Before we get to the Master (that’s Henry James!) a word on the Regulars: as I mentioned in a post a few days ago, we will need, now that war is upon us, to find a few committed diarist/letter-writers/memoirists who were serving in the army when the war began. Their accounts will allow us to follow the fighting in France, day by day, while our poets are still in school, or dithering, or just beginning their training. The regulars will be joined, in a few weeks, by a number of volunteer nurses.
So please do bear with this week of cacophonous posts: we meet a few more people, now and soon, and then try to keep the other balls slowly rolling while we follow our Regulars to France. There we will keep a close eye on one or two at a time and letting each voice speak several times a week.
As for today, a century back, the reactions to yesterday’s momentous events began. Henry James, the suddenly superannuated master of the civilized novel, wrote that
The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton feat of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for my words.
And now to a brace of one-and-future Regular Officers:
August 5, ’14
The Gospel says: ‘Love your enemies.’ That means: ‘Try to make them your friends.’ It may be necessary to kick one’s enemy in order to make friendship possible. A nation may be in the same predicament, and be forced to fight in order to make friendship possible.
These were the thoughts that Donald Hankey jotted down in his notebook today, a century back. Hankey, twenty-nine, entered into the same soul-searchings and deliberations as so many other young Englishmen with a somewhat unusual perspective. From a wealthy middle class background, he attended Rugby (overlapping with Rupert Brooke, although Hankey was older) but then went on to the Royal Military Academy. His army career, however, was very short, due both to illness and an antipathy for military life, and Hankey spent most of his twenties as a student of religion and home-front missionary in some of England’s poorest urban neighborhoods. He had also traveled, tried foreign mission work, and wrote–both a scholarly book on Christian doctrine (the result of his studies at Oxford) and as a travel journalist.
So Hankey would need to square his English gentleman’s desire to enlist with his very serious commitment to a life lived for the gospel. He had experience living outside of the usual haunts of a privileged life–he had traveled to Australia in steerage and he made a habit of pursuing his missionary work in the clothes of a poor laborer or farm worker. This seems to have been a high-minded attempt to bridge the famous English class gap and bring the good news without its distancing effect, although it’s hard to imagine this sort of class-drag not causing some resentment. Hankey wasn’t really trying to pass, however–he still lived well when he was not working–but rather saw his attempt to mix with those less, er, fortunate then himself as essential experience for his chosen path in life.
It was his intention to eventually become an ordained minister, in fact, that led him to consider the unusual step of not seeking a commission but rather enlisting in the ranks. His military expertise might be more valuable if he served as an officer, but wouldn’t a gentleman ranker gain invaluable insights into the lives of the lower classes by fighting alongside them, insights that would enable him to be a better future shepherd of their souls? Hankey will waver for a few days.
Hankey was a thoughtful Christian, both a student of his religion and a man determined to make actual sacrifices (of financial and social comfort) in order to serve his God. Many of the writers who set the tone of English public discourse about the war in its early weeks were, however, willing to put God and religion to use–it was patriotism first and religion wherever it was useful. (It should not need pointing out, after all these years, that all the combatant nations claimed god for their side–the Germans even created a hot little corner of the military souvenir resale market by asserting this fact on their belt buckles, which read Gott Mit Uns.)
Now it won’t do much good to complain simply that each nation claimed right for their side, and backed that claim up with the most universal sort of appeal (fewer, even, than now, were those then willing to openly disespouse any sort of monotheism). If they were going to fight a bloody foreign war, how could they not claim that (their) God was with them?
Well, so: we’ll come back to this subject when more specific outrages against religion are committed. What I want to show today is that the knee-jerk assumption of divine backing for national policy got particularly sodden and sneaky-noxious when it was mixed with the late Victorian habit of couching patriotic sentiment in the pseudo-medieval language of chivalric warfare. These barrages of cant and gassy hypocrisy were so dense, especially in the war’s early days, that they infiltrated the edges even of the most resilient minds, those intelligences most swiftly and tightly masked against lies.
Everyone caught at least a touch of the gas–even Robert Graves, even Thomas Hardy. But here is the unadulterated stuff:
So shalt thou when morning comes
Rise to conquer or to fall,
Joyful hear the rolling drums,
Joyful hear the trumpets call,
Then let Memory tell thy heart:
“England! what thou wert, thou art!”
Gird thee with thine ancient might,
Forth! and God defend the Right!
