In the 1930s, the anarchist writer Rudolf Rocker poured scorn on the idea of ‘the national interest’:
Rudolf Rocker wrote:We speak of national interests, national capital, national spheres of interest, national honour, and national spirit;
but we forget that behind all this there are hidden merely the selfish interests of power-loving politicians and money-loving business men for whom the nation is a convenient cover to hide their personal greed and their schemes for political power from the eyes of the world.
~~ quoted in ‘Culture and Nationalism’, by Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.253.
Rudolf Rocker wrote:The love of his own nation has never yet prevented the entrepreneur from using foreign labour if it was cheaper and made more profit for him. Whether his own people are thereby injured does not concern him in the least; the personal profit is the deciding factor in such a case, and so-called national interests are only considered when not in conflict with personal ones.
~~ ibid, p.261.
The name Arnold Ridley
will be familiar to many viewers of ‘Dad’s Army’
, one of Britain’s best-loved TV comedies, which ran a long time ago (1968-1977) but is still shown on prime time BBC TV.
Ridley played Private Godfrey
, the loveable, most doddery member of a Second World War platoon of elderly Home Guard troops tasked with defending a stretch of the British coast ‘from the Novelty Rock Emporium to Stone’s Amusement Arcade’.
Godfrey would typically interrupt preparations to repel Nazi stormtroopers with observations such as, ‘my sister Dolly makes very nice cucumber sandwiches’. It was lovely, gentle humour, contrasting the fanatical seriousness of total war with the innocence of everyday life.
Unbeknownst to most viewers, although Godfrey seemed the unlikeliest of warriors, the actor who played him had been involved in bitter fighting in both world wars.
In 1915, enlisted into the Somerset Light Infantry, Ridley’s draft was welcomed by the sergeant-major of the third battalion ‘cursing us at length, both individually and collectively’ (Quoted, Nicolas Ridley, ‘Godfrey’s Ghost – From Father to Son,’ Mogzilla Life, 2009, p.66).
The sergeant ended on a ‘cheering note’ that Ridley remembered, word for word, for the rest of his life:
‘Don’t none of you think you’re going to see your homes and mothers and dads no more, ‘cause you ain’t. We sent out a draft to our First Battalion at Wipers [Ypres, France] three weeks ago and where are they now? I’ll tell yer – they’re all bleeding well dead! And that’s where you buggers will be in a couple o’ months time – all bleeding well dead!’ (p.66)
If this was sadistic, it was also accurate. Ridley described what
‘To anyone of sense and imagination it was quite clear that the vital question wasn’t if I get killed but when I get killed… Battalions were wiped out, not once, but time after time. What happened to survivors? Did they go home in glory? Not a bit of it. The best they could expect was that they might get a week or so out of the line, while the battalion was being brought up to strength again with drafts of fresh troops, before going back to yet another “over the top”. One couldn’t expect to be a survivor each and every time. It didn’t make sense. One’s only hope was that one might receive a “blighty one”, and that is why the war correspondents could rightly describe the wounded as being so cheerful.’ (p.68)
Within days of arriving at the front, Ridley was wounded in the back by shrapnel. Having recovered, he was then shot through the thigh. He received his ‘blighty one’ in September 1916 at the apocalyptic Battle of the Somme, a slaughter that cost 415,000 British casualties alone.
In murderous, hand-to-hand trench fighting, Ridley’s left hand and arm were all but severed by a German bayonet. He was also bayoneted in the groin before being knocked unconscious by a rifle butt. His son, Nicolas Ridley, explained how his father had barely survived:
‘He woke to the sound of appalling screaming. He found himself in a shell-hole with the terrible shreds of a man who had been torn apart by shrapnel. The man – the source of the screaming – must have carried my father, unconscious, to safety. My father, lying on the other side of the shell-hole, had been sheltered from the later burst.’ (p.69)
When a brutal surgeon general inspecting the ruined hand asked if the wound had been self-inflicted, Ridley’s sarcastic reply cost him dear: instead of being allowed to return to civilian life he was sent to a freezing command depot in Ireland where ‘rations were at near-starvation level’ and physical treatment was ‘conducted by sadistic column-dodging instructors from Aldershot’. (p.71)
Conditions were so bad that Ridley felt he had been sent there to die, ‘as many did’ (p.71). He was later handed a white feather by a woman who assumed he was a ‘coward’ shirking combat. He took the feather with his undamaged hand without a word and walked away.
Ridley described the aftermath:
‘I suffered badly from nightmares between the wars. They always took the same form. Somehow or other my discharge had gone wrong and I was back in the army again. Not amidst shot, shell, bayonet and other horrors, but merely back in France awaiting orders to go up to the front line once more.’ (p.73)
It was a dream that wouldn’t leave him and, on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Ridley wrote:
‘My dream had caught up with me. My real and conscious life was now my nightmare – a nightmare from which I had no awakening.’ (p.73)
In May 1940, while fighting in France, Ridley was caught up in the collapse of allied forces at the Battle of Boulogne, returning to Britain on the very last British ship to escape.
Ridley never discussed these experiences:
‘To recount the events of this time I would have to relive them. I have no intention of reliving them. I am too afraid.’ (p.73)
An idea of what he went through can be gleaned from the fact that Royal Navy ships had to shoot their way in and out of Boulogne harbour to pick up wounded troops while under German tank, artillery and air attacks.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, on a later visit to London, Ridley was knocked unconscious by the blast from an exploding V1 flying bomb.
Quite apart from his physical and mental wounds, the ongoing cruelty and humiliation Ridley experienced in the army are shocking and painful to read. It seems almost impossible to believe that this was the same individual who played gentle Godfrey to such comic perfection.
‘Everybody had gone mad’ – The ‘Glorious Adventure’
Ridley’s story is a stark reminder of the gulf that separates the acclaimed glory of ‘service’, ‘duty’ and self-sacrifice from the reality. It seems that Ridley started out almost as innocent and naïve as the character he played:
‘At midnight on Bank Holiday, August 4th 1914, I was one of the cheering young men in Bath who welcomed the declaration of war with the utmost enthusiasm. Youth regarded war as a glorious adventure and I don’t suppose many of them realised that they were heralding their own deaths… Everybody had gone mad, myself included.’ (p.65)
An obvious question arises: why would these cheering young men race to sign up for a ‘glorious adventure’ that was so clearly not in their own self-interests? Even if they couldn’t always imagine the full scale of the inferno to come, war clearly meant they would be torn from homes, jobs, loved ones, families and friends; that they would have to violently kill and be killed.
Tolstoy, who had also experienced the grim reality of war first-hand, explained this ‘enthusiasm’ for war with typical honesty:
Tolstoy wrote:‘From infancy, by every possible means – class books, church services, sermons, speeches, books, papers, songs, poetry, monuments – the people is stupefied in one direction’ – militant patriotism.
~ Tolstoy, ‘Writings On Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence,’ New Society, 1987, p.95.
The ‘enthusiasm’, then, is crudely manufactured in a way that hides the reality.
https://www.medialens.org/2021/our-indi ... -part-1-2/