‘Oh What a Lovely War’ on tour


It’s over fifty years since I first saw Oh What a Lovely War at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. The anniversary revival at Stratford East gained some good reviews last year, so I took the opportunity yesterday to catch up with the touring version of the production at  Manchester Opera House.
I went with mixed feelings. The show made a great impression on me when I was young, and in the seventies I greatly enjoyed acting in an amateur production (except that the moustache I wore when caricaturing General French was very unreliable). But I now know that much of the history the play relates is more than a bit dodgy. So what would the show look like on stage fifty years on?
The audience was surprisingly sparse. We filled less than half the stalls, and I don’t think there were many upstairs. Maybe this is partly because it’s not easy to buy tickets. The website that tries to sell them to you is clunky and laborious, and wants to charge an extra £4 booking fee to the already pricey cost of each and every ticket. I decided to get my ticket directly from the theatre, but when I got there found a notice to say that the box-office was shut, and tickets could be bought from the Palace Theatre, ten minutes walk away. After a lengthy wait in a queue there, I bought our tickets from a pleasant and efficient young man, but the Ambassador Theatre Group certainly doesn’t do its touring productions many favours by the way it operates.
This version of the show opens before the lights go down, with pierrot-actors coming into the audience for a chummy chat, to get us in the mood I suppose. Then there is a brief prologue, added to the original script, explaining what a pierrot show was. This included the show’s one topical quip: mention of seaside donkeys was accompanied by a photo of Nigel Farage. When the play opened in London last year, they apparently used Michael Gove. Easy targets?
The first number, ‘Row Row Row’ tells us that we are going to be in for a crisp and energetic production with lively choreography. Then we’re into the potted history of the causes of the First World War, played as farce. For Joan Littlewood and her collaborators back in 1963 this was a crucial part of the play. The Cuban missile crisis had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and, as I’ve shown previously on this blog, the original production’s programme pointed up the topicality of the play’s depiction of an accidental world war.

Joan Littlewood’s main historical advisor, Raymond Fletcher (Labour M.P. and, it was later revealed, a Soviet spy) wrote a programme note: Read More »

Logistics and Support

Almost all writing about the War is about the sharp end – the fighting. The only novel I’ve read that is set in a labour battalion is Robert Keable’s Simon called Peter (and the subject of that is the chaplain’s sexual awakening, rather than the essential forestry work carried out by the soldiers who are by and large indifferent to his vicarish efforts.)

Most soldiers most of the time were more likely to be involved in hard graft – digging, building, transporting – than in shooting.  And the job of GHQ had much less to do with battle tactics than with organisation and logistics. (Even an attack as overwhelming as the German Spring Offensive could falter and fail if inadequate staff work failed to keep the advancing forces supplied.)

So it’s good to be reminded of the unsung heroes of the War, in a guest post on Jessica Meyer’s blog, by Christopher Phillips, a Leeds postgraduate student, who has been researching Gerald Holland, who was put in charge of coordinating canal transport to support the British Army’s huge effort in France:

By the end of June, just six months after Holland had arrived in France, inland water transport had moved: 19,142 tons of supplies; 27,421 tons of road stone; and had evacuated over 600 men from the battle zone by ambulance barge.

You can read the blog post here: https://armsandthemedicalman.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/and-now-for-something-completely-different/

Girl of Good Family by ‘Lucian Wainwright’

I have really enjoyed reading Girl of Good Family (1935) by ‘Lucian Wainwright’, a pen-name of Rose Allatini. It was written nearly twenty years after her notorious banned novel Despised and Rejected, but returns to the war years described in that book. This novel is at least partly based on Allatini’s own life, but disguises characters and situations, and sometimes skates away from things better left unsaid.

The heroine, Sacha, is born in Vienna, to a Jewish family (the Montadores) whose roots are in Spain. This is very like the situation of Rose Allatini herself, also born in Vienna in 1890, but to a Jewish family whose nationality is Italian. A major theme of the book is Sasha’s sense of belonging both to Vienna and to England.

