August 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. In this blog post we give you the introduction to a collection of writing from the First World War, edited by military historian Trevor Royle.
The First World War changed scotland in many profound ways. In May 1914 , a Home Rule Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons, mainly as a result of the promptings of the Scottish Home Rule Association and the Young Scots Society, a radical-minded grouping within the ruling Liberal Party who were in favour of free trade, social reform and what they called ‘the unquenchable and indefinable spirit of nationalism’. The outbreak of war three months later meant that the Bill was never enacted, and the devolution debate would not be reopened until towards the end of the century. But there were other significant changes. War came as a boost to the country’s heavy industries, especially those situated in the west; it encouraged the employment of women – by 1918 , the munitions industries in Scotland were employing 31 ,500 female workers; and in the early months of the war the proportion of men enlisting voluntarily in the 18 –41 age group was higher than in any other part of the United Kingdom. To expand Britain’s small Regular Army, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary for War, had called for the creation of a huge ‘New Army’ manned by volunteers, and the response in Scotland, as in other parts of the country, was enthusiastic.
Despite initial doubts, the volunteer principle worked: by the end of 1915 , the British total was 2 ,466 ,719 men, more than would be achieved after the introduction of conscription in May 1916 and just under half the wartime total of 5 .7 million men who served in the army during the war years. Of their number, 320 ,589 , or 13 per cent of the total, were Scots. By the end of the war, the number of Scots in the armed forces amounted to 688, 416, consisting of 71, 707 in the Royal Navy, 584, 098 in the army (Regular, New and Territorial) and 32, 611 in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force. Culture, too, was affected: although it would take time for the effects to be felt, literature in Scotland was transformed by the experience of the First World War.
At the time of the outbreak of hostilities, Scottish literature was in the doldrums. Robert Louis Stevenson ( 1850– 94), Scotland’s greatest writer of the late nineteenth century, had died by 1894, and much of the poetry that was being published was either sentimental, historical verse or the mystical vapours of the Celtic Twilight. Fiction had been left behind in the Kailyard, the catch-all phrase used by the critic J.H. Millar ( 1864– 1929) in the April 1895 issue of the New Review to describe the novels of J.M. Barrie ( 1860– 1937), S.R. Crockett ( 1859– 1914) and Ian Maclaren, the pen name of John Watson ( 1850– 1907). Here was a well-defined arcadia of village life, a school of rural sentimentality that ignored the ills of turn of the century Scotland, its faltering industrial development, poverty and high mortality rate. Of Scottish drama there was nothing to be said until the 1930s, when James Bridie came on the scene. Critics like Millar regarded Scottish writing in an overall British context and doubted if Scots as a literary language was capable of survival in the twentieth century.
The signs of hope were few and far between. In 1901, George Douglas Brown ( 1869– 1902) had exposed the limitations of the Kailyard School in his novel The House with the Green Shutters. Having borrowed many of the features and characteristics of the Kailyard – the rural setting, the raised expectations and a familiar cast of characters – he had then destroyed them by showing the impact caused by external social change. John MacDougall Hay ( 1879– 1919) had employed a similar structure in Gillespie ( 1914), which includes many of the themes explored by Brown. Although neither writer lived long enough to enjoy their literary success, both The House with the Green Shutters and Gillespie pointed to one direction that would be taken by Scottish fiction.
The first reaction to the declaration of war in Scotland, as in other parts of Britain, was one of excitement and relief. Contemporary evidence shows that thousands of Scottish people were prepared to voice their support for war and found themselves taking part in demonstrations of national pride and patriotism that often bordered on hysteria. Even realists who normally had their feet on the ground were caught up in the excitement. Shortly after war had been declared, the novelist and journalist Neil Munro travelled by train to Glasgow and later shamefacedly admitted: ‘What silly patriotic and romantic elations were stirred in me when I found that already there were armed guards on every railway viaduct, on reservoirs, and the Loch Long torpedo testing station.’ By that time, Munro was fifty and a successful novelist – The New Road (1914 ), an adventure in the tradition of Stevenson, had just been published – but even he was caught up in the excitement of the hour and wanted to do something. That sense of enthusiastic conviction was shared by many others and gave the early days of the war an unreal quality, creating a feeling that war was a great adventure, and that man had been transformed and liberated from the doldrums of a humdrum existence. Chivalry, selfsacrifice and heroism were the catchwords of those early days of the war and there were very few people who did not respond to their call.
