The naïve idealism involved in World War I, that idiot’s tale, was first supplied by the British. In most nation-states, the keen fighters believed that they were defending their own fatherland, by invading some other territory. Our hunting fathers, in Britain, feeling quite secure and sheltered behind the Grand Fleet, were unselfishly concerned with the independence of Belgium. Right from the beginning, they liked to think that their actions were building a better world. Later on, as A. J. P. Taylor remarks, “their idealism was echoed in other countries. The British started it, and their disillusionment afterwards was therefore greater also.”
Why was this so, in an advanced industrial country which should, according to the cruder kind of Marxist prediction, have sponsored international working-class solidarity against capital’s imperialist mess? The Italian Socialist attitude to the war, praised by Lenin, was “Neither support nor sabotage”; but in Britain the rankers and the officer class were relatively united in noble, national beliefs. The most perceptive Italian Socialist, Gramsci, explained that the bourgeoisie had created in Britain an “ethical state,” which ideally stood above the interests of persons and classes: liberalism was meaningful to the British, as authoritarian justice was meaningful to the people of Germany. “Where fundamental laws of the State are not trampled on, where arbitrary acts of the dominant class are not seen, the class struggle loses its harshness.” Italy, not having reached this stage, was still ethically intolerable—in a condition comparable with, say, Batista’s Cuba, French Indo-China, or present-day Bolivia. Loyalty to the nation-in-arms could not be commanded.
IN ENGLAND, the officer class was eager to drive the Germans from Belgium, and most rankers accepted the principle. “Of course, there were other criteria—but they were only criteria.” When Siegfried Sassoon set down his wartime experiences and considerations in fictional form, he made his principal character, George Sherston, worry about the possibility of disgraceful personal motives. Very like Crouchback, in Waugh’s World War II novel, he suspects himself of succumbing to the “test-of-manhood” temptation. In Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, he shows Sherston’s development as a sensitive boy training himself to be a brave rider. In Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Sherston remarks: “Six years before, I had been ambitious of winning races because that had seemed a significant way of demonstrating my equality with my contemporaries. And now I wanted to make the World War serve a similar purpose, for if only I could get a Military Cross I should feel comparatively safe and confident.” Sherston and Sassoon both won this medal, and then felt confident enough to throw the thing away, to refuse to continue killing, and to work with pacifists. Then comes the third volume, Sherston’s Progress. Back home in safety, considerately treated by the Army, Sassoon-Sherston is once again nagged by an “inward monitor.” Making a separate peace, like one of Aristophanes’s heroes—“extremely convenient for you, isn’t it? Doesn’t it begin to look like dodging?” Further doubts: perhaps he enjoyed some of that fighting; he is posing as an intellectual, which he is not; “unless you can prove to yourself that your protest is still effective, you are here under false pretences.” Back he goes to the front, fighting bravely as ever, and he will not leave until he is accidentally shot by his own sergeant. “I’ll stay here just to spite those blighters who yell about our infamous enemies.”
There were three Sherstons, he says, reporting for duty again: the anxious boy, the confused veteran, and the “somewhat incredible mutineer.” It is good to have all three together under one cover. But they need the support of Sassoon’s more straightforward, more untidy memoir, Siegfried’s Journey (1945), if only to help identify interesting persons, like Bertrand Russell, who appear pseudonymously in the Sherston trilogy. Siegfried remarks that the three Sherston books represented merely “a simplified version of ‘my outdoor self.’ George Sherston was denied the complex advantage of being a soldier poet.” It is tough-minded Siegfried, not puzzled George, who writes bitter verses “with a strong sense of satisfaction that I was providing a thoroughly caddish antidote to the glorification of ‘the supreme sacrifice’ and such-like prevalent phrases.” He has other guilt-feelings, to add to Sherston’s—“the irony of my exulting in having done a fine piece of work, when I owed the opportunity for it to the death of a pathetically youthful officer.” Siegfried’s Journey also helps to explain Sassoon’s purpose in disguising The Memoirs of George Sherston as fiction. He felt that his younger self was “like someone driving a motor-car on a foggy night, only able to see a few yards ahead of him…I have aimed at unity of effect, even when it entailed making him appear somewhat stupider than he actually was, and have thus created an illusion that the traveller was controlling his circumstances instead of being helplessly entangled in them.”
