|This page is not written in modern html. Some of the footnotes have strangely morphed with the text making the whole even more garbled than it really was. The research has also been superseded. I leave it here for reference only. Reader beware. [Richard Shepherd, 19 Aug 2012.]|
"I say they tell lies when they
say that the hummingbird was little.
The Hummingbird, a Zinacantecan mythical poem.1
The small white bird loops playfully above the reeds and flies low across the reservoir. On the bank, with the rising sun behind them are four dark figures. Five if you count the retriever which is standing at his master's feet and following his gaze with increasing anticipation. The swallow's size and grace have given it a reputation for speed. But Ernst Hartert, Director of Walter Rothschild's Tring Museum, the largest private museum of natural history artifacts ever collected, knows that the swallow's speed is something of an illusion.2 He has never seen an albino swallow and doesn't relish killing; but Science requires certainty. Behind the trigger is the ideal of an ornithological nomenclature: a "language of birds". None of the figures are close enough to hear the faint exhalation of air and blood which is the bird's last linguistic contribution to science as it falls between worlds.
My interest in Ernst Hartert (1859-1933) is something of a sidetrack. I hesitate to say a pleasurable one, because it's a story about the First World War, and moreover one that somehow managed to depress me more than many of the first hand accounts of blood and bullets which you can so easily become immune to. It spoke to me about the - to cast around for a suitable adjective: grimy? irritable? casual? - dysfunctionality of the war. And how all wars are in a sense civil wars (meaning of course deeply uncivil) pitting brother against brother, father - or mother - against son.
And it was a story that would connect not just with my own family's wartime experience but with that of a more prominent Berkhamsted family, the Greenes, and in a rather surprising way. In a folder at the National Archives I stumbled across a tale of divided loyalties, counter-espionage and betrayal that could have been the material for a Graham Greene novel.
Then I realized that in a way of course it was a Graham Greene novel.
"Hartert was a pure blooded Prussian with an egg-shaped head upon the smaller end of which bristled a closely cut crop of drab-coloured hair."3
But aren't all skulls, at least roughly, egg-shaped? His photograph shows a well-to-do gentleman who could have come from anywhere in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, from St Petersburg to County Clare. No one would pick him out of an identity parade as being especially German.4
Unless of course they were familiar with his monumental work: Die Vogel der palaarktischen Fauna - "a book which", according to Collingwood Ingram, "probably contains more dry, though mainly accurate, ornithological information than any other work that has ever been compiled by a single person."5
By the time Hartert retired in 1930 the museum's bird collection had expanded to around 280,000 specimens, many of which had been collected by Hartert and Rothschild personally, from Africa, Asia and America and perhaps, fictional swallows notwithstanding, from the reservoirs near Tring built to supply water to the Grand Union Canal on its route through the chalk hills to the River Thames at Brentford.
I had first came across Hartert whilst on the trail of William Beach Thomas, a journalist and writer on the countryside, who was a kind of embedded reporter on the western front. Beach Thomas ( he tacked his second Christian name on to his surname) famously reported the first day of the Somme as a resounding success. Less famously he covered the fighting at the Ancre on the 3rd September in which my Great Uncle Jock's brief military career came to an abrupt end.
In the spring of 1916 Beach Thomas and his friend Collingwood Ingram took advantage of the quiet before the storm go on bird-watching trips in the marshes around St Omer where Ingram was stationed with the Royal Flying Corps. Ingram, a keen ornithologist and horticulturist (he would later earn the nickname "Cherry" Ingram for the large collection of ornamental cherry trees he amassed at his home in Benenden, Kent) wrote about these expeditions in his book, In Search of Birds, and it was here that I found the description of Hartert.
The career of the Emden, a light German battle cruiser, was legendary in her homeland. Inspired (according to The Times) by Kipling, the Captain, having disguised his ship by the erection of a fourth dummy funnel, had captured 20 English ships, shelled the city of Madras and evaded the allied navy for the first three months of the war. The ship's £2,200,000, trail of destruction only came to an end on November 9th 1914 when it was attacked by the Australian cruiser, Sydney, and ran aground on North Keeling Island in the Indian Ocean.7
If Claudia Hartert was enthused by the story of the Emden and its Captain Von Muller, she was not alone in December 1914. The Times declared Muller "a brave and chivalrous foe" and suggested that he would receive a generous welcome if he visited London: "Had all his countrymen fought as he has done, the German nation would not be execrated in the world to-day."8
Claudia's son, Joachim, had enlisted in the British army at the outbreak of war, but he was, happily for his parents, still only a few miles away at Halton camp. Claudia could set about collecting for German prisoners of war with enthusiasm and - like most of the populations of her own and her adopted country - very little idea what the war was going to mean. An officer of the Sydney writing in The Times a month later recalled a conversation with the captured 2nd Torpedo Officer of the Emden, Prince Hohenzollern, after the battle: "…we seemed to agree that it was our job to knock one another out, but there was no malice in it."9
I've no reason to suspect that my great uncle Jock10 (Swifts, September, 1910 - November, 1912) and Joachim Hartert (Sibdon and Uppers, January, 1902 - April, 1912) knew each other. They were both Berkhamsted School boys, but Joachim was four years Jock's senior, and was already a student at Oxford when the war broke out. But they are linked by the inclusion of their names on the school memorial. And by two short words which would become shorthand for a rather different kind of war than that dimly envisaged in the euphoria of 1914: the Somme.
Journalist, Michael MacDonagh, making his way home near Blackfriars bridge around midnight on 1 October 1916 was transfixed by a sight that despite being 13 miles to the north of him and 12, 700 feet in the night sky, lit up the streets around him and gave a "ruddy glow" to the softly flowing river.11
The next day he was assigned to cover the shooting down of the super-Zeppelin ( the fourth in a month) which he had witnessed slowly falling to earth like a "ruined star", and duly made his way to Potter's Bar where the charred remains of the lighter-than-air craft had come to rest in an oak tree in a field owned by Mrs. Kemble (now Oakmere Park: Tempest Avenue, near the park was named after the pilot who brought the ship down).
A little way from the wrecked remains, he was taken to see the grim imprint of a body in the soft earth: a head-shaped hole and another for the trunk: arms and legs outstretched in a crucified mockery of flight.
