‘Comrades in Conscience’

comrades in con

I read Cyril Pearce’s Comrades in Conscience soon after its publication back in 2001. This was one of the first books to make me understand that there were interesting and complex stories to be told about the Home Front during the War.
Did I lend my copy to someone? Well, it disappeared anyway. I thought vaguely of obtaining a replacement, because this is a useful book. I didn’t get round to it, though, until recently, when I saw that a second edition was about to be published.
For those who don’t know it, the book is about the conscientious objectors in Huddersfield during the First World War, and their roots in the radical traditions of the town. Cyril Pearce interviewed some of the pacifists of 1914-18 back in the sixties, developed his research into an M.A. thesis in the eighties, turned it into a book at the start of this century, and has now produced a revised version. His wider research on war resisters nationally is due to be published in book form next year, I think.
Cyril Pearce’s book suggests that the usual perception of objectors as lone opinionated martyrs (Jeremy Paxman in his recent TV series decided that absolutists must be ‘cranks’) is not accurate. Rather, they came from political and religious communities that gave them moral support for their stand. He traces the Huddersfield objectors back to their political upbringing in the left-wing parties and the Socialist Sunday Schools, and points out that far from being isolated, they could on occasion bring a large enough crowd of supporters to the Tribunal to worry the authorities. Read More »

‘Non-Combatants and Others’

Yesterday evening’s rather good Radio 3 talk on Rose Macaulay’s 1916 novel Non-Combatants and Others is available online at http://bbc.in/1sExkNU

It is by Sarah Le Fanu, Macaulay’s biographer, and gives a clear picture of the novel, which I seriously recommend to anyone interested in fiction of the War.

A subject that Ms le Fanu didn’t deal with was the book’s publishing and reception history, though this is interesting because it shows that a book questioning war enthusiasm could find both a commercial publisher and an audience in 1916s.

Surprisingly, this novel was published by Hodder and Stoughton, although Macaulay was by no means a typical Hodder author. Read More »

Eliot, Joyce, Gogarty, Jesus

It’s a while since I last read the ‘Nighttown’ episode of Ulysses, but it’s where I opened the book when I took it off  the shelf  this evening, and I kept on reading.  Suddenly I came on something oddly familiar from a different context.

It’s at the point in the fantasy when Edward the Seventh

‘levitates over heaps of slain in the garb and with the halo of Joking Jesus, a white jujube in his phosphorescent face’.

He says:

My methods are new and are causing surprise.
To make the blind see I throw dust in their eyes.

Now where had I come across something like that before? In The Rock, of course, the play that shows so much about how Eliot thought about the Great War. When the Blackshirts enter towards the end of the first act, they chant in well-drilled unison:

We come as a boon and a blessing to all,
Though we’d rather appear in the Albert Hall.
Our methods are new in the land of the free.
We make the deaf hear and we make the blind see.

I’d identified the first couplet of this as referencing an advertisement ubiquitous in the twenties:

We come as a boon and a blessing to men,
The Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley pen.

Read More »


There are several conferences coming up. Here are two that I might have got to if I still lived near London:

Next week at the British Library there is the second half of a conference (the first half was in Antwerp) on Languages and the First World War. The conference blog has some intriguing items, and is well worth a look.

Teaching War and Remembrance is at the Senate House, London on July 15th.

One that I shall definitely be attending is the Culture Wars conference at Sheffield Hallam this Saturday (June 14th), as I am delivering a paper on Dorothy L. Sayers, Q. D. Leavis and Ludwig Wittgenstein (with only the tiniest mention of the First World War) .

In September I shall be at Oxford for the British Poetry of the First World War conference.

In November there is another Marginalised Mainstream conference in London. I have enjoyed these conferences before – always very varied, and you meet interesting people. The theme this year is disguise, and I’m thinking of offering a paper on the writer Evadne Price, who disguised herself as Helen Zenna Smith and wrote the powerful war novel, Not So Quiet… I’ve got a week or so to make up my mind.

Any more conference news? Please leave a comment.

