Causes of the First World War (by Dennis Wheatley)


I’m always interested in novelists’ versions of the beginning of the war, and none is more challenging to conventional historians’  ideas than that of Dennis Wheatley in The Devil Rides Out (1934).  The wise and experienced Duc de Richleau is explaining to his companions in adventure the power of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

“War, Plague, Famine and Death. We all know what happened last time those four terrible entities were unleashed to cloud the brains of statesmen and rulers.”
“You’re referring to the Great War I take it,” Rex said soberly.
“Of course, and every adept knows that it started because one of the most terrible Satanists who ever lived found one of the secret gateways through which to release the four horsemen.”
“I thought the Germans got a bit above themselves,” Rex hazarded, “although it seems that lots of other folks were pretty well as much to blame.”
“You fool!” De Richleau suddenly swung upon him. “Germany did not make the War. It came out of Russia. It was Russia who instigated the murder at Sarajevo, Russia who backed Serbia to resist Austria’s demands, Russia who mobilised first and Russia who invaded Germany. The monk Rasputin was the Evil genius behind it all. He was the greatest Black Magician that the world has known for centuries. It was he who found one of the gateways through which to let forth the four horsemen that they might wallow in blood and destruction – and I know the Talisman of Set to be another. Europe is ripe now for any trouble and if they are loosened again, it will be final Armageddon. […] We’ve got to kill Mocata before he can secure the Talisman and prevent his plunging the world into another war.”

Read More »

‘Never beaten in the field’?


In A.G. Macdonell’s dark but lively  satire, Lords and Masters (1936), forceful young Veronica Hanson has just returned from Nuremberg, a convinced and enthusiastic Nazi. She explains recent history to her father:

‘Anyway, my point is that in the last war the whole world combined couldn’t beat the German armies in the field -’
‘Is that what they say nowadays in Deutschland?’ interrupted her father.
Veronica opened her dark-green eyes very wide.
‘That’s what they say everywhere. I mean, everyone knows that. It’s simply a matter of record.’
‘That the German armies were never beaten in the field?’ Read More »

Duff Cooper at the War


Alfred Duff Cooper is best known as the politician who became Minister of Information in the Second World War – but his diaries of the First World War make excellent reading for anyone interested in stories of the upper class at war.
A young man of talent and connections, until 1917 he was employed, and, it would seem, needed, at the Foreign Office, but it became obvious that the F.O. was likely to be ‘combed out’, and that he, as the youngest of the permanent unmarried staff, would be allowed to go. The thought fills him, he says, with exhilaration:

I always wished to go to the war though less now than I did at first. I envy the experience and adventure that everyone else has had. I am not afraid of death though I love life and should hate to lose it. I don’t think I should make a good officer.

Read More »

Vera Brittain, novelist


‘And you say,’ the Judge continued slowly, ‘that these abnormal conditions are not uncommon as the result of shell-shock?’
‘That is so, My Lord. If every criminal case in our prisons could be traced back to its origins as exhaustively as this one has been traced, we should probably find war shock, or war anxiety, at the root of many.’

Vera Brittain’s 1945 novel Account Rendered takes the promising theme of the link between war and insanity. The central character, Francis Keynsham Halkin, is a promising composer who enlists towards the end of the Great War. Read More »

The York National Book Fair

I hadn’t been to an event like this for a couple of years, so enjoyed my visit to York Racecourse on Friday, to what is billed as Britain’s largest Antiquarian book fair.

I didn’t buy much, though. The fair is aimed at book collectors, and I’m more of a book amasser, whose books pile up uncontrollably. I’m a reader, and never unduly concerned about fine bindings or complete dust jackets. My book-buying policy generally is to go for the cheapest copy on that doesn’t sound utterly revolting. Read More »

In No Man’s Land

From the diary of Duff Cooper:

November 11th, 1916.

