Monday, August 15, 2011

Excerpt from an Autobiography

My Life My Trees



I must have met Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889-1982) only a year or two before his death. I was in Ottawa staying at the same place where he was billeted. Baker was as crotchety then as my father is now, and I will be, if I am lucky, a few decades from now. It is a great pleasure now to read his autobiography, which is informal, light reading. We forget that the First World War, and even the Second World War, were not as mechanized as the wars we suffer from now. Richard St. Barbe Baker was a horse expert as well as a tree expert.


     This is part IV of the first chapter of the autobiography of Baha'i environmentalist Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889-1982), called "My Life, My Trees." Here he tells the story of his time fighting in the First World War. The first part of this series of excerpts is in the Badi' Blog entry for Jan 12, 2010.

The second chapter tells of how he paid his way through school in the aftermath of that conflict. That in a future Badi' Blog posting.


from chapter One of "My Life, My Trees," by Richard St. Barbe Baker

Having earned enough to return to England I was studying Divinity at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, at the outbreak of World War I. While at Emmanuel College, Saskatchewan, taking arts and sciences, I had devoted myself to Christian work in the North-West and in the building up of congregations of isolated settlers around the central schools of Mission Churches. I felt that before accepting ordination I should gain wider experience and perhaps complete my studies at Cambridge where generations of my forebears had taken their degrees or had become Fellows of their colleges.

Into the peace and seclusion of Ridley Hall came the threat of war. I had taken to heart the Sermon on the Mount and sought the guidance of my tutor, for whom I had the greatest possible admiration. If the teachings of Jesus meant anything and if we were to take up His Cross and follow Him, it would mean throwing up my cavalry training in King Edward's Horse -- the King's Overseas Dominions' Regiment -- and becoming a conscientious objector to war with all the deprivation it would entail.

My tutor, however, explained that the Sermon on the Mount was a counsel of perfection and obviously we could hardly expect to be able to live up to it yet. Besides, Jesus Himself fought the money-changers in the Temple and would wish His followers to steel themselves for the fight against evil. He said: "I came not to bring peace but a sword." Somewhat bewildered this young divinity student decided to go to the summer camp with his regiment. Two weeks later war came, and in response to an appeal I volunteered for immediate service overseas. That was towards the end of the summer in August, 1914.

I had joined up as a trooper in King Edward's Horse, but it was with the guns that I saw most of my service in France, for just as I had made up my mind that the best way to die was in a cavalry charge, I was promoted and given a commission in the Royal Horse and Field Artillery.

I had expected to be drafted to France the next day but instead I was posted to a reserve battery in Ireland. Here I had six hundred horses, two guns and eight hundred wild Irish Reservists to be

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equipped and trained for overseas service and taught to ride horses. It was sheer fun for me, for I was in my element. I taught my men to ride in the hunting field with the Muskerry and Duhallow, the nearest packs to my station at Ballincollig. For the moment it was all so enjoyable that we almost forgot the war but the time soon came for me to leave. After passing out eight hundred drivers for France I followed. I was the first temporary officer in the 1st Divisional Artillery of the old Army, for I relieved the first officer casualty in 115 Battery, 25th Brigade.


My battery commander was Ronnie Carrington whose name was a byword as a gunner with the highest possible reputation. When other guns in the first division were rationed to twenty-five rounds per battery per day, he was allowed three thousand rounds on account of his phenomenal marksmanship.

115 was a poker-playing battery but having learnt my lesson on my way to Canada I would excuse myself from 'joining in' and go out into the gun line to spot the flashes from German guns as they were being fired behind their lines. I recorded the angle of these from the gun line so that the air force observers could fly over the next day and give us the range. My services were recognized by the authorities and in due course a Military Cross arrived for me, but Ronnie Carrington did not approve of decorations and said:

"Baker, you don't want to have ribbons all over your bosom, do you? You're out here to kill Germans -- that's our job, isn't it?"

