Richard Aldington’s 1930 collection Roads to Glory, there is a rather grim story called The Case of Lieutenant Hall. This is in diary format, and traces the gradual disintegration of an officer (promoted from the ranks) after the Armistice.
At first he is keen to be out of the army and to get home, but soon anxieties start appearing, and memories of an ugly incident when he attacked a trench, took four prisoners and killed them. The thought of this begins to obsess him, as he returns home to an unsatisfacory job and an uncertain future. It ends badly.
One bit that interests me comes near the end of the story:
We made a damned silly mistake in being so eager to get back – the lucky ones are out there under six feet of French mud, God bless it. I saw a play the other night making fun of the demobilised officer who couldn’t shake down to civilian life. A damned nice sense of humour that playwright has. You tell men for years they’re heroes, saving the nation, and making the world safe for everybody – and then you sneer at them because in two months they don’t immediately become efficient and obsequious commercial travellers. I’d like to kick that fellow where he keeps his intelligence, i.e. in his backside.
The playwright whose bottom Aldington’s hero would like to kick is presumably H.F.Maltby, whose play A Temporary Gentleman was a big hit in the immediate post-war years. Its central character is an officer promoted from the ranks with big ideas about his new social status. In the end he accepts the job of travelling salesman which he had previously considered beneath him, and rediscovers his integrity.
Maltby’s intention (explained in his autobiography) was to make fun of non-combatants, not fighting soldiers. His hero is clerk who has become an Army Service Corps officer, and wants the privileges of an officer even though his war service has been no more than glorified clerking. Maltby claimed that the play spoke the language of ordinary soldiers, and was understood by them as a dig at officers who gave themselves undeserved airs:
The play was full of what might be called “overseas talk” – words and expression that could only be understood by men who had been overseas…
He describes a performance where one man was beside himself with loud agreement throughout but:
was so obviously enjoying himself that no one had the heart to “hush”him. At last one line particularly took his fancy: carried away by his enthusiasm he jumped to his feet, and waving his arms above him in delight shouted to the rest of the audience, “That’s bloody true!” We had a job to go on after that.
Aldington’s hero sees the play differently, as a snobbish attack on the fighting soldier. Was it really taken that way by audiences of the time? Or is Aldington, ten years later, misremembering the play, ordeliberately re-imagining it for his own artistic purposes.
Had he, I wonder, actually seen A Temporary Gentleman himself, or is he relying on others’ accounts? Maybe a good example of how the war stories of the late twenties relied on memories that were not always accurate.