SJCC Course – Wharton and O’Brien

6 Jan

Here are the readings for the first session of this Spring’s course on War Literature at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre. Please have them read, if possible, for our first meeting in April.

Tim O’Brien – How to Tell a True War Story

This is true.

I had a buddy in Vietnam. His name was Bob Kiley but everybody called him Rat.

A friend of his gets killed, so about a week later Rat sits down and writes a letter to the guy’s sister. Rat tells her what a great brother she had, how strack the guy was, a number one pal and comrade. A real soldier’s soldier, Rat says. Then he tells a few stories to make the point, how her brother would always volunteer for stuff nobody else would volunteer for in a million years, dangerous stuff, like doing recon or going out on these really badass night patrols. Stainless steel balls, Rat tells her. The guy was a little crazy, for sure, but crazy in a good way, a real daredevil, because he liked the challenge of it, he liked testing himself, just man against gook. A great, great guy, Rat says.

Anyway, it’s a terrific letter, very personal and touching. Rat almost bawls writing it. He gets all teary telling about the good times they had together, how her brother made the war seem almost fun, always raising hell and lighting up villes and bringing smoke to bear every which way. A great sense of humor, too. Like the time at this river when he went fishing with a whole damn crate of hand grenades. Probably the funniest thing in world history, Rat says, all that gore, about twenty zillion dead gook fish. Her brother, he had the right attitude. He knew how to have a good time. On Halloween, this real hot spooky night, the dude paints up his body all different colors and puts on this weird mask and goes out on ambush almost stark naked, just boots and balls and an M-16. A tremendous human being, Rat says. Pretty nutso sometimes, but you could trust him with your life.

And then the letter gets very sad and serious. Rat pours his heart out. He says he loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the world. They were like soul mates, he says, like twins or something, they had a whole lot in common. He tells the guy’s sister he’ll look her up when the war’s over.

So what happens?

Rat mails the letter. He waits two months. The dumb cooze never writes back.


A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. Listen to Rat Kiley. Cooze, he says. He does 1 Tim O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story,” in Paula Geyh, et al., eds., Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 174-183. not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl, He says cooze. Then he spits and stares. He’s nineteen years old—it’s too much for him—so he looks at you with those big gentle, killer eyes and says cooze, because his friend is dead, and because it’s so incredibly sad and true: she never wrote back.

You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.

Listen to Rat: “Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fucking letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back.”


The dead guy’s name was Curt Lemon. What happened was, we crossed a muddy river and marched west into the mountains, and on the third day we took a break along a trail junction in deep jungle. Right away, Lemon and Rat Kiley started goofing off. They didn’t understand about the spookiness. They were kids; they just didn’t know. A nature hike, they thought, not even a war, so they went off into the shade of some giant trees—quadruple canopy, no sunlight at all—and they were giggling and calling each other motherfucker and playing a silly game they’d invented. The game involved smoke grenades, which were harmless unless you did stupid things, and what they did was pull out the pin and stand a few feet apart and play catch under the shade of those huge trees. Whoever chickened out was a motherfucker. And if nobody chickened out, the grenade would make a light popping sound and they’d be covered with smoke and they’d laugh and dance around and then do it again.

It’s all exactly true.

It happened nearly twenty years ago, but I still remember that trail junction and the giant trees and a soft dripping sound somewhere beyond the trees. I remember the smell of moss. Up in the canopy there were tiny white blossoms, but no sunlight at all, and I remember the shadows spreading out under the trees where Lemon and Rat Kiley were playing catch with smoke grenades. Mitchell Sanders sat flipping his yo-yo. Norman Bowker and Kiowa and Dave Jensen were dozing, or half-dozing, and all around us were those ragged green mountains.

Except for the laughter things were quiet. At one point, I remember, Mitchell Sanders turned and looked at me, not quite nodding, then after a while he rolled up his yo-yo and moved away.

It’s hard to tell what happened next. They were just goofing. There was a noise, I suppose, which must’ve been the detonator, so I glanced behind me and watched Lemon step from the shade into bright sunlight. His face was suddenly brown and shining. A handsome kid, really. Sharp gray eyes, lean and narrowwaisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.


In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.


In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.

In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.

I heard this one, for example, from Mitchell Sanders. It was near dusk and we were sitting at my foxhole along a wide, muddy river north of Quang Ngai. I remember how peaceful the twilight was. A deep pinkish red spilled out on the river, which moved without sound, and in the morning we would cross the river and march west into the mountains. The occasion was right for a good story.

“God’s truth,” Mitchell Sanders said. “A six-man patrol goes up into the mountains on a basic listening-post operation. The idea’s to spend a week up there, just lie low and listen for enemy movement. They’ve got a radio along, so if they hear anything suspicious—anything— they’re supposed to call in artillery or gunships, whatever it takes. Otherwise they keep strict field discipline. Absolute silence. They just listen.”

He glanced at me to make sure I had the scenario. He was playing with his yo-yo, making it dance with short, tight little strokes of the wrist.

His face was blank in the dusk.

“We’re talking hardass LP. These six guys, they don’t say boo for a solid week. They don’t got tongues. All ears.”

“Right,” I said.

“Understand me?”


Sanders nodded.

“Affirm,” he said. “Invisible. So what happens is, these guys get themselves deep in the bush, all camouflaged up, and they lie down and wait and that’s all they do, nothing else, they lie there for seven straight days and just listen. And man, I’ll tell you—it’s spooky. This is mountains. You don’t know spooky till you been there. Jungle, sort of, except it’s way up in the clouds and there’s always this fog-like rain, except it’s not raining—everything’s all wet and swirly and tangled up and you can’t see jack, you can’t find your own pecker to piss with. Like you don’t even have a body. Serious spooky. You just go with the vapors—the fog sort of takes you in….And the sounds, man. The sounds carry forever. You hear shit nobody should ever hear.”

Sanders was quiet for a second, just working the yo-yo, then he smiled at me. “So, after a couple days the guys start hearing this real soft, kind of wacked-out music. Weird echoes and stuff. Like a radio or something, but its not a radio, it’s this strange gook music that comes right out of the rocks. Faraway, sort of, but right up close, too. They try to ignore it. But it’s a listening post, right? So they listen. And every night they keep hearing this crazyass gook concert. All kinds of chimes and xylophones. I mean, this is wilderness—no way, it can’t be real—but there it is, like the mountains are tuned in to Radio Fucking Hanoi. Naturally they get nervous. One guy sticks Juicy Fruit in his ears. Another guy almost flips. Thing is, though, they can’t report music. They can’t get on the horn and call back to base and say, ‘Hey, listen, we need some firepower, we got to blow away this weirdo gook rock band.’ They can’t do that. It wouldn’t go down. So they lie there in the fog and keep their months shut. And what makes it extra bad, see, is the poor dudes can’t horse around like normal. Can’t joke it away. Can’t even talk to each other except maybe in whispers, all hush-hush, and that just revs up the willies. All they do is listen.”

Again there was some silence as Mitchell Sanders looked out on the river. The dark was coming on hard now, and off to the west I could see the mountains rising in silhouette, all the mysteries and unknowns.

“This next part,” Sanders said quietly, “you won’t believe.”

“Probably not,” I said.

“You won’t. And you know why?”


He gave me a tired smile.

“Because it happened. Because every word is absolutely dead-on true.”

Sanders made a little sound in his throat, like a sigh, as if to say he didn’t care if I believed it or not. But he did care. He wanted me to believe, I could tell. He seemed sad, in a way.

“These six guys, they’re pretty fried out by now, and one night they start hearing voices. Like at a cocktail party. That’s what it sounds like, this big swank gook cocktail party somewhere out there in the fog. Music and chitchat and stuff. It’s crazy, I know, but they hear the champagne corks. They hear the actual martini glasses. Real hoity-toity, all very civilized, except this isn’t civilization. This is Nam.

“Anyway, the guys try to be cool. They just lie there and groove, but after a while they start hearing—you won’t believe this—they hear chamber music. They hear violins and shit. They hear this terrific mama-san soprano. Then after a while they hear gook opera and a glee club and the Haiphong Boys Choir and a barbershop quartet and all kinds of weird chanting and Buddha-Buddha stuff. The whole time, in the background, there’s still that cocktail party going on. All these different voices. Not human voices, though. Because it’s the mountains. Follow me? The rock—it’s talking. And the fog, too, and the grass and the goddamn mongooses. Everything talks. The trees talk politics, the monkeys talk religion. The whole country. Vietnam, the place talks.

“The guys can’t cope. They lose it. They get on the radio and report enemy movement—a whole army, they say—and they order up the firepower. They get arty and gunships. They call in air strikes. And I’ll tell you, they fuckin’ crash that cocktail party. All night long, they just smoke those mountains. They make jungle juice. They blow away trees and glee clubs and whatever else there is to blow away. Scorch time. They walk napalm up and down the ridges. They bring in the Cobras and F-4s, they use Willie Peter and HE and incendiaries. It’s all fire. They make those mountains burn.

“Around dawn things finally get quiet. Like you never even heard quiet before. One of those real thick, real misty days—just clouds and fog, they’re off in this special zone—and the mountains are absolutely dead-flat silent. Like Brigadoon—pure vapor, you know? Everything’s all sucked up inside the fog. Not a single sound, except they still hear it.