And he sent the Cross back to the Brigade Headquarters. When General Fanshawe wrote to the Major inviting me to be his A.D.C., Ronnie, handing the letter to me, impatiently exclaimed:

"You don't want to go and polish the General's buttons for him, do you? Aren't you here to kill Germans?"

So I stayed with my battery while Teddy Schriber, who accepted, was soon promoted rapidly to Brigadier, and later Major-General. I was fond of General Fanshawe, known to us as "Fanny". He, too, was a crack gunner and keenly interested in what was happening at the Front. Twice a week he would come to my forward observation post and ask me if there was anything new. He had a weakness for strawberries and cream and I used to send my batman to the midnight market at Bethune to secure these delicacies and bring them to me by dawn, when a visit from Fanny

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was expected. On one of these exciting mornings I happened to mention that a slit in the Church spire of La Bassee would get light and then dark again. My telescope was focused on this slit and the General kept watch. A few minutes later he exclaimed excitedly:

"You're right, Baker, there's obviously an observation post there. Get your guns on to it."

I must admit I felt a bit squeamish about shelling a church and suggested that he should get the heavies on to it. This he did and for two days the heavies kept up fire without hitting the object. The church was just on the other side of the hill and in a fairly safe position. As I was watching at dawn on the third morning there was a terrific explosion and when the rubble and dust cleared from the air the church spire had gone. I told the General this when he came round a few minutes later, and he said:

"What about a spot of leave, Baker? There's going to be a big push soon so I won't suggest more than four days. How about it?"

Of course I accepted. In London I was invited to a tea-party by some friends all anxious for the latest news from the Front. One old lady who confronted me said:

"Isn't it terrible that those Germans are firing at churches behind our lines?"

I kept very quiet.


On my return to France I was posted to the 39th brigade under the command of Colonel Wardrop -- the famous authority on pig-sticking, who had written a book on the subject which had become a classic. The Corps horse show was in the offing and he asked me if I was going to enter. I regretted that I had not a horse fit to enter, and so he very generously invited me to ride his chestnut, a fine upstanding charger. As good fortune would have it I won the Corps Cup on his horse. After this I was given the very responsible job of building a fighting post for the Colonel in preparation for the big push.

In the middle of this job the Germans sent over forty heavy shells in five minutes and twenty-seven of us were buried beneath bricks and mortar and sandbags. The corpses were extracted from the debris and laid in an improvised mortuary. The corporal in

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charge of the burial party was collecting the identity discs -- ripping them off the necks of the corpses. But my identity badge was chained on to my wrist; this had been done during my recent four days' leave. The Corporal gave it a tug and tried to break the steel chain without success. The wrist started bleeding whereupon he called the sergeant and reported:

"This corpse is bleeding."

The sergeant said, "Put it on that old Ford," referring to the van that had brought up the burial tools.

This 'corpse' woke up three and a half days later in the Duchess of Westminster Hospital at Le Touquet, Paris Plage!

Although my body was badly hurt and many bones were broken, I do not remember feeling any pain. It seemed that I myself was outside my body, quite detached from it, watching it with interest yet unconcern. That must have lasted for about three days.

I was haunted by the thought of having taken life. In the fury of the war and in retaliating for the loss of so many of my comrades, quite apart from the destruction by my guns I had taken a heavy toll of German officers from the sniper's post where I would claim my daily turn. In my war madness I used to carve a notch for each 'heart-shot' on an old bow I had found in a shelled chateau, and with glowing pride I had filled it from tip to tip.

A soldier's tribute to his King, Displayed in every ruddy ring.

In hospital from each notch the eyes of those officers I had killed seemed to look sadly out at me. Their ghostly spectres haunted me, I could not sleep, and my heart came near breaking with regret.

