The Short Story and the First World War by Ann-Marie Einhaus is worth reading for many reasons, but I’m especially grateful to it for pointing me towards some stories I didn’t know, and especially ‘Before the War’ by Arthur Calder-Marshall. I’ve just got hold of English Story (1st series), where it was published in 1942. Did it ever appear elsewhere?
This story is set in 1939. Harry, the narrator, has a day’s leave from camp, and takes his girl, Esther, to buy an engagement ring, and to try and persuade her that they should get married soon, rather than sensibly waiting until they could afford it. He also takes her to Pargeter Hall, the hospital where his father has been bed-ridden since he was grievously wounded over twenty years ago. (‘Mum says it would have been better if they killed him outright.’)
A Princess is making an official visit that day, giving a routine performance of official interest in the work of the hospital:
Personally, I thought she was fed up and took no pains not to show it, the way she walked bobbing her head every fourth step like a robot and a little smile playing he thin lips every so often like the flicker of a snake’s tongue.
Harry does not take Esther in to see his father, since he is afraid of the effect the sight might have on her. His bed had been screened off while the Princess toured the ward.
What I fear are his eyes, like caged ferrets in his ravaged head, the life shooting from the setting of graft skin. You see, his face isn’t a human colour.
The father senses that his son is uneasy about fighting in the new war that now seems inevitable, and asks if he is afraid. Harry answers, ‘It’s not that,’ but he thinks of his father whose life was ruined to make the world safe for democracy, ‘and all we’ve got to show is Hitler and half a dozen other dictators. So I think what’s the use?’
His father answers the question: ‘What you were you fighting for – was it worth it?’
What I was fighting for? That was worth it. [….] but we never got it. To do away with the old gang, with greed and corruption and profiteering and each chap pitted against another. [….] But I was out of it and the others found when they got back, everything had been settled years before in these secret treaties. When they tried to change things, the old gang beat them. That’s why you’ve got to fight again, son.
He repeats: ‘[Y]ou’ll have to fight. It may be Hitler or it may be those like him over here. Then your son perhaps, or your son’s son -’
At that moment Esther comes into the ward, sees the father and ‘her face screwed up as though she’d bitten something sour and she turned and ran down the ward.’To reassure his father, Harry ‘bent and kissed his mouth, the lips made from the flesh and skin of his buttocks’.
When Harry catches up with Esther she is weeping and laughing hysterically (‘He’s so-so-so- like Frankenstein.’)
Harry assumes that the engagement is now off, but she stretches out her hand to him.
I thought I knew her face and its expressions, but this was new, was what her face was meant to be, if you understand. She leaned over and spoke into my ear. ‘When’s the soonest we can get married?’ she asked.
This story shows how the Second World War changed (for some at least) the meaning of the First. During the years of recession and depression, the Great War had typically been presented as futile, at best a noble gesture that had failed to deliver a better world. This story accepts the partial truth of that interpretation of the war, but adds to it. The man with the ruined face deliberately says that his war was worth fighting, and so will his son’s be, and his son’s son’s… It’s the opposite of the casualty’s “Shotvarfet” (“It’s not worth it”) that becomes a motif of Pat Barker’s Regeneration.
This is very definitely a left-wing understanding of history. Calder-Marshall was for a while at least a Communist (as is maybe reflected in that mention of ‘secret treaties’). Is he just projecting back onto the First World War the war aims of the Left in the Second World War – fighting for an end to greed and profiteering at home, as well as against Hitler? perhaps, yet this was also an interpretation voiced during the Great War itself, by H.G.Wells and Arnold Bennett and others, with their critiques of ‘Prussianism’ whenever its symptoms appeared in Britain.
Reading this story reminds me of the large sales of realistic war books during the 1930s. It was not just the books of protest that sold well. The reprints of Sapper’s pugnacious war stories achieved spectacular sales figures, and they also made no bones about war’s nastiness. A new generation facing the prospect of another war wanted to know what war was like – wanted to know the worst.
I think that this is what this story is saying. Seeing what war did to the father is a way of facing up to the worst, and is therefore perversely a source of strength both for Harry and, after her initial shock, for Esther.
For Esther it is also a lesson in the difference between peacetime and war. Earlier she had insisted that she and Harry should delay their wedding until they were financially secure, because this is what sensible people do. The sight of the father tells her that in wartime the sensible rules do not apply, chances must be taken and life must be lived.
I find this a very rich story indeed, and may come back to it. Thanks for finding it, Ann-Marie.