Occasionally I come across a sentence that gets things so wrong that I just have to write about it. According to Claire Tylee, writing in 1990 :
During the First World War men fighting in the trenches had little opportunity to compose poetry, let alone write novels, and few civilian writers cut through the political smokescreen on their behalf.
Taking the first assertion first:
The unstated assumption behind this seems to be that soldiers in France spent all their time in the trenches. They didn’t. Many spent a high proportion of their time behind the lines, and rarely saw action. Keeping troops from getting bored could be a problem for officers, who organised sporting contests and concerts to keep up morale. There is plenty of evidence that soldiers did a lot of reading while in France, and if there is time to read there is time to write. Officers were likely to have even more leisure time than enlisted men; some even brought their hounds out to France, so that they could go fox-hunting.
Ian Hay and Patrick MacGill were two soldiers whose lightly-fictionalised accounts of their time first training and then fighting were best-sellers in the early years of the War. Hay’s work has not worn too well, but MacGill’s still gives one of the most vivid pictures of Army life from the point of view of the private soldier. These two were by no means alone. The autobiographies of W.A.Darlington (who wrote and published the first version of his comic War fantasy Alf’s Button while serving in France) and A.M.Burrage (who seems to have kept on producing magazine stories throughout his war career) indicate that the main problem for soldier writers was the censorship. Not that anyone wanted to ban or cut their work – the difficulty was finding an officer willing to read through five thousand words at the end of a long day. Burrage’s solution was to acquire by devious means a supply of the green envelopes designed for highly personal mail that would be subject to censorship at the base rather than by local officers. Using this system meant that the stories got through.
Claire Tylee does not seem to know about this; neither has she considered the soldiers like Gilbert Frankau who fought, came back injured, and then fictionalised the experience, writing realistically about battle and the experience of shell-shock..
Then there is the second assertion:
few civilian writers cut through the political smokescreen on their behalf.
The assumptions behind this are
First – that cunning politicians hid the War’s true nature from the populace. This hugely overstates the power of the state and its propaganda resources.
Second – that writers were too weak or dishonest to think seriously about the War.
Claire Tylee names some of the guilty men:
Galsworthy, Bennett and Conan Doyle simply scribbled puff for the government’s case.
How just is this? All three men sincerely supported the War effort, and all three produced work for Wellington House, as propaganda to make the British case abroad. Doyle by this time was past his best, and his wartime writing does not compare well with what he had done before (Compare ‘His Last Bow’ with the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories.) I have not looked at his part-work History of the War; it sounds more dogged than inspired. Galsworthy, I think, went in for some self-censorship during the War. His ambiguous fable Defeat was written in 1916, but not published in Britain, I think, until after the War. During the last year of the War, however, he was writing Saint’s Progress, which gives a devastating picture of the War’s effect on family life, and of the weakness of organised religion in dealing with the War’s effects.
As for Bennett, his support for the War was in part impelled by his long-term Francophilia, but he was by no means mindless in his support. Look at his early story ‘The White Feather’, or the analysis of wartime London in The Pretty Lady. I’d choose Bennett as an example of a writer who kept his integrity through the whole business.
Tylee obviously wants writers who would come out and say: ‘The War is wrong,’ like Siegfried Sassoon did. Well, there were dissidents, from Bertrand Russell to Herbert Tremayne, but they were remarkably few, and limited mostly to those who took an absolutist pacifist position. I think it is more interesting to ask why most writers did not do so, and to avoid the easy answer that they were fooled or suborned by the state. The fact is that most writers, like most citizens, believed the War to be just, even while they knew its effects to be terrible. And they realised that if Lansdowne’s plan for a negotiated peace had worked in 1917, Germany would effectively have won the War – and that that would have mattered.
The book in which Claire Tylee wrote this sentence (The Great War and Women’s Consciousness) was written in 1990. Maybe she has changed her views on these matters since then; if so, I apologise to her for dragging her words up out of the past – but there is plenty of evidence that people still believe this sort of thing.