Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 @ the Army Museum

The story

During the First World War, Canadian multi-millionaire press baron Max Aitken (b.1879) made it his mission to document the war effort of his compatriots. He set up the Canadian War Records Office in London, and made certain that news of Canada’s contribution to the war was printed in Canadian and British newspapers.

Aitken also commissioned artists, photographers, and film makers to record life on the Western Front. In 1916 he established the Canadian War Memorials Fund, a charity that commissioned artists to record the war. The Fund ended up employing some 100 artists, resulting in over 800 paintings, prints and sculptures.

One of these was Alfred Munnings. Born in Suffolk in 1878, Munnings had progressed through apprenticeship to a Norwich printer, to Norwich Art School, and then had some of his works selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (1899). Throughout the Edwardian era he made a minor name for himself as a painter of landscapes and horses, especially in Cornwall, where he became associated with the Newlyn School of painters.

When the First World War broke out Munnings volunteered for the army but was rejected due to the (amazing) fact that he was blind in one eye, having managed to damage it in a bramble bush aged 20.

In 1917, his participation in the war was limited to a civilian job outside Reading processing tens of thousands of Canadian horses en route to France. Later that year he was assigned to one of the horse remount depots on the Western Front.

It was at this point that he was contacted by the Canadian War Memorials Fund and commissioned to record the activities of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. He made numerous paintings of officers and men on horseback, marching, training, resting, watering the horses. All of this was well behind the lines for Munnings never saw any kind of action. Only one of the paintings in this exhibition shows the cavalry in combat, mounting a charge, and this was an imaginative reconstruction of a charge he didn’t witness.

On the basis of his popularity with the cavalry, Munnings was then invited by the Canadian Forestry Corps to tour their work camps, and he produced drawings, watercolors and paintings showing draft horses and men involved in the arduous work of chopping down trees, shaping and hewing them and piling them on horse-drawn carts to be transported to lumber mill and the finished planks sent, again by horse-drawn carts, to the front.

These paintings shed light on an under-reported aspect of the war – not only the use, by both sides, of millions of horses as draft animals, but the use of lumber as a material which needed to be felled, drawn to lumber mills (themselves constructed behind the lines) with the planking then also taken to the front by horse.

Thus by the end of the war he had produced a large number of drawings, sketches and some 44 oil paintings depicting

  1. the Canadian cavalry
  2. the Canadian Forestry Corps
  3. landscapes, rather idyllic landscapes of the scenery well behind the front

In January and February 1919 the Royal Academy held an exhibition displaying 355 art works produced through the Canadian War Memorials Fund, including forty-five paintings by Munnings. His paintings received praise from critics and visitors alike.

This body of work, and publicity from the RA exhibition, laid the foundation for Munnings’ post-war career. He spent the next thirty years painting old-fashioned equestrian portraits for an impressive number of aristocratic and upper class clients, as well as producing a large number of paintings of race horses.

In 1919 Munnings was admitted to the RA, and 25 years later, for his unbending commitment to utterly conventional political and artistic tastes, Munnings was elected president of the Royal Academy (1944) and then knighted. In recent decades his racehorse paintings have become very collectible and one was auctioned for nearly $8 million in 2007.

The exhibition

This exhibition is the first time Munnings’s forty-five paintings made for the Canadian War Memorials Fund have been reunited and shown together since that Royal Academy exhibition 100 years ago.

(Almost all of the paintings have been loaned from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and, once it closes here in the Army Museum, the exhibition will move on to the Munnings Art Museum in Munnings’s old house at Dedham in Suffolk.

The paintings

Once you’ve seen the first few, you immediately get Munnings’s style, which doesn’t change much.

It is Newlyn School-style plein air realism, without the wonderful luminousness of, say, Henry Scott Tuke or the charm of Stanhope Forbes. He uses wide thick semi-impressionist brushstrokes but for a solidly realistic goal.

I was put off by the gloss finish of much of the oil which reflects the gallery lights. You have to find the right angle not to be distracted by reflections. Then again, the further back you stand, the more effective this kind of semi-impressionistic style becomes.

Idyllic landscape

You can see the influence or the similarity with similar idyllic sunlit landscapes of the Newly School painters. And the two fancy-free Edwardian children at left, little girl with straw boater.

A Stream Bed at Labergement, Jura Forest by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

A Stream Bed at Labergement, Jura Forest by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

The Canadian Cavalry

There are a dozen or so paintings like this showing the Canadian cavalry marching along a straight French road, along another straight French road, stopping by a stream, bivouacking among tents, marching along another straight French road, punctuated by the one imagined depiction of a charge. They all have a sort of muddy realism.

Fort Garry's on the march by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Fort Garry’s on the march by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Timber work

I think the subject of work, real work, hard work, physical labour, is often absent from both literature and art, and I welcome its depiction.

Did you know that the Canadian Forestry Corps was established in 1916 to supply wood for the war? Some 22,000 soldiers served in Scotland, France and England, ‘wielding axes and saws instead of rifles and machine guns’. These forestry units produced 70% of the lumber used by the Allied armies on the Western front. They look used to it. These paintings could have been done in Canada, they capture so well the lumberjack spirit. They were, according to Munnings, ‘grand fellows’.

Felling a tree in the Vosges by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Felling a tree in the Vosges by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Equestrian portraits

This is the kind of utterly conventional equestrian portrait which inspired hundreds of aristocrats to commission Munnings to do their portraits in the 1920s and 30s and which made him a rich man. To my eye, it’s an adequate enough depiction of the subject but surprisingly rough and loose. It lacks precision and vim. The commentary several times remarked on the accuracy of Munnings’s portraits but they look like generic posh chaps to me. I kept being reminded of the ineffable tedium of Siegfried Sassoon’s book, Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man.

Captain Prince Antoine of Orleans and Braganza by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Captain Prince Antoine of Orleans and Braganza by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Display cases

There were three or so display cases showing a range of authentic memorabilia from the period and from the cavalry Munnings depicted – bridle, stirrups, brushes and grooming equipment, a rifle and bullets, some medals – each with an interesting, sometimes poignant, story behind it.

Installation view of Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 at the Army Museum (photo by the author)

Installation view of Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 at the Army Museum (photo by the author)

Anecdotes not art

When you consider what had been going on in Continental art for several generations before this – the Impressionists, van Gogh, Gauguin, then Matisse and the Fauves, Picasso and Cubism, German Expressionism, Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter, Italian Futurism – you realise that Munnings’s whole approach could hardly have been more conservative and old fashioned.

A moment’s reflection on just the English painters who served as war artists – like Stanley Spencer or Paul Nash or the fabulous C.R.W. Nevinson – makes you realise how heroically fuddy-duddy Munnings’ paintings are.

Let alone memories of Tate Britain’s recent Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One exhibition. That tried to capture the incredible explosion of creativity which took place all across the continent, during and immediately after the war. Next to any of it, Munnings is a Sunday afternoon crossword in Country Life.

On the positive side, if you ignored its failings as art and remember that he saw no actual fighting, then it’s possible to that Munnings did a good and responsible job of reporting what he did see, life and work behind the lines.

His paintings have a lot of anecdotal and historical value, and the exhibition is larded with all kinds of interesting information about a) the role of horses b) the role of the Canadians and c) the role of lumber and wood, in the war on the western Front, all of which are rather neglected subjects.

