I’m busy marking the WW1 Literature AS-Level papers again. The set passage this year is from a text I had not come across before, A Woman at War by Maude Onions. She worked as a signaller in France, and the extract describes her sombre mood on 11th November, 1918 after passing on the message that hostilities had ceased.
I always like to know the background of things, so today I called up her book from the Bodleian store-rooms. It is a short book in boards, published in 1929 by the C. W. Daniel Company (though a note says that it had been privately published a year earlier). Daniel was a very independent publisher, specialising in pacifist/Tolstoyan literature and booklets about alternative medicine. He proudly labelled himself a ‘Crank’. During the War itself Daniel had twice been prosecuted, once for his pacifist pamphlet ‘A Knock-Out Blow‘, and once for the novel ‘Despised and Rejected‘ (the latter being charged more for its sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality than for its pacifist politics).
There is a foreword by Canon C. E. Raven of Liverpool Cathedral.
In 1917 Onions (pronounced oh-NYE-ons, I expect) went to France as a signaller. Her name on the title page appears as
“807”, Unit 3, W.A.A.C, L.Signals, B.E.F., France
She clearly joined up out of Christian conviction, but became increasingly uneasy at the disparity between the ideals of the War and the reality of its execution. Many of the book’s short sections explore this unease, and present the experience of war as paradoxical. In an interesting section on ‘Army Religion’, she expresses her discomfort with the moral code of the soldiers, for whom stealing was routine.
When a large hospital in Boulogne was finally dismantled, there were some two thousand pillow cases short.
She notes that church services were crammed on a Sunday, but she never hears a sermon on the subject of the ‘Christian War’.
She asks a Padre ‘Why don’t you preach the justice of our cause, and the righteousness of this war?’
There was a note of defiant challenge in my tone as I put the question. He avoided my gaze, and after a moment’s silence replied, ‘Do you think I am in a position to tell my men that it is their duty to fight, on 1s 6d a day, while mine is to stay at the base and tell them so, on a Padre’s pay of a hundred a year? Tell me, do you think I am in a position to try and justify the war…?’
‘The object of my sermons,’ he says, ‘is to try to help men to forget.’
Maude Onions presents herself as always conflicted. In the chapter ‘Conchies’ she first finds herself defending conscientious objectors and then, when challenged about why she herself is in France, begins defending the War.
The most effective passages deal with the German advances of 1918, when she sees:
the realities of war, in the fortitude of the man who had been maimed for life, blinded, some of them so disfigured that they died by their own hands afterwards – in the endless stream of wounded which came down day after day, night after night, with such regular ceaseless monotony that the eyes ached at the sight…
She writes about ‘the merry-go-round’ – the ‘battered and mangled’ sent home, ‘to be replaced by men in the fulness and vigour of strength, to be replaced in their turn by more; and so the ghastly game went on.
She writes about the ‘boys of twenty’ who were ‘rushed out’ at this stage of the war, to take command, with often disastrous results.
I learnt that the inexperience of one of these boys was the means of so much waste of life that he was bound, gagged, and thrown into a corner of the trench, while an old soldier took command.
A true story or a barrack-room legend?
The passage set in the exam is the short chapter ‘The First Silence’, which describes the lack of celebration on November 11th. The mood is elegiac and thoughtful, and many candidates have written well about how the awful cost of the four preceding years has made jubilation impossible.
I wonder, though, whether there was not another reason for the flatness of the occasion.
By that time it was hardly unexpected. Cessation of hostilities had been foreseen for several days, and so nobody was surprised into excitement.
There is a very different section, about the mood a month or so before, as the spectacular (though costly) British victories of the last hundred days sent the Germans retreating:
Bit by bit the old ground that had been sacrificed at such cost was retaken – the demoralisation of the German Army set in as rapidly as their victories in 1914.
They were in wholesale retreat. ‘We’re winning! Winning along the line!’
‘Home for Christmas!’
Few of us will forget the thrill of victory – the sight of boys marching down to the leave boat, singing ‘Take me back to dear old Blighty,’ shouting out as they went that they wouldn’t want their return ticket.
Some of them kept their word, and were arrested for desertion afterwards.
Ten years after the War, when she writes her book, Maude Onions is still troubled by her memories, and urgently wants to prevent another conflict – yet she still values the spirit of 1914:
The prevention of the next war lies with those to whom the ideals of 1914 were real, however cynically we may sometimes be inclined to think of them. It is for us to help youth to those ideals, which in the League of Nations have begun to take definite shape again.
In 1914, the need to take action against a rogue state took Britain into war. She hopes that the League of Nations will take over the function of world policeman, and the book is written as propaganda towards that end.
When I began reading I wasn’t sure that I was going to like this very solemn and churchy woman. By the end of the book I respected the honesty with which she confronted difficult issues, and admitted that there were no easy answers.