The Secret Battle
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The Secret Battle is a novel by A. P. Herbert, first published in 1919. The book draws upon Herbert's experiences as a junior infantry officer in the First World War, and has been praised for its accurate and truthful portrayal of the mental effects of the war on the participants. It was one of the earliest novels to contain a detailed description of Gallipoli, and to challenge the Army's executions of soldiers for desertion. It is noticeable as being sharply different from Herbert's later work—there is no note of humour or lightness in the novel, simply a stark and simple narrative.

The Secret Battle

A. P. Herbert

The Secret Battle


I am going to write down some of the history of Harry Penrose, because I do not think full justice has been done to him, and because there must be many other young men of his kind who flung themselves into this war at the beginning of it, and have gone out of it after many sufferings with the unjust and ignorant condemnation of their fellows. At times, it may be, I shall seem to digress into the dreary commonplaces of all war-chronicles, but you will never understand the ruthless progression of Penrose’s tragedy without some acquaintance with each chapter of his life in the army.

He joined the battalion only a few days before we left Plymouth for Gallipoli, a shy, intelligent-looking person, with smooth, freckled skin and quick, nervous movements; and although he was at once posted to my company we had not become at all intimate when we steamed at last into Mudros Bay. But he had interested me from the first, and at intervals in the busy routine of a troopship passing without escort through submarine waters, I had been watching him and delighting in his keenness and happy disposition.

It was not my first voyage through the Mediterranean, though it was the first I had made in a transport, and I liked to see my own earlier enthusiasm vividly reproduced in him. Cape Spartel and the first glimpse of Africa; Tangiers and Tarifa and all that magical hour’s steaming through the narrow waters with the pink and white houses hiding under the hills; Gibraltar Town shimmering and asleep in the noonday sun; Malta and the bumboat women, carozzes swaying through the narrow, chattering streets; cool drinks at cafés in a babel of strange tongues; all these were to Penrose part of the authentic glamour of the East; and he said so.

I might have told him, with the fatuous pomp of wider experience, that they were in truth but a very distant reflection of the genuine East; but I did not. For it was refreshing to see any one so frankly confessing to the sensations of adventure and romance. To other members of the officers’ mess the spectacle of Gibraltar from the sea may have been more stimulating than the spectacle of Southend (though this is doubtful); but it is certain that few of them would have admitted the grave impeachment.

At Malta some of us spent an evening ashore, and sat for a little in a tawdry, riotous little café, where two poor singing women strove vainly to make themselves heard above the pandemonium of clinked glasses and bawled orders; there we met many officers newly returned from the landing at Cape Helles, some of them with slight bodily wounds, but all of them with grievous injury staring out of their eyes.

Those of them who would speak at all were voluble with anecdotes of horror and blood. Most of our own party had not yet lost the light-hearted mood in which men went to the war in those days; the ‘picnic’ illusion of war was not yet dispelled; also, individually, no doubt, we had that curious confidence of the unblooded soldier that none of these strange, terrible things could ever actually happen to us; we should for ever hang upon the pleasant fringes of war, sailing in strange seas, and drinking in strange towns, but never definitely entangled in the more crude and distasteful circumstances of battle.

And if there were any of us with a secret consciousness that we deceived ourselves, to-night was no time to tear away the veil. Let there be lights and laughter and wine; to-morrow, if need be, let us be told how the wounded had drowned in the wired shallows, and reckon the toll of that unforgettable exploit and the terrors that were still at work. And so we would not be dragooned into seriousness by these messengers from the Peninsula; but rather, with no injury to their feelings, laughed at their croakings and continued to drink.

But Harry Penrose was different. He was all eagerness to hear every detail, hideous and heroic.

There was one officer present, from the 29th Division, a man about thirty, with a tanned, melancholy face and great solemn eyes, which, for all the horrors he related, seemed to have something yet more horrible hidden in their depths.

Him Harry plied with questions, his reveller’s mood flung impatiently aside; and the man seemed ready to tell him things, though from his occasional reservations and sorrowful smile I knew that he was pitying Harry for his youth, his eagerness and his ignorance.

Around us were the curses of overworked waiters, and the babble of loud conversations, and the smell of spilt beer; there were two officers uproariously drunk, and in the distance pathetic snatches of songs were heard from the struggling singer on the dais. We were in one of the first outposts of the Empire, and halfway to one of her greatest adventures.

And this excited youth at my side was the only one of all that throng who was ready to hear the truth of it, and to speak of death. I lay emphasis on this incident, because it well illustrates his attitude towards the war at that time (which too many have now forgotten), and because I then first found the image which alone reflects the many curiosities of his personality.

He was like an imaginative, inquisitive child; a child that cherishes a secret gallery of pictures in its mind, and must continually be feeding this storehouse with new pictures of the unknown; that is not content with a vague outline of something that is to come, a dentist, or a visit, or a doll, but will not rest till the experience is safely put away in its place, a clear, uncompromising picture, to be taken down and played with at will.

Moreover, he had the fearlessness of a child — but I shall come to that later.

