Milne starts Chapter 13 of his autobiography, where he introduces his war experiences, with the words:
I should like to put asterisks here, and then write ‘It was in 1919 that I found myself once again a civilian.’ For it makes me almost physically sick to think of that nightmare of mental and moral degradation, the war. When my boy was six years old he took me into the Insect House at the Zoo, and at the sight of some of the monstrous inmates I had to leave his hand and hurry back into the fresh air. I could imagine a spider or a millipede so horrible that in its presence I should die of disgust. It seems impossible to me now that any sensitive man could live through another war. If not required to die on other ways, he would waste away of soul-sickness.
I was a pacifist before 1914, but this (I thought with other fools) was a war to end war. It did not make the prospect of being a soldier any more attractive. … To people like myself the Great Sacrifice was not the sacrifice of our lives but of our liberties. Ever since I had left Cambridge I had been my own master. I fixed my own hours, I was under no discipline; no bell rang for me, no bugle sounded. Now I was thirty-two, married, with a happy home of my own and engaged happily in work which I loved. To be a schoolboy again, to say ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ and ‘Please, sir’ and ‘May I, sir?” was no hardship to schoolboys, no hardship to a million men in monotonous employment, but it was hell itself to one who had been as spoiled by good fortune as I. However, again I was fortunate. There are Colonels and Colonels; I met only one sort of Colonel. If a special order had gone round the British Army: ‘For your information and necessary action: Milne is joining us. See that he is given the easiest and best possible time, consistent with ultimate victory,’ I could not have had more reason to be grateful to my commanding officers.
He initially wrote to a friend, as early as August 6 1914, asking for a job in the Admiralty. He didn’t get this job, but on 2 September was late for a Punch dinner, as he was drilling with a corps of volunteers from public schools. His brother-in-law Aubrey de Sélincourt (later well-known as a writer, and as a translator of Greek and Latin historical works for Penguin Classics) joined the North Staffordshire regiment in September. Milne stayed with Punch for a few months longer, and heard on 10 February 1915 that he had a commission with the Warwickshire regiment.
He went into signalling, and while his regiment was being wiped out in France, he was a signalling instructor, based at Sandown in the Isle of Wight. His wife Daphne was able to live with him in a cottage they rented close to the training centre. It was not until July 1916 that he was sent to the front in France.
In Behind the Lines (London: Methuen, 1940), a collection of verses about the opening of the Second World War he wrote (p. 90) a comment on his military service.
I had been signalling officer in my battalion, and had known a great deal about flags and buzzers; but my knowledge of firearms or (as they are called, I never discovered why) weapons of precision, was not worth passing on. It is true that my men carried rifles, which I inspected from timeto time, but I never quite knew what I was looking for. […] I never, as they say, fired a shot in anger, and only twelve under the impetus of any other emotion. They all missed the musketry instructor but hit the Isle of Wight. It was he who was angry.
While in Sandown Daphne became great friends with Mrs Williams, the Colonel’s wife. Mrs Williams persuaded Milne and his wife to write a play to be performed by the officer’s children, and Daphne pressured him to write it as a book: a long fairy story called Once On A Time, which was published in 1916. He also wrote a comic play, and the Colonel gave him a day off to talk over its possible production with Dennis Eadie, the actor. When he got home, he found a message from the Colonel saying that he was to be in France in 48 hours.
Milne went to France along with a quiet boy, just out of school. His parents had bought for him (and ‘you may laugh or cry as you will’)
An under-garment of chain-mail, such as had been worn in the Middle Ages to guard against unfriendly daggers, and was now sold to over-loving mothers as likely to turn a bayonet-thrust, or keep off a stray fragment of shell, as, I suppose, it might have done. He was much embarrassed by this parting gift, and though, true to his promise, he was taking it to France with him, he did not know whether he ought to wear it. I suppose that, being fresh from school, he felt it to be ‘unsporting’; something not quite done; perhaps, even, a little cowardly. […] He asked my advice. […] I do not know whether he took my advice […] Anyway, it didn’t matter; for on the evening when we first came within reach of the battle-zone, just as he was settling down to his tea, a crump came over and blew him to pieces.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
But just why it was a pleasant death and a fitting death I still do not understand. Nor, it may be, did his father and mother; even though assured by the Colonel that their son had died as gallantly as he had lived, an English gentleman (quoted in Ann Thwaite’s biography, 157-8).
