Poem: Sir Percy “Hobo” Hobart, a 3-parter (text)

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

This long poem is in three parts. All of them 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 (1885 – 1957) was a great man: he was crucial to the formation and training of Britain’s WW2 tank units, but he was also creative and – in effect – a military publisher.

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

Sir Percy Hobart, Part 2
Hobo the man of design and fabric

Sir Percy Hobart, Part 3
The Hobo, his generation and their books

 

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.

Sir Percy Hobart, Part 2
Hobo the man of design and fabric

I approach Hobart as a spider might.
I have him wrapped
in the centre of my web,
let’s say an honoured victim
snared,
cocooned,
but also preserved
in wound-up memory.

I descend a single strand
to ogle the veil
in which my prey
is caught
as slanting light
dances on the dew.

I am stitching him up,
actually,
in embroidery.

But not mummified, I hope:
I would bring him to life for you
if I could.

You’ll see, I hope,
if you will follow this
erratic track.

I’ll begin in Oxford,
and tangentially
(I am spider crossed with crab),
in the Ashmolean,
in Jacobean needlework
done beside crackling firesides
and within tree-shaded courtyards
which were for King or Parliament,
Cavalier or Roundhead,
old or new religion.

“Early modern”
sort of catches their times;
the works,
which the years have
dimmed and dusted
a little,
are glowing still,
homely and homilistic
but propaganda too.

I leant in,
a stranger to this work
and my pleasure in it,
but acquainting myself.

The threads are heavy,
some even metallic
(gold strands still warm the inglenook flames)
and some are so bulky,
in themselves or bulked-up,
they cast shadows,
sculpted knots,
alongside beads,
sheltering dust.

You’ll ask,
where’s Hobart
in this meandering tale?
and I reply:
Hold up, hang-on, if you will,
we’ll get there.

The world they were made in,
these needled histories
and the praises they sing –
the dreads they warn of –
were tougher than we can imagine
or could perhaps manage.

These small panels
glorifying dynasties,
and Old Testament stories,
say Esther and Ahasuerus,
and Hellenic myths
are women’s work,
not weak
but patient,
making household gods,
embellishing and civilising
the domestic scene
by bringing in tales of
sacrifice and revenge.

For years and years
I had not seen the point in
tapestries and embroidery,
and gave no thought to needlework.

Well, Chanel and Valentino,
and now this needlepoint,
put paid to that,
and led the way to Hobart, too.

And now
my eye tuned
(its inner TV switched off,
its cinema projector dimmed
its digitised pixelations
returned to fingerwork)
I see weaves and knots
everywhere
in rope or chain or silk,
in armoury or boudoir.

(I know, I know:
“Crack on North:
you have all day,
you do, you do,
but readers can get fidgetty”.)

The week after Oxford
(in our slowish progress –
not quite royal, yet luxurious too,
tracing the valley of the Thames
and the Chilterns),
by chance,
in Nuffied Place
– where Arts and Crafts
is hijacked by bright modernism –
just by the fence of the
holding camp for aliens,
(as it was that 70-odd years ago
and is so again),
there was Lady Nuffield’s
Coronation robe,
made to honour Edward VIII,
a golfing chum.

It was
run up for her
by Elliston & Cavell –
it’s Debenham’s now –
where, as Lizzie Anstey,
she had once worked
with needle and thread:
and now, other women did her
ermine piecework
round the corner
from Tradescant’s shrine.

And in my spider mind
I note that
Sir Percy Hobart,
maybe in 1946,
finally retired
and fearing final idleness,
worked for old Nuffield’s military division.
They liked each other’s ways,
both believing
that the man who had
made weird tanks
do wonderful work,
that such a man
might head off demands
to produce the
“crazy curiosities”,
as the
men who’d worked on Hobart’s Funnies
called machines
they feared the men from the ministry wanted.

Perhaps one day
in that sunny palace,
happily suburban,
fringed by fields and wire mesh,
her Ladyship looked up from her
needlework,
probably some trite piece
(she was at it still,
for uninspired domestic use,
a maid’s uniform, a sampler’s platitude)
and wondered at this peculiar hero
her husband had brought home.

She might have thought,
as Hobart did himself,
that he was really quite grand,
sort of primordially
the knight, chivalric and noble,
if maybe a mite crabby at times,
and with a habit of command.

