Words of endurance: A Passionate Prodigality

Recruiting poster for Royal Fusiliers.

Recruiting poster for Royal Fusiliers.

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.

Guy Chapman.

Guy Chapman.

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.

4th Bttn. Royal Fusiliers resting before Battle of Mons, August 1914. Chapman's 13th Bttn. did not arrive on the front until July 1915.

4th Bttn. Royal Fusiliers resting before Battle of Mons, August 1914. Chapman’s 13th Bttn. did not arrive on the front until July 1915.

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.”

Road to Pozieres at the Somme, August 1916. The 13th were in this area.

Road to Pozieres at the Somme, August 1916. The 13th were in this area…

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)

...and here at Mouquet Farm, Pozieres (painting by Fred Leist, 1917)...

…and here at Mouquet Farm, Pozieres (painting by Fred Leist, 1917)…

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.

...and here on the Menin Road, 1917.

…and here on the Menin Road, 1917.

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.”

#   #   #

Royal Fusiliers memorial, High Holborn Street, London.

Royal Fusiliers memorial, High Holborn Street, London.

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About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in British History, History, Military History, World War I and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Words of endurance: A Passionate Prodigality

  1. Gary Howell says:

    In an Indian summer in Kansas, catching butterflies in the neighbors back yard (1965?) , the old neighbor showed up and talked to my brother and me. We heard a bit about World War I. I don’t think he told us that the “dough boys” brought back French fries, kisses, letters? And also not about the trenches.

    Nice post.

    • Jenny says:

      I wish I had spoken to my grandfather about his experience driving an ambulance on the Western Front. As I described fictionally in my “Twelve Streams” novel, I came across his little pocket edition of poems by Robert Service titled “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.” He passed away when I was 18, and at that age I had no appreciation for his experience.

      • patholscher says:

        I really regret not speaking to the former Russian Imperial officer who lived here as well.

        Indeed, I cannot think of a single instance in which I spoke to any of the World War One veterans I knew, although I did not know any of them well.

    • patholscher says:

      On bringing home kisses, something of note is that I’ve read a selection of comments at one time or another from American veterans who married French girls while overseas and returned home with them, and a few who were very impressed by German girls. The really surprising one is that the Americans who served in Russia brought home quite a few Russian brides.

      There were World War Two war brides for sure, but something of note is that Americans who served in France in World War Two were much less impressed by the country than those who served in World War One. “Dirty” is a common comment, and indeed one veteran I personally know made that comment about the French and Italians. I’m not suggesting something negative about the French or Italians here, but what I am noting is that something must have changed in the US between 1918 and 1941 so that the expectation of civil cleanliness rose considerably in the time, and apparently Germany met that expectation while France and Italy did not. During World War One, they did.

      I’ve often wondered what life was like for those Russian war brides. A country destroyed, an alien culture. It must have been a weird life.

      • Jenny says:

        This is a very interesting subject. These days Americans often feel they are the rulers of the world, able to pass judgment on other nations. This was not the case in the early 20th century. Did that shift occur between the two world wars? Around 1900, educated Americans were still going to Europe with the idea that they would learn something essential not available back home.

  2. Jenny says:

    Regarding my own earlier comment about my grandfather and Pat’s comment about the WWI vets he knew, I think part of the problem was that people of that generation simply did not talk very much about their deep personal experiences. It went against their code of modesty about their accomplishments. The same remained true for my father. I am very grateful that he left a written account of his experience in the Battle of the Bulge. He never spoke about it. As his daughter, I would have had to approach the subject in a highly sensitive way to have any hope of hearing him say anything less than superficial about it.

    • patholscher says:

      There’s a book out on the experience of American veterans in the war, and I heard the author interviewed some time ago. One thing that really struck him was that, by and large, most of the veterans went into the war with the mental outlook that “life’s hard, and there’s a good chance I’ll die here”. When they survived, he thought that for a lot of them it was one more thing in an otherwise really hard life, and they just accepted it. Later generations didn’t view the experience of war the same way.

      I don’t know if that’s true, but when I at least look at the history of part of my own family, I wonder if there’s not something to it. I’m not saying that they were hard people, and my father and his siblings very much admired the ones they knew, but I will say that they seemed to accept conditions which we’d regard as shocking without a second thought. And to the extent that I know the stories of others around here, of that same generation, they seem to have done the same. For example, I’m often shocked to learn that the parents of men and women I know, who are in their 70s and 80s now, and who are deeply committed family people, often were on their own at a stunningly early age in life. My father’s father, for example, was on his own when he was just 13. A rancher I know here had a father who immigrated by himself at age 10, and worked in dockyards for a time thereafter. So I also wonder if they didn’t talk much about World War One, as it was just one more thing in a hard youth that was full of hard things.

