“An Expedition to Amiens” – Arras South – Page 137

Second Lieutenant Thomas Rathesay CONNING, MC, who was killed in action on the 27th May 1917 serving with the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was one of several of the battalion’s officers who spent an evening of recreation in Amiens while the unit was still on the Somme. Part of that excursion involved a decent bath followed by dinner at the Restaurant Godbert. One of the officers present was Siegfried Sassoon, who was unable to remember what they ate, but did note the formidable array of drinks they consumed that night. (Perhaps some First World War re-enactment group might like to recreate the experience and tell us about it – perhaps someone already has?) The drinks bill reads as follows:

2 John Collins, 1 Japanese Ditto, 1 Oyster Cocktail, 1 Sherry and Bitters, 1 Benedictine and three glasses of Sparkling Pommard – quite a cocktail!

The dinner was described as ‘good’ and the evening as ‘a cheerful experience’. The group, which included two other officers of the battalion, as well as Sassoon and Conning, went to have their photograph taken the following morning, though probably quite hung over. It was early Spring 1917 and the battalion was soon to make its way from the Somme to the Arras sector.

This excursion was in no way unique. Young officers up and down the front would have taken advantage of any opportunity to get away from the rigours of trench life, its dangers, and the often sparse conditions of billets, despite all attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the regimental mess back home. However, such recollections are important because they allow us to glimpse those brief moments of respite when ordinary men tried to forget the harsh realities of their extraordinary circumstances.

Although no longer a restaurant, the building itself still exists and can be found at 62, Rue des Jacobins, just a short walk from the railway station. It closed in 1973, but re-opened as a theatre in 1989. Its XVII century facade has changed little since the days when Sassoon, and countless others, frequented it. It was renowned in its day for its classic French cuisine and Sassoon visited it on several occasions.

While on the subject of Amiens, Brigadier-General E.L. Spears recounts two interesting anecdotes in “Prelude to Victory”, a book which I refer to in the introduction of “Visiting the Fallen”. They were told to him by Georges Clemenceau, and both stories concern the state of morale in the French Army a few months before the Battle of Arras, which was, of course, the curtain-raiser for the main offensive by the French a week later under General Nivelle.

Clemenceau, who in November 1917 became Prime Minister of France, liked to meet and speak with ordinary soldiers whenever he had the opportunity. One day he approached a middle-aged French soldier standing on a bridge in Amiens staring down into the River Somme below. By way of opening the conversation, Clemenceau asked him the name of the river, to which the old ‘poilu’ replied: “J’ sais pas, chez nous on appelle ca la Loire” – “I don’t know, at home we call it the Loire”. It was a reply that stopped Clemenceau in his tracks and when he recounted it, Spears noted that Clemenceau ‘choked a little’. The soldier appeared to be oblivious of his present whereabouts, but it was perfectly clear where he wanted to be. His mind was focused on home rather than the trenches of the Western Front, which was potentially a cause for concern.

At the time, there was much speculation regarding the morale of the French Army. In truth, as Spears is careful to point out, it varied widely from unit to unit, but men were tired, and in some cases totally worn out after the experience of Verdun, which had undoubtedly taken its toll. Spears puts it very well when he notes: “After three years of war, the French Army had forgotten how to smile.” The army still had discipline, but discipline had taken the place of higher ideals, and an air of fatalism now prevailed.

Clemenceau’s second anecdote recalled a day when he had gone up to a group of old territorials who were sheltering under a tree during a bombardment as if it were a hailstorm. “What are you doing here?”, he asked. The reply came back: “We don’t know, we were told we were resting”, to which Spears adds the comment: “It is impossible to describe better the unquestioning, uncomprehending, fatalistic acceptance of an unintelligible fate.”

Nivelle’s offensive was a complete failure and left the British effort at Arras well and truly hanging in the air. Many had doubted the unbridled optimism shown by Nivelle in the run up to April, and they were proved right, though this was by no means a reflection on the courage of the French soldier. It is, I think, worth including these two snippets here as part of ‘Behind the Stories’, particularly alongside the article on Lord Moran’s work, “The Anatomy of Courage”.