Sassoon’s Ape: In Search of Corporal O’Brien

Michael Poole explores the life of Corporal Richard O’Brien, a prominent figure in the work of first world war poet and writer, Siegfried Sassoon, and finds a poignant figure of Welsh History.

SassoonA visitor to Cardiff in the years leading up to the First World War, when it was the largest coal port in the world, would have been struck by an ingenious piece of home-grown machinery on the dockside. The Lewis-Hunter crane with its squat shape was a cunning contraption for loading coal at speed. Ten-ton hoppers of the teeming black stuff at a time could be shifted by these moving monsters as they crabbed along quayside tracks, working in concert to load all the open hatches of a docked vessel simultaneously. This allowed the ship’s keel to sit evenly in the water under the vast, spilling tonnage.

What made the Lewis-Hunter machines unique was the contrivance that hung from the bottom of each hopper. An adjustable cone funnelled the flow of the tipping coal, allowing it to be more uniformly distributed or ‘trimmed’ once inside the hold by workers known as trimmers, using special long-poled shovels. The job of the coal trimmer was one of the key trades in any commercial port at the time because bulk cargoes that didn’t move around had fewer breakages and were therefore more profitable. This was an important consideration for Cardiff. The semi-bituminous Welsh steam coal it principally exported — much sought-after by the navies of the world for its smokeless properties — was notoriously friable and therefore fragile to handle. It was this that drove the general manager of the Docks, W.T Hunter and his chief engineer, C.L. Lewis to come up with a loading technology that would make trimming easier to control and more efficient. Their patented coaling cranes were one of the reasons for Cardiff’s success as a port.

By the outbreak of the First World War, Cardiff was exporting nearly 11 million tons of coal a year. This level of tonnage represented billions and billions of individual lumps. Imagine looking down into even a single hold and trying to make out one piece of coal from another as the trimmers guided more and more clumps into the furthest corners, all in a haze of black dust.

It is not known how many of the 1,500 Cardiff dock workers who enlisted as volunteers in 1914 were coal trimmers, but like the millions who followed them into the British Army they were about to discover that, in the haze of war, the military machine would process them as anonymously as the Lewis Hunter system dispatched coal.

SassoonOne of these Welsh volunteers was a tall, powerfully built 20-year-old with a shock of dark hair named Richard O’Brien, who was soon to play a tragic part in one of the most celebrated literary accounts of the experience of fighting on the Western Front: Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. The series of battlefield events they were involved in together resulted in the award of a Military Cross to Sassoon; and a far less fortunate outcome for O’Brien. The story of how their paths fatefully came to cross during the course of war in a Welsh regiment is relatively easy to recount, but at the cost of a troubling imbalance of emphasis since Sassoon holds all the narrative cards. Virtually everything that is known about O’Brien has been posthumously filtered through Sassoon’s point of view. The historical Corporal O’Brien, the real figure beyond the pages of Sassoon’s writings remains stubbornly elusive. So beyond reach, in fact, that as far as I am aware no attempt has ever been made to locate him or his backstory. Yet it may still be possible to do this by reconstructing the place he came from: the dockland Cardiff of the late 19th and early 20th century. However, before going in search of the lost world of Richard O’Brien, let us return to the months immediately prior to the declaration of war.

A meeting of opposite poles

A figure caught in watery silhouette against a hulking shape manipulates a lengthy pole. Two hundred miles away, another figure picked out against a sun-flecked river manoeuvres with the same motion. They are separated by more than distance. One is trimming a cargo of coal on an open vessel moored in Cardiff’s giant East Bute Dock; the other is steering a punt through the backwater ripples of the river Cam in Cambridge. The dock worker hauling a casual living on the dog-eat-dog waterfront and the aspirant writer able to draw on a private income to pursue a life of hunting and playing cricket on the fields of Home Counties England. They make for an unlikely pairing.

