The Love of an Unknown Soldier

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I have recently been given the chance to look at a fascinating book, The Love of an Unknown Soldier: Found in a Dugout, first published in London in September 1918, by John Lane, The Bodley Head. (The book’s Canadian edition can be viewed online at the Internet Archive .)
In an introductory explanation, Lane explains:

The MS. was submitted to me by a young officer of the R.F.A, home from the front on leave, [….] he explained that he had brought with him from France a bundle of papers which he had found in one of the dug-outs of an abandoned gun position. To use his own words: ‘The position was in a hell of a mess.’ […] he discovered the papers secreted in a dark corner, wedged in between a post and the wall of one of the bunks.

As a frontispiece, and as a guarantee of authenticity, the book has a photograph of one of the stained and tattered pages:

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The officer realised that the documents belonged to ‘a brother officer, who was in all probability dead.’ There was no indication of the writer’s name or of his unit, and the name of the woman whom he had loved was not recorded.

His first impulse was to respect the dead man’s property and destroy the papers, but on second thoughts he recognized that they were the sacred property of the woman who had inspired such adoration and courage.

The unnamed woman was an American nurse, and the book is made up of letters written to her, but never sent. The anonymous author never spoke of his love, for the noblest of reasons, as he explains:

What right have I, who might be dead within a month, to speak to you of love?

The letters that follow contain much talk of love, many descriptions of trench life, a fair bit of religiosity, and a profound sense of the decency of the British soldier:

Our men’s courage keeps me going. It is only the undiscussed nobility of their purpose that keeps them going.[….] Some of them were public school men; some served behind counters; some were day-labourers. We have several who have been in gaol; they’re every bit as good as the others.

The book right at the end of the war, maintains the myth expressed at the war’s beginning by Donald Hankey, in his Spectator article ‘An Experiment in Democracy’:

For once a national ideal had proved stronger than class prejudice. In this matter of the war all classes were at one – at one not only in sentiment but in practical resolve.

The Love of an Unknown Soldier clearly caught the public mood at the end of the war, and afterwards. It went into several editions. Sue Bruley has written about the book in an interesting paper ( ‘The Love of an Unknown Soldier: A Story of Mystery, Myth and Masculinity in World War I’,Contemporary British History Vol. 19 , Iss. 4,2005 ). In the Bodley Head archive she has found correspondence from the public revealing great enthusiasm, and even reverence, for the book, as late as 1927. She notes, however, that many reviewers of the first edition were sceptical of its authenticity:

Of the five reviews I have been able to trace, the Daily Express was the only one not to raise queries about the book’s authenticity (it appears that the use of quotes from the reviews for publicity mentioned above had been highly selective to the point of being misleading). The Evening News asserted that the book was the work of a journalist. The Evening Standard also took the view that the narrative was too smooth and continuous for genuine letters, but felt that they could have been written as an ‘emotional outlet’ for the soldier. The reviewer likened the anguished confessions of the writer to ‘the cry of the frightened little boy who remains hidden in almost every fighter.’ There were plenty of comments about the literary merit of the book. The Saturday Review declared that ‘the theme of undeclared love has never been more beautifully handled’ and went on to reprint an example of descriptive prose which it refers to as ‘a passage of nobler tone than anything we have as yet read in the many records of the war.’ The reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement suggests that there is so much literary skill in the book that it appears to be ‘a practised writer at his work – and enjoying it’. Both the Saturday Review and the TLS likened the book to another anonymous publication, An Englishwoman’s Love Letters, which was published to great acclaim in 1901 but later found to be a fraud.

Though presented as genuine, the book was indeed a fiction. In view of its being advertised as authentic, I suppose one has to label it a fake. Its author was Coningsby Dawson, (1883-1959).

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Coningsby Dawson (photo: Wikipedia)

He was an Englishman who had studied at Merton College, Oxford, had worked in America as a journalist, and enlisted in Canada in 1914. He served with the Canadian Field Artillery on the Somme, until he was wounded. He wrote a great deal in support of the war effort, including Carry On (1917) which you can read at Project Gutenberg   and The Glory of the Trenches. A long while ago on this blog I discussed his novel of postwar dislocation, The kingdom Round the Corner. In this novel, a chauffeur enlists, becomes an officer, and eventually a Brigadier. Having lost his class position, he does not fit into the postwar world. At the end, he starts a political party speaking for ex-servicemen (which one can’t help but feel sounds a bit fascist).

What I find really inetersting about this publication is the role of the publisher, John Lane, who puts his name to an introduction asserting the text’s authenticity. He must have been fully aware that it was a fake. Did he do it for financial reasons? Or did he think that a publication like this was supporting the war effort? Lane was one of the finest publishers of the time, having courageously printed controversial work in the 1890s and after. It is surprising to find him knowingly engaging in a fraud on the gullible.

I’ve written here before about a similar later case, Not So Quiet…, by Evadne Price, writing as ‘Helen Zenna Smith’. The publisher of this, Albert Marriott (alias Netley Lucas) was an out and out crook, with a record of printing fake biographies. It is debatable whether Price was complicit in his deception of the public, but I’ve a strong feeling that she was. The problem with the book is that, despite its dubious origins, it has literary interest, and is ground-breaking in its presentation of women. How far should its origins affect our judgment of it?

Fewer will want to make literary claims for Coningsby Dawson’s Love of an Unknown Soldier than for Price’s work. It has some documentary quality, since Dawson had actually been an artillery officer, and much of the background detail seems authentic. Its utter sentimentality is likely to win it few twenty-first cetury admirers, however.

Yet the book’s success in the immediate post-war years tells us much about the time. These were the years of war memorials and pious memories. This book presents soldiers the way that people at home liked to imagine them. Men of deep but unexpressed feelings, and with a profound decency.
Yes, probably the book gave consolation, even though it’s a fake. Maybe because it’s a fake. A less sentimental account would have done less to console the bereaved.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted November 13, 2016 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Thank you! I read this book some years ago and was certain it was inauthentic, but I could find no external evidence one way or another (I wrote to the publisher but, of course, did not receive a reply). Many thanks for explaining the book so thoroughly, George.

  2. Steve Paradis
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    In the very slim chance that you miss this:
    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/12/prince-of-tricksters-by-matt-houlbrook-review


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