“So they pack up and start humping. They head down the mountain, back to base camp, and when they get there they don’t say diddly. They don’t talk. Not a word, like they’re deaf and dumb. Later on this fat bird colonel comes up and asks what the hell happened out there. What’d they hear? Why all the ordnance? The man’s ragged out, he gets down tight on their case. I mean, they spent six trillion dollars on firepower, and this fatass colonel wants answers, he wants to know what the fuckin’ story is.

“But the guys don’t say zip. They just look at him for a while, sort of funnylike, sort of amazed, and the whole war is right there in that stare. It says everything you can’t ever say. It says, man, you got wax in your ears. It says, poor bastard, you’ll never know—wrong frequency—you don’t even want to hear this. Then they salute the fucker and walk away, because certain stories you don’t ever tell.”


You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever. Not when Mitchell Sanders stood up and moved off into the dark.

It all happened.

Even now I remember that yo-yo. In a way, I suppose, you had to be there, you had to hear it, but I could tell how desperately Sanders wanted me to believe him, his frustration at not quite getting the details right, not quite pinning down the final and definitive truth.

And I remember sitting at my foxhole that night, watching the shadows of Quang Ngai, thinking about the coming day and how we would cross the river and march west into the mountains, all the ways I might die, all the things I did not understand.

Late in the night Mitchell Sanders touched my shoulder.

“Just came to me,” he whispered. “The moral, I mean. Nobody listens. Nobody hears nothing. Like that fatass colonel. The politicians, all the civilian types, what they need is to go out on LP. The vapors, man. Trees and rocks—you got to listen to your enemy.”


And then again, in the morning, Sanders came up to me. The platoon was preparing to move out, checking weapons, going through all the little rituals that preceded a day’s march. Already the lead squad had crossed the river and was filing off toward the west.

“I got a confession to make,” Sanders said. “Last night, man, I had to make up a few things.”

“I know that.”

“The glee club. There wasn’t any glee club.”


“No opera.”

“Forget it, I understand.”

“Yeah, but listen, it’s still true. Those six guys, they heard wicked sound out there. They heard sound you just plain won’t believe.” Sanders pulled on his rucksack, closed his eyes for a moment, then almost smiled at me.

I knew what was coming but I beat him to it.

“All right,” I said, “what’s the moral?”

“Forget it.”

“No, go ahead.”

For a long while he was quiet, looking away, and the silence kept stretching out until it was almost embarrassing. Then he shrugged and gave me a stare that lasted all day.

“Hear that quiet, man?” he said. “There’s your moral.”


In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe “Oh.”

True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.

For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside.

It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.


This one does it for me. I’ve told it before—many times, many versions—but here’s what actually happened.

We crossed the river and marched west into the mountains. On the third day, Curt Lemon stepped on a booby-trapped 105 round. He was playing catch with Rat Kiley, laughing, and then he was dead. The trees were thick; it took nearly an hour to cut an LZ for the dustoff.

Later, higher in the mountains, we came across a baby VC water buffalo. What it was doing there I don’t know—no farms or paddies—but we chased it down and got a rope around it and led it along to a deserted village where we set for the night. After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose.

He opened up a can of C rations, pork and beans, but the baby buffalo wasn’t interested.

Rat shrugged.

He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hindquarters and in the little hump at its back. He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill; it was just to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away. Nobody said much. The whole platoon stood there watching, feeling all kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby water buffalo. Lemon was dead. Rat Kiley had lost his best friend in the world. Later in the week he would write a long personal letter to the guy’s sister, who would not write back, but for now it was a question of pain. He shot off the tail. He shot away chunks of meat below the ribs. All around us there was the smell of smoke and filth, and deep greenery, and the evening was humid and very hot. Rat went to automatic. He shot randomly, almost casually, quick little spurts in the belly and butt. Then he reloaded, squatted down, and shot it in the left front knee. Again the animal fell hard and tried to get up, but this time it couldn’t quite make it. It wobbled and went down sideways. Rat shot it in the nose. He bent forward and whispered something, as if talking to a pet, then he shot it in the throat. All the while the baby buffalo was silent, or almost silent, just a light bubbling sound where the nose had been. It lay very still. Nothing moved except the eyes, which were enormous, the pupils shiny black and dumb.

Rat Kiley was crying. He tried to say something, but then cradled his rifle and went off by himself.

The rest of us stood in a ragged circle around the baby buffalo. For a time no one spoke. We had witnessed something essential, something brand-new and profound, a piece of the world so startling there was not yet a name for it.

Somebody kicked the baby buffalo.

It was still alive, though just barely, just in the eyes.

“Amazing,” Dave Jensen said. “My whole life, I never seen anything like it.”


“Not hardly. Not once.”

Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders picked up the baby buffalo. They hauled it across the open square, hoisted it up, and dumped it in the village well.

Afterward, we sat waiting for Rat to get himself together.

“Amazing,” Dave Jensen kept saying.

“For sure.”

“A new wrinkle. I never seen it before.”

Mitchell Sanders took out his yo-yo.

“Well, that’s Nam,” he said, “Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin’s real fresh and original.”


How do you generalize?

War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.

The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorous, the purply black glow of napalm, the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference—a powerful, implacable beauty—and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.

To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a fire fight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass, the soil—everything. All around you things are purely living, and you among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self—your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. There is a kind of largeness to it; a kind of godliness. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.

Mitchell Sanders was right. For the common soldier, at least, war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can’t tell where you are, or why you’re there, and the only certainty is absolute ambiguity.

In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing much is ever very true.


Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife’s breathing. The war’s over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what’s the point?


This one wakes me up.

In the mountains that day, I watched Lemon turn sideways. He laughed and said something to Rat Kiley. Then he took a peculiar half step, moving from shade into bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there, so Norman Bowker and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines. The gore was horrible, and stays with me, but what wakes me up twenty years later is Norman Bowker singing “Lemon Tree” as we threw down the parts.

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true story that never happened.


Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face. I can see him turning, looking back at Rat Kiley, then he laughed and took that curious half-step from shade into sunlight, his face suddenly brown and shining, and when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must’ve thought it was the sunlight that was killing him. It was not the sunlight. It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him into a tree, if I could somehow recreate the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth.


Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain that as a rule she hates war stories, she can’t understand why people want to wallow in blood and gore. But this one she liked. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she’ll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.

I won’t say it but I’ll think it.

I’ll picture Rat Kiley’s face, his grief, and I’ll think, You dumb cooze.

Because she wasn’t listening.

It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. It was a ghost story.

But you can’t say that. All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth. No Mitchell Sanders, you tell her. No Lemon, no Rat Kiley. And it didn’t happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.

In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.


Edith Wharton – Writing a War Story

MISS IVY SPANG of Cornwall-on-Hudson had published a little volume of verse before the war.

It was called “Vibrations,” and was preceded by a “Foreword” in which the author stated that she had yielded to the urgent request of “friends” in exposing her first-born to the public gaze. The public had not gazed very hard or very long, but the Cornwall-on-Hudson “News-Dispatch” had a flattering notice by the wife of the rector of St. Dunstan’s (signed “Asterisk”), in which, while the somewhat unconventional sentiment of the poems was gently deprecated, a graceful and lady-like tribute was paid to the “brilliant daughter of one of our most prominent and influential citizens, who has voluntarily abandoned the primrose way of pleasure to scale the rugged heights of Parnassus.”

Also, after sitting one evening next to him at a bohemian dinner in New York, Miss Spang was honored by an article by the editor of “Zig-zag,” the new “Weekly Journal of Defiance,” in which that gentleman hinted that there was more than she knew in Ivy Spang’s poems, and that their esoteric significance showed that she was a vers-librist in thought as well as in technique. He added that they would “gain incommensurably in meaning” when she abandoned the superannuated habit of beginning each line with a capital letter.

The editor sent a heavily-marked copy to Miss Spang, who was immensely flattered, and felt that at last she had been understood. But nobody she knew read “Zig-zag,” and nobody who read “Zig-zag” seemed to care to know her. So nothing in particular resulted from this tribute to her genius.

Then the war came, and she forgot all about writing poetry.

THE war was two years old, and she had been pouring tea once a week for a whole winter in a big Anglo-American hospital in Paris, when one day, as she was passing through a flower-edged court on her way to her ward, she heard one of the doctors say to a pale gentleman in civilian clothes and spectacles, “But I believe that pretty Miss Spang writes. If you want an American contributor, why not ask her?” And the next moment the pale gentleman had been introduced and, beaming anxiously at her through his spectacles, was urging her to contribute a rattling war story to “The Man-at-Arms,” a monthly publication that was to bring joy to the wounded and disabled in British hospitals.

“A good rousing story, Miss Spang; a dash of sentiment of course, but nothing to depress or discourage. I’m sure you catch my meaning? A tragedy with a happy ending — that’s about the idea. But I leave it to you; with your large experience of hospital work of course you know just what hits the poor fellows’ taste. Do you think you could have it ready for our first number? And have you a portrait — if possible in nurse’s dress — to publish with it? The Queen of Norromania has promised us a poem, with a picture of herself giving the baby Crown Prince his morning tub. We want the first number to be an ‘actuality,’ as the French say; all the articles written by people who’ve done the thing themselves, or seen it done. You’ve been at the front, I suppose? As far as Rheims, once? That’s capital! Give us a good stirring trench story, with a Coming-Home scene to close with . . . a Christmas scene, if you can manage it, as we hope to be out in November. Yes — that’s the very thing; and I’ll try to get Sargent to do us the wounded V. C. coming back to the old home on Christmas Eve — snow effect.”

