A curious title for an at times curious book. It is a Great War Memoir but with a difference. Blacker began writing this book, which has been edited by his son, in 1963 using the letters and diaries that he wrote during the war. To quote Blacker’s post Great War medical colleague who viewed the manuscript, “It’s not an autobiography; it’s a catharsis.” This does neatly sum the book up and in fact the diagnosis could stand for many of the memoirs that were written after the war had ended.
Blacker’s half Peruvian, half English father was a friend of the Duke of Newcastle, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. His bankruptcy ruined his relationship with the Duke and forced him to live with his family in self-imposed exile for some time on the continent where he also managed to get himself involved in the Dreyfus Affair. Consequently our author, Carlos Paton Blacker, was born in France. His mother was an American and the daughter of a Confederate General. Having very close relatives living in Germany the Blackers spent a good deal of time there and Blacker senior was very pro-German. C. P. Blacker liked Germans as well and at the outbreak of the Great War, by which time the family had moved to Torquay, he had a first cousin serving in the German Armed Forces.
With all of this in mind it is not hard to realise that Blacker had no great urge to join up and kill Germans. While his father took a similar view and was dismayed at the outbreak of war against his spiritual home Blacker’s mother and brother, Robin, took a firmer stance against the Kaiser. Mindful that he should do something, Blacker broke off his studies and in 1914 joined a Belgian Field Hospital as a non-combatant volunteer. After a time at the hospital where he inevitably came into contact with the wounded of both sides it began to dawn on Blacker that sooner or later he would have to get into the fighting. A difference of opinion with staff at the hospital saw him leave and return to Britain in 1915 where he volunteered for and was commissioned into the 4th Coldstream Guards, Pioneers. It is interesting to note that he was very short sighted. However, by memorising the eye test board with the connivance of the medical officer carrying out his examination, this was not an obstacle to joining the Guards.
His brother Robin, also in the Coldstream Guards preceded him to the Western Front in August 1915 and was killed on 28 September 1915; Blacker went out the front in October 1915. Despite his antipathy towards the war Blacker became a very efficient soldier and rose to the rank of captain. He voluntarily transferred from the Pioneers to the 2nd Coldstream Guards where he was very happy. Indeed, when the war ended and he returned to his studies in Zoology at Oxford he remained a reserve officer in the Coldstream Guards. In between the wars he took a medical degree and became a doctor. When war broke out again in 1939 he was eager to return to service with his old 2nd Battalion; there was no questioning the war or his desire to get into it this time. At first he served as an R.A.M.C medical officer at Dieppe and was then posted to the 2nd Coldstream Guards where he served as the Regimental Medical Officer.
This is a detailed memoir and on a personal note I found it very useful in terms of Pioneer troops’ work for some research that I have been doing. In part it is the usual fare of a Great War officer’s diary and that is not meant to be a slight. The incident on the Tow Path near Corbie is not usual. Blacker had an unusual, spiritual experience there while his battalion was out of the line during the Somme Campaign and it haunted him, even when writing many years later. At his own admission this event and the emotions that it stirred were not recorded in his letters home from the front. I found it deeply interesting and wondered if his experiences on the Somme had affected his mind, even though he rationally tried to dismiss the whole affair as fantasy. He was still clearly disturbed by it when he drove by the old battlefield in 1960 and this was the real reason, I believe, for Blacker to write the book. The title of the book was aimed at himself and in the 1960s he clearly had not yet forgotten; he needed to exorcise his ghosts.
Blacker said of the Somme and his experience on the Tow Path, “They are connected with deeply ambivalent feelings about the area of the Somme. They are revived whenever I look at a large scale map. The place names then come alive and possess you – those of the Somme more compellingly than others. The manifold horrors successively enacted in each village and wood are fused into something whose main attribute is awesomeness. Week after week holocausts followed one another in a remorseless tide slowly creeping eastwards. The deeds done in tornados of fire and turmoil merge; they seem to become physically perceptible as a subsonic monotone, a chthonic [sic] stirring of voiceless ghosts.” Anyone who has been on the Somme battlefield in modern times can identify, even in a small way, with these words.
Well worth reading on many levels, if you are interested in the Guards, the Pioneers, officers’ stories or Great War memoirs in general then it’s for you. I enjoyed reading it and have been glad to review it and it is good to see the old book given a new lease of life. It’s something different, an interesting war book written by an interesting man. Give it a go.
Reviewed by Dr Wayne Osborne for War History Online.
HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN YET?
The First world War Memoirs of C. P. Blacker MC GM.
By C. P. Blacker and edited by John Blacker.
First published by Leo Cooper, 2000.
Re-published by Pen & Sword, 2015.
ISBN 978 1 78346 167 7
Dr Wayne Osborne is a respected Great War historian who specialises in and writes about British Great War manufacturing and the workforce, Gallipoli, the 17th (Northern) Division and the 10th Battalion, the Notts & Derbys.