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This episode is being repeated on the iPlayer in 3D - details here.
I thought it might be interesting to put up details about the documentary sources that went to make up the historical backbone of this episode, so here you are.
The dramatic idea for this episode was simple. Mickey has decided to opt out of combat because he feels so guilty about Walter’s death, and doesn’t want to responsible for any more killing.
But Mickey can’t do it. Of course he can’t.
His Achilles Heel is his professionalism, and his respect for anyone who is also good at their job.
So on the day he’d like to throw it all up, he’s confronted by a succession of fellow-professionals who might not always be lovable types, but they know what they are doing.
Through this, Mickey reaches some sort of accommodation with his guilty feelings.
So I was looking for a series of incidents that might support this story – and found the ultimate test of such a man waiting in the historical record.
It’s a long time ago now but I probably started with the Official History of 2nd Division, Mickey’s parent unit while he waits for the Lahore Division to come up from Marseilles. Thanks to the wonderful archive.org people, you can read that here. The day’s activities are on pages 110-116. You’ll see how I derived Colonel Firmin’s briefing from this document, noticing always that Firmin is attached to 2 Div which is why you won’t find him mentioned on the 2 Div roll. This attachment device is one that I often use to insert a minor character into a bigger event.
There’s a map opposite p110 which is very useful.
It’s useful because you can see how another brigade - completely independently controlled by another division - in this case, the 7th, could be pulled back with absolutely no reference to yourselves. Imagine that: you and your mates are in your rough trenches and the blokes on your right just get up and start retreating. Then the Germans advance to where they were, take up their positions, and start pouring fire into you from the side. All this as well as the Germans who were attacking you from the front in the first place. Not good.
This is what we are also trying to do all the time to the Germans. Enfilading, as it is called, is a primary infantry tactic.
I’m afraid I can only tell you where to find the 2 Div Signals Company Diary rather than show you as the National Archives retains copyright - though to their credit they let you copy the documents for personal use. In that diary you can see Mickey’s lot working at 0500 pulling up the lines connecting 5 Brigade at Pilkem and 4 Brigade at St Jean, because new lines would have to be laid when HQ was to be moved from Ypres to St Julien (halfway between Zonnebeke and Langemarck) for the duration of the days operations, withdrawing to Ypres again at night.
The 15th Hussars (attached to 4 Brigade) were to close up any gaps between the right of 2 Coldstreams (the rightmost of the front line of 4 Brigade), and the left flank of 22 Brigade (7th Division) at Zonnebeke. Wonderfully their History is at the Light Dragoon Regimental Association's website; just look for ‘History of the 15th The King's Hussars 1914-1922’.
We know from their 7 Divs War diary (a downloadable file from the NA) that the leftmost of their front was 2 Battalion of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey’s.
Mickey and the 15th Hussars set off at 0800 with 2 Coldstream to make the Zonnebeke-Langemarck road, and make contact with men from 2 QRWS whose start position could be anywhere. It is in fact well forward of the Zonnebeke-Langemarck road.
They go over to find 2 QRWS. Here’s a lengthy extract from the 15th Hussars War Diary (not downloadable, you have to go to the NA for this one) which conveys the milling about that would be going on, and also the way that the Hussars, as contact points for one big formation talking to another, get to speak with the big nobs right there in the field (the implication being that this is what life is like for forward observation units):
“Went off to level crossing on railway W of ZONNEBEKE and touched Col Lawford 22 Brigade. He reported he was fairly heavily engaged. General Capper 7 Div rode up and asked if we could give him help as he was uneasy about his line of trenches which were heavily shelled, the men seemed rather uneasy in them. Reported situation in writing by Capt Nelson and Liddell and various things. In the meantime the 2 Coldstreams had sent half a coy *unreadable* to advance along the light railway and through the trenches there. In the meantime men were retiring of the QUEENS and WELSH and WARWICKS through ZONNEBEKE with rather depressing accounts.”
