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Michael Paris looks at the romanticised image of war in boys' popular fiction prior to 1914, and at the sustaining appeal of the genre in spite of the realities of that event.

IN SEPTEMBER 1914, nineteen-year-old Roland Leighton wrote to his close friend Vera Brittain,
   I feel ... I am meant to take some active pan in this war. It is to me a
   very fascinating thing -- something, if often horrible, yet very ennobling
   and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the
   reach of cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.

Leighton, like most other young men of his age, had grown to manhood under the spell of the pleasure culture of war -- the experience of war transformed into romantic and chivalric stories for the entertainment of the young, and which had become increasingly common during the later nineteenth century. These fictions, however, were not only a source of exciting and escapist adventure, but promoted patriotism, manliness and a simplistic imperial worldview that emphasised duty and the need for sacrifice if the British Empire was to endure. They indoctrinated their readers with the credo that an Englishman was more than a match for any mere foreigner; that war was a game, and that battle was an exciting experience in which young men could demonstrate their loyalty to the motherland and find fame and honour. In the popular novels of G.A. Henty, Captain F.S. Brereton, Herbert Strang, Percy F. Westerman and Robert Leighton, and in the pages of The Boy's Own Paper, Pluck, The Boy Friend and countless other story papers, young men were captivated by thrilling tales of the little wars of empire such as With Spear and Assegai, Fighting the Matabele, With Kitchener in the Soudan or One of the Fighting Scouts. Other stories related the exciting events of imaginary future wars as the Russian hordes or the legions of the Kaiser invaded Britain and were only defeated at the last possible moment by English pluck. Indeed, so many of these tales appeared in the two decades before 1914, that many young readers were convinced that a great European war was virtually inevitable. Yet in these tales of conflict, authors softened, sanitised and romanticised battle, disguising its brutal reality with a veneer of chivalric and sporting imagery, so that, as in Henry Newbolt's Vital Lampada, a bloody battle in the Sudan could be transformed into little more than a hard fought match between the School and a rather unruly visitors' eleven:
   The sand of the desert is sodden red, Red with the wreck of a square that
   broke: The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead, And the regiment blind
   with dust and smoke. The river of death has brimmed his banks, And
   England's far, and Honour a name, But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the
   ranks: `Play up! play up! And play the game!'

In August 1914, then, young men who, like Rowland Leighton, had grown up with this romantic image of war, volunteered in their thousands for the greatest of all adventures; anxious, not that they might be killed or maimed, but only that they would get to France too late to take part in the fighting. But for those too young to enlist, reading about the war was the next best thing; as one veteran later recalled, `our curiosity to know what it would be like to be under fire had to be satisfied from the novels of G.A. Henty, and Captain F.S. Brereton'. Thus the pleasure culture of war operating through boys' fiction had, during the last decades of peace, prepared young men to play their part in the next great war and would now continue throughout the war years, to act as part of the unofficial propaganda effort to prepare younger boys for future service, by sanitising the realities of war and emphasising the exciting and romantic nature of battle.

But the fighting on the Western Front was not the glamorous adventure the young had expected: the reality was brutal, bloody and terrifying. For Roland Leighton, as for many others, a few months in the trenches were enough to expose the lies of this idealised image of war, for as he wrote to Vera Brittain in September 1915:
   Let him who thinks that War is a glorious thing, who loves to roll forth
   stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and
   Love of Country ... let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags
   that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have Its ribs ...
   and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled
   all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence ...

Leighton's letter is particularly poignant, for his father, Robert Leighton, was a highly successful writer of boys' fiction who, in novels like The Thirsty Sword (1900) and Fighting Fearful Odds (1903), had indeed taught his young readers that war was a `noble and glorious thing'. Yet even the revelation of what modern warfare was really like had little impact on how it was portrayed in adventure fiction.

For the image of how the Western Front was represented for the youth of the nation, the fictions of Captain (later Colonel) F.S. Brereton are a useful example. Brereton had served with the Royal Army Medical Corps but retired after the Boer War. Turning to writing, he quickly established himself as one of Blackie's most successful authors of juvenile fiction. Despite rejoining the RAMC on the outbreak of war, he still managed to publish some twelve books between 1915 and 1919 -- novels that dealt with almost all aspects of the war: Gallipoli, Palestine and above all the Western Front.

