At the start of the War, all sorts of publications were looking for writing that could cast some light on the conflict, or on the conditions of modern warfare. I hadn’t realised until this week that D.H.Lawrence was one of those who offered to share his expertise on the subject.
In the Manchester Guardian of 18th August, 1914, there is an article called With the Guns (the byline is “H.D.Lawrence”, an inversion that may not surprise readers who enjoyed the Guardian in its more misprint-prone heyday). Apparently he was paid two guineas for it.
In 1913 Lawrence had observed the Bavarian army on exercise in the Isar valley and near the foot of the Alps. In this article he describes what he saw. He starts, though, by describing some English reservists heading off cheerfully to war:
The reservists were leaving for London by the nine o’ clock train. They were young men, some of them drunk. There was one bawling and brawling before the ticket window; there were two swaying on the steps of the subway, shouting, and ending, “Let’s go an’ have another before we go.” There were a few women seeing off their sons and brothers, but, on the whole, the reservist had been a lodger in the town, and had only his own pals. One woman stood before the carriage window. She and her sweetheart were being very matter-of-fact, cheerful and bumptious over the parting.
“Well, so long!” she cried as the train began to move. “When you see ‘em let ‘em have it.”
“Ay, no fear,” shouted the man, and the train was gone, the man grinning.
I thought what it would really be like, “when he saw ‘em.”
This vignette sets the tone for much of Lawrence’s writing about the War. As in stories like Monkey Nuts the soldiers are observed unsentimentally. They are boorish and rather pathetic in their aimlessness and friendlessness. The description of the woman’s “bumptious” leavetaking is very different from the average sentimentalised rendition of th scene found everywhere at the time.
It’s also typical of Lawrence that he puts himself in a position of ironic superiority over the soldiers. The author knows “what it would really be like”, and goes on to describe it.
Essentially he has one point to make about what he saw – that it was “an affair entirely of machines, with men attached to the machines as the subordinate part thereof, as the butt is the part of a rifle”. At a time when romancers were still envisioning the war in terms of cavalry charges and gallant skirmishes, this was a very valid and pertinent point to make. Lawrence is near the guns, watching them fire at an invisible enemy:
Every moment came the hard, tearing, hideous voice of the German command from the officer perched aloft, giving the range to the guns; and then the sharp cry, “Fire!” There was a burst, something in the guns started back, the faintest breath of vapour disappeared. The shots had gone.
I watched, but I could not see where they had gone, nor what had been aimed at… Whether the shot they fired hit or missed, killed or did not touch, I and the gun-party did not know.
Men, he explains, “stood there blind… subordinate to the cold machine… There was neither ferocity nor joy nor exultation nor exhilaration nor even quick fear: only a mechanical expressionless movement.”
At night, he sees some infantry, “lying under fire, silent, scarcely stirring, a mass.” He imagines what would happen if one of the artillery’s shells landed among them.
Who would have been torn, killed, no one would have known. There would just have been a hole in the living shadowy mass; that was all. Who it was did not matter. There were no individuals, and every individual soldier knew it.
The paradox of that last sentence – the individual knowing he is not an individual – brings us back to the reservists, all doing their individual thing before they leave, but destined to become part of a mere shadowy mass.
The inhumanity of modern war is reinforced by an anecdote told by an Italian captain:
The Italian soldier, he said, was the finest soldier in the world at a rush. But – and he spoke with a certain horror that cramped his voice – when it came to lying there under Snyder fire you had to stand behind them with a revolver. And I saw he could not get beyond the agony of this.
Lawrence elaborates on the difference between “the old natural courage, when one rushes at one’s enemy,” and the unnaturalness of lying still under machine-gun fire from an enemy that you cannot see.
So seeing these 1913 exercises had given Lawrence an insight that many would need to learn the hard way – that:
It is a war of artillery, a war of machines, and men no more than the subjective material of the machine. It is so unnatural as to be unthinkable. Yet we must think of it.