The standard-bearer (see?) for this sort of imperialist, retro-phony horseshit was Henry Newbolt, best known for “Vitai Lampada” (thesis: cricket is like war, and the playing fields of Eton will literally teach you how to die well at your primitive machine gun, and earn undying glory–“vitai lampada” means “torch of life,” or, perhaps “eternal flame”–over the bodies of so many heathens). Newbolt was a very bad poet, and very popular (see here; scroll down for elitism!) but a professional writer of sporty doggerel can’t afford to be slow off the mark. Today–the first full day of the British war effort–his poem “The Vigil” appeared in the Times. Its last stanza, quoted above, gives a good sense of the rest (there are, for instance, several other exclamations to “England”).
This gives us, at least, the ability to ask, here at the beginning, what exactly “war poetry” is supposed to do. Drums, trumpets, sure, well–those won’t go up to the line of battle, anyway–but “gird” and “thou wert?”
What does it mean (to be a man far too old for active service and) to exhort the youth of England to risk their lives in an idiom that no one speaks any longer, and one that refers to an invented chivalric past? As it happens, Newbolt had written these lines sixteen years before, in alleged “mystical anticipation” of this, its initial publication on the day when thousands of young Englishman would begin to choose whether or not to gird themselves. Unless we take the mysticism literally, we might then wonder what sort of sacred and heroic feelings can lie unblunted in a desk-drawer for almost long enough to raise new cannon-fodder from scratch and yet retain any real meaning: there is a very frightening thought–or un-thought–behind this poem, namely that whenever capital-W War comes, it is Joyful and Right.
From the heart of London, Osbert Sitwell wrote to his father. Although his autobiography mentions a sudden paternal offer of cash a few days earlier–and implies that he refused it–his father’s archives preserve a letter from today requesting money: “I hate worrying you about these things as I know how dreadfully the war will affect you… but one’s chance of survival in this war seems so small that it is not worth taking small risks on account of expense,” so please, Daddy Dearest, send me some money so that I might buy a new pistol and field glasses.
An unimpeachable request! And, considering the circumstances–Osbert’s constant high living and indebtedness–also a monumentally manipulative and cheeky one.
And on the fictional outskirts of London, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, handed over the wheel of his car to his chauffeur, the better to ponder how the war will affect his fledgling cigarette company. (Not well.) In the back seat, cousin Francis, the gifted layabout and imaginary-best-friend-of-thedashing-secondary-character-who-is-not-a-stand-in-for-the-author, practices his Dutch and German–what could he be thinking of?
Rather awkwardly, today, a century back, marked the publication of an issue of Punch, the great and influential humor magazine, that had, of course, gone to press before the events of the Last Weekend. The magazine, like all major British cultural organs, would immediately toe the line and unstintingly support the war effort–so today, of all days, marked its only real anti-war gesture. You can’t even pick up a newspaper, a century back, without stumbling over situational ironies. He’s a rascal, that young A.A. Milne; here’s how his story began:
The conversation had turned, as it always does in the smoking rooms of golf clubs, to the state of poor old England, and Porkins had summed the matter up…
“What England wants,” he said, leaning back and puffing on his cigar, – “what England wants is a war. (Another whiskey and soda, waiter.) We’re getting flabby. All this pampering of the poor is playing the very deuce with the country. A bit of a scrap with a foreign power would do us all the good in the world.” He disposed of his whiskey at a draught. “We’re flabby.” He repeated.” The lower classes seem to have no sense of discipline nowadays.” We want a war to brace us up.”
It is well understood in Olympus that Porkins must not be disappointed. What will happen to him in the next world I do not know, but it will be something extremely humorous; in this world however, he is to have all that he wants. Accordingly the gods got to work.
There’s not much more to the story: the gods get to work, and because one fat useless English club-man subscribes to the popular idea that cultural decadence can be sweated out in a war, hundreds of thousands are slaughtered.
Back to reality: today was also the day that a handful of fully equipped regular battalions began to move toward France.
The signal arrived at Dorchester at about 2.30 a.m., and we were underway 3.15. We started in pouring rain, the men in the best of spirits, singing at the top of their voices. I have forgotten what they sang, but it was certainly not “Tipperary
,” which was already out of date in Quetta the previous year.
The Second Royal Welch (2/RWF) was an old regular formation, and these old sweats were too cool for Tipperary. A “humorist” will later sing it when the battalion appears to be lost on the march, but this was not a song, apparently, that real soldiers embraced, even at the beginning. A striking number of memoirs make reference to “Tipperary,” usually with a hard commitment one way or the other: either “Ah, but did we love that song!” Or “Real soldiers scorned that false stereotype of the carefree Tommy, and we only ever heard rookies or idiot civilians singing it.” History can be tricksy, and now you know: lightweight Great War buffs talk about Tipperary, but the real vicarious Tommies sigh at the affectations of the nubes.
