In London last week for Dr Scroggy’s War (of which more later) I popped into a couple of exhibitions.
There are some good things at the pleasant little Enduring War exhibition at the British Library, but what struck me most there was a cartoon in The Aussie, a magazine for Australian soldiers.
It shows a soldier standing before the M.O.
M.O.: In civilian life would you have come to me with a trivial complaint like this?
Soldier: No, I’d have sent for you.
Those two lines summarise a lot about the experience of enlistment for many men. In civilian life, the doctor was a superior sort of tradesman, eager for your custom, whom you patronised. In the Army he is a figure of power, with authority over your body, and capable of humiliating you.
I noticed this especially because I’ve been reading The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, a document edited by Paul Fussell from the writing of Mr Hale, an unwilling recruit, quite unsuited to the military life.
Hale was a cultured man, a university graduate and a bachelor, who lived a peaceful and inoffensive life until the age of 41; he had a small distinction as a minor composer, making arrangements of folk-song melodies, as was the fashion of the time. As a soldier he was useless – he couldn’t manage physical work and clerical duties confused him. He was classified C2, and the only role the Army could find for him was that of officer’s servant, or batman, and he was pretty inept at that. He was bullied by his immediate superiors, and was generally a laughing-stock at the RFC base where he worked.
After the war he wrote a very long (over 164,000 words) account of his wartime experiences, A Note on the War. Publishers were not interested, but his heirs presented it to the Imperial War Museum. Sixty-odd years later, Paul Fussell edited it down to readable proportions. It is a sad story.
A book that this reminded me of was Combed Out by Frederick Vogt, another account by an unwilling conscript of humiliations and bullying. Both were fastidious men, very aware of their social degradation, being placed among the sort of men that they usually despised. Hale complains about the indecent language:
One got so very wearied of everything being described as f-cking this and f-cking that , the very word, with its original indecent meaning, becoming at length a mere stupid and meaningless vulgarity.
Vogt is even more explicitly disgusted, especially at mealtimes:
The rowdy conversation, the foul language, and the smacking of lips and the loud noise of guzzling added to the horror of the meal.
Some wartime novels and stories, such as William J. Locke’s The Rough Road, turn the career of an unsoldierly man into a moral fable. Locke’s Marmaduke is an effete aesthete who undergoes humiliation in the ranks but comes out at the other end of the experience a stronger and a better man. The War (that agent of wonderful transformations in so many wartime fictions) has turned a sissy into a man. That was not how the experience seemed to Hale and Vogt. Both were left embittered by the War, and both tried to exorcise the experience by writing. They did not find many people interested or impressed by their accounts.
There must have been many more such men who endured such agonies when forced into a military life that was alien to their nature. Most remained silent about it. I doubt if they went with much enthusiasm to regimental reunions. I wonder how often they wore their medals. There are so many ways to be a victim of war.