I have been reading John Brophy’s A Bitter End (1928), a rather good fictionalisation of his war experiences as an underage volunteer in 1914. So far I’ve only read the account of his training, and have been struck by the following passage, describing his Army medical examination:
Before Donald could answer, they were all called to the other end of the room, and submitted in utter nakedness to be tapped, and measured and weighed, and to hop and bend and cough at command: all the little indignities which the early volunteers met with laughter, but which were so highly offensive to the more sensitive souls of some of the later conscripts. It was noticeable during the war that not only good food and comfort and safety were monopolised by the men at home but also all scruples of conscience and sensibility to pain. If we are to believe their somewhat voluble testimony, these gentlemen suffered far more from reading of the horrors of war in cosy armchairs, than the rough soldiers who met them at first hand in France and other unrefined localities.
Which ‘later conscripts’ does he mean? Perhaps there were others, but the one writer I can think of who wrote as though his ‘sensitive soul’ was offended by an Army medical was D.H.Lawrence in the ‘Nightmare’ chapter of Kangaroo. In this chapter, Lawrence mines deep reserves of self-pity to describe his treatment during the War, although, as I have suggested before, the actual indignities heaped on him by the authorities were less than they might have been, considering his wife’s connections to the German elite. Lawrence’s pain comes less from what is actually done to him than from his agonised awareness that he is the subject of of a hostile gaze directed at him and his wife. Perhaps there was genuine hostility in the way that villagers and soldiers looked at them; possibly Lawrence, conflicted and confused about the war, was imagining more than was intended, projecting his own insecurities and self-contempt into the gaze of another.
The most agonising gaze for him was that of the doctor sizing up his ‘stalky ignominious nakedness’ and finding it wanting. The most humiliating moment is when he has to bend over so that the ‘puppy’ of a orderly can stand ‘aloof behind him to look into his anus’. But then Lawrence had a thing about bottoms. In Lady Chatterley’s lover, it is Mellors’ invasion of ‘the last and deepest recess of organic shame’ that gives Connie Chatterley her biggest thrill.
Was Brophy thinking of Lawrence when he wrote that paragraph? I’m not sure, but it’s made me wonder what a left-wing ex-soldier like Brophy would make of a novel whose author-spokesman hero can slide from defiance to self-pity to anti-Semitism, all in one paragraph:
[He] was one of those utterly unsatisfactory creatures who just would not. He had no conscientious objections. He knew that men MUST fight, some time in some way or other. He was no Quaker, to believe in perpetual peace. He had been in Germany times enough to know HOW much he detested the German military creatures: mechanical bullies they were. They had once threatened to arrest him as a spy, and had insulted him more than once. Oh, he would never forgive THEM, in his inward soul. But then the industrialism and commercialism of England, with which patriotism and democracy became identified: did not these insult a man and hit him pleasantly across the mouth? How much humiliation had Richard suffered, trying to earn his living! How had they tried, with their beastly industrial self-righteousness, to humiliate him as a separate, single man? They wanted to bring him to heel even more than the German militarist did. And if a man is to be brought to any heel, better a spurred heel than the heel of a Jewish financier. So Richard decided later, when the years let him think things over, and see where he was.