Thursday, 24 May 2018

Raw Material by Alan Sillitoe

As a young man, Alan Sillitoe was one of the first authors to capture my imagination. I was in my teens when I read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, discovering a story printed on the page that actually felt like the life I saw and experienced on a daily basis. The drinking culture, the hard and depressed industrial towns, the philosophy of the protagonist, all chimed with me.

A couple of years ago whilst on holiday in Settle I picked up a couple of vintage paperback novels of Sillitoe and have just finished reading one in two gloriously sunny days flat this week. Though to cal it a novel is perhaps inaccurate. Raw Material from 1974 is part novel, part autobiography and part family history.

In detailing the lives of his ancestors, Sillitoe discusses at length the barbaric horrors of the Great War in a manner which would not endear him to Michael Gove. It's a fascinating read which enlightened me to a particularly bloody and shameful moment during that whole futile conflict - the incident at Meteren, 14th April 1918 - a chapter of our history that has been somewhat hushed up.

"I have scoured official histories, and searched divisional accounts, but can find no mention of it save for one book; Machine Guns: Their History and Tactical Employment by Lt. Col. G.S. Hutchinson, published in 1938" Sillitoe states.

On the 9th April, the German forces moved their artillery train of heavy guns from the Somme to commence the offensive on the Lys. The artillery disintegrated the Portuguese corps and routed the English who swiftly became demoralised and in fear for their lives, or 'panicked' as the official line has it. Resistance quickly collapsed in the face of the offensive as the officers and their young and inexperienced soldiers who had been holding the line at that point fled and deserted. Hutchison, the author of the book Sillitoe refers to, was the commander of the 33rd Division's Machine Gun Battalion and was ordered to the village of Meteren, near Bailleul, to defend a tactically important hill against the enemy. 

"He relates how, on his reconnaisance on 12th April" Sillitoe explains in discussing Hutchinson's account, "he went into a roadside estaminet and found a crowd of British stragglers, fighting drunk. He ordered a machine gun to be trained upon them, and sent them forward towards the Germans where, he said 'they perished to a man'"

"By 14th April the Germans were attacking once more, and again men were inclined to flee. Hutchinson therefore ordered the sergeants in charge of the gun teams to fire on any British troops who began to retreat. He then goes on to say 'From near the mill I saw one of my gunners destroy a platoon of one regiment which in its panic had taken to flight'"

"For this confession of atrocity," Sillitoe recounts, "no one was ever brought to trial. The line at this point had only recently been reinforced by very young and half trained soldiers, boys who were dragged unwilling from farm and factory, slum and office. For not playing the game, and obeying the stringent rules laid down for them, the Gestapo machine gunning officers and sergeants murdered them"

"As far as I can ascertain from official history the units from which the forty murdered men of this platoon could have come were the 1st Scottish Rifles, the 1st Queen's Regiment, The XXI Corps Reinforcement Battalion, or from three platoons of the 8th Middlesex (Pioneers)....If anyone lost a member of his family this day and from one of those regiments it is possible that they were not shot by Germans, but that they were butchered when faced with an overdose of British rancour" Sillitoe concludes, adding quite understandably "How many more were there?" 

With such horrors in mind, is it any surprise that the Etaples Mutiny had occurred just seven months earlier in September, 1917 - a mutiny that was eventually quashed by two battalions from the Front? 

Is it any surprise - given how hushed up Meteren seems to be - that the documents surrounding Etaples (which should have come to light last year after the hundred years had passed for the files to enter into the public domain) were 'accidentally' lost to a blaze in the late 1970s - around the same time that William Allison and John Fairley's book on Percy Toplis, The Monocled Mutineer, was published.  As for Lt.Col G.S. Hutchinson, a man so utterly unrepentant in his role in such mass slaughter of his fellow countrymen that he happily presented us with the facts in his own book, Sillitoe discovered that he was awarded the Military Cross and te Distinguished Service Order, as well as being mentioned four times in despatches. After the First World War, he became involved in political work in Poland which Sillitoe attests that "it was here that he seems to have become infected with the virulent anti-semitism which lasted until his death" He was the author of some sixteen books on military and political matters, one of which was effusive with praise for Nazi Germany. Using the pseudonym of 'Graham Seton', he wrote several penny dreadful adventure novels, which often cast Jews and foreigners as the villains. In 1933 he set up the National Workers Movement; an organisation that was heavily influenced by similar bodies he had seen first hand in Nazi Germany. He sat on the National Playing Fields Association's Executivr Council and on the board of Gordon Boys School. He spent the Second World War working for the air ministry and died in 1946.

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