Warwick Deeping’s “Valour” (and Siegfried Sassoon?)

Before the war, Warwick Deeping had been a doctor who was also a prolific writer, mainly of historical fiction. He volunteered for the RAMC and served in Gallipoli, Belgium and Egypt.

During the war he continued to publish historical novels, and short stories in the magazines – some of which were simple patriotic moralities like The Conscientious Objector (middle-aged pacifist learns the error of his ways when attacked by tramps and saved by the violent intervention of a naval officer) .

In early 1918 he published his first novel about the war, Valour – in many ways a remarkable book for its time. It is not a good novel – partly because it is pulled in several directions. As a medical officer at Gallipoli, Deeping had seen the worst results of war, had experienced military failure, and knew the effects that these had had upon soldiers. On the other hand, he was by instinct a romantic and melodramatic writer, and he was passionately committed to the project of the war.

At one point, Deeping considers the difference between historical romance and the reality of the trenches:

Your maker of picturesque and thrilling descriptions flirts with war; he does not go through the grim ceremony that ties him to the trenches.
Romance and colour are apt to vanish out of life when a man is thirsty, or underfed, cold and wet, or sick with the sun-glare, tormented by flies and lice, or damnably afraid.

Deeping’s hero, Pierce Hammersly, embodies this contradiction between romance and reality. On the wall of his home there is a portrait of an ancestor, Gerard Hammersly, whose pride and individualism caused him to rebel against his superiors, and cut short his military career several hundred years ago.

Pierce not only looks like his ancestor, but shares the same individualism and contempt for convention. This is proved when he becomes engaged to Janet, whose father disgraced her family by being imprisoned for fraud. Pierce cares nothing for the disapproval of Scarshott (the town where he lives) or for the distress of his snobbish mother.

Pierce volunteers for the army, and as a second lieutenant is sent to Gallipoli, to a unit facing difficult conditions, whose commanding officer, Colonel Barnack is a ruthless and intolerant martinet.

And to a very proud and sensitive man the atmosphere of the mess was loathsome. Barnack had immense power, the power of sending men to their death, and nothing softened his fanatical cult of duty. His juniors were afraid of him. There was a horrible suggestion of obsequiousness, of a haste to propitiate the great man. Hammersly noticed that no one ever disagreed with him; his sentiments were applauded, his prejudices admired. The whole business reminded Hammersly of an Oriental tyranny, and a crowd of courtiers fawning upon the power that held them at its mercy.

Barnack dislikes Pierce, and continually gives him the unpleasant and dangerous jobs. Finally, showing considerable moral courage, Pierce rebels, and shortly before an attack refuses an order. He is court-martialled for cowardice and stripped of his commission.

These Gallipoli chapters are very striking, and surprising for 1918. Deeping is writing from his own experience, and taking advantage of the unwritten convention of the war years that allowed those who had experienced them to write about horrors (while civilians confined themselves to tales of heroism). Taken out of context, this section of the book reads like an episode from one of the “disillusioned” war novels of ten years later – it describes the horrors and terrors of trench life, the meanness and arbitrariness from those in authority, and punishment for cowardice. I don’t know of any other book published during the actual war years that introduces these issues so graphically.

The second half of the book is a retreat from the outspokenness of this section. Pierce goes home, still proud and indignant, but finds that Scarshott does not appreciate what he has done. He writes a defiant letter to the local paper damning the Army and the war effort, but this is regarded as petulance and he is shunned and ridiculed.

After a while he sees things differently; he accepts the town’s view of his actions as selfish, and enlists as a private. In the ranks he rediscovers himself:

I have been learning to be simple and honest; I have found quite simple men who have put me to shame. There are men over there who are worth knowing; worth the best comradeship a man can give…
The war is teaching us to do the things we thought impossible; making us laugh at our little old squabbling, selfish prejudices.

Now his officers are worthy of his admiration:

And Hammersley loved Guest; loved him for his clear calm face, his straight and smiling eyes, his chivalry and thoroughness, for the way he carried his head, for his calm voice, even for the faultless care with which he put on his puttees.

In battle, he crawls out to save Guest under machine-gun fire, and is ordered back.

“Sorry,sir. This is the second time I have refused to obey orders. I came out to find you, and you are going to let me get you into that shell-crater.”

He rescues not only the officer, but several other soldiers, and repels a German attack. In the fighting, he loses a foot, but is positive about this. After the battle, having played his part, he feels “a wonderful sense of contentment”
The book ends with everyone having benefited morally from the war. Not only has Pierce (awarded a V.C., like most novelistic heroes of the time) learned to subdue his wilfulness, but the town of Scarshott in its turn has “been shocked out of its rigid, non-vital, sneering, critical selfishness” and has become a better place.
So the ending is thunderingly conventional – but those middle chapters must have made disturbing reading for many in 1918.
What I am wondering, though, is whether Deeping had any model in mind for the brave and impetuous officer who refused to fight. The most highly-publicised action of anyone refusing an order and sending a statement about it to the papers was Siegfried Sassoon in 1917 – probably at about the time that Deeping was writing his book. The circumstances are different; Sassoon made his protest in England, not in the fighting zone, and made a point of protesting against the politicians, not the army.
But maybe this was how Sassoon’s protest looked to a conservative army doctor who had seen the results of Gallipoli – by no means totally unjustified but rather petulant and self-centred. The final (very conventional) message of Deeping’s book is that the war effort requires everyone to subdue their personal concerns for the good of the communal effort.


One Comment

  1. Elvis Newton
    Posted December 10, 2010 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    In your June 13 2008, You mention Warwick Deeping having written magazine piece “The Conscientious Objector” and described it. This must mean you have a copy of it? Been looking for some of his magazine publications -that one I hadn’t heard of

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