For example, did you know that horse fodder was the single largest commodity shipped to the front by some countries? Did you know that the charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron at the Battle of Moreuil Wood, in 1918, was ‘the last great cavalry charge’ of the British Army?

Did you know that the Canadian lumberjacks were so productive that British imports of lumber fell from 11.6 million tonnes in 1913 to 2 million tonnes in 1918? No, neither did I. Initially much of this lumber had had to be carried on ships crossing the Atlantic. Since German submarines sank a high percentage of these, it was vitally important that the space given to wood declined so drastically, making way for food and munitions. So much so that a contemporary wrote that the Canadian Forestry Corps ‘helped to defeat the submarine… more surely than a fleet of ships.’

There are a number of paintings of working lumbermills which are very atmospheric. They cut tens of thousands of planks a day. One forestry company in the Jura mountains cut more than 156,000 feet of board in a record-breaking ten hours!

Lumbermen among the pines by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Lumbermen among the pines by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

‘Galloping Jack’ Seely and Warrior

There is a little section devoted to one particular fellow, Brigadier-General J.E.B.’Galloping Jack’ Seely, head of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Seely’s horse, Warrior, became a legend and has had several books devoted to him. After an hour of posing for the artist, the Brigadier-General was called away and replaced, for artistic purposes, by his batman wearing one of his beribboned uniforms. The commentary tells us that Munnings and the batman were most amused that many of the cavalry trooping by at a distance sternly saluted the chortling batman. Munnings thought the Canadians ‘the finest fellows I ever met’. If you like that kind of anecdote, and you like this kind of semi-modern painting of horses – then this exhibition is for you!

Major-General the Right Honourable J.E.B.Seely by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Major-General the Right Honourable J.E.B. Seely by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Summary

From a purely technical, oil painting point of view, it is interesting to study Munnings’s technique, and see up close how he large and roughly applied brushstrokes which are impressionist technique in order to achieve essentially conservative, old fashioned realist effects.

It’s interesting to see what a scion of the Establishment actually looks like, the kind of crusty old buffer which the younger generation at Slade or Bloomsbury were reacting against. Fox-hunting men. It makes you realise the depth and breadth of philistinism which dominated early 20th century Britain.

It reminds me of the Courtauld exhibition, which is still on at the National Gallery, in which we learned of the struggles Samuel Courtauld had to persuade the National Gallery, or any British gallery, to buy works by van Gogh or Gauguin or Monet or Toulouse-Lautrec when they came on the market. Foreign rubbish, said the powers that be. They preferred Munnings.

Which is why American galleries ended up with all the best modern art and both the Tate and National have a very limited collection. Throughout the crucial decades, the philistines were in charge.

All that said, if you like paintings of horses you’ll love these. Personally, I preferred the ones of horses at work in the forests and lumberyards rather than the rather repetitive ones of cavalry trotting along French roads. Working horses of the First World War struck me as being a unique subject which no-one else had painted.

And the exhibition is packed with facts and figures – about horses and about the Canadian war effort – which are genuinely interesting, and shed light on your understanding of the war.

So, for me then, this exhibition – handsomely staged and full of informative wall labels – is more interesting as history and anecdote than as art.


Related links

Other Army Museum reviews

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (1920)

A figure stripped to the waist, with ripped-open back, leaned against the parapet. Another, with a triangular flap hanging off the back of his skull, emitted short, high-pitched screams. This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. (p.31)

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) fought for the German army in the First World War. Wikipedia gives a good summary of his wartime career.

Most other memoirs and fictions about the war took years to surface, while the authors struggled to manage their traumatic memories and to find the words to describe the experience.

No such hesitation for Jünger, who converted the 16 diaries he’d kept during his three-year period of service into a narrative – titled In Stahlgewittern – which he had privately printed in 1920 in an edition of 2,000.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919 – looking miraculously untouched after three years of war and some 20 wounds

Over the course of his very long life (he lived to be 102 years old), Jünger not only wrote many more books and articles, but he rewrote In Stahlgewittern half a dozen times, each time moving further from the diary format, adding passages of philosophical reflection, and altering the emphasis.

For example, the 1924 edition is the most blood-thirsty and gives precise details of how he shot British soldiers. The 1934 edition, by contrast, is much more muted and removes those descriptions. Jünger was by now reaching an international audience i.e. British and French readers, with whom he needed to be more tactful.

It was only in 1930 that Storm of Steel was first translated into English and given this English title. During the 1930s it quickly became acknowledged as one of the classic accounts of trench fighting in the Great War.

Translating Jünger into English

English written by an English person tends to indicate the author’s social class, with traces of the kind of school they went to (private or state), sometimes their regional origins, and so on. It is full of all kinds of traces.

Translations into English, on the other hand, generally tell you more about the translator than about the original author.

Clunky phrasing

The translation I read is by Michael Hofmann, the poet, and was published in 2003. Although it won several prizes, I found it very easy to dislike.

Hofmann’s English prose doesn’t flow, in fact it regularly (two or three times per page) breaks down into unidiomatic and clunky phrasing. Again and again I found myself thinking ‘No native English speaker ever spoke or wrote like that – so why are you?’

‘They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not soon be over.’ (p.8)
How about … ‘and whether the war was going to end soon’

‘I was given a couple of hours to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout.’ (p.9)
‘To find an exhausted sleep’??

‘If it’s all one to you, I’d just as soon hang on to it.’ (p.18)
No English speaker ever said ‘If it’s all one to you’. An English speaker would say ‘If it’s all the same to you…’

We had the satisfaction of having our opponent disappearing for good after a series of shots had struck the clay ramparts directly in front of his face. (p.65)
Why the -ing on the end of disappear?

‘Recouvrance was a remote village, nestling in pretty chalk hills, to where all the regiments in the division dispatched a few of their young men to receive a thorough schooling in military matters…” (p.16)
Why not just delete ‘to’? And replace ‘dispatched’ with ‘sent’?

Maybe the resolutely un-English nature of many of the sentences and the un-English atmosphere which hovers over the entire text is a deliberate strategy to convey the un-English nature of Jünger’s original German.

But I doubt it because many of the sentences in Hofmann’s introduction have the same broken-backed, wrong-word-order, clumsy clauses, not-quite-English feel about them.

As I read Hofmann’s translation I compared it with the first translation of Storm of Steel into English which was made by Basil Creighton back in 1930, and which I borrowed from my local library. Creighton’s translation of that last excerpt reads:

Recouvrance was a remote little village hidden among delightful chalk hills. A certain number of the more youthful of us were sent there from the division to receive a thorough military training…

Though not perfect, Creighton’s version has more of the rhythm of ordinary English prose, and is therefore much more readable, than the Hofmann.

Erratic vocabulary and register

Hofmann is an acclaimed poet – which maybe explains why in some places he shows a deliberately refractory choice of phrasing and word order – why he often flaunts odd words and phrases – in a way common in modern poetry but which stands out next to Creighton’s straightforwardly factual (if sometimes dated) prose.

This often leads Hofmann into what I thought was a curiously tin ear for register, by which I mean the way a writer chooses vocabulary and phrasing, manages the positioning of subordinate clauses and so on, in order to create a consistent style or voice.