Hobart, I remember,
had told young officers
the trick
to Army success
was just the right amount
of insubordination,
but he had often overdone it,
himself,
not quite from knowing better,
but from a leaping heart
making his mind and lips
impetuous.

I imagine her imagining,
that Hobart was not knighted
for merchanting and manufacture,
as her husband and the likes of her
had been;
but by the older currency
of conquest, land, and history
by marriage and muscle and smarts.
By birth in short.

And Hobart was grand
but in the grandest way:
in fancy and by longing.

In some youthful time
in some library, perhaps,
marooned in dreaming,
he had connected
to the smartest
Hobarts of all,
(though it’s clever more than chic
that they seem to have been).

The first Hobarts,
they of N orfolk’s Blickling Hall,
were great in law, land and politics,
stoutly Cromwellian,
and give us a line to John Hampden too,
and these allegiances suit our hero,
his sternness and righteousness,
stiffening his dash,
with just a whiff
of self-righteousness
in a moral
somehow rebellious cause.

But there is fantasy in Blickling Hall:
right from the start
the Hobarts were dreamers.

Sir Henry Hobart, born 1560,
Parliamentarian and Calvinist,
buying himself great bits of Norfolk,
and Blickling’s antique greatness, too,
trumpeted its heraldic glamour
as though a purchase
allowed an inheritance
as he built over
the ruins of the house’s earlier glory
as a Boleyn bastion,
where Tudors had boasted:
“Argent, a chevron gules
between three bulls’ heads
couped sable”.

Those new Hobart’s put the bull everywhere,
not just on entry arches
announcing the house
but on their coat of arms
announcing their claims,
borrowing a better past.

And now we see
our
Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart,
born 1885,
in a middling status
in England’s Ireland,
climb a heady ladder
spirited out of Blickling’s
borrowed splendours
but properly earned
and owed to his own
success
in middle age
in the midst
of a huge war at once democratic
and yet seeking
and making
men of destiny.

Hobart borrows old
nostalgias
and plants them,
pins and stitches
them,
ready for battledress,
and stencils them
on his armoured divisions
called
The Bulls,
just as men and steeds
have distinguished themselves
for millennia.

Stubbornly mediaeval
perennially symbolic
the heraldic bull insists
that the best men
of every age
are wont to make themselves up,
proving self-invention’s
great pedigree.

These were the dreams of a
haunted boy –
one like Robert Louis Stevenson, perhaps –
anyway one whose
bedroom wallpaper
of dragons and maidens
were ever after his
tokens of valour and force
capable of good or bad
ripe for slaying
and to be slayed
for honour.

And now,
these threads must come together,
and they do by bull, book
and probably not candle.

Under some low wattage bulb,
Percy
always known as Patrick, to his family,
or Hobo to the wider world,
in 1941
in a happy moment
amidst frantic lucubrations
drew a bull on a sketch pad
as he might have done
as a child
or as a cadet
in “the Shop”
in Woolwich
where every engineer officer
of his generation
was taught to draw.

The very paper may have
reminded
him of the cavalry pad
strapped to his forearm
when he was mounted
in his early days
and needed to portray
some tribal domain
in the Great Game
as though a Lear or Spencer
gone even further East.

His artist’s eye
loved the scope
he found in
those hinterlands
of Tartary and the ’stan’s,
beyond all order,
where life strained the imagination,
fit for the eye of
G F Watts,
daubed in Guildford
and treasured on Sunday afternoons
by weekend
bohemians
awed by “Chaos”
by the Thames
in the Tate.

Anyway, in 1941,
he’s 56
and a mere Major General,
(his coevals were slipping
well ahead by now)
and he has taken command
of the 11th Armoured Division.
It is to be
remade in his image,
as fashioned in his mind over years,
fallowed in his banishment,
refined in his underemployment.

But even at this moment,
when subordinates look to him
for detailed conceptions
of every aspect of this
great apparatus
they have been set
to make and mobilise,
he yet sees something else,
which no-one is asking for.

Poised amidst his soldiering
there is an illustrator’s pencil
itching to create;
longing, I risk saying,
to banish all pettiness
and make loveliness
express something bolder,
clearer,
more invigorating
than a well crafted order.

Hobart drew an insignia,
a flash for his Division,
for their upper arms
and the flanks of their vehicles.
It wasn’t quite invented,
no heraldry is,
but riffed by a sort of genius:
a bull
profiled in full body.

