Leavis at War

F. R. Leavis as a member of the Friends Ambulance Unit

Jessica Meyer’s talk at Leeds last week was about the Friends Ambulance Unit. She mentioned that, especially later in the War, the main work of the Unit was on the ambulance trains that took the wounded from the war zone to the channel ports.
This reminded me of a striking section in Ian MacKillop’s excellent biography of F. R. Leavis, who joined the FAU in 1915, and worked mostly on Ambulance Train 5, which went from the Somme to Boulogne.
Leavis left school in the summer of 1914 (while there he had refused to join the OTC). He became an undergraduate at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but after a year, with the introduction of conscription becoming increasingly certain, he needed to make a choice. In a letter many years later, he wrote:

I couldn’t be a pacifist (that word came in then); I knew that the Germans mustn’t be allowed to win. But… I worried about the ‘ought’; the problem was insoluble. I joined the Friends Ambulance Unit. Stinking blankets and lice, and always a job to do that was too much for me.

Ambulance Train 5, apparently, was less well-equipped than others which had been specifically designed for the purpose; this one was, in MacKillop’s phrase, ‘a heterogeneous set of carriages roughly designed for medical purposes’. Because the carriages were not uniform, there was no corridor linking them, so the only way of passing along the train when it was in motion was along the roof. Leavis recalled carrying buckets of cocoa (one in each hand) from the kitchen carriage to the wounded:

I used to carry cocoa along the roofs of French trains to men who would have died without it. The trains had overhead wires, and it was very easy to get your head caught. Don’t ever try it – it’s an art.

After demobilisation in 1919, Leavis was reticent about his war service, preferring not to talk about it.
New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) contains his judgments on several war poets. Rupert Brooke gets a squashing:

And Brooke’s ‘complexity’ amounts to little more than an inhibiting adolescent self-consciousness in an ironical disguise.

Blunden (‘significant enough to show up the crowd of Georgian pastoralists’) and Edward Thomas (‘an original poet of rare quality, who has been associated with the Georgians by mischance’) are given their due, and (as those quotations indicate) used to contrast with the bulk of their generation.
Sassoon’s verse ‘made a wholesome impact’, but ‘it hardly calls for much attention here.’
Wilfred Owen ‘was really a remarkable poet, and his verse is technically interesting. His reputation is becoming well established.’ This is praise, but I don’t think Leavis ever wrote criticism that engaged more fully with what Owen was doing. That tribute was reserved for Isaac Rosenberg, perhaps because he was less well-known. Together with another Scrutiny critic, D. W. Harding, Leavis did much to establish Rosenberg’s reputation in the 1930s.
Apparently some students and colleagues attributed Leavis’s later intransigence and prickliness to his war experience. Maybe, but I think he was more complicated than that.

One Comment

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    When Leavis was accused of not respecting Milton properly, he used to point out that he had carried Milton’s poems with him during the war. Leavis and CS Lewis clashed over Milton [and much else] but they had the Western Front in common. Denys Harding’s edition of Rosenberg, done with Gordon Bottomley and reviewed by Leavis, was a pioneering piece of scholarship. http://www.unz.org/Pub/Scrutiny-1937sep-00229

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  1. […] Leavis was fortunate enough to avoid frontline combat by serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit. This site provides a helpful account of his service on an Ambulance Train which shuttled the wounded to […]

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