To give a specific example, Hofmann seems to deliberately combine terms which are inappropriate or anachronistic in order to create a clash of registers. Take this sentence:

After this incident I betook myself to my dugout, but today too there was no chance of any restorative kip. (p.74)

‘Betook myself to’? When do you think that phrase was last used in everyday speech or writing? It sounds like Dr Johnson and the Augustans to me. Googling it you find that ‘betook myself’ is included in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven, which was written in the mid-19th century in a deliberately archaic and Gothic style. In other words, the phrase was old in 1845.

On the other hand ‘kip’ is a slang term for sleep which reminds me of George Orwell’s use of it in Down and Out in Paris and London in the 1930s, where it has the feel of the rough, lower-class, Victorian vocabulary used by Orwell’s tramps.

Bringing them together in the one sentence – an extremely archaic 18th century idiom running into a 1930s slang term – creates, for me, a car crash of registers. And neither of them are what you’d call modern colloquial or formal English. They create a made-up register, an invented English.

Why? Maybe we are meant to accept it as the style of a famous poet playing with language. ‘He’s a poet; of course he’s going to give you a poetic translation!’

Which is all well and good in the privacy of his own writing where he can do as he pleases – but when he is translating a notable foreign author surely he should try to recreate a consistent register of English which is the nearest possible replication of the original author’s tone of voice. Isn’t that the goal of most translations?

(Incidentally, the insertion of ‘too’ in the ‘betook’ sentence is something no English speaker would do, but is instead a quite obvious direct translation of the German word auch and is placed where the German word comes in the sentence: aber heute auch – ‘but today also’. An English writer might say: ‘After this incident I went back to my dugout but once [or yet] again there was no chance of a restorative sleep.’)

To take another tiny, jarring detail, I was pulled up short when Hofmann has Jünger use the term ‘grunt’ (pp.133, 196) for infantryman. Now ‘grunt’ is a well-known word to anyone who’s read about the Vietnam War of the 1960s, where it became the universal term for the American infantry, expressing a combination of embattled fondness for the dumb front-line soldiers with contempt for the shitstorm their superiors had dumped them in. Looking it up, I find that ‘grunt’ was first recorded in this sense in print in 1969.

My point is that all this word’s associations are to Vietnam – to choppers, ‘gooks’, napalm at dawn and so on. Dropping it into your translation of Jünger describing the First World War is like dropping a couple of seconds of colour film into a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie. It is a deliberately jarring anachronism.

It seemed to me that at moments like this the translator is grandstanding, making more of an effort to display his modernist taste for unexpected juxtapositions of register, signalling what a poet he is – rather than concentrating on translating Jünger into clear, effective and tonally consistent prose.

Sometimes Hoffman has Jünger use low-class phrases like ‘argy-bargy’ (pp.155, 245) and ‘getting on our wicks’ (p.149) – phrases more evocative of Eastenders than an élite Germany infantry officer of 1917.

But at the other extreme of class diction, after our hero survives a violent foray into the British trenches, Hoffman has him overhearing a common soldier saying:

‘I must say, though, that Lieutenant Jünger is really something else: my word, the sight of him vaulting over those barricades!’

‘I must say… My word’! Does Hoffman really think that an ordinary squaddie – one of the common infantry he describes as ‘grunts’ – would actually talk like that? While he has posh, upper-class officers says things are ‘getting on our wicks’. It is a topsy-turvy use of registers.

Where and when is this English set? Is it with Edgar Allen Poe in 1845, with Orwell’s tramps’ during the depression, 1920s Jeeves and Wooster banter, or in 1967 Vietnam slang? This prose is all over the place.

German word order

I studied German at GCSE level. Not enough to be fluent but enough to have a feel for its grammar and very different word order from English. So I kept having the feeling that Hofmann, happy to play havoc with the register of his prose, also made a point of clinging to the original German word order.

Maybe, again, this is a deliberate strategy to convey the ‘otherness’ of the original German, but too often it simply has the result of obscuring Jünger’s actual meaning.

For example, Jünger first experiences a really heavy artillery barrage at les Éparges in 1915. He feels weirdly disconnected from the mayhem around him. Hofmann has:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Note the way he handles the subordinate clauses in these sentences. French and German users often put descriptions of something or someone or an action that the subject of the sentence has taken, into a subordinate clause right next to the subject or object. They write:

The ball, having been kicked by Daisy, rolled across the grass.

Francois, a man I had never liked, opened the door.

It often makes French and German prose, if translated literally, feel clotted or lumpy. Deciding what to do with these stumpy subordinate clauses is one of the chief problems facing anyone translating from those languages into English.

Because in flowing, idiomatic English, we prefer to give such clauses a main verb and subject of their own, sometimes inserting them into the main sentence, or – if that’s too tricky – just breaking a long clotted sentence up into two simpler ones. This makes them flow better, and it makes the prose more punchy and effective because, instead of a passive past participle, you have an active verb. So we write:

Daisy kicked the ball and it rolled across the grass.

Francois opened the door. I had never liked him.

Clearer, simpler, more active. Let’s look at that passage again:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Twice in this short passage Hofmann uses subordinate clauses, and these create a sense of passivity: ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ and ‘returned to my unit’ are both adjectival phrases describing the ‘I’ which immediately follows. They blunt the potential for active verbs. They weight the subject down like a ball and chain. They make the prose inactive and heavy.

Compare and contrast with Creighton’s translation of the same passage:

At the same time I had no fear. For I felt that I was not seen, and I could not believe that anyone aimed at me or that I should be hit. Indeed, when I rejoined my section I surveyed our front with complete calm. It was the courage of ignorance.

Not perfect prose either, I grant you, but note:

  1. Hofmann’s passive subordinate clauses have become phrases led by an active verb – ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ has become ‘I felt that I was not seen’, and ‘returned to my unit’ becomes ‘when I rejoined my section’. Feels brighter and more lively, doesn’t it? The point is that Hofmann tucks away a lot of information in clauses which – as the name suggests – are subordinate – passive, veiled and hidden. Creighton’s prose brings this information out into the daylight as active phrases which contribute to the flow of the prose and which the reader notices more.
  2. And this greater activity is really rammed home by Creighton’s final sentence which has the ta-dah! impact of the pithy couplet at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. ‘It was the courage of ignorance’ is exactly the kind of didactic punchline the paragraph is crying out for, which brings the point out into the open and rams it home. (It’s easier to feel the impact of this last sentence if you’ve read the whole of the previous sequence of paragraphs: it neatly sums up an entire passage.)

The result of all this is that I didn’t really notice this passage at all when I read it in the Hofmann. It just drifted by, passive, subordinate and veiled. Whereas when I read the Creighton version, this passage really leaped out at me as the pithy and powerful conclusion of a man who had been through his first artillery barrage and now, looking back, realises how naive and foolish he was to have felt so confident.

It was only in the Creighton translation that I understood the point Jünger was making.

So: from very early on in my reading, I had the impression that Hofmann was more interested in tickling the tastebuds of modish readers who like poetic effects (jarring, modernist, poetic effects) than in finding a consistent register which would allow Jünger’s meaning and conclusions to come over as clearly, consistently and powerfully as possible.

To be even blunter – I felt that in reading the Hofmann, I not only had to put up with a steady flow of clunking un-English phraseology and word order, but that I was missing a lot of what Jünger wanted to say.