This work of Hobart’s
has an adman’s manipulative flair,
an embroiderer’s empathy,
a herald’s clarion youthfulness.

A bull sable,
passant, regardant,
it is our Hobart’s homage
to Boleyn and the Cromwellian Hobart
and to the
Ironside cavalry
and it is balm to his soul.

His bull stamped
Hobart’s imprimatur
with every heavy
impatient step.
Speaking of heft-powered horns,
red-tipped, bloodied,
the beast was stalwart at rest
and furious when roused,
snorting through
crimson-veined
nostril-flares,
emboldening the men
who had one
patched or painted
declaratively.

Hobart sought
to mark his men
and their machines
and make them his,
even as he gives them
an identity
so they may know each other
and be a band of men.

But it is not for Hobart
alone
to say his insignia
will pass muster.

Such things are judged
by the Royal School of Needlework
and they stitch
a fabric sample from
his sketch
and send it back.

“Oh balls”, cries Hobart
when he sees their work
or something like that
(I made that up that little outburst.)

He demands they resubmit:
he demands the bull
be
not merely embroidered
as manly in a general way,
but entire
as the vets say,
intact,
fully furnished,
well hung, if you like,
even as a sort of tapestry.

A man at his most feminine
one might say
produces an emblem
utterly masculine.

And so it is,
when Hobart’s long left that command –
the Bull’s progenitor
and the Division’s –
indeed,
nearly three years later,
in ’44 and ’45,
and the image is on
shoulder and bodywork,
when they go into action
from Normandy to Flanders
in the last months
of this oil-driven war,
as Germany’s empire
was rolled back
to Berlin
and oblivion.

Wind back though.
It’s 1941;
Hobart’s work on the 11th
is finished;
since they are ready for battle,
old Hobo must move on.

There’s a War Office faction
would have ditched him then,
altogether,
at last,
on grounds of age
and convalescence
(as it happens)
and grudges old and new.
But Churchill
declares himself
again
a fan
of nearly everything
they dislike in Hobart
and he is allowed
what he would make
his great moment.

He creates the 79th
Armoured Division,
what he calls
“the best of the Black Bulls”.

And straightaway
as though to stress
he’s at the same work,
continuing it
but advancing it,
he draws
another divisional flash
and this time it is
the Bull’s Head alone,
and he wonders then
has he been overdramatic
made too much of a point,
drawing attention to himself
as much as the cause.
He asks a friend,
“Is this too, too
“symbolical!!!”

These were khaki times,
bleak and
drab
by modern reckoning
being in monochrome,
and lived by people mostly dead
to us
who knew them as grandfathers,
traduced now as uptight
or anyway benighted.
But doesn’t his very diction
speak
of a freer time
when the upper classes
or those who aspired to them
were freely camp?

I didn’t tell you yet
the thing which Hobart did
which would make the
tissue sequence in the movie
someone might make.

The first biographer of his 79th –
Hobo’s ADC and then his GSO 2 –
his right-hand man
so to say,
the squire to his knight –
was rich and Etonian
and probably quite relaxed.
Anyway,
crotchety General Hobart
had this John Borthwick,
his smart young comrade
and confederate
(as I dare propose him)
to stay
in the beloved family
time and place
and neither had a valet,
nor the house a butler.

Some village skivvy
might have figured.
Maybe a woman who does.
Who knows?
There might have been
a “daily”
soon to come
but not yet arrived.

Anyway, Borthwick records,
a little awed,
a domestic weekend scene.

(I imagine a floral pinny,
quite faded,
preserving scruffy
cricket whites
held up by a scrawny tie;
and a threadbare carpet
runs a strip down the boards
of the upstairs corridor
just after dawn.)

Hobart brings his guest
his early morning tea
and takes away his shoes
to shine them.

And so Hobart proved himself
a man
who loved
spit-and-polish
and perhaps
the imitation of Christ
or a commanding officer’s
noblesse oblige.

Hobart’s vehicles
match him.
He is the master of peculiarities.
His tanks are
coracle confections
in canvas and steel,
and dragon conceits
with tails
of bouncing
petrol bowsers
to breathe fire,
and heaped-up
like peasant donkeys
with fascines
of innocent
half-grown coppice wood
to bridge ditches.