Artless verses, patriotic articles and short stories flooded by the thousand into local publications, speaking of the noble necessity of doing one’s duty; everywhere tub-thumping patriotism was rife, and the elation even found its way into mainstream literature. Two years later, in 1916 , long after the initial enthusiasm had waned, Neil Munro produced a series of poems under the collective title ‘Bagpipe Ballads’, which were published in Blackwood’s Magazine . By then, his son Hugh had been killed in action at the Battle of Loos while serving with 8 th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and he himself had visited the Western Front as a correspondent, but, as he told George Blackwood, the poems were a compensation of sorts, having been ‘suggested by the names of bagpipe airs, so that some of them take on that spirit of braggadocio which comes so natural to youth: and to races like the Gaels, who loiter so much in their past that they are always the youngest and most ardent when it comes to sentiment – the first and last excuse for poetry’.
Even when the volunteers started to move across to France and the initial battles brought the first heavy casualties, the mood in the country remained strangely optimistic. Following the deployment of the Regular Army in the third week of August 1914 , the first Territorial Force battalions arrived in the late summer and early autumn and these were followed by the volunteer battalions of the New Army. John Hay Beith, an officer serving in 10 th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, celebrated the move in a poem ‘K (1)’, which he believed summed up his men’s feelings as they set off for France and war:
And now to-day has come along,
With rifle, haversack and pack,
We’re off, a Hundred Thousand strong,
And – some of us will not come back.
But all we ask, if that befall,
Is this. Within our hearts be writ,
This single-line memorial:
He did his duty – and his bit!
Beith was a schoolmaster and author-turned-soldier who usually wrote under the pseudonym ‘Ian Hay’ and had attracted an enthusiastic following for a succession of whimsical light novels written in the pre-war period. At the outbreak of hostilities, he volunteered and was commissioned in a New Army battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and the experience led him to write a number of monthly sketches for Blackwood’s Magazine under the pseudonym ‘Junior Sub’ in order to preserve his identity as a serving officer. The first of these appeared in November 1914 , with an account of the tribulations of learning close-order drill. Throughout the autumn and winter, The Junior Sub’s musings took the reader through the training of the fictional battalion referred to as the ‘Bruce and Wallace Highlanders’until it was ready to cross over to France to go into action. Brilliantly conceived and narrated in the first person and present tense, it was akin to a homely correspondence and the sketches became an immediate bestseller when they were published in book form in December 1915 under the title The First Hundred Thousand.
Hay’s book is also an intensely Scottish account seen from the perspective of a man who, though born in England, was deeply proud of his northern heritage, telling his readers early on ‘we are Scotsmen, with all the Scotsman’s curious reserve and contempt for social airs and graces’. Beyond that, the novel also provided a keen insight into the military mind, so much so that many brigade and divisional commanders recommended it as reading matter for their newly joined officers. For readers at home, it was an accurate portrayal of the enthusiasm and optimism of those early days before the New Armies went into action at Loos. The reviewer in The Spectator praised Hay’s ability to capture the mood of the New Armies, while the Saturday Review claimed that finally the British soldier had found a voice by making his experience appear ‘irrepressibly brave, comical, devoted, prosaic, glorious or dull’. A similar comment could well have been made about two other Scottish novels that were equally popular and seemed to catch the mood of the moment: J.J. Bell’s Wee MacGreegor Enlists and R.W. Campbell’s Private Spud Tamson , although in the latter novel the roguish hero is transformed by the war, being promoted to sergeant, saving his Colonel’s life and winning the Victoria Cross.
