By 1918 it must have been very difficult for writers of fiction to come up with stories about soldiers that evaded the most clunking clichés of wartime writing.
Edgar Wallace did his best in Tam o’the Scouts (later published as Tam o’ the Scoots, and even later as just Tam.).
For a start he made his hero an airman, because that arm of the service convincingly gave scope for individual enterprise and daring, at a time when sophisticated readers must have realised that while the operations of a mass army in trench warfare might require courage from each individual, they rarely gave scope for the kind of individual action that war stories usually thrive on.
Secondly, Wallace avoided making his hero an idealistic volunteer:
Tam came from the Clyde. He was not a ship-builder, but was the assistant of a man who ran a garage and did small repairs. Nor was he, in the accepted sense of the word, a patriot, because he did not enlist at the beginning of the war. His boss suggested he should, but Tam apparently held other views, went into a shipyard and was “badged and reserved.”
They combed him out of that, and he went to another factory, making a false statement to secure the substitution of the badge he had lost. He was unmarried and had none dependent on him, and his landlord, who had two sons fighting, suggested to Tam that though he’d hate to lose a good lodger, he didn’t think the country ought to lose a good soldier.
Tam changed his lodgings.
He moved to Glasgow and was insulted by a fellow workman with the name of coward. Tam hammered his fellow workman insensible and was fired forthwith from his job.
Every subterfuge, every trick, every evasion and excuse he could invent to avoid service in the army, he invented. He simply did not want to be a soldier.
Then one day he is sent on a job to an aerodrome workshop.
He was a clever mechanic and he had mastered the intricacies of the engine which he was to repair, in less than a day.
He went back to his work very thoughtfully, and the next Sunday he bicycled to the aerodrome in his best clothes and renewed his acquaintance with the mechanics.
Within a week, he was wearing the double-breasted tunic of the Higher Life.
So Wallace has found a way of revitalising one of the commonest tropes of wartime writing – the non-soldier who discovers his true (soldierly) nature in the War. Tam may be a draft dodger, but he has an affinity with aeroplanes that makes him the perfect aerial warrior.
Tam is presented as the purest kind of soldier. Others might have used military success as an opportunity for social mobility, but when Tam is offered a commission, he refuses:
“Thank ye, sir-r,” he said to the commandant, “but ye ken weel A’m no gentry. M’ fairther was no believer in education, an’ whilst ither laddies were livin’ on meal at the University A’ was airning ma’ salt at the Govan Iron Wairks. A’m no’ a society mon ye ken—A’d be usin’ the wrong knife to eat wi’ an’ that would bring the coorp into disrepute.”
Wallace’s third literary tactic is a clever one. He knows that most readers would recognise that the war had made most of the clichés of conventional action seem outdated, and yet he also knew that those heroic clichés were what those readers really responded to. His solution is to have Tam tell his own stories of combat in a language he has picked up from the penny bloods:
From the time he could read, he had absorbed every boy’s book that he could buy or borrow. He told a friend of mine that when he enlisted he handed to the care of an acquaintance over six hundred paper-covered volumes which surveyed the world of adventure, from the Nevada of Deadwood Dick to the Australia of Jack Harkaway. He knew the stories by heart, their phraseology and their construction, and was wont at times, half in earnest, half in dour fun (at his own expense), to satirize every-day adventures in the romantic language of his favourite authors.
When he describes his exploits, it is in the third person, and in a style where the clichés of the bloods are enriched by being expressed in broad Scots.
“It was an engrossin’ an’ thrillin’ fight,” explained Tam; “the bluid was coorsin’ in ma veins, ma hairt was palpitatin’ wi’ suppressed emotion. Roond an’ roond ain another the dauntless airmen caircled, the noo above, the noo below the ither. Wi’ supairb resolution Tam o’ the Scoots nose-dived for the wee feller’s tail, loosin’ a drum at the puir body as he endeavoured to escape the lichtenin’ swoop o’ the intrepid Scotsman. Wi’ matchless skeel, Tam o’ the Scoots banked over an’ brocht the gallant miscreant to terra firma—puir laddie! If he’d kept ben the hoose he’d no’ be lyin’ deid the nicht. God rest him!”
Wallace allows his readers leeway. Should they laugh at Tam for his self-dramatisation, or thrill to his using old-fashioned language in the good old-fashioned way? It’s their choice, but I think Wallace is hoping that they will do both at the same time.
It’s a clever solution to the problem of producing action fiction so late in the War.