THE WAR YEARS 1914 – 1918
Stuart Cloete in the Great War 1914 - 1918
In some respects Cloete enjoyed the war; the brotherhood of the troops and the belief that he was part of something great. He admitted that he could have even been a mercenary or worse:
I could easily have been trained, conditioned, to be merciless. I could, had I been a German in Hitler's time, have become a Nazi. That was what shocked me so much in the Second World War - that I could so easily have gone that way.
He served in the Yorkshire Light Infantry as a temporary second lieutenant at the start of World War One, but circumstances conspired to keep him out of two bloody battles, and the first time he was called to dig trenches in France was in 1916. Later he headed for Somme: ‘The big push that would smash the German lines and end the war.' But the battles were indecisive and he recalled that he was soon alone, leading strangers.
At Somme, Cloete experienced what he called ‘the fantastic contrasts of the war,' and the way in which death and fear heightened the appreciation of beauty. During his time off, he loved to ride on horseback in untamed fields:
It was a period of summer hayfields, singing birds and flowers on the one hand, and of mud, blood and the stink of dead bodies on the other.'
He was now trained as a sniper and stationed in more comfortable settings behind the lines. Ultimately his story is one of survival, even though at Somme he began to fear that his luck would run out. In September 1916 he took part in a great battle - when tanks were used for the first time and cavalry for the last. He was shot by a German sniper in the shoulder.
It was impossible for Cloete to describe the scale of death that he witnessed, but it was enough for him to refer to the war as a holocaust. After encounters with rotting bodies in the trenches, he was now sent to a casualty clearing station - where severed arms and legs were piled up to the ceiling, and the doctors' white coats had become scarlet with blood from waist to neck. The war took its psychological toll and, soon into his sick leave, Cloete developed amnesia and woke up in a mental hospital. Therapy was not available and he recalled that even the ‘shell-shocked' did not discuss their experiences among themselves. ‘We had all been there and knew about it: the noise, the wounded, the stinking dead.'
When he returned to his original regiment, his personal loss and the loss of the war had become starkly evident. Most of his friends had been killed; the ‘cream of the country' was dead. Disillusioned, he eventually joined the Coldstream Guards, whose skill and discipline he admired greatly. Cloete became a full lieutenant and returned to France where the Americans had now joined in the fighting.
At the attack on St Leger, he was near fatally wounded, being hit four times in the back and groin. A long recovery period involved five operations, but Cloete now had love which was a sustaining force for him. He had met a beautiful volunteer nurse, Eileen Horsman, during an earlier hospitalisation, and had begun courting her.
Later in life Cloete tried to understand a seemingly bizarre decision he made once he was partially recovered - to persuade a medical board to pass him fit for service so he could return to war. ‘Perhaps the war had made such an impression on me that it seemed the only reality, and only soldiers appeared to me as people,' he wrote. But he never saw active service again and armistice was soon declared.
The couple married in secret and honeymooned at an expensive hotel in England. Cloete described it as unsuccessful due to her frigidity. The marriage was formalised even though parents on both sides of the union were not pleased. He later harnessed his war experiences to write How Young They Died, but he added extra love interests saying the truth - that he was ‘a young man going through four years of war, reaching the age of 21, and being married a virgin to a virgin girl' - would be incredible to modern readers.