André Maurois in the Great War

Andr__Maurois.Fotografiado_por_Henri_Manuel.._Émile Herzog, as he still was, spent most of the War as an interpreter and liaison officer with the the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders. He came across a village called Maurois, and decided to adopt it as his pen-name. In 1918 he published Les Silences du colonel Bramble; this was hugely popular in France, and almost immediately published in England.

For the first English edition of 1920 (London: John Lane) he wrote the following:

Then came the war, and I was appointed interpreter with the IXth (Scotch) Division. I was with them at Loos and Ypres, and was given the D.C.M. Finally I was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and liaison officer. I had, however, been ill, and was sent to H.Q. Lines of Communication at Abbeville, where I remained until the end of the war. Military life gave me sufficient leisure to enable me to take up again my original tastes and thus, while I was with the Scotch Division, “Bramble” was written. Then at Abbeville I wrote another book, called Ni Ange, ni bête, which has recently appeared in France [1919]. I am now engaged on another book.

In the course of this book Maurois translated Kipling’s If, as Tu seras un homme, mon fils. It was the beginning of a long Anglophilic career, in which he wrote biographies of Shelley, Disraeli, Byron, Edward VII, Robert and Elizabeth Browning and Sir Alexander Fleming, as well as histories of England and of the United States.

In The Silence of Colonel Bramble, Aurelle, a French interpreter with a Scottish brigade, interrogates the British for the benefit of his French readers: Colonel Bramble is Scottish, Major Parker is English, and Dr O’Grady is Irish.  There are many stereotypes of the English, some of which are perhaps even true.

“We are a curious nation,” said Major Parker. “To interest a Frenchman in a boxing match you must tell him that his national honour is at stake. To interest an Englishman in a war you need only suggest that it is a kind of boxing match. Tell us that the Hun is a barbarian, we agree politely, but tell us that he is a bad sportsman and you rouse the British Empire” (chapter 1).

O’Grady talks about the English:

The English people, who have already given the world Stilton cheese and comfortable chairs, have invented for our benefit the Parliamentary system. Our M.P.s arrange rebellions and coups d’etat for us, which leaves the rest of the nation time to play cricket. The Press completes the system by enabling us to take our share in these tumults by proxy. All these things form a part of modern comfort and in a few hundred years’ time very man, white, yellow, red or black, will refuse to inhabit a room without hot water laid on, or a country without a Parliament (chapter 3).

It is a novel which seems to illustrates the fondness which Maurois held for the British among whom he was posted, and it comments on the differences between the nations, and the war, in a gentle way. At the end, they talk about what will happen after the war. if it ever finishes. Aurelle expresses the opinion that the whole country should be turned into a cemetery and a memorial; O’Grady says that the land is too rich to be neglected. “This is a marvellous land. Every nation in Europe has conquered it in turn; it has defeated its conqueror every time.”

The old friends visit the battlefield of Crécy together, and wonder where the tower from which Prince Edward had watched the battle had gone; they thought perhaps it had been turned into a mill. They ask one of the peasants.
“The tower? There is no tower in these parts,” one of them said, “nor mill either.”
“Perhaps we are wrong,” said the major. “Ask him if this is really where the battle was.”
“The battle?” replied the old man. “What battle?”
And the people of Crécy tuned back to their work, binding into neat sheaves the corn of this invincible land.

The text of the book in the English translation of 1920 is available online.


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