It was lucky that Ivy Spang’s leave was due about that time, for, devoted though she was to her patients, the tea she poured for them might have suffered from her absorption in her new task.

Was it any wonder that she took it seriously?

She, Ivy Spang, of Cornwall-on-Hudson, had been asked to write a war story for the opening number of “The Man-at-Arms,” to which Queens and Archbishops and Field Marshals were to contribute poetry and photographs and patriotic sentiment in autograph! And her full-length photograph in nurse’s dress was to precede her prose; and in the table of contents she was to figure as “Ivy Spang, author of Vibrations: A Book of Verse.”

She was dizzy with triumph, and went off to hide her exultation in a quiet corner of Brittany, where she happened to have an old governess, who took her in and promised to defend at all costs the sacredness of her mornings — for Ivy knew that the morning hours of great authors were always “sacred.”

She shut herself up in her room with a ream of mauve paper, and began to think.

At first the process was less exhilarating than she had expected. She knew so much about the war that she hardly knew where to begin; she found herself suffering from a plethora of impressions.

Moreover, the more she thought of the matter, the less she seemed to understand how a war story — or any story, for that matter — was written. Why did stories ever begin, and why did they ever leave off? Life didn’t — it just went on and on.

This unforeseen problem troubled her exceedingly, and on the second morning she stealthily broke from her seclusion and slipped out for a walk on the beach. She had been ashamed to make known her projected escapade, and went alone, leaving her faithful governess to mount guard on her threshold while she sneaked out by a back way.

There were plenty of people on the beach, and among them some whom she knew; but she dared not join them lest they should frighten away her “Inspiration.” She knew that “Inspirations” were fussy and contrarious, and she felt rather as if she were dragging along a reluctant dog on a string.

“If you wanted to stay indoors, why didn’t you say so?” she grumbled to it. But the inspiration continued to sulk.

She wandered about under the cliff till she came to an empty bench, where she sat down and gazed at the sea. After a while her eyes were dazzled by the light, and she turned them toward the bench and saw lying on it a battered magazine — the midsummer “All-Story” number of “Fact and Fiction.” Ivy pounced upon it.

She had heard a good deal about not allowing one’s self to be “influenced,” about jealously guarding one’s originality, and so forth; the editor of “Zig-zag” had been particularly strong on that theme. But her story had to be written, and she didn’t know how to begin it; so she decided just to glance casually at a few beginnings.

The first tale in the magazine was signed by a name great in fiction, one of the most famous names of the past generation of novelists. “The opening sentence ran: “In the month of October, 1914 — ” and Ivy turned the page impatiently. She may not have known much about story-writing, but she did know that that kind of a beginning was played out. She turned to the next.

“‘My God!’ roared the engineer, tightening his grasp on the lever, while the white, sneering face under the red lamp . . .”

No; that was beginning to be out of date, too.

“They sat there and stared at it in silence. Neither spoke; but the woman’s heart ticked like a watch.”

That was better; but best of all she liked: “Lee Lorimer leaned to him across the flowers. She had always known that this was coming . . .” Ivy could imagine tying a story on to that.

But she had promised to write a war story; and in a war story the flowers must be at the end and not at the beginning.

At any rate, there was one clear conclusion to be drawn from the successive study of all these opening paragraphs; and that was that you must begin in the middle, and take for granted that your reader knew what you were talking about.

Yes; but where was the middle, and how could your reader know what you were talking about when you didn’t know yourself?

After some reflection, and more furtive scrutiny of “Fact and Fiction,” the puzzled authoress decided that perhaps, if you pretended hard enough that you knew what your story was about, you might end by finding out toward the last page. “After all, if the reader can pretend, the author ought to be able to,” she reflected. And she decided (after a cautious glance over her shoulder) to steal the magazine and take it home with her for private dissection.

On the threshold she met her governess, who beamed on her tenderly.

“Cherie, I saw you slip off, but I didn’t follow. I knew you wanted to be alone with your inspiration.” Mademoiselle lowered her voice to add: “Have you found your plot?”

Ivy tapped her gently on the wrinkled cheek. “Dear old Madsy! People don’t bother with plots nowadays.”

“Oh, don’t they, darling? Then it must be very much easier,” said Mademoiselle. But Ivy was not so sure —

After a day’s brooding over “Fact and Fiction,” she decided to begin on the empiric system. (“It’s sure to come to me as I go along,” she thought.) So she sat down before the mauve paper and wrote “A shot rang out — ”

But just as she was appealing to her Inspiration to suggest the next phrase a horrible doubt assailed her, and she got up and turned to “Fact and Fiction.” Yes, it was just as she had feared, the last story in “Fact and Fiction” began: “A shot rang out — ”

Its place on the list showed what the editor and his public thought of that kind of an opening, and her contempt for it was increased by reading the author’s name. The story was signed “Edda Clubber Hump.” Poor thing!

Ivy sat down and gazed at the page which she had polluted with that silly sentence.

And now (as they often said in “Fact and Fiction”) a strange thing happened. The sentence was there — she had written it — it was the first sentence on the first page of her story, it was the first sentence of her story. It was there, it had gone out of her, got away from her, and she seemed to have no further control of it. She could imagine no other way of beginning, now that she had made the effort of beginning in that way.

She supposed that was what authors meant when they talked about being “mastered by their Inspiration.” She began to hate her Inspiration.

ON THE fifth day an abased and dejected Ivy confided to her old governess that she didn’t believe she knew how to write a short story.

“If they’d only asked me for poetry!” she wailed.

She wrote to the editor of “The Man-at-Arms,” begging for permission to substitute a sonnet; but he replied firmly, if flatteringly, that they counted on a story, and had measured their space accordingly — adding that they already had rather more poetry than the first number could hold. He concluded by reminding her that he counted on receiving her contribution not later than September first; and it was now the tenth of August.

“It’s all so sudden,” she murmured to Mademoiselle, as if she were announcing her engagement.

“Of course, dearest — of course! I quite understand. How could the editor expect you to be tied to a date? But so few people know what the artistic temperament is; they seem to think one can dash off a story as easily as one makes an omelet.”

Ivy smiled in spite of herself. “Dear Madsy, what an unlucky simile! So few people make good omelets.”

“Not in France,” said Mademoiselle firmly.

Her former pupil reflected. “In France a good many people have written good short stories, too — but I’m sure they were given more than three weeks to learn how. Oh, what shall I do?” she groaned.

The two pondered long and anxiously; and at last the governess modestly suggested: “Supposing you were to begin by thinking of a subject?”

“Oh, my dear, the subject’s nothing!” exclaimed Ivy, remembering some contemptuous statement to that effect by the editor of “Zig-zag.”

“Still — in writing a story, one has to have a subject. Of course I know it’s only the treatment that really matters; but the treatment, naturally, would be yours, quite yours. . . .”

The authoress lifted a troubled gaze upon her Mentor. “What are you driving at, Madsy?”

“Only that during my year’s work in the hospital here I picked up a good many stories — pathetic, thrilling, moving stories of our poor poilus; and in the evening sometimes I used to jot them down, just as the soldiers told them to me — oh, without any art at all . . . simply for myself, you understand. . . .”

Ivy was on her feet in an instant. Since even Mademoiselle admitted that “only the treatment really mattered,” why should she not seize on one of these artless tales and transform it into Literature? The more she considered the idea, the more it appealed to her; she remembered Shakespeare and Moliere, and said gayly to her governess: “You darling Madsy! Do lend me your book to look over — and we’ll be collaborators!”

“Oh — collaborators!” blushed the governess, overcome. But she finally yielded to her charge’s affectionate insistence, and brought out her shabby copybook, which began with lecture notes on Mr. Bergson’s course at the Sorbonne in 1913, and suddenly switched off to “Military Hospital No. 13. November, 1914. Long talk with the Chasseur Alpin Emile Durand, wounded through the knee and the left lung at the Hautes Chaumes. I have decided to write down his story. . . .”

Ivy carried the little book off to bed with her, inwardly smiling at the fact that the narrative, written in a close, tremulous hand, covered each side of the page, and poured on and on without a paragraph — a good deal like life. Decidedly, poor Mademoiselle did not even know the rudiments of literature!

THE story, not without effort, gradually built itself up about the adventures of Emile Durand. Notwithstanding her protests, Mademoiselle, after a day or two, found herself called upon in an advisory capacity, and finally as a collaborator. She gave the tale a certain consecutiveness, and kept Ivy to the main point when her pupil showed a tendency to wander; but she carefully revised and polished the rustic speech in which she had originally transcribed the tale, so that it finally issued forth in the language that a young lady writing a composition on the Battle of Hastings would have used in Mademoiselle’s school days.

Ivy decided to add a touch of sentiment to the anecdote, which was purely military, both because she knew the reader was entitled to a certain proportion of “heart interest,” and because she wished to make the subject her own by this original addition. The revisions and transpositions which these changes necessitated made the work one of uncommon difficulty; and one day, in a fit of discouragement, Ivy privately decided to notify the editor of “The Man-at-Arms” that she was ill and could not fulfill her engagement.

But that very afternoon the “artistic” photographer to whom she had posed for her portrait sent home the proofs; and she saw herself, exceedingly long, narrow and sinuous, robed in white and monastically veiled, holding out a refreshing beverage to an invisible sufferer with a gesture half way between Melisande lowering her braid over the balcony and Florence Nightingale advancing with the lamp.