However, it was not all patriotism and braggadocio. Two Scottish writers spoke out against the glory of war and condemned the gadarene rush to ‘hate the Hun’, and they are arguably the finest English-speaking Scots poets of the First World War: Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895 –1915 ) and Ewart Alan Mackintosh (1893 –1917 ). Both poets were similar in that they were born into Scottish families but were brought up and educated in England and stand, therefore, somewhat outside the contemporary Scottish literary tradition, with its emphasis on verse written in the vernacular. Both, though, were intensely aware of their heritage – Mackintosh was a Gaelic speaker, and in his correspondence Sorley admitted that he felt no sense of patriotism towards England. Both, too, were destined to die during the fighting – Sorley during the Battle of Loos in October 1915 and Mackintosh at Cambrai in November 1917 ; the poetry of both men was published posthumously.
Sorley was attending the University of Jena when war broke out. With a friend, he managed to get back to Britain, travelling by train and on a specially commandeered ferry from Antwerp. Having spent seven enjoyable months in Germany, he was disposed to be understanding about the country he had just visited, telling an old schoolmaster, Wynne Willson, in a letter:‘They are a splendid lot, and I wish the silly papers would realise that they are fighting for a principle just as much as we are.’ But what took him aback was the hysteria and unthinking patriotism. A letter to another friend, Alan Hutchinson, reflected his exasperation with the mood he found on his return:
But isn’t all this bloody? I am full of mute and burning rage and annoyance and sulkiness about it. I could wager that out of twelve million eventual combatants there aren’t twelve who really want it. And ‘serving one’s country’ is so unpicturesque and unheroic when it comes to the point. Spending a year in a beastly Territorial camp guarding telegraph wires has nothing poetical about it: nor very useful as far as I can see.
Even so, despite his cynicism about patriotic impulses, like thousands of others of his class, Sorley soon joined up as a volunteer and was gazetted a second lieutenant in the 7th Suffolk Regiment, a New Army battalion composed of volunteers. Clearly, he realised that he had to serve his country, that joining up in the armed forces was expected of him, but he refused to take the sentimental approach of the jingoist: there is a delicate sense of irony in the final refrain of one of his earliest war poems,
‘All the Hills and Vales Along’, which he wrote shortly after enlisting. At first reading, it appears to be a traditional soldier’s poem, the rhythms reflecting the sound of marching men, but the final lines reveal a subtle understanding of the brutalisation of military life and the fate that lay ahead for many fighting soldiers:
On, marching men, on
To the gates of death with song.
Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping,
So you may be glad, though sleeping,
Strew your gladness on earth’s bed,
So be merry, so be dead.
In common with every infantryman of the First World War, Sorley had an intimate relationship with sudden and violent death; it is not surprising that the theme finds its way into his early war poems. There is also a good deal of moral indignation in the focus of Sorley’s poetry, much of which was written while he was in the trenches. In one of his last letters to his friend Arthur Watts, he admitted that the constant casualties and the sight of mutilated men had gnawed at his humanity, leaving an empty shell: ‘One is hardened by now: purged of all false pity: perhaps more selfish than before. The spiritual and the animal get so much more sharply divided in hours of encounter, taking possession of the body by swift turns.’ In that sense there is a
strong feeling in Sorley’s work of the writer as witness. Like many other war poets, he believed that he had to come to terms with the experience of battle and then record it so that others could understand that there was no glory in violent death and no victory in the demise of the individual.
Other writers were more strident in their approach and made little secret of the fact that they detested what was happening. John Maclean, a teacher by training and Marxist by evolution, was totally against the war: following his first arrest in October 1915 on the charge of ‘making statements likely to prejudice recruiting’, he made no secret of his opposition to the war, claiming in court that he had ‘enlisted in the Socialist army fifteen years ago, the only army worth fighting for’. His anti-war publication, The Vanguard , was closed down under the Defence of the Realm Act, the catch-all legislation for preserving the nation’s security, as was Tom Johnston’s Forward in 1915 during the Glasgow rent strikes and industrial action in the Clyde shipyards. Other similar sentiments could be found in the writings of many of the women connected with Dr Elsie Inglis’s Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Nor were mental issues ignored. A.F. Whyte’s ‘Sunk’ describes a naval officer clearly suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder; albeit writing after the war, the novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon was unsparing in his description of a man facing the firing squad, having suffered a different kind of mental anguish.
