Poem: Percy “Hobo” Hobart, Pt 1

Posted by RDN under Military Covenant / RDN's poems on 19 August 2015

This poem is the first of three. They are long, and intended to flow one from another, but each to make sense on its own. They have been written with an eye (or ear) to being read aloud briskly.

Sir Percy Hobart, Part 1
Hobo, the man and commander

 

He is almost clear to me.
But I like knowing
it is an impertinence
to come too close
without the invitation
he gave only to a few
and they by now
winnowed to a very few indeed.

I know he’s a vivid person,
sharp, beaked, and hawkish;
a little haggard;
fit but stooped.
He was prone
to crushing gloom.

I don’t mean he’s dark,
especially,
but he seems
a chiascuro figure:
brightly lit,
and also
penumbraic
in the drawing
by Eric Pennington,
his friend,
in chalk and crayon
in The Story of the 79th
Armoured Division.

It was
published
by Hobart’s
own command
in the summer of ‘45
before he
or the 79th
had drawn breath
between Normandy
and Hamburg
and all the flatlands
and wetlands
in between.

In photos he looks,
even as a general,
a little like a Jewish tailor
pressed
from the High Street
into the front.

He is Sir Percy Hobart
my favourite general,
lethal in destruction,
creative in publishing,
at home to painters
and with needlewomen.

They called him “Hobo”:
he might have been
the scholar gypsy,
at home anywhere
and nowhere quite.

He might have been
a pedant or an adman,
but was the very spirit
of something new:
he was the
tankman’s
tankman.

Even so,
he’s not quite an original
even in the field
he made his own.

He knew everyone
in the brutal
swift new world
of armour.

He read his Fuller –
the writer-strategist –
and chatted –
even conspired –
with Liddell-Hart –
the over-confident
confidant
of generals.

It was Hobart
took their ideas
for tanks
and wireless and men
and made
them real and deadly
on the ground.

He was an engineer
who knew ponies
and highlands
and deserts too:
this new cavalry creed
of mongol velocity –
speed and weight,
protection and punch,
optimised –
had found
its Spartan champion.

Hobart’s one to appreciate
spanners and overalls
and chivalry too;
he was a herald for
the new
that would sweep all before it,
but be steeped in ancient gore
and glory.

He knew
that the long age
of saddle
and sabre
was only just past
and had made great men
and he had loved it
as a child in imagination
and a young man
on horseback.

His patchy charm
and petulance,
his being his own enemy,
refract the light
we shine on him.

Damnit, I even dare to think
my own splintered light
is ideal to see him by.

I came to this stuff
late
put off by –
I dare hardly say –
men in cravats and cavalry twill,
or berets and lapels
freighted with
fierce
enamel badges.

Somehow we seemed
to sneer at each
other,
they with their resentments
and me with the Rolling Stones.

And bit by bit
the years eroded their
reticence,
and the Cenautaph
broke down
my resistance.

Seventy years ago
thousands of men took
Hobart’s Bulls –
we will meet them often,
these emblems he drew,
worn as his favour,
on flannel and armour –
and motored them
finally to Germany.

They went
under new commanders,
out on their own,
but – plenty of them –
remembering him
and pleased
to carry the remembrance.
They were under new commanders,
but under his tutelage
and his inspiration.

Hobart is an ungowned don,
an ascetic amongst hearties,
an ideologue amongst
sceptical decency
and I am
drawn to
his contradictions,
since I am
the self-taught resisting the ordinary,
the snob disdaining intermediation,
the loner frightened of instruction.

The Hobo offers a
rich elusiveness,
a testless mettle:
he shows us
the varieties
of men we need
in war
and the varieties
of person
that might reside
in a man at war.

Hobart leaves us
no memoir.
We meet him mostly in his
diaries and letters,
vouchsafed us
in scraps
and in the words of others.

He was amongst a cohort
of thinking generals
(they have been far commoner,
always, than
people who think themselves
intelligent
suppose)
and they were
lucky and rich
in biographers.

Hobart
had his Major Macksey
a fellow tank man
a military generation younger
than the Master.
Macksey doubly earns the right to
speak,
as he earns an MC
as a lieutenant
in a Churchill of the 79th
in Normandy.
He is not quite in awe of Hobo:
he remained faithful
to the cussed in his hero.

Armoured Crusader,
that’s Macksey’s title:
and Hobart was a
holy fighter for the trinity
of steel, dash and comms;
a war horse for mechanisation,
a wolf hound for mobilty,
a winged Hermes for airwaves,
and withal a terrier for opponents
at home or abroad
on his side or not.

Not obviously godly,
nor naively powerful,
nor powered by destiny
like Monty,
whose sister he married,
Hobo was illumined by
everything
he had ever read or seen.

His high, humane art –
his plain civilised duty –
was to refine
killing the enemy.

Hot from India’s
North-west frontier,
his beloved
and admired
Indian troops
and he
had soldiered –
chilled and soaked –
in the alien Western Front,
and been in dust-ups
in ancient Iraq,
and he emerged
longing to
discuss and teach,
and above all
to deal Death
whilst economising on it.