The photograph was really too charming to be wasted, and Ivy, feeling herself forced onward by an inexorable fate, sat down again to battle with the art of fiction. Her perseverance was rewarded, and after a while the fellow authors (though Mademoiselle disclaimed any right to the honors of literary partnership) arrived at what seemed to both a satisfactory result.

“You’ve written a very beautiful story, my dear,” Mademoiselle sighed with moist eyes; and Ivy modestly agreed that she had.

The task was finished on the last day of her leave; and the next morning she traveled back to Paris, clutching the manuscript to her bosom, and forgetting to keep an eye on the bag that contained her passport and money, in her terror lest the precious pages should be stolen.

As soon as the tale was typed she did it up in a heavily-sealed envelope (she knew that only silly girls used blue ribbon for the purpose), and dispatched it to the pale gentleman in spectacles, accompanied by the Melisande-Nightingale photograph. The receipt of both was acknowledged by a courteous note (she had secretly hoped for more enthusiasm), and thereafter life became a desert waste of suspense. The very globe seemed to cease to turn on its axis while she waited for “The Man-at-Arms” to appear.

Finally one day a thick packet bearing an English publisher’s name was brought to her: she undid it with trembling fingers, and there, beautifully printed on the large rough pages, her story stood out before her.

At first, in that heavy text, on those heavy pages, it seemed to her a pitifully small thing, hopelessly insignificant and yet pitilessly conspicuous. It was as though words meant to be murmured to sympathetic friends were being megaphoned into the ear of a heedless universe.

Then she began to turn the pages of the review: she analyzed the poems, she read the Queen of Norromania’s domestic confidences, and she looked at the portraits of the authors. The latter experience was peculiarly comforting. The Queen was rather good-looking — for a Queen — but her hair was drawn back from the temples as if it were wound round a windlass, and stuck out over her forehead in the good old-fashioned Royal Highness fuzz; and her prose was oddly built out of London drawing-room phrases grafted onto German genitives and datives. It was evident that neither Ivy’s portrait nor her story would suffer by comparison with the royal contribution.

But most of all was she comforted by the poems. They were nearly all written on Kipling rhythms that broke down after two or three wheezy attempts to “carry on,” and their knowing mixture of slang and pathos seemed oddly old-fashioned to the author of “Vibrations.” Altogether, it struck her that “The Man-at-Arms” was made up in equal parts of tired compositions by people who knew how to write, and artless prattle by people who didn’t. Against such a background “His Letter Home” began to loom up rather large.

At any rate, it took such a place in her consciousness for the next day or two that it was bewildering to find that no one about her seemed to have heard of it. “The Man-at-Arms” was conspicuously shown in the windows of the principal English and American book shops, but she failed to see it lying on her friends’ tables, and finally, when her tea-pouring day came round, she bought a dozen copies and took them up to the English ward of her hospital, which happened to be full at the time.

IT WAS not long before Christmas, and the men and officers were rather busy with home correspondence and the undoing and doing-up of seasonable parcels; but they all received “The Man-at-Arms” with an appreciative smile, and were most awfully pleased to know that Miss Spang had written something in it. After the distribution of her tale Miss Spang became suddenly hot and shy, and slipped away before they had begun to read her.

The intervening week seemed long; and it was marked only by the appearance of a review of “The Man-at-Arms” in the “Times” — a long and laudatory article — in which, by some odd accident, “His Letter Home” and its author were not so much as mentioned. Abridged versions of this notice appeared in the English and American newspapers published in Paris, and one anecdotic and intimate article in a French journal celebrated the maternal graces and literary art of the Queen of Norromania. It was signed “Fleur-de-Lys,” and described a banquet at the Court of Norromania at which the writer hinted that she had assisted.

The following week, Ivy reentered her ward with a beating heart. On the threshold one of the nurses detained her with a smile.

“Do be a dear and make yourself specially nice to the new officer in Number 5; he’s only been here two days, and he’s rather down on his luck. Oh, by the way — he’s the novelist, Harold Harbard; you know, the man who wrote the book they made such a fuss about.”

Harold Harbard — the book they made such a fuss about! What a poor fool the woman was — not even to remember the title of “Broken Wings!” Ivy’s heart stood still with the shock of the discovery; she remembered that she had left a copy of “The Man-at-Arms” in Number 5, and the blood coursed through her veins and flooded her to the forehead at the idea that Harold Harbard might at that very moment be reading “His Letter Home.”

To collect herself, she decided to remain a while in the ward, serving tea to the soldiers and N. C. O.’s before venturing into Number 5, which the previous week had been occupied only by a polo-player drowsy with chloroform and uninterested in anything but his specialty. Think of Harold Harbard lying in the bed next to that man!

Ivy passed into the ward, and as she glanced down the long line of beds she saw several copies of “The Man-at-Arms” lying on them, and one special favorite of hers, a young lance-corporal, deep in its pages.

She walked down the ward, distributing tea and greetings; and she saw that her patients were all very glad to see her. They always were; but this time there was a certain unmistakable emphasis in their gladness; and she fancied they wanted her to notice it.

“Why,” she cried gayly, “how uncommonly cheerful you all look!”

She was handing his tea to the young lance-corporal, who was usually the spokesman of the ward on momentous occasions. He lifted his eyes from the absorbed perusal of “The Man-at-Arms,” and as he did so she saw that it was open at the first page of her story.

“I say, you know,” he said, “it’s simply topping — and we’re so awfully obliged to you for letting us see it.”

She laughed, but would not affect incomprehension.

“That?” She laid a light finger on the review. “Oh, I’m glad — I’m awfully pleased, of course — you do really like it?” she stammered.

“Rather — all of us — most tremendously — !” came a chorus from the long line of beds.

Ivy tasted her highest moment of triumph. She drew a deep breath and shone on them with glowing cheeks.

“There couldn’t be higher praise . . . there couldn’t be better judges. . . . You think it’s really like, do you?”

“Really like? Rather! It’s just topping,” rand out the unanimous response.

She choked with emotion. “Coming from you — from all of you — it makes me most awfully glad.”

They all laughed together shyly, and then the lance-corporal spoke up.

“We admire it so much that we’re going to ask you a most tremendous favor — ”

“Oh, yes,” came from the other beds.

“A favor — ?”

“Yes; if it’s not too much.” The lance-corporal became eloquent. “To remember you by, and all your kindness; we want to know if you won’t give one to each of us — ”

(“Why, of course, of course,” Ivy glowed.)

” — to frame and take away with us,” the lance-corporal continued sentimentally. “There’s a chap here who makes rather jolly frames out of Vichy corks.”

“Oh — ” said Ivy, with a protracted gasp.

“You see, in your nurse’s dress, it’ll always be such a jolly reminder,” said the lance-corporal, concluding his lesson.

“I never saw a jollier photo,” spoke up a bold spirit.

“Oh, do say yes, nurse,” the shyest of the patients softly whispered; and Ivy, bewildered between tears and laughter, said, “Yes.”

It was evident that not one of them had read her story.

SHE stopped on the threshold of Number 5, her heart beating uncomfortably.

She had already recovered from her passing mortification: it was absurd to have imagined that the inmates of the ward, dear, gallant young fellows, would feel the subtle meaning of a story like “His Letter Home.” But with Harold Harbard it was different. Now, indeed, she was to be face to face with a critic.

She stopped on the threshold, and as she did so she heard a burst of hearty, healthy laughter from within. It was not the voice of the polo-player; could it be that of the novelist?

She opened the door resolutely and walked in with her tray. The polo-player’s bed was empty, and the face on the pillow of the adjoining cot was the brown, ugly, tumultuous-locked head of Harold Harbard, well-known to her from frequent photographs in the literary weeklies. He looked up as she came in, and said in a voice that seemed to continue his laugh: “Tea? Come, that’s something like!” And he began to laugh again.

It was evident that he was still carrying on the thread of his joke, and as she approached with the tea she saw that a copy of “The Man-at-Arms” lay on the bed at his side, and that he had his hand between the open pages.

Her heart gave an apprehensive twitch, but she determined to carry off the situation with a high hand.

“How do you do, Captain Harbard? I suppose you’re laughing at the way the Queen of Norromania’s hair is done.”

He met her glance with a humorous look, and shook his head, while the laughter still rippled the muscles of his throat.

“No — no; I’ve finished laughing at that. It was the next thing; what’s it called? ‘His Letter Home,’ by — ” The review dropped abruptly from his hands, his brown cheek paled, and he fixed her with a stricken stare.

“Good lord,” he stammered out, “but it’s you!

She blushed all colors, and dropped into a seat at his side. “After all,” she faltered, half-laughing too, “at least you read the story instead of looking at my photograph.”

He continued to scrutinize her with a reviving eye. “Why — do you mean that everybody else — ”

“All the ward over there,” she assented, nodding in the direction of the door.

“They all forgot to read the story for gazing at its author?”

“Apparently.” There was a painful pause. The review dropped from his lax hand.

“Your tea — ?” she suggested, stiffly.

“Oh, yes; to be sure. . . . Thanks.”

THERE was another silence, during which the act of pouring out the milk, and the dropping of the sugar into the cup, seemed to assume enormous magnitude, and make an echoing noise. At length Ivy said, with an effort at lightness, “Since I know who you are, Mr. Harbard, — would you mind telling me what you were laughing at in my story?”

He leaned back against the pillows and wrinkled his forehead anxiously.

“My dear Miss Spang, not in the least — if I could.”

“If you could?”

