Thousands of men served as officers in the British army during the First World War. Many of them lost their lives, and the survivors were changed forever. They do not appear in the grand narratives of the war, but in amongst the death and destruction, there are countless examples of inspiring men in the face of mortality.
Fear was an inevitable part of life in the trenches. Troops coped with it in different ways. Many used words; writing poetry or letters back home.
On June 29, 1916, Lieutenant Noel Hodgson wrote a poem called “Before Action,” about the dangers he would face and the beauties of the world. He ended with the lines “By all delights that I shall miss, Help me to die, O Lord.”
Two days later, Hodgson went into battle at Mametz Wood. Overcoming the fear and the horror he had so eloquently explored in words, he faced the Germans. He was hit in the neck by a machine-gun bullet and died.
Second Lieutenant Guy Chapman was a great chronicler of the horrors of the war. In his writing, he recorded the loss of countless friends and comrades. He saw death in all its terrifying forms. A man’s head pierced by shrapnel. Another blown into a fine mist only feet away from Chapman. An officer who staggered back from an attack with his skin left charred and peeling by a flame thrower.
Chapman was affected by mustard gas. Fortunately for him, mustard gas was often an irritant rather than a lethal weapon, and he survived the experience.
In spite of all the horrors he saw, Chapman kept writing. He also kept fighting. On the Somme, he was twice selected to be one of the officers Left Out Of Battle (LOOB). The LOOB were 10% of a battalion’s numbers, left behind so that the unit could rebuild if the rest were killed or injured. Far from being relieved at avoiding danger, Chapman was upset to find he was left behind while his friends faced the hazards of battle. As he said goodbye to his company for the second time, he found himself unable to meet a man’s eyes.
A future Prime Minister, Eden entered the war as a young Second Lieutenant in the 21st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He fought in many significant battles of the war, including the Somme, Messines Ridge, and Third Ypres. Never one to shy away from the hazards his men had to face, he saw death and destruction, rescued wounded men and the bodies of fallen colleagues, and spent time stranded in the mud of no man’s land.
By 1917, Eden was a Captain and the only combatant officer to have been with the 21st Battalion since they entered the war. In 1918, he was made Brigade-Major of the 198th Infantry Brigade. Only 21 years old, he was the youngest officer to hold that rank on the Western Front.
Eden combined courage with humility. Like Chapman, he was disappointed to be included in a LOOB detachment at the Somme and protested to his colonel. He also protested on being appointed as adjutant by his commanding officer, claiming unworthiness for promotion.