Brereton's first novel, With French at the Front, published in early 1915, tells the story of the first year of war through the adventures of its young hero, Captain Jim Fletcher. The author leaves us in no doubt as to where blame for the war should be laid, for he tells us early in the story that the Germans `had been preparing for it for years'. He also takes the opportunity to compare the typically lithe young Fletcher with the dull and overweight German enemy:
   Jim had the head and shoulders of our islanders. A small, fair mustache set
   off a handsome face which was resolute and firm, and had none of the floppy
   stodginess so often found among the beer-drinking subjects of the Kaiser.

At the beginning of the war, Jim is in Berlin, attached to the British Embassy, but after various adventures behind enemy lines he eventually manages to return home before resuming duty in France. At one point, serving as a liaison officer, he finds himself in the trenches facing a German attack. As the enemy advances, a young English subaltern, already wounded by a shell blast, climbs on the parapet of the trench:
   `Boys', he shouted, and at the call the men on either side sat up and
   cheered him. `Boys, for the sake of old England, for the sake of the
   regiment, you'll hold `em. Fire, boys!' There was a choking cough, while a
   shudder ran down his frame. The subaltern collapsed into Jim's kindly arms,
   and lay white and motionless at the bottom of the trench. He was dead;
   another victim of the Kaiser's murderous ambition, one more count against
   the German nation.

But his gallant example is an inspiration and the Tommies, `the thin khaki line of heroes, the cool, calm, cheery sons of Empire', fight like demons and beat back the German attack. Using the noble death of the young officer, Brereton then treats us to a lesson in duty and sacrifice, `It's the price we shall have to pay ... We'll take on our troubles like men -- patiently and with courage -- and we will remember'. Here, then, the war is a glorious experience, a romantic adventure. British soldiers are good-humored, plucky, eager to get into the fight, and happy to give their lives for King and Empire. The Germans, by contrast, are dull, robotic and barbarous. With French at the Front is typical of the manner in which the war was portrayed; justifying and romanticising it at a time when the nation was still dependent upon voluntary enlistment. Another 1915 novel, Escott Lynne's In Khaki for the King, made the propagandist function of such fictions even more obvious, for the author exhorts his readers in an introduction that ends:
   It is up to you boys of today to see that a similar danger never threatens
   your glorious Empire again. Those of you who have not yet donned khaki, see
   to it that when you are old enough you train yourselves to defend your
   homes, your mothers, your sisters, your country, all that you hold dear ...
   And believe one of those whose proud privilege it has been to wear the
   King's uniform, that those days you will spend in khaki or blue will be
   among the fullest and happiest of your lives.

A 1917 Brereton novel, Under Haig in Flanders, clearly demonstrates how truth was distorted for the sake of propaganda. Here the author deals with the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Brereton first paints a cosy picture of life at the front, where goodhearted Tommies feed on `frizzling bacon, not to be beaten anywhere, bread that might have graced the table of a Ritz hotel, and jam that would have been the envy of any housewife'. Before the battle begins, the British guns poured a `tornado of bursting steel on the elaborate and often concreted defences devised by the Germans', ripping up wire-entanglements, demolishing trenches, `burrowing even to the depths of deep dug-outs and annihilating the defenders'. Sturdy British heroes `tingling with keenness' lob bombs at the Germans as if they were cricket balls and wait for the `off'. Their advance is cool, orderly and, although they are unable to hold all their objectives, the battle is largely successful. We are told that:
   The Battle of the Somme found our soldiers ready and eager for conflict,
   and thoroughly aware of the fact that it was not ground that they were
   fighting for, not so much the capture of this village or that, but that
   they were fighting to break the strength of the German army, to drive in
   hard blows which should damage his strength and his `moral'.

There is a curious tension here between the battle-winning acts of individual heroism which were the hallmark of Edwardian juvenile fiction and Brereton's realisation that the Somme was actually the first real battle of attrition -- a slogging match of artillery and machine guns, by which the British High Command attempted to inflict more casualties on the enemy than they themselves received. Nevertheless, Brereton's young men still do heroic things and, according to the novel, the First of July was a `triumph for the Allies and a bitter blow to our ruthless enemy'. In reality of course, the first day of the Somme was one of the most disastrous days in British military history. The prolonged bombardment failed to destroy the wire entanglements or the German defences and British troops, advancing at walking pace, were cut down in swathes. There were 21,000 dead and 35,000 wounded on the first day alone. But Brereton's battle was an adventure; a romantic escapade that no true Briton would want to miss.