“Yes; I mean in any understandable way.”

“In other words, you think it so silly that you don’t dare to tell me anything more?”

He shook his head. “No; but it’s queer — it’s puzzling. You’ve got hold of a wonderfully good subject: and that’s the main thing, of course — ”

Ivy interrupted him eagerly. “The subject is the main thing?”

“Why, naturally; it’s only the people without invention who tell you it isn’t.”

“Oh,” she gasped, trying to readjust her carefully acquired theory of esthetics.

“You’ve got hold of an awfully good subject,” Harbard continued; “but you’ve rather mauled it, haven’t you?”

She sat before him with her head drooping, and the blood running back from her pale cheeks. Two tears had gathered on her lashes.

“There!” the novelist cried out irritably. “I knew that as soon as I was frank you’d resent it! What was the earthly use of asking me?”

She made no answer, and he added, lowering his voice a little, “Are you very angry with me, really?”

“No, of course not,” she declared with a stony gayety.

“I’m so glad you’re not; because I do want most awfully to ask you for one of these photographs,” he concluded.

She rose abruptly from her seat. To save her life she could not conceal her disappointment. But she picked up the tray with feverish animation.

“A photograph? Of course — with pleasure. And now, if you’ve quite finished. I’m afraid I must run back to my teapot.”

Harold Harbard lay on the bed and looked at her. As she reached the door he said, “Miss Spang!”

“Yes?” she rejoined, pausing reluctantly.

“You were angry just now because I didn’t admire your story; and now you’re angrier still because I do admire your photograph. Do you wonder that we novelists find such an inexhaustible field in Woman?”


100D #5 | Yeats Refuses to Declare

20 Oct

During the course of reading a marvelous new volume just out this year from the Bodleian Library — From Downing Street to the Trenches: First-Hand Accounts from the Great War, 1914-1916 — I was thrilled to discover something that sheds another sliver of light onto the matter of the Authors’ Declaration of 1914.

It comes in the form of a letter to the eminent classicist Sir Gilbert Murray from the influential Irish poet W.B. Yeats.  I think it is a mark of the direction in which history has unfolded that Yeats should need no contextualizing hyperlink while Murray surely does, but in their time it was Murray who was the titan and Yeats still the rising star.  In this letter, we discover that Yeats had been asked by Murray to endorse the Authors’ Declaration with his signature — but Yeats refused.

Here is the text of that letter, dated 15 September 1914:

Dear Murray,

No.  I am sorry, but No.  I long for the defeat of the Germans but your manifesto reads like an extract from the newspapers, and newspapers are liars.  What have we novelists, poets, whatever we are, to do with them?

First: I don’t know whether England or Germany brought on this war, and you don’t.  Diplomatic documents published in the White Book deal with matters of form.  The question is whether Germany has as England believes been arming for years to wage war on England, or whether as Germany believes, England has surrounded her with hostile alliances waiting their moment to attack, through which she had to force her way at the first likely moment.  That knowledge will be kept by secret diplomacy for a good many years to come.

Second: I cannot see who this document is going to influence.  It has every sign of its origin ‘drawn up to include as many people as possible’ that is to say to be something which nobody will wholeheartedly believe, and which looks all its insincerity.  If a manifesto is to move anybody the man who made it must at least believe in it.  I would gladly join with you if you would get up a declaration against secret diplomacy when the time comes, or get up a manifesto demanding some responsible investigation of German outrages.  The present campaign may result in reprisals that will make this war more shameful than that of the Balkans.

There should be no anonymous charges, and when the war is over the whole question of atrocities by whatever nation committed should be sifted out by the Hague or some other tribunal.  It doesn’t seem possible to doubt the atrocities in many cases, but one hopes that investigation would prove that great numbers of German commanders and soldiers have behaved with humanity.  I gather from stray allusions in the Press that the Germans are carrying on an atrocity campaign not only against the Belgians but against the French and English.

Yours sincerely

WB Yeats.

There is much in this that will already seem familiar to the anti-propagandist reader of the modern age — the skepticism of newspaper accounts, the condemnation of ‘secret diplomacy’, the dismissal of the Declaration‘s power on account of its seeming banality.  Yeats, in this letter, is very much a man ahead of his time.

Still, it is possible to be too much ahead of one’s time.  Modern scholarship — in volumes like John Horne and Alan Kramer’s German Atrocities 1914 (2001), Jeff Lipkes’ Rehearsals (2007), and Alan Kramer’s Dynamic of Destruction (2007) — has shown that the vicious destruction of Belgium was all too real an event, and Yeats would have stood upon firm ground in condemning it if his qualms about the manifesto in question had been less fervent.

This is not a rarity, though.  Many at the time were suspicious of claims focused on German atrocities in Belgium, believing them to be likely propaganda inventions.  This notion was further cemented in the years following the war, with volumes like Irene Cooper Willis’ England’s Holy War (1928) and Arthur Ponsonby’s Falsehood in War-Time (1928) insisting that such claims were the fatuous inventions of Allied propagandists.  History has proven otherwise, but this only lends further flavour to Yeats’ contemporary refusal.

The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands

25 Jul

Apart from Jutland, the war is not often noted for its naval battles. This is largely due to most of the German surface navy having spent the war under blockade, with the most wide-ranging naval operations instead being conducted by the German U-Boat fleet.

There was one independent squadron operating elsewhere at the outbreak of the war: Admiral Maximilian von Spee‘s German East Asia Squadron, which had been based out of Tsingtao in China. With the declaration of war, however, and Japan’s decision to enter on the side of Great Britain, the then-at-sea squadron could not return to port and was forced to flee. Vastly outnumbered and with few options (other German colonies and ports in the area having been swiftly seized), von Spee decided to take his ships into the Atlantic to subject Allied shipping to their predations until better opportunities came along. It was also hoped that they’d be able to dock at Valparaiso in Chile to refuel and rearm.

The Royal Navy was greatly concerned by the threat von Spee’s squadron posed to the Pacific theatre, but also with the above possibility of it making its way around the Cape to enter the Atlantic. Rear-Admiral Christopher Cradock‘s South Atlantic Squadron was given orders to take up the hunt. Cradock was given considerable operational leeway, and decided that it would be best to split the squadron into two patrols, the one to sail up and down the western coast of Chile from the Cape to Valparaiso, the other to patrol the southern coast of Argentina. Cradock and his flagship, HMS Good Hope, accompanied the western patrol — both were going to their death.

The western patrol (the cruisers Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow, and six other lighter ships of varying types) encountered von Spee’s squadron off the island of Coronel on Nov. 1st, 1914, and Cradock gave the order to engage. The gathering darkness played to German advantage, however, as did their more modern ships; by the time the battle was over, Good Hope, Monmouth and 1600 British sailors lay on the ocean floor — no survivors. Von Spee’s squadron, by comparison, suffered fewer than ten wounded and no fatalities at all. They steamed into Valparaiso as planned. Von Spee seemed deeply troubled by his success — he was of the type to respect a gallant action, even from an enemy, and to mourn a wholly lop-sided victory.

Once news reached England of the defeat, several more ships were detached from the North Sea blockade and the Home Fleet and sent to reinforce what was left of Cradock’s squadron. The new squadron, which added to it HMS Danger, Invincible and Inflexible, came under the command of the marvelously named Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee, an accomplished sailor and administrator who had recently served as the Chief of Staff at the Admiralty. Nevertheless, he had something of a rivalry with Sir John Fisher, then First Sea Lord, and Fisher had seen this as an opportunity too get Sturdee out of the way. Little did he know that his rival would return covered in glory.

In any event, Sturdee and his men were ready for battle. They found it — by accident — on Dec. 8th, 1914.

The British squadron was in harbour at Stanley in the Falkland Islands on the 8th, having only just arrived there the previous morning. There was considerable surprise when von Spee’s squadron unexpectedly came into view from the south. It’s hard to say for sure, but the best evidence we have is that von Spee had hoped to attack Stanley before the British squadron arrive and then slip off northward; their meeting on the 8th was a result of delays for the one party and a mostly speedy crossing for the other. Whatever the case, they had met — something had to be done.

Sturdee, commanding from his flagship Invincible, ordered his squadron to disembark, while fire from the shore kept von Spee’s ships from being able to approach the island at sufficient distance to shell their opponents in port. Realizing the gamble had failed, von Spee turned his squadron north-east and tried to race off into the Atlantic; by 1PM, the British had caught up.

What happened next was something in the way of a massacre, though not an easy-going one for all that. The Germans were outnumbered, outmanned, and outgunned, and their enemies were out for revenge, but having made it this far they were not about to go down without a fight. Over the course of the next few hours the Germans kept up an intensity of fire that shocked their British counterparts, buying crucial time through von Spee’s skillful maneuvering of the squadron with the shifting winds to always keep the British funnel smoke obscuring their own targeting. Invincible and Inflexible came under fire from the longer-ranged German guns, and it would take some time to close the gap.

But it was closed, and the results were as catastrophic for von Spee’s squadron as his earlier action had been for Cradock’s. Von Spee’s flagship Scharnhorst was the first to go down, taking the admiral, his two sons and every other soul aboard with her. The rest of the squadron swiftly followed suit, with only one cruiser, the Dresden, being able to escape — she would be driven into hiding after intense pursuit and eventually scuttled three months later. While the British suffered ten fatalities as a consequence of the action, the Germans lost 1900 men (with an additional 200 taken prisoner), six ships, a daring and accomplished admiral, and the ability to ever again effectively conduct surface operations in the Atlantic. The war was only four months old.