I substituted General Capper’s man for General Capper to make things simpler, rather wish I hadn’t now as we stuck glue-close to the diary.
2 Coldstreams get a long way before they get stuck. This is because they are on the reverse of a slope - they can’t be seen. They crest the ridge, and come under heavy artillery and rifle-fire at comparatively short range.
By 1130 they get to the Zonnebeke-Langemarck road. They’ve lost so many men the two remaining coys in reserve are brought up to fill the gaps.
Now the Coldstreams have the rug pulled from under them: the 2 QRWS’s diary tells us they have had a (mistaken) order ninety minutes previously to fall back (Cock-Up I), and although one coy hangs on, they basically leave the Coldstreams and Hussars exposed. The Germans sneak forward and enfilade them from a small ridge.
They need to pull the rightmost bit of the line back.
What happens? The order is misinterpreted and the entire front line of 2 Coldstreams falls back (Cock-Up II). A gap widens between them and the 2 QRWS. Exactly what the Germans want.
So that was my opportunity. Right in the middle of the day’s operations there was an order mysteriously gone astray. Why not make it part of Mickey’s crisis of conscience?
15th Hussars and Lifeguards and Household cavalry (they have also been brought up for any emergency Shock and Awe) go in: this has been their job all day. Now it is time to do it.
The 15 Hussars History (p90) gives us the following, a combination of their hurt at losing their mobility and thus being so cruelly exposed, and possibly some righteous envy that as far as we know the Lifeguards and Household cavalry were not similarly committed:
“B Squadron had so far been moving forward mounted, but at 2 p.m. the fire became so heavy that they were forced to dismount. Leaving as few men as possible with the led horses, they placed every rifle that could be spared into the firing line, and attempted to continue the advance on foot. The squadron was opposed by considerable rifle- and machine-gun-fire, whilst shells of all calibres burst unceasingly amongst the men. A further advance soon became impossible, and the men lay down in the open fields, without shelter of any kind against the storm of hostile fire. It must be realised that at this time there were no trenches of any sort, nor was it possible for the men of the Regiment to construct their own trenches, for at this period of the war, the only entrenching tools carried by the cavalry were on the pack horses, and it was seldom that they could be brought anywhere near the firing line. B Squadron, however, was not required to repel any hostile infantry assault, for the Germans concentrated all their efforts against the 7th Division away on the right.”
Their war diary is much punchier:
“We had a good deal of the *unreadable* but men on the ground could see nothing and our own principal annoyance was a machine gun. Also one of our batteries was shooting with such a low trajectory they failed to clear our line. Half a dozen shells right behind us was rather uncomfortable. Luckily only one or two *unreadable*. We found a place for a gunner’s observation post and were observed as we potted quite a nice bunch of Germans. He made the best shooting I have ever seen. And we could see quite a pile of corpses when they *unreadable*.”
They hold the line until another 4 Brigade unit, the 1 Bn Irish Guards, can come up and take over.
From this I constructed the idea of Mickey and Richardson going forward to shell, using especially the story of Oberstleutnant Bronisch, C.O. of the 1st Battalion Reserve Infantry Regiment 239 of the German Army who knew he had to urge his men forwards: he calmly walked around Broodseinde crossroads to encourage them forward although shelling blew him off his feet and tore holes in his coat. This and other pieces of German material came from Jack Sheldon’s excellent ‘The German Army at Ypres’.
If you want to look at this on Google Earth, I think the starting position for 2 Coldstreams is at 50°52'10.30"N 2°58'15.89"E and 2QRWS is at 50°52'34.28"N 2°59'37.06"E with 15 Hussars in between. The crossroads with the German officer in real life was at Broodseinde. My crossroads was more to the 15 Hussars front - say 50°53'2.34"N 2°59'42.10"E
Before I finish, I can recommend Wilfred Bion’s ‘War Memoirs’ where he talks about his uncontrollable desire to hug the earth as if it were his mother, another strong influence on writing this episode.
There are lots more fragments and ideas from other sources but that’s probably enough to be going on with.