And so we came to Mudros, threading a placid way between the deceitful Aegean Islands. Harry loved them because they wore so green and inviting an aspect, and again I did not undeceive him and tell him how parched and austere, how barren of comfortable grass and shade he would find them on closer acquaintance.

We steamed into Mudros Bay at the end of an unbelievable sunset; in the great harbour were gathered regiments of ships — battleship, cruiser, tramp, transport, and trawler, and as the sun sank into the western hills, the masts and the rigging of all of them were radiant with its last rays, while all their decks and hulls lay already in the soft blue dusk.

There is something extraordinarily soothing in the almost imperceptible motion of a big steamer gliding at slow speed to her anchorage; as I leaned over the rail of the boat-deck and heard the tiny bugle-calls float across from the French or English warships, and watched the miniature crews at work upon their decks, I became aware that Penrose was similarly engaged close at hand, and it seemed to me an opportunity to learn something of the history of this strange young man.

Beginning with his delight in the voyage and all the marvellous romance of our surroundings, I led him on to speak of himself. Both his parents had died when he was a boy at school.

They had left him enough to go to Oxford upon (without the help of the Exhibition he had won), and he had but just completed his second year there when the war broke out. For some mysterious reason he had immediately enlisted instead of applying for a commission, like his friends. I gathered — though not from anything he directly said — that he had had a hard time in the ranks.

The majority of his companions in training had come down from the north with the first draft of Tynesiders; and though, God knows, the Tynesider as a fighting man has been unsurpassed in this war, they were a wild, rough crowd before they became soldiers, and I can understand that for a high-strung, sensitive boy of his type the intimate daily round of eating, talking, and sleeping with them, must have made large demands on his patriotism and grit.

But he said it did him good; and it was only the pestering of his guardian and relations that after six months forced him to take a commission. He had a curious lack of confidence in his fitness to be an officer — a feeling which is deplorably absent in hundreds not half as fit as he was; but from what I had seen of his handling of his platoon on the voyage (and the men are difficult after a week or two at sea) I was able to assure him that he need have no qualms.

He was, I discovered, pathetically full of military ambitions; he dreamed already, he confessed, of decorations and promotions and glorious charges. In short, he was like many another undergraduate officer of those days in his eagerness and readiness for sacrifice, but far removed from the common type in his romantic, imaginative outlook towards the war. ‘Romantic’ is the only word, I think, and it is melancholy for me to remember that even then I said to myself, ‘I wonder how long the romance will last, my son.’

But I could not guess just how terrible was to be its decay.


We were not to be long at Mudros. For three days we lay in the sweltering heat of the great hill-circled bay, watching the warships come and go, and buying fruit from the little Greek sailing boats which fluttered round the harbour.

These were days of hot anxiety about one’s kit; hourly each officer reorganized and re-disposed his exiguous belongings, and re-weighed his valise, and jettisoned yet more precious articles of comfort, lest the weight regulations be violated and for the sake of an extra shirt the whole of one’s equipment be cast into the sea by the mysterious figure we believed to watch over these things.

Afterwards we found that all our care was in vain, and in the comfortless camps of the Peninsula bitterly bewailed the little luxuries we had needlessly left behind, now so unattainable. Down in the odorous troop-decks the men wrote long letters describing the battles in which they were already engaged, and the sound of quite mythical guns.

But on the third day came our sailing orders. In the evening a little trawler, promoted to the dignity of a fleet-sweeper, came alongside, and all the regiment of gross, overloaded figures, festooned with armament and bags of food, and strange, knobbly parcels, tumbled heavily over the side.

Many men have written of the sailing of the first argosy of troopships from that bay; and by this time the spectacle of departing troops was an old one to the vessels there. But this did not diminish the quality of their farewells. All the King’s ships ‘manned ship’ as we passed, and sent us a great wave of cheering that filled the heart with sadness and resolution.

In one of the French ships was a party of her crew high up somewhere above the deck, and they sang for us with astonishing accuracy and feeling the ‘Chant du Départ’; so moving was this that even the stolid Northerners in our sweeper were stirred to make some more articulate acknowledgment than the official British cheer; and one old pitman, searching among his memories of some Lancashire music-hall, dug out a rough version of the ‘Marseillaise.’

By degrees all our men took up the tune and sang it mightily, with no suspicion of words; and the officers, not less timidly, joined in, and were proud of the men for what they had done. For many were moved in that moment who were never moved before. But while we were yet warm with cheering and the sense of knighthood, we cleared the boom and shivered a little in the breeze of the open sea.

The sun went down, and soon it was very cold in the sweeper: and in each man’s heart I think there was a certain chill. There were no more songs, but the men whispered in small groups, or stood silent, shifting uneasily their wearisome packs. For now we were indeed cut on from civilization and committed to the unknown.

The transport we had left seemed a very haven of comfort and security; one thought longingly of white tables in the saloon, and the unfriendly linen bags of bully-beef and biscuits we carried were concrete evidence of a new life.

The war seemed no longer remote, and each of us realized indignantly that we were personally involved in it. So for a little all these soldiers had a period of serious thought unusual in the soldier’s life. But as we neared the Peninsula the excitement and novelty and the prospect of exercising cramped limbs brought back valour and cheerfulness.