The last of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau [William Lionel Wyllie c. 1918]

The battle is an interesting one to me because of all the things it was not: no stagnation in the trenches, no repeated folly, no gross miscalculations. The worst that can be laid at the feet of those involved is misfortune. Even more than this, in a war that was so often marked by the disproportionate (even appalling) results achieved by tactics involving nascent technologies, the Battle of the Falkland Islands was nothing more or less than a squadron action, gun upon gun, in the oldest traditions of the navies involved. No radar, no aircraft, no submarines, no mines. Everything involved but the ships themselves would not have been out of place in the age of Lord Nelson, and the victory at the Falklands — particularly after the disaster at Coronel — was seen as a sign that the Royal Navy’s age-old supremacy had at last been reasserted.  Mark Connolly of the University of Kent provided a spectacular keynote about the battle’s commemorative history at the 2011 The Great War: From History to Memory conference in London, ON.  The conference’s proceedings no longer seem to be online, so no link to that is possible at this time — in a very real sense, you had to be there.

I’m happy to report that the good people at Osprey have finally put out a volume about these events — Coronel and Falklands 1914; Duel in the South Atlantic (2012). Those who would like to know more will find it an accessible and comprehensive work.

100D #4 | The Recruitment Ads of Sir Hedley Le Bas

3 Jun

The fourth installment of my ongoing series, The First World War in 100 Documents, is now available at Oxford’s WW1C blog.  In it — inspired by the contents of yet another gift book — I take a look at some of the recruitment ads devised by the prolific Sir Hedley Le Bas (1868 – 1926).  One such ad appears below:

five questions better

The full piece refers to others as well, and looks back as well to a recruitment ad from 1802 calling upon the men of Manchester to join the army and travel at once to Gibraltar.  Be sure to click through to check it out.

100D #3 | Advertising King Albert’s Book

30 May

The latest installment in this series has been cross-posted at Oxford’s WW1C blog — you can check it out here.  An excerpt:

The ad is not so much a tantalizing description of the book as it is an exercise in propagandistic persuasion.  The emphatic declaration at the ad’s outset that the book will “help put on record for all time the true and only reason for which the Allies have drawn the sword” reads like a press release from the agency with which this blog shares its name — and may very well actually have been, given that Hall Caine had been enthusiastically involved with the Bureau from its very inception.

A great deal of rhetorical effort is expended in emphasizing the volume’s unique and international character.  It could be “the most remarkable production that has ever issued from the press” — “a book to treasure now, and to hand down to one’s children,” because “perhaps nothing of its kind will ever appear again.”  This has turned out to be somewhat true; we have many imperfect analogues to the “gift book” craze in the modern day (like celebrity telethons, perhaps, or the Live Aid concert), but not to the same extent and with the same dizzying popularity as these volumes achieved at the turn of the 20th century.  The volume was certainly quite unique in its comprehensive breadth, as we’ve already seen, but it was its international flair — and the spirit of co-operation between “civilized” nations that it promoted — that was a primary focus.

I’ll be taking a look at King Albert’s Book itself in an upcoming installment, so stay tuned (so to speak).

100D #2 | The Manifesto of the Ninety-Three

15 May

[This is the second installment in a new ongoing series — The First World War in 100 Documents; I will create a sort of central hub for them as they begin to accumulate.]

The publication and wide-scale public distribution of the Authors’ Declaration prepared by Wellington House in September of 1914 had certain consequences, and one of them was a more or less direct rebuke.  The Declaration had made many claims about the infamous actions undertaken by the German army in Belgium during its invasion of that country in August, and — in spite of it having likely been more prudent to have not dignified them with a response — German authorities swiftly drafted a counter-manifesto.

The origins of the document that followed can be found in the planning of certain high-ranking officers in the Navy, with the enthusiastic participation of German propagandists and intelligentsia.  The task of drafting the manifesto itself fell to the playwright Ludwig Fulda, a gifted and inventive writer whose star has fallen considerably in the present day in spite of a number of fascinating works to his credit and a tragic end that might have been appropriate for a play itself.  After a short round of revisions from some of his colleagues and intended fellow signatories, the manifesto was distributed for endorsement by the German cultural elite.

And endorse it they did.  The Authors’ Declaration had boasted fifty-three of the biggest names in literary and academic Britain; the drafters of the German manifesto, not to be outdone, brought together ninety-three such persons in addition to a host of internationally renowned scientists, theologians, musicians and artists.  The list of signatories included no fewer than ten Nobel laureates.

It is, in many ways, an astounding document.  Much is made of the caution with which Germany made the weighty decision to invade Belgium in the first place, and several of the articles in the manifesto seem to be direct refutations of claims found in the Authors’ Declaration.  Little effort is made to deny that the German hand in Belgium had been heavy — atrocities are dismissed either as exaggerations or as having been thoroughly deserved.  The emphasis is rather upon the degree to which the German culture is a superior and desirable one, with this being offered as an assurance of the ultimately civilized outlook of both the German army and its administrators.  This is painted in stark contrast to the Allies, who are bewilderingly accused of “inciting Mongolians and Negroes against the white race.”

Many (possibly even most) of the manifesto’s signatories repudiated its contents after the war — some because their perspective on the proceedings had changed, but some also because, as they unhappily admitted, they had not actually had the chance to read the manifesto before agreeing to endorse it.

Whatever the legitimacy of the document as an example of the German intellectuals’ position at the war’s outset, it remains a peculiar and important piece:

   Appeal to the Civilized World

As representatives of German Science and Art, we hereby protest to the civilized world against the lies and calumnies with which our enemies are endeavoring to stain the honor of Germany in her hard struggle for existence—in a struggle that has been forced on her.

The iron mouth of events has proved the untruth of the fictitious German defeats; consequently misrepresentation and calumny are all the more eagerly at work. As heralds of truth we raise our voices against these.

It is not true that Germany is guilty of having caused this war. Neither the people, the Government, nor the Kaiser wanted war. Germany did her utmost to prevent it; for this assertion the world has documental proof. Often enough during the twenty-six years of his reign has Wilhelm II shown himself to be the upholder of peace, and often enough has this fact been acknowledged by our opponents. Nay, even the Kaiser, whom they now dare to call an Attila, has been ridiculed by them for years, because of his steadfast endeavors to maintain universal peace. Not till a numerical superiority which has been lying in wait on the frontiers assailed us did the whole nation rise to a man.

It is not true that we trespassed in neutral Belgium. It has been proved that France and England had resolved on such a trespass, and it has likewise been proved that Belgium had agreed to their doing so. It would have been suicide on our part not to have preempted this.

It is not true that the life and property of a single Belgian citizen was injured by our soldiers without the bitterest self-defense having made it necessary; for again and again, notwithstanding repeated threats, the citizens lay in ambush, shooting at the troops out of the houses, mutilating the wounded, and murdering in cold blood the medical men while they were doing their Samaritan work. There can be no baser abuse than the suppression of these crimes with the view of letting the Germans appear to be criminals, only for having justly punished these assassins for their wicked deeds.

It is not true that our troops treated Louvain brutally. Furious inhabitants having treacherously fallen upon them in their quarters, our troops with aching hearts were obliged to fire a part of the town as a punishment. The greatest part of Louvain has been preserved. The famous Town Hall stands quite intact; for at great self-sacrifice our soldiers saved it from destruction by the flames. Every German would of course greatly regret if in the course of this terrible war any works of art should already have been destroyed or be destroyed at some future time, but inasmuch as in our great love for art we cannot be surpassed by any other nation, in the same degree we must decidedly refuse to buy a German defeat at the cost of saving a work of art.

It is not true that our warfare pays no respect to international laws. It knows no indisciplined cruelty. But in the east the earth is saturated with the blood of women and children unmercifully butchered by the wild Russian troops, and in the west dumdum bullets mutilate the breasts of our soldiers. Those who have allied themselves with Russians and Serbians, and present such a shameful scene to the world as that of inciting Mongolians and negroes against the white race, have no right whatever to call themselves upholders of civilization.

It is not true that the combat against our so-called militarism is not a combat against our civilization, as our enemies hypocritically pretend it is. Were it not for German militarism, German civilization would long since have been extirpated. For its protection it arose in a land which for centuries had been plagued by bands of robbers as no other land had been. The German Army and the German people are one and today this consciousness fraternizes 70,000,000 Germans, all ranks, positions, and parties being one.

We cannot wrest the poisonous weapon—the lie—out of the hands of our enemies. All we can do is to proclaim to all the world that our enemies are giving false witness against us. You, who know us, who with us have protected the most holy possessions of man, we call to you:

Have faith in us! Believe, that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilized nation, to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Kant is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes.