Kap. Lieut. Mathy had been alive, if briefly, when the first witnesses arrived at the scene. And in death MacDonagh, who insisted on pulling back the blanket in the barn which had been requisitioned as a temporary morgue was surprised to see just "a slight distortion of the face" on a clean-shaven man in a dark overcoat and thick muffler.
Someone else who witnessed the blaze from the comfortable vantage point of a bathroom window in the family quarters at Berkhamsted School (he was, according to his autobiography A Sort of Life, woken specially and wrapped in blankets for the duration of the brief spectacle), was an eleven-year old Graham Greene. It was the eve of his twelfth birthday.12
In later years, Greene did not recall many memories of the war: at least, he didn't write them down. He was aware of a certain amount of anti-German feeling in the town - a dachshund was stoned in the High Street and a German master at the school accused of spying when, according to Greene, he was seen under the railway bridge without a hat.13 He remembered the town being proud of the Inns of Court OTC regiment stationed in its midst and his mother being offended by the marriage of one of their number to the tripe-seller's daughter.14 He also remembered the "endless memorial services" on Sunday evenings in the school chapel when the latest names of the fallen were read out and the marche funèbre played on the organ. 15
Greene's friend and contemporary at the school, the radical journalist Claude Cockburn recalled the devastating effect the losses had on Graham's father, Charles, the school's headmaster, who was a liberal in outlook if conservative in temperament:
"Most of the sixth form was wiped out, year after year, and he'd sit there teaching the sixth form, then they were called up and 80 per cent of them would be killed. I know when I was in the sixth form, I think only about ten per cent or so of the previous year were still alive, and we thought that was life."16
The war years, suggests the school's historian, BH Garnons Williams, must have been "one long personal tragedy" for a sensitive liberal who was not merely a competent headmaster but "a brilliant and inspiring teacher" who took a personal interest in all his students and was friendly with many of the boys' families.17
"Outside the school chapel", after the war, Graham Greene recalled many years later, "there was the list of old boys killed, plaque after plaque in double column, to remind us of the recent years".18 By the end of the war, the list would contain 230 names.
The Human Factor
One of these stories is a report of a "Field Day" published in the Berkhamstedian in July 1916, author unknown, the other a dream recorded by an adult Graham Greene. It strikes me that the imaginary worlds they inhabit are not so dissimilar. The only real difference, aside from the minor one of the nationality of the invaders, is that a human being (Greene) is at the center of the drama, rather than an anonymous Force (as it happens, Brown).
From a genealo-archaeologist's point of view The Human Factor is Graham Greene's most interesting novel. A thriller set mostly in Berkhamsted and London, its subject is late 20th century cold-warfare played out in the practice trenches left by an earlier conflict on Berkhamsted common and in the beech woods of Ashridge, where nearly 14,000 officers of the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps - the Territorial Army's Sandhurst - had prepared for Armageddon in 1914-18.
The book's protagonist, Maurice Castle, is a spy working for MI6 in London. Greene was an MI6 agent during the Second World War (his boss was a certain Kim Philby) and, according to Yvonne Cloetta, his companion of thirty years, he was still passing occasional information to MI6 right up until his death in 1991.21
The surname, Castle, is more than just a nod to Greene's Berkhamsted roots: it rather neatly manages to combine the ideas of patriotic suburbia (I noticed on my last visit that there's a local estate agent called Castles) and siege warfare. Perhaps it contains another in-joke too, Berkhamsted Castle is oddly weightless: a few stacks of flinty teeth rising from triplicate green banks, the outer one of which has been sacrificed to an impressive railway viaduct which underpins the rolling rear-ends of the Black Prince's descendants and lends a sense of Victorian purposefulness to the twice-daily migration.
The middle-aged spy, like Greene, was born in Berkhamsted and the Common, occupying the high ground above the quiet market town 26 miles from the capital is both a recreational facility where he can walk his loyal boxer, Buller, (before he eventually betrays him with a bullet in the head) and a border to a foreign country: his own childhood. The Common had been for spy and author alike a place in childhood of imaginative solitude, escape into a Buchanesque world of "guerrilla campaigns (fought) against overwhelming odds"22 in the bracken and gorse and in the trenches left behind by the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps.
In fact the attraction for local children of the 427 hectares of bracken and gorse stretching in an arc from Northchuch in the west to Frithsden in the east and its proximity to Ashridge and the Chiltern Hills at Ivinghoe Beacon was pretty much the same for the army who marched into Berkhamsted on 28 September 1914, initially for six weeks, and stayed for the duration of the war.
Unlike Greene however (conspiracy theories excepted: theories largely fuelled by his friendship with Kim Philby after the latter's flight to the Soviet Union) Castle is a double agent who has turned to Moscow in gratitude to the communist agent who smuggled his black wife, Sarah, to freedom from Apartheid South Africa.
Castle's colleague has been killed as a suspected double agent, and Castle knowing his cover is about to be blown, sets in train an escape plan. The locus of imaginary warfare becomes the stage for real and present danger. The beech trees of Ashridge that provided cover for truanting teenagers and proto-officers, now provide a "safe drop" for Castle to contact his controller. The book code which Castle uses for the drop in a hollow tree, six trees back from the Ashridge road, is taken - entirely appropriately - from War and Peace.23
The novel, of course, is not autobiographical. Greene once confided to Yvonne Cloetta that the character of Daintry, the socially uncomfortable MI6 bureaucrat with a failed marriage and semi-estranged grown-up daughter, contained more of him than Castle. What interests me is not the biographical detail, real or imagined, but the light that Greene's imaginative world can shed on our common (in all senses of the word) history and, conversely, what that history can tell us - if anything - about Greene's imaginative world.
In Hamburg on the 29th October 1859, Ernst Hartert was born into a military family, his father being a Major (and later a general) in the Hanseatic Contingent.24 Ernst's passion for ornithology began by collecting eggs as a schoolboy in Silesia, a prosperous area of central Europe which was controlled by Prussia and Austria until 1918, and is now mostly in Poland.
