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.