John Brophy was only fourteen when he enlisted in 1914, but maybe he thought readers of his novel The Bitter End (1928) might find that a bit hard to believe, so he makes his hero, Donald, sixteen.
The book plots his hero’s increasing disillusion with war, from the extreme naivety of his enlistment to the complete erosion of enthusiasm. The very end of the book has him asking a friend:
‘What made you join the Army?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t remember.’
‘Neither can I!’
The book’s account of the war is from a position of hindsight, and the war’s later stages overshadow its beginning. For example, when he describes his platoon’s rather exhilarating experience of being made to ‘double’ during training:
They took these spells of trotting laughingly, not dreaming then of days when they would gasp and pull up their legs in frantic earnest from the avaricious mud; or what many of them loathed more, from the leaden slipping sand of the ‘Bull-Ring’ at Etaples.
The disenchanted politics of the book link it with the ones that were published in the next few years, in the wake of All Quiet, but as a novel it is very different from most of those. Although it is about a young man’s demoralising progress through the war, there is surprisingly little combat in the book. In fact, the narrative jumps over the first year of Donald’s combat experience, taking him in a chapter break from the end of training to his recovery from a ‘Blighty’ wound, with scant reference to what came between. Later, there is some description of the fighting as Passchendaele, but that is there mostly as the occasion for an ironic moral fable. Donald saves Ockenshaw, a hardened soldier, from drowning; later the man he saved debauches an innocent young French girl that Donald cares for. Later still, Ockenshaw is lying dead on the battlefield.
The book’s main interest is not in combat, but in the spiritual and emotional development of its hero. Like most novels of the twenties, The Bitter End still seems to hold to the aesthetic articulated by a Westminster Gazette critic in 1916, who defined the function of war novels thus:
They do not give realistic and yet artful description of actual battle — that is journalism; and when it is glazed with a surface of fiction it is very hard to read. The real war novel tells us how non-combatants behave under this particular strain, and shows us the humour, the goodness, the heroism and the treachery of daily life.
The Bitter End is about soldiers, but almost entirely about soldiers when they are non-combatants. Donald’s main struggles are not against the Germans, or against the Army, but within himself, as he struggles to understand sexuality. Placed with rough, tough experienced men when he is only sixteen, he is appalled by their crude language and behaviour. He has even more of a problem with female sexuality. He wants to put women on an idealising pedestal; when they give even a hint of sexual knowledge or desire, he is puritanically appalled.
The novel’s politics and the hero’s horror at his loss of innocence are connected by this comment on the civilisation for which men were fighting:
The Army was the crudest and most relentless engine of that civilisation, now turned , by the irony of man’s conflicting wills, upon a hundred thousand fiery young idealists. They might have smashed the military engine, had not the peril of war and invasion made it the only defence of their idealism.
As a novel it is very readable, though finally incoherent. Brophy is an important writer, though. His Songs and Slang of the British Soldier (with Eric Partridge, 1930) is one of the most influential works of the period, if only because it provided the basis for Oh What a Lovely War, a play which has formed so many people’s opinion of 1914-18.
I can’t help wondering whether the puritanism of Donald, Brophy’s hero in The Bitter End, hasn’t left residual traces in the collection of songs. Some songs are censored. ‘I Don’t want to be a Soldier’ is printed:
I’d rather stay in England,
In merry, merry England,
And ——— my bleeding life away.
Others surely never made it into the anthology at all. I think of General von Kluck, described by A.G. Macdonnell as ‘the subject of so many admirable rhymes’. The General doesn’t appear in Brophy and Partridge’s collection.
The collection was made in 1929-30, and its stoical and the mildly subversive tone fits well with Brophy’s politics, and with what men preferred to remember a decade after the War. Occasionally one finds hints of other kinds of song, but this is the sort of area in which research is difficult.