Richard O’Brien grew up in an ethnically Irish enclave near Cardiff’s extensive dockfront as the city moved from the Victorian to the Edwardian era. His father was also a port worker. O’Brien was among the first to sign up for the British Army in the autumn of 1914. The regiment he enlisted in was the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which despite its name recruited extensively in the Midlands of England and had its main training base at Litherland, on the industrial edge of Liverpool, near Aintree racecourse. It was from here that Private O’Brien, service number 11242, was eventually shipped out to the Western Front, where he served with the RWF’s First Battalion at Neuve Chapelle, Loos and Festubert.

Siegfried Sassoon spent his childhood in the Weald of Kent, the son of an Anglo-Catholic mother and a Bagdadi Jewish father from a family with cotton and oil interests, sometimes referred to as the Rothschilds of the East. Siegfried was a pupil at Marlborough College public school before spending two years at Clare College, Cambridge. He left without a degree to take up sporting and literary pursuits. In 1915 he, too, found himself at Litherland Depot – a place he would later call ‘a manufactory of soldiers’ — after being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was then posted to the First Battalion at Festubert. It is not known whether O’Brien, by now a Corporal, first encountered Sassoon on this Artois section of the Front.

The two undoubtedly were serving alongside each other by January 1916 when the Royal Welch relieved a part of the Somme frontline known to the British as Bois Francais. Facing them, no more than a few hundred yards away, was the heavily fortified Kiel Trench of the correspondingly dug-in Germans. It was here, in part of the line occupied by ‘C’ Company, close to the small town of Fricourt, that Sassoon recruited O’Brien to participate in a series of risky night-time patrols into No Man’s Land aimed at gathering intelligence by raiding the German positions opposite.

Sassoon’s wartime diaries describe the physically imposing O’Brien as ‘six foot tall and very bold’. They made numerous reconnaissance sorties together, faces blackened by burnt cork so as to be less visible in the dark. ‘Last night, warmer and lovely with stars found me creeping about in front of our wire with Corporal O’Brien. Got quite near the German wire but couldn’t…chuck some bombs at them.’ The tone is light, jaunty even, but these ‘Hun-chasing’ ventures, as Sassoon called them, held gruesome dangers. Part of the idea was to capture German prisoners in order to interrogate them. So, as well as Mills bombs, the raiders would carry with them a lethal array of hatchets and studded coshes known as knobkerries for hand-to-hand fighting. Sassoon writes that he felt safer with his ‘bombing Corporal’ at his side for this ‘very jumpy work’. When another soldier stands in for him, Sassoon records that the replacement was ‘very steady but I wish it had been O’Brien’.

There was more than a hint of recklessness and bravado about the way Sassoon conducted himself during these operations, even by his own account: ‘something drives me on to look for trouble…They say I am trying to get myself killed.’ Not for nothing did poet Robert Graves, serving alongside him in the 1st Battalion at the time, call Sassoon ‘Mad Jack’ in his memoir Goodbye to All That. One of Sassoon’s close friends, another fellow RWF officer, David Thomas had been killed at Bois Francais on 18 March, 1916. They had shared a room together during initial training and were on intimate terms, although the relationship was probably not as sexual as Sassoon wanted it to be. The trauma of the loss left Sassoon psychologically unstable for a period.

It is not clear how much useful intelligence was ever gathered from the trench raids. At best, their military objectives were questionable. The company Quartermaster, Joe Cottrell, warned Sassoon that the generals regarded them cynically as mere ‘entertainments’. Still, we know that Sassoon was not averse to dying in a ‘decent show’, as he termed it, and that he had very personal reasons for putting himself in harm’s way to kill Germans to avenge the death of David Thomas. But his foolhardy attitude also put others such as his Corporal needlessly at risk. This raises the nature of O’Brien’s own motivation for volunteering to participate in so many madcap sorties over the wire in the company of a man fighting the war as a form of his own psycho-drama. It could have simply been out of a habit of deference towards his officer or he could have in some way been trying to look out for him, to watch his back. It is conceivable that O’Brien, too, liked a scrap and was becoming addicted to the physical rush of risk. Yet given Sassoon’s well-attested interest in same-sex relationships, the possibility that there might have been something else going on has at least to be considered. Such liaisons, while rare, were not unknown in the close confines of armed service. O’Brien came from a port city with a well-developed night district catering to the tastes of transient sailors, where it was recognised that various ‘exotic’ sexual practices took place clandestinely. That said, in the absence of any kind of evidence, it seems likely that their relationship was strictly military and that what affinity they shared was to danger.

