Albert Campion’s war experience

In my post on Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse (1941) I quoted a passage in which Albert Campion, her detective hero defines himself as one of a generation too young to fight in the Great War, and Jessica pointed out that in Sweet Danger he tells someone that he saw service in the last six months of the war.

I suspected that this might be a case of an author’s inattention to detail (like Dr Watson’s war wound, which wanders over his body most intriguingly) and put the question to Nick Hay, a member of the Margery Allingham reading list.

He kindly consulted the wisdom of the list for me, and replied:

Hi George, OK here is what I would take for a definitive answer from the list’s resident expert – Roger Johnson
The spoof Who’s Who entry gives us brief but invaluable information about Campion himself, to add to what we can glean from the narrative.
“Campion, Albert, b. May 20th, 1900. Educated at Rugbyand St Ignatius College, Cambridge. Embarked onadventurous career 1924. Chief cases include The Black Dudley Murder, the Affair at Mystery Mile, theProtection of the Gyrth Chalice, and the incidents atCambridge which entailed Police at the Funeral. Name known to be a pseudonym, but real identity hithertounpublished. Clubs: Puffins, The Junior Greys.Hobbies: odd. Address: 17 Bottle Street, Piccadilly,London, W.1.”He shares his birthday with his creator, though he isfour years older. He was, as we later learn (in Dancers in Mourning), just old enough to be called upfor military service in the last months of the GreatWar, and evidently remained in service during 1919. Of the ‘fear sign’ he says: ‘The last time I saw it, itwas scribbled upon a piece of corrugated iron in a devastated area in France after the war.’
Unexpectedly asked by the doctor [Bouverie], ‘Can youfight?’ Campion replies, ‘I’ll take on anyone of my weight.’ We know that he can take care of himself in a fight, but this suggests that he is a trained boxer.The doctor responds, ‘Ha! Go through the war?’ and is told, ‘Only the last six months. I was born in nineteen hundred,’ which we know is true.
* * *I can’t recall any other references to Campion’s service in the First World War. The answer to your original question then would that there is no particular inattention to details, but Campion’s WW1 experiences are not covered at any length or in any detail.

So maybe Campion was like Noel Coward, who was born just slightly earlier, in Dec 1899 – he might well have been in the army for a while, but have missed the actual fighting. The mention of the devastated area of France fits in, since he might well have been posted there during the clearing-up operations, which went on for a long while. And it’s quite likely that someone in his position might have seen himself as having been part of “that particular generation which was too young for one war”. I think Coward had this feeling, which is why he keeps returning to the War, often ambivalently, in his writings of the twenties and thirties.

By the way, there’s a Margery Allingham society, whose webpage indicates that it’s quite lively.


  1. Jessica
    Posted November 26, 2007 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    This is what I get for trying to read too many books too quickly🙂. The reference was, of course, in Dancers in Mourning and I misremembered which book I had seen it in. Thanks for getting clarification!

  2. Alan Allport
    Posted November 26, 2007 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Although it’s beyond your normal chronological range of interests, The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) apparently concerns a violent former wartime Commando and seems to be part of the ‘brutalized ex-serviceman’ tradition. (I say apparently because – alas – I haven’t yet read it.)

  3. careuther
    Posted December 3, 2007 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    Tiger in the Smoke is an amazing novel for its sense of time and place. It isn’t the best of the Campion novels. In fact, Campion is almost a secondary character–he links many of the characters and gives the people we “know” from the series a reason for being part of the story. The real star is the former delinquent turned war hero turned rampaging killer. The World War II veteran isn’t so much the guy who hasn’t learned how to let go of the violence as he is a guy who for a short period of time lived in a world where his own violent philosophy made sense.

    But if you are looking for a novel that evokes London just a few years after the end of the war, Tiger in the Smoke is it.

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