Young Hartert was educated at the University of Königsberg and cut his teeth, or perhaps sharpened his beak, writing on the bird-life of east Prussia before being invited to join an African Expedition with the Berlin Museum in 1885. He traveled extensively in west Africa and south Asia as a zoological collector and in 1892 he was commissioned by Walter Rothschild and Count Grafen Hans Von Berlepsch (whose private collection of 55000 bird skins now resides in the Senckenberg museum in Frankfurt) to find a rare Venezuelan Humming-bird, Heliangelus mavors, but finding the country in the throws of revolution, turned his sights on the avifauna of the Dutch West Indies.
The same year, again invited by Walter Rothschild, he took on the curatorship at Tring Museum and became a naturalized British citizen shortly after. But if his new job, quite naturally, meant less opportunity to travel, he could not have foreseen that in 1914, with a British-born son having cut short his Oxford degree to take up a commission in the 8th Service Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment, his opportunities for travel would now be limited to mainland Britain and that he and his German wife would keep their freedom only like songbirds at a zoo with room to maneuver but every note and movement under the watchful and studious eye of the keeper.
When Castle prepares to read a bed time story to his adopted son, Sam, the book, Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, falls open at "Keepsake Mill", and Castle recognizes in the verses which he had guarded for years the footprints of his own childhood.
We are in familiar Greene territory of border crossings and betrayals and the excitement of transgression and escape.
Despite the reference to sin, The Human Factor is actually a rather Godless novel, or rather, as the title suggests, God is conspicuous by his absence. Its not loyalty to God but loyalty to family and country that is under the microscope. And it is a difficult definition. Even without the addition of extra-terrestrial sanction, the borders of the heart can be as hard to trace as the lines of trenches which once stretched for 13,000 yards between Hill Farm and Norcott Hill at the western end of the Common.
As I conducted my research into the Harterts of Tring Museum, I not only found just such a problem of borders for naturalized Germans in wartime Britain but an unexpected link with the Berkhamsted Greenes. The conflicting tug of loyalties that power Greene's fictional world aren't as his detractors like to imply the product of Greeneland but, after all, simply the world he was born into. As Graham watched the Zeppelin fall to earth, perhaps he was already wondering what the morning's crop of presents would bring from his Aunt Eva.
I read, and now print, this extract from a personal letter with the rather guilty sensation that often overtakes me at the Public Records Office, of voyeurism. But historical curiosity outweighs moral scruple, and in any case the beige curtain was lifted from this particular folder a long time ago.
Kell, the grandson of a Polish refugee, was a career soldier and gifted linguist. He also had a passion for ornithology. After service abroad during which he saw action in the Boxer Rebellion in China, Kell returned to England in poor health and became the first director of a new secret service bureau set up in 1909 to investigate the danger of German espionage.
Kell was at the helm for 31 years during which time he created an institution that was by most accounts rather old-fashioned and paternalistic. Historian Nigel West points out that it never behaved like the Gestapo or became the tool of any one political party but it was class-ridden. Staff were recruited from an almost exclusively military and county background, many with independent means who would not have to rely on the meager salary that the government was prepared to offer.28
Right from the outset Kell was convinced that there was an army of German saboteurs and he began the secret registration of thousands of resident aliens. After the introduction of conscription in 1916, the peace-movement also became classed as pro-German, and by 1917 the secret registry contained nearly 40,000 personal files and one million cross-indexed cards: "…its principal work" according to Kell's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography "had become the collection and analysis of information on a vast range of innocent individuals and organizations." 29
Among the innocent individuals on file were the Harterts and the aunt of a young boy who would after the war also find himself under the watchful eye of Colonel Kell: Graham Greene.
Letters bounce back and forth as Ernst Hartert periodically applies for (and is refused) a passport. Perhaps Kell puts the German ornithologist's desire to travel down to migratory restlessness. Ernst's naturalization and having a British-born son in the colours on the western front don't appear to have influenced the decision (although they may of course have saved him from internment). Nothing damaging is proven but, in the opinion of the Chief Constable's office, "neither is there any reason for withdrawing the suspicion which attaches to them."
I would have thought that being (or being married to) a fiercely patriotic and outspoken German housewife was not the best cover for a spy. But perhaps I'm being naïve.31
In a way, The Human Factor was intended as a kind of antidote to the tawdry glamour of a James Bond film. The fountain-pen gas-gun and the spies hanged on the common are part of Sam's imagination. They belong with the dragons and fairies of Castle's childhood. Spying is much more prosaic and domestic. It's a job. Even the work of a double agent revolves around routine: the cycle to the station, the lunchtime pint, the bed time story.
Except of course drab routine never really makes interesting reading. It adds a certain realism to make the incredible credible. W Somerset Maugham, who used his experience as an agent in the first world war as material for his own "literary agent", Ashenden, summed up the problem in his preface to his novel of the same name:
To inject drama Greene introduces an extrajudicial killing and what's more, the weapon used in this cold-blooded murder is one that has its roots in the grim technological warfare first waged on the western front and even today exerts a terrible power over the imagination: a biological agent. Davis is killed with a dose of a poison produced by a mould that grows on damp crops, particularly peanuts: aflatoxin.
The fictional poison is actually, and more prosaically, the real cause of a health problem of epidemic proportions in rural Africa where food is often scarce and poorly stored. Low levels of the poison are consumed every day causing liver cancer (the most common cancer in many parts of the developing world) and other serious health defects.
Aflatoxin is not, according to Professor Chris Wild, head of Molecular Epidemiology at Leeds University, a particularly effective toxin for weapons. 32
But in an ironic twist that Graham Greene might have understood only too well (cf. Our Man in Havana where a vacuum cleaner salesman-turned-MI6 agent makes up stories for his bosses in London which then have a strange knack of becoming true) the British state, perhaps taking a leaf out of Greene's book, deployed its own hefty dose of fictional aflotoxin to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.33
Claudia Hartert was not hanged at Wandsworth Prison. Her name is not preserved in criminal infamy or penny-dreadful plays. She doesn't really merit a footnote in a history of the Greenes of Berkhamsted and her contribution to ornithology is lost in the shadow of her husband's. However, I was fascinated to discover that her name is preserved in a forum on an extinct species website, if that's not an oxymoron. 35
Heliangelus claudia, Claudia's sunangel, was a Humming bird with a deep black, faintly purple, upperside and violet-blue throat found in 1895 in the Bogotá collection of Monsieur Gounelle of Paris.