Arnold Zweig: Outside Verdun


Freight Books is a newish publishing firm, based in Glasgow. They have kindly sent me a copy of Outside Verdun, a new translation of a novel written in the early thirties by Arnold Zweig (no relation to Stefan). In Germany at that time, Hitler’s rise to power was helped by the myth of the German Army, undefeated in the field and betrayed by politicians at home. Zweig’s novel, Erziehung vor Verdun is a concerted attack on that myth, and on the self-conceit of the German Army. By 1935, when the book was first published (in German, but not in Germany) Zweig was an exile. In 1936 the novel was translated in to English by Eric Sutton, as Education before Verdun. The new translation by Fiona Rintoul is pacey, clear and readable.
Here in Britain we tend to think of All Quiet on the Western Front as the pioneering German Great War novel, but it had been preceded in 1927 by Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa, about a miscarriage of military justice brought about by incompetence and venality. This book is loosely linked to  Sergeant Grischa, as part of a Zweig’s magnum opus, a six-volume sequence exploring the effects and meanings of the War, but it definitely stands on its own as an engrossing novel. Read More »

Wipe your tears away with sandpaper

I’ve been reading Outside Verdun, the (very readable) new  translation of Arnold Zweig’s 1935 novel Erziehung vor Verdun.
I’ll be putting a full review online soon, but meanwhile, here’s a question.
Agreeing with the Crown Prince that the day’s activities had been pointless, an adjutant says:

We could just as well have stayed at home, Imperial Highness. Retreat or not – what difference does it make? ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary,’ as the Tommies sing – and our field greys sing: ‘For this campaign/ Is no express train/ Wipe your tears away/ With sandpaper’

I’d like to know: Was that an actual soldier’s song of the war? What are the original German words? And were sardonic songs as common among German soldiers as among the British? Read More »

Warwick Deeping and the Fortunate War

War washes the slouching, selfish hypocrisies and all the slosh and humbug out of a man’s life.

If I had to choose one sentence to encapsulate the attitude to the War of the stories in the fiction magazines that one would do it. It is from ‘Benjamin Comes Back’ by Warwick Deeping (Story-teller magazine, February 1916).
The story is included in volume I of a new collection The Lost Stories of Warwick Deeping, edited by Frederick J. Studenberg and Dr. Debra Buchholz. The editors have sent copies for review to Sheffield Hallam University’s ‘Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950 Special Collection’. I’ve been given the first volume to look at, and will be writing a full review later. At the moment, it’s ‘Benjamin Comes Back’ that has got me thinking about how the War was portrayed in fiction of the time as a transforming, positive experience..
Benjamin is a soldier who has come home from Flanders,‘with a smashed shoulder, two frost-bitten toes, and a kind of ferocious curiosity as to what was happening at home.’ Read More »

‘Goodbye to All Cats’

I’ve written a chapter for a forthcoming collection of critical essays on P. G. Wodehouse. (I’ll be sure to relay full information here when there is firm news about publication date and details.)

My piece is on Wodehouse and the Great War – which might sound to some people like one of those thesis subjects imagined by parodists of academia, like ‘Jane Austen and the French Revolution’ , but looking at Wodehouse in relation to the War really does reveal some quite interesting things about his early work, and his attitude to his writing . I think so, anyway.

The publisher’s reader seems fairly happy with my chapter, too, but sent one little note. Did I know ‘Goodbye to All Cats?’

I didn’t, but the echo of Graves in the title had me interested. A bit of quick research revealed that this was a story in the 1936 collection Young Men in Spats, and had first been published in 1934, in Cosmopolitan and The Strand. Read More »

A. D. Gristwood

Today I’ve been reading A. D. Gristwood’s novella ‘The Coward’ (published in 1927 as the second half of the volume The Somme). It’s well-told and I wondered whether I could find out more about Gristwood.

A few minutes searching on ancestry.co.uk has indicated this:

He was born Arthur Donald Gristwood in 1893 in Catford. His father was a commercial traveller in the paper trade.

In the 1911 census the family was living in Hornchurch, Essex, and young Arthur is described as a ‘Civil Servant’ – which could mean any number of things.

He enlisted and joined the 5th London regiment. I couldn’t find his attestation papers online, but here is his medal record (You’ll need to click it to see it properly): Read More »

What happened to class war?

Back in the seventies and eighties, fictions protesting the horrors and injustices of the great War (think Days of Hope or The Monocled Mutineer) had a simple left-wing agenda. Uncaring upper-class officers victimised the working-class rank and file. Bullying N.C.O.s were there too, but as the lackeys of the bourgeois hegemony.
How different from The Absolutist (2011) by John Boyne, which I’ve just read (Thanks for the non-recommendation, Anne-Marie.)
This is a grindingly miserable shot-at-dawn story whose narrator is a mournful homosexual.  He falls in love with fellow-private Will Bancroft, an idealistic vicar’s son. Their romance is doomed, mostly because, after a passionate fumble, Will finds himself disgusted by what they have done. When the murder of a German prisoner leads Will to lay down his arms in protest against the cruelty of the War, the narrator, in a fit of lover’s pique, volunteers for the firing squad that shoots him. Read More »


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