Hobart is congruently
the king
of the incongruous,
laying out this
rattling greasy toolbag
of dangerous delights
scattered at the feet
of younger commanders
who can bid them
go forth
and reassemble
transformed
to avenge Dunkirk
in a war
in which veterans of twenty-five
had too little time to pity
the arriving tyros of eighteen,
or the older men
newly come to the field
from the beginnings of rose gardens,
steady in the marriage bed
but unsure how military life
will treat them.

England would not be England
if all she bred where Churchill’s,
for whom all life is a battlefield
or a field of the Cloth of Gold
or the ball before Waterloo;
rather than a Chamber of Commerce
or a Bazelgette fixing the drains
or all the Chamberlains
being municipal.

And even generals come
in every form,
many quite modest
even in their pomp.
I find few I don’t admire,
even if it’s a cheek
for me to say so.

But Hobart is pre-eminent
as I prick out my virtues,
those of others,
as might a gardener
choose between seedlings
fit for the summer’s marquees.

I never read of him
saying a stupid thing
without regretting it
and saying so
or making up for it.
Even his cruelty
is only ever small
and purposed
to make men
junior to him
a bit safer
or more effective.

He loves women
and grows in his
wondering
appreciation of them
and their being both themselves
and the other half of their men.

And he ponders
the odd
luminous quagmire
that is charm
which he has largely
disadmired from afar.

By the end of his career,
his triumphs are very great
and he knows he is loved
even though peace is always
ungrateful.

He knows the value of honour
and violence
but of wiliness too.
And he knows that he should not mourn
that he has never directed
the highest
order or things.
He has taught but not spearheaded
strategy.
And now, when he knows
he has invented
whole indispensible Divisions
whose charges he never led
himself –
he is perhaps past regret.

People all around him,
above and below,
knew Hobo pretty well,
and he knew himself
too.

Hobart
is a spirit
both within near-reach
and somehow sui generis:
this is a soldier-soul,
buffeted as well as great,
pushed around by history
before our eyes,
and as it careens about
him,
he writes good letters,
and orders and specifications,
and makes
a story which lets us see
so many dimensions
of the warrior.

After the war,
this man who was loved
by those who served under him
and was so hard to manage
almost slips from view.

And yet we do see him
again,
glimpsed
in the Royal Hospital, Chelsea,
where he commands
the glamorous old warriors
and he is for once
the youngest amongst his men.

His apartment there
suits him well:
his grown-up children
and their friends,
the old Chelsea
underworld of artists –
the old Tite Street
of Whistler and Sickert,
and the new King’s Road,
raffish and waiting for
Bacon, Beatniks and the Punks –
that bohemia
is at hand,
and some affluence too,
these lap at the gates of
the world of Wren and Wellington,
his latest domain

He is busy here as well,
perhaps too busy.
He fixed the kitchen
and
brought in physiotherapy
and an
occupational therapist
and nobody minded much.

But he saw further disgraces,
in the vaulted ceilings
of the Hospital’s
gleaming halls
and fusty windows,
glamorised
by the limp
peaceful
banners, standards, and flags
of the enemies out-flanked
and out-pounded
by British armies.

Many of these —
as in cathedrals
and churches everywhere –
were honoured but neglected
and their condition
offended our officious
Hobo.

They’d been
made threadbare
by sunlight
and probably by every kind
of smoke
and city dust.
The worst of them
he has replaced
and orders
the originals be destroyed:
perhaps he fears
they have the moth
or perhaps he thinks
they’ve had enough of shame
perhaps he merely forgets
to temper the shorn lamb
to the gales of the new.

Anyway, he was always
brisk
with a new broom
and sure of his ways.

He has met his match,
though, and
some of the old boys
long in the tooth,
mature in the knowledge
of officers’ ways,
take the discarded
wrecked flags,
and hide them
in their own bits of privacy
beyond inspection.

Perhaps they cared,
these old soldiers,
for the plain
but forgotten facts:
they were men who’d followed
the flag,
one way or another,
and perhaps respected
the particular item,
the very thing,
the actual cloth,
which had seen battle
and watched men die
and hung over funerals.
Perhaps their own dim ears
thought the dim flags
could still hear bugles,
and were entitled to
live out their lives any
way they liked.

We are told the hospital
liked the Hobo,
and admired him,
but if he is
fabulously active
his new charges
could be really stubborn
in their slower ways.