Hofmann’s clunks

At four o’clock already we were roused from our bed put together from bits of furniture, to be given our steel helmets. (p.93)
This is German word order, not English. French and German uses the equivalent of ‘already’ a lot more than we do in English. It’s a giveaway sign that the German is being translated word for word rather than into idiomatic English.

All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of coloured flares. (p.95)

When morning paled, the strange surroundings gradually revealed themselves to our disbelieving eyes. (p.97)
Show-off, poetic use of ‘pale’ as a verb.

In my unhealthy irritation, I couldn’t help but think that these vehicles followed no other purpose than to annoy us… (p.102)
I don’t think ‘to follow a purpose’ is an English idiom. We’d say ‘had no other purpose’, though it’s still clunky phrasing. How about: ‘I couldn’t help thinking the only point of these vehicles was to annoy us…’

The following morning, the battalion marched off into the direction of heavy firing… (p.131)
Doesn’t he mean either ‘in the direction of’ or, more simply, ‘towards’?

We ate heartily, and handed the bottle of ’98 proof’ around. Then we settled off to sleep… (p.166)
‘Settled off’? Obviously he means ‘settled down’. This is not English. Why wasn’t this book proof read by an English speaker?

Our first period in position passed pleasantly quietly. (p.142)

In the evening, the shelling waxed to a demented fury. (p.161)
‘Waxed’? I know that it can mean ‘grew’, but it hasn’t been used in this sense since Shakespeare.

German humour

Maybe they simply don’t survive Hofmann’s clumsy translation, but what appear to be  Jünger’s attempts at humour aren’t very funny. For example, I think the following is intended to include both a stylish reference to a German literary figure, and to be itself a humorous description of trying to get rid of lice.

Fairly unscathed myself thus far by that scourge, I helped my comrade Priepke, an exporter from Hamburg, wrap his woollen waistcoat – as populous as once the garment of the adventurous Simplicissimus – round a heavy boulder, and for mass extermination, dunk it in the river. Where, since we left Hérinnes very suddenly, it will have mouldered away quietly ever since. (p.20)

This is godawful English prose. What a mouthful of marbles! In Creighton’s version this becomes:

As I had been more or less free from this plague, I assisted a friend, Priepke, to deal with his woollen vest, which was as populous as the habit of Simplicius Simplicissimus of yore. So we wrapped it round a large stone and sank it in a stream. As our departure from Herne followed very suddenly upon this, it is likely that the garment enjoys a quiet resting-place there to this day.

Creighton’s version is not brilliant either, but at least he makes the sensible move of breaking up the long clotted main sentence into two smaller sentences. And the use of ‘so’ at the start of the second sentence gives a sense of logic and clarity to the description.

Still not that rib-tickling, though, is it?

In his introduction Hofmann devotes a couple of pages to explaining what an awful translator Creighton was, and how he made literally hundreds of elemental mistakes in his understanding of German. Maybe. But his version is much more readable than Hofmann’s. If Hofmann’s accusations against Creighton are true then, alas, it seems that the reader is stuck with two very flawed translations.

Worse, it appears that the Creighton contains content – passages of reflection and philosophising – which are simply not present in the Hofmann. Presumably this is because Creighton was translating from one of the more wordy and reflective versions of the book, and Hofmann has chosen to translate one of the leaner versions or to himself cut out the philosophising passages.

It is in these sections that Jünger gives his thoughts about the meaning of war and bravery. Creighton has quite a few of them; Hofmann has none. Maybe this makes the Hofmann version more pure and elemental but it does mean that the average English reader will never get to see and read Jünger’s thoughts about his central subject – men in war.

From all this I conclude that maybe what this important book deserves is some kind of scholarly variorum edition. An edition which:

  • clearly explains the textual history of the book
  • summarises the changes between all the different versions
  • decides which version to translate (and explains why)
  • renders it into clear, unfussy English

But which also features extensive footnotes or endnotes which include the important passages from all the other versions, so we can see how Jünger chopped and changed the text, and with notes explaining why he did this and how it reflected his evolving attitude towards the subject matter.

Jünger’s detached attitude

As to the actual content of the book, it is notorious for Jünger’s apparently cold, detached and heartless description of what he experiences.

There is absolutely no build-up in the way of the author’s birth, upbringing, family, education, feelings on the outbreak of war, agonising over which regiment to join and so on, none of the bonhomie and chat and certainly none of the humour which characterises, say, Robert Graves’s famous war book, Goodbye To All That.

Instead we are thrown straight into the action: the narrator just steps off a train in France, is told to line up with his squad, is marched to a village, has his first experience of shellfire, sees some men from a different unit get killed, and then he’s taken up the line and starts the trench soldier’s existence of sleeplessness, cold and discomfort.

It is a little as if an utterly detached intelligence from another planet has been embedded in a human body and proceeds to do everything it’s told, while all the time observing the strange human creatures and their customs.

I still viewed the machinery of conflict with the eyes of an inexperienced recruit – the expressions of bellicosity seemed as distant and peculiar to me as events on another planet. (p.27)

It’s only some way into the text that we even learn the year he’s describing, namely 1915. It is a bare bones approach. In the fifth chapter (‘Daily life in the trenches’) the text really returns to the ‘bones’ of his experience, as it reverts to its original format as a diary, each paragraph starting with a date and the events of that day. We follow a straightforward chronological sequence of dates which takes us through the summer and autumn 1915, through Christmas, and into the spring of 1916.

The names of lots of soldier comrades are given, but only in the briefest, most clinical way. Often they’re only mentioned on the date they die, in fact most of the diary entries are clipped descriptions of who died on what day, and how.

Jünger doesn’t seem to have any close friends. He certainly doesn’t have the witty conversations with them that Graves does, or hang out with a few close buddies like Frederick Manning does in his brilliant war memoir, The Middle Parts of Fortune.

Instead, Jünger observes with cool detachment everything that happens around him. After he’s wounded the first time – a shrapnel laceration across his thigh – Jünger is brought back to a clearing station, where the surgeon is overwhelmed with casualties.

At the sight of the surgeon, who stood checking the roster in the bloody chaos, I once again had the impression, hard to describe, of seeing a man surrounded by elemental terror and anguish, studying the functioning of his organisation with ant-like cold-bloodedness. (p.32)

As it happens, among his many other achievements, Jünger lived to become a famous entomologist i.e. an expert on insects, and went on to write books on the subject after the war. So it strikes me that his portrait of the surgeon, calm and detached among the slaughter, watching the people around him as if they were insects to be studied – is in fact Jünger’s self-portrait of himself.


Jünger’s vision of war

What it lacks in warmth, humour or human touch, the book more than makes up for with the thing that makes it so powerful, which helped it grow into a classic – which is Jünger’s hugely compelling descriptions of the brutal, the eerie, the strange, the heroic and the primordial nature of this utterly new kind of total war, and of the terrifying new race of men it seemed to be breeding.

Physical disgust

In the rising mist, I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform. Turning round, I took a step back in horror; next to me a figure was crouched by a tree. It still had gleaming French leather harness, and on its back was a fully packed haversack, topped by a round mess-tin. Empty eye-sockets and a few strands of hair on the bluish-black skull indicated that the man was not among the living. There was another sitting down, slumped forward towards his feet, as though he had just collapsed. All round were dozens more, rotted, dried, stiffened to mummies, frozen in an eerie dance of death. (p.25)

Not only are there corpses all around, but the book gives us hundreds of descriptions of men being shot, eviscerated, decapitated, buried alive, flayed by shrapnel, burned to death by fire, stifled by gas, and exploded.