The specimen was first described in the journal of Tring Museum, Novitates Zoologicae, ii, 1895, by Ernst Hartert.
On page 484, after a note on The White Swallows of Aylesbury by Lord Rothschild, Hartert describes what he believes to be a new species of sunangel from the cloud forests of the east Andes, and takes the opportunity as discoverer to name the tiny creature after the mother of his two-year old son:
Humming birds, so the Handbook of the Birds of the World informs me, are almost unique among birds in arousing only positive emotions in humans. Nowhere are they considered pests and thanks to their diminutive size (the smallest can weigh as little as 2g) are rarely eaten. The esteem in which they are held is reflected in the myriad of poetic names they attract.37 Many of the names link the tiny birds with celestial objects ("hillstar" and "sunangel"), precious stones and metals ("mountain-gem" and "goldenthroat"), or figures from romantic folklore ("woodnymph" and "fairy").
John Gould's 1851 exhibition of 1500 mounted humming birds at London's Zoological Gardens attracted thousands of visitors, among them Queen Victoria, and effusive reports in the press: Punch thought the display made up for the loss of the Crystal Palace and called the birds "Koh-i-noors in feathers". 38
But their attractiveness nearly proved their undoing when the hummingbird became a nineteenth century fashion accessory. Millions of hummingbird skins were bought by European and North American fashion houses and their brilliantly coloured iridescent feathers found their way into hats and clothes as well as pictures and ornaments. In 1888, 12,000 Trochilid skins were sold at auction in London in one month alone and in 1905 8000 skins were used to make a single shawl.
The use of hummingbird feathers in human adornment had of course been practiced for centuries before Victorian collectors introduced them to the fashion houses of Europe and North America. The ceremonial Quetzal headdress of the Aztec king Montezuma had contained hundreds of trochilid feathers interspersed with gold.
If iridescence is no longer the new black, superstitious belief in the hummingbird's special powers has survived into modernity. In Mexico powdered Humming birds are sometimes placed in amulets to bring good luck or used in concoctions to secure fidelity. In Costa Rica, dried and perfumed hummingbird nests are hung in cars like furry dice.
But perhaps local traditions suggest a rather more complicated, even ambivalent, attitude towards the little birds than the romantic picture entertained by the Victorians. Ornithological knowledge in the nineteenth century was almost exclusively and quite literally skin deep. It was a knowledge based on the study of birdskins, rarely did it involve direct observation in the wild. Perhaps if it had, fewer scientists would have rushed to name these promiscuously polygamous creatures after their nearest and dearest.
H. claudia did not become extinct. Rather, it never actually, as it were, took off. By 1897 Dr Hartert was already "inclined to think" that the bird he named after his wife was not after all a new species, but a "melanistic variety" of an old one: H. clarrise (Longuemare's Sunangel). A thought on which modern ornithologists seem to concur. 39
Ernst and Claudia's son, Joachim, enlisted as a Private on 3 September 1914 and received his commission the same month.40 Claudia's happiness that her son was stationed locally, at Halton Camp, would not last and Joachim crossed to France in September 1915 as a Lieutenant in the 8th Service Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment. The regiment crossed to France on 8/9 September; the date of Kapt. Leut. Mathy's most successful raid on the capital and the same time that my great uncle was enlisting at the Inns of Court OTC headquarters at No 10 Stone Buildings, Lincoln's Inn. 41
Whether the British born public schoolboy and Oxford undergraduate (Wadham; Charles Greene's old college) felt any split loyalties is not recorded. He certainly wasn't slow to enlist. But a telegram to his father from the War Office records that he was treated in hospital in France for neurasthenia in March 1916. It's a diagnosis that covered a multitude of evils and largely fell from favour after the war. It almost certainly refers to symptoms that we would now attribute to post-traumatic stress. Nearly all of the officers treated at Craiglockhart were diagnosed neurasthenic, although interestingly W.H.R. Rivers - the pioneering psychotherapist who is the subject of Pat Barker's novel, Regeneration - disliked the diagnosis; preferring to use the term "anxiety neurosis". 42
Of course it is not necessary to feel split loyalties to suffer in war. A study of American soldiers in the second world war showed that after a little over a month of continuous combat 98 per cent exhibited psychiatric disturbance in varying degrees. 43
Whatever the case, Joachim appears to have been successfully treated in France, and was well enough to fight in the "Battle"44 of the Somme in July 1916. He is mentioned in the Battalion War Diary, 13th-14th July. The 8 East Yorkshire Regiment were part of an attack near Montauban, 10km east of Albert, the aim of which was, according to the official history, to secure the military objectives of July 1st.45 The assembly for the dawn attack was successful enough: 22,000 men assembled in darkness in No Man's Land within 500 yards of the German trenches. But, if the attack on the whole was a military, if costly, success46 , for Joachim's battalion, it was the same old story. The allied artillery barrage had had little effect on the German wire which remained resolutely uncut. Only two platoons of the 8 East Yorkshires got through to the German trenches, the rest were left to take cover in shell holes, under heavy bombardment and taking terrible casualties. Joachim Hartert was in one of the two platoons to get through the wire.
It is difficult not to read that with a shiver of irony.
And that according to the regiment's historian was that: "But of the two platoons of the 8th East Yorkshires, who had penetrated the enemy's wire in the initial attack, nothing further is recorded. Perhaps there was no more to tell than that they died gallantly fighting to the very last." 48
But there is more.
The more big official histories you read, the more little inaccuracies you find. It's not poor scholarship so much as the awesome scale of the slaughter. Not even Shakespeare could juggle a million stories at once. Historians, unlike slacker family archaeologists, have to use, or risk going neurasthenic themselves, a broad brush. But the very Devil is in the detail. And the Devil was saving Joachim for other things.
Hummingbirds are also aggressively territorial. Huitzilopochtli, an Aztec God, was a hummingbird associated with battle and human sacrifice. One interpretation of an Aztec legend has hummingbirds as fallen warriors who after having accompanied the sun for four years return to earth where they feed on nectar for eternity.