Yet his representation of the Western Front was by no means exceptional. Percy F. Westerman, another prolific writer (twenty novels published in 1915-19), reconstructs the experience of war in exactly the same manner. A Lively Bit of the Front, published in 1919, tells the story of two young New Zealanders. In 1916, Dick and Malcolm are only seventeen but desperate to get into `the fight'. A letter from Dick's older brother, already serving on the Western Front, tells them, `We're having a thundering good time with plenty of excitement ...' and convinces the boys they are missing the `adventure of a lifetime'. Lying about their age, they enlist in the New Zealand Rifles, and arrive on the Western Front in time to take part in the Battle of Messines Ridge. Three years later Westerman, writing in 1919, gives a more realistic description of the battlefield -- rats gnaw at the soldiers puttees and,
   The atmosphere reeked ... traces of poisonous gas, pungent fumes from
   bursting shells, while the report that a dozen dead Huns had been buried
   under the floor of the trench seemed to find definite confirmation.

But even these wretched conditions fail to dampen the enthusiasm of the ANZACS. Just before going into action, both lads admit to being frightened (a major breakthrough here, plucky colonials admitting to fear!), but as soon as the action begins those fears are `thrown to the wind':
   Fragments of shells were flying.... shouts, oaths and curses punctuated the
   crash of steel and the rattle of musketry, as men in their blind ferocity
   clutched each other's throats and rolled in mortal combat on the ground.

After the battle, which is of course a glorious allied victory, Dick and Malcolm discuss their experiences, the comrades who have `copped it' and the immediate future. The ANZACS have acquitted themselves well but Malcolm sums up the dominant attitude of the young warriors: `It'll be worse before the final battle, but I wouldn't miss it for the world'!

So even after more than four years of battle, Westerman, like Brereton, could still portray the war as a great adventure; a not-to-be missed experience for the young combatants. Brereton's final novel of the Western Front, With the Allies on the Rhine (1919) concludes on a similar note, `So ended the Great War, in brilliant fashion for the Allies'. The Germans are defeated, the British are on the Rhine and Europe and the Empire are safe. While he introduces a sombre note when he discusses the cost of the war, the `million sons of Britain' who had died, his final comment more than justifies the sacrifice -- `but they had died for their Country!', and those who had survived would never forget their `great adventure'. We find exactly the same images of the Western Front and the same glorification of sacrifice in the novels of Rowland Walker, Herbert Strang, Alfred Bowes, Robert Leighton and others as well as in the short stories and serials published in boys' papers like Chums and Young England. Clearly, Brereton's representation and justification of the war was not exceptional.

It might well be assumed that after 1918, the realities of the trenches and the true nature of the conflict would deal a death blow to the pleasure culture of war, and particularly that these blatantly propagandist fictions would quickly disappear; that they could certainly not survive the bitter revisionist interpretations of the war experience by veterans like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Henry Williamson or Wilfred Owen. But this was certainly not the case. Brereton's war novels remained in print until the Second World War, and were still popular as class and Sunday school prizes. In 1931, the publisher Partridge reissued a whole series of wartime fictions including Westerman's The Secret Battleplane (first published in 1916) and Tanks to the Fore/(1917); and Rowland Walker's Oscar Danby VC -- an intensely patriotic tale of willing sacrifice on the Western Front first published in 1916; and Oxford University Press reprinted many of Herbert Strang's war stories -- Carry On: A Story of the Fight for Bagdad, for example, was last republished in 1936. Nor did these volumes sit unwanted on booksellers' shelves but sold well particularly as prizes and rewards. The London County Council awarded Brereton's With Allenby in Palestine (1918) to a secondary schoolboy in 1931 and Under Haig in Flanders (1917) was given as a Christmas present in 1933. Aberdeen Education Committee provided Westerman's The Dispatch Riders (1915) as a middle school prize in 1934; while Captain Charles Gilson's U 93 was awarded as a Sunday school prize as late as 1942. Throughout the interwar period, then, these novels of the First World War as the `Great Adventure', written during the years of conflict, were still widely read by British youth, and were reinforced by other titles written by a new generation of authors.