The first chapters show Sasha as a young girl in Vienna, attending the the arranged marriage of one of her female relatives to ‘the strange gentleman with the short legs and the long beard’, whom none of the intrigued young female guests consider any kind of a romantic figure. It is implied that some such arrangement will be her future, too. A few years later (in perhaps 1908) she is back for the Season in Vienna, and all her female relatives are matchmaking on her behalf. Read More »

Allatini after Fitzroy


Thinking about C. W. Daniel has revived my curiosity about Rose Allatini, whose novel Despised and Rejected got him into so much trouble.

She lived until 1980, and apparently wrote forty-odd novels, under a variety of pseudonyms, including Lucian Wainwright, Mrs Cyril Scott, and  Eunice Buckley. I can’t find out much about them, though. Are any as remarkable in their treatment of sexual themes as Despised and Rejected?

Out of curiosity, I’ve taken a look at bookfinder.com and have plumped more or less at random for Girl of Good Family (1935) by ‘Lucian Wainwright’. I’ve only just started it, but the opening chapter is intriguing, about a Jewish arranged marriage. I think there may be some Great War material later in the book.
I’ll report back when I’ve finished with a review of the book. Meanwhile, though, I’d be very glad to hear from anyone who has read any other Wainwright or Buckley or Allatini or Scott or Fitzroy novels.

Murderous Tommies


The Manual of Military Law published by the War Office in 1914 explicitly stated:

The object of military law is to maintain discipline among the troops and other persons forming part of or following an army.

Inevitably there were occasions when this objective clashed with what today we think of as the human rights of soldiers. The executions of those found guilty of cowardice or desertion have caused a great deal of disquiet over the succeeding century, but when Defence Minister Des Browne got himself some easy political kudos in 2006 by issuing a blanket pardon to these victims of the military machine, he did not extend his gesture of historical mercy to include the soldiers who had been executed for murder.
In Murderous Tommies, Julian Putkowski and Mark Dunning examine court-martial records of thirteen men who were tried and executed for murder while serving in France or Belgium. I am grateful to Julain Putkowski for sending me a copy of the book, which I found absorbing.
Most of these cases were briefly discussed in Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson’s Blindfold and Alone, but the fuller accounts in this book give reason to question the judgement of Corns and Hughes-Wilson that:

If we review the trial transcripts of the men executed for murder, there seems little doubt that they received a fair trial and were guilty of the offence as charged.

In at least one case, that of Lance Sergeant Arthur Wickings, who was accused of murdering a French prostitute in Le Havre , there is definitely room for reasonable doubt. The evidence against Wickings was confused and circumstantial, depending upon not entirely dependable identifications. Read More »

C. W. Daniel, radical publisher

I spent Tuesday afternoon pleasantly, bookshopping in Sheffield, and bought something of a rarity from Rare and Racy, the books-and-music shop on Devonshire Street.

It is a small pamphlet issued as a tribute to pacifist publisher C. W. Daniel, shortly after his death in 1955.
I’ve written about Daniel here before, especially after my research session a few years ago exploring his firm’s archive in Amsterdam. He’s the pacifist publisher who went to jail rather than pay a fine when the anti-war pamphlet he wrote was published. He was prosecuted again when he published the astonishing novel of pacifists and sexual polymorphs, Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini (alias A. T. Fitzroy).
This pamphlet is anonymous, but gives a short biography of Daniel.

Born in 1871, he was 12 years old when his father, an employee of the Frederick Warne & Co. publishing house, died. Young Charles therefore soon had to earn his living, first as an office boy in Hatton Garden, and then in the office of an advertising agency. Eventually he became an employee of the Walter Scott publishing company in Paternoster Row.
This company published the works of Tolstoy, a thinker in whom Charles was already interested. He was strongly influenced by the Tolstoyan lecturer J. C. Kenworthy, and eventually he started the Sunday discussion group that eventually became the London Tolstoyan Society. At this stage, Daniel had the nicknames ‘Beethoven’ (because he resembled the composer’s portrait) and ‘the pale young curate’. One of the visitors to these meetings was Florence Worland, whom he married some years later.


