Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, January 24, 2020

J.B. Priestley Remembers His Wartime Service

John Boynton Priestley, OM, was an English novelist, playwright, screenwriter, broadcaster, and social commentator. Some of his writings ventured into science fiction and fantasy. He was also a veteran of the Great War.

Lance Corporal Priestley
Priestley served in the British army during the First World War, volunteering to join the 10th Battalion, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, on 7 September 1914 and being posted to France as a lance corporal on 26 August 1915. He was badly wounded in June 1916, when he was buried alive by a trench mortar. He spent many months in military hospitals and convalescent establishments and on 26 January 1918 was commissioned as an officer in the Devonshire Regiment and posted back to France late summer 1918. As he describes in his literary reminiscences, Margin Released: A Writer’s Reminiscences and Reflections, he suffered from the effects of poison gas and then supervised German prisoners of war, before being demobilized in early 1919.

In Margin Released he reflected back on his service nearly a half-century earlier with some bemusement and much bitterness:

The British Army never saw itself as a citizens’ army. It behaved as if a small gentlemanly officer class still had to make soldiers out of under-gardener’s runaway sons and slum lads known to the police. These fellows had to be kept up to scratch. Let ‘em get slack, they’d soon be a rabble again. So where the Germans and French would hold a bad front line with the minimum of men, allowing the majority to get some rest, the British command would pack men into rotten trenches, start something to keep up their morale, pile up casualties and drive the survivors to despair. This was done not to win a battle, not even to gain a few yards of ground, but simply because it was supposed to be the thing to do. 

All the armies in that idiot war shovelled divisions into attacks, often as bone-headed as ours were, just as if healthy young men had begun to seem hateful in the sight of Europe, but the British command specialised in throwing men away for nothing. The traditions of an officer class, defying both imagination and common sense, killed most of my friends as surely as if those cavalry officers had come out of the châteaux with polo mallets and beaten their brains out. Call this class prejudice if you like, so long as you remember, as I hope I made plain in an earlier chapter, that I went into that war without any such prejudice, free of any class feeling, No doubt I came out of it with a chip on my shoulder; a big, heavy chip, probably some friend’s thigh-bone (136-137).

Unlike most of my contemporaries who wrote so well about the war, I was deeply divided between the tragedy and comedy of it. I was as much aware as they were, and as other people born later can never be, of its tragic aspect. I felt, as indeed I still feel today and must go on feeling until I die, the open wound, never to be healed, of my generation’s fate, the best sorted out and then slaughtered, not by hard necessity but mainly by huge murderous public folly. On the other hand, military life itself, the whole Army “carry-on”, as we used to say, observed closely, seemed to me essentially comic, the most expensive farce ever contrived. To a man of my temperament it was almost slapstick, so much gigantically solemn, dressed-up, bemedalled, custard-pie work, but with tragedy, death, the deep unhealing wound, there in the middle of it (139).

One morning in the early spring of 1919 in some town, strangely chosen in the Midlands, I came blinking out at last into civilian daylight .[…] Glad to remember that never again would anybody tell me to carry on, I shrugged the shoulders of a civvy coat that was a bad fit, and carried on (140).

Sources: Wikipedia; Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Those are powerful, dark passages.

    "No doubt I came out of it with a chip on my shoulder; a big, heavy chip, probably some friend’s thigh-bone "