      • Jenny says:

        I think we need to learn a lot from these people. Most folks feel so entitled these days, complaining about any little inconvenience or danger. First of all, I deeply believe that risk is an essential component of human experience. Personally, I would just shrivel up and die if there were no risk in my life. Secondly, I feel that physical effort is another essential component of life. Try explaining that to the folks circling around the parking lot at Walmart to get the closest space. If there’s any rain, they will feel entitled to keep their vehicles idling in front of the entrance. I would blow up their vehicles if I could do that without actually injuring anyone!

  3. patholscher says:

    “This is a very interesting subject. These days Americans often feel they are the rulers of the world, able to pass judgment on other nations. This was not the case in the early 20th century. Did that shift occur between the two world wars? Around 1900, educated Americans were still going to Europe with the idea that they would learn something essential not available back home.”

    It’s an interesting one indeed.

    I don’t know that we haven’t always had an element of that as a cultural attribute. Sometimes that’s come across as a positive, in that Americans have historically tended not to be bothered by the failures of other nations, or in trying something wholly new. Indeed, earlier in the 20th Century foreign cultures sometimes commented on that being a positive American attribute.

    On the other hand, earlier on it also sometimes came across as a bit of an inferiority complex, as if we almost had a chip on our shoulders as we weren’t a nation that had a long cultural history, or a long history at all, and we were also fairly “rude” and “primitive” in our nature. Given that we were sometimes looked upon that way, we sort of built it into our own cultural character as a bit of a defense to being looked at as inferior.

    But more than anything, I think that view came about due to the mistaken notions of “American Exceptionalism”. As a theory, American Exceptionalism isn’t wholly without merit, but we managed to loose sight of a lot of the reasons for our success, including being able to exploit a big continent at will, including all of its resources. While that theory was developing, we were still a junior economic partner in the European dominated world economic order, but World War Two destroyed that, and for a long while thereafter we dominated the globe economically.

    I think it was that post World War Two experience that gave rise to a view that we had a right to direct things, and also caused us to take offense if not everyone agreed. Our experiences in World War One and World War Two, and the destruction of the European economy due to World War Two, left us in the situation of truly being the world’s dominant free world entity and economy, and that translated first into a duty to lead, which was followed by a sense that we were supposed to do so. Having at first had to be the free world’s leader following World War Two, we grew accustom to that role and came to feel that we occupied it naturally. Other nations, of course, aren’t going to accept that as a natural order, and therefore as they’ve slowly regained position or developed it, they’ve more and more rejected that view, which we’re going to have to get used to.

  4. Jenny says:

    Well, thanks very much, Pat! This is opening up into a gigantic subject about current geopolitics. I agree that it was especially after WW2 that we became so dominant. But now, with the global economy, we are dropping back. We are still dominant in terms of creating the images and concepts of pop culture, but not any more in terms of basic imports vs. exports. We depend too much on China, and in the end I feel that China will dominate the world.

    • patholscher says:

      I suspect that nobody will dominate, and that perhaps economically, oddly enough, we’re returning more to the era (in terms of relative economic power) that your blog focuses on.

      Not identically, of course.

      China is on the rise, but then so are its neighbors. Europe, as an economic block, has returned to real significance. An unnoticed story is that economic prosperity is becoming a story in central Africa.

      With all this in play, we might well return to a world in which no one nation is really the central economic power.

  5. patholscher says:

    “I think we need to learn a lot from these people. Most folks feel so entitled these days, complaining about any little inconvenience or danger. First of all, I deeply believe that risk is an essential component of human experience. Personally, I would just shrivel up and die if there were no risk in my life. Secondly, I feel that physical effort is another essential component of life. Try explaining that to the folks circling around the parking lot at Walmart to get the closest space. If there’s any rain, they will feel entitled to keep their vehicles idling in front of the entrance. I would blow up their vehicles if I could do that without actually injuring anyone!”

    Indeed, while we all strive to be safe, I fear that our over technological world is within distant eyesight of a world in which we’ve handed over so much of everything, work, life, entertainment, to the riskless cold world of machines, that our lives will be very much the poorer for it.

    Grim thought, I admit.

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