We need to meet yet another young officer, stationed today, a century back, as it happens, in Tipperary itself–yet another reminder that the war that until very recently had seemed to loom largest in possibility was civil war in Ireland.
Lieutenant Billy Congreve of the Rifle Brigade was twenty-three years old and extremely tall and skinny, looking more like a well-brushed and knobby-kneed school boy than a soldier. And there are lots of clearly pre-war pictures on the web, so enjoy. But he was a graduate of Eton and Sandhurst, the son of a VC and the older brother of a midshipman who were, by the time the news reached Ireland, already moving. With trouble on the horizon, Billy Congreve had recently started a diary, in which he will record his combat experiences, which will begin not long after those of the 2/RWF–few were as well-prepared or apt in the sudden new war. Still, Tipperary aside, the story of mobilization in Ireland is one that Congreve can hardly help reporting–in a journal he began in anticipation of war–in an ironic register:
Billy Congreve in a pre-war photo
We were all medically examined today and made wills–at least the men did. I didn’t, as I have nothing to make one about.
All the village is very perturbed. They follow us about and weep copious tears and utter long-winded blessings. Mr. Hegarthy came up to me with a somewhat alcoholic manner, and mysteriously ushered me into his holy of holies, a stuffy, dirty hole. Here he gave me whiskey of great merit (?) and potent beyond words, and a box of cigars. I had to take all this and many words of affection besides, I hope I played my part well.
Considerably closer to the action was Lieutenant Edward Louis Spears, the rare British regular officer with fluent French, and conveniently located in Paris: ,
I was ordered to the Grand Quartier General on August 5th, and was told I would be taken there in the liaison car leaving the War Office at 1.30 p.m… Our departure caused some excitement. We piled into the car, a huge racing machine owned by a very nice man who had been mobilised as its chauffeur…
As the great doors swung open and the first British officer started for the front, a cheer burst forth from the hundreds of clerks, orderlies, etc., who had just marched back from dinner… and were leaning out of the windows or were still in the immense courtyard.
The driver stopped at a bazaar to buy two large Red Ensigns which were secured to the wind screen as a sign that the British really were in the war…
Showing the flag indeed. By that evening, Spears had been presented to General Joffre, the French commanding general, and begun his work as official British Liaison.
And finally, Vera Brittain:
Wednesday August 5th
All the news of last night was confirmed this morning.. war between England & Germany is formally declared…
The town was quite quiet when we went down, though groups of people were standing about talking & one or two Territorials were passing through the streets. Several Territorials & one or two Reservists were going off by train this morning & there was a small crowd on the station seeing them off. Close by us a Reservist got into a carriage & his father & a girl, probably his wife, came to say goodbye. The girl was crying but they were all quite calm… Though excitement & suspense are wearing, I felt I simply could not rest but must go on wandering about.
…I showed Edward an appeal in The Times & The Chronicle for young unmarried men between the ages of 18 & 30 to join the army. He suddenly got very keen & after dinner he & Maurice wandered all round Buxton trying to find out what to do in order to volunteer for home service. They were informed by someone at the Police Station that the best thing to do would be to telephone to the Territorial Headquarters at Chesterfield. They got on to a very interesting officer there, & told him they wanted if possible to be allowed to serve for a period as they did not want their service to interfere with their going to Oxford if it could be avoided…
The “appeal” mentioned here is Lord Kitchener’s call for one hundred thousand volunteers to form what would soon be called the “New Army.” Kitchener was one of the few senior British politicians to voice the opinion that the that the war might last several years, and that a larger army–something at least closer to the relative scale of the continental conscript armies–would be needed. His appeal was well received: many more than a hundred thousand were ready, willing, eager to serve, and so Edward and his friend Maurice–and Roland too, of course–began their maneuvers upon the formidable British military bureaucracy, their goal being to seize a place in “Kitchener’s Army.”
Now, my fondness for young Vera Brittain should be apparent, and I hope I am conveying something of the rare mix of stubborn self-regarding intelligence and writerly sensitivity which she possessed even in 1914–but oh the cruelty of a young woman scorning! Just yesterday she was taunting her rejected suitor, Bertram, about his uselessness to his country–he had evidently not been in his school’s cadet corps–and today she opines that Roland, despite his cadet training, should be spared war, on account of his lofty beautiful brains…