What drove Maurice Wilson to Everest?

A Manchester writer becomes obsessed with one of mountaineering's most puzzling tales

Good afternoon Millers - today’s post is about a man called Maurice Wilson. Normally on Remembrance Sunday we talk about soldiers who were killed on the battlefield, but this story is about what war can do to people who it doesn’t kill. About what fighting and surviving and witnessing war can do to your brain and your soul.

It’s based on The Moth and the Mountain, a new book by the writer Ed Caesar, who lives in Manchester and writes for The New Yorker magazine. In addition to being an early Mill member, he is one of Britain’s most distinguished long-form journalists, and this book is a memorable exploration of an extraordinary, deeply perplexing life.

Ed was planning to sign some copies for Millers but sadly the lockdown got in the way. I’m sure he will happily bring his fountain pen to one of our first members’ meetups next year and sign your copy then.

In the very early hours of an April morning, the fearsome German attack on Wytschaete began. It was 1918, and British troops were defending the fortified West Flanders village for its strategic importance in a chain of low hills around Ypres. Wytschaete had bloodily changed hands several times during the war, and the Germans wanted it back.

One officer described the bombardment in his diary:

Telephone communications were broken instantly, and companies were cut off from battalions and battalions from Brigade Head Quarters . . . The night was lit up everywhere with burning farms and bursting shells. Under such a bombardment it seemed incredible that any human being in the forward area could survive to check the onrush of the German infantry.

Sometime after 5 am, the flood of German soldiers began. The infantry assault had arrived, backed up by aerial support and machine gun fire. The First Fifth battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment resisted in vain as the enemy broke through their line. Casualties were enormous. The battalion was divided into A, B, C and D companies, and not a single officer from the first three survived.

One officer from D Company was Maurice Wilson, the son of a woollen mill owner from Bradford who had signed-up in May 1916. He was stationed on the fringe of a wooded area, to prevent German troops from streaming through a hole in the British line. Soon he was isolated and under heavy fire. Soldiers died around him but he held his position for hours, as his ammunition diminished. For those hours of fighting - a “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” - Wilson won the Military Cross.

A portrait of Maurice Wilson during or just after the war

A new book about Wilson picks up the story:

At some point on that bloody morning, with or without ammunition, Wilson was forced to make a decision. He could die where he stood, or he could attempt to retreat. He chose the latter course. Finding the rump of his battalion was not easy. The situation was still chaotic. The few other exhausted survivors from the First Fifth were now mingled with the remnants of the First Sixth from Bradford and the First Seventh from Leeds. These men retreated in pockets, until eventually, late at night, around eighteen hours after the first bombardment, the fighting stopped.

When a roll was called the next morning, Wilson learned that the vast majority of his battalion was dead - more than 400 of them. Over 100 of them had been taken prisoner. Those that had survived included 12 officers and 78 men. Their brave stand had held up the Germany advance but at a horrifying cost.

No doubt today, on a Remembrance Sunday shorn of some of its usual ceremonials, the descendants of some of the men who died defending Wytschaete will be thinking about them. Maybe they will think of Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields, or see a lay reader recite it outside the local church. “We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow / Loved and were loved, and now we lie / In Flanders fields.”

One person I know will be thinking about Maurice Wilson and Wytschaete is Ed Caesar, a journalist who lives in Manchester and has spent the best part of a decade learning about Wilson. Some would say obsessing about Wilson. He has hunted for records about Wilson’s life in archives on three continents and spent countless long days on the landing where he works at the top of his Victorian house in Chorlton, writing letters to military historians and probate offices.

“There were times it was really, really frustrating and I became demented about things that I couldn’t find,” Caesar told me last week. “You do go a bit mad. I went a bit mad, definitely. I would come down after a day’s work I'd be trying to explain some problem I was having getting some bit of archived material in New Zealand about Wilson’s second marriage, and my wife would just look at me, like: ‘I have no idea what you are talking about.’”

Caesar was writing a book, which comes out this month and has already been serialised in the weekend papers and recommended by The New York Times. But the book isn’t about the war, or at least it isn’t primarily about the war. It’s about what Wilson did after the war. Or maybe, what the war made Wilson do after it had spat him out. “Really this adventure is Wilson's sublimated response to what happened to him in the First World War,” says Caesar. “This adventure” being Wilson’s decision to take on Everest.

The Moth and the Mountain

Those people who have heard of Maurice Wilson have heard of him in association with Everest. In the world of climbing, he is the object of intense curiosity. There are debates about his motives and rumours about his private life. He occupies a strange place in the lore of Everest - an eccentric whose story is hard to hard to understand and even harder to categorise.