YET SHERSTON-SASSOON was not so helplessly entangled as most combatants. He made a start on that difficult Socialist ambition—to free oneself from history by possessing it. Not by nature politically minded, not even (he protests, too much) an intellectual, he struggled to find out the other causes and purposes of the War, aside from the chivalrous motivation of himself and his comrades. Sherston cooly admits that he had wanted to have “fine feelings” about the War; he “wanted it to be an impressive experience—terrible, but not horrible enough to interfere with my heroic emotions.” Sometimes he succeeded in seeing the whole War “as it might be envisioned by the mind of some epic poet a hundred years hence”: at such moments his descriptions are beautiful—even that passage which concludes: “Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull.” He could stomach these aspects of the War; what offended him were the secret motives for its continuance. On leave he heard a lady hoping excitedly that the soldiers would “string up” the pacifists who had “betrayed” them; a gross and repulsive profiteer who prayed the War would last another eighteen months; a Hippodrome revue whose commercialized patriotism “mocked the riddled corpses round Bapaume.” Then he came across a Socialist theory that the War was being fought for the Mesopotamian oil wells. “A jolly fine swindle it would have been for me, if I’d been killed in April for an oil well.” He decided that Britain’s “war aims” should be made public; shamefacedly (since he feared he would sound like “some crank on a barrel in Hyde Park”), he drafted his demand, beginning: “Fighting men are victims of conspiracy among (a) politicians; (b) military caste; (c) people who are making money out of the War.” Underneath, he scribbled: “Also, personal effort to dissociate myself from intolerant prejudice and conventional complacence of those willing to watch sacrifices of others while they sit safely at home.” He polished these first thoughts into a distinguished statement which shook the hawks and inspired the doves.
The whole situation was a frightful nuisance to a fox-hunting man with a taste for old books. The War had forced him to recognize that the pleasant life of a country gentleman was dishonorable in a man who claimed to be a patriot: “…in 1917 I was only beginning to learn that life, for the majority of the population, is an unlovely struggle against unfair odds, culminating in a cheap funeral.” Now he was set on a course which would lead him to gray north-country towns, electioneering for the Independent Labour Party, to boring synagogues and union headquarters in Chicago, to becoming a Socialist journalist and a pacifist lecturer. When he died last month, aged eighty, his conservative obituarists pretended that the distinguished old man was like themselves, with no desire to change the world—in spite of Sassoon’s own statement that his most celebrated poem (“Everyone Suddenly Burst Out Singing”) was about the Social Revolution, which he thought to be at hand. He took the “ethical state” quite seriously. Conservatives who admire his loving account of a gentleman’s life, of the pleasures of fox-hunting, should recognize that it was his Socialism, his assault on class privilege, which gave him the right and the confidence to express his appreciation of these pleasures—not smugly, but within the context of his society.
We’d had a good woodland hunt with one quite nice bit in the open, and I’d jumped a lot of timber and thoroughly enjoyed my day. Staring at the dim brown landscape I decided that the War was worthwhile if it was being carried on to safeguard this sort of thing. Was it? I wondered.
He was puritanically worried about his right to express his opinions. His Military Cross gave him the right to be a pacifist, but sometimes it seemed to him an unfair advantage. Depressed by the silly victory celebrations, he got into an argument with an exuberant young patriot whose war service had been with the Central Liquor Control Board. Sassoon’s “moral advantage over him made the situation awkward”; it was unfair to cry down the armchair warrior’s flag-waving, since “he wasn’t in a position to support the opposite view with fine phrases.” Sassoon is almost incredibly scrupulous in these matters; though his poems are waspishly scornful about war-minded civilians, sedentary staff-officers, cheerleaders, and profiteers, he is consistently tolerant and understanding toward these disagreeable people throughout his strong and thoughtful memoirs.
