“War is sweet to those that have no experience of it.” These ancient words illustrate one of life’s greatest ironies. They also explain the enthusiasm with which many marched off to war in August 1914. Most people had never seen combat, and—steeped in the idealism of the times—imagined it in abstract, glowing terms.

In mid- August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force had yet to experience the brutality of modern warfare. Many of their soldiers were still unbloodied; still innocent in their carefully studied, and rigidly adhered to bravado. Buoyed by cheering French crowds as they marched to the Belgian border, many approached the war with an enthusiastic optimism that amazes us today. With the benefit of hindsight, the march of these innocents is given the somber aura of tragedy.

John Lucy, a 20 year-old corporal in the Royal Irish Rifles, was one of these innocents. He was young, proud, and, infused with the spirit of adventure, he was spoiling for a fight. On the 23rd of August 1914 he, along with the rest of his battalion, would get one at the small Belgian town of Mons. The German army, having smashed through Liège, was headed straight for him.

The British soldiers of 1914 were excellent. Theirs was a tiny army by Continental standards, but it was perhaps the best trained in the world. Every soldier was a professional with stern discipline, pride, and ability. They were not only ready to face the enemy; they were looking forward to it. In preparation to receive the seemingly unstoppable Imperial German army, the well-disciplined “Tommies” dug shallow trenches, positioned their guns, and assumed an air of cool cockiness. They were about to get their first taste of modern war. John Lucy wrote of this day:

“At half-past three in the afternoon, as nearly as I remember, the Germans discovered us before we saw them, and three or four dull thuds to our distant front followed by a whirring noise rapidly approaching us marked the discharge of enemy guns, and our first moment under shell-fire.

The salvo of shells passed over our heads, and burst about eighty yards in rear with a terrific clattering crash.

We were highly interested. More came, and still more, all going over. The heads of our curious men appeared above the trenches looking back to see the bursts. ‘Look’ they shouted, ‘a black one’, or ‘One only’, or ‘Four more whites’. Some laughingly imagined themselves on butt duty on the rifle ranges at home, and shouted advice to the German gunners: ‘Washout’, ‘Another miss’, and ‘Lower your sights’. One wag, simulating great terror, cried: ‘Send for the police, there’s going to be a row on here,’ and another, in mock despair: ‘Oh mother, why did I desert you?’

Then the enemy gunners shortened, and the shells exploded above our trenches, and the men, already taken in hand for exposing themselves, crouched low.

[…]

The Germans now ranged well, and their shell-fire seemed to concentrate heavily on the trenches. The acrid smoke of the explosions blew about us, and screaming pieces of metal and shrapnel balls flew in all directions. One shrapnel bullet hit my pack, and I instinctively moved a little further along the ditch to a burly sergeant, who laughed at me when I handed him the still hot ball for his inspection. I was too young to discern nervousness in the laugh.

[…]

Finally the shelling ceased, and we put up our heads to breathe more freely. Then we heard conch-like sounds—strange bugle calls. The German infantry, which had approached during the shelling, was in sight, and about to attack us.

[…]

In answer to the German bugles or trumpets came the cheerful sounds of our officers’ whistles, and the riflemen, casting aside the amazement of their strange trial, sprang into action. A great roar of musketry rent the air, varying slightly in intensity from minute to minute as whole companies ceased fire and opened again. The satisfactory sharp blasts of the directing whistles showed that our machinery of defence was working like the drill book, and that the recent shelling had caused no disorganization. The clatter of our machine guns added to the din.

For us the battle took the form of well-ordered, rapid rifle-fire at close range, as the field-grey human targets appeared, or were struck down. The enemy infantry advanced, according to one of our men, in ‘columns of masses’, which withered away under the galling fire of the well-trained and coolly led Irishmen. The leading Germans fired standing, ‘from the hip’, as they came on, but their scattered fire was ineffective, and ignored. They crumpled up—mown down as quickly as I tell it, their reinforcing waves and sections coming on bravely and steadily to fall over as they reached the front line of slain and wounded. Behind the death line thicker converging columns were being blown about by our field-guns.

Our rapid fire was appalling even to us, and the worst marksman could not miss, as he had only to fire into the ‘brown’ of the masses of the unfortunate enemy, who on the fronts of two of our companies were continuously and uselessly reinforced at the short range of three hundred yards. Such tactics amazed us, and after the first shock of seeing men slowly and helplessly falling down as they were hit, gave us a great sense of power and pleasure. It was all so easy.” (1)

By the end of the day, thousands of Germans had been shot down by the quick-firing British, and John Lucy had seen his first battle. But he was yet to be acquainted with war. The Battle of Mons, by his own reckoning, had resulted in only three or four men from his unit killed and the same number wounded; a relatively light toll for a modern battle.

It was, however, was only a prologue to the coming war. The shelling, the rapid-fire, and the appalling way that men were thrown uselessly into slaughter foreshadowed the suffering and horror that was to come. In the coming months, the war would devour most of John Lucy’s comrades, and his company would be all-but exterminated more than once.

As the years dragged on, and one after another of his friends and loved ones were claimed by the insatiable appetite of war, John Lucy began to see its true character. As his experience of war grew, its sweetness disappeared—submerged beneath the bitterness of fear and loss. This first taste was to prove deceiving.


Notes:

1. John F. Lucy, There’s a Devil in the Drum (Uckfield, UK: The Naval & Military Press, 1993), 111 – 114.

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