There was another whistling high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.

Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine-gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smouldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for a moment tore open the extreme abysm of terror. (p.225)

The rate of deaths, the endless stream of deaths Jünger sees at first hand, right in front of him, never lets up, is staggering, stupefying. So many men, so many terrifying woundings, eviscerations, liquidations, smashings, manglings and screams of pain.

NCO Dujesiefken, my comrade at Regniéville, was standing in front of my foxhole, begging me to get into the trench as even a light shell bursting anywhere near would cause masses of earth to come down on top of me. An explosion cut him off: he sprawled to the ground, missing a leg. He was past help. (p.230)

Beside the ruined cottage lay a piece of trench that was being swept with machine-gun fire from beyond. I jumped into it, and found it untenanted. Immediately afterwards, I was joined by Oskar Kius and von Wedelstädt. An orderly of von Wedelstädt’s, the last man in, collapsed in mid-air, shot through one eye. (p.237)

One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured onto the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. (p.248)

On his six visits to dressing stations in the rear and then on to hospitals to be treated, Jünger is in the company of men weeping and screaming from all sorts of pitiful wounds. At one hospital he is told they had received 30,000 casualties in the previous three weeks. Men die horrible deaths left, right and centre, all the time, unrelentingly. Death death death.

In the spring the ice and frost melt and the walls of the trenches thaw and dissolve, revealing the massed bodies and equipment of the men of 1914 and 1915, whose bodies had been built into the defences. The soldiers find themselves treading on the slimy gloop of the decomposing corpses from last year’s battles.

The scale of the killing is inconceivable.

Heightened alertness

Yet Jünger combines countless examples of disgusting physical injury and the ubiquity of slimy, popping, farting, rotting corpses, with an unquenchable lust for life and excitement. Nothing can stop his steely patriotism and lust for excitement.

Whenever possible he volunteers to go on night patrols into no man’s land, risking his life for often trivial rewards or none at all, generally ending up haring back to his own lines as rifle and machine gun fire starts up from the British or French opposite. But to be out there, sneaking silently in the presence of Death, is to be alive as nowhere else.

These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterable menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow burst; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape. ( p.71)

Battlefield stress

Sometimes it all seems like a dream or a nightmare, a waking nightmare from which there is no escape. On one occasion, caught out in no man’s land when his little squad bumps into some foraging Brits, the two groups fall to mad hand-to-hand fighting in which all their 20th century weapons fail, leaving only wordless, primitive struggle.

After one shot the magazine had clicked out of my pistol grip. I stood yelling in front of a Briton who in his horror was pressing his back into the barbed wire, and kept pulling the trigger. Nothing happened – it was like a dream of impotence. (p.88)

Later, Jünger is behind the lines in the village of Fresnoy when it comes under a pulverising artillery bombardment that blows houses to pieces and human beings into shreds of flesh.

I saw a basement flattened. All we could recover from the scorched space were the three bodies. Next to the entrance one man lay on his belly in a shredded uniform; his head was off, and the blood had flowed into a puddle. When an ambulanceman turned him over to check him for valuables, I saw as in a nightmare that his thumb was still hanging from the remains of his arm. (p.135)

It is a world of despairingly horrific sights and intense visions. A world in which everything is bright, overlit, too vivid, permanently visionary.

Like a vision in a dream, the sight, lit only by falling sparks, of a double line of kneeling figures at the instant in which they rose to advance, etched itself into my eye. (p.147)

A world in which even things which have just happened are so outside the range of normal human experience that they are impossible to process in any rational way.

I experienced quite a few adventures in the course of the war, but none was quite as eerie as this. It still makes me feel a cold sweat when I think of us wandering around among those unfamiliar trenches by the cold early light. It was like the dream of a labyrinth. (p.190)

Unsurprisingly, so many close encounters with death – not just close, but so irrational, so uncanny, so deep, arousing the cave man or the prehuman in their souls – had psychological repercussions.

It was only afterwards that I noticed that the experience had taken its toll on my nerves, when I was lying on my pallet in my dugout with my teeth chattering, and quite unable to sleep. Rather, I had the sensation of a sort of supreme awakeness – as if I had a little electric bell going off somewhere in my body. The following morning I could hardly walk. (p.88)

But like the men he so fulsomely praises, Jünger does get up, he commands, he leads, he doesn’t stop.

The emotions of war

The intensity of the war, the relentless bombardment, the lack of sleep, the continual toll of deaths from snipers or random mortar bombs, gives rise to new emotions and feelings – strange hilarities, clarities, hysterias – which he observes working within himself.

Here, and really only here, I was to observe that there is a quality of dread that feels as unfamiliar as a foreign country. In moments when I felt it, I experienced no fear as such but a kind of exalted, almost demoniacal lightness; often attended by fits of laughter I was unable to repress. (p.93)

And he repeatedly describes the madness of combat, the crazed exhiliration of the charge, bayonets fixed, down a confusing warren of corpse-strewn trenches, towards the top, and over into the face of the enemy.

On, on! In one violently bombarded defile, the sections backed up. Take cover! A horribly penetrating smell told us that this passage had already taken a good many lives. After running for our lives, we managed to reach a second defile which concealed the dugout of the front-line commanding officer, then we lost our way again, and in a painful crush of excited men, had to turn back once more. At the most five yards from Vogel and me, a middle-sized shell struck the bank behind us with a dull thump, and hurled mighty clods of earth over us, as we thought our last moment had come. Finally, our guide found the path again – a strangely constellated group of corpses serving as a landmark. One of the dead lay there as if crucified on the chalk slope. It was impossible to imagine a more appropriate landmark.

On, on! Men collapsed while running, we had to threaten them to use the last energy from their exhausted bodies. Wounded men went down left and right in craters – we disregarded their cries for help. We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a thin chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another. At moments we felt our feet settling on soft, yielding corpses, whose form we couldn’t make out on account of the darkness. The wounded man collapsing on the path suffered the same fate: he too was trampled underfoot by the boots of those hurrying ever onwards. (pp.96-97)

Courage

And in this strange landscape, between the midnight hunting in no man’s land, the grinding lack of sleep of the nightly sentry routine, and the appallingly unrelenting artillery bombardments unleashed by the British, amid all this horror, Jünger’s comrades do not defect or resile. They stand to when ordered to. They muster by the revetments of the trenches causing Jünger to burn with pride.

It was in the course of these days that I learned to appreciate these men with whom I was to be together for two more years of the war. What was at stake here was a British initiative on such a small scale as barely to find mention in the histories of both armies, intended to commit us to a sector where the main attack was not to be. Nor did the men have much to do, only cover the very small amount of ground, from the entrance of the shelter to the sentry posts. But these few steps needed to be taken in the instant of a great crescendo of fire before an attack, the precise timing of which is a matter of gut instinct and feeling. The dark wave that so many times in those nights welled up to the traverses through fire, and without even an order being possible, remained with me in my heart as a personal yardstick for human trustworthiness. (p.85)

Something awesome is happening, and Jünger brilliantly conveys its tensed uniqueness.