For this we pledge you our names and our honor:

  1. Adolf von Baeyer, chemist: synthesized indigo, 1905 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
  2. Peter Behrens, architect and designer
  3. Emil Adolf von Behring, physiologist: received the 1901 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  4. Wilhelm von Bode, art historian and curator
  5. Aloïs Brandl, Austrian-German philologist
  6. Lujo Brentano, economist and social reformer
  7. Justus Brinckmann, art historian
  8. Johannes Conrad, political economist
  9. Franz von Defregger, Austrian artist
  10. Richard Dehmel, anti-conservative poet and writer
  11. Adolf Deissmann, Protestant theologian
  12. Wilhelm Dörpfeld, architect and archeologist (including site of ancient Troy)
  13. Friedrich von Duhn, classical scholar
  14. Paul Ehrlich, awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, initiated chemotherapy, “the magic bullet”
  15. Albert Ehrhard, Catholic priest and church historian
  16. Karl Engler, chemist
  17. Gerhart Esser, Catholic theologian
  18. Rudolf Christoph Eucken, philosopher: winner of the 1908 Nobel Prize for Literature
  19. Herbert Eulenberg, poet and playwright
  20. Henrich Finke, Catholic church historian
  21. Hermann Emil Fischer, chemist: 1902 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
  22. Wilhelm Foerster, also signed counter-manifesto
  23. Ludwig Fulda, Jewish playwright with strong social commitment
  24. Eduard von Gebhardt, painter
  25. Jan Jakob Maria de Groot, Sinologist and historian of religion
  26. Fritz Haber, chemist: received the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for synthesizing ammonia
  27. Ernst Haeckel, biologist: coined the words “ecology, phylum, stem cell,” developed “”ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”
  28. Max Halbe, dramatist
  29. Adolf von Harnack, Lutheran theologian
  30. Carl Hauptmann, playwright
  31. Gerhart Hauptmann, dramatist and novelist: received the 1912 Nobel Prize in Literature
  32. Gustav Hellmann, meteorologist
  33. Wilhelm Herrmann, Reformed theologian
  34. Andreas Heusler, Swiss medievalist
  35. Adolf von Hildebrand, sculptor
  36. Ludwig Hoffmann, architect
  37. Engelbert Humperdinck, composer: including “Hänsel und Gretel”
  38. Leopold Graf von Kalckreuth, painter
  39. Arthur Kampf, history painter
  40. Friedrich August von Kaulbach, painter
  41. Theodor Kipp, jurist
  42. Felix Klein, mathematician: group theory, complex analysis, non-Euclidean geometry; “the Klein bottle”
  43. Max Klinger, Symbolist painter, sculptor, printmaker, and writer
  44. Aloïs Knoepfler, art historian
  45. Anton Koch, Catholic theologian
  46. Paul Laband, professor of law
  47. Karl Lamprecht, historian
  48. Philipp Lenard, physicist: winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize for Physics for cathode rays research
  49. Maximilian Lenz, painter
  50. Max Liebermann, Jewish Impressionist painter and printmaker
  51. Franz von Liszt, jurist and legal scholar (cousin of the composer)
  52. Karl Ludwig Manzel, sculptor
  53. Joseph Mausbach, theologian
  54. Georg von Mayr, statistician
  55. Sebastian Merkle, Catholic theologian
  56. Eduard Meyer, historian
  57. Heinrich Morf, linguist
  58. Friedrich Naumann, liberal politician and Protestant pastor
  59. Albert Neisser, physician who discovered the cause of gonorrhea
  60. Walther Hermann Nernst, physicist: third law of thermodynamics, won the 1920 Nobel Prize in chemistry
  61. Wilhelm Ostwald, chemist: received the 1909 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
  62. Bruno Paul, architect, illustrator, interior designer, and furniture designer.
  63. Max Planck,theoretical physicist: originated quantum theory, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918
  64. Albert Plohn, professor of medicine
  65. Georg Reicke, author
  66. Max Reinhardt, Austrian-born, American stage and film actor and director
  67. Alois Riehl, philosopher
  68. Carl Robert, philologist and archeologist
  69. Wilhelm Roentgen, physicist: known for X-rays, awarded 1901 Nobel Prize in Physics
  70. Max Rubner, physiologist and hygienist
  71. Fritz Schaper, sculptor
  72. Adolf von Schlatter, Evangelical theologian
  73. August Schmidlin, theologian
  74. Gustav von Schmoller, economist
  75. Reinhold Seeberg, theologian
  76. Martin Spahn, historian
  77. Franz von Stuck, symbolist/Art Nouveau painter, sculptor, engraver, and architect
  78. Hermann Sudermann, dramatist and novelist
  79. Hans Thoma, painter
  80. Wilhelm Trübner, realist painter
  81. Karl Vollmöller, playwright and screenwriter
  82. Richard Voss, dramatist and novelist
  83. Karl Vossler, linguist and scholar
  84. Siegfried Wagner, composer, son of Richard Wagner
  85. Wilhelm Waldeyer, anatomist: named the chromosome
  86. August von Wassermann, bacteriologist: developed the “Wassermann test” for syphilis
  87. Felix Weingartner, Austrian conductor, composer and pianist
  88. Theodor Wiegand, archeologist
  89. Wilhelm Wien, physicist: received the 1911 Nobel Prize for work on heat radiation
  90. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, classical philologist
  91. Richard Willstätter, organic chemist: won the 1915 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for structure of plant pigments
  92. Wilhelm Windelband, philosopher
  93. Wilhelm Wundt, physician, psychologist, physiologist, philosopher, “father of experimental psychology”

Further reading:

  • Kramer, Alan and John Horne.  German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (2001).
  • Vergey, Jeffrey.  The Spirit of 1914: Militarism, Myth, and Mobilization in Germany (2006).
  • Stromberg, Ronald N.  Redemption by War: The Intellectuals and 1914 (1982).

100D #1 | The Authors’ Declaration

13 May

[N.B. This is the first installment of The First World War in 100 Documents — I’ll put together a hub for all of them as more begin to appear.  My intention is to post two or three per week, but we’ll see how it all pans out.]

Most of the documents in this series will have considerably more background and explanation provided for them here than this one does.  In the case of the Declaration, however, I will instead take the liberty of linking to my existing article on the subject at Oxford’s WW1C blog.

In brief, the Authors’ Declaration of Sept. 1914 was a manifesto, signed by fifty-three of the most prominent British novelists, poets, dramatists and scholars, which declared in unambiguous terms that the German invasion of Belgium the previous month had been a crime, and that Britain “could not without dishonour have refused to take part in the present war.”  The Declaration was one of the earliest efforts of the nascent War Propaganda Bureau to craft a coherent intellectual message in support of the war effort.

The text of the Declaration follows:

The undersigned writers, comprising among them men of the most divergent political and social views, some of them having been for years ardent champions of good-will toward Germany, and many of them extreme advocates of peace, are nevertheless agreed that Great Britain could not without dishonor have refused to take part in the present war. No one can read the full diplomatic correspondence published in the “White Paper” without seeing that the British representatives were throughout laboring whole-heartedly to preserve the peace of Europe, and that their conciliatory efforts were cordially received by both France and Russia.

When these efforts failed Great Britain had still no direct quarrel with any power. She was eventually compelled to take up arms because, together with France, Germany, and Austria, she had solemnly pledged herself to maintain the neutrality of Belgium. As soon as danger to that neutrality arose she questioned both France and Germany as to their intentions. France immediately renewed her pledge not to violate Belgian neutrality; Germany refused to answer, and soon made all answer needless by her actions. Without even the pretense of a grievance against Belgium she made war on the weak and unoffending country she had undertaken to protect, and has since carried out her invasion with a calculated and ingenious ferocity which has raised questions other and no less grave than that of the willful disregard of treaties.

When Belgium in her dire need appealed to Great Britain to carry out her pledge, that country’s course was clear. She had either to break faith, letting the sanctity of treaties and the rights of small nations count for nothing before the threat of naked force, or she had to fight. She did not hesitate, and we trust she will not lay down arms till Belgium’s integrity is restored and her wrongs redressed.

The treaty with Belgium made our duty clear, but many of us feel that, even if Belgium had not been involved, it would have been impossible for Great Britain to stand aside while France was dragged into war and destroyed. To permit the ruin of France would be a crime against liberty and civilization. Even those of us who question the wisdom of a policy of Continental ententes or alliances refuse to see France struck down by a foul blow dealt in violation of a treaty.

We observe that various German apologists, official and semi-official, admit that their country had been false to its pledged word, and dwell almost with pride on the “frightfulness” of the examples by which it has sought to spread terror in Belgium, but they excuse all these proceedings by a strange and novel plea. German culture and civilization are so superior to those of other nations that all steps taken to assert them are more than justified, and the destiny of Germany to be the dominating force in Europe and the world is so manifest that ordinary rules of morality do not hold in her case, but actions are good or bad simply as they help or hinder the accomplishment of that destiny.

These views, inculcated upon the present generation of Germans by many celebrated historians and teachers, seem to us both dangerous and insane. Many of us have dear friends in Germany, many of us regard German culture with the highest respect and gratitude; but we cannot admit that any nation has the right by brute force to impose its culture upon other nations, nor that the iron military bureaucracy of Prussia represents a higher form of human society than the free Constitutions of Western Europe.

Whatever the world destiny of Germany may be, we in Great Britain are ourselves conscious of a destiny and a duty. That destiny and duty, alike for us and for all the English-speaking race, call upon us to uphold the rule of common justice between civilized peoples, to defend the rights of small nations, and to maintain the free and law-abiding ideals of Western Europe against the rule of “Blood and Iron” and the domination of the whole Continent by a military caste.

For these reasons and others the undersigned feel bound to support the cause of the Allies with all their strength, with a full conviction of its righteousness, and with a deep sense of its vital import to the future of the world.


WILLIAM ARCHER, dramatic critic and editor of Ibsen’s works, author of “Life of Macready,” “Real Conversations,” “The Great Analysis,” and (with Granville Barker) “A National Theatre.”

