C.S. Lewis in the Great War

Lewis’s brother Warren went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst at the beginning of 1914, and, not long after Jack Lewis began his long apprenticeship with his tutor W.T. Kirkpatrick in Surrey, was sent to the front. As he read through Homer or Dante, Jack Lewis inevitably heard much, from the the newspapers and from his brother, about the War.

Meanwhile, on the Continent, the unskilled butchery of the first German War went on. As it did so and as I began to foresee that it would probably last till I reached military age, I was compelled to make a decision which the law had taken out of the hands of English boys of my own age; for in Ireland we had no conscription. I did not much plume myself even then for deciding to serve, but I did feel that the decision absolved me from taking any further notice of the war. […] Accordingly I put the war on one side to a degree which some people will think shameful and some incredible. Others will call it a flight from reality. I maintain that it was rather a treaty with reality, the fixing of a frontier. I said to my country, in effect, “You shall have me on a cer­tain date, not before. I will die in your wars if need be, but till then I shall live my own life. You may have my body, but not my mind. I will take part in battles but not read about them.” If this attitude needs excusing I must say that a boy who is unhappy at school inevitably learns the habit of keeping the future in its place; if once he began to allow infiltra­tions from the coming term into the present holidays he would despair (SJ 158).

He reached Oxford in April 1917, but he did not go there with the intention of studying for a degree; he went so that he could join the University Officers’ Training Corps. He was resident in University College, but was there only a few weeks before he joined the the Army. To his delight, he was not immediately removed from Oxford: on 7 June 1917 he entered a Cadet Battalion that was billeted in Keble College.

In Surprised by Joy he says very little about the war. It occupies only just over half of chapter 12, “Guns and Good Company”. It is summed up in one sentence: “I arrived at the front line trenches on my nineteenth birthday ([29] November 1917), saw most of my service in the villages before Arras—Fampoux and Monchy— and was wounded at Mt. Bernenchon, near Lillers, in April, 1918” (SJ 188). The next paragraph states:

I am surprised that I did not dislike the army more. It was, of course, detestable. But the words “of course” drew the sting. That is where it differed from Wyvern [= Malvern College]. One did not expect to like it. Nobody said you ought to like it. No­body pretended to like it. Everyone you met took it for granted that the whole thing was an odious necessity, a ghastly interruption of rational life. And that made all the difference. Straight tribulation is easier to bear than tribulation which advertises itself as pleasure. The one breeds cam­araderie and even (when intense) a kind of love between the fellow sufferers; the other, mutual distrust, cynicism, con­cealed and fretting resentment. And secondly, I found my military elders and betters incomparably nicer than the Wyvern Bloods (SJ 188).

He remembers the “pleasant, transitory contacts” he made; and in the middle of the winter he had “the good luck to fall sick”, with trench fever, and spent a “wholly delightful three weeks in hospital at Le Tréport” (SJ 189). He rejoined his battalion on 28 February 1918: they were training at Wanquetin, moving back to the front-line at Fampoux on 20 March. His friend Paddy Moore was killed around then, probably on 23 March. (Following what he said was a promise made to Paddy, Lewis looked after Paddy’s mother Janie after the War, living with her until she was hospitalised in the 1940s. There has been much discussion about the nature of his relationship with Janie: a relationship he kept secret from his Oxford friends in the 1920s and 1930s.)

For most of Lewis’s time at the Front, with the First Somerset Light Infantry, it was quiet: Germans were much less of a threat than “weariness and water” (SJ 195). He made friends in particular with Johnson, a fellow-officer and fellow-Oxford-scholar, with whom he had many discussions and arguments, and religion and ethics: Lewis was deeply impressed by his firm principles. And he was particularly fond of

dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (I suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me. I was a futile officer (they gave commissions too easily then), a pup­pet moved about by him, and he turned this ridiculous and painful relation into something beautiful, became to me al­most like a father. But for the rest, the war—the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E. [high explosive], the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet—all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have hap­pened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the real­ities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard—so far from me that it “whined” like a journalist’s or a peacetime poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about” (196).

Lewis seems to have been wounded by shell fragments on 15 April 1918. Sergeant Ayres, standing next to him, was killed instantly; Lewis’s friend Laurence Johnson was standing nearby, and died of his wounds. Of his own injuries, Lewis says nothing in Surprised by Joy. What he says, perhaps oddly, is that “two things stand out” from the rest of his war experiences, which otherwise “have little to do with this story”.

One is the moment, just after I had been hit, when I found (or thought I found) that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death. I felt no fear and certainly no courage. It did not seem to be an occasion for either (SJ 197).

And the second was reading Bergson in the convalescent home on Salisbury Plain. It is a reminder that Lewis was filtering his experiences through his reading; but also that Surprised by Joy is not his war memoirs, or his autobiography: it is very strictly (as he says on p. vii) the story of his conversion from atheism to Christianity. He leaves a lot out, sometimes because it is not relevant, but also perhaps in order to preserve his own privacy and that of his friends. The thesis of K.J. Gilchrist’s A Morning After War: C.S. Lewis and WWI is that Lewis is hiding a good deal; indeed, the thesis of Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, a study of Lewis’ children’s books, is similar: that Lewis is secretive by nature, or at least by upbringing. [I shall add to this paragraph.]

The nature of Lewis’s wounds can be seen from his war record (quoted Gilchrist 132). “He was struck by shell fragments which caused 3 wounds”: the first was in the chest (and the fragments were only removed in 1944), the second to the left wrist and the third to the left leg. His brother Warnie went to see him in hospital at Étaples, and reported to their father that the initial report that he was “severely wounded” was not true. Neverthless, Lewis was sent back to England for recovery: he left France on 22 May and by 25 May was established in Endsleigh Palace Hospital, a former hotel, at 25 Gordon Street in London’s Bloomsbury. He recuperated in a camp on Salisbury Plain (Janie Moore came to live in lodgings nearby), and on 24 December 1918 was demobilised.

I have used Surprised by Joy (= SJ) in the Harcourt Brace and World (New York) edition of 1955. I have not yet fully assimilated K.J. Gilchrist, A Morning After War: C.S. Lewis and WWI (New York etc: Peter Lang, 2005), and I have not yet got a copy of the overpriced new book by John Bremer, C.S. Lewis, Poetry and the Great War, 1914-1918 (Lanham MD: Lexington, 2013) (which looks extremely good).


2 responses to “C.S. Lewis in the Great War

  1. erinhorakova

    “his wear record” war record?

    This is v. interesting stuff. Lewis’ war experience does indeed seem somehow un-narrativized compared to that of Milne or Tolkien. But then M and T’s responses to and means of processing these events seem quite dissimilar, in a way that almost reflects the age gap between them. I wonder if that might also be a factor with the younger Lewis, in addition to the secretiveness these biographers posit?

    Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts on the other books!

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