These instants, in which the entire complement of men stood behind the traverses, tensed and ready, had something magical about them; they were like the last breathless second before a hugely important performance, as the music is turned off and the big lights go up. (p.77)

New men

For amid this inferno, a new race of men is being forged.

A runner from a Württemberg regiment reported to me to guide my new platoon to the famous town of Combles, where we were to be held in reserve for the time being. He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world… Nothing was left in his voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It’s men like that that you need for fighting. (p.92)

Invulnerable, invincible men of steel, forged in the furnace of war.

As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered. (p.99)

New men. Men of the future. The Overmen.

There was in these men a quality that both emphasised the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood. (p.140)

Something primordial

Men being shaped anew in the storm of steel because these are conditions and circumstances unlike any ever experienced by any humans in all previous human history.

From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away at and around Combles, innumerable shells criss-crossed hissing and howling over our heads. All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of flares. Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed. We had the sensation of the ineluctable and the unconditionally necessary, as if we were facing an elemental force. (p.95)

The sheer unrelenting killing machine mincing its way through human flesh on an unprecedented scale awakes echoes of something infinitely primitive, primordial, echoes of pre-human conditions, the beginning or end of the world.

The whole scene – the mixture of the prisoners’ laments and our jubilation – had something primordial about it. This wasn’t war; it was ancient history. (p.150)

Conclusion

Storm of Steel follows Jünger’s diary in giving the German point of view of a number of Western front battles, in chronological order, from 1915 to 1918, including the Battle of the Somme and leading up to the German spring offensive of 1918, followed by the Allied counter-attack in the summer of 1918. At this point Jünger was wounded for the sixth time, and he was recuperating back in Germany when the war ended.

The text could be used as evidence of the camaraderie of the German forces, or of their officers’ awareness of their material inferiority to the Allies, or of their confidence in the superiority of the German fighting spirit.

The Creighton translation has an introduction by one R.H. Mottram, who himself fought in the war. In his opinion Storm of Steel is evidence of the obtuse refusal to face reality of the entire Germany military class. After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in October 1914, it became clear that the war could only ever end with Allied victory – yet the German High Command stretched it out for four long, bitter years of psychological denial, resulting in ten million unnecessary deaths.

There are occasional moments when Jünger reveals a human side. Half way through the book there’s an unexpected passage in which Jünger discovers that his brother, who had also enlisted, is fighting in a unit right alongside his own. He immediately goes to find him, in the heat of a battle and, discovering him wounded in a farmhouse, arranges for him to be carried back to a field hospital in a piece of tarpaulin, probably saving his life.

So, all in all, Storm of Steel contains much material for historians or literary critics, psychologists or military analysts, to excerpt and analyse.

And there are countless details to shock and grab the casual reader’s attention, like the little girl lying in a pool of her own blood in a bombed-out village, or the soldier thrown into the exact pose of the crucifixion by a shell blast – the kind of details which feed into the modern liberal consensus that war is hell.

But in my opinion, all these elements are eclipsed by Jünger’s terrifying sense of a new world of war emerging, a world of unprecedented destruction and obliteration, in which a wholly new breed of heartless, battle-hardened warriors would arise to fight and flourish. Emerging from his visceral description of total war is a nightmare vision of the future, and an even more destructive conflagration to come.

As though waking from a deep dream, I saw German steel helmets approaching through the craters. They seemed to sprout from the fire-harrowed soil like some iron harvest. (p.235)


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)

This is the second of Buchan’s five thrillers told in the first person by the bluff, straight-talking South African mining engineer-cum posh chap Richard Hannay. Whereas The Thirty-Nine Steps which is about foiling a German plot to smuggle military secrets out of England, is set just before the outbreak of the Great War, this sequel was written between February and June 1916 and is very much set during the Great War: the  plot starts in November 1915 and goes on into early 1916. (NB In June 1916 Buchan joined the intelligence department of the Foreign Office and in July the first installment of the Greennmantle appeared in Land and Water magazine. Buchan’s role working for British propaganda is worth bearing in mind when reading any of his books, and I will discuss more fully in the next blog post, about Mr Standfast.)

The plot

Hannay is joined in his adventure by three friends: Sandy Arbuthnot, a dashing hero who is blood brother to half the tribes of bedouin and gypsies throughout the Middle East (‘He rode through Yemen, which no white man ever did before.’); Peter Pienaar, a grizzled old big game hunter friend of Hannay’s from South Africa; John S. Blenkiron, a tubby and extremely knowledgeable American on our side.

Sir Walter Bullivant, the senior intelligence man who came to Hannay’s aid in the Steps, now informs them there is a dastardly German plot to cause a muslim uprising against the British in the Middle East and beyond, down the east coast of Africa. Our heroes are tasked with finding out who’s organising it and stopping it.

This rather vague commission leads them to plan to journey via separate routes to Istanbul to find out everything  they can along the way, rendezvous, and come up with a plan. While Blenkiron travels in style through Germany posing as an outspoken opponent of the War and of the Allies and Sandy plans his own mysterious journey via the Med, Hannay poses as a disgruntled South African Boer ready to throw in his lot with the Germans, and this leads him to be presented to the sinister Hun General von Stumm, to overhear vital conversations, and then to escape and go on the run through the winter snows of Germany, involving extremes of physical endurance, car chases, fake identities and so on.

Plot shift – a volta?

In the Alistair MacLean novels I identified the frequent use of an abrupt volta or shift, whereby the hero reveals he is something completely different from what he’d led us to believe for the first half of the text. Something similiar though less calculating happens in The Thirty-Nine Steps: the first half of the plot is driven by Hannay’s need to hide from the German spy organisation until he can get news to the authorities about their plot to assassinate the Greek Prime Minister on a state visit to London. But in the last chapter or so, the Greek PM is assassinated and, suddenly, it doesn’t matter because it has become a much more chamber affair of a German spy impersonating the First Sea Lord – an incident Hannay happens to witness through incredible coincidence as he happens to be waiting outside the meeting to see Bullivant, the head of British intelligence. It is only by the slenderest of accidents that Hannay spots this and realises the true meaning of the fragmentary message about the 39 steps ie they are steps down to the sea from a coastal house for a German spy to escape taking the information the imposter has learned at this high-level meeting.

Well, the same thing happens in Greenmantle. The first half or more relates Hannay’s dashing adventures in wintry Germany, before he finally makes it to Istanbul where our heroes meet up and establish that a new muslim prophet has arisen and is being steered and managed by a fiendish German mastermind. BUT then the book’s focus changes. Whereas the uprising had formerly been a general jihad of all muslims in the Middle East, now it becomes focused on the battle around the eastern city of Erzerum where the Russians are besieging the Turkish Army, bolstered by German forces – and then, in exactly the kind of slender coincidence on which the Steps turned, Hannay – escaping over rooftops from pursuing soldiers – accidentally sees the General poring over plans before leaving the room, so – in a typical moment of dash and pluck – Hannay opens the window, nips across the room and snaffles the plans, returns to the window, and completes his rooftop escape. The plans turn out to be the enemy deployments around Erzerum and, in a further adventure, our heroes smuggle them through enemy lines to the Russians who, thus informed, are able to storm the city and capture that front.

(Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that the final scene, the climax of the book, where the attacking Cossacks not only rescue Hannay and pals from being shelled by the wicked von Stumm, but also lend them horses so they can lead the cavalry charge into Erzerum, is genuinely exciting and thrilling.)