 

Sir Percy Hobart, Part 3
The Hobo, his generation and their books

Even amongst
Louis Spiers
and Pug Ismay
and Tiny Ironside,
those other youngish
late Victorians
who became oldish
New Elizabethans
and in-between
led men
or directed armies
or powerfully
whispered in the ears
of the powerful
in world wars,
yes, even amongst
these big,
writerly figures,
whom I can meet
and almost know
in their own words
even – nearly –
their own voices
in their diaries
and memoirs,
yes,
even amongst
such as these
he is
my favourite general.

With something like scruple,
I stalked Hobart at a distance
and took wandering paths
amongst musty books
haphazardly found
where serendipity dated
synchronicity,
in the military sections
in back rooms,
up or down creaky stairs
and the books seemed to hand me
from one to another.

The easy sofa journey
began with a book
haphazardly found on holiday.

It was
The Wartime Adventures of
B Squadron “Corpse”
one of those memoirs,
by an artistic,
writing
improbable NCO.
(I itch to name others
in Koestler’s
“Thoughtful Corporal Belt”.)

And this undainty
daisy chain
led to “Corpse’s”
admired leader
Hobart
(whom he never met).

And Hobart led me to
another general,
and on to another,
and yet others,
until I came back to Hobart,
and I almost
felt a member of a
confederacy.

Circling Sir Percy,
at a distance,
as befitting
the pursuit of someone
mythic or Shakespearean,
but more Quixote than
Morte d’Arthur,
and with a dash of
something bitter,
something Walter Mitty:
not a man for easy admiration,
but suiting a taste
habituated to the neglected,
honed by Baron Corvo’s
Hadrian Vll
or others somewhat sideways,
say Joseph Cornell
and his boxes.

So tempted and daunted
I detoured away;
I made a feint,
via Spears, Ismay and Ironside,
and even when I looked properly
for Hobart, and thought I found him,
I veered away again
toward Alanbrooke, Montgomery and Wavell,
these last three
all known to him
and working in his life,
at this moment
on his side,
and that moment,
powerfully not.

I am cross-threaded
and determined
on my own erratic ways
and went toward Hobart
along various of them
and toward these
other knightly heroes
now all but slipped
from living memory,
and I crept on
in hopes of hearing them all
as their fellows and followers did
as though round camp fires
from their youth
(the horses uneasy in the lines)
or in a command truck
(a wireless clerk nodding at his set)
or a commandeered Headquarters
(in a homely farm kitchen or
a chateau’s hallway).
And then I want to hear Hobo,
in particular,
in an English country house,
engineering
other men’s victories
in a draughty ballroom
nowhere near as smart
as Ryder’s
Brideshead.

I like my books, boats and coats
second hand
but my opinions
I affect
to mint
for myself.

I want to assay my debt
– not some national debt,
not yours –
to warriors
of whatever age
and in whatever cause.

I seek to know
the exact homage due
from me,
and what coinage
the survivors –
or the dead –
might accept:
and see if I can pay
my pocket’s-worth
of the debt cowardice
owes to courage.

I like the debt I owe
to military commanders
because they accept
such a weight,
and especially those
with vivid imaginations
and the wit
and sometimes
the need to explain
and exonerate
and even,
very rarely,
expiate.

“My” generals
led their Commonwealth’s
volunteers and conscripts –
from Bermondsey and Bombay,
Newcastle to Darwin,
from slums and prairies
and deserts and jungles,
and suburbs.

Blanco-ed and badged
these millions
sallied forth –
many half-unwilling;
and many even of
the plain reluctant,
and the unsuited,
grew
in the end
a fine
bolshie determination
to do the right thing.

From the Charing Cross Road
to Henley-on-Thames,
and Blandford Forum,
and Shoreham,
and Worthing,
Brighton and Oxford,
I found books
about and by their leaders,
sometimes ordered alphabetically
sometimes grouped by war,
holding their own
amongst smiling
and consoling
Gardening,
Cooking,
Travel,
and the yards and yards
of nerdy Transport,
and other less bloody diaries
and memoirs and biographies.

These volumes waited –
paraded, more or less,
but very patient –
till their temporary guardians
often in cardigan and scarves
rang up the soldierly stories
and put them in old supermarket bags;
and I did not feel rewarded –
not especially deserving,
nor undeserving –
but just blessed
to have lived long enough to want
to know these men better
now that I have better tools for it
and don’t mind learning
and glad of all the hands and minds
which had pored over these pages
over thirty, sometimes fifty, years.

