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'A gaping silken dragon,/Puffed by the wind, suffices us for God./We, not the City, are the Empire's soul:/A rotten tree lives only in its rind.'

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The world we have...

... lost.

Nearly two decades ago, I spent a couple of years reading all the Great War novels, memoirs, diaries etc that I could find published by British ex-combatants between November 1918 and August 1939. 'British' in that context included Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders etc who fought in British units. I read a total of 200 of these books by ex-combatants. By the end of the exercise (which resulted in a D.Phil.) I found that I had read myself out of my previous interest in Great War writing. My life also became less academic, as I returned to school mastering (it was 'school mastering', as the school was Eton), and I put that sort of reading on the back burner (switched off). However, over the last month, I've read three books by Great War veterans of the RNAS and the RFC:

I found The Spider Webb in the second hand books shack at Baddsley Clinton. Wind in the Wires jumped out at me from my local book shop chain, and I have had Arthur Gould Lee's No Parachute for 10 years. The latter was a Christmas present from my son, but in 2005 I still couldn't face a Great War book. Hallam's The Spider Webb was originally published in 1919, and parts of it were published during the Great War in The Times and Blackwood's Magazine. Grinnell-Milne's Wind in the Wires (a nod to Wind in the Willows (?), itself illustrated by the veteran, and MC winner, E.H. Shepherd) was published in 1937, while Arthur Gould Lee's memoir didn't appear until 1966, but it is essentially his wartime letters to his first wife, with some diary entries. One of the interesting contrasts between the books seems to me to reflect the time of writing. Hallam's book, which deals with flying boat patrols in the North Sea, includes some pretty lurid passages imagining the deaths of German U-boat crews that are bombed by RNAS flying boats. That pretty much reflects the general, contemporary, British, view of the U-boat (probably in both wars). Grinnell-Milne's book fascinates because a good deal of it covers the early days of the RFC when the corps was flying basically useless aircraft with inadequate training, meaning that pilots and observers were more likely to die training or in accidents than in action. Finally, Lee's account is what brought to mind the phrase 'the world we have lost'. The letters to his wife make one wonder how she could bear to open and read them. They are matter-of-fact, but the facts were frequently simply awful. As 1917 drew to a close, it is clear that Lee was really feeling the terrible strain (he was shot down three times by ground fire at Cambrai, including once when he ended up in the inverted wreck of his aircraft soaked in the contents of his fractured petrol tank). Yet much of the strain that he endures can only be felt in a 'reading between the lines' way. Nothing is said out loud in the sort of puffed up, overblown, self-pitying way that seems to characterise too much of our times. Here's Lee opening in a letter to his wife following another episode of being shot down by ground fire:  'I've come to the conclusion that I'm getting fed up with narrow squeaks. I had another one this afternoon, on this confounded trench-strafing'.  I wonder how we got from there to here? In four generations.


  1. Some very interesting thoughts. Here in Australia, the approaching Gallipoli centenary has drawn an even greater focus on those events than the usual (in my view) unhealthy level of national obsession. I find we are being subjected to a steady stream of television dramatisations dressed up as pseudo documentaries. These typically make extensive use of eye-witness sources such as letters and diaries, but manage to combine them into mawkish narratives that are littered with stereotypes and historical revisionism. All pretty unedifying stuff.

    Cheers, Dave

  2. Hello, Dave. Yes, commemoration is an increasingly difficult thing to get right. I suppose for the British, the key Great War battle is the Somme in 1916, and it has similar resonance (though, perhaps less so), as Gallipoli does for Australia (and NZ), or Vimy Ridge for the Candians. When I was a boy in the 1960s and 70s, there were plenty of Great War veterans left, and I wonder if that kept everything low-key and dignified. Or perhaps it was because the visual media wasn't so frenetic, out of control, and shallow. I don't know. On a personal note (which can be distorting), my grandfather who saw a lot of fighting on the Western Front was nothing less than patriotic, reserved (except when in his cups - so I'm told), and sure it was right to fight.
    These are tricky questions, but some of the veterans did leave behind their thoughts, which are more valuable than the television-based idioicies that pass for 'history' in too many cases.