C W Daniel in 1902

In 1902 Charles Daniel started his own small publishing business in Cursitor Street (off Chancery Lane, between Fleet Street and Holborn). Read More »

Churchill on the Kaiser

‘At every crisis he crumpled. In defeat he fled; in revolution he abdicated; in exile he remarried.’

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands

coronel and f

This is the latest DVD release from the BFI, and it’s very good indeed.
The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands were the first sea battles of the Great War. At Coronel in November 1914, Admiral Graf von Spee’s German force, led by armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, picked off the smaller British cruisers Monmouth and Good Hope. There were no survivors from these sinkings; 1,600 British officers and men were killed, including Admiral Cradock. A British task force was hastily put together to avenge these losses, including the Inflexible and the Invincible. Intelligence revealed that Germans were heading to capture the Falklands, which the British used as a coaling station; the British fleet got there before them, and this time they had superiority of craft and guns. The two big German ships were destroyed.


The BFI have just published the DVD of a new, digitally remastered version of Walter Summers’s 1928 film The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (and it’s an excellent remastering, looking sharply  different from some of the muddy-looking versions of silent films  currently available.) This was the third war film that Summers made for British Instructional Films. Read More »

Gertrude Harris

A remarkable lady died on Tuesday, at the age of 101. Gertrude Harris campaigned for many years to clear the name of her father, Harry Farr, who had been executed by firing squad in 1916. Eventually her efforts, and those of others, persuaded Des Browne, then Minister of Defence, to issue a blanket pardon for all those charged with desertion or cowardice.

My own prejudice is against blanket pardons, which mostly seem to be about current politicians trying to ingratiate themselves by distancing themselves from the past and claiming ‘We’re not like that any more.’ There was definite injustice done to Harry Farr, though, and I greatly admire his family for their spirit in leading the campaign.

There is a letter from Julian Putkowski in today’s Guardian that pays a personal tribute to Gertrude Harris.

Adventures of War: With Cross and Crescent


It was early in September of 1912 that Europe became alarmed by the menace of war [….] Macedonia, that vague and troublesome territory which for centuries has been the theatre of guerrilla warfare, of vendettas, of massacres and murders between Christians and Turks, was to be the cause of quarrel…

Adventures of War: With Cross and Crescent (1912) is, as I remarked a few days ago, the work of two British journalists who travelled eastwards to see the war. Philip Gibbs, later to be one of the most notable correspondents reporting the Great War, was with the Serbians and Bulgarians, and sending reports back to the Daily Graphic; Bernard Grant was a photographer for the Daily Mirror.
As the introductory chapter acknowledges, the book gives ‘but meagre descriptions of the battles which were fought with such startling rapidity by the Bulgarians and their allies […] with that irresistible courage and genius which has destroyed the power of the Turk in Europe.’
On the other hand, the book gives a very good idea of the problems, frustrations, comedies, excitements and occasional moments of terror that were part of the war correspondent’s life in the early twentieth century. There is a great deal about his battles with censors and bureaucracy. Correspondents were welcomed in principle, but kept as far from the action as possible, and were not trusted.
This was a war of fast and murderous movement. The ill-prepared Turks (see Gibbs’s description of the poor quality of their weapons and equipment) were no match for the formidable Bulgarians. The war was won, according to Gibbs, by the peasant reservists who

flung off their heavy coats, and threw down water bottles, knapsacks and all impedimenta, so that they might have free play with the bayonet; and again and again, reckless of death, charged with fierce exultant shouts, only to be swept back by a withering fire. Seven times the Bulgarians swept up to the Turkish position and seven times they were driven back by the enemy’s battalions. When for the eighth time the Bulgarians began to storm the positions, the Turks, whose far-extended artillery was almost silenced, were so shaken that only a crippled resistance was offered.

Read More »


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