A small world of toffs

The upper class world Hannay inhabits is small: everyone of importance in England knows everyone else or has heard of them via the public school network; and similarly, everyone abroad is connected with that network somehow, creating an international matrix of acquaintances. For example, when Peter Pienaar arrives after perilously crossing the front line between the Turkish and Russian armies, it is absolutely classic that the Russian general he is presented to turns out to be a decent feller who he once went wild game shooting with in Matabeleland. Of course.  In this world there are only two or three hundred people of note who all went to school together or are related to each other or a few foreigners who one has had scrapes with.

This small world is, to quote Auden, ‘everso comfy’. It is part of the childishness of these thrillers not only that our chaps will get out of their scrapes, but that their and our values are correct, the only decent ones – and shared by all good-hearted people everywhere ie all the upper crust people or chaps who’ve knocked about and done a bit of hunting. There is none of the anxiety or alienation which has struck most writers as characteristic of the 20th century world. This uber-confidence is most apparent in Buchan’s amazing prose style.

Style

People say Buchan’s adventures are fast-paced. Sure, things happen and, after a generally slow start, at an accelerating rate – but I suggest the sense of ‘pace’ is created by his amazingly crisp and no-nonsense style. By pacy I mean his ability to describe a person, place or situation in a minimum of words, with precise, well-turned phrases. This lack of dawdling, no hesitation or doubt, this ability to say things fast, creates a sense of speed even when not much is actually happening. The opening sentences are:

I had just finished breakfast and was filling my pipe when I got Bullivant’s telegram. It was at Furling, the big country house in Hampshire where I had come to convalesce after Loos, and Sandy, who was in the same case, was hunting for the marmalade. I flung him the flimsy with the blue strip pasted down on it, and he whistled. (Chapter 1)

Setting: breakfast, pipe, marmalade. the same super-English atmosphere of cosy domesticity that characterises Sherlock and Watson. Actions: flung, whistled; aristocratic gestures of nonchalance, calm, confident, urbane. This is the tone throughout, the unflustered Englishman. When they meet to plan it is in Claridges, the Savoy, their club.

There was a motor-car waiting—one of the grey military kind—and we started at a terrific pace over bad forest roads. Stumm had put away his papers in a portfolio, and flung me a few sentences on the journey. (Ch 5)

Pace, speed, flung. Cars were relatively new and almost as soon as they were invented they were being stolen and involved in high speed chases: Hannay steals one in Germany and then another in Turkey. Here he is ditching his stolen car, sounding like Raymond Chandler 20 years later.

Presently I came on a bit of rough heath, with a slope away from the road and here and there a patch of black which I took to be a sandpit. Opposite one of these I slewed the car to the edge, got out, started it again and saw it pitch head-foremost into the darkness. There was a splash of water and then silence. Craning over I could see nothing but murk, and the marks at the lip where the wheels had passed. (Ch 7)

Pen portraits and memorable scenes

The precision and briskness of his style lends itself to acute pen portraits and memorable scenes, written with verve and clarity. Probably the most tremendous is when he is accompanying von Stumm as a potential helper and ally, and finds himself being presented to the Kaiser himself!

At the far side of the station a train had drawn up, a train consisting of three big coaches, chocolate-coloured and picked out with gold. On the platform beside it stood a small group of officers, tall men in long grey-blue cloaks. They seemed to be mostly elderly, and one or two of the faces I thought I remembered from photographs in the picture papers.

As we approached they drew apart, and left us face to face with one man. He was a little below middle height, and all muffled in a thick coat with a fur collar. He wore a silver helmet with an eagle atop of it, and kept his left hand resting on his sword. Below the helmet was a face the colour of grey paper, from which shone curious sombre restless eyes with dark pouches beneath them. There was no fear of my mistaking him. These were the features which, since Napoleon, have been best known to the world.

I stood as stiff as a ramrod and saluted. I was perfectly cool and most desperately interested. For such a moment I would have gone through fire and water.

‘Majesty, this is the Dutchman I spoke of,’ I heard Stumm say.

‘What language does he speak?’ the Emperor asked.

‘Dutch,’ was the reply; ‘but being a South African he also speaks English.’

A spasm of pain seemed to flit over the face before me. Then he addressed me in English.

‘You have come from a land which will yet be our ally to offer your sword to our service? I accept the gift and hail it as a good omen. I would have given your race its freedom, but there were fools and traitors among you who misjudged me. But that freedom I shall yet give you in spite of yourselves. Are there many like you in your country?’

‘There are thousands, sire,’ I said, lying cheerfully. ‘I am one of many who think that my race’s life lies in your victory. And I think that that victory must be won not in Europe alone. In South Africa for the moment there is no chance, so we look to other parts of the continent. You will win in Europe. You have won in the East, and it now remains to strike the English where they cannot fend the blow. If we take Uganda, Egypt will fall. By your permission I go there to make trouble for your enemies.’

A flicker of a smile passed over the worn face. It was the face of one who slept little and whose thoughts rode him like a nightmare. ‘That is well,’ he said. ‘Some Englishman once said that he would call in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. We Germans will summon the whole earth to suppress the infamies of England. Serve us well, and you will not be forgotten.’

Then he suddenly asked: ‘Did you fight in the last South African War?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ I said. ‘I was in the commando of that Smuts who has now been bought by England.’

‘What were your countrymen’s losses?’ he asked eagerly.

I did not know, but I hazarded a guess. ‘In the field some twenty thousand. But many more by sickness and in the accursed prison-camps of the English.’

Again a spasm of pain crossed his face.

‘Twenty thousand,’ he repeated huskily. ‘A mere handful. Today we lose as many in a skirmish in the Polish marshes.’

Then he broke out fiercely.

‘I did not seek the war … It was forced on me … I laboured for peace … The blood of millions is on the heads of England and Russia, but England most of all. God will yet avenge it. He that takes the sword will perish by the sword. Mine was forced from the scabbard in self-defence, and I am guiltless. Do they know that among your people?’

‘All the world knows it, sire,’ I said.

He gave his hand to Stumm and turned away. The last I saw of him was a figure moving like a sleep-walker, with no spring in his step, amid his tall suite. I felt that I was looking on at a far bigger tragedy than any I had seen in action. Here was one that had loosed Hell, and the furies of Hell had got hold of him. He was no common man, for in his presence I felt an attraction which was not merely the mastery of one used to command. That would not have impressed me, for I had never owned a master. But here was a human being who, unlike Stumm and his kind, had the power of laying himself alongside other men. That was the irony of it. Stumm would not have cared a tinker’s curse for all the massacres in history. But this man, the chief of a nation of Stumms, paid the price in war for the gifts that had made him successful in peace. He had imagination and nerves, and the one was white hot and the others were quivering. I would not have been in his shoes for the throne of the Universe … (ch 6)

Similarly, he meets the leader of Turkey, Ismail Enver Pasha, a leader of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and effective leader of the Ottoman Empire in both Balkan Wars and World War I.

