Billy Bunter and Sergeant York

The Magnet

An oddity that I came across while looking at the bound volumes of the Magnet boys’ paper was this issue from 1919 – Schoolboys Abroad, which took a band of Greyfriars students on a post-war tour of the battlefields.

The story’s byline is “Frank Richards” as usual, but an index to the magazine reveals that this one was not written by Charles Hamilton, the astonishingly prolific and inventive author of most of the stories, but by C.M.Down, who later went on to edit the Gem magazine.

The detail of the story makes it pretty obvious that Down had done his own bit of battlefield tourism, and was eager to share his experience with readers. Mostly (and very uncharacteristically for this paper) the story is a travelogue:

From there Captain Matthews took them to Meaulte, the little shattered village where the Prince of Wales had spent month after month right through those wonderful days of the Somme battle of 1916. From Meaulte they had gone to Mametz and Bazentin, where the whole countryside for mile after mile is made sad by the hundreds and hundreds of little wooden crosses that mark the resting-places of those brave fellows who gave their all for Britain and what she stands for!

“Those wonderful days of the Somme battle” – now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d read…

The usual Greyfriars characters are there, but Down can’t do much more than put them through the stereotyped routines (Billy Bunter is always hungry, and so on) and introduce some rather incongruous farce, with people falling downstairs and so on. Down doesn’t have the skill to use the characters in the way Hamilton does, when he lets the contrasts between them illuminate real moral issues.

In the course of the story we hear a lot about genuine British heroes, and at the Canal du Nord the boys are told the story of Captain Frisby:

“Captain Frisby’s example got the whole of his company across, and I believe the captain himself knocked out about half a dozen Huns who were holding a machine gun post on the edge of the canal.”

At this point Fisher T.Fish, the American student, interrupts, and says:

That’s the stuff to give ’em! There was an American soldier who captured four hundred prisoners single-handed!”

His schoolmates laugh at this, and Captain Matthews their guide, delivers a patronising put-down:

“Ha, ha!… I am afraid you have been misinformed, my good friend. Never mind, it’s an interesting story, and now let’s make a start.”

Fish is presumably referring to the exploits of Sergeant Alvin York, who on October 8th, 1918 knocked out a machine gun emplacement and took 132 German prisoners – not quite single handed, but with just seven soldiers.

Is this little detail in the story because Down had heard a similar exchange when he was in France? Does the Captain’s put-down reflect a certain touchiness on the part of the British about American Johnny-Come-Latelies who joined in at the last moment and wanted to grab the glory?

In Howard Hawks’s 1941 film Sergeant York, there is a sense that when the Americans arrived they taught a few lessons in war to the poor old Brits who had been slogging away fruitlessly for four years…

Anyway, this story is very determined to present the victory as a British achievement. The French don’t figure as soldiers, only as cab-drivers and tradesmen who are liable to cheat you, and have to be haggled with. Billy Bunter likes their food, though.

Sergeant York,

and his draft registration card



  1. wrldpease
    Posted April 20, 2008 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    what about ‘hurree jamset ram singh’ –was he on the tour as well, and receive even shorter shrift than Fish?

    who were these ghostwriters for Frank Richards?


  2. Posted April 20, 2008 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    The dusky nabob of Bhanipur does go on the tour, but he doesn’t play a large part. There is no mention of the contribution of Indian troops to the war effort – though much is made of the achievements of Canadians.
    In a 1914 story that I read, Hurree Singh is proud of the fact that troops from Bhanipur are going to France.
    I don’t know much about the writers who filled in as “Frank Richards” when Charles Hamilton couldn’t manage the workload – a long Greyfriars story for the Magnet each week, and a St.Jims one for the Gem.
    Down started off writing verses about Greyfriars for the annuals, and then got roped in to write stories.
    Others were writers who were used to producing long stories for other popular series – Edwy Searles Brookes, for example, who wrote a lot of Sexton Blake stories.
    They had a card index system, like modern T.V.series do, so that guest writers can make sure they are keeping to the correct information about the characters’ appearance, habits, etc.
    I read somewhere that during the Great War Hamilton was very annoyed when a guest writer killed off one of his characters. A sixth former enlisted and got killed, and the school paid tribute to him. (I’ve not read the episode, but it sounds a long way from the usual comic formula.) Hamilton was upset, because his writing depended on a fixed cast of characters, who could be pitted against one another in interesting ways. He didn’t often introduce new permanent characters, though temporary ones were useful from time to time, to set a series of stories going.

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