During the Boer War, G.F. Bradby had written caustically about the way the British were conducting the campaign, and about the moral support given by the Church. As well as his Kipling parody, ‘Processional’, which I have mentioned before, he wrote, among other poems, ‘The Concentration Camps: October, 1901’:
Five thousand little children’s graves upon the blacken’d plain!
The first-fruits of the gospel à la Rhodes and Chamberlain,
the pledge of brotherhood restored, and that Imperial brag
Of Peace and Love et cetera beneath the British flag.
And Priest and Levite passing by, are eager to explain
It’s just the price we have to pay for being too humane;
They haven’t died, or, if they have, it’s absolutely right.
(The Church has such a pleasant way of proving black is white.)
When I discovered that the author of these poems had published a novel during the Great War, I immediately wanted to read it, and For This I Had Borne Him (1915) has turned out to be well worth hunting down.
Bradby had been a schoolmaster at Rugby. (I have read various accounts of how the Public Schools encouraged the ideology of Imperialism; I don’t recall any including mentions of Bradby, or other teachers who were vocal opponents of Imperial practice.) He was also a novelist, and from what I can gather his most successful novel was Dick, of 1906. Here is the Spectator’s review of it (31 March 1906):
In Dick, or, as Mr. Bradby calls it in his sub-title, “A Story without a Plot,” we have a study of boy life worthy to rank with Mr. Eden Phillpotts’s “Human Boy.” The book is in the form of the diary of a. London business man, who with his wife is taking a rest at a quiet village on the Norfolk coast. Persuaded by his wife, he invites a small Rugby boy, or, as he is described by the enraged parents of another boy, “Rugby bear,” whose father and mother are in Peru, to spend the summer holidays with them. [….] Besides much high-spirited fun, Mr. Bradby, who, we feel sure, must be a schoolmaster, makes a very sound criticism on the system of destroying youthful imaginations with verbs in le, and “twenty or thirty lines of Caesar or Xenophon or Ovid’s word puzzles.” For this system Mr. Bradby says the term “mental treadmill” should be substituted for that of “mental gymnastics.” Altogether, Mr. Bradby is to be congratulated on a very agreeable book,—a book which will appeal to all these who know and understand the heart of the boy. It will, we trust, not be long before Mr. Bradby gives us another and an equally entertaining volume.
Read the whole review here.
For This I had Borne Him is a sequel to Dick. Bradby does some sleight of hand with the years, and in the summer of 1914, Dick is just about to leave Rugby. He is as high-spirited as ever, and there are some jolly tales of boating near-disasters on the Norfolk Broads and suchlike adventures.
These are set, however, in the context of an ominous countdown to war.
The book is written as a diary, by the businessman who has semi-adopted Dick. This allows the events and feelings of the days just before and just after the outbreak of war to be presented as they might have seemed at the time; the text does not bury those more innocent days beneath ironic hindsight, though it is with hindsight that we inevitably read it. .
Pleasant anecdotes of life in Norfolk are increasingly interrupted by reflections on the international situation. In the second diary entry, for 25th July, the narrator reads of the ultimatum to Serbia. He is disturbed by the possible implications, but nobody else seems to be. The imperatives of everyday life are more significant than this distant argument, which seems to have nothing to do with their lives. The local vicar is more interested in marking out his tennis court, and deals with the international situation by voicing placebos:
‘The war spirit is nowhere in evidence, and where there is no desire for war, it is always possible for men of good faith compose differences. Yes, if there is trouble, depend upon it there is some way out of the labyrinth and we may trust to diplomacy to find it.’
News reaches Norfolk slowly and sparsely. The narrator and his wife feel cut off from the run of events, but when they hear distant gunshots (‘only someone firing at a rat, or a rabbit, or an owl’) they are chilled by the reminder of what might come.
By August 4, the narrator feels that there is a moral imperative for Britain to engage in the War.
I realised that war would mean a sudden and murderous attack on France, and that if we stood idly by, we should never as a nation be able to hold up our heads again; that honour and loyalty would have ceased to be anything but empty words…
When he hears that a faction in the Cabinet wants to keep the country out of the War, he spends the day ‘restless, irritable, and profoundly unhappy.’
When the news comes through that War has definitely been declared, Dick and his younger brother shout ‘Hurrah!’ but the narrator undergoes an uncomfortable conflict of feelings. The ‘sickening fear of dishonour’ which drives him to support Britain’s entry into the War fights against ‘a physical dread of war, its carnage, its horrors and its grim uncertainties’. Of the two fears, however, ‘the dread of dishonour was much the worse.’
Waking on August 5th, he feels ‘ that in a few hours the whole aspect of life had changed, and that England was waking up this morning to face a supreme ordeal.’ Norfolk is ‘Nelson country’, and he feels ‘ suddenly brought in touch with the eighteenth century and the Napoleonic wars.’
he reflects that ‘It is rather the Victorian days which seem infinitely remote.’ The moral certainties of the long period of peace, optimism and progress are finished. Britain has gone back to an age of struggle and uncertainty. He cannot share the optimism of his friend the vicar, because he realises that this optimism is ‘based on the ignorance of the daily press multiplied by a conviction that his own wishes and the designs of providence are indissolubly linked.’
