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A season in Hell

26 March 2005

12:00 AM

26 March 2005

12:00 AM

Massacre of the Innocents: The Crofton Diaries, Ypres, 1914-1915 edited by Gavin Roynon

Sutton, pp.286, 19.99

This sensitive, outspoken diary begins during the dark last days of the ‘dead little, red little army’, the British Expeditionary Force which bolstered the French left flank in Flanders from mid-August 1914. With the desperate defence of Ypres, through Hallowe’en into December, when the Germans were repeatedly beaten off, began the stalemate of trench warfare. The war was expected to be over by Christmas, but all that was over was any movement.

The diarist, the redoubtable Sir Morgan Crofton Bt., was a regular soldier from a line of military forebears. Wounded in South Africa, he had retired at 35, as a captain in the Second Life Guards, early in 1914, only to rejoin when war broke out. Immediately flung into the battle, Crofton felt the world he had known was gone for ever in that hellish slaughter, but his descriptions of excellent breakfasts and the occasional bottle of champagne and his comments, which in much of the diary are detached, almost academic, show an astonishing coolness; nobody in the Ypres Salient was ever out of danger, and even generals lost their lives, despite conventional myth which has dubbed them cowards. His duties took him constantly within close range of the enemy ‘whizz-bangs’, bringing sudden death, and ‘Jack Johnsons’, erupting brutally with black smoke and murderous splinters.

What makes his observations of particular interest is that Crofton, a keen student of military history, had a wider grasp than most soldiers of the war as a whole. The Russian front loomed as important to him as the battles in which he was involved; and he despised Britain’s insistent clinging to the mediaeval city of Ypres, exposing her troops on three sides to German gunfire and huge casualties. He dismissed the view that Ypres was sacred ground, symbol of our will to endure:

Why keep Ypres up to impress people? We need not give it to the Germans, it can lie between the two lines, and be made untenable by our guns. The effect on morale would be nil, in fact it would cheer up our army and be forgotten in a week. The Germans have practically no men there, nothing but gas cylinders and heavy guns … our men are pulverised, their trenches blown in and not a shot in reply. If only Sir John French and all the sleepy dead heads of the Headquarters staff could spend an hour in the front line when one of these bombardments were going on, they would return gibbering idiots.

Before leaving Flanders the following June, he was twice mentioned in despatches. Throughout the eight months he spent in that tragic killing ground, Crofton kept a careful tally of casualties over the whole front, his diary again presenting the large picture.

As an officer in the cavalry, with the most expensive, intensive and technical training the army could provide, he felt wasted. By the end of 1914 he saw little use for cavalry faced with barbed wire, shell-holes and machine-guns. Cavalrymen could move speedily behind the lines to reinforce, when dismounted, one part of the front or another; but they were barely equipped for trench warfare and had never been taught digging, the infantry’s most incessant activity. A third of each battalion had to stay behind with the horses, so a cavalry unit could never hold as much of the line as an equivalent infantry unit.

Crofton’s diary goes through the frustrated fighting at Neuve Chapelle and the second battle of Ypres. It is spiced with homely incident and gossip. His sardonic, throwaway remarks partly conceal the distress he felt. Nonetheless the cumulative impression of high civilisation in ruins makes sombre reading:

We decided to walk back to Zillebeke … and found a fearful state of wreckage. Every house had been hit, whole fronts were torn away. The steeple had been knocked off the church which was filled with bricks and rubbish. The altar had been hit and was covered with rubble under which the altar cloth could be seen torn and stained. All candelabra, pictures, statues were lying on the floor broken and torn off the walls. In one corner a cupboard had been broken open and the gold embroidered vestments were lying about on the floor covered with bricks and mortar.

In amongst Gavin Roynon’s informative and sympathetic editing, one longs for more about Crofton the man. Valuable, too, would have been a larger examination of the role of cavalry during the first world war to put in context his critical remarks which occupy so central a part. The book is admirably produced, with many of the photographs taken by Crofton himself, illicitly, at the front. Dramatic endpapers show the ghostly ruins of Ypres looming out of the mist — a landscape haunted by the thousands of men whose deaths this independent-minded journal mourns.

Hugh and Mirabel Cecil’s Imperial Mar- riage: An Edwardian War and Peace is pub- lished this week (Sutton paperback, £12.99)

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