The raiding party

When a new raid on Kiel Trench was being planned for the night of 25 May, Cottrell prevented one of his own men from volunteering for it by hastily sending him on, of all things, a horse-shoeing course. O’Brien’s name, though, was put forward and at 11.50pm he and the other members of ‘B Party’ clambered out into No Man’s Land. Sassoon, for reasons that remain obscure, stayed behind with a back-up ‘evacuation party’. His diary relates watching from behind the parapet as O’Brien ‘laid a line of lime across the craters to the Bosche wire’ to guide the attack and then seeing him disappear into the rain and darkness along with the rest of the assault party as they started their approach towards the German line. After twenty minutes, word came back: ‘O’Brien says it’s a failure; they’re all going to throw a bomb and retire’.

The official Battalion War Diary for the sector that day makes clear what had happened: ‘the party came across a bank of very dense wire some 4 or 5 feet thick, which they describe as cage wire…very stout barbed wire tangled together very thickly and apparently impassable. The party then commenced to work around to the left, the officer having reported what he believed to be a gap in the wire. But as they were doing this they were seen, and a bomb thrown from Kiel Trench, which was below them about 6 to 7 yards away. At the same time, snipers to the right and left brought fire to bear on the party.’
O’Brien was wounded in the cross-fire and stranded at the bottom of a 25-foot-deep crater. Sassoon tells of scrambling out under fire to try to bring him back in. ‘He is moaning and his right arm is either broken or almost shot off: he’s also hit in the right leg…body and head’. But the ‘huge Irishman’ is too heavy. Sassoon has to return for more men to help — and with some rope they eventually succeed in getting the maimed O’Brien out of the shell-hole and back across to the British lines. Whether out of a sense of guilt for not having taken part in the actual assault or merely the result of an adrenaline-pumped reflex to save his bombing corporal, it was a stupendous effort – at least as Sassoon tells it. Yet it was in vain. O’Brien was found to be dead. There was ‘nothing left of the old cheeriness and courage’ as they ‘took off his round helmet with a sort of reverence’.

At one level, this story — elaborated on at greater length in Sassoon’s autobiographical novel Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, published in 1930 over a decade after the events it is based on – confounds one of the most powerful stereotypes of the First World War: that of the callous officer with little but disdain for the men under his command and indifferent to what happens to them. Here is a member of the upper-class officer elite doing the opposite and apparently putting his own life on the line to try to save one of his men.

This is not the usual picture we have of the relationship between the classes in early 20th century Britain, where there was precious little in the way of hands across the social divide. Quite the reverse, in fact, and perhaps especially so in South Wales, where there were a number of ugly industrial disputes in the years leading up to the First World War, one of the bitterest of them involving Cardiff dockers in 1911 and in which Richard O’Brien himself may have participated.

For all his humane instincts, however, Sassoon struggled truly to cross this social gulf. As a writer, he can seem trapped in the language of his upbringing with all its latent prejudices. In the diaries we find him complaining about soldiers ‘dropping aitches’ and of ‘low class Welsh officers’. There is a certain blankness when it comes to reaching out to individuals like O’Brien who remain curiously under-described, held at bay as personalities in their own right, despite their prominence in Sassoon’s storytelling. There is a sense in which his men are more important to him as his men than they are as individuals. For instance, he describes O’Brien as a ‘topper’, which is to say someone who tops all others, but this piece of aristocratic argot nonetheless grates awkwardly. Language here is not conferring distinctiveness so much as concealing it. Would O’Brien have recognized himself in such a description? And what are we to make of the fact that the Sassoon family dog during the war years was a terrier called Topper?

What’s in a name?