“In the months and years after I learned the outline of Wilson’s tale, I sometimes woke up thinking about him,” Caesar recently wrote for The New Yorker, the magazine where he publishes most of his journalism. “Until quite recently, I was at a loss to understand exactly why the story of this haunted, unyielding man and his wild adventure had bitten me so hard.”

The tale is this: In the early 1930s, Wilson decided to fly to Everest and climb it - alone. He had never flown a plane before or climbed a mountain, but he thought he could succeed where large, well-supplied expedition parties had recently failed.

Since returning from the war, he had struggled to fit back into society. His relationships had failed and he had hopped from place to place, seemingly unable to settle. Like many soldiers of his generation, it seemed like Wilson was lost - almost certainly struggling with battlefield trauma that was poorly understood by psychiatric science. During his spell in a Manchester military hospital during the war, doctors had not picked up on his mental distress.

After reading about one of the failed Everest expeditions in the 1920s, Wilson learned to fly a Gipsy Moth plane and trained hard to prepare himself for the demands of the mountain. Climbing was mostly an upper-class pursuit, whereas he came from a middle-class, commercial family in the North. The mountaineering establishment considered his plans quixotic and the British government tried several times to block his path, worrying that he was going to kill himself and possibly cause a diplomatic incident.

In May 1932 Wilson flew his plane to India, via Cairo and Bahrain. When he was denied permission to fly over Nepal, his plane was impounded by the authorities. After spending the winter in Darjeeling, Wilson hired three Sherpas and headed for the Tibet-side of Everest, disguised as Buddhist monks to avoid being arrested. From the Rongbuk Monastery, he launched his assault on the mountain.

His first attempt was scuppered by the East Rongbuk glacier, whose “great ice-towers” were beautifully described in his diary as “an enchanted land.” Wilson didn’t have the experience or the equipment to navigate the glacier on his own. Visibility was poor and he turned back to the monastery.

The East Rongbuk glacier, photographed during the 1924 expedition to Everest

At this point, having seen how hard Everest was going to be, and come close to the crevasses that might easily have swallowed him, Wilson could have given up and trekked back to Darjeeling. Most people would have done so - so why didn’t he? “He was absolutely unstoppable - he just keeps going,” says Caesar. “I found something quite moving in that.”

The book considers the private trauma that drove Wilson. His experiences on the front line, for one thing. “When you read his diary, he is at the foot of Everest saying ‘It's 16 years since I went into the line,’” says Caesar. “There's so much to indicate that the war meant so much to him.”

Wilson had also seen his brother Victor destroyed by the war. “Victor, the bright-eyed, handsome twenty-year-old who had gone to war in 1915,” the book says, and had returned age twenty-three as a husk. He had injured his foot in 2017 and been sent back to England. “The foot healed, but his mind never did,” Caesar writes. “Victor was assailed by nightmares. He shook visibly. He suffered from vertigo. He was almost entirely deaf.”

Then there are the rumours in the mountaineering world about Wilson’s gender identity. “A Chinese expedition of 1960 found a women’s shoe on the lower slopes of Everest: a strange thing to find at altitude,” Caesar writes. “When the discovery was made, other climbers immediately thought of Wilson.” Another account says during a 1935 expedition, a woman’s shoe was found in a tent abandoned by Wilson.

Caesar says he wasn’t able to definitely stand up or disprove the rumours, but thinks there is “Quite a bit of convincing circumstantial evidence” that Wilson was a private transvestite, and says it is “one possible explanation for why he did what he did.” He adds: “We can say for certain that his sex life and his relationships were very unconventional.”

Climbers on Everest’s North Col

During the early years of his research, which began in 2011, Caesar assumed that Wilson had no direct living relatives. Then he found a great-nephew - a man in his seventies with a thick Yorkshire accent who doesn’t use email or answer his phone, but agreed to meet. He told Caesar there was one secret he knew about Wilson, but said: “I’ll take it to me grave.”

Regardless of why Wilson went back up the mountain, he did. This time he persuaded two of the Sherpas to come with him for the first section, which meant he could navigate the glacier. The men reached Camp III, and waited out some poor weather. The next challenge was North Col, a forbidding wall of ice that seemed far beyond Wilson’s abilities. Caesar writes:

Wilson’s end seemed close, too. His death-or-glory mission always seemed to have more of the former about it than the latter. Wilson was fascinated by the thinness of the boundary between life and the hereafter. In Flanders, he had stayed at his post, firing his weapon, as men died all around him. These were men he knew; men he liked and disliked; men with whom he had minutes before shared jokes and cigarettes. If a bullet had gone an inch one way, or an inch the other, chances are he would have joined them.

Having said his final goodbye to the Sherpas Tewang and Rinzing, Wilson set off on his own up the mountain to face his demons and his destiny.

The Moth and the Mountain: A True Story of Love, War, and Everest, by Ed Caesar, comes out this month. You can order it here.

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