Nat Gould and Sexton Blake

What did soldiers actually read during their precious hours of rest? Beatrice Harraden, who was in charge of a library at a military hospital, identifies the horse-racing novelist Nat Gould as the favourite of the troops. A.A.Milne provides some evidence that supports this view in his essay collection If I May (1921):

Mr. Gould, as all the world knows, wrote racing novels. They were called, Won by a Neck, or Lost by a Head, or Odds On, or The Stable-lad’s Dilemma. Every third man in the Army carried one about with him. I was unlucky in this matter, for all my men belonged to the other two-thirds; they read detective stories about a certain Sexton Blake, who kept bursting into rooms and finding finger-marks. In your innocence you may think that Sherlock Holmes is the supreme British detective, but he is a child to Blake. If I learnt nothing else in the Army, I learnt that.

Sexton Blake would mostly have been read in cheap magazines like the Union Jack. sexton-b-sm.jpg

This cover is from late 1914, when most of the issues had a war theme. In this story, Blake prevents a secret weapon from getting into the wrong hands (and the young man presented with a white feather turns out to be full of good British pluck after all). In another story, he prevents the Germans from invading Epping Forest.
The war stories continue through the first months of 1915, but then they die away, and Blake goes back to his usual practice of combating the super-criminals that threaten our way of life, and only occasionally ventures into the War.

I had been puzzled by this, and wondered whether it was a sign that the schoolboy population was becoming less excited by War stories – or read their war stories elsewhere, and preferred their genres to be kept separate.

Now I’m wondering whether it was perhaps Milne’s squaddies who demanded that their hero should keep to his old routine, dealing with the Leon Kestrel, master of disguise and the evil Dr Huxton Rymer, while leaving the Germans to them. (And perhaps they weren’t too impressed by the authenticity of his war adventures.) In the trenches you’d want reminders of home, and for many soldiers reading about Sexton Blake would have provided continuity, and a link with peacetime pleasures

The sort of thing they enjoyed was The Case of the Poisoned Telephones, from Union Jack of March 1915. Here’s a summary of it, from the excellent

A Japanese inventor named Soto has developed a light ray — the H-ray — through which airplanes can be guided remotely. The ray also causes blindness when directed at a person. When his co-inventor, Colonel Temple, is found dead and the blueprints are stolen, Soto calls in Sexton Blake. The investigator discovers that death was caused by a fine poisonous dust placed in the telephone receiver. He also discovers that Temple had frequently visited a woman named Madam Tressidar at a nearby hotel. When Blake goes there, he finds that the woman has been killed. He also discovers that she had travelled extensively in China and that she had rented her house, near the Colonel’s, to some Chinamen. Tinker and Soto are both captured and taken to this house — its tenants being Wu Ling and The Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle. The prisoners are tightly bound and left in a room where wireless equipment has been set up. They manage to get free long enough to transmit a message to Sexton Blake before being recaptured. Meanwhile, at Baker Street, an intruder places poison dust in Blake’s telephone but is caught in the act and made a captive. The detective receives the radio message from Tinker and Soto, so leaves the Chinese prisoner guarded by Pedro while he rushes off on a rescue mission. With policemen led by Inspector Thomas, he raids the house, rescues the prisoners and retrieves the H-ray blueprints.

A story like that might even take your mind off the shelling.


  1. Maylin
    Posted November 12, 2007 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m enjoying your posts on what the soldiers read in the trenches (and thanks for posting about the very interesting conferences you are attending so we can follow along). I’m wondering how much Shakespeare made to the front. Have you ever come along a slim volume called Sargeant Shakespeare by Duff Cooper? He posits the idea that Shakespeare must at one time have been a soldier because many of the references/ideas/language/sense of tone in the plays could only have been derived from someone intimately acquainted with the military. Not too sure how convincing his arguement is, but it’s interesting that he starts thinking about it as he’s reading Shakespeare in the trenches (though if memory serves me right, he took a collection of the comedies with him to the front).

  2. Posted November 12, 2007 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure lots of Shakespeare went to the front, though I can’t think of examples offhand. A.M.Burrage, who later wrote “War is War” as Ex-Private X, took the Canterbury Tales with him, because he found Chaucer slow reading, which meant it would last a long time.
    On the subject of Duff Cooper – I’ve been meaning to read his wartime diaries. A friend told me that Cooper seems to have spent almost all the war drunk.

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