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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.

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.

Oxford’s WWI Centenary Blog

27 Jul

I’m happy to announce that I’ve been given a position writing for Oxford University’s WWI Centenary Blog!  My first post, rather tragically, is not about the war itself, but rather about something that sprang up in its aftermath — still, the war had a considerable impact on the periodical culture of the time, and what you’ll read here is very much an outgrowth of that.  Unfortunately, if you’ve been reading this blog already, you’ll already have seen me talk about this subject.  No matter!  The next post will be wholly original, and actually about the war into the bargain.  It may also be somewhat controversial.

I’ll be sure to announce any new posts here once they go up.  This will be a great deal of fun, I think.

More on Raymond Asquith, sort of

31 May

Previously I posted a short meditation from Raymond Asquith on his erstwhile colleague Julian Grenfell, one of the war’s more militant poets.  Both men died in the war, much to the detriment of English letters, but I haven’t had much to say about Asquith himself just yet.  I hope to in time (he’s no end of interesting), but for the moment here’s another short snippet in the same spirit as the earlier post.

Maurice Baring (who thankfully did NOT die in the war), in a letter to Dame Ethel Smyth, Sept. 20th, 1916:

“Life is a strain now, isn’t it? Scaffolding falls about one daily, one’s old friends and one’s new friends are killed or disappear like flies; the floor of life seems to have gone, and one seems to live in a permanent eclipse and a seasonless world – a world with no summer and no winter, only a long, grey, neutral-tinted Limbo. Raymond Asquith is the latest. I was certain he would be killed. I dined with him the night before he went back to his regiment after a spell at G.H.Q. – I felt I would never see him again…”

This sense of loss was one that was felt keenly throughout all the world as the war continued to expand and consume, expand and consume.

Brittain, Kipling(s), Roosevelt

20 May

Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge have edited a fantastic volume of wartime letters that were sent to and among Vera Brittain’s intimate circle of friends and lovers — Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends (1998).  It’s a fine collection of correspondence marked with a necessary sense of impending loss, given the frequency with which Brittain’s doomed fiance, Roland Leighton, comes up.  His own letters are included as well.

What struck my eye while browsing the volume, however, was a remarkable letter from Vera to Roland in October of 1915, after the Battle of Loos.  This was the ill-starred battle that led to the now infamous death of John Kipling, Rudyard Kipling’s only son; its immortalization in numerous books, articles, a play, and a (reasonably good) TV movie have seen the young Kipling take on a symbolically resonant status.  Much of this is intentionally emphasized — even exaggerated — in the art that surrounds the event, of course; what better image could there be, from the still-disillusioned modern point of view, than that of a bright young men sent off to a war he barely understood at the urging of his famous, wealthy father?  What better than that he should die unceremoniously and immediately, his body vanishing (this is debatable) forever into the mud-soaked hell of the trenches?  They couldn’t have done it better in a novel, and the degree to which a superficial reading of the situation lends itself exactly to the template played up by so many post-war books and poems and plays has made it hard to separate fact from fancy.  My Boy Jack is fine entertainment, but it should hardly be taken as a totally reliable account of these events.

Anyway, this letter, dated October 7th of that fateful year, contains a surprising meditation on Brittain’s part on the death of John Kipling.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever read from a now-canonical author of the war, and offers a perspective that would be very hard to fit into what we’re all supposed to think everyone then was supposed to be thinking.

And so:

Vera to Roland. Buxton, 7 October, 1915.

I could often have wept at the casualty lists that have kept coming in this week – so many officers and most of them so young too. Rudyard Kipling’s son is among the ‘Missing believed killed’. I always feel sorrier when they are the sons of intellectual & brilliant people. I don’t know why I should be, but somehow I always feel that they must mean even more to their parents than those of the more ordinary ones do to theirs…

Amazing — and rather against the grain of how many now feel in an age that persists in seeing Wilfred Owen’s death as tragic while viewing the national grief at the death of Rupert Brooke as quaint and silly.

Three years later, in July of 1918, Rudyard Kipling himself opened up to a friend about a similar matter and about the gulf that the loss of so many young men had left in his life and in the lives of those around him.  He takes as his pretext the death in action of another “son of intellectual & brilliant people” — that of Quentin Roosevelt, former president Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son.  The younger Roosevelt had joined the air force and was killed in action over France on July 14, 1918.  Roosevelt’s own response to this (and his correspondence with Kipling on that very subject) will likely turn up on this blog later, but for now I’m going to stick to Kipling’s letter to Edmonia Hill:

I see to-day that poor young Quentin Roosevelt has been killed flying.  One doesn’t  mind these things so much for oneself as one does for other people.  I know Kermit and like him immensely but I believe Quentin was a great favorite of his father’s and a most promising man.  His mother will feel it – and more as the years roll around.