Birds are a recurring motif in The Human Factor. Strangely, for a novel set mainly in Berkhamsted and London, the first bird-hit is a vulture (in flash-back to Africa) and, like Sam's lead soldiers, provide a metaphor for the double-agent's terrible sense of doom as he waits "for the blow to fall". But apart from some china owls, one of which Daintry accidentally breaks, the rest of the birds are all at the wrong end of the food chain. Cold chicken "dismembered in the fingers" at Ashridge picnics. Massacred pheasants at class-ridden weekend shoots. Castle's alias when he finally flies to Moscow is Partridge.
Interestingly, for many years the unfinished novel itself was a bird that wouldn't fly: Greene had abandoned it "in despair" after 20,000 words. The manuscript in his bottom drawer "hung like a dead albatross around [his] neck", and his "imagination seemed as dead as the bird." 49
"There are certain writers, as different as Dickens and Kipling, who never shake off the burden of their childhood"50 , wrote Greene in his introduction to The Best of Saki. He might of course have added himself to that list. The pressures of life on the border, of "lavatories without locks" and "pitch-pine partitions in dormitories"51 had led to a breakdown and happily for him (and twentieth century literature) a course of psychoanalysis. Later it led him to experiment with suicide, famously playing Russian Roulette under the dark canopy of the Ashridge beechwoods. Later still, and again happily for his readers, it would lead him to the dangerous edges of the world, Mexico, Vietnam, Haiti where his journalistic and artistic vision could override his depressive tendencies and he could channel his fierce sympathy for the marginalized and the hunted into jewelled dispatches from no man's-land.
Hector Hugh Munro ("Saki"), the journalist and short-story writer, enlisted in the ranks at the outbreak of war and was serving as a lance sergeant in 22 Royal Fusiliers at the Western Front in the summer of 1916. Among his writings from this period is a short audit of the avifauna in the war zone: "Birds on the Western Front, 1916". He observes that, perhaps counter-intuitively, some species were actually doing rather well. There was at least "a partial mobilisation of owls, particularly barn owls" who were happy to take advantage of the large populations of rats and mice also mobilised by the conflict and make use of the accommodation opportunities offered by ruined buildings. On the debit side, crows and ravens seemed to have disappeared en masse but not, according to Saki, through fear, as those which he observed seemed unconcerned by gunfire and "Crows and magpies [were] nesting well within the shell-swept area". Larks too had "stuck tenaciously" to their torn landscape and in the pre-dawn gloom "would suddenly dash skyward and pour forth a song of ecstatic jubilation that sounded horribly forced and insincere." Partridges, a byword for "nervous debility" to gamekeepers at home showed "no signs of such sensitive nerves" at the front. But not all species were indifferent to the battle. Flitting between the splintered and leafless branches of a shattered wood, the writer observed a small hen chaffinch that he supposed "had a nest of young ones whom it was too scared to feed, too loyal to desert." 52
If owls and partridges were mostly indifferent to the bullets flying around them, or indeed saw a net gain in the abundance of mice at the front line, they were not indifferent to gas. The battle of the Somme was a field laboratory for modern warfare. The Special Brigade carried out fifty gas attacks in the first eighteen days alone and 1,500 tons of phosgene would be discharged over the next 9 months.53 Poison gas clouds would kill almost everything in their path that wasn't protected. They would strip trees of their leaves and cut down men, birds, mice and insects. And it was a terrible and often far from instantaneous death.
Phosgene and chlorine were chemicals from the synthetic dye industry which fed then current fashions for brightly coloured clothes. Hummingbirds might justifiably tut-tut (or Ch'un ch'un") and say that nothing good ever came out of the fashion industry except anorexia and cheap cocaine. At the battle of Loos in 1915, where the allies used gas for the first time, chlorine was referred to euphemistically but perhaps appropriately as the accessory.54 Even in a war with a myriad of possible horrible outcomes for the combatants, gas was in a league of its own and became a symbol of the war's degeneracy: the froth-corrupted sign of the old lie in Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et decorum est". 55
On 28th October "G" Company of Special Brigade RE had their "most successful shoot" of the gas bomb trials. Before September 1916 gas clouds had been released from canisters set in the ground in front of the front line and relied on the prevailing wind for delivery to the intended target. But "G" Company wanted a more reliable and versatile delivery method. For several days previously they had been emptying trench-mortar shells of their high-explosive contents and refilling them with a cocktail of chlorine and phosgene which they called White Star. 56
On a showery late October day with the battle of the Somme nearly three months old, Special Brigade launched 135 40-lb gas bombs, known as Judgements, and thirty rounds of 60-lb 2 inch Trench Mortar bombs each containing 15-lbs of lethal gas into the fortified village of Serre and the defensive stronghold of Y Ravine south of Beaumont Hamel.
British officers who visited the targets some days later reported seeing many dead in the dug-outs:
Captain WH Livens, who developed what came to be known as the "Livens Projector" on the strength of these experiments, wrote in his report on the action of the 28th that he anticipated the cost of killing Germans could comfortably be reduced to "only sixteen shillings apiece". 58
Joachim Hartert was directly in the line of the returning cloud. He had survived the terrible battle of Loos where the allies first used gas, and fighting north of the Ypres-Comines Canal where men had to be pulled from the mud with ropes (that sector had been quiet enough when he was there: few casualties but a lot of trench feet). He had survived the Battle of Bazentin Ridge which had decimated his own battalion and left a total of 9,000 allied officers and men killed, wounded or missing. He had survived attack and counter-attack in Delville Wood: Devil's Wood as it would be named by those who survived. He had survived a slight wound which concerned his parents, and shattered nerves, ditto. And now he was drowning in yellow bile which was mostly the liquidized lining of his own bronchial tube and lungs, one of which had burst, as his body had tried to expel the poison by violent coughing.
Except, I don't know that, and it's pointless to speculate. The battalion diary records simply that he was Killed in Action. He could just as easily have been killed in the artillery retaliation which inevitably followed - after a short interlude - the gas attack, or in an entirely unrelated incident. But it struck me as in keeping with Paul Fussell's dictum that irony is the defining interpretative reflex of the war. A friendly German killed by friendly fire is nothing if not a satire of circumstance.60
At the time of his death Joachim was, along with Captain CP Taylor, the last survivor of the regiment's original draft of officers who had arrived in France in September 1915.