Then about four o'clock one morning I thought I saw my former Major, Bob Herman of Cavalry, who had been killed by a stray bullet a few days before, come into my room and stand looking at me from the bottom of my bed. This vision saved my sanity. In order to comfort others I tried to record this impression in the words of a young officer who has been killed and appears to his mother. She has just had news of his death and is

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going round her room examining his `souvenirs' little bits of twisted bullet and fragments of shell he had brought her when on leave from the front. Her heart is seared with grief until he enters her room.

Mother I've come for one brief moment I must not tarry longer.
Promoted I have been
No longer Earth-bound sorrowing
I pass from sphere to sphere
Carrying new messages of love.

No longer hate I now;
Eyes that once were filled with feud
Now shine bright with gratitude.
Yonder I go to join my comrades.

Regret not the past
Live in the present

Crowd each hour with gladness,
Out of the sorrow, out of the sadness
Spring a new world into birth,
Soon strife shall surely cease
And earth with settled peace, break into song.


He then vanishes as silently as he has come. A great weight is lifted from his mother as she begins to realize the meaning of life after death. And so it was with me. Instead of those Germans being my enemies they became the shining ones, over-flowing with gratitude for their promotion into heavenly places.

Slowly consciousness returned and I began to recover, though I still suffered both mental as well as bodily agony as if I were thawing out after having been frozen. Strangely enough it is not the freezing that hurts; it is the thawing out which is excruciating. I wanted to die but with great skill I was dragged back to life and eventually I returned to the Front, only to be smashed up again.

In the summer of 1917 I was stationed at Swaythling Remount Depot, near Southampton, and used to receive horses from conditioning depots to take on to France. I made fifty-eight crossings of the English Channel and conducted eighteen thousand horses, sometimes as many as four hundred and fifty on a boat, taking them to Le Havre, Dieppe and sometimes in a smaller boat to Rouen. I used to look forward to those summer days on the boat, going up the Seine and being greeted by children lined up along the banks to see the horseboat pass on its way to the Front. It was generally peaceful once we crossed the Channel. Unfortunately, once as we were entering the mouth of the Seine and just as our escort had given his farewell toot and swung round to go out to sea again, she struck a mine, was split in the middle and sank at our stern.

In those Channel crossings I generally contrived to have a blood mare on the top deck just outside my cabin, in case our ship was torpedoed. A horse as a swimming companion in the water is better than a lifebelt, for besides being a friend in distress a clever horse has the instinct to swim towards the nearest land. I would choose a horse with a mane that I could hold on to. When swimming with a horse it is important to keep one's legs as near the surface of the water as possible and away from the horse's feet. Once, when returning empty, we struck a mine in mid-Channel and the Laskar stokers went on strike, so I ordered my Remount Conducting Party to carry on. They brought the ship into Southampton and I got a D.C.M. for my sergeant.

Soon I had become so fit on this light duty that I was posted to the Remount Depot at Dieppe and used to take horses up the line from there. This was done under cover of night and we usually managed to hand over before dawn and get the horses dispersed to their units before the German planes were up. However, on one of these trips to the Front, a dive-bomber dropped a string on the train which was blown up just as we were shunting back -- that was the last time I was smashed up and after the wounds had healed I was fortunate enough to be invited to stay at Lennel, Coldstream, as a guest of Lady Clementine Waring. It was a beautifully wooded property and I was able to help the woodman and fend for the other officers who had suffered loss of limb.

I was finally invalided out in April 1918. I am deeply appreciative of the skill of the doctors and devoted care of the nurses and sometimes wish that I could arrange a grand reunion of all those to whom I am indebted for my life.

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During my convalescence it began to dawn upon me that we were losing more lives through ignorance of health in our great cities than on all Fronts. With Percy Alden of the British Institute of Social Service, I devoted myself to work for the Government, calling upon captains of industry to enlist their help and generally paving the way for the Ministry of Health. It was my earnest endeavour to see that the wonderful war-time sacrifice should not be wasted and that out of it should come a new and saner order of things leading to a lasting peace. As soon as the Ministry of Health came into being I returned to my forestry work at Cambridge.


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