Stephen Dawson was had survived the siege of Tobruk – having been both evacuated out sick and returned again whilst the siege was underway – and like a lot of men was now beginning to feel that he had seen rather too much of the desert. He had be promoted and had returned to the front line again – only to be evacuated out once more with a recurrence of the Malaria that had struck him down earlier.
He had been discharged from hospital but was now in a convalescent depot – under canvas – awaiting a new posting. He had yet to fully recover – which partly explains his attitude. Like many people his diary was something of an outlet for him, but it gives an insight into how many men felt at the time:
Tuesday 14th July 1942
“BRITISH WARSHIPS BOMBARD MERSA MATRUH” “700 HE Shells Blast Enemy Base” “8TH ARMY REPULSED ENEMY COUNTER ATTACK” “Our Artillery Active at El Alamein” “Australians make dramatic re-appearance in desert battle”
It seems to me that the morale of the MEF is very low nowadays – extremely, dangerously low. I’ve listened to men of all ranks, from many different regiments, discussing the war, listened to the news with them and heard their comments; heard them tell of the dispirited units they came from in the desert; heard their criticisms of the way in which the war is directed; and noted the universal longing to see England again, even if only for a short time.
Discipline is cracking in small ways – for instance, men are sometimes sullen and hostile towards their officers; and many times in the past six months I’ve heard senior ranks, such as sergeants and even warrant officers, discussing their grievances with privates, and gunners. In general, the MEF (Army at any rate) is cynical, critical, bitter and irritable – but not resigned. Men are restless and fed up.
The news of small victories, heard on the wireless, is too often greeted with ironical and sneering remarks. The very cause for which we are fighting is in doubt and time and again one hears it said: “We’re not fightin’ for democracy mate. There’s no such thing. Capitalism! That’s what we’re here for!” Or else: “I’m a nobody. Just a working man. What difference will it make to me an’ my family if Germany does win the war? None!”
There’s a definite “Bolshie” spirit about – if there’s any spirit at all! – and if we were fighting Russia now (apart from our inferiority in numbers and equipment) there’d be no doubt about our defeat, for the men would have no heart at all for fighting a country which is so definitely against our system of government.
The other night, at a concert, a comedian in the course of his “patter” mentioned England. “Where’s England?” shouted several voices. “Out of bounds to British troops!” was his quick retort. This repartee was greeted with ironical cheers – but there was real bitterness beneath the laughter.
Just now, as I was writing this, a man came up to a friend, sitting near me, who was reading the newspaper. “So we’ve invaded Europe at last?” “Yes. Rather!” “The “second front” huh? Reading all about it?” “Yes,” said the reader, and pointed towards a paragraph headed: “Germans Cross River Don in Force” Then both men laughed, as at a good joke.
The nature of Army training makes men dull and cynical and wooden; and for some reason the majority out here always have pretended to be defeated and browned off. Nowadays there is no pretence however – it is real. And though most soldiers are still cynical, few are now dull or wooden.
Are the civilians at home like this? And the Home Forces (for of course, there are hundreds of thousands of British troops in England)? Are they, also in low spirits? I’d be interested to know. If the morale of the MEF is typical of the whole British nation, these are danger signals indeed.
What has brought about this attitude of defeatism? The recent disastrous desert campaign is not, I think, the cause so much as the culmination of a weary history of muddling, mistakes, unpreparedness, losses, retreats, disappointments, defeats, disillusionment’s and evacuations. And, for the MEF, there’s the desert, over and over again; the climate; and the hopelessness of nostalgia for England.
Stephen Dawson’s extensive diary, Soul of A Poet, can be read online at Blogspot.