Dined at 16 Lower Berkeley Street. After dinner, the conversation turning on sodomy, Blueie [Harold Baker] told us of a case where a man was accused of having committed it in No Man’s Land, i.e. between the trenches during an attack, taking advantage of a shell hole. This story was shouted to Sir John [Horner] who heard it unmoved and only grunted, ‘He must have been a handy fellow.’

Ticking off a ghost



It’s supernatural month at the Sheffield Popular Fiction Reading Group, and I’ve been looking at  Conan Doyle’s The Land of Mist, in which Professor Challenger and the other characters from The Lost World are brought in to explore Conan Doyle’s great obsession – the world of the Beyond, as revealed to spiritualists. Thank goodness Doyle managed to resist the temptation to make Sherlock Holmes convert to spiritualism; in this book Challenger and Co are more or less reduced to puppets for his enthusiasms.

The book has several references to the Great War, as one might perhaps expect; it was the desire of so many of the war-bereaved to feel that their loss was not final that gave such a boost to the spiritualist movementt in the early twenties. Mediums were often accused of exploiting war widows, however, and perhaps that is why Doyle does not stress this aspect of things. Instead he twists the standard situation to comic effect: Read More »

‘Red for Danger’ by Evadne Price


With my interest in Evadne Price rekindled by Matt Houlbrook’s biography of Netley Lucas, I thought I’d take a look at one of the novels she wrote after her stint as ‘Helen Zenna Smith’.
Red For Danger (1936) belongs to that quintessential inter-war genre, the comedy thriller. There is a plot based on crime, big business and international intrigue, but the action is seen through the eyes of a hapless Cockney taxi-driver who wants nothing to do with such things. Read More »

‘Not So Quiet…’ – Netley Lucas’s story

Having greatly enjoyed Matt Houlbrook’s biography of Netley Lucas, I have now been taking a look at Lucas’s second autobiography, an odd book called My Selves, ‘by Netley Lucas and Evelyn Graham’ (Graham was the name under which Lucas achieved considerable success writing royal biographies). The book was published in 1934, after Lucas’s release from prison. It was the last of his books; after this he lapsed into literary silence (unless he had other identities which even the industrious Matt Houlbrook has failed to discover).
I was most interested, of course, in what he (they?) had to say about Not So Quiet…, the war novel he commissioned from Evadne Price (under a third identity – that of Albert E. Marriott, publisher). His version of events differs from hers, so I’ll print some of it here: Read More »

The crook who published ‘Helen Zenna Smith’

prince of T not-so-quiet-cover

In 1917 Netley Lucas was fourteen, but must have looked mature for his age. He got himself an officer’s uniform and used it to run up debts as, for a short but wild period he lived the high life. Inevitably, his luck eventually ran out, and he was sent to Borstal. After some more criminal activities, he changed tack, and became an author, first writing the story of his criminal life and then taking on the part of an expert, a criminologist writing with the authority of a reformed criminal. A further fall from grace put his reform in doubt, so he started a new career. Changing his name to Evelyn Graham, he took advantage of the public’s thirst for royal trivia by producing a string of supposedly authoritative royal biographies. When publishers got wary of him, he set up his own publishing company, which put out some interesting books, including Not So Quiet…, the novel about women at war that had all the marks of authenticity. Scandal and bankruptcy overtook the firm, and he ended up in prison again, after which he wrote another memoir My Selves, and lived for a few more grim and alcoholic years, coming to an unpleasant end in 1940. In just over a decade he lived through a variety of careers, each excessive, most spectacular and all were doomed to failure.
It is not a distinguished career, but Matt Houlbrook (previously the author of the book Queer London, which I strongly recommend) has seen that this rather seedy swindler’s progress tells us a lot about the post-war era in which he struggled and occasionally flourished. In his absorbing new book, Prince of Tricksters, he uses each turn of Lucas’s crooked life to illuminate some of the contradictions and uncertainties of the twenties. Read More »