As I survey these soldiers I am
like a middle-aged man
seeing Venice for the first time,
at least in the flesh,
and not like himself
as he had been
when
a school-tripper
in a coach party bubble
seeing nothing but the girl
he has fancied all year,
as arrested decay
and art and bridges,
and stories of
trade and tyrannies,
and a sort of longed-for
ache,
drift by on the edge of
chatter and scoring;
but rather –
I say –
with the
shock of experience
and with the thrill
of a pleasure
which was worth delay
and could not wisely be
put off longer.

Like those other warrior
coevals of his,
that 1880’s generation
of babies
who became generals
in the 30s
coming men by 1918
and with strength
for one last war by 1939,
Hobart’s long prime
had made him
a master of many times:
from ponies to tanks,
from pigeons to wireless.

But none of these –
my feeling heroes –
mourned tradition:
their youth had seen
cavalier romance,
and Houseman’s dancing,
singing boys,
and tribal honour
amongst martial people,
machine-gunned in the trenches,
and they’d purposed to meet
industrial evil
with industrial virtue
and some virtu, too.

No longer young
they were moderns for sure,
Modernists, perhaps,
except there was no
death-cult
in any of them
and all they knew for sure
was that they
were set to beat fascism,
the handmaiden,
the singled-voiced
shouting Siren,
of the Futurists.

This was the generation,
of leader and led,
who went –
sometimes often –
to Olivier’s Henry Five:
and light-heartedness and hope
were
all mixed up with
fear and destiny.

I want to try to be precise
in weighing
some of this,
the courage and cleverness
the clubbability and the awkwardness
especially where there is
charisma amongst diffidence
and a wit
too dry to laugh much.

I love Churchill
(I like an aristocrat on the make)
and Wellington
(I like an Augustan reactionary):
they cried a lot
like Jews
and were
immoderately cool,
under fire
or when they made
enormous decisions.
They could park regrets
somewhere
very private.

Yes, isn’t that it?
Does that not
also corral
Nelson,
that man with whom to fall in love?

Many men of many sorts
feel they are called
and suited to
honour, glory,
and duty.

Amongst them are gamblers
who challenge the facts –
those stupid unfeeling circumstances
which chain other men –
and challenge the odds
to do them down,
but all have suffered and thrived
on pure chance.
Maybe unseasonal rain
bogs down
the enemy’s guns,
or a sudden breeze
favours their own windward ship;
and they come home
drenched in blood
and success
and are wiped down
and shown off
at subscription dinners
in provincial cities,
or given estates
the size of the nation’s
pride in them
and itself,
and the luck becomes
a part of their wonder,
as though they could bend
the common stuff
of reality.

But some of them have
a special hunger;
these must
make a mark:
dent history;
redraw a map;
bring low an existential enemy:
these audacities are all that lie between
their pounding hearts –
their teeming minds –
and nullity.

These few –
these Nelson’s and Churchill’s
and maybe Montgomery too,
have a flamboyance,
some music hall swank,
some hunger for
what only the crowd
can give.

They insist
they must
make a continent or two
hold its breath,
and have mothers
tell their tales
in nursery rhymes –
scented Madonnas
bent over
sleepy infants.

The hunger of such heroes
makes them great,
for sure,
and yet a little vulgar too.

And one of this sort of hero might choose
to die as an old man
in a dressing room
in a campaign cot
as good then
as some innocent
other-ranker
and proof against flattery.

And this one picks up a paintbrush and a smock
and this is one is bosomed by Emma
and this other one runs a peace mission.

Warriors who seek atonement
seldom need it
except for themselves
or can have it:
they thought they were making history,
but it was only playing with them after all.

We ought to love our great warriors
(especially those on our side)
as we might unruly gods,
who sometimes fall into grace
but let lesser beings
pretend to be great
or become almost so
as they follow,
admiring and cursing.

I love all my generals –
I mean all the fighting men
whose lives I read –
but best of all,
those not in the top, top league.
I love these grown-up boys
who
in middle age
led young men and women
into an advanced adulthood
and death
and made some into heroes.

Some great performers –
the Churchill’s, and Nelson’s,
maybe even the Montgomery’s,
cannot really know themselves
and are as dazzled
as the rest of us
by the show they put on.

The Duke of Wellington’s
an odd case:
he knew himself
well enough
and yet could not bend
or display
except in the proper privacy
of his friends or mistresses.