Can you imagine such a life as it is with us here now – where there are no young men left among the people one knows, within eight visiting miles of us, every house has lost its son.  Now my second young cousin – younger than John – has just gone out to take John’s place in the Irish Guards, and I’m praying that he’ll get a good satisfactory deep-seated wound that will keep him quiet for six or eight months.

We had a boy staying with us one Sunday night.  He had just recovered from a wound and was off on Monday morning.  By Thursday he was wounded and back again in hospital.  Now he is out once more at the front twice wounded and a Major at the age of twenty-three!  Another friend of mine is a Brigadier General, aged twenty-six! which when you remember the ancient Generals in the East seems revolutionary.

Theodore Roosevelt would not have long to grieve his son — he would die six months later, Jan. 6, 1919.  Kipling would endure with his increasingly estranged wife and daughter until 1936, dying within days of his friend, King George V.  The monarch, as My Boy Jack is at pains to emphasize, also lost a son during this time — though not because of the war.  But that is another post for another day…


29 Apr

From Will R. Bird:

Early in the war a very dutiful British officer in charge of a post deep in the heart of Africa received a wireless message from his chief.

“War declared.  Arrest all enemy aliens in your district.”

A few days later the chief received this communication:

“Have arrested seven Germans, three Belgians, four Spaniards, five Frenchmen, two Swedes and an American.  Please inform me with whom we are at war.”

The circumstances leading up to the Great War’s beginning were such that this kind of uncertainty really might have been possible.  If we were to put the matter at its most complicated, the assassination in Bosnia of an Austro-Hungarian prince at the hands of a Serb led to such a mobilization of the Russian army that Germany was obliged to invade Belgium in a bid to pre-emptively conquer France, thus leading to the British declaration of war.  Where the hapless Swedes would fit in to this is anyone’s guess, but the officer above may still be commended for covering his bases.

Desperate measures

24 Apr

More from Will R. Bird’s The Communication Trench:

Sergeant Taylor had an ’18 draft t a rifle range near Ferfay.  They shot at 400 yards, and missed the targets.  He advanced to 300 yards, and had like results.  Looking like a thunder cloud, he placed them at 200 yards, and there were no hits.  Grimly he moved them to 100 yards, and not an man made an inner.

“Fix by’nets,” yelled Taylor, like a hungry tiger.  “Charge the targets, you blighters!  It’s your only ‘ope!”


Old Bill, worn by 36 straight months in France, neglected his rifle when we were at Bourlon, and was “on the carpet.”  The O.C. looked surprised to see him, and shuffled his papers.  “What was your last crime?” he asked.

“Havin’ a dirty bow an’ arrer,” grunted Bill.

The Captain did not like the way our Cockney answered officers, and reprimanded him.  “Always say ‘yes, sir,’ and ‘no, sir'” he finished.  “Understand?”

“Righto,” chirped our boy.


Sergt. W.F. Adamson of the 1st Australian Light Horse, found in August ’15, at Lone Pine Gallipoli, Roman coins in a trench he was digging.  They were the coins of Lucius Domitius Aurelianus, struck at Alexandria, A.D. 270.  This money was used to pay Roman soldiers who were fighting the Turks in the same territory occupied by the Australians.  So war goes on.

More to come in time.

The Blagasphere

17 Apr

This has precious little to do with the war, but it’s one of my very favourite things I’ve ever found and I am powerless to resist passing it along.

Sir John Collings Squire (1884-1958), best known as an editor, a satiric poet, a parodic speech-maker, a lover of stout ales, and as one very well-accomplished in the field of general bluster, was from 1919 through 1934 the editor of the London Mercury, a widely-read literary magazine featuring reviews, news, and short original works.  The magazine was noted (and at times denounced) for its more conservative approach to the literary scene of the time; Squire and his colleagues were not keen on Modernism, nor upon the sometimes less overtly Modernist but still distinctly modern works of the Bloomsbury Group, and the Mercury offered a venue in which work of an older style could still be published and discussed.  The personal and professional feuds that developed between the new-wave literary scene and what one Bloomsbury wag described as “The Squirearchy” are deeply interesting, and will certainly be something to which I intend to return at greater length later; for now, however, I want to examine a curious coincidence of nomenclature.

In one of his editorial notes in the Feb. 1920 issue of the Mercury (1.4), Squire writes rather scornfully of the “experimental” verse being turned out by what he called the Futurist-Vorticist-Cubist type.  I won’t go into detail about the specific poems (many of them quite shockingly weird) that he lambastes, as that’s rather beside the point, but what matters from our perspective is the brief mention he makes of Blast, the very influential (and extremely short-lived) Vorticist periodical put out by Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and others.  It lasted for two issues — the declaration of war in 1914 saw many of its contributors forced into other lines of work, and at least two of them (T.E. Hulme and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska) would be killed in action.

