James Hanley’s War

For a little while I’ve been curious about James Hanley’s war experience, and the way it was reflected in his brutal story The German Prisoner.

I’ve therefore been looking at his 1937 “autobiographical excursion”, Broken Water. This is interesting, and fills in some details, but also raises a few questions.

It tells the story of his going to sea at 13, and serving as a deck-hand on troop-ships taking soldiers to Gallipoli and Salonika. From this, he says, he had gained an impression of the war: “The thing that struck me most and which left the most lasting impression on my mind was not the horror of the whole filthy business, but the calm, almost callous acceptance. The war, in fact, had ceased to have any meaning.”

When the ship went to St.John in New Brunswick to pick up Canadian troops, Hanley was resentful that the officers denied him any promotion, because of his youth.  A friend (the assistant cook) told him that he was going ashore to enlist in the Canadian Army. Being of age, he would probably have been conscripted when he went back to England, and he reckoned he’d get a better deal – including better pay – with the Canadians. Hanley, despite what he had seen on the troop ships, impulsively decided to join him. (“I have never made a decision more quickly than  this.”)  The two of them weent to the recruiting office at Fredericton, about seventy miles away.

This is where the first small puzzle arises. In the autobiography, Hanley makes much of their need to attest under false names, so that they would not be taken back to their ships. Hanley chose the name Wood, he says.

Yet his attestation papers clearly show him registered on April 27th, 1917 under his own name (Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version of the document.)


The process seems to have been chaotic. Although rehearsed in giving a false age, Hanley let on that he was only 16, and was initially refused, until the Colonel intervened to sweep aside the legalities. Maybe the false name was forgotten in the confusion.

From Fredericton they went to Valcartier Camp for six weeks training, and eventually left for Montreal and a ship for England. (The experienced sailor Hanley “managed to laugh at all the soldiers who were so seasick.”) In England he got himself into trouble by heading for  Seaforth Barracks near his old home in Liverpool rather than going directly to Seaford in Sussex.

Then the battalion was moved to Farnham “to learn the real thing, the science of slaughter”. The autobiography tells a long story about a Canadian fellow-soldier who was swindled by an English con-man called Nobby Clark. The Englishman told him about a scheme by which the Canadian government sent a separation allowance to a soldier’s relatives. The soldier had no family, so Clark proposed that he should be nominated as an uncle, and the proceeds shared. When the money started to come through, Clark disappeared with it. The soldier, realising he’d been conned, asked for  the allowance to be cancelled – and was condemned by his officers as an unfeeling brute  for leaving his family in the lurch.

That story is told at considerable length, but Hanley’s actual war experience is skimmed over.

He was sent with sixty others to reinforce the 13th Canadian Battalion, intially at Loissons. Dates are vague, but I think this must have been in the spring of  1918. He maybe stayed there a while, because he talks of a little girl there with whom he went for walks on long summer evenings.

Eventually the battalion left for Arras, where he heard “the first really heavy shells exploding in the streets.”

He says:

We were shifted about a good deal. Today we were on one sector, tomorrow on another; apparently this division was being used as shock troops. I remained with them until the thirty-first of August 1918, and by welcome accident returned to England via three hospitals – Whalley, Blackburn and Bexhill.

That’s his summary of his war experience.  A little later he says that his mother was informed that he “had some gas in the wrong place.” but that is the only clue we get as to the nature of his “welcome accident”.

Was he gassed in battle or while handling gas canisters? Did he fight? He doesn’t mention it. If the battalion was “shock troops” he doesn’t have much to say about what they did. Was he maybe kept away from the front line because his officers realised his age?

And what is the status of The German Prisoner? Is this based on an incident he had seen or heard about? Is he extrapolating from the characters of some of the soldiers he had met? Or is he, ten years after the War, writing a fable of brutality that corresponds more with his political feelings at the time of writing than with what he actually saw when in France? I shall keep investigating.


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