2nd Battalion Royal Tank Corps (1931-33)

And now –
the Kaiser beaten and
Hitler gaining traction –
Hobo is fast-tracked,
attaining great heights:
his ideas –
his practice and his habits –
impressed where it mattered.

Hobart has his first great moment:
he forms the 1st Brigade
of the new Royal Tank Regiment.

In the appeasing years,
honourable in their own way,
when humdrum good
was outflanked
by giddy nihilism,
the British tankmen’s
warrior doctrines
were watched,
by the sharpest of the
Wehrmacht’s coming men
(such a good match they were).

Guderian,
that other self-proclaimed
peculiar man,
did not seem
even dimly to mourn
those British weaknesses
(nurtured at home)
that made the
tankman’s creed
less followed
where it had been born.

Let’s be frank,
the Nazis had the
luxury of being crazy
for attack,
and had no other move.

The British –
be fair now –
were on the defensive.
Their guard was up
against an assault:
their minds turned to
fortresses of men and concrete,
for Belgium and France,
and not mobility.

We might have hoped –
we who were warriored-out
half-hoped –
that something
more Edwardian,
less horribly immediate,
or indeed nothing much at all
might do the trick.

We half-hoped the Germans
might remember their
colossal civilisation
and leave us
to our lesser decencies.

During all this
uneasy peace
Hobart was a teacher and preacher,
a deviser, manager and trainer,
and not quite alone,
but often felt it,
always leading the charge.

He framed and formed
the model new army
of the Second World War
out of the blameless follies
and the crashed engines of war
from every battle in history:
from heavy-horse charges
and siege engines,
from catapults and fire ships.
But most of all
it was the trenches
of the Great War,
which broke Europe’s heart
and stiffened his resolve.

Pitched against his own side,
laying siege to Whitehall,
and taking the battle
out to practice grounds,
and he fashioned his new
armoured division out of
cavalry regiments.

He told the classy
horsemen
to enjoy motorbikes
and oil cans,
to run a hand and eye
over bearings
and carburettors
as they had once
appraised a beast,
running a gloved hand
over a
flinching muscle
where now it was steel links
got thrown,
not hooves.

Above all he relishes
his commanders’
new connection with their
arms and men:
he tells the women
who craft radio crystals
how valuable they are:
he tells girls
at their benches
that they deftly
allow a Brigadier
to talk to
his armadilloed-crews
out there,
and tank commander
to tank commander,
to network,
in the fog of war.

Neck and neck now,
tankmen,
Hun and Brit
alike,
prepare
for the new world.

And Heinz Guderian –
The Fuhrer’s chosen prophet –
plots for sudden
sucker punches
in northern Europe.

Canny,
and literate,
a patriot Junker,
as told by Macksey,
who is his biographer too,
Guderian is thinking
of territorial glories
and maybe empires of Teuton knights.
Gladiatorial more than Nazi,
Guderian
actually translated
from the English
Fuller’s doctrine,
and visited
the publicist guru,
actually in England,
to learn some more.

The Mobile Division and the 7 Armoured Division,
1938 – 1939

And even as Guderian
plots and builds
under grey skies,
the British buckle up for
desert war
and task Hobart
to ready a mechanised army
to fight for the hot
eastern Empire
that he loves.

Hobart is sent to develop
the “Mobile Division
to be formed in Egypt”,
readying it –
as it turned out –
for other generals
and for rebranding
as the 7th Armoured Division –
the Desert Rats.

Hobart sets-to,
and teaching young swells
now confined to tanks,
he remembers
his old experiences
as a subaltern on horseback
navigating
Mesopotamian deserts
as though at sea
under stars,
and he’s pitiless
in having his officers develop an
imaginary eagle’s eye
but with a jerboa’s
groundling manoeuvres
suited to the badge
they’d soon wear.

One of Hobart’s men,
quite senior on his desert staff,
a cavalry man,
later knighted,
had been in Germany –
an invited guest,
back in ’37 –
and seen what Nazis
were about:
such men
stopped dreaming early on:
they were Hobart’s
from the start.

Corporal, Home Guard, 1939 – 1941

And then sacked by his
old friend Wavell,
on the very brink of action,
Hobo was demoted and retired:
from a general’s command
to corporaling
in a rustic Dad’s Army
(a look he wore well
as though a man
of hedge and copse
and last ditches).

Hobart scorned to be altogether
a man of sorrows;
at first
in Chipping Camden,
somehow perfectly
the England profond
of a general retired
and resistant,
he does lowly,
deep defence
of his country and
countryside,
but by vigour
and unstoppability
ascends to middle management
in the Home Guard,
and a berth in Hertford College,
and dinners in hall.

And the while,
in quick time
Heinz Guderian’s
tracked Panzerkreig,
took first Poland
and then Flanders
and France by storm,
and showed the
rightness of
the Hobart way.

