“Going overdrawn – one man’s account” – Arras South – Page 274

One of the many interesting characters in ‘Arras South’ is Company Serjeant-Major Frederick William WATSON, 5th King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry), who fell in action on the 27th August 1918. The CWGC register for Gomiecourt South Cemetery shows a bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal, in addition to the Military Cross, despite the fact that nobody to date seems to have uncovered any record of the bar in any of the gazettes, myself included. There was an article written about him in one of the Western Front Association journals in May 2008, but it failed to come up with any evidence of a bar. Citations certainly exist for the other two medals; both are very clearly gazetted, but whilst the question mark surrounding the bar remains an interesting one, for me, the real story lies elsewhere.

At times, his was a rather chequered career, but as the war developed, his experience made him an increasingly valuable asset  to his battalion, not least during the Spring and Summer of 1918. Although in his early career he had been marked out as a very good soldier, there were subsequently a number of lapses in discipline, one of which led to his reduction in rank to sergeant after being found drunk on duty. The fact that he had been wounded twice the previous month may well have been a significant factor in his behaviour at the time.

At this point, I’d like to refer to a book that I’ve had on my shelves for a very long time: “The Anatomy of Courage” by Lord Moran and published by Constable, London, in 1945. During the Great War Charles McMoran Wilson, later Lord Moran, served as Medical Officer to the 1st Royal Fusiliers on the Western Front and his book examines the question of courage and morale. His role, as he saw it, was to “value the assets of the battalion – to take stock – to guard against depreciation.” Continuing the financial metaphor, he poses the question of how courage is spent in war. He responds by noting that “courage is will-power, whereof no man has an unlimited stock; and when in war it is used up, he is finished – a man’s courage is his capital and he is always spending – the call on the bank may be only the daily drain of the front line or it may be a sudden draft which threatens to close his account.” Today, we would call this ‘battle fatigue’.

He goes on to describe four degrees of courage: “There were men who did not feel fear; men who felt fear, but did not show it; men who felt fear and showed it, but did their job; and those who felt fear, showed it, and shirked.” His use of the word ‘shirked’ will no doubt seem a little harsh to many readers today, perhaps even inappropriate. However, what is strikingly modern about his thinking is that he came to recognize the fact that “few men spent their trench lives with their feet firmly planted on one rung of this ladder” and that “the story of modern war is concerned with the striving of men, eroded by fear, to maintain a precarious footing on the upper rungs of this ladder.” No one day was ever likely to be the same, and one bad experience was likely to shake the ladder, after which the ability to ascend the rungs again was by no means certain.

In the case of Company Serjeant-Major WATSON, he spent most of his career on the upper rungs of that ladder, but his ability to function continually at that level was sometimes compromised. The important thing was that his commanding officer seems to have realized what was occurring. WATSON’s drunken lapse in the summer of 1917 was not evidence of a good soldier gone bad; he clearly needed what we would refer to today as ‘time out’. In the immediate wake of his fall from grace, his continued presence in the front line was not conducive to either his own mental health or the well being of the battalion; to use Moran’s own terminology, he had, at that point, spent much of his capital and was in danger of becoming overdrawn.

On the face of it, his reduction in rank may appear as undermining his position and status within the battalion, but to an experienced soldier like WATSON the outcome was probably no more than he expected. It is interesting to note that his military experience was immediately put to good use behind the lines as an instructor. In his new role he still held a position of respect and trust; he was still responsible for groups of men; he was still part of his division and had every prospect of returning to his battalion after a short break from the stresses and strains of the front line. In the circumstances, very little damage was done to his self-respect. When he returns to his battalion he immediately regains his former rank, and with it all his sense of worth and self-esteem. I think what we have here is a brilliant example of man-management by a battalion commander who clearly grasped the ‘depreciation of a very valuable asset’ and who was prepared to guard against that depreciation.

Moran also notes that “if a soldier is always using up his capital, he may also from time to time add to it – there is a paying in as well as a paying out.” This is exactly what happens in ‘Fred’ WATSON’s case. I’m not suggesting that the British Army of 1914-1918 shared any kind of values approaching what we would now refer to as a duty of care, far from it, but some commanding officers did understand the corrosive effect of trench warfare on the individual soldier and were able to strike a balance between maintaining discipline within their unit and recognizing why some men occasionally fell short. For me, this is the real story behind the story of Company Serjeant-Major Frederick William WATSON.

Although Moran’s book may appear a little dated in terms of its language and style, it is still a fascinating read, even a ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in soldiering and the question of morale. I would go even further and say that it offers many valuable insights into how to manage people in today’s  frenetic corporate world where ‘burn-out’ is all too common. It’s a book that I would highly recommend. During the Second World War Moran served as physician to Sir Winston Churchill, a part of his career for which he is perhaps better known.