I’ll be giving a talk on ‘Sapper’ in a couple of months’ time, so have been looking at some of his minor works. One that I’d not previously known about is this pseudonymous book, published in 1916:
The book collects a short series of pseudonymous articles written by H. C. McNeile for the Times. (Was his ‘Sapper’ pseudonym too strongly associated with sensational fiction for a dignified newspaper like the Times?) It presents some forthright views about the qualities that an officer should possess, and the lack of these qualities in some of the new Army officers, who, coming from non-military backgrounds, have not internalised the values customarily instilled into young regular officers.
In most of the chapters a young subaltern is given a talking-to by one of his seniors. In the first, a raw young pre-war officer is told that he ought to hunt, rather than spending his time and money on girls and drinks.
‘This regiment hunts: we always have hunted, we always shall hunt.’ he is told, and:
‘When you can ride hard without turning your head, there’s plenty of time to think of messing about with girls.’
Later, we are told that the subaltern does as he is told.
He buys a horse, and by its help he develops an eye for the country to a certain extent – for that faculty is born not made; he develops a capability for riding straight and not funking; he is taught chivalry and field manners. And more important than any of these – valuable military qualities though they be – he has learned the lesson of sinking self for regiment.
Another sub is told in no uncertain terms by his adjutant that if it is a choice between going away to play first class cricket against the MCC or staying to play with his own men in a match against D Company, there is no choice. What would his men say if playing away and returning covered in glory meant that they lost their own match? He stays to play, and despite being knocked on the head twice by D Company’s erratic bowling, and being given out to a dubious lbw, his team win. The corporal asks him if he’d care to give the men a bit of cricket coaching, and the bond with his company is strengthened:
These men are his, to make or mar. The actual cricket is nothing except as a means to an end. But his is the job of turning them into fellows with the right ideas; and cricket is one of many good mediums. He realizes his responsibility.
The chapter on discipline develops this. He imagines someone who believes that discipline is produced when you ‘cow delinquents into a state of tear-stained acquiescence.’ :
[T]hat’s not discipline; that’s fear – a very different thing. You, my friend, are following all the dictates of Prussian militarism.
True discipline comes when each man defines himself as part of the regiment, and therefore acts for the good of the regiment ‘not through fear of being found out – but because it’s the thing to do.’
This contrast between true and false discipline is at the ethical heart of the Bulldog Drummond novels that ‘Sapper’ wrote after the War. Drummond’s team are tested friends with a total loyalty to Drummond and to each other. They stick together, no matter what. The gangs of his master-criminal associates, by contrast, are held together by fear and greed. The members betray and cheat one another, and the leader imposes his will by threats and even murder. Drummond always wins.
The New Army officers need to learn this type of discipline, and even more, they need to understand the unspoken social rules of the officers’ mess. He imagines a Lieutenant Jones who is called into the Captain’s office for a dressing-down. He receives it, and is left under no illusion about what will happen if he does not improve. Later, the same Captain amicably invites him to join a foursome of golf, because the official and unofficial sides of Army life are separate. ‘Between the two there is a great gulf fixed.’ To an officer, there is ‘nothing incongruous in taking orders from a man one minute and standing him a cocktail the next.’ The mess is a place of nicknames and equality, and official life is separate.
This, according to ‘Sapper’, is what some New Army men fail to understand.
To the new officer the mess is not, as a matter of course, the happy club of a set of men of similar tastes, bound together by a common link – the regiment. For him it is, in many cases, the gathering together of a number of civilians, who, finding themselves in novel surroundings, instinctively retreat into the air of defensive neutrality which is the hall-mark of our nation. In addition, they bring with them civilian habits, which stand aghast at the thought of nicknames.
At the breakfast-table they politely request Mr. Brown to pass the marmalade, standing on a formal dignity that gets in the way of communal spirit.
They cannot – a large number of them – dissociate their two lives. They are official at all times.
