Monday, September 3, 2018

THE MAN WHO SAVED PARIS: Roger West’s Ride 1914, By Michael Carragher, Unicorn Publishing Group, UK

Lieutenant Roger R.F. West, DSO

For those with only general knowledge of the events of World War I, here is an on-the-scene memoir that will bring it alive. This is an important book because it gives us one man’s story while placing him within the conflict happening all around him. British-born Roger West was of Anglo-German stock, with many German friends, but when the war broke out he volunteered to serve with the British. Being an expert motorcyclist, he was assigned as a despatch rider to the 19th Brigade in France, which bore the brunt of the fighting in the first few weeks in 1914. Even while in the heat of battle, he jotted events in his diary (Aug 4-Sept 18) and told of many hair-raising experiences.

The bridge at Pontoise-lès-Noyon
Historian Michael Carragher proposes that it was a seemingly casual act by West that changed the course of the war. When West discovered that the bridge at Pontoise-lès-Noyon had been left open to the German advance, he volunteered to ride back and blow it up. This prevented the Germans from crossing a key river and soundly defeating the French and British since, by taking Paris, the Germans would have won the war in a matter of weeks.
West’s diary entries are reproduced in full, with explanations by Carragher that give a broader picture of how West’s experiences fit in with the horrors occurring that same time. We learn how German armies poured through neutral Belgium in their attempt to destroy the French military and sweep down to take Paris. Only the tiny British Expeditionary Force got in the way, and their fighting has achieved a mythical status for the endurance of British regulars in the face of the ruthless might of the Germans who outnumbered them several times over.
British despatch rider
West tells an absorbing story of how he moved around the battlefield amid chaos and uncertainty and his account is full of atmosphere and detail. Even though he was crippled with a badly damaged foot, he still rode around the clock, delivering dispatches and directing and assisting soldiers separated from their units. The picture of an exhausted but determined young man, trundling around the battlefield on a worn-out motorcycle, is gripping, thanks to West’s vivid descriptions of those times.
After the war West was awarded The Distinguished Service Order (DSO) the first decoration awarded to the Intelligence Corps for his bold act that had saved Paris. In his memoir, written later but based on his diary, West modestly states: “I was astonished when I heard the idea put about that I had saved Paris… a gross if enthusiastic overstatement… but the demolition of the bridge at Pontoise no doubt played some part in the outcome of events.”
German Cavalry Patrol
One moving incident haunted him all his life. While hiding beside a road in France he saw a German patrol approaching. In his own words: “So here were 21 Cavalry, at 200 yards or less; and myself prone in the long grass above them. I sighted on the leader and then another and another. Eleven of them at least were sitting ducks, and as good as dead, and maybe all 21 before they could reach any sort of cover. It was my duty to kill them. Or was it? For once, in the impersonality of war, I could see them close-to, as fellow men, such men as I had met and been friends with at Bonn University before the war. The horses slopped along with heavy feet, and the leader’s head was bowed on his chest from sheer exhaustion. So, they had been having a hard time too. I squeezed the trigger lightly but not enough to fire, and then crawled back down the embankment to my cycle. I tried to rationalize it to myself - my rifle was full of dust and might have jammed; I was probably unsteady and might have missed; but I knew in my heart I could not have murdered those men.”
The book stays true to Roger West, showing how the tough time he had in the war, and the loss of so many dear comrades, led to his lifelong suffering from PTSD, then called shell shock. After the war was over he left England and moved to British Columbia whose mountains calmed his spirit. In 1938 he moved with his wife to California and became an advisor to Paramount Pictures, working on many movies before ending his days in Carmel, aged 84.