Philip Gibbs and the war-book boom

The novelist hero of Philip Gibbs’s 1931 novel The Winding Lane is an ex-soldier rather ill at ease in the literary world. At the Pen and Palette, a bohemian club catering for the artistic set, he notes the taste of some of the members:

Some of these middle-aged women praised with rather hysterical enthusiasms the grossness of certain war novels which had lately been the vogue.

Gibbs’s hero reads the books with an anxiety that is presumably Gibbs’s own:

He had read some of them with interest and emotion. Certainly they had stripped the war of any false glamour which it might have for youth, and some of them had been written in blood and agony, but most of them had falsified the war by bringing in sex stuff which had no place in the normal experience of trench life and billets. Men were too tired to worry much about that side of life. There were no women within reach of No Man’s Land, nor within forty miles of the front line. Some of these novelists of war had gone to the latrines for their inspiration and had overloaded their pages with blasphemy and obscenity having little to do with the war, which he hated as much as they did. These things, anyhow, were trivial in relation to the great ordeal, and accidental to the spirit of the men. Personally, as a writing man, he shrank from the foul word and the obscene incident. By all his training in decency he was inhibited from that grossness.

Gibbs had not been a soldier; he had been a war correspondent – perhaps the best of the correspondents, with  a huge admiration for the men who fought, and a compassion for their suffering. His determination to report accurately got him into conflict with the censors. His Realities of War (1919) was one of the first books to be openly critical of the generals’ management of the war.

In his novels since the war, the war had been his touchstone for judging men and events (as it is in The Winding Lane). At the heart of his books is an admiration for the courage and decency of the men who endured the war; to some degree he idealised them.

The books and plays that followed All Quiet on the Western Front and Journey’s End were very varied, but many of them did not idealise the soldier. They showed him as fallible, sometimes frightened, sometimes cruel. They showed him swearing and randy, and were not shy of the lavatorial facts of life.

Judging by his novels, Gibbs was a reticent man when it came to such subjects. He skirts sexual matters in a way that weakens him as a novelist. And the sometimes gross physical details recounted in war books must have reminded him that though he was close to the war, he was never actually in it, had never had to endure long gruelling weeks in the trenches.

Some of this account is dubious. No women within forty miles of the front line? The brothels of Poperinghe were just eight miles from Ypres. And the suggestion that young men could be too busy to think about sex does not really square with my experience of life. Does it with yours?


  1. Posted January 3, 2018 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    A very interesting post, George. You have read much more of the relevant material than I have, but I am always puzzled when I hear about the “grossness” of “war novels”, whether it’s from Douglas Jerrold, Cyril Falls or anyone else. I say this because Gibbs himself was unflinching in “Realities of War” about the hideousness of wounds (and accurate: because the Western Front was dominated by artillery, slight wounds were comparatively rare). Is it a question of prevailing social mores? The “grossness” objected to in “war books” was the (accurate) depiction of physical aspects of life hitherto unwritten about (i.e. excretion and sex)?

  2. Posted January 3, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Thank you, interesting to read of this novel by Gibbs. I’d suggest it was specifically All Quiet on the Western Front that Gibbs was referring to with it’s frankness about sex and bodily functions and also the fact that much of it was set behind the lines.

  3. Brian Busby
    Posted January 3, 2018 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help but think that one of the novels Gibbs’ hero looks down upon is Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed, which begins with soldiers returning to their bunks after an evening in the brothels of Montreal. Of course, “sex stuff” appears in other novels of the war-book boom, but his reference to latrines as inspiration brought it home. Harrison describes rumours – often contradictory – as “latrine rumours.” At various points, characters are described as visiting the latrine, this being the most memorable passage:

    Brownie straightened up for a moment when he was going to the latrine yesterday and a sniper knocked his helmet off. He came into the dugout and related his experience to us:

    “God, a man can’t even pump ship without being shot at. Some war!”

  4. Tom Deveson
    Posted January 3, 2018 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Might he have been thinking of Her Privates We [1930]; or even [if he’d seen it] of The Middle Parts of Fortune [1929]?

  5. Posted January 4, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I agree with Simon Jones that it was ‘All Quiet’ which established the stereotype of war books as lavatorial. Remarque shows the latrines as a place for conversation; I doubt that anything like this had appeared in a novel printed in England.
    When I was a teenager in the sixties I saw the film of ‘All Quiet’ and mentioned this to my mother. ‘That’s the book where people talk to each other while sitting on the lavatory,’ she said. She was a broad-minded woman, but clearly thought this rather beyond the pale.

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