Brian Bond at Birmingham

I went to the Birmingham Centre for First World War Studies this evening, to hear Brian Bond give his inaugural lecture. He has just written a book about memoirs of the Great War, and the talk drew on this material, to contrast Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Guy Chapman and Edmund Blunden.
He showed a relish for Graves’s Goodbye to All That which was perhaps unexpected, given that the inventiveness of Graves is rather a long way from the methodology of the good historian. He clearly enjoyed the sheer zest of the book, and the  outlandishness of Graves’s character.

He showed that all his chosen authors were complex men with complex attitudes to the War. All of them loathed what the war did to men they cared for, but all found immense value in parts of the war experience.

The one that I have not read is Chapman – I must rectify that.  I found some extracts from his A Passionate Prodigality on the Spartacus site. I like this conversation between two junior officers in a dugout:

“Do you remember a corporal with the Messina medal?”

“Oh, yes; a dark stocky man.”

“He went off with an officer we’d caught. Presently I found him back in the trench. I knew he couldn’t have got down to the cage and back; so I asked him what had happened. ‘Well, sir,’ he said, ‘it’s a very hot day. We sat down in a shell hole and he gave me his watch and his field-glasses and his money. It’s very hot day and a long way down. So I shot him.’

“What did you do?”

“There wasn’t any need to do anything,” said Vaughan with a curl of his thin lips; “he was killed that afternoon.”

6 Comments

  1. Posted March 18, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    You really must read the Chapman – it’s one of the finest of all the war memoirs. It’s been reprinted several times over the years. Do you know what Brian Bond’s new book is called?

  2. Posted March 18, 2009 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    It’s Survivors of a Kind: Memoirs of the Western Front. Published by Continuum.

  3. Posted March 19, 2009 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    “What did you do?”

    “There wasn’t any need to do anything,” said Vaughan with a curl of his thin lips; “he was killed that afternoon.”

    I was very struck by this quote because something almost identical occurs in an interview from the IWM archive cited in (p. 440):

    Glyn Prysor, ‘The ‘Fifth Column’ and the British Experience of Retreat, 1940’, War In History, 12 (2005), pp. 418-447.  

    “When asked to
    explain what happened, Rabbets stated bluntly, ‘Nothing. They were
    dead. I just shot them.’”

  4. Posted March 19, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Ah, your post and the comments have reminded me to take this book down off the shelf and take a look. I bought a used copy several years ago when I was doing some research on Chapman’s wife Storm Jameson (who I believe helped edit the book)but never got around to reading it. I believe a new biography of Jameson is coming out soon which I’m eager to read.
    I just looked up this passage from her memoir, Journey to the North, about her first meeting with Guy in the mid-1920s. Apparently he liked nothing better than to talk about the war: “During those years the relationship between him and a few men, a few places, between him and a battalion, had been complete and satisfying, as no relationship would ever be again. He was occupied territory.” (the last two words are in her italics but I can’t figure out how to do it in the comments)

  5. Posted March 19, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Blithespirit –
    Thank you! The quotation from Jameson is immensely interesting. There is a myth about war writing – that not much was published between 1918 and 1928 because men couldn’t bear to talk about it. Elaine Showalter even seems to suggest that repression amnesia was at work for a decade. Jameson’s diagnosis of her husband – I think “occupied territory” is a brilliant phrase – is a piece of evidence that for Chapman as for many men the difficulty was not that they forgot the War, but that it would not let go of them.

  6. Dave Bell
    Posted April 11, 2009 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    There are family stories about my grandfather, and while I may have read a bit too much into some of them, that timescale sounds right.

    It also seems to fit with modern medical thinking on PTSD.

    Perhaps one difference between then and now is that back then the shell-shocked veteran wasn’t a rarity. And there were active British Legion branches everywhere. Maybe there was less need to talk, because people knew.


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