In any event, Squire looks back fondly upon Blast‘s demise, it having stood for many of the things he found most tiresome, but he offers a sort of lament all the same: in its death, he writes, it “[gave] place to countless smaller magazines and books.” This was the culture of the “Little Magazine” that flourished in this period; Ford Madox Ford’s celebrated English Review is one such example — a small periodical founded by, edited by, and largely beholden to a single figure’s tastes and ideas. These smaller magazines made their way along by constantly referring back to one another; the authors had feuds and denounced one another; they reviewed and condemned each other’s works; and so on.   Such magazines fed upon one another; they “attach[ed] themselves to anything which [would] give them publicity,” as Squire concludes.

The similarity of this to modern blogging is notable, wouldn’t you say?  I would.  The only real difference is the possibility of real-time reader comment rather than much-delayed letters to the editor, and even that is not so much a difference of kind as a difference of degree.

This brings us to the reason for this post.

In denouncing all of the above, which bears in its culture and its conduct so much that is now common among bloggers, Squire needed something to call them to distinguish them from periodical contributors generally. He unaccountably settled upon the epithet blagueurs.  Let that sink in.

Squire’s emphasis in this was primarily upon the (to him) unappealing nature of the material being published, whether it be the font-based shenanigans of a Marinetti or the inarticulate noise-words of some of the verslibrists being reviewed by F.S. Flint in The Monthly Chapbook.  He could not easily believe that many people sincerely enjoyed such “poems,” and still less that the artists were sincerely producing them.  He viewed it as japery, fraud — the work of “tricksters” and “jokers”.  Blageuers means exactly that.  That it should end up sounding so much like the term chosen to describe a similar sort of personal periodical production a century later is remarkable.  Nothing at all beyond a coincidence, but remarkable.

During the war, Squire was a frequent contributor (usually of reviews) to Land & Water, one of the premiere English periodicals dedicated solely to the war and its progress; the magazine also regularly saw content provided by Hilaire Belloc and Fred T. Jane, the latter of the now enormous Jane’s military reference series.  Given that I’ll be returning to Squire often, here, perhaps that’s where I’ll go next.

The Tsar at Play

9 Apr

This is really pushing this blog’s “culture of WWI” mandate, but these images are too sensational to pass up.

The year is 1899. . Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, in an astounding break from the stern, often exasperated persona that he otherwise emphasized in public, relaxes with friends and members of his extended family.  Confronted with the possibility of photographs being taken, the Tsar and his companions decide to do something… rather odd:

The two-headed eagle in flight

Woah!  One never expects to see images like this coming out of the world of Victorian-era photography, but here they are — and more besides:

Trading places

The Tsar pulls a face with the Princess Ingeborg of Denmark:

An unnamed niece(?) photobombs the pair

The Duchess of Darmstadt makes it clear how happy she is with the proceedings:

Let your smile be your umbrella

The Tsar, Prince Nicholas of Greece, and an unnamed friend do the creep:

Good clean fun

The Princess Ingeborg of Denmark would go on to live a remarkably happy life, dying contentedly in 1958.  Nicholas of Greece would live out his days in Athens, dying more or less untroubled in 1938.  I cannot say what befell the Duchess.  As for Nicholas II, the man you see above would famously go on to lose everything his family had fought to uphold for centuries and would — along with his wife, his children, and several loyal retainers — end up being unceremoniously murdered in a basement in the summer of 1918.  The world can be a merciless place.

Raymond Asquith on Julian Grenfell

5 Apr

I’ll have much more to say on the subject of both these men in coming weeks, but for now, as I head out the door, here’s a remarkable assessment of Grenfell by Asquith, who remembered him fondly from their time together at Balliol.

It was easy to idealize Julian, because superficially he seemed to be built on very simple lines.  One might have set him up in a public place as a heroic or symbolic figure of Youth and Force.  In reality he was far too intelligent and interesting to be a symbolic figure of anything.  His appetite for action was immense, but it was a craving of his whole nature, mind no less than body.  His sheer physical vigour, as everyone knows, was prodigious.  Perfectly made and perpetually fit he flung himself upon life in a surge of restless and unconquerable energy.  Riding, or rowing, or boxing, or running with his greyhounds, or hunting the Boches in Flanders, he ‘tired the sun with action’ as others have with talk.  His will was persistent and pugnacious and constantly in motion.  His mind, no less, was full of fire and fibre; lively, independent, never for a moment stagnating, nor ever mantled with the scum of second-hand ideas, violent in its movements but always moving, intemperate perhaps in its habit but with ‘the brisk intemperance of youth’.

Grenfell died in May of 1915; Asquith in September of 1916.