C.E. Montague in the Great War

Charles Edward Montague and his wife Madeline were keen mountaineers in the years immediately before 1914; he talks about this in his book The Morning’s War (1913). When he enlisted, in the autumn of 1914, he joined as an alpinist. His colleagues were surprised that Montague, then aged forty-seven, should try so hard to enlist. In the end he only did so by dying his white hair black, and joining a unit for “elderly sportsmen”: the 24th service battalion, Royal Fusiliers, which appeared as the King’s Own Middlesex Fusiliers in his later writings. H.W. Nevinson wrote that “Montague is the only man I know whose white hair in a single night turned dark through courage” (quoted without reference in Wikipedia).

He was wounded by a bomb, and took some time to recover; after that he was posted to a base depot, and eventually to a reserve battalion at Leith. In June 1916 he obtained a commission with Intelligence in the GHQ in France. Appropriately, given his very considerable experience of journalism, he took war correspondents to the front line… and censored them. Both H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw were accompanied by Captain Montague when they made their trips to the Western Front. Wells does not name him, but identification is clear:

My companion on this excursion is a man I have admired for years and never met until I came out to see the war, a fellow writer. He is a journalist let loose. Two-thirds of the junior British officers I met on this journey were not really “army men” at all. One finds that the average subaltern is really a musician, or a musical critic, or an Egyptologist, or a solicitor, or a cloth manufacturer, or a writer. At the outbreak of the war my guide dyed his hair to conceal its tell-tale silver, and having been laughed to scorn by the ordinary recruiting people, enlisted in the sportsmen’s battalion. He was wounded, and then the authorities discovered that he was likely to be of more use with a commission, and drew him, in spite of considerable resistance, out of the firing line. To which he always returns whenever he can get a visitor to take with him as an excuse. He now stood up, fairly high and clear [in a trench], explaining casually that the Germans were no longer firing, and showed me the points of interest (Wells, War and the Future, 130-131).

His war experiences lay behind much of his writing from the time of his demobilisation in 1919 to his death in 1928. Some of his comments in Disenchantment (1922) related to war correspondents, of whom he had met a large number. He noted that at first they were looked at with grave suspicion by the Army, and then, when officers realised that they had been to school with some of these chaps, they began tot be treated much better.

No average Staff Officer could talk with the average British correspondent without feeling that this was a sound human being and had a better mind than his own—that he knew more, had seen more, and had been less deadened by the coolie work of a professional routine. When once known, the war correspondents were trust and liked—by the Staff (100).

And that was the trouble, Montague said. Correspondents learned how to see things through the eyes of the Staff.

Now, in the biggest event of their lives, hundreds of thousands of men were able to check for themselves the truth of [the Press]. They fought in a battle or raid, and two days after they read, with jeers on their lips, the account of “the show” in the papers. They felt they had found the Press out. The most bloody defeat in the history of Britain, a very world’s wonder of valour frustrated by feckless misuse, of regimental glory and Staff shame, might occur on the Ancre on July 1, 1916, and our Press come out bland and copious and graphic, with nothing to show that we had not had quite a good day—a victory really. Men who had lived through there massacre read the stuff open-mouthed. […] So it comes that each of several million ex-soldiers now read severe solemn appeal of a Government, each beautiful speech of a Premier or earnest assurance of a body of employers with that maxim on guard in his mind—”You can’t believe a word you read” (102-103).

Montague was not arguing that the Press should always tell the truth in wartime, as he was no fool. The more accurate the Press of a country is, the better informed is the enemy. From the military point of view, the Press ought to lie as much as possible.

The most disenchanted pages of Disenchantment were the last, talking about the aftermath of the war, the spite, the hatreds, and above all of the death of chivalry.

The generous youth of the war, when England could carry, with no air of burlesque, the flag of St George, was pretty well gone. The authentic flame might still flicker on in the minds of a few tired soldiers and disregarded civilians. Otherwise it was as dead in as the half-million of good fellows whom it had fired four years ago, whose credulous hearts the maggots were now eating under so many shining and streaming square miles of wet Flanders and Picardy. They gone, their war had lived into a kind of dotage ruled by mean fears and desires (186).

My information is largely from Keith Grieves’ article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The edition I have used of Disenchantment (1922) is that of 1924 (London: Chatto & Windus).

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