‘Khaki and Kisses’ at Sheffield

khaki and kisses

Last minute reminder for ‘Khaki and Kisses’, three talks on First World War fiction at Sheffield Hallam University tomorrow (Thursday 22nd).

I shall be speaking about Great War fiction generally; then Prof. Chris Hopkins will discuss the romantic novels of Berta Ruck and Dr Erica Brown will talk about Elizabeth von Armin.

Full details are here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/khaki-and-kisses-popular-fiction-of-world-war-one-tickets-33272243175 (It’s a free event, but you can book in advance.)

berta ruck cover

The Edinburgh Companion to the First World War and the Arts


Of all the research I’ve done over the past few years, the job I’ve most enjoyed has been finding out about the songs that British soldiers sang songs. This was for my contribution to the Edinburgh Companion to the First World War and the Arts.

Big thanks to editors Anne-Marie Einhaus and Katherine Baxter for setting me the task.

I’m glad to hear that the Companion is now on sale. Here is the list of chapters: Read More »

Ted Hughes

I spent yesterday at the Ted Hughes conference in the smart Heritage Quay suite at Huddersfield University. I gave a paper titled ‘Ted Hughes and Gallipoli’, about his representations of his father’s war (William Hughes was on the peninsula with the 1st/5th Lancashire Fusiliers and, Hughes wrote, remained ‘undemobbed’, still troubled by his experiences for years after.
Hughes was born in 1930, but his father’s war shadowed his childhood. He wrote:

[T]hose born after the First World War but before the late thirties – that slightly different species who took in the blood of the First World War with their mother’s milk, and who up to their middle age knew Britain only as a country always at war, or inwardly expecting and preparing for war.

Read More »

Wonder Woman (12A)

wonder woman 2

Huddled in a front line trench in November 1918, a Belgian refugee bemoans her flight to some visitors. Inflamed by the narrative, one of the visitors, a young woman, rips off her coat and dress, and, clad only in a sort of armour plated swimming costume, nimbly slips over the top to confront the enemy. The Germans are understandably interested by the sight, and begin to open fire on her. Luckily, she has a magic shield with her, which deflects snipers’ bullets and even machine-gun fire. Because she is drawing the enemy fire, the British behind her realise they have an opportunity to cross No-Man’s Land. (This is possible because, although the landscape is devastated and hellish, this is a part of the front, where, despite the two armies having faced each other there for four years, ‘without moving more than a few inches’, nobody has thought to install barbed wire to impede the progress of an attack.)
Once the Brits have speedily taken control of the German trench, they are then able to move unimpeded to the village just behind the lines, and to the thanks of grateful Belgians. The Germans, obviously, had not thought of defence in depth…
The new  Wonder Woman film is very silly, but I enjoyed it hugely. Read More »

Kipling and Syphilis

The June edition of the Kipling Journal arrived today, including a letter I wrote to the editor about the story ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ (collected in Limits and Renewals of 1932). I suggest that the hidden theme of the story is the subject of syphilis (unmentionable in the family-oriented magazines where Kipling’s work was usually published) . Here is the letter: Read More »

In pursuit of Rollo Balmain and Sara Mignon

Recently I’ve being trying to find out everything I can about a rather obscure pair of playwrights. They are Rollo Balmain and Sara Mignon, authors of Are We Downhearted? and A Sailor’s Love, both staged in 1915. Rollo Balmain alone is credited with A British Soldier, a topical play that hit the stage in September 1914, just six or seven weeks after the declaration of war.
My research is part of the Recovering First World War Theatre project, organised by Dr Helen Brooks of the University of Kent. She and her assiduous team have gone through the vast store of plays in the archive of the Lord Chamberlain (His office read every play about to performed in a public theatre in Britain, and allowed or disallowed the scripts, or demanded cuts and changes. This system of pre-censorship persisted until 1968.) They have noted all the scripts applying for licenses between 1914 and 1918, and have discovered that a large number of these deal with the war. In each of the years of the war, at least a quarter of the scripts make some dramatic use of the war (and a huge number of them are spy plays).
I have joined the crowd of volunteers who are now trying to find out about the performance histories of the plays, and about the lives of the playwrights. For the purposes of the project, the most crucial fact is the date of the playwright’s death, because this determines whether or not the script is in the public domain, and can therefore be legally published online by the project.
I was struck by the exotic names of Rollo Balmain and Rosa Mignon, and I liked the Lord Chamberlain’s reader’s summary of Balmain’s play, A British Soldier, licensed in September 1914: Read More »

Strong and Stable

Today’s Guardian has a letter from Dr David Blazey of Newcastle pointing out that Teresa May’s slogan ‘strong and stable’ is a cliche referenced by Galsworthy in The Forsyte Saga. The Guardian website illustrates the letter with a pretty picture of late Victorian poshness, but the quotation is in fact from a later instalment of the Forsytes, The Silver Spoon of 1926. It’s worth quoting at greater length:
Read More »

The National Service Board – and A.E. Housman

In 1940 Percy Withers recalled occasions when, during the previous war, he had told A.E. Housman about his work at the National Service Board:

He was greatly interested too in the technicalities of the work, the material it exploited, the revelations it brought to light, the ugliness, the momentary relief, the sordidness, the enduring pity. I could speak with both experience and conviction. We were putting through sixty recruits a day, many of them past middle life, more of them prematurely old – many ill-nourished, deformed in limb, toothless, defective in hearing or in vision – men who had rarely been beyond a neighbouring village, or to the county town for an annual festa: few or none too decrepit, too debilitated or too forlorn to escape the narrowed mesh of the latest Government netting. It was in all the most degrading task I was ever set to do, I told him, but I was not sure that he acquiesced.

Read More »

Pagan, by W. F. Morris


Pagan (1931) is by W.F. Morris, the author of Bretherton: Khaki or Field Grey?, that slightly mad yet highly enjoyable novel about a British officer who, while suffering from amnesia, becomes a general in the German Army. Morris is one of those ex-soldier novelists for whom the war is always the main theme, and the touchstone by which other experiences are judged. He also had an imagination attuned to the Gothic, and his books shun easy credibility in order to explore wild and strange possibilities. They will not be to everyone’s taste. Read More »

Compton Mackenzie, disillusionment and Douglas Jerrold

Mostly,  Gallipoli Memories (1929) is a rather jolly memoir by someone who presents himself as hanging around the Staff with not very much useful work to do.

It’s only towards the end that Mackenzie makes it clear that this is partially intended as a contribution to the opposition to the ‘disillusioned’ literature that had taken its tone from All Quiet on the Western Front:

And I have lived to hear Rupert Brooke sneered at for a romantic by the prematurely weaned young sucking pigs of the next generation. It was welcome to find a year or two ago the sanest pages I had read about literature and the war written by an R. N. D. survivor, Douglas Jerrold, at the close of his excellent book, The Hawke Battalion. I commend them to any people who are as much nauseated as I am by the Teutonic hysteria which is the intellectual vogue of 1929.

Jerrold is more successful than Mackenzie in arguing the case against disillusionment, both in his Criterion Miscellany pamphlet The Lie about the War and in his very readable book of memoirs, Georgian Adventure. Reading Mackenzie, and being disappointed with him, has sent me back to Georgian Adventure. Maybe I’ll blog about that book soon, but meanwhile my review of Gallipoli Memories, which I read for the Sheffield Reading 1900-1950 group, is online at https://reading19001950.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/gallipoli-memories-1929-by-compton-mackenzie