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August 07, 2007

By the Same Author

This afternoon, I was doing some digging in search of a few tiny, dramatizing details for my book. I was trying, for instance, to ascertain whether any of the uniforms worn by the first British troops to arrive in France in 1914 were coloured khaki by German dyes. Answer: yes, they almost certainly were. The pre-war German dyeing industry accounted for almost 80% of the dyes used on British textiles, including army uniforms.

As I was looking around, I came across these two passages, both from books written by Philip Gibbs (1877-1962), one of the period's most famous war correspondents on the Allies' side.

officer 1914.jpg Watching British soldiers of the BEF in France in 1914:

I gave homage to them because of the perfect cut and equipment of their uniforms, so neat and simple, and workmanlike for the job of war. Only Englishmen could look so well in these clothes. And even in these French towns I saw the influence of English school life and of all our social traditions standing clear-cut against the temperament of another nation with different habits and ideals. They were confident without any demonstrative sign that they were superior beings destined by God, or the force of fate, to hold the fullest meaning of civilization. They were splendidly secure in this faith, not making a brag of it, not alluding to it, but taking it for granted, just as they had taken for granted their duty to come out to France and die if that were destined. And studying them, at café tables, at the base, or in their depots, I acknowledged that, broadly, they were right. In spite of an extraordinary ignorance of art and letters (speaking of the great majority), in spite of ideas stereotyped by the machinery of their schools and universities, so that one might know precisely their attitude to such questions as social reform, internationalism, Home Rule for Ireland, or the Suffragettes — any big problem demanding freedom of thought and unconventionality of discussion — it was impossible to resist the conviction that these officers of the British army have qualities, supreme of their kind, which give a mastery to men.

from Gibbs, The Soul of the War (London: Heinemann, 1915)

Observing former officers in England after the end of the war: officer 1918.jpg

All was not right with the spirit of the men who came back. Something was wrong. They put on civilian clothes again, looked to their mothers and wives very much like the young men who had gone to business in the peaceful days before the August of ’14. But they had not come back the same men. Something had altered in them. They were subject to queer moods, queer tempers, fits of profound depression alternating with a restless desire for pleasure. Many of them were easily moved to passion when they lost control of themselves. Many were bitter in their speech, violent in opinion, frightening.

from Gibbs, Realities of War (London: Heinemann, 1920)

Gibbs was knighted in the same year in which he published Realities of War. It would be pathetically easy to mock the tone of the first extract here and to nod condescendingly at the assertions of the second. But how many writers today are ever lucky or determined enough to move this far ideologically and emotionally this fast?

Most people's opinions are conventional most of the time; I know mine are. For all Gibbs's ultra-conventional ideas and his simple prose (look at the difference between his descanting, periodic flows in 1914 /15 and the much shorter and more nervously-expressive post-war sentences), doesn't the distance he travelled in just five years make him, in all honesty, a writer whose career trajectory one can only have a faint hope of paralleling? Would you rather become a better writer? Or (what is not the same thing) a different one?

Posted by njenkins at August 7, 2007 02:47 AM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins