‘Combed Out’ by ‘F.A.V.’

Many people still seem to believe in the ten-year myth – the idea that books ruthlessly analysing war experience could not be written until ten years after the event. Herbert Read expressed it in a 1930 review of All Quiet:

All who had been engaged in the war, all who had lived through the war years, had for more than a decade refused to consider their experience. The mind has a faculty for dismissing the débris of its emotional conflicts until it feels strong enough to deal with them. The war, for most people, was such a conflict, and they never got “straight” on it. Now they feel ready for the emotional reckoning and All Quiet was the touch that released this particular mental spring.

Elaine Showalter made this interpretation even more Freudian, claiming 1920s were “a ‘latency period’ in which male war experience was forgotten.”
In fact there were War books written and published throughout the twenties, and proof that disillusioned ‘realistic’ writing did not begin in 1929 is not hard to come by.
For instance, there is the memoir of a conscript, Combed Out, published by ‘F. A. V.’ (Fritz August Vogt) in 1920. This is an account of training and war that is in striking contrast to the positive wartime accounts by the likes of Ian Hay and Patrick MacGill.
During the War, descriptions of the Army had almost always followed  Donald Hankey’s endorsement of the “great experiment in democracy” that brought men of all classes together, united in a common purpose. Vogt, however,  heaps scorn on someone using the phrase “our democratic army”, and describes with disgust the experience of eating with his fellow-recruits:

The rowdy conversation, the foul language, and the smacking of lips and the loud noise of guzzling added to the horror of the meal.

His time in the Army is described as “seventeen months of exile and slavery” mostly engaged in tedious fatigues, though with a period attached to a Casualty Clearing Station, whose horrors are described graphically.  He presents the Army as an institution that brings out the worst in people. A Sergeant-Major, for example:

was in reality quite a kind-hearted man, but he was bullied by his superiors just as we were bullied by ours. He was bullied into being a bully. And his superiors were bullied by their superiors. The army is ruled by fear – and it is this constant fear that brutalizes men not naturally brutal.

This echoes the judgement of Stephen Graham in A Private in the Guards (1919) that: “men who were not in themselves brutal cultivated brutality to get the army tone.” The soldiers described by Vogt include men who rob the dead and a “small, wiry, spiteful looking Cockney” who murders a prisoner he suspects of sarcasm.  The whole book is saturated with with distaste and disappointment.
Combed Out was published by the Swarthmore Press, which seems to have specialised in pacifist and Quaker books. I don’t know what impact its publication had in 1920. The TLS did not review it. It was republished in 1929, when the success of All Quiet and Journey’s End had made publishers  reassess the market for literature revealing war’s ugliness, but it does not seem to have made much impression then.
It’s a book worth noting, though. There are few enough memoirs by private soldiers, and even fewer by unwilling conscripts describing the drudgery of life out of the front line. I’ve tried to discover more about Vogt, but without success.

10 Comments

  1. The Shadow
    Posted May 27, 2009 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    His horror at communal eating does rather suggest someone who would not find hanging out with those from a lower class much fun.

    I can’t help thinking of Ernest Thesinger’s description of his experiences in the trenches…

    ‘Oh Darling, the noise…..and the people!’

  2. Posted May 28, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I don’t think it was just snobbish fastidiousness that made the social mixing of the Army a shock to many. The poet Isaac Rosenberg was a working-class East-Ender, whose small stature meant that he was put into a “Bantam” regiment, where the undersized were collected together. “Falstaff’s scarecrows were nothing to these,” he wrote to Edward Marsh. “Three out of every 4 have been scavengers the fourth is a ticket of leave.” Not only did he resent having “to eat out of a basin together with some horribly smelling scavenger who spits and sneezes into it,” but added, “Besides my being a Jew makes it bad among these wretches.”
    There is similar testimony from James Lansdale Hodson in Grey Dawn – Red Night (1929).

  3. The Shadow
    Posted May 28, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I’ve not really researched the subject in the way that you have, but the WWI stuff that I’ve read does tend to fall in either ‘we were a very happy bunch’ or else ‘it was living hell and they were all awful.’ I wonder what the truth was for most people.

  4. Posted May 29, 2009 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I certainly don’t believe there was any concious decision on anyone’s part not to write about the war for 10 years, none the less their was very little in the way of war memoirs published between 1919 & 1928. The graph from my website, http://www.greatwardustjackets.co.uk/page35.html
    whilst somewhat selective does seem to bear this out.

    • Ian Hopper
      Posted June 25, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      The graph is certainly interesting, but I can’t figure why the figures are so dramatically depressed between 1919 and 1928. As far as I can tell those were leaner years for Great War literature, but Cyril Falls admittedly incomplete survey has 39 novels and memoirs (in English) listed for 1920, which is close to double the number on the graph from the link. In fact, he has more listed for each year throughout the twenties, despite his smaller sample size. According to the books that he reviews, 1923-26 were the truly lean years with between seven and eleven books each; each other year between 1917 and 1930 had at least 16 memoirs or novels.

  5. Posted June 25, 2009 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Ian –
    The supply of war books certainly began reviving after about 1926, including some good ones, like Plowman’s and Gristwood’s, but these were still relatively few, and not big enough sellers to encourage most publishers to try more. It was the success of All Quiet and Journey’s End in late 28, early 29 that made publishers eager to find new war books that might cash in on the trend.
    It still remained something of an elite trend, though, at the top end of publishing. I don’t think there was much impact on the fiction magazines, or on popular genres (with the exception of Biggles, who appeared in 1928, and then went from strength to strength).

  6. Posted July 6, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    The complete text of ‘Combed Out’ can be found in the Project Gutenberg files, at:
    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16355/16355-8.txt

  7. Roger
    Posted July 6, 2010 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    A name like Fritz August Vogt probably wouldn’t have helped its bearer any more than Rosenberg’s jewishness. It was always alleged- how truly I don’t know- that R.A.M.C. stood for Rob All My Comrades, because they were the ones with the opportunity rather than being more depraved than other soldiers.

  8. frog2222
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F.A._Voigt

    Highly regarded reporter for the Guardian .


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