Gentlemanly Soldiers October 2, 2015Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
There are lots of different types of soldiers but today Beach wants to put aside the cowards, the sadists, the pragmatists, the survivors and concentrate on perhaps one of the few attractive categories: the gentleman soldier. The cult of the gentleman soldier began amongst the European aristocracy in the middle ages, its values were embodied in chivalry: and the cult survived well into the twentieth century and perhaps in some mess rooms there are still occasional flashes. Its finest expression in art is La Grande Illusion (1937), one of the great French films from maybe the greatest decade in the history of cinema. There von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu the German and French aristocrat pitted against each other are from enemy nations and von Rauffenstein will eventually and reluctantly kill de Boeldieu but they share the kinship of their class: de Boeldieu dies in von Raufenstein’s arms as both talk about the end of their world and the Europe (balls, lordly races etc) that the Great War will wipe from the face of the earth.
Beach has been looking for other instances of the gentleman soldier. Acts of kindness between front line troops from opposing sides are, of course, common in recent and perhaps most conflicts in history: the solidarity of killing and being killed. But in some instance this kindness is done with a certain unmistakable style. British pilots shot down over German territory, particularly fighter pilots, were very often invited to the German mess to eat before being taken off to a prisoner of war camp in both the First and, more remarkably, the Second World War. Rommel fought a savage war in France and in North Africa, but was admired as a fair enemy. There is a famous episode of him straying into a New Zealand hospital outpost, talking to the doctors there and then sending them medicine that they were lacking (not been able to document this but would be characteristic). There are stories, mainly from the beginning of the Second World War, of German submariners acting with a frankly impractical thoughtfulness. Take perhaps the first submarine sinking of the war a Greek freighter Diamantis. The captain of the U-35, Werner Lott, surfaced and towed the Greek crew in their lifeboats to Ventry in Ireland!
However, being a gentleman extends far beyond treating the enemy kindly. This is an absolutely fabulous account from Harold Macmillan in North Africa in the officer’s mess of Alexander, perhaps Britain’s most gentlemanly Second World War general: Alexander was a languid not particularly intellectual leader, famous for his indifference to live ammunition. Here are the last wonderful echoes of a happier world: a world that had been largely shredded in France and Germany by the Great War: and that would be destroyed in Britain and the Empire by the Second.
The conversation is the usual tone of [an] educated… Englishman – a little history, a little politics, a little banter, a little philosophy – all very lightly touched and very agreeable… Very occasionally an officer comes in with a message… After pausing sufficiently for politeness the conversation… – the campaign of Belisarius, or the advantages of classical over Gothic architecture, or the right way to drive pheasants in flat country… – General Alex will ask permission to open his message – read it – put it in his pocket – continue the original discussion for a few more minutes and then… unobtrusively retire, as a man may leave his smoking room or library after the ladies have gone to bed, to say a word to his butler, fetch a pipe, or the like.
Other gentleman soldiers: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com