"He was", according to his obituary in the Wadham College Gazette, "a German by birth, and combined the thoroughness and industry of our enemies with the vigour and energy of his adopted country…a man of real character…considered one of the best officers in his battalion." 61
But the obituary is wrong: Joachim was British: born in Tring on 2 November 1893, and the birth registered at Berkhamsted in the last quarter of that year.
It's a small point. God knows the obituary writers were busy in the summer and autumn of 1916. But perhaps it is also symptomatic of a conflict that seemed able to destroy the means to analyse its history even at the same time as it greedily consumed the flesh, blood and bone of those who were sucked into it.
They had past sports fields, gardens of cedar, prickly-pear, wild-cherry and yucca. They had past schools, monasteries and temples. And blind panic and cold fear had long since given way to something - not stoicism or fatalism - he was still terrified and angry: it was just that he now understood that his death was inevitable. The skull-racks, set in wooden frames like outsized abacuses, seemed too ancient to have any connection with his own predicament. But he suddenly remembered an incident from his childhood. He had been in the forest outside his village and had climbed high up in the bough of a hollow tree. He found the eggs he'd been looking for still warm, but as he lifted the nest, he suddenly realized there was something underneath it. It was another nest. Inside, the part-skelatized remains of a dead bird.
He thought of his parents growing old without him and of the myriad of possibilities for his own life now reduced to nothing. He wondered if he would give way to his fear at the end and how long the pain would last. But he stole himself. He wouldn't make it easy for the bastards.
The priest had brought down an image made of tzoalli dough made with amaranth seeds and maize. It had green beads for eyes and grains of corn for teeth. He past along the line of prisoners stopping at each to hold the image in front of them:
"Behold your God!"
The flint dagger had a carved handle in the form of an eagle's head. But he didn't see it. Five priests held his arms and legs and neck outstretched with his back slightly arched over a waist-high stone. He didn't see the knife slit his chest from end to end or the high priest hold his heart in the air. He didn't see it because he was already rolling down the temple steps losing consciousness…
Of course, I don't really know if Fr Diego Duran's description is entirely reliable. You wouldn't go to the archives of the Third Reich to find out about Jewish religious practices. But Fr Duran had, as he saw it, good reason to be as accurate as possible:
"If we are trying earnestly to remove the memory of Amalech, we shall never succeed until we fully understand the ancient religion."
Understanding was the precursor to root and branch destruction.62
Reliable or not the description struck me forcefully as a metaphor for how Ernst and Claudia Hartert felt when the telegram arrived a few days later informing them that their only child was dead and expressing the condolences of the War Office.
Ernst Hartert was predictably devastated by the news. We know because Walter Rothschild tells us so in the obituary he wrote for his friend in 1933.
"His position during the war was very unenviable, as his best friends were opposed to one another; but he courageously faced all difficulties. He never got over the death of his son, who had joined the British Army and was killed in action. His continual emphatic insistence that Science was international and independent of politics resulted in the revival of the International Ornithological Congress, and it was only right that he should be the President of the first post-war Congress at Copenhagen in 1926."63
But we also have, in MI5 files at the Public Records
Office, a letter by the Deputy Chief Constable of Hertfordshire that
casts light on the effect of Joachim's death on his friendly and
outspoken mother. The letter is addressed to Colonel VG Kell:
The upshot of the exchange of secret correspondence in the spring of 1917 is that Hartert is refused a passport. Even after the war was over the authorities were reluctant to let him travel. A note in the file arising from a similar application in May 1919 gets the same response: "The reason given for the journey [his health and study] is not particularly convincing and he might reasonably be held up for the time being."
As though the sacrifice of his only child counted for nada.
When my Great Uncle James died in 2005 his ashes were brought back from Australia and scattered up at Ashridge. He was the last of his generation in our family. He had been four years old when my Great Uncle Jock was killed at Beaumont-Hamel in September 1916. But the event was still painful when I asked him, through my mother's cousin in Australia, for his memories of that time. He had many memories came the reply, but none which would be of any interest to me. But we had got off to a bad start because I addressed him as Jimmy rather than Uncle James. He did however share one memory with me: that when the family were grieving they were visited by a woman whose four sons had all been killed in the war. It's difficult to see how such a visit could be thought to make their own anguish any easier to live with.
The beech trees of Ashridge are a place of happy memories for many Berkhamsted families who have picnicked in the trees' sprawling roots and played games of French cricket under a majestic canopy of summer leaves.
And the woods are also a quite natural and poignant place to remember the dead. In fact, funerary urns of Roman date have been found nearby; one even contained a spindle whorl - the grave, perhaps, of a yarn-spinner. Or a storyteller.
At the top of the New Road on Berkhamsted Common is a memorial to the men of the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps. An inscription on the bottom of the plinth says that Colonel FHL Errington's ashes are scattered nearby. Nearly 14,000 men would pass through the IOC/OTC, including my Great Uncle Jock and his friends Aubrey and Walter; 11 or 12,000 receiving commissions to all branches of the armed services. By the end of the war more than 2,000 of them would be killed and 5,000 wounded.65
But their ashes wouldn't be scattered under the beech pollards. We have to look elsewhere to find any traces here. Initials scratched in the bark (though signatures from the Second World War are more evident), faint lines of trenches through the bracken and gorse. But above all to literature.
For an archaeologist digging in London or Colchester or St Albans one of the most moving sights is, having stripped away the intervening stratigraphy, coming down to a burnt layer. An event horizon revealing the destruction unleashed by the Boudican Revolt against Roman rule in AD60.
But culture itself can be mined. The Human Factor provides an insight for a cultural archaeologist into the psychological effect of just such a cataclysmic event on the mind of a bright child, albeit one who would go on to become one of the most respected writers of his generation.
"I only know that he who forms a tie is lost." Graham Greene quotes from Joseph Conrad's Victory as a prologue to The Human Factor, "The germ of corruption has entered into his soul." It is no coincidence that Castle's split loyalties are played out in the Ashridge beech woods. The location where so many young men had fought imaginary battles before their loyalty to King and Country would elicit the highest price. Castle of course chooses a different loyalty. But his reward is also a kind of death.
And there's something else about the Common and the beech woods that resonates when Castle comes across his boyhood "footprint" in A Child's Garden of Verses. Robert Louis Stevenson and Graham Greene both died in a kind of exile. Keepsake Mill, where the book falls open, is a beautifully poised poem of childhood adventure, of crossed borders and the excitement of a world beyond the garden wall. The poem ends on a transcendent note of imagined nostalgia.
