Greyfriars and the War

I’ve just had a most enjoyable time reading a recent purchase, a copy of The Magnet for November 7th, 1914. The strapline across the top of the front cover is Harry Wharton & Co in France, and the illustration shows two schoolboys facing a group of Uhlan officers, with the caption “’You are Spies!’ hissed the German.”

Boys’ papers were quick to respond to the outbreak of war. In the autumn of 1914 Sexton Blake defended Epping Forest against an army of German infiltrators, and foiled a plot to steal the Belgian Relief Fund; Nelson Lee joined the Secret Service. Dealing with international conflict might seem a trickier problem for authors of school stories, but Frank Richards (pseudonym of Charles Hamilton) found a solution.

Peter Todd, the most serious student in the Greyfriars Remove (who has the misfortune to share a study with Billy Bunter) is worried because his cousin Alonzo was in Switzerland before the war, and, oblivious of the international situation, had sent a telegram saying that he was thinking of returning to England via Germany. Since Toddy has always taken responsibility for Alonzo (the duffer of the Remove) he decides on a wild scheme to go and rescue his cousin.

In order to finance the trip, he borrows money from his classmates, including Vernon-Smith. When Smithy (who is of course the Bounder of the Remove) hears of the plan, he offers not only to provide cash, but to accompany Todd on his journey.

Todd’s other classmates are worried by the plan, but of course their code prevents them from sneaking. Mr Quelch and the Head don’t discover what has happened until the pair are well on their way, and then are deeply concerned.

Smithy gets the two of them into France with an old passport and several lies. The Bounder’s money hires them a car, and a chauffeur who will take them into the danger zone.

“I suppose you’re not thinking of turning back!” said the Bounder.

“N-n-no!”

But Todd was very grave. He began to understand now the desperate adventure he had entered into. He was brave, and he was resolute. But he did not share the utter recklessness of Vernon-Smith. The more danger thickened around them, the more thoroughly the Bounder seemed to enjoy the situation. His eyes were sparkling now, and he hummed a gay tune as the car sped onwards. But Peter Todd was silent.

Meanwhile Harry Wharton (Captain of the Remove) has persuaded Colonel Wharton, his uncle, that he should go to France and get the two of them back. The other members of the Famous Five want to accompany him, of course (“Allow me to suggest my esteemed and ludicrous self, my dear sir,” said Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.”) but he won’t take anyone else without parental permission.

In the battle zone, Todd and Smith meet a ragged and starving French soldier who has just killed two Germans; they give him food. Then they have an encounter with a German:

“They don’t like the British,” grinned the Bounder. “They know jolly well which quarter their licking is coming from, you see. They can smash up the French, but it’s a rather tougher job to smash up Tommy Atkins.”

The boys are welcomed at a local inn (“The word ‘English’ was enough. Immediately the looks of the peasants cleared.”) and given a bed for the night, but then there occurs the obligatory scene that happens in just about every popular war story of 1914. Germans, led by an officer “huge and muscular in form, his face heavy, his expression bullying, his eyes small and narrow and glittering,” comes along and threateningly demands food from the innkeeper. The English boys are discovered, and their papers are demanded.

Vernon-Smith handed over his passport. The German captain scanned it, and then tore it into pieces, and threw the fragments on the sanded floor.

After some fruitless expostulation, “Vernon-Smith gritted his teeth and was silent. He understood how it was that German troops were sometimes fired upon by civilians. A man with a weapon was not likely to stand very much of this.”

A few moments later some soldiers bring in a French peasant who is guilty of just this act.

“Good Heavens! They’re going to shoot him,” muttered Todd, through his chattering teeth..

Which indeed the Germans do – and the officer promises the boys that they will be next. As spies, they will be shot at dawn.

Luckily, Harry Wharton and his uncle are able to deduce where the boys have gone.

“The young duffers!” said the Colonel grimly. “They’ve stranded themselves in a country full of German foot-patrols.”

The Whartons arrive just as the boys are being lined up before the firing squad – but then they get captured, too. Luckily a platoon of French soldiers arrives, and all are saved – in just the nick of time.

It’s an exciting story, and has made me realise what a clever writer Charles Hamilton was (He wrote a vast amount of the material that appeared under the house pseudonym “Frank Richards” in The Magnet, as well as stuff that appeared there and in other magazines under such names as Gordon Conway, Frank Drake, Cecil Herbert, Gillingham Jones, Ralph Redway, Ridley Redway, Roland Rodway, Eric Stanhope, Robert Stanley, Peter Todd , Nigel Wallace Martin Clifford, Owen Conquest, Harry Dorrian, Teddy Grace and so forth.)

Under the sensationalism and stereotyping, this story is giving its young readers rather an interesting message about the war.

The two boys who venture alone into the war zone are Todd, the most serious, and Vernon-Smith, the most foolhardy of the Greyfriars classmates. Surely Hamilton is saying something about the potent dual appeal of the war – to the sense of morality, and to the thirst for adventure (a combination that must have taken many Magnet readers to the recruiting office, boldly lying about their age.)

See it as an alliance of superego and id, defying rationality for the sake of satisfying a combination of powerful emotions. In this story Harry Wharton represents the rational ego, going into the war zone, but sensibly, under the command of Colonel Wharton.

In the autumn of 1914, when emotions were riding high, and more respectable boys’ writers like Captain F.S Brereton were producing books like With French at the Front, which simply encouraged their young readers in gung-ho fantasies, this story in a penny comic is doing something more ambiguous. Readers are given the pleasure of vicarious adventures in the war zone – but they are encouraged to feel dubious about Vernon-Smith’s irresponsible enjoyment of the adventure, and are made to confront the destructiveness of war. In With French at the Front all sympathetic characters have charmed lives. In this story, the franc-tireur is shot in cold blood, a “dreadful scene, which… made the two juniors almost physically sick.”

At the end, the boys are back at Greyfriars, safely away from the war and not keen to return. The story’s attitude towards the war is rather a sane one, I think.

The Magnet ceased publication during the paper shortages of the Second World War, but Hamilton (publishing as Frank Richards) then produced a series of Greyfriars books, which I used to borrow avidly from the library when I was ten or eleven. Some of them stayed in print till the seventies, I think.

Each issue of The Magnet was twenty-four large pages of small print in double columns. How many modern boys would have the motivation to do that amount of reading each week?

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