Discussing P. G. Wodehouse’s brother Armine yesterday, I mentioned that he was in the hard-fighting Scots Guards. Stephen Graham, in A Private in the Guards, gives a forthright account of the regiment’s tough-minded ethos:
A good soldier was one who would not take a prisoner. If called on to escort prisoners to the cage, it could always be justifiable to kill them on the way and say they tried to escape.
He tells an anecdote about an officer-poet:
An old-time sergeant goes up to his officer, who, by the bye, was a poet, and wrote some very charming lyrics and had a taste in Art, and salutes: ‘Leave to shoot the prisoners, sir? ‘What do you want to shoot them for?’ asks the poet. ‘To avenge my brother’s death,’ says the sergeant. I suppose the poet tells him to carry on. He pinks the Germans one by one, and some of the fellows cry ‘Bravo!’ and in others the blood runs cold.
There is no reason, of course, to assume that this poet was Armine Wodehouse, but its account of an officer under pressure to give consent to a war crime maybe suggests a way of looking at his poems:
They say we change, we men that come out here.
But do they know how great that change?
And do they know how darkly strange
Are those deep tidal waves that roll
Within the currents of the soul,
Down in the very founts of life,
The poem sets this awareness of change in the immediate context of the sight of a dead body (‘And, O ye gods, those eyes! / Those staring, staring eyes!) but the poet’s complicity in brutality is surely also there when he thinks about the ‘darkly strange’ currents within his soul.
Stephen Graham’s anecdote continues:
In the same battle the sergeant himself perishes, and a sort of poetic justice seems to have overtaken him. But it is the stuff of which he was made that makes us terrible to the enemy.
Wilfrid Ewart was also an officer in the Scots Guards. His novel Way of Revelation (1921) gives an account of a sensitive officer finding it difficult to reconcile his civilian personality with the role of soldier.