The Wavell’s and
The Slim’s and the Auchinleck’s,
the very top of the second league
– the best of the battlefield commanders –
being not so lofty,
they can see inside themselves
and let us see
their backstage areas.

There’s even more to the lesser figures,
say Spears, Ismay,
even our Ironside,
and definitely Alan Brooke
(the best thinker of them all, maybe,
but masterminding armies from afar,
and staying close to Churchill,
to contain him,
which was the stickiest battle of all).

There is something
short of greatness and genius
in these men,
but they talk to us
and teach us
how we might reach for the extraordinary,
almost by study
and diligence.

And yet, and yet,
England would not be England
if there were not Hobart’s too.
He’s not quite a visionary
but not just obsessive;
not above the fray
nor master of it
but deeply in it.

Hobart said he had no interest
in writing himself into anything,
not even a manual fit for Sandhurst.
There’d be no memoirs
for armchair generals,
no guides to leadership for boys
and girls.

Perhaps he cared too much for writing
to be prepared to be bad at it.
He was bold and bloody
but not about to be
self-obsessed in public
as a poet must
if he’s to be any good.

And so the general who designed
three divisions,
and did it
so well
they could be lent to others
to lead,
this designer and creator,
served his men and dreams
with one last flourish.

He had chased them
from Normandy to the Rhine
and now
he gave them one last gift
and it was their own story.

When at last he caught them up,
in the last months of European war,
it fell to him
to organise their chronicle,
The Story of the 79th Armoured Division,
published Hamburg,
July 1945.
He might have written it himself,
and drawn every map of every advance
and every setback.
He might have sketched and cartooned and
crisply described
with a poetic flourish
here and there
and deftly eulogised
this or that valorous man,
this or that action.

But instead, I see him
making the thing happen.
His young unit was for the chop,
and he could marshal and inspire
its final flourish.

He commanded that it be done,
that it be deft and thorough and witty,
and speak of liberty’s heroic ambition
and the nuts and bolts
of violence and re-creation;
that it be gathered in from all the maps and snaps
to hand, or scattered through the 79th’s
armoured archipelago,
and that it be written
by his young Aide de Camp,
John Borthwick,
a high tone City butcher’s son
who wrote quite well,
his acerbic General thought,
considering the author was
“uneducated at Eton”.

And so, in the ruins of Hamburg,
where printing and graphic art
were ancient skills,
and where – I am imagining now –
Nazi propaganda was elegantly
and boldly ground out,
my mind’s eye has him
sending out youngsters
reconnoitring
and scavenging
for fonts and
rolls of paper,
and ink,
and canvas boards.

From start to finish
it was all work
he could
have mastered
as a publisher or author,
in another unlived life.

And then
perhaps under
twisted metal roofs,
and lit through
shattered windows,
or even in some
underground sanctuary,
on discovered presses,
manned by lucky Germans
(lucky anyway,
I assume,
to be alive and fed),
he ordains,
he causes –
prints and publishes-
the first,
fresh, democratic,
liberal,
modern, book
for post-war Germany
about the
defeat
of its madness –
at once primordial, and futurist –
by British guts
and eccentricity.
It’s a story
as old as
as any
war,
but especially
an existential one,
but even of
the wars of
Wellington and Nelson:
when an
ancien regime
proved itself
supple and responsive
and fully bloody-minded
against
some sort of
foreign revolution.

And here’s the neatest twist,
the typeface they found
for the titles and subtitles
in their book
was Thannhaeuser Schrift, 1929:
a very German
font
with that
strength and verve
of Bauhaus and the Gothic:
a sort of nod
to something
fin de siècle
as neurotic and necessary
as Vienna,
fraught and bold
as once.

So it’s a proper
finale –
this military book
made in war’s rubble –
a proper finale
to his long haul
as a man
who would not be confined.

And thence to disbandment:
his men and machines were subsumed
by other units
as they were wont anyway.
His Bull’s insignias –
of body and head –
were adopted by others,
in the Army’s dislike
of throwing away allegiances.

And Hobart’s reputation
never tarnished,
was somehow neglected,
except almost as
a curiosity,
as that
bloke or gent
Hobo
with his “Funnies”.

And yet,
when seventy years
have been heaped
on the youngest of his veterans,
one or two of them hang on
and are fond his memory,
and treasure the book
he caused to be made to remember them,
as they were back then,
when they were the apple of his eye.

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