My first-ever WW1 battlefield tour, over two decades ago now, began with joining a coach at Victoria Station which departed for a Channel ferry and then on towards Ypres.
Our guide, a former military man who was rarely without a gin-and-tonic in one hand and a cigarette in the other, specialised in clipped, pithy snippets of information and comment. Some of them caused us to think.
As we thundered along a motorway bisecting the Somme plain at speeds in excess of 70 mph, he occasionally took to the microphone to indicate points of interest – e.g. “If you look to your left now, beyond that hill is Malplaquet, where the Duke of Marlborough and our boys gave the Frogs a hell of a beating in 1709 …”
Later he added another gem. Despite the invention of the motor car and the availability of mechanised transport, the importance of the horse to WW1 was incalculable.
For the vast majority of soldiers on the ground – apart, of course, from the expedient of placing one foot in front of the other – the bulk of heavy-duty moving of equipment was done by live horse-power. Motor vehicles were more prone to getting stuck in the mud. Sitting on the back of a horse was not only the fastest means of getting around a battlefield, it was also the vantage point from which a solider could see furthest.
Initially, of course, this ‘news’ seemed perfectly straightforward and obvious. But, at we continued to thunder along the road, past flashing trees and villages, en route to our first-night destination, I began to think around the implications – and one in particular.
I tried to place myself in the mind-set of a WW1 soldier, living in a military world in which – e.g. during periods of rest and recuperation – it wasn’t possible (as it is now) to just jump into a car and drive downtown to go shopping, or nip to a nearby hostelry for dinner with some pals from another regiment. If you wished to do either of those things – let alone manoeuvre your unit in an outflanking movement on the field of battle – you had to allow sufficient time to get there on foot or, if you were very lucky, on horseback.
I guess my headline point is that, in the days before motor vehicles, the pace of life was different.
Whether you were a WW1 subaltern, or a mid-Victorian entrepreneur … or Samuel Johnson … or Henry VIII … or even Ghengis Khan … you still did most things that we do today in terms of human business, but you had to allow more time for travelling to your meetings, assignations and great events. None of the above gentlemen would have bemoaned their inability to achieve all they wished in life (“Oh, if only someone would hurry up and invent the motor car”), they simply accepted the state of transport in their era as a given fact of life and got on with it.
All this is a very long way round indeed to my bitch today about the invention of the telephone.
Or rather, perhaps, I should have written there ‘the all-pervasive dominance of the telephone in our lives today’.
Yesterday I was sent out to the local supermarket store to buy a small list of items required for our catering arrangements. I was ordered to take my phone “in case I think of something else we need …”
By the time I had reached the store, there had already been two such examples, which I had scribbled on my list before leaving the car park to go in.
Fifteen minutes later, as my purchases were being bagged up at the check-out desk and I was in the middle of tapping my debit card PIN number into the machine, my phone rang again.
There’s a specific tyranny in a ringing telephone. People ask me why I just don’t let my phone ring if it is inconvenient to take a call, but I find that very difficult. It’s engrained into me that if a telephone rings, it could be a matter of life and death and I must respond.
I get irritated when I’m at home, doing something, and the phone goes. It’s as if the caller imagines that I must be sitting on my butt, doing nothing – well, apart from waiting for someone to call me. I hate that insinuation. [In fact, the only time in history that’s actually happened was when Alexander Graham Bell first invented the telephone and put a call through to his assistant in the next room].
Yesterday, attending to my PIN number with one hand and trying to answer my phone with the other, conscious that I was holding everybody up, I began confused and frazzled.
“Can you get a porch?” said the voice on the other end.
“A porch …”
“A porch?!? What do you mean, a porch? Do you mean a Porsche?”
“No, a porch!”
I couldn’t take any more. I said “I’ll call you back”, finished my transaction, lumbered outside with my shopping bags and made a return call from the car park.
It turned out I’d been asked to buy a torch.
I reminded myself several times yesterday afternoon that, had yesterday’s shopping expedition taken place in the days before the invention of the telephone, I’d have set off – probably on horseback – and those back home would have had to been more diligent in their list-making and/or accept that, once I’d set off, that was that.
It’s not so hard, is it?