The light comedy of gentle civilised life continues, but increasingly, dark thoughts disturb the narrator’s mind. He feels that ‘the stage is being set for tragedy’. The ‘dear absurdities of life’ that have previously moved him to laughter, will soon only provoke him ‘to horror or to tears.’ He still records amusing scenes of everyday life but notes that the memory of one of them is is spoilt because he cannot help seeing ‘shadowy heaps of Belgian dead’ and hearing ‘the wailing of women and children.’
Dick, the healthy schoolboy who has seemed impervious to seriousness, grows more thoughtful; the reader guesses what the narrator-diarist does not want to admit to himself, that Dick will want to enlist.
This possibility is made explicit when the narrator visits Mrs Lane, an eccentric old lady, whose attitude to the War is uncompromising:
War is simply stupid; and stupid things, like stupid people, should have no attention paid to them. Or don’t you think it stupid to send out the young people to kill each other, while the old folks stay at home and count up the losses. The Hague Convention should have forbidden anyone below sixty to bear arms, with an exception in favour of the clergy.
Mrs Lane’s anti-war voice seems like that of the Bradby of the Boer War. When she learns that Dick is just nineteen, she voices the possibility that the narrator has been ‘determined not to see’:
‘Then I will give you a piece of advice,’ said the old lady, slowly and impressively. ‘Don’t let him go out and fight. D’you hear? Don’t let him go out and fight, or I shan’t forgive you.’
Dick inevitably does want to enlist: ‘I can’t go on any longer slacking about and doing nothing. I feel ashamed of showing myself out of doors – honour bright.’
The narrator is torn between sharp awareness of the personal cost of letting his adopted boy go to war, and an increased sense of the rightness of the cause:
[S]ince Louvain, defeat has come to mean, not merely the loss of wealth or territory, but the end of civilisation as we have known it, and the triumph of a new force more coldly and logically inhuman than anything the world has seen since the rise of the Assyrian Empire.
Dick leaves for an O.T.C. camp in September, ‘to pave the way for a commission’, and there are no more entries in the summer diary.
The story is taken up again on December 25th, ‘to add a few noted to a story otherwise incomplete.’ There are some anecdotes of his time before going out to France:
Needless to say, in the course of his wanderings from shop to shop he was the recipient of several feathers from the foolish women who have made a speciality of this particular form of ill-breeding.
On one occasion, Dick strings the woman along by telling her that he couldn’t possibly think of enlisting – before explaining that an officer wasn’t allowed to enlist in Kitchener’s Army as a private.
‘And, instead of apologising, the old juggins got huffy and said I had no business to waste her time. I ought o have said that she needn’t have wasted mine: but I didn’t think of it till afterwards.’
A final chapter finishes the story:
‘I had no special presentiment of coming ill on the morning when Dick went laughing to his death at Festubert.’
(Festubert was a failed attack on a salient near Neuve Chapelle – the first British night attack of the War; it cost 16,648 British casualties.)
The narrator has no good likeness of Dick (and dislikes the photograph of him in uniform), so goes back to Rugby, to the local photographer who took pictures of school groups and teams. In a House XV he finds a picture he likes, with ‘a suggestion of that twinkle in the eye and incipient smile which were so characteristic of him.’ At Rugby School ‘it seemed almost intolerable that life should be going on exactly as though nothing had happened, in the very fields where Dick and others, who now lie dead in Flanders or by the Dardanelles, were playing less than a year ago.’ he meets John’s younger brother, and both of them repress their emotions with difficulty during the meeting.
The book’s ending balances loss with pride: ‘There are memories which must haunt us till we die, and wounds which time can never heal,’ but ‘we will hold our heads high, and look fearlessly into the future, remembering that when the hour of trial came, the men and boys, whom we had loved and believed in, were not found wanting and turned not back in the day of battle.’
The character of Dick is a celebration of natural boyish exuberance; much is made of the fact that this natural effusion of energy often often gets conventional teachers annoyed. This book is Bradby trying to make sense of a War that is killing and maiming ex-students that he cared for; I was impressed by its intelligence, by the presentation of the narrator’s growing awareness of the conflict within himself. One the one hand there is his deep affection for Dick and his utter distaste for warfare. On the other there is his increasing feeling that this War is a moral crusade that must be fought.
The gentle comedy of the Norfolk scenes presents an image of what life ought to be; everyone is kindly, well-intentioned, and enjoying one another’s foibles. War challenges to the complacency of this life. The images of war cannot be kept in the newspaper, but infect everything. When ‘Dick went laughing to his death’, the laughter is a refusal to be cowed by the horror, a sort of victory.
The book was published in 1915, and there is no assurance that Dick’s sacrifice did anything to help win the War. The only consolation is that he was ‘not found wanting’. (This is the same consolation expressed after the death of his son later in 1915 by Rudyard Kipling, whose imperialist verse Bradby had parodied mercilessly in 1902.)
What I find most interesting is that the reason for Bradby’s opposition to the Boer War (opposition to brutality) is exactly the same as his reason for believing that this war should be fought and won. Many at the time (especially political Liberals) must have felt the same. My copy of the novel, dated 1915, is the second impression, so it clearly found an audience.