Milne notes in his autobiography that he “had been sent, with the military efficiency of those days, to a battalion which had already a signalling officer.” His name was Harrison. He was wounded soon after Milne’s arrival, however, and Milne took his place. He wrote to H.G. Wells” “I got his job, much the most interesting work in the infantry, with the great advantage that one is the only officer in the Battalion who knows anything about it, and is consequently one’s own master – a great thing to a civilian in the Army. I simply can’t tell you how I loathe the Army” (quoted in Ann Thwaite’s biography, 161). As a popular writer in Punch, of course, Milne was known to people. One day he got an invitation to lunch from the general of the entire division, who knew the editor of Punch. Milne’s own commanding officer, who needed a favour from the general, came along. Milne reported that the Colonel said “‘It is a little hard to have had to wait for this until one of my subalterns puts in a good word for me.’ ‘Bad for discipline,’ said the Major, trying to look as though he meant it” (221).
Shortly after writing to his wife that only a “nice, cushy wound” would get him out now, he went down with “trench fever”, just before a big attack was to be launched.
My sergeant came to say goodbye to me. I handed over my maps, commended the section to his care, and went to sleep again. He was lucky. He only lost a leg. Ten days later [8 November 1916] I was at Southampton. Some kind woman offered to write a telegram for me. It was to Daphne, saying that she would find me in hospital at Oxford. I woke up one afternoon and saw her at the end of the bed, crying (223).
After his recovery, Milne was appointed commander of one of the four companies into which a signalling school at Fort Southwick, near Portsmouth, was divided. He never went back to the front, and had no desire to do so (though, he said, being unable to distinguish between common sense and cowardice). Daphne moved from Sandown to Portchester, a two mile walk away from the school. However, Milne got very tired, teaching, walking to and from work, writing in the evenings. He was sent to the Convalescent Hospital at Osborne for three weeks.
It was at this time that he wrote a small verse, quoted by Ann Thwaite in her biography (p. 165), which gives some idea of his state of mind:
When the War’s over and the Kaiser’s out of print
I’m going to buy some tortoises and watch the beggars sprint.
When the War is over and the sword at last we sheathe,
I’m going to keep a jelly-fish and listen to it breathe.
When the War is over and we’ve done the Belgians proud,
I’m going to keep a chrysalis and read to it aloud.
When the War is over and we’ve finished up the show,
I’m going to plant a lemon-pip and listen to it grow.
The convalescent home was in Queen Victoria’s Isle of Wight residence at Osborne House. He and Robert Graves were there at the same time, living in a room that had been occupied by one or more of Queen Victoria’s children.
We ate, slept, read, played games gently, and wished it could go on for ever. I know of nothing which gives one so complete a feeling of luxurious rest as settling down to a novel in a deck-chair immediately after breakfast, with the knowledge that one is safe from the reproaches of conscience (Autobiography, 225).
A second play of his was produced, in April 1918, and he had by then moved to London.
I was now in the War Office, wore the green tabs of Intelligence and wrote (horrible word) ‘propaganda’. I had been marked for Home Service by a succession of medical boards, with the recommendation of ‘sedentary work’. If there is any work more sedentary than writing I do not know it; moreover, by happy accident, it was the only work for which I was mentally fit. I had a room to myself and wrote pretty much what I liked. If it were not ‘patriotic’ enough, or neglected to point the moral with sufficient hardihood, then the major supplied the operative words in green pencil (226).
He was released from the Army on February 14 1919.
See Ann Thwaite in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 38 (2004) and Ann Thwaite, A.A. Milne: His Life (1990) (reprinted Stroud: Tempus, 2006); and above all A.A. Milne, It’s Too Late Now: The Autobiography of a Writer (London: Methuen, 1939).