H. GRANVILLE BARKER, actor, dramatist, and manager, shares with his wife management of the Kingsway Theatre, London; author of “The Voysey Inheritance,” and (with Laurence Housman) “Prunella.”

SIR JAMES MATTHEW BARRIE, creator of “Sentimental Tommy” and “Peter Pan,” famous for his sympathetic studies of Scotch life and his fantastic comedies.

HILAIRE BELLOC, best known as a writer on history, politics, and economics; a recognized authority on the French Revolution.

ARNOLD BENNETT, author of many popular realistic studies of English provincial life, including “Clayhanger” and “Hilda Lessways.”

ARTHUR CHRISTOPHER BENSON, chiefly known for “From a College Window,” “Beside Still Waters,” and other volumes of essays.

EDWARD FREDERIC BENSON, brother of the preceding, author of many novels of modern life, including “Dodo.”

VERY REV. MONSIGNOR ROBERT HUGH BENSON, the youngest of the three famous Benson brothers. Besides numerous devotional and theological works, Monsignor Benson has written several widely appreciated historical novels.

LAWRENCE BINYON, author of many lyrics and poetic dramas, Assistant Keeper in the British Museum, in charge of Oriental Prints and Drawings.

ANDREW CECIL BRADLEY, critic, sometime Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, author of a standard work on Shakespeare.

ROBERT BRIDGES, Poet-Laureate. Prominent as a physician before his poetry brought him the high honor he now enjoys.

HALL CAINE, one of the most popular of contemporary novelists.

R.C. CARTON, dramatist, author of “Lord and Lady Algy” and “A White Elephant.”

CHARLES HADDON CHAMBERS, dramatist, author of “John a Dreams,” part author of “The Fatal Card.”

GILBERT K. CHESTERTON, essayist, novelist, poet; defender of orthodox thought by unorthodox methods.

HUBERT HENRY DAVIES, dramatist, author of “The Mollusc” and “A Single Man.”

SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, creator of “Sherlock Holmes.”

HERBERT ALBERT LAURENS FISHER, Vice Chancellor of Sheffield University, author of “The Mediaeval Empire,” “Napoleon Bonaparte,” and other historical works.

JOHN GALSWORTHY, a novelist and dramatist who has come into great prominence during the last five years, his plays, “Strife” and “Justice,” and his novel, “The Dark Flower,” being widely known.

ANSTEY GUTHRIE, (F. ANSTEY,) author of “The Brass Bottle,” “The Talking Horse,” and other fantastic and humorous tales.

SIR HENRY RIDER HAGGARD, author of many widely read romances, among them being “She.”

THOMAS HARDY, generally considered to be the greatest living English novelist.

JANE ELLEN HARRISON, sometime Fellow and Lecturer at Newnham College, Cambridge University; writer of many standard works on classical religion, literature, and life.

ANTHONY HOPE HAWKINS, (ANTHONY HOPE,) author of popular historical romance and sketches of modern society, including “The Prisoner of Zenda.”

MAURICE HEWLETT, poet and romantic novelist, author of “Earthworks Out of Tuscany” and other mediaeval tales.

ROBERT HICHENS, novelist, author of “The Garden of Allah,” “Bella Donna,” and other stories.

JEROME K. JEROME, humorist, famous for “Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow” and the “Three Men” series, and for his play “The Passing of the Third Floor Back.”

HENRY ARTHUR JONES, dramatist, author of “The Silver King,” “The Hypocrites,” and other plays.

RUDYARD KIPLING needs no introduction to people who read the English language.

WILLIAM J. LOCKE, author of “The Morals of Marcus,” “Septimus,” and “The Beloved Vagabond,” which have been made into successful plays.

EDWARD VERRAL LUCAS, associate editor of Punch and editor of several popular anthologies, author of “A Wanderer in Holland.”

JOHN WILLIAM MACKAIL, Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, author and editor of many volumes dealing with ancient Greek and Roman literature.

JOHN MASEFIELD, known chiefly for his long poems of life among the British poor.

ALFRED EDWARD WOODLEY MASON, writer of romantic novels, of which “The Four Feathers” and “The Turnstile” are perhaps the best known, and of several popular dramas.

GILBERT MURRAY, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University since 1908, editor and translator of Greek classics, perhaps the greatest Greek scholar now living.

HENRY NEWBOLT, “laureate of the British Navy,” author of “Drake’s Drum” and many other songs.

BARRY PAIN, author of “Eliza” and other novels and short stories of adventure, of many well-known parodies and poems.

SIR GILBERT PARKER, of Canadian birth, poet and author of romantic novels, including “The Judgment House,” and “The Right of Way.”

EDEN PHILLPOTTS, realistic novelist, noted for his exact portraits of the English rustic, author of “Down Dartmoor Way.”

SIR ARTHUR WING PINERO, one of the most popular of living dramatists. His plays include “Sweet Lavender” and “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.”

SIR ARTHUR QUILLER-COUCH, Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University, poet, novelist, and writer of short stories.

SIR OWEN SEAMAN, since 1906 editor of Punch, writer of parodies and light verse.

GEORGE R. SIMS, journalist, poet, and author of many popular dramas, including “The Lights of London,” “Two Little Vagabonds,” and “Harbour Lights.”

MAY SINCLAIR, writer of novels dealing with modern moral problems, “The Divine Fire” and “The Combined Maze” being best known.

FLORA ANNIE STEEL, author of “Tales from the Punjab,” “On the Face of the Waters,” “A Prince of Dreamers,” and other novels and short stories, most of which deal with life in India.

ALFRED SUTRO, dramatist, author of “The Walls of Jericho,” “The Barrier,” and other plays of modern society.”

GEORGE MACAULAY TREVELYAN, late Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; author of “England Under the Stuarts,” and other historical and biographical works.

RT. HON. GEORGE OTTO TREVELYAN, historian, biographer of Macaulay, and author of a four-volume work on the American Revolution.

HUMPHRY WARD, journalist and author, sometime Fellow of Brasenose College, editor of several biographical and historical works.

MARY A. WARD, (Mrs. HUMPHRY WARD,) best known of contemporary women novelists; her first success was “Robert Elsmere.”

H.G. WELLS, novelist, author of “Tono Bungay” and “Ann Veronica.”

MARGARET L. WOODS, poet; her “Wild Justice” and “The Invader” have placed her in the front rank.

ISRAEL ZANGWILL, novelist, poet, dramatist, interpreter of the modern Jewish spirit.


The next installment in this series will be up later this week!  Be sure to check in again closer to Friday.

New posting series to begin at last

13 May

[N.B. I had initially planned to get this ball rolling back in March, but the tide of events turned against me and all was delayed.  The time has now come to get it all back on track, however, so here we go.]

It is a curious quirk of fate that there are currently no fewer than three books on the market organized around the theme of exploring the First World War “…in 100 Objects.”  Gary Sheffield’s is one; Peter Doyle’s is another; I confess I can’t remember who prepared the third, and I apologize to that author for the omission.  Whatever the case, it’s a popular format.

Mimicking it too closely myself would probably be a bad idea.  I am not an historian of material culture, and still less do I feel qualified to give any sort of overview of the war through descriptive engagements with objects-as-objects.  I am also, when it comes right down to it, not really an historian at all, but rather a literary scholar: I work, instead, with words.

With this in mind, and as a helpful spur to productivity, I’ve decided to start a new, intermittent posting series based instead on exploring the First World War in 100… Documents.  The threshold for “document” will be pretty broad, it must be confessed; readers can expect to see pieces on all sorts of things, be they poems, sermons, essays, posters, newspaper ads, proclamations, or goodness knows what else.  Everything from multi-volume books to two-line telegrams is on the table, but you’ll have to keep checking back to see what’s next.

The first post in this series has already appeared.

Canadian Literature of World War One

12 Mar

wwi lit logoThe tentative schedule for the upcoming international conference on Canadian WWI literature has now been posted; you can check it out here.

The conference will take place in Ottawa and is co-sponsored by the Canadian War Museum, the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa.  There will be four days of concurrent sessions and a trio of plenary addresses from Tim Cook, Margaret MacMillan and Frances Itani.  I’ll be presenting a paper there myself (on the Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock’s wartime writings in aid of Belgian Relief), and several of my colleagues from uOttawa’s English department will be giving talks on (among other subjects) Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed (1930) and Timothy Findley’s The Wars (1977) — two texts that would be all but impossible to exclude from any discussion of the Canadian literary response to the war.  Other colleagues from UO will present papers on the wartime experiences of Canon F.G. Scott, the contemporary Canadian dramatic response to the war, and the child-like rhetoric involved in describing the German enemy.

All in all, a promising affair.  If you happen to be in the area this summer, please consider coming out.

Welcome to BBC listeners

7 Mar

For those of you arriving from the link on the page at BBC Radio 4′s 1914-1918: The Cultural Front — welcome!  This is very, very far from being an aggressively updated blog, by any measurable stretch, but it’s something.  I hope to make it more dynamic at once.

In the meantime, interested parties can check out my contributions to Oxford’s WWI centenary project, Continuations and Beginnings — this recent one on the Authors’ Declaration of September 1914 will be especially relevant to those listening to The Cultural Front — or follow me on Twitter @1stWorldWarrior.  I can also be followed on both and LinkedIn.

I’m very grateful to BBC Radio 4 to have been asked to speak about these matters, and look forward to doing so again as the centenary events unfold.  In the meantime, thanks for stopping by — I intend for daily posting to resume on Monday, March 10th, so please feel free to check back.


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