Hugh Kingsmill’s memories

Precise recall of factual details has long been considered an important criterion of the worth of war writing. In her biography of Sassoon, Jean Moorcroft Wilson describes how:

All Quiet on the Western Front irritated him not just because of its sensationalism, but also because it gave ‘no place names’, left ‘everything vague’ […] He had been reading Remarque’s book while writing Infantry Officer in 1929 and it undoubtedly strengthened his determination to be factually precise.

Most memoirists work hard at giving the impression of total recall, so it’s rather refreshing to read Hugh Kingsmill’s Behind Both Lines (1930), which contains quite a few sentences like:

Tunnelling, I believe, though where or why I forget, was the task finally discovered for our company…

Writing, like many other memoirists,  a decade after the war, Kingsmill makes use of the letters sent home by another officer, and frankly acknowledges that he does not remember several of the incidents described.  The selective nature of memory is also the theme of this anecdote from his first days in France:

Another portent was a meeting with another officer, Oliver by name, whom I had known at Harrow. He was in the cricket eleven, and two or three years my senior, and when I say I knew him at Harrow, I mean that he used to kick me whenever he saw me. The warmth with which he now greeted me was flattering; he remembered me,it appeared, as a sporting kid, whom it was rather a pleasure than a duty to kick. Over a dinner in the Terminus buffet, he recalled, with a touch of sentiment, how he had once thrown me to earth and how philosophically I had received a hundred lines from my form-master for my filthy appearance.

Kingsmill is an excellent writer (If you want to give yourself a treat, read his biography of Frank Harris.) but most of his books have slipped into oblivion. I had never heard of his war memoir until I came across a small reference in an essay by Michael Holroyd. Behind Both Lines is well worth reading. The first few chapters describe the experience of a young subaltern in France. Like A.P. Herbert and Douglas Jerrold, he was in the Naval Division, arriving just after the execution of Dyett, ‘accused of nothing more serious than wandering about under shell fire in a bad state of nerves, instead of taking some working-party to a point indicated by another subaltern’.  The response of Kingsmill and a friend was ‘If they’re going to treat us like this, I don’t know that it wouldn’t be better to end it all, here and now.’
Very soon, however, in the course of a chaotic action, Kingsmill is taken prisoner, and the bulk of his book is taken up with memories of his time in German prisons. The description of this experience is fresh, unexpected, and generally positive. He was incarcerated with two other notable authors: Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s brother, and notorious for The Loom of Youth) and J. Milton Hayes, author of my candidate for best poem of 1911:

The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God

THERE’S a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There’s a little marble cross below the town;
There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

He was known as “Mad Carew” by the subs at Khatmandu,
He was hotter than they felt inclined to tell;
But for all his foolish pranks, he was worshipped in the ranks,
And the Colonel’s daughter smiled on him as well.

He had loved her all along, with a passion of the strong,
The fact that she loved him was plain to all.
She was nearly twenty-one and arrangements had begun
To celebrate her birthday with a ball.

He wrote to ask what present she would like from Mad Carew;
They met next day as he dismissed a squad;
And jestingly she told him then that nothing else would do
But the green eye of the little Yellow God.

On the night before the dance, Mad Carew seemed in a trance,
And they chaffed him as they puffed at their cigars:
But for once he failed to smile, and he sat alone awhile,
Then went out into the night beneath the stars.

He returned before the dawn, with his shirt and tunic torn,
And a gash across his temple dripping red;
He was patched up right away, and he slept through all the day,
And the Colonel’s daughter watched beside his bed.

He woke at last and asked if they could send his tunic through;
She brought it, and he thanked her with a nod;
He bade her search the pocket saying “That’s from Mad Carew,”
And she found the little green eye of the god.

She upbraided poor Carew in the way that women do,
Though both her eyes were strangely hot and wet;
But she wouldn’t take the stone and Mad Carew was left alone
With the jewel that he’d chanced his life to get.

When the ball was at its height, on that still and tropic night,
She thought of him and hurried to his room;
As she crossed the barrack square she could hear the dreamy air
Of a waltz tune softly stealing thro’ the gloom.

His door was open wide, with silver moonlight shining through;
The place was wet and slipp’ry where she trod;
An ugly knife lay buried in the heart of Mad Carew,
‘Twas the “Vengeance of the Little Yellow God.”

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There’s a little marble cross below the town;
There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.


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