The Flag Lieutenant

I’ve been reading a very different kind of amnesia text today – a 1934 novelisation of a 1908 play.

If I had to choose one text to represent the image of themselves that the services liked to project, I think it would be The Flag Lieutenant.

This play, by Lt.Col W.P. Drury and Major Leo Trevor, was a major pre-war hit, and was filmed three times in the inter-war years. It tells the story of Dicky Lascelles, a young officer full of unregulated energy and fond of practical jokes. In war, of course, he is full of derring-do and just what the navy needs. Fighting some vile Arabs, he does an incredibly brave thing, going out in the seething crowd of Muslim fanatics to a place where he can signal for assistance to save an otherwise doomed garrison.

His friend Thesiger thought up the plan, but had been struck on the head and concussed before he could do anything about it. After the event, Thesiger has no memory of what had happened, so Lascelles thinks up an ingenious plan. Since Thesiger is in need of a boost to his career (which will impress the woman he loves) Lascelles decides to pretend that it was his friend and not himself that performed the brave deed.

Unfortunately rumours begin to spread – what was Lascelles doing while his friend was earning medals? Was he cowering in a gun embrasure? (“General Gough-Bogle says positively… that Mr Lascelles showed the white feather.”) Lascelles can’t deny the rumours, or his friend will look a fool and a fraud. Things get sticky.

It’s his sense of honour, of course, that makes him unable to deny the accusations of dishonour.

Luckily a canny old Admiral sorts things out, and all is well.

In the preface to the novelisation, Drury writes:

In November 1914 the play was revived with a brilliant all-star cast at the Haymarket, and again enjoyed a successful London run. The scene on the opening night was a memorable one: for not only the players, but the majority of the great audience, were in the King’s uniform.

I can understand why. It’s not only a cracking piece of entertainment, but it presents the services as full of energetic young officers, under the watchful eye of wise superiors, bravely defeating the heathen hordes, and maintaining their honour above all else. Exactly how they’d like to imagine themselves.

In this text, amnesia is used just as a plot device –  Thesiger’s loss of memory gives Lascelles the opportunity for his grand gesture. In great war texts, amnesia gathers a lot more meanings. I’m going to give a paper about some of these on Saturday.


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