Between 1928 and 1934, for instance, Seeley Service published John Irving's `Dick Valliant RN' novels, a series of heroic naval adventures, as well as reissuing T.W. Corbin's 1919 The Romance of War Invention with its wonderfully `romantic' descriptions of bombing aeroplanes, tanks and heavy artillery. Throughout the period the Aldine Library published a number of adventurous tales of the war such as Wingrove Willson's Stories of the Great War, E. L. McKeag's Chums of the Northern Patrol and Michael Poole's Macklin of the Loyals -- which according to the publisher was a `thrilling story of the Great War for boys and girls of all ages'. These lesser-known authors were joined by others who later achieved considerable popularity and whose books remained in print for many years like George E. Rochester and Captain W.E. Johns -- both veterans and both of whom began their careers with First World War stories. Equally, if the Aldine catalogue is to be believed, writers such as Michael Poole and Ernest L. McKeag were also veterans.

In the immediate post-war period the boys' papers were full of war-related material -- fiction, articles about heroic episodes and numerous illustrations. However, through the 1920s some change can be detected in the manner in which the war was dealt with in certain papers. By 1930, for example, while the Religious Tract Society's Boy's Own Paper, had no shortage of blood and guts historical romances, tales of the Great War had been virtually eliminated from its pages. The more secular Chums, however, featured war stories and articles throughout the period. The 1936-37 Annual, for instance, carried two stories of flying on the Western Front: `The Great Spy Capture' where public school boys apprehend a German spy, and another where an unpopular schoolboy later becomes a hero in the trenches, dying gallantly and earning the respect of his fellows. In addition to these fictions were articles on RFC heroes and accounts of the daring deeds of Lawrence of Arabia, Major Hansen, who won a VC fighting the Turks, and a tribute to Rifleman Kulbir Thapa, a Gurkha VC who won his award on the Western Front. Even the 1941 Annual carried Peter Tewson's highly appropriate `Wheels of the Great Retreat', `a moving picture of the epic battle of Mons'. The Champion Annual for 1930 not only carried fictional tales of young heroes such as `The Boy Who Did His Bit' and `Chums of the Clouds', but also an illustrated article on `When Britain Was at War which included an account of trench warfare on the Western Front, complete with pictures of `cheery Tommies advancing during the Battle of Arras and descriptions of the `good-humoured heroes of the trenches'. In all of these examples authors generally accepted that conditions in the trenches had sometimes been `horrible' and that many soldiers had suffered greatly. Nevertheless, there was never any suggestion that their sacrifice had been pointless or futile -- the war was always portrayed as righteous, justified, heroic and romantic.

While the experience of the Great War clearly created genuine anti-war sentiment, there were many others who were determined to remember it in heroic terms. The novels and stories that reconstructed 1914-18 as the great adventure remained popular with boys and young men, and in many instances were created by authors who had direct experience of the conflict. They were then passed on to a new generation too young to have direct knowledge of war by parents, schoolteachers and churchmen, many of whom had themselves had first-hand experience. Despite personal knowledge of the realities of the war, these adults consciously made the decision to pass on to their children an essentially heroic and justified representation of it. This attitude even survived the novels and memoirs of those disillusioned veterans who, by the late 1920s, had come to see the conflict as a senseless massacre of the young innocents -- creating a tension between those who saw war in more truthful, more `modern' ways, as futile and brutal, and those who continued to see it in traditional terms with an emphasis on the nobility of sacrifice.

More than a simple wallow in nostalgia, then, the genre of boys' war fiction demonstrates that war as a subject for the entertainment of the young was so deeply embedded in British popular culture it could survive even the monstrousness of the Great War. Its continuing popularity during the interwar period suggests that those who have argued that the Great War was so terrible that the British people collectively turned their backs on war altogether, have presented us with only one response to the memory of the war. The popular culture of war reveals another.


Michael C.C. Adams, The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War One (Illinois University Press, 1990); Cecil D. Eby, The Road to Armageddon: The Martial Spirit in English Popular Literature, 1870 - 1914 (Duke University Press, 1988); Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (Pimlico, 1992); Robert H. MacDonald, The Language of Empire: Myths and Metaphors of Popular Imperialism, 1880 - 1918 (Manchester University Press, 1994);

Michael Paris is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Central Lancashire. His new book Warrior Nation: Images of War in British Popular Culture, 1850 - 2000 is published this month by Reaktion Books priced 25 [pounds sterling]..
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Title Annotation:World War I
Author:Paris, Michael
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Nov 1, 2000
Next Article:Birth of William of Orange.

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