Except that a child might understand intuitively that the poem has a rather different meaning. Something about the rhythm of the turning mill wheel and the deafening thunder of the racing water suggests an outcome very different from heroic return, graceful old age and shared childhood memories.
And it is an imagined nostalgia that has a sad echo in the epilogue to a review staged by the officers of the Inns of Court OTC at Christmas 1915:
But there's only one peace that has no end. For Joachim Hartert and my Great Uncle it would be marked by a line in the Times and the playing of the marche funèbre in the school chapel.
Did Graham Greene attend the services? Possibly, if he wasn't playing truant the other side of the green baize door. But he went to enough of the Sunday services for the 430 old-boys for the "death feeling" to resurface in his future literary output so much of which was informed and shaped by the adolescent's reaction to the lines drawn across mainland Europe - and across Berkhamsted Common - in 1914.
Perhaps Greene's interest in Saki is also more revealing of the what if? question than a literary affinity: the sub-text being how would Greene have got on on the Western Front? If he'd been born a few years earlier perhaps he would have been a twitchy neurasthenic rather than a gifted but troubled young analysand. Perhaps his recklessness might, like Siegfried Sassoon's, have earned him military honours. Or perhaps he could have been killed on his first day in the trenches. Or in training…
Perhaps it's a stupid question. But it hovers over a certain dead-letter drop off the Ashridge Road, where the young officer cadets shivered on night-ops under the dark canopy of beech pollards; it haunts the subject explored explicitly in the Human Factor and returned to again and again in his work: the question of loyalty.
As Graham observed the effect on his father as the
black-edged cards posted outside the school chapel became more numerous
he was, even at a young age and with his own battles to fight,
well-placed to understand that loyalty comes at a very high price.
After the war MI5 turned its attention to the red scare and by 1925 had compiled a precautionary index including 25, 000 suspects. Greene's friend Claud Cockburn, sometime Communist and radical journalist is the subject of dozens of MI5 files now at the Public Records Office, Kew. In one file is an entry which shows that the "questionable loyalty" of a 20 year old Graham Greene had now, like his German Aunt and her friends Claudia and Ernst Hartert a decade before, been brought to the attention of the office of Colonel (now Sir) VGW Kell.
The visit was, according to Sherry, partly a "Balliol escapade", blagging a holiday for nothing off the colourful First Secretary of the German Embassy in London, Count Von Bernstorf, who would later be executed by the Nazis for running an escape route to Switzerland for Jews. But it was also partly inspired by genuine concern at the French attempt to set up a republic in the occupied Ruhr.
A free rail ticket, a flirtation with spying, and, as it turned out, a "comparatively uneventful holiday"; but also tellingly, it reveals in the 19 year-old an intellectual openness. At a time when the scars of the war were still very raw, Greene was ready to see beyond the stereotype. Later he would write:
"… the writer should always be able to change sides at the drop of a hat. He stands for the victims and the victims change."69
"Well, it may be the devil or it
may be the Lord
The Human Factor is a difficult book to love. It lacks the pace of Brighton Rock which unwinds like a coiled snake; it misses the pin sharp poetic compression of The Power and the Glory. But in some ways, it's more challenging. The organizing principle of religion is absent; the protagonist - and the author - have to find their own way through the conflicting allegiances of life on the border.
Perhaps Joachim Hartert's neurasthenia too was a kind of border psychosis.
The trouble is of course, as the MI5 files on Graham Greene, and his Aunt Eva's friend, Claudia Hartert show, they already know your real name. They just can't always spell it.
Gangland violence in Brighton, divided Vienna after the Second World War and first-world power struggles played out in third-world countries. All these are real enough settings to put the lie to the Greeneland tag. But perhaps The Human Factor makes explicit that the origin of the borders which Greene's characters cross and recross at such cost have their creative crucible in the adolescent's reaction to the rows of lines - enough of them if placed end to end to encircle the earth - etched in blood from Belgium to the Alps in 1914-1918.
Joachim Hartert is buried at Courcelles-au-Bois cemetery, a few kilometers away from my Great Uncle Jock in the Ancre British Cemetery at Beaumont-Hamel. About the distance between Tring and Berkhamsted as the crow flies, above the rolling chalk.
1 Evon Z Vogt In Eva Hunt The Transformation of the Hummingbird: Cultural Roots of a Zinacantecan Mythical Poem ; Cornell University Press : Ithaca; London, 1977 ; p 29.
2 Mark Cocker ; Richard Mabey Birds Britannica; Chatto & Windus: London, 2005 ; p 316.
The authors point out the irony of the use of the bird's image as a rail logo: "…the impression of speed in swallow flight is often illusory. They are actually rather slow-flying birds - a quality, some might argue, that makes them doubly appropriate as a symbol of our rail service."
3 Collingwood Ingram In Search of Birds; H. F: & G. Witherby: London,1966 ; p 165.
4 Frances E Warr, Manuscripts and Drawings in the Ornithology and Rothschild Libraries of the Natural History Museum at Tring ; British Ornithologists' Club in association with The Natural History Museum: Tring , 1996; p 39.
5 Collingwood Ingram, 1966 ; p 165
6 Collingwood Ingram, 1966 ; p 165
7 The Times: Saturday, Oct 31 ; p 8; Issue 40682; col D ; London, 1914.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands cover a few square kilometers of coral atoll in the Indian Ocean about half-way between Australia and Sri Lanka. Uninhabited until the nineteenth century, they were annexed by the UK in 1857 and since 1955 have been administered from Canberra. Charles Darwin visited the islands in April 1836 and observed that everything growing there, including what is today its only cash crop, the coconut, must have originally been transported by the sea. The island's flora lent it the character of a "refuge for the destitute". Whilst there Darwin developed a new theory of atoll formation, putting paid to the strange idea that the coral circles provided some sort of protective benefit to the animals which built them.
Darwin, Charles The Voyage of the Beagle; Wordsworth Editions Limited: Ware, 1997; pp 429-457.