READING these three World War I books, by English officers, made me low-spirited. Sassoon was not to blame: his earnest melancholy is inspiriting. Nor was Wyndham Lewis; protected by iron-hard mockery and ludicrous self-approval, he encases his reader in similar armor. Cecil Lewis is to blame: an airman, he saw himself as a glamorous hero in a cheap novelette. (Bernard Shaw’s review of his book, quoted on the cover, describes him as “an ace,” with “a brilliant endowment of good looks,” “a bit of a poet.” This blurb captures two of Shaw’s prime faults, hero-worship and a sloppy taste for “poetry.”) Cecil Lewis describes himself (aged seventeen) watching older airmen: “I was an onlooker that day; they were a symbol of the time: young men who rose up, passed with a cry and a gesture, and were gone. When my turn came, I did not find it so.” Readers in need of an additional puke should consult Cecil Lewis on the “strong magnetic attraction between two men who are matched against one another…. And if at last he went down, a falling rocket of smoke and flame, what a glorious and heroic death! What a brave man! It might as well have been me!” So it might, from a book-reader’s point of view. What was Cecil Lewis fighting about? He had not an idea in his pretty head. Nor, come to that, did my father in the same service at the same age; but he didn’t try to write books about glamorous war. Nor did my cousin, killed in Korea through idiot generalship. He merely sang the song of his generation, still popular in the British Army—“We was fighting for the bastard Syngman Rhee.” Among working-class conscripts, even in Britain, “neither support nor sabotage” is still a possible response to the government’s wars.
WYNDHAM LEWIS’S BOOK is a different matter, being the wartime and postwar memoirs of a deeply confused intellectual, striving to prove himself superior to his lower-class fellow-soldiers: he did not take his superiority for granted. Rather as the poet, Sassoon, disguised himself as Sherston, the country gentleman, Wyndham Lewis is at his best when he writes fiction about himself, under the name “Cantleman”: one of the chapters here, “Cantleman’s Springmate,” is as gorgeously hot and sensual as anything he ever wrote. Another chapter, “The King of the Trenches,” is heartlessly funny enough for Waugh. But these enameled patches are lodged among chunks of profound stupidity and narcissistic affection. Even his virtues work against him: partly because he was less snobbish than other English officers, he was less opposed to Hitlerism. Wyndham Lewis denied this, of course, in his World War II memoir, Rude Assignment; but his lack of moral integrity is everywhere apparent.
Blasting and Bombardiering is a shambles of a book; and this reprint is edited with an incompetence worthy of the author. The mis-spellings and the missing words (which sometimes make whole sentences meaningless) seem to illustrate the gaps in his excited arguments. But he can work tragic events into a shapely farce; and he abhors the British “sense of humour” and its hypocrisy. Genuinely innocent, he admits that “things military do not outrage me”: he contrasts himself, very favorably, with Bloomsbury pacifists, their “pacifist tantrums and Huxleyish sneer,” and with Nietzche, “a Hun philosopher who was a power-maniac with bristling Polish moustaches.” This stupid, cocksure artist enjoyed being a bombardier, shouting and drilling, but was wisely eased away from the action to paint war-pictures. Before that, though, he gave quite a good description of a gunnery officer’s life (“I could not have been in the infantry: I am not nearly bloodthirsty enough”), pointing out how little real fighting he had done: “a gunner is a very dangerous type of spectator…. It is ‘active service’ all right. But it is not, strictly speaking, ‘fighting.’ ” He is perceptive enough, within his limits.
His postwar anecdotes of Joyce, Eliot, and Ronald Firbank are worth reading (Sassoon’s account of his literary generation, in Siegfried’s Journey, is limited in a different way). Lewis’s account of the War, though, suffers from being neither personal enough, nor interestingly typical of a British officer. “My aristocratic training accounted for this a little, I suppose—the Army Class it had been my intention to enter as a schoolboy, my period as a student in Germany, the influence of a peculiarly martial father. The career of arms, at all events, as such, did not scandalise me. Perhaps I had a touch of the Junker, I do not know.” He certainly seems foreign, rather like one of those cocky little German princelings described by Sassoon—“half-cultured coxcombs…commanding the trappings of autocracy.” Lewis is all trappings: you cannot imagine him naked and, in fact, he admits that his big wartime fear was to be shot at while his trousers were down—at a time when his pacifist contemporaries were asserting that the War would stop if only combatants had the courage to display themselves naked. Lewis liked uniforms, he liked “the surface of life…because it conceals the repulsive turbidness of the intestine.” His writings and his metallic paintings illustrate his tendency to conceal himself in armor—again like one of those German princelings, of whom Sassoon wrote tolerantly: “Take them for what they were, they weren’t so bad.” This seems the right tone to take with a talented fool like Wyndham Lewis.
October 26, 1967