This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers shown below refer to Guy Chapman,
A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography. Fawcett Crest Books: Greenwich, CT, 1966.
It’s an odd little book—the edition I have—a mass-market paperback of the kind sold everywhere in the 50s and 60s. I bought it secondhand. Cover price: 60 cents. Yellowing paper, brittle spine. This American edition was printed 1966, with what the publisher (not the author) called “a special preface for American readers.” It was first published in London, 1933.
In fact, Guy Chapman makes no references to much of anything near and dear to an American of 1966 or even to one of 1916. For me, an American of 2015, there’s much that’s inscrutable here, and yet, in my contrary way, I am drawn to the inscrutable and find this book fascinating. I can see right away that he really doesn’t give a hoot if he loses some of his readers along the way. What matters is his memory of the men who shared his experience, the ones who would have understood. He cared immensely about them.
The book isn’t bitter in its tone, only honest. It is by and large a story of the moral exhaustion that sets in over more than three years on the Western Front. The only real target of cynicism is England, which he describes on the final page as “a country fit only for profiteers to live in.” (223) Over the course of the war England has receded far into the distance, alien and unreal. He finds he has nothing to say in letters home. On leave in London, he has a strange feeling: “As the war trailed its body across France, sliming the landscape, so too it tainted civilian life. London seemed poorer and yet more raffish. Its dignity was melting under the strain. It had become corrupted.” (112) After the Armistice he joins the Army of Occupation rather than return home.
Here are some of the assorted things he throws into his account: references to events in the Napoleonic and Crimean wars, odd mentions of dusty places in colonial India, the sudden fleeting appearance of fictional characters from Alexander Dumas; names of miniscule villages in France; endless abbreviations from British military jargon. I had no problem with CO, ADC, GHQ, or TM, but could only guess at SAA, RTO, and FOO. Eventually I printed a list from the Internet.
The obscurity doesn’t come out of one-upmanship or the desire to impress with insider knowledge. The literary and historical references are the kind effortlessly internalized by an intelligent, well-educated man of the period. The French micro-geography and the torrents of abbreviations come out of the everyday things soldiers experienced. Chapman wants to report that daily experience without moving to a level of detached interpretation.
He joins the Royal Fusiliers, known historically as the City of London Regiment, in December 1914 as a junior officer. He feels very much an amateur but discovers that his own ignorance blends in with the general blundering. His New Army battalion spends the months until July 1915 in an improvised training: “Except for our second-in-command, who had retired ten years earlier and was well over fifty, and our quartermaster, we had no regular officers. It was therefore a co-operative undertaking of amateurs in which we had to learn the hard way.” (i)
He commands a platoon and eventually a company, but for a time is transferred against his wishes to serve as an aide on the divisional staff, running errands, organizing lists of supplies and maps, making reports. Some humorous episodes result. He accompanies a senior officer to the combat line: “His specially padded and exceptionally clean tin hat, his glowing boots, his thick manly stick, made one think of dowagers slumming.” (115) The elegant officer cringes at the noise of every passing shell even as nearby soldiers calmly clean their rifles, cook, or write letters. Finally a 5.9 roars overhead, and “my companion… took to his heels and galloped with the grotesque gait of a terrified foal through the water covering the duckboards.”
Chapman loathes these staff responsibilities and flubs the performance of his chores. This leads self-important, high-ranking types to bully him, as certain people do when they sniff out uncertainty. One of the generals interrogates him, brandishing a set of aerial photos. “‘I want a definite answer. In which of those trenches did you see flares?’ ‘I think…’ I began feebly. The general’s tremendous forehead, furrowed as a bull’s, contracted furiously. For a moment I thought he would gore me. ‘You’re not to think,’ he bellowed. ‘You’ve got to be sure. I can think.’ ” (129) Chapman is at a distinct disadvantage here, having observed from the ground amidst a gas attack, denied access to the photos.
Finally, when he is requested to report to the general at nine o’clock in the morning, he finds himself running behind schedule, rushes in to the general’s hut, and salutes. “I caught a glimpse of a bulky figure in wide striped blue and white pyjamas and gumboots, gentling its hair at a mirror. With the roar of the wounded gorilla, the figure turned and swept down on me, shouting: ‘What the devil d’ye mean by coming to see your General in his pyjamas?” (139) Chapman is delighted when the general banishes him back to his battalion.
He sees the world in his own way and stays true to its contradictions and ambiguities. He links things no one else would consider related, so that his writing sends out little electrical flashes as new connections are wired together. He can see the wasteland of a battlefield as having “the austere beauty of a dying planet” and describe a burst of shrapnel in terms of antique illustrations: “It would suddenly appear in the atmosphere, a flash, a tight black cloud, which slowly unrolled like the engravings on the title-pages of eighteenth-century French books, supporting a lyre or a basket of pomegranates and ears of corn.” (63)
He ventures into the macabre at times. Newly arrived in the trenches, he is shown to a dugout where he can sleep. Hearing scamperings and rustlings, he realizes the place is infested with rats. Still, he dozes off. “I came back to the surface with a jerk… I turned my head and caught a glimpse of what looked like a small pink monkey, clambering up the wall. With a spasm of disgust, I threw myself off the bed.” (25) Small pink monkey! It made me think of someone suffering from the d.t.s. Later, Chapman tell us how one of his companions energetically bayonets any rats that come his way. The fat ones that had been feeding on corpses are easier to kill than the younger, more agile fry. This observation would seem gratuitously horrible except that accounts of the Western Front universally mention rats and corpses along with mud, duckboards, and shellholes as an unavoidable part of the scenery.
Chapman constantly finds himself in the ghostly company of the dead—“slung carelessly on top of each other, sprawled in obscene attitudes”—sees a body frozen stiff with rigor mortis, like “a statue knocked from its pedestal.” Strangely, for him the most gruesome sight is not a mutilated corpse. “My eye caught something white and shining. I stopped. It was the last five joints of a spine. There was nothing else, no body, no flesh. This apparition overcame me. I turned away and choked back a sudden nausea.” (152)
He survived the Somme, Arras, and Ypres, sustaining injuries to his eyes when he was gassed. He didn’t write about his experiences right away, but years later, after reading Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, felt he might have something to say on the subject. He dedicated his book “to the memory of certain soldiers who have now become a small quantity of Christian dust.”
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