9 The Times: Tuesday, Dec 15; p 6; Issue 40726; col C ; London, 1914.
10 John Graham Goffey
12 Graham Greene A Sort of Life; Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1971 ; p 42.
I'm assuming he watched the spectacle from home. The
Berkhamsted Gazette, Saturday 7 October 1916, devoted several
paragraphs to the story, reprinting Michael MacDonagh's report "The
Scene At Potters Bar" from The Times (Tuesday, Oct
03, 1916) which
"WHAT BERKHAMSTED SAW.
14 Graham Greene, 1971 ; p 35.
15 Norman Sherry The Life of Graham Greene, Jonathan Cape: London, 1989-2004; v 1 ; p 62.
16 Norman Sherry, 1989-2004; v 1 ; p 59.
17 B H Garnons Williams History of Berkhamsted School 1541-1972; Berkhamsted School: Berkhamsted, 1980; pp 231-255.
18 Graham Greene, 1971 ; p 63.
19 The Berkhamstedian 1916, XXXVI July , p 60.
20 Graham Greene A
World of My Own: A Dream Diary; Penguin: London, 1993; pp
22 Graham Greene The Human Factor ; Everyman's Library: London, 1992; p 20.
23 Greene read War and Peace in a wartime convoy on the way to West Africa. The novel itself was, he confided later to Shirley Hazzard, "like some great tree, always in movement, always renewing itself." (Shirley Hazzard Greene on Capri A Memoir; Virago: London, 2000 ; p 70.)
24 Obituary. Ibis 1934; 178-179, 350-377.
25 Robert Louis Stevenson In Graham Greene, 1992; p 219.
26 Graham Greene, 1992.
27 National Archives, Kew, HO 144/23513.
28 Nigel West MI5 : British Security Service Operations 1909-1945; Triad Granada: London, 1983; p 41.
29 Nicholas Hiley, 'Kell, Sir Vernon George Waldegrave (1873-1942)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37625, 18 May 2006.
30 National Archives, Kew, HO 144/23513.
31 Ornithology, on the other hand, has obvious attractions as a cover for a would-be spy. In the 1990s Robert Prys-Jones, head of the collection at Tring began investigating some bird specimens donated by the British naturalist and army officer, Richard Meinertzhagen (1878-1967). After years of painstaking forensic work it became apparent that although much of Meinertzhagen's work was valid and important, a significant proportion of his donations were fraudulent. They had been stolen from other institutions and retagged with his own invented details. This can perhaps partly be explained as providing cover for various spying activities. Meinertzhagen's larger-than-life career attracts far too many stories to be mentioned in an endnote to an article concerning his sometime colleague, Ernst Hartert (Hartert introduced Meinertzhagen to Anne Constance, who would become his second wife). But, to single out one: as chief intelligence officer to the Egyptian expeditionary force in 1917, Meinertzhagen dropped a blood-stained haversack of false British battle plans which misled the Turks and enabled a surprise attack. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls it "a classic of practical deception".
M. R. D. Foot, 'Meinertzhagen, Richard (1878-1967)', rev., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37754, 19 April 2006.
Mark Cocker Richard Meinertzhagen : Soldier, Scientist and Spy ; Mandarin: London, 1990.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Richard Meinertzhagen', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 April 2006, 21:04 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Richard_Meinertzhagen&oldid=47601097 ; 18 May 2006
32 BBC Radio 4 broadcast, Me and my Poison : Aflotoxin ; Tuesday 25 April 2006
33 Full text of Tony Blair's statement to parliament on Iraq ; Guardian ; Tuesday September 24, 2002 ; http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,798009,00.html ; 22 May 2006
34 Lechmere Worrall In The Spy's Bedside Book : an Anthology ; Greene, Graham; Greene, Hugh, Eds.; Four Square: London, 1962; p 173.
35 http://extinctanimals.proboards22.com , 19 April 2006
37 Josep del Hoyo; Andrew
Elliott ; Jordi Sargatal ; Josep Cabot ; ...et al. [Eds.] A
Handbook of the Birds of the World ; Vol 5 ; Lynx Edicions:
Barcelona, 1992 ; p 523
39 Novitates Zoologicae ; 1897 ; iv, p 532.
40 National Archives, Kew, WO 339/18096.
41 A plaque on the wall of 61 Farringdon Road commemorates a building destroyed by Mathy's Zeppelin on the evening of the 8/9 September 1915. Mathy later claimed in an interview with a German-American correspondent that he had deliberately "spared" St Paul's. He did however offload the heaviest bomb of the war so far: a 300kg Liebesgabe (Love-gift) to the air ship from the bomb factory. The bomb, intended for the Bank of England, landed in Bartholomew Close off Newgate Street, EC1. No 10 Stone Buildings was itself gutted by the blast from a bomb landing in Chancery Lane a month later.
42 Mathew Thomson In Cultures of Neurasthenia from Beard to the First World War ; Gijswijt-Hofstra, Marijke ; Porter, Roy, Ed.; Rodopi: Amsterdam ; 2001 ; p 94.
43 Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau ; Anette Becker 14-18 Understanding the Great War ; Hill and Wang: New York, 2002; p 25.
44 Paul Fussell The
Great War and Modern Memory ; Oxford University Press: New
York ; London , 1975; p 9 :
* "What Really Happened," in Promise of Greatness, ed. George A. Panichas (1968), p. 386.
45 Wilfrid Miles France and Belgium, 1916. 2nd July 1916 to the end of the Battles of the Somme; Macmillan & Co: London, 1938.
46 The French had asked the British not to undertake the attack which they thought had no chance of success. Major General Montgomery is reputed to have said "Tell General Balfourier, with my compliments, that if we are not on Longueval Ridge at eight tomorrow I will eat my hat." General Balfourier would later concede: "Montgomery ne mange pas son chapeau." The price was 9,000 officers and men killed, wounded or missing. An expensive hat.
47 National Archives, Kew, WO 95/1424.
48 Everard Wyrall The East Yorkshire Regiment in the Great War, 1914-1918; Harrison & Sons: London, 1928 ; p 152.
49 In Norman Sherry, 1989-2004; v 3 ; p 601.
50 Saki The Best of Saki (H.H. Munro) ; Harmondsworth: Penguin ; 1977 ; p vii.
51 Graham Greene The Lawless Roads: a Mexican
Journey ; Vintage: London, 2002 ; p 14.
© richard shepherd, 2006