And Guderian and his men
and their tanks
got so far,
and were so –
well – relaxed
that they
paused, in disbelief
(almost assuming
something must now
go wrong)
and let the English,
stunned as they were,
slip away from Dunkirk.

As England,
wondered what to with its
new determination,
it wanted new brains
and Liddell Hart took the fight
to the press and
thus to Churchill’s
magpie heart.
Hobart was plucked
from
his eighteenth months’
useful obscurity.
Summoned to meet
his Prime Minister
he asked demurely,
whether he should wear
a civilian suit,
a corporal’s battledress,
or his mothballed
general’s gear.

11th Armoured Division (1941-42)

Back in power,
Hobart made the
11th Armoured Division.

“I am a man
Without a future”, he writes.
No longer rejected
nor widely despised,
he now feeds on his
recent intimations
of superfluity.
He makes the haste
a man may need
when he feeds
at last
on the power
of other men’s disdain.

Hobo’s testiness
can flourish now;
he can afford to squander
his popularity
and with the oldest luck in the world
it is picked up
where he throws it
and he gains what
he almost regrets to crave.

This is the time
when he drew
the first of his Bull-ish emblems:
a great black beast
at once agricultural and
military,
territorial
and
menacingly protective;
it’s done
in profile,
and worn everywhere
on his men and their kit,
as surely as
a rose or lily or iris
or a lion or hart
on long-dead
young men in armour.

He has to win new
followers and fans,
now.

Used to making young swells
into mechanics,
he has to get
grumbling salesmen
and leisure motorists
to become Hussars
and Dragoons.

He has to turn their
grumbling citizenship
into ardent
obedience,
building new aggression
and turning it outward.

And then –
When he has this new band of
fighters and machines
well-wedded
and readied for battle,
he is deemed
again
and not for the last time,
too weird and old
to lead them under fire,
and he is all but fired again.

79th Armoured Division, 1942 – 1945

Churchill’s own hand once more
reaches down,
bringing his prejudice
for oddity
to bear against the Army’s
preference
for biddability,
and Hobart is
preserved from
another retirement.

Alan Brooke
(it’s a move which is desperate,
maybe almost amused,
and inspired)
sets Hobart
to invent the
79th Armoured Division,
his last throw,
his lucky, finest hour.

His 79th wore his imprimatur –
this new force
re-incarnated
his Bull in special
vigorous
intelligent form
as a simple
graphic head,
and he had them ready
for the beaches of D Day
and the flatlands beyond.

Now Hobo
marshals his famous
“Hobart’s Funnies”,
tanks fantastic as well as furious,
not disguised
so much as re-imagined.

They could
surf beaches
and swim rivers
and span streams
and scythe hedges
and slither on mud
and fill ditches,
and blind the enemy,
and wrap him in flame.

They were comical
almost embarrassing:
angry deus ex machina,
Heath-Robinson in a rage;
ridiculous when failing
and wryly admired
when rolling-on the
British Army of Liberation
(and Canadians and Americans too),
floating, flailing, flaming
a civilisation’s weary ingenuity
its updated tormenta.

And these devices
were not even of his design;
this designer, this original,
mostly didn’t imagine
or make the prototypes,
but adopted these orphans
took them into his foster home
of ordnance
and brought them to maturity
by the thousand,
and taught uniformed civilians
by the thousand to work them
and officers by the hundred
to deploy them,
and then,
like an impresario,
he lent his machines and men
to sensible outfits
“under command”,
as the saying goes,
where they remained proud to be his,
sporting his Bull insignia,
and felt proprietorial
about their G-o-C,
the impossible man
they had earned the right
to nickname.

And so they went,
these young men
more entrenched in scepticism
than any generation before,
keener probably
(so Hobart thought)
on Churchill than on the King himself.

The youngest of them
knew war quite well,
had seen the face of terror
yards across a silvery screen
as a cigarette
stained one hand,
and a girl’s became sweaty
in the other;
and maybe they’d seen it
closer still,
in city streets
turned inside out by bombs.

It’s the old story
for our Hobo:
the very highest command
hardly saw him as a soldier:
he was not judged
as other men:
not quite right for the actual fighting
but maybe unparalleled
as a mind
a spirit
sometimes a sprite
and sometimes
very occasionally
a sort of
incubus.

By now,
as the war is getting won,
and he has made
and honed many
of its best instruments,
and some fine enemies too,
he is still just
an old major-general,
always too peculiar
and now at all-but-60
too ancient to lead in battle.

But he was wise
And trenchant.

He told his new army
as they were about to be
sub-contracted to other units
to do their specialist work:

“I have heard a lot
“about how you deal
“with the obstacles you
“expect,
“but what you must be ready for
“is to get through whatever
“you encounter.
“You may be landed
“anywhere because those in
“charge of landing craft
“are even more amateur sailors
“than you are
“amateur soldiers”.

They do land,
in his contraptions,
and he chases them
up through Europe
like a choreographer
refining a troupe on the road,
his mission and his love
making him fuss
so no ill-considered
detail of his
might let them down.

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