Names and naming play an unusually significant role in Sassoon’s writings. The only time that Sassoon refers to O’Brien using a Christian name he calls him not Richard but ‘Mick’, employing the slang generic term for someone of Irish descent. It is difficult not to see an extension of this ethnic slur in a casual description of O’Brien as having a ‘rather ape-like face’. This disquieting phrase, which appears in one of the unpublished manuscript diaries, points to a degree of social unease in Sassoon. Faced with working-class masculinity at close quarters he responds by framing it as animal-like. What makes this all the more uncomfortable is that the attribution of simian features to lower and immigrant classes such as the Irish had long been one of the tropes of Victorian criminology as it anxiously sought out signs of social degeneracy.

It is as if in becoming Sassoon’s Corporal, a process that turns out also to entail becoming Sassoon’s ‘ape’, O’Brien the steely Cardiff docker, a man from a particular place at a particular time with a life beyond the army in the lively world of dockland Cardiff, was being slowly disappeared. Like other forms of possessiveness, the apostrophe can work to diminish what is distinctive in an individual, robbing them of their identity, in a grammatical elision that becomes a real erasing.

The extent to which an apostrophe could spell trouble would have been well understood in Cardiff’s ‘Little Ireland’. Having a name with a built-in punctuation mark that spoke directly of Irish heritage could offer a sense of communal belonging. It could equally be used as a marker of difference, a sign of not belonging at all in the wider society. What makes an individual stand out can also be what makes him vanish.

sassoonThat was to be the fate of O’Brien in a further way. While Sassoon was awarded the Military Cross for his belated role in the failed raid, Richard O’Brien was buried directly from a field ambulance, very close to where he died and without ceremony in plot 185 of Citadel New Military Cemetery. One of the smaller British cemeteries, it lies in a valley running down from Fricourt to the Somme and is today shrouded in juniper trees, horse chestnuts and Irish yews.

O’Brien’s army records log that, since he was unmarried, his pension and war gratuity were awarded to his father Timothy O’Brien as ‘sole legatee’. With this, the waters of history close over Richard O’Brien as dramatically as the vast tidal flows that used to race into the Cardiff basin from the Bristol Channel in his days as a docker. A ‘topper’ he may have been, but the term also carries other connotations derived from the fruit trade and the practice of topping up punnets with prime produce, leaving the less good fruit underneath, so as to attract custom. In the context of the carnage of the Somme in 1916, this would make O’Brien – to extend the retail parlance — a loss leader, an exposed and expendable asset, a piece of collateral damage.

Even when Sassoon’s diaries came to be edited for publication in the 1980s, no one thought it worth querying the mis-naming of O’Brien as ‘Mick’. Yet Rupert Hart-Davis in his introduction does have something to say about how Sassoon turned the diaries into Memoirs of an Infantry Officer – the novel is in effect a roman-a-clef — by ‘changing the names of everyone he met…except Corporal Mick O’Brien’. Not surprisingly, the most recent biography of Sassoon by Max Egremont published in 2006 still confidently refers to Richard O’Brien as ‘Corporal Mick O’Brien’.

All of which poses the question: is a Mick always a Mick? To which the answer is: yes, if his story is being told by a writer like Siegfried Sassoon, whose self-fabulating accounts we must now pull back from to allow Richard O’Brien himself to emerge. This presents many difficulties as the historical record is patchy. However, while we may know little about Richard O’Brien as an individual, we do know much about the world which produced him: the ‘Hibernian’ Cardiff he was born into and where he lived all his short life until joining up. A place of booming docks, boisterous pubs and pulsating popular culture; a community built around a strong sense of ethnic and religious identity, somewhat embattled and prone to a defensiveness that in turn led to a very marked valuing of physical prowess and, not unrelatedly, to the incubating of a boxing scene that would create world-class fighters such as ‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll. It is here that, piece by piece, O’Brien’s story can be given back to him.


Michael Poole is a documentary producer and writer, who has also taught film-making at the University of South Wales. His many television programmes and series as a BBC Executive Producer include the BBC2 film War of Words: Soldier Poets of the Somme, which first alerted him to the events linking Siegfried Sassoon and Richard O’Brien. He has recently completed the feature-length documentary Kekee Manzil: House of Art, which tells the story of the Modern Art Movement in India. 

Part Two: The Lost World of Richard O’Brien will appear in Wales Arts Review next week.