I’ve read quite a few articles and stories written in August, 1914, but none that so clearly speak this truth about the war that was just beginning. The Manchester Gusrdian got good value for its two guineas.
I wonder, though, how far this piece explains some of the problems with Lawrence’s story England, My England, written in 1915, while he and Frieda Lawrence were living in a cottage on the estate of the Meynell family at Greatham, Sussex. Though nominally set in Hampshire, the story uses precise details of the Greatham locality, and the central character, Evelyn, is closely based on Percy Lucas, son-in-law of Wilfred and Alice Meynell; Lawrence found in him an exemple of a peculiarly English disposition, an amateurishness that does not connect with the hard facts of life, and uses the story to question what will happen when this temperament meets the hard facts of war. (By the way, in this post I’m talking about the earlier version of the story, as published in the English Review of 1915 – significantly different from the extended version that Lawrence published in 1921, whose central character is now called Egbert.)
Evelyn spends a lot of time gardening, but is not very good at it. “He was troubled because he could not keep the path straight.” His children are spoilt, and his life is dominated by “the tension of the silent fight between him and his wife”. In other words, Lawrence paints him as a total loser, typical of those who inherit money and status, but can’t do anything useful with it.
Lawrence is using the circumstances of the Meynell family to make an allegory of the cultured classes of England, and their relation to economic realities. He takes incidents from the lives of the Lucases and the Meynells and twists them just a little to fit his purpose. In particular, one of the Meynell girls did trip on a scythe and hurt herself. Lawrence’s biographer, Mark Kinkaid-Weekes, comments: “This was the one detail in 1915 that pointed to the Lucases, and would seem bound to distress them, so that a more scrupulous writer might have hesitated to use it.”
In 1914, Evelyn joins up, for reasons that Lawrence presents as a sort of death-wish, a complicity with the destructiveness of war:
Somewhere at the back was the death he was going to meet… He was really a soldier. His soul had accepted the significance. He was a potential destructive force, ready to be destroyed… What had he to do with love and the creative side of life? He was a destructive spirit entering into destruction.
As a soldier, Evelyn appears debased, “an uncouth figure in the rough khaki, he who was always so slender and beautiful and clean-limbed in motion.” His wife is at first impressed by him, but “when he had been home longer than a day, began to find that the soldier was a man just the same, the same man, only become callous and outside her ethical reach, positive now in his destructive capacity.”
The war that Lawrence describes is like the exercise he had seen in Germany, and some sentences are almost exactly the same as ones in “With the Guns”:
Every moment came the hard, tearing, hideous voice of the German command from the officer perched aloft, giving the range to the guns; and then the sharp cry, “Fire!” There was a burst, something in the guns started back, the faintest breath of vapour disappeared. The shots had gone. (With the Guns)
“Out of the sky came the sharp cry of the directions, then the warning numbers, then “Fire!” The shot went, the piston of the gun sprang back, there was a sharp explosion, and a very faint film of smoke hung in the air.”(England my England)
The only trouble is that in the story Evelyn is supposed to be with “three machine guns covering the rear,” but Lawrence’s description is clearly of field artillery. Perhaps Lawrence was recalling his insistence on these big guns as machines controlling men, and assumes that the term “machine guns” covers what he saw in Germany.
At the end of the story, Evelyn is in face to face contact with Germans. First he is hit by shrapnel from a shell. Lawrence vividly conveys his “consciousness of pain and sick life” as his thoughts return to “the knowledge of his wife and children, somewhere in a remote heavy despair.” He manages to express his destructiveness by killing three Germans with his revolver, but then is killed by a bayonet, and mutilated:
The German cut and mutilated the face of the dead man as if he must obliterate it. He slashed it across, as if it must not be a face any more; it must be removed. For he could not bear the clear abstract look of the other’s face, its almost ghoulish, slight smile, faint but so terrible in its suggestion, that the German was mad, and ran up the road when he found himself alone.
