* They killed about 50,000 men in only a few hours

I really like Thomas J. Scheff's Goffman unbound! A new paradigm for social science (2006). However, when I wanted to use from the chapter ‘Masculinity and emotions’ a quote from Hubert Conway Rees as given by Richard Koenigsberg, I got into trouble. Scheff uses it to illustrate that ‘hypermasculine control of emotions’ is not a virtue, but ‘a fatal flaw in character that can lead to violence or at least the taken-for-granted acceptance of violence.’ The following is the quote that Scheff takes from Koenigsberg.

In the following report, British General Rees describes the massacre of his own brigade as they moved toward German lines.     ‘‘They advanced in line after line, dressed as if on parade and not a man shirked going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine gun and rifle fire that finally wiped them out. I saw the lines, which advanced in such admirable order melting away under fire. Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. I have never seen, indeed could never have imagined such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports from the very few survivors of this marvelous advance bear out what I saw with my own eyes: that hardly a man of ours got to the German Front line.’’

The emphasis is added by Scheff. Unfortunately Koenigsberg is a really bad source for this quote of Rees. In fact, it turns out that the quote is not really of Rees himself at all. In the end the point Scheff wants to make, using this quote, may still stand, but the perspective changes somewhat.

When I tried to find Koenigsberg's original text I initially simply put keywords in Google Book, and only when that did not return the result I had hoped for, looked up Scheff's book's references. Only then I noticed that Scheff had used an online source of Koenigsberg. In itself this is perfectly all right, although I had to Google somewhat before I could locate the article [archive.org version], since Scheff had quoted the front page file of the web site instead of the article itself, and the front page had been changed in the years in between.

Finally looking at the article, it turned out that Koenigsberg himself had no reference for the quote! Maybe, this in itself should have been reason enough not to trust Koeningsberg or the quote. After much more Googling, I located the relevant page of Rees’ memoirs, but it was not the source of the quote, and the wording of the event in question was somewhat different:

At the time this barrage really became intense, the last waves of the attack were crossing the trench I was in. I have never seen a finer display of individual and collective bravery than the advance of that brigade. I never saw a man waver from the exact line prescribed for him. Each line disappeared in the thick cloud of dust & smoke which rapidly blotted out the whole area. I can safely pay a tribute also to the bravery of the enemy, whom I saw standing up in their trenches to fire their rifles in a storm of fire. They actually ran a machine gun out into No Mans Land to help repel the attack.     I saw a few groups of men through gaps in the smoke cloud, but I knew that no troops could hope to get through such a fire. My two staff officers, Piggott and Stirling, were considerably surprised when I stopped the advance of the rest of the machine gun company & certain other small bodies now passing my Headquarters. It was their first experience of a great battle & all that morning they obviously found it difficult to believe that the whole brigade had been destroyed as a fighting unit.

So where did the quote from? As it happens, an online article called ‘The Character Assassination of General Rees’ seems to explain that quite convincing. According to the article, the quote Scheff took from Koenigsberg came from John Laffin's British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One (1988, pp.9-10). However, Laffin had not used Rees own words, but an entry from the War Diary of VIII Corps. The unmodified original of that reads as follows.

He saw the lines which advanced in such admirable order melting away under the fire. Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. He has never seen, indeed could never have imagined, such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports he had had from the few survivors of this marvellous advance bear out what he saw with his own eyes, viz., that hardly a man of ours got to the German front line. Robertson Papers, KCL 1/21/27/2

Laffin has simply changed third person to first person, and changed the attribution from the Robertson Papers to Rees himself.[1] Rees himself recalls the report that was taken at the time like this.

I went on later to H.Q. VIIIth Corps & gave General Hunter Weston an account of the battle. He put my remarks into his own language & I think that particular report of mine is somewhat more ornate than anything else I have put my name to.
Extract from the memoirs of Brigadier-General Hubert Conway Rees, held at the Imperial War Museum Department of Documents (IWM 77/179/1).
As I already indicated, I expect that in the end Scheff's use of this quote will still fit the point he is trying to make.[2] Still, the differences between the modified version and the original are not negligible. Also, the ‘ornate’ version of the events, using words that Rees would not have chosen himself, was put into words at the Head Quarter. I would say that it is significant that the adorned version of Rees words came about at a much greater distance from the reality of violence.

In the line following Koenigsberg version of Rees’ story in Scheff’s book, Scheff writes: ‘General Rees apparently didn't explain how he managed to survive when his whole brigade was wiped out.’ While I can sympathise with the emotion that Scheff probably compelled to make that remark, it is most likely very unfair to Rees, and worse, misses the point Scheff himself is trying to make, namely that the preoccupation of these men with suppressing ‘weak’ emotions like fear and shame in favor of showing almost blind obedience and fearless courage leads to poor decision making.

The article ‘The Character Assassination of General Rees’ is persuasive in making the point that Rees did his very best to make the conditions of the attack as favorable for his men as possible, and would probably not have attacked under the conditions present if it had been his call (but it wasn't, he was under orders). That Rees, as Brigadier-General in charge of the attack at this point remained in the trenches was quite unremarkable, and enabled him to stop further attacks when things went bad.

Perhaps inadvertently, Scheff's remark is suggestive of the idea that the officers in command sent their men into a certain death, without themselves running any risk. That is not how I learned my lessons of World War I in school. What I recall of those lessons (and Reeds’ memoirs seems to confirm this) is that in the beginnings of that war officers habitually would lead their troops into battle, in fact to the point that so many officers died, that a serious shortage of officers became a problem. Like their men, the officers were courages to the point of folly. It seems to me that it was precisely because the officers and generals where so good in cultivating ‘tough’ emotions like courage and aggression that they did not succumb to ‘weak’ emotions of unbearable regret and shame after having killed about 50,000 men in only a few hours, and felt therefore no need to change their approach substantially.

  1. For a moment I expected to confirm that online sources are less reliable than books, but I'd say that Laffin's doctoring of Rees’s words in his book is worse than Koenigsberg relying upon it and failing to mentioning his source.
  2. I suspect that Koenigsberg’ article suffers more from the problem with Rees’ modified quote, but I won't go into that.