At Malta we had heard many tales of the still terrifying ordeal of landing under fire. But such terrors were not for us. There was a bright moon, and as we saw the pale cliffs of Cape Helles, all, I think, expected each moment a torrent of shells from some obscure quarter.

But instead an unearthly stillness brooded over the two bays, and only a Morse lamp blinking at the sweeper suggested that any living thing was there. And there came over the water a strange musty smell; some said it was the smell of the dead, and some the smell of an incinerator; myself I do not know, but it was the smell of the Peninsula for ever, which no man can forget. We disembarked at a pier of rafts by the River Clyde, and stumbled eagerly ashore.

And now we were in the very heart of heroic things. Nowhere, I think, was the new soldier plunged so suddenly into the genuine scenes of war as he was at Gallipoli; in France there was a long transition of training-camps and railway trains and billets, and he moved by easy gradations to the firing-line. But here, a few hours after a night in linen sheets, we stood suddenly on the very sand where, but three weeks before, those hideous machine-guns in the cliffs had mown down that astonishing party of April 25. And in that silver stillness it was difficult to believe.

We shambled off up the steady slope between two cliffs, marvelling that any men could have prevailed against so perfect a ‘field of fire.’ By now we were very tired, and it was heavy work labouring through the soft sand.

Queer, Moorish-looking figures in white robes peered at us from dark corners, and here and there a man poked a tousled head from a hole in the ground, and blinked upon our progress. Some one remarked that it reminded him of nothing so much as the native camp at Earl’s Court on a fine August evening, and that indeed was the effect.

After a little the stillness was broken by a sound which we could not conceal from ourselves was ‘the distant rattle of musketry’; somewhere a gun fired startlingly; and now as we went each man felt vaguely that at any minute we might be plunged into the thick of a battle, laden as we were, and I think each man braced himself for a desperate struggle.

Such is the effect of marching in the dark to an unknown destination. Soon we were halted in a piece of apparently waste land circled by trees, and ordered to dig ourselves a habitation at once, for ‘in the morning’ it was whispered ‘the Turks search all this ground.’

Everything was said in a kind of hoarse, mysterious whisper, presumably to conceal our observations from the ears of the Turks five miles away. But then we did not know they were five miles away; we had no idea where they were or where we were ourselves.

Men glanced furtively at the North Star for guidance, and were pained to find that, contrary to their military teaching, it told them nothing. Even the digging was carried on a little stealthily till it was discovered that the Turks were not behind those trees.

The digging was a comfort to the men, who, being pitmen, were now in their element; and the officers found solace in whispering to each other that magical communication about the prospective ‘searching’; it was the first technical word they had used ‘in the field,’ and they were secretly proud to know what it meant.

In a little the dawn began, and the grey trees took shape; and the sun came up out of Asia, and we saw at last the little sugar-loaf peak of Achi Baba, absurdly pink and diminutive in the distance.

A man’s first frontal impression of that great rampart, with the outlying slopes masking the summit, was that it was disappointingly small; but when he had lived under and upon it for a while, day by day, it seemed to grow in menace and in bulk, and ultimately became a hideous, overpowering monster, pervading all his life; so that it worked upon men’s nerves, and almost everywhere in the Peninsula they were painfully conscious that every movement they made could be watched from somewhere on that massive hill.

But now the kitchens had come, and there was breakfast and viscous, milkless tea. We discovered that all around our seeming solitude the earth had been peopled with sleepers, who now emerged from their holes; there was a stir of washing and cooking and singing, and the smoke went up from the wood fires in the clear, cool air.

D Company officers made their camp under an olive-tree, with a view over the blue water to Samothrace and Imbros, and now in the early cool, before the sun had gathered his noonday malignity, it was very pleasant. At seven o’clock the ‘searching’ began. A mile away, on the northern cliffs, the first shell burst, stampeding a number of horses.

The long-drawn warning scream and the final crash gave all the expectant battalion a faintly pleasurable thrill, and as each shell came a little nearer the sensation remained. No one was afraid; without the knowledge of experience no one could be seriously afraid on this cool, sunny morning in the grove of olive-trees.

Those chill hours in the sweeper had been much more alarming. The common sensation was: ‘At last I am really under fire; to-day I shall write home and tell them about it.’ And then, when it seemed that the line on which the shells were falling must, if continued, pass through the middle of our camp, the firing mysteriously ceased.

Harry, I know, was disappointed; personally, I was pleased.

I learned more about Harry that afternoon. He had been much exhausted by the long night, but was now refreshed and filled with an almost childish enthusiasm by the pictorial attractions of the place. For this enthusiastic soul one thing only was lacking in the site of the camp: the rise of the hill which here runs down the centre of the Peninsula, hid from us the Dardanelles. These, he said, must immediately be viewed.

It was a bright afternoon of blue skies and gentle air, — not yet had the dry north-east wind come to plague us with dust-clouds, — and all the vivid colours of the scene were unspoiled. We walked over the hill through the parched scrub, where lizards darted from under our feet and tortoises lay comatose in the scanty shade, and came to a kind of inland cliff, where the Turks had had many riflemen at the landing, for all the ground was littered with empty cartridges.

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