. In more enlightened days it would have had a blue plaque or whatever, however the French commemorate such buildings.
Fox says that life here was, quotes: “a fantastic life, serious, monkish and the almost total absence of the female sex, sober, disciplined, and exciting.”
Typical hours worked were nine in the morning till ten thirty at night with no distinction for weekends. Leave was given only every six months. It is curious that he uses this last adjective “exciting” as elsewhere, in contrast, he describes life in the trenches as quotes, “tedious with only rapid moments of high excitement and horror.”
General Travers Clarke, the distinguished Quartermaster General under whom Fox served was insistent that staff work should be seamless between the office and the trenches. Despite the difference in rank, although they were close in age, Travers Clarke and Fox became close friends. It is very odd, I mean, a Lieutenant General and a Captain. In the remarkable Game Book of Statistics, which I have republished for the first ever time as an appendix of the GHQ book, it is inscribed to Fox, from Travers Clarke, quotes: “from his sincere friend.” They worked together later in peacetime, staging the British Empire exhibition. I recently had the pleasure of presenting a copy of GHQ to Travers Clarke’s son John.
Now there is the 98-year-old, John Travers Clarke and I’m sure he’s with us in spirit, I will have the greatest pleasure when I go back to London to tell him that we gave the lecture and the book narrating his father and of course, Haig, much more so, who was well received here. Five British divisions were deployed, each of 20,000 men, larger than the standard. Perhaps the most significant statistic is that for every rifleman or gunner in the front line there were three soldiers in support.
I say British, but let us not forget that this included men from throughout the British Empire, let alone brave soldiers from France, of course, Belgium, the United States, Italy and Portugal.
An early and truly international headquarters had missions here, and we’ll try to see if we get that map back again. Now – there we are – now I think it’s a fascinating map because it shows throughout the town how the various missions are spread and the key buildings. But I can’t find any reference to the Belgian and Portuguese missions that must have been here.
But the other nationalities are represented in this slide. So what were the main headline functions of GHQ? It was the link between the army in the field and the political leaders
of the Allies formulating strategy in the British sector in order to deliver one of the most complex logistical exercises of all time. By the end of 1918, the British army consisted of no less than 3.8 million men. The Quartermaster General’s role involved no less than 17 directorates and five inspectorates. Supply of all clothing, food, munitions and pay, transport by road, by horse, by motor and by rail and by water, agriculture and food supply, medical, veterinary and spiritual support, etc. all vital for maintaining morale.
Although it was noted by Fox that GHQ officers were poor churchgoers, in contrast to the very religious Haig. Travers Clarke was also praised subsequently for his humane handling of German POWs.
There was occasional recreation here in this very building, in the theatre, and in sport. Fox particularly enjoyed riding and took a special interest in the welfare of the many horses, and mules, at the front. Whilst British soldiers were described as quotes: “lions in the trenches” he maintains that they behaved as quotes, “lambs in the villages”.
The relationship between the army and the civilian population was a crucial one being the unusual state of a country being occupied by friendly forces. This required civilian assent and cooperation, which was complicated by the movement of refugees.
New insights in the book are given into the importance of a Labour Corps, of up to a third of a million men. Elderly and disabled French civilians did sterling service. More demanding physical work was carried out by Labour companies made up of Indian, Caribbean, Chinese, Fijian, native South African and Egyptian men, supplemented of course, by German prisoners of war. I will not go into descriptions of the waxing and waning of the campaign all which you can read elsewhere, but I wanted to concentrate on the logistics behind the whole operation.
The current reassessment of Haig’s reputation is supported by this first hand and contemporary record. He is given fulsome praise for his faithfulness to friends -despite political and Press criticism; of which he had more than his fair share, his brilliant insight for Appointments; his religious convictions; his great trust in others; and perhaps, in a particularly neglected quality, his enlightened promotion of education of soldiers, to prepare them as better citizens for their return to civvy street after such an extraordinary and exceptional experience in battle. The book ends with Marshal Foch´s appointment as Commander in Chief of the Allied Armies, a move which was wholeheartedly supported by the British and American generals Haig and Pershing, in an enlightened demonstration of international cooperation. And I was absolutely delighted to hear that Foch´s great grandson was at the ceremony that we just all attended. He wrote Johnny Astor a charming letter, praising the relationship that his great grandfather and Haig had on a deeply personal relationship. I think I’m right in saying that when the statue of Foch was… yes… the statue of Foch, outside, Victoria station? AUDIENCE: “Victoria, yes”
I believe that that epitomized the relationship that the two of them had. Once we all know of the ultimate victory, one only has to visit the serried ranks of graves of the military cemeteries to recognise the appalling human cost. Particularly poignant an inscription was actually pointed out to me by John Hussey the other day, it read: “How beautiful is victory, but how dear. His loving wife. Extraordinarily moving inscription.
Frank Fox accompanied King George V and Haig to pay their respects on a small,
very small, private visit to those cemeteries in Belgium and France, exactly a century ago, culminating in Étaples where many of us will be tomorrow.
He recorded this emotive journey which is accompanied by evocative and unposed photographs
in the King’s Pilgrimage. Next slide please which should be the King´s Pilgrimage one.
I think this is a lovely portrait of the King.
All the photographs in this book are unposed. The Princess Royal came a couple of weeks ago to Étaples to celebrate the centenary of this tiny journey of the King and his private secretary and private staff the King just wanted calm reflection and to pay his respects and you will see if you’re kind enough to acquire the book the very, very moving photographs because they are all unposed.
There is the book which is on sale, to be commercial about it, outside, and I rather like this photograph of Haig and all his commanders. A curious aside that really has got nothing to do the military at all, but when I was helping Johnny Astor, I said it would be rather nice to track the descendants of all Haig´s commanders and it’s absolutely extraordinary that of the peerages awarded to his commanders, every single one is extinct. Quite extraordinary. They may have been marvelous generals but they were bad breeders, or bad breeders of males anyway! And I think only one peerage went down one generation, and the nearest we got was Rawlinson. Rawlinson didn’t have a son, but he inherited a baronetcy, his brother inherited the baronetcy on his death and Sir Alfred Rawlinson is alive today but unfortunately he’s not well enough to come out to the ceremony.
I would like to end this talk with the photograph, I love this photograph because it epitomises the close relationship between the King and Haig and Foch.
This also comes up from the book The King´s Pilgrimage.
There’s no better demonstration, I think, of the Entente Cordiale which we celebrate today.
Thank you all very much for coming and I hope that you might acquire the books as a memento of what I think you will agree has been a remarkable weekend.
Thank you very much.