Basing fictions closely on real-life models always contains an element of ethical danger, though it was a technique essential to Lawrence’s writing practice. The army career of Percy Lucas, who had been so recognizably caricatured in the first part of the story, was unlike that of his fictional counterpart. Unlike Evelyn, he became an officer, not a private. Evelyn suffered annihilation on the battlefield within weeks of enlisting, but Percy survived – until a year after the story was published. He died of wounds on the Somme, on 6 July, 1916.
On hearing of the death, Lawrence wrote: “It upsets me very much to hear of Percy Lucas. I did not know he was dead. I wish that story at the bottom of the sea, before ever it had been printed.” It is noteworthy that he wishes it unprinted, rather than unwritten – he does not let regret drive him into denying his desire to express his perceptions through his art, but he does see that the war may place constraints upon what can be decently printed. Lawrence was always a fighter, though, and defends himself by reaffirming the message of the story:
Yet it does seem to me, man must find a new expression, give a new value to life, or his women will reject him, and he must die. I liked Madeleine Lucas the best of the Meynells really. She was the one who was capable of honest love, she and Monica. Lucas was, somehow, a spiritual coward. But who isn’t? I ought never, never to have gone to live at Greatham. Perhaps Madeleine won’t be hurt by that wretched story – that is all that matters. If it was a true story, it shouldn’t really damage…
P.S. No, I don’t wish I had never written that story. It should do good, at the long run.
Barbara Lucas, the youngest daughter of Percy, felt that it was not “a true story” (She knew only the 1921 revision, it would seem, which actually included more detail linking Percy to its hero – now called Egbert – such as his interest in folk-song and Morris dancing.) In 1961, when Lawrence’s critical reputation was at its highest and when his books were, as she put it, “selling like bread” she published an essay to discredit the idea – made widely available in Harry Moore’s biography of Lawrence – that Egbert was in any sense a reliable portrait of her father. Questioning how well Lawrence actually knew any of the family, she wrote:
When England, my England was published in the Autumn of 1915, with its vividly recognizable natural setting, family set-up and central event (the accident to the little girl), it was apparent to friends of my family that – to borrow Compton Mackenzie’s admirable phrase – Lawrence had indulged in his “trick of describing a person’s setting or background vividly, and then putting into the setting an ectoplasm entirely of his own creation.”… But only people who knew my family well, and/or the mind of Lawrence, could know where to draw the line between reality and fiction in this case; could know how total a “creation” the “ectoplasm” was.
Barbara Lucas doubts whether her father ever read the story, but the Meynells perceived it as “a cruel attack on their family”. Lawrence’s defence, quoted above, is thin. He uses the inflated language of pre-war vitalism – “give new value to life” and “or he must die” as though the war had not changed the connotations of these words. “Death” is a word bandied around in Lawrence’s writings, and in others of the period, to mean spiritual death – that is, defeat, inertness, failure, lack of masculine energy. In his story, Egbert ‘s spiritual inertness made him as good as dead, so in the story his actual death was symbolically necessary.
With the Guns has more in common with England My England than just a few almost identical sentences. They are both parables about irresponsible Englishmen going off to battles more horrible than they have imagined. In each, I would argue, Lawrence is calling on the War to point his moral for him; especially in the story he is in complicity with the power of the War, calling it down to prove a lesson to someone unaware of life’s basic truths. That tendency is just about there in the article, too, though less blatantly.
Where the story differs from the article is that in England My England, Lawrence has lost hold of his insight that the war is long-distance and mechanical. Evelyn’s last minutes are in face to face combat, in a small-scale skirmish (Behind the lines? Or where? It’s vague.) of a type that was very rare in the Great War. In the 1921 version he made the death long-distance and arbitrary, which was truer to trench conditions, but even more demeaning to the memory of poor old Percy.
With the Guns was reprinted in Encounter in 1969. Barbara Lucas’s article is in Twentieth Century for March 1961.
Post updated and corrected 20/10/09.Thanks to Roger for pointing out a mistake./font>