But the great event was the sight of Enver. He was a slim fellow of Rasta’s build, very foppish and precise in his dress, with a smooth oval face like a girl’s, and rather fine straight black eyebrows. He spoke perfect German, and had the best kind of manners, neither pert nor overbearing. He had a pleasant trick, too, of appealing all round the table for confirmation, and so bringing everybody into the talk. Not that he spoke a great deal, but all he said was good sense, and he had a smiling way of saying it. Once or twice he ran counter to Moellendorff, and I could see there was no love lost between these two. I didn’t think I wanted him as a friend—he was too cold-blooded and artificial; and I was pretty certain that I didn’t want those steady black eyes as an enemy. But it was no good denying his quality. The little fellow was all cold courage, like the fine polished blue steel of a sword. (ch 13)

Racism

Anti-semitism No point denying it. Hannay is given to quick stereotypes of all sorts of races and nationalities – it’s part of the speedy summing-up of people and places which is an aspect of his upper-class English confidence and of his style. Nonetheless, his comments about Jews go above and beyond this stereotyping to have an unpleasant, vengeful flavour.

In Germany only the Jew can get outside himself, and that is why, if you look into the matter, you will find that the Jew is at the back of most German enterprises. (Ch 6)

Poor old Peter had no greatcoat, so we went into a Jew’s shop and bought a ready-made abomination, which looked as if it might have been meant for a dissenting parson… Peter and I sat down modestly in the nearest corner, where old Kuprasso saw us and sent us coffee. A girl who looked like a Jewess came over to us and talked French, but I shook my head and she went off again. (Ch 11)

Blacks There is one stunning reference to people of colour which reminds us that Hannay is meant to have spent a lot of time in South Africa based, of course, on Buchan’s own time as assistant to the High Commissioner in South Africa from 1901 to 1903.

He liked the way I kept the men up to their work, for I hadn’t been a nigger-driver for nothing. (Ch 9)

Whites the corollary of these stereotypes of other races is, if you like, a stereotype of ‘the good white man’, phrases which assume the white man’s unquestioned place at the top of the racial pyramid. In particular, I was startled to read the phrase ‘like a white man’ used to denote, well, being a sound chap.

That fellow gave me the best ‘feel’ of any German I had yet met. He was a white man and I could have worked with him. I liked his stiff chin and steady blue eyes. (Ch 4)

Gaudian was clearly a good fellow, a white man and a gentleman. I could have worked with him for he belonged to my own totem. (Ch 5)

Still the ride did us good and shook up our livers, and by the time we turned for home I was feeling more like a white man. (Ch 14)

Good Germans

But Buchan is wise enough not to belabour the stereotypes: in the race across Germany section of the book he goes to great lengths to describe good Germans: the engineer Gaudian is honest and open. There is a maybe sentimental but nonetheless moving account of the poor woman who takes Hannay in in the depths of winter and allows him to have his malaria bout in her quiet attic room and in return Hannay carves toys for her poor children. And there’s a long sequence where Hannay manages to get a berth on a set of barges from Essen which is chugging south through Austria and, as he does so, gets to know the captain and crew and gets, as usual, to like them.

It is one of Hannay’s endearing qualities that he is quick to see the good side of people, or to admire them, even if he disagrees with them or they are sworn enemies.

Gynophobia

As with She, Rider Haggard’s classic boys adventure story about the Eternal Woman, Greenmantle suggests the English public school boy has made little or no progress in being able to accept or understand women as women. Buchan’s Hilda von Einem must run Ayesha a close second in the stakes of being a shocking collection of feminine (and sexist?) clichés.

Although she’s meant to be the wicked mastermind behind the whole uprising plan, the entire new prophet-von Einem-muslim uprising part of the plot doesn’t come alive for me. It is the monstrous General von Stumm and the intense period Hannay spends with him in Germany, and then the long escape through the snow, and the long barge ride down the Danube, and then von Stumm’s magical reappearance in Erzerum to chase and corner Hannay and chums on an isolated hilltop, it is these elements of the book which have real life because they are the physical tests and tribulations which are the core of the good thriller – the sense of a fit man pushed to the physical and mental limit – and are described with such vividness.

I must have run miles before the hot fit passed, and I stopped from sheer bodily weakness. There was no sound except the crush of falling snow, the wind seemed to have gone, and the place was very solemn and quiet. But Heavens! how the snow fell! It was partly screened by the branches, but all the same it was piling itself up deep everywhere. My legs seemed made of lead, my head burned, and there were fiery pains over all my body. I stumbled on blindly, without a notion of any direction, determined only to keep going to the last. For I knew that if I once lay down I would never rise again. (Ch 7)

Jihad and the muslim world

A hundred years after this novel speculated about a muslim uprising in the Middle East against the Western powers, the forces of ISIS are storming through Iraq and claiming Syria as part of the Caliphate. Is it a topical subject, or just a subject which never goes away in the muslim world, a world which seems to permanently long to return to the imagined purity of some fictional middle ages. What is a bit more characteristic is Buchan/Hannay’s assumption that this is a world only Brits can really understand – unlike the blundering Germans and – later – Americans.

Buchan knows his and Hannay’s limits, so he gives the role of special insight into the Arab mind, and into the muslim prophet who is called Greenmantle, to fellow hero Sandy Arbuthnot:

‘I never saw such a man. He is the greatest gentleman you can picture, with a dignity like a high mountain. He is a dreamer and a poet, too – a genius if I can judge these things. I think I can assess him rightly, for I know something of the soul of the East, but it would be too long a story to tell now. The West knows nothing of the true Oriental. It pictures him as lapped in colour and idleness and luxury and gorgeous dreams. But it is all wrong. The Kaf he yearns for is an austere thing. It is the austerity of the East that is its beauty and its terror…  It always wants the same things at the back of its head. The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by the by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked. And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft. They want to prune life of its foolish fringes and get back to the noble bareness of the desert. Remember, it is always the empty desert and the empty sky that cast their spell over them – these, and the hot, strong, antiseptic sunlight which burns up all rot and decay. It isn’t inhuman. It’s the humanity of one part of the human race. It isn’t ours, it isn’t as good as ours, but it’s jolly good all the same. There are times when it grips me so hard that I’m inclined to forswear the gods of my fathers!

Probably critics would damn this and Buchan’s entire approach as Orientalist ie assuming Western superiority to a stereotype of the corrupt, lazy East. But it feels to me an accurate enough dramatisation of that mentality, of the mentality of the jolly rugger captain whose soul is captured by the simplicity and purity of bedouin life and becomes a devotee of Arab culture, from Sir Richard Burton to the TE Lawrence who was making a name for himself among the Arabs just as Greenmantle was published.


Related links

The Richard Hannay novels

The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme And Ancre, 1916 by Frederic Manning (1929)

25 March 2012

“These apparently rude and brutal natures comforted, encouraged, and reconciled each other to fate, with a tenderness and tact which was more moving than anything in life.”

Frederic Manning’s novel of the Great War follows Bourne, an educated man who prefers to stay with his small group of uneducated pals in the ranks, and not become an officer. There’s action at the start and end but the majority of the novel captures the mundane daily life of rough, sweary squaddies, thinking only about the next meal, getting tanked every evening, smoking fags, philosophising about their crappy lot and despising the swanky officers who implement pointless rules and cock up the big battles.

Officers like Graves, Owen, Sassoon admire the cameraderie and care of the men from the outside; but Manning brilliantly describes it from the inside and captures the embittered, resigned heroism of the army which went on to win the war. A marvellous book.

‘The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme And Ancre, 1916’ on Amazon

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