Great War Fiction / Great War Fact

Is it possible to draw any dividing line between Great War fact and fiction? On the one hand there are texts presented to their original readers as factual accounts of the war that use a great deal of fictional license (I’m thinking of Ian Hay’s The First Hundred Thousand (1915), or Patrick MacGill’s books). On the other hand, there are novels like Wifrid Ewart’s Way of Revelation (1921) that contain descriptions of war that could only come from first-hand experience.

I’ve seen Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer classified among non-fictional war memoirs, even though its hero is George Sherston, not Siegfried Sassoon. (It follows the general pattern of Sassoon’s military career, but with significant distortions and, especially, omissions. Sassoon’s homosexuality is absent, and his poetry, and his progress is made to seem logical, which I suspect it wasn’t.)

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I’ve been doing some research on Richard Blaker’s Medal Without Bar (1930). This book is unambiguously presented as fiction. Blaker was born in 1893, so was 21 in 1914, whereas his hero, Cartwright is 38 when War breaks out. The fact that he is middle-aged, and has been married long enough to have two teenage sons is essential to the book’s emotional structure. (Notice that Cartwright is more or less the age that Blaker was when he wrote the book, so a productive way of reading the book is to think of it as middle-aged Blaker trying imaginatively to put himself back into the War of his young manhood.)

But some at least of his early readers did not take the book as fiction. Looking in Blaker’s archive, I came across a letter written to him soon after publication of the novel. It is from an ex-officer called Hubert Hirschland, who writes enthusiastically that Medal Without Bar is “the truest war book of the lot.”

Hirschland had been in the Artillery at the same time as Blaker, and had been in some of the same units, though their paths seem rarely to have crossed. He knows many of the characters described:

Richards is Roberts, Whitelaw is Daddy Waldron, Reynolds is Hope and Cartwright yourself. But who were Preston, Branson and Oakleigh? Gordon I suppose is Cameron and Dolbey whom you seem to dislike most heartily is I suppose Daddy Monks. Is Allen Foster?

He not only wants every character to have a real-life equivalent, he is mildly indignant when Blaker has used authorial licence to alter events slightly:

As far as the grass-growing incident on page 337 is concerned, have you not told it of the wrong brigade? Unless it happened in two brigades at the same time, I think the episode should be credited to D/60. I happened to be in charge of the wagon-lines at the time…

This letter is very suggestive about the way in which ex-soldiers read War books a decade after the event, eager for precise confirmation of their own memories.

Hirschland was probably right in his character attributions. In a letter to the publisher, Blaker apologises for having alternated between Richards and Roberts in the MS, because the real name of the character kept creeping into the fiction.

Yet a fiction it was, guided by his publisher’s demands for a maximising of human interest, and a minimising of strong language:

Our reader says he is anxious that people should not say that you have taken a leaf out of All Quiet on the Western Front and he says he is thinking, quite frankly, of the maiden aunts. That happens to be his job, so you must consider it.

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2 Comments

  1. Andy Frayn
    Posted January 15, 2007 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    ‘But some at least of his early readers did not take the book as fiction. Looking in Blaker’s archive, I came across a letter written to him soon after publication of the novel. It is from an ex-officer called Hubert Hirschland, who writes enthusiastically that Medal Without Bar is “the truest war book of the lot.”‘

    I’m not sure I agree the cause and effect here. Many combatants commented on the “truth” of works of war fiction in full knowledge that they were just that, the idea of truth being used more poetically than actually.

  2. Posted January 15, 2007 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Sorry – I wasn’t clear here. When he says (and it’s in a PS to his letter to Blaker) that Medal Without Bar is the truest war book, he’s clearly praising its truth to the essence and spirit of the times.
    But when he assumes that ALL characters are closely based on real-life models, and that it is a mistake if an incident fom one brigade is attributed to another brigade, then he is expecting the book not to be a novel, but an accurate memoir, and is judging it by a different standard.


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