‘Sapper’ complains that the new men cannot adjust to the culture of the Army, but this culture is an odd thing, separate from that of the nation as a whole. ‘Sapper’, of course, has internalised the Army way of life, so that it seems natural to him, and the more usual manners of Britain unnatural. He does not consider the uncertainty that a newcomer must feel in coming into this closed community with its own often arcade rules. An uncertainty that must have been doubled in anyone who did not come from the social background of the average Army officer. The culture he describes is one that is feasible for an elite separated from the rest of the country, as the pre-War Army generally was, but not for a mass citizen army which needs to recruit all types and temperaments, and does not have time to induct them individually into the social niceties.
The version of Army life described by ‘Sapper’ has much in common with Kipling’s. He too is fascinated by the military subculture as a thing apart, and the Mess as a place with its own rules. In stories like ‘The Honours of War’ he shows an outsider being taught the unspoken rules that govern the place.
The most crucial message of these articles, that the regiment is bigger than the individual (as in Kipling’s ‘The game is more than the player of the game, And the ship is more than the crew!’) is also found in the early fiction of ‘Sapper’ the war stories that came like a blast of realism in the first years of the War. One of the most striking is ‘The Coward’, one of the tales in The Lieutenant and Others (1916), a story about a man unlucky in his temperament. Some men seem impervious to fear; most of us are not, but James Dawlish was particulary susceptible:
With him fear seemed to be cumulative. Each time he came under fire, his terror of it increased. With most of us, who lay no claim to be without fear, sooner or later a merciful callousness settles down [….] But to James Dawlish that factor was denied. Fate had decreed that the brain of James Dawlish should be so fashioned that no immunity from death in the past should detract one iota from the hideous terror of death in the present.
When the company is about to advance (and ‘Sapper’ hints that the officer is inexperienced) Dawlish is overcome by terror, and runs away. He goes in search of a French girl who had been friendly to him earlier. (and here ‘Sapper’ risks the wrath of feminists by mentioning ‘the extraordinary paucity of girls whom one may look at without smoked glasses in this delectable country’.) When he finds her she is being equally friendly to a military policeman, and the game is up for James Dawlish.
The A. P.M. investigated the case, and it stood revealed in its hideous bareness. There was not a single redeeming feature. It was no case of a man’s nerve temporarily breaking under some fearful strain : where now, in the wisdom of those in high places, a man may work off his slur, by returning and trying again. It was just a simple case of cowardice and desertion in the presence of the enemy, and for it there was no excuse. That James Dawlish was made that way may have been his misfortune, but if that were taken as an excuse a good many men might find themselves sitting quietly in villages with unpronounceable names, while their pals lost their lives further east.
The officers of the court-martial find their job painful, but have to do what is best for the regiment:
” What is your opinion ? ” asked the Major.
The subaltern drummed on the table with his fingers, and stared in front of him. Death, or such less penalty. The words seemed stamped on the wall. For a space he was silent ; then he swallowed twice and spoke.
The Major glanced at the Captain, and the Captain, who was gazing fixedly out of the window, turned slowly round, and nodded. ” I agree,” he remarked incisively.
The Major looked at the papers in front of him, and mechanically produced his cigarette case. Then he wrote, and his hand shook a little.
And though the Major and the Captain and the subaltern had one and all looked on death many times unmoved, yet that night they were strangely silent.
This is one of the very first ‘shot-at-dawn’ narratives, and its moral is a tough one. It would have been more comfortable for the officers of the court-martial to display mercy, but the good of the regiment demanded otherwise.
The story ends, though, with an ironic coda. Dawlish’s brother works in a department store, and has just been promoted from gloves to stockings.
He used to look down on his brother James. Soldiering is not a genteel occupation compared to selling stockings. I suppose he’ll do so still more if he ever learns the truth. Civilians, ‘Sapper’ is saying, will fail to understand the soldier and the pressure he is under. And even a failed soldier, he is implying, is of more worth than a civilian.
No subject shows more bitterly the gap between the world-view of the old Army and that of democratic modernity than that of the War’s executions for cowardice. ‘The Coward’ shows which side of the argument ‘Sapper’ was on, and ‘The Making of an Officer’ helps to explain why.