E.M. Forster in the Great War

emf02Forster was generally opposed to the war, like most of his Bloomsbury friends, but he never spoke out against it, partly because he kept vacillating.

He wrote to a friend on 6 November 1914:

I did think that we should send no men to France, but support our Allies by the Navy only. Since then I have changed my mind. Since then, I have come round to my original opinion again, for the chances of a German Raid have certainly increased, and we should boot it out much quicker if we had reserved plenty of trained troops for the purpose. The losses are immense, Flanders a soup of Hell. Our wounded, when not talking for effect, say that they do not want to go back, but go, which is to my mind far finer than heroics. The newspapers still talk about glory, but the average man, thank God, has got rid of that illusion […] I shan’t enlist until the Authorities make me, which I should feel all right (214).

Late in 1914 Forster got the first real job of his life: as a part-time cataloguer in the National Gallery. (The Director lived in Weybridge, like Forster himself, and offered him the job.) His friends would say that he only took the job so as to appear employed in a time of war.

He did have to idea of going to Italy with an ambulance unit, but this was vetoed by his mother. Then there was a suggestion from the Red Cross that he go to Malta or Egypt as a Searcher: he went to Alexandria in November 1915. He expected to be there for three months; he would stay there until January 1919. (Egypt had become a British protectorate in 1914, and now that Turkey was at war with Britain had become strategically important. ) He explained his job to his friend Masood in a letter of 29 December 1915.

I go round the Hospitals and question the wounded soldiers for news of their missing comrades. It is depressing in a way, for if one does get news about the missing it is generally bad news. But I am able to be of use to the wounded soldiers themselves in various unofficial ways—I lend them books, get their watches mended, write their letters &ct. They are so pleasant and grateful, and some of them quite charming […] The Red X is a semi-military organisation, so, though technically a civilian, I wear officer’s uniform, and get various privileges and conveniences, of which 1/2 fares on the trams and trains is perhaps the most considerable. I have one or two friends here, and the regular and definite work has stopped me thinking about the war, which is a mercy, for in England I very nearly went mad. Why do you think good is ‘bound to come’ out of this war? You only mean you would like good to come, with which everyone agrees (232).

His letters home are not otherwise very informative about his job; but, then, they would be read by the censor. A letter of 28 September 1916 refers to his cousin Gerry Whichelo, who

has conscientious objections to military service, and in spite of the clause in the Act that expressly provides for men of his principles, is being arrested and imprisoned (I hope by the way that the censor won’t hold up this letter for the above remark. If he does I permit myself to inform him that he doesn’t know his job and is moreover a shit.) (242).

He did not like Egypt very much, and grew to dislike its Arab inhabitants, whom he compared unfavourably to the Indians he had met in his travels there. But, of course, Alexandria was very cosmopolitan, with Syrians, Italians, Greeks and others. He wrote to Robert Trevelyan on 6 August 1917:

I prefer the Greek, for the Greeks are the only community here that attempt to understand what they are talking about, and to be with them is to reenter, however imperfectly, the Academic world. They are the only important people east of