As happens in most conflicts, the private writings of frontline soldiers provide an immediate response to the conflict and Scottish writers were no exception – from Douglas Haig and James Jack wrestling with the problems of command to Willie Fraser and John Jackson giving a fighting soldier’s view of battle. The same can be said of the correspondence produced by Sorley, Hugh MacDiarmid and Naomi Mitchison. Their letters and diaries have the right to be counted as literary offerings, not least because they betray a great deal of the character and personality of the authors, all of whom were involved in one way or another in the war effort. Even official papers can reveal the character of the author. Throughout the war Haig’s private papers expose a
man who believed that in no small measure he was an instrument of God’s will, a belief that was clearly fashioned by his faith and his Presbyterian background. In no other piece of writing can this be better demonstrated than in his famous ‘backs to the wall’ Special Order written on 11 April 1918 , when it seemed quite possible that the great German Spring offensive might succeed in its objective of rupturing the Allied line. Haig’s message was not just an order to the army but a personal plea to every soldier as well:
There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.
On a different level, James Bridie, Eric Linklater and Compton Mackenzie continued to be fascinated by the war long after it was over. It would have been surprising if this were not the case, for all had different experiences of combat. Linklater and Bridie were under fire in front-line positions and Mackenzie experienced the ill-starred campaign in Gallipoli. Naturally in each case there is a strong sense of the writer distancing himself from past events and, in the case of Bridie and Linklater, of making light of the difficulties, but they still manage to convey the horror, futility and boredom of war. It is also instructive to compare Mackenzie’s and Sir Ian Hamilton’s accounts of the Gallipoli operation.
War, the great bringer of change, also transformed the course of Scottish writing and the country’s literary scene. Twenty years after the end of the First World War the poet Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) addressed Scotland in his poem ‘Towards a New Scotland’, and asked:
Was it for little Belgium’s sake
Sae mony thoosand Scotsman dee’d?
And never ane for Scotland fegs
Wi’ twenty thoosand times mair need!
In a sense MacDiarmid had already answered the question himself. He had served on the Salonika front as a sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps and on demobilisation he had been transfigured, literally and metaphysically. During the war he had written little of any value for publication, but in the 1920 s he began writing poetry in Scots and from those efforts he evolved the idea of a renaissance movement whose aim was to dissociate Scottish writing from the sentimentality of the vernacular-based poetry of the pre-war years and to bring it into line with contemporary European thinking. His first serious publication was Northern Numbers (1920 ), an anthology based on the example of Edward Marsh’s Georgian Poetry . It was followed by two further editions, in 1921 and 1922 , and the contributors included many writers who had written poetry or fiction during the recent war – John Buchan, Violet Jacob, Roderick Watson Kerr, Joseph Lee, Neil Munro, Charles Murray and Mary Symon. He founded a magazine, the Scottish Chapbook , and began to challenge established literary assumptions in a series of articles for the Scottish Educational Journal under the title ‘Contemporary Scottish Studies’. His campaign also had a political aspect: he was one of the founders of the Scottish
committee of International PEN and in 1928 he joined the National Party of Scotland. As described by Catherine Kerrigan, Grieve had used his time in the military to good effect to develop his literary and political ideas:
With an almost military precision he began putting his plan to transform the Scottish cultural scene into action and within a few years Quartermaster- Sergeant Grieve had metamorphosed into Hugh MacDiarmid, the modern Scottish vernacular poet and leader of what he was optimistically to call the ‘Scottish Renaissance’.
Like other poets of the immediate post-war period – Yeats, Eliot and Pound – MacDiarmid was aware of the exhaustion of English culture in the 1920 s and of the need to explore new means of national self-expression. He was also aware that the war had changed the cohesion of European civilisation in general. In those circumstances it would be the duty of countries like Scotland to redeem those cultural values and like many of his contemporaries he realised that in no small measure the global conflict had been fought to protect the rights of small nations. In that respect the First World War hastened the development of Scottish literature, and the soldier-writers of that period can be seen as harbingers of that change.