Before the War, Bartimeus’s stories had mostly been pictures of everyday naval life, tinted with a nostalgia for the service from which his disability had excluded him.
They were collected in his first book, Naval Occasions, which was published in August 1914; after this, his writing would change.
He immediately set his talent to the challenge of writing about the War. What I take to be his first attempts were not very satisfactory, as he went outside his usual range to write a spy story (which includes an ingenious home-made invention for fighting submarines) and a couple stories about men inspired to enlist. One of these is a dreadfully sentimental piece about a sailor who had deserted his warship to be with the woman he loved. Come August 1914 she is dying, and she urges him from her deathbed to take advantage of the King’s Pardon for deserters and re-enlist.
Then he seems to have found his metier, in stories that, like his earlier sketches of naval life, describe a ship’s routine, but put it into a context of wartime dangers.
‘Chummy-Ships’, for example, is about the officers on a ship doing tedious blockade duty who decide to liven things up by inviting the officers of a partner vessel to dinner. There is a great deal of banter and facetious point-scoring between the two crews, but Bartimeus makes explicit the serious subtext underneath the jollity:
War had been their trade in theory from earliest youth. They were all on nodding terms with Death. Indeed, most of the men round the long table had looked him between the eyes already, and the obituary pages in the Navy List had been a reminder, month by month, of others who had looked there too—and blinked, and closed their eyes–shipmates and fleetmates and familiar friends.
War was the Real Thing, that was all. There was nothing about it to obsess men’s minds. You might say it was the manoeuvres of 19– all over again, with the chance of “bumping a mine” thrown in, and also the glorious certainty of ultimately seeing a twelve-inch salvo pitch exactly where the long years of preparation ordained that it should.
The meal finishes in the wild horseplay of a Battle Royal:
“Come on!” shouted the Junior Watchkeeper. “Bite ’em in the stomach!” and flung himself upon the Secretary.
The guests waited for no second invitation [….]A Rugby International and a middle-weight boxer of some pretensions, although hampered by aiguilettes and outnumbered six to one, were not easily disposed of. But they were ultimately overpowered, and carried, puffing with exhaustion and helpless with laughter, over the debris of the bridge-table, gramophone and paper-rack, out through the doorway.
They are about to start playing ship polo (with an orange and spoons, and the players seated on chairs, hopping) when the message comes through that the ship is needed for immediate action:
The First Lieutenant of the visitors flung his boat-cloak over his shoulders. “Well,” he said, “we’ve had a topping evening. S’long, and
thanks very much.”
Their hosts helped the departing ones into their great-coats. “Not ‘t all,” they murmured politely in return. “Sorry to break up a cheery evening. Let’s hope they’ve really come out this time!”
The Indiarubber Man slid on to the music-stool again, put his foot on the soft pedal, lightly touched the familiar chords, and began humming under his breath:
“We don’t want to lose you—-
But we _think_ you ought to go . . .”
There are many ways of saying Moriturus te saluto.
(The Indiarubber man, by the way, is the Physical training specialist.)
This story was first published in Blackwood’s Magazine, and has much in common with Ian Hay’s The First Hundred Thousand, which also appeared there. There is the same light jocular surface, with the same hints of more serious preoccupations.
Other stories give fuller depictions of the navy in action. Bartimeus had obviously talked to a lot of sailors (and may well have observed warships at first hand). Often he writes about engagements in which British lives are lost, but objectives have been obtained; these are written, I think, to reassure readers that the sacrifices of war, however painful, are still worthwhile.
The most interesting pieces are those which are hardly fiction, but give accounts of actual naval engagements. ‘H.M. Destroyers Swift and Broke‘ gives a stirring account of the 1917 battle between these ships and German destroyers.
(This illustration is a 1950s Look and Learn depiction of fighting aboard the Broke.)
The pieces I was most absorbed by were a series of articles about the Q-ships, the British warships that disguised themselves as merchantmen to lure and destroy submarines. The captain had to actually allow his ship to be torpedoed, and to pretend to abandon ship, so that the submarine would come close enough to be effectively attacked. Bartimeus makes very clear the extreme courage involved in such dangerous manoeuvres.
I’ve found a 1917 Manchester Guardian review by Alan Monkhouse of a collection of these stories. Monkhouse describes the book’s limitations:
[T]hey are all heroes and capital fellows, and it is a jolly war, though, mind you, the emotions are on a big scale and the events terribly tremendous [….] It makes good reading for nervous civilians, and if this is an old-fashioned rhetorical way to write about the war, it does convey something about ‘the indefinable Spirit of the Fleet.’
These stories are the ones that the British wanted to read about their Navy, and the ones that the Navy wanted to read about itself. As such it is a very partial view of the War, but no more so than the diametrically opposite view that we have been given recently in The Village. In the T.V. Series, nobody is brave, nobody is jolly. Nobody is elevated by the challenges of war. There is no esprit de corps uniting the soldiers we see, only a culture of bullying.
And that, I suppose, is the story that many people want to be told today.