Saturday 22 February 2014

Tank commander by Ronald Welch

Tank commander by Ronald Welch, illustrated by Victor G. Ambrus (OUP, 1972)

14 chapters; 182 pages with occasional pen and ink sketches

Subjects: World War One, France, Ypres, Mons, deserters, tanks, junior fiction (Year 8-10)

At the start of the book, John Carey is a Second Lieutenant with the West Glamorgans, who are comfortably ensconced in the regimental barracks at Tidworth. It is August 1914 and war is imminent. There is one last ceremonial regimental dinner, complete with Georgian silver service, toasts and cigars, before the dress clothes are packed away and everyone sets off for war.

Ronald Welch is very good on battle strategy, he understands how and where battles are fought, and he shows how the First World War marked the end of traditional cavalry regiments. You couldn’t use cavalry in trench warfare, because they simply got mown down. He also explains how and why tanks were first used, what they were good for and what they could and couldn’t do.

However, despite the comments quoted later, this book would be unlikely to be read in the same way today as it was when first published.

For a start, there are NO WOMEN in the whole book. Even the medical staff are men. No - actually - there are two women in London who give John a white feather because he is in mufti, but by then he has already been in the trenches and wounded and decorated and it is the tradition for his Battalion to wear mufti on leave, so you get the impression those women are a bit dim because they don't understand anything.

There is little reflection on the awful toll of war, although it’s hard to know if this book was written in 1972 to reflect attitudes prevalent in WW1, or if those attitudes were still prevalent in 1972. (In the Historical note at the back, the author notes that in 1972, the year it was published, “there were still 78,000 men in Britain drawing disability allowances from wounds received in the 1914-18 War.”) 

For example, the chapter on Desertion, where Private Tyler is courtmartialled and sentenced to death, shows no sensitivity to his plight (at one stage, John and his senior officer are discussing Gilbert and Sullivan operas); the man is simply treated as a despicable coward. “John stepped back, trying to free himself from the grip of those desperate fingers. He stared with revulsion and horror at that moaning, scrabbling figure on the floor at his feet.” (Compare that with Private Peaceful or David Hill's My brother’s war.)

Some of the comments below compare Ronald Welch to Rosemary Sutcliffe, and I did enjoy her books as a child. It will be interesting to see how they fare on re-reading, and if her books are equally weighted in favour of male characters. 

Author’s website
Ronald Welch (1909-1982) was writing well before the days of authors’ websites, and it wasn’t even his real name. He was born Ronald Oliver Fenton, in Wales, to English parents. He was a well-known author of children’s historical fiction, as well as being a history teacher and later headmaster. During World War Two, he fought in the Welch Regiment, and that was what he took his pen name from.

In 1955, he won the Carnegie Medal for the most outstanding children’s book of 1954 with Knight Crusader, which was the first in the Carey Family series. There are 12 books altogether, covering wars from the 12th to the 20th century, although they weren’t written in chronological order. Tank commander is the final title in the series (it has a Family Tree at the beginning), but not the last one to be published.

This website contains an interesting account of what he was like as a headmaster.

Bear Alley is a blog run by a freelance author and editor with a special interest in old British comics, books and magazines. Here he talks about Ronald Welch and his books,and his piece is followed by a string of enthusiastic comments from readers:
  •  I remember reading as many of Ronald Welch’s historical novels as I could manage, when I was a boy growing up in the 1960s.
  •  I devoured all his books as a child, through to my late teens. I read and re-read them all. From these books and those of C.S. Forester I gained a huge interest in History and Military History in particular.
  • Ronald Welch’s and Rosemary Sutcliffe’s historical novels kindled my love of reading and history which has lasted all my life.
  • Why isn’t somebody reprinting him?
  • As a school librarian, I do not think that the calibre of these authors can be matched today, fantasy and chick lit are the popular genres.
With only a few dissenters:
  • I think they’re too unreflective on Empire, Class and War for modern tastes, and not lyrical enough.
And according to a note on the end of this post on the Historical Writers' AssociationSlightly Foxed is republishing all 12 of Ronald Welch’s Carey Novels, starting with Knight Crusader, The Galleon and For The King in September 2013, with subsequent titles to follow throughout 2014-2016.

Info about the illustrator
Victor G. Ambrus (1935- ) was born in Budapest and is still alive – with a website! I’m not sure why I was so surprised, except that this book does have such an old-fashioned feel.

Here is an example of his illustrating style (from his website):

The battle of Stamford Bridge

Things I didn’t know:
  • Tanks in WW1:
I didn't know anything about how tanks were developed or when they were first used.

A WW1 tank
Here's another article about them with some more fascinating pictures. 

British "Whippets", 3rd Battalion, Tank Corps, Mar 1918

  • New words in the war:
“Anzac” was of course a new word that emerged in World War One, but Ronald Welch notes others, such as “camouflage”, which comes from the French word camoufler, to disguise, and is recorded as having its first known use in 1917.
I went looking for other examples and found a post on language of the First World War. There was “camouflage” again:
“Many words which emerged at the time have clear associations with the conflict, such as camouflage, blimp, aerobatics, demob and shell shock.”
If you’re interested, you could also follow up the derivation of other war words such as Blighty, cushy or strafe.

  • Officers in the British Army
I knew that officers in the British Army traditionally came from the upper classes. It was a well-recognised career path for a younger son.
However I didn’t realise that this was made inevitable by low rates of pay. According to Ronald Welch, “the pay of a Second Lieutenant was 5/3 per day and his Mess Bill 7/6 without any drinks at all. Not even Senior Officers could live on their pay and a private income was essential. A thousand a year in some regiments, six hundred at least in many more, and not far short of four hundred the absolute minimum. John knew of several officers in the room who were heavily in debt, and to them the coming war, if they survived it, would be an enormous relief.”

  • The Battle of Waterloo:
I didn't know that the Battle of Waterloo, fought in 1814 between the English and the French (think Vanity Fair), took place close by some of the battles fought in World War One. 
John Carey’s first experience of war is at Mons, in Belgium. “For the first time in ninety-nine years the British army was fighting again in western Europe…  It was quite possible, John thought, remembering his Military History, that some of those men falling as British bullets hit them were grandsons of the Prussian soldiers who had made a forced march ninety-nine years ago on another Sunday, not so very far to the north of Mons, so that they could fight with their British allies, already fiercely engaged in battle at a place called Waterloo.”
That means that 2015 is also the bicentenary of that battle - which is a complete diversion, but still interesting. 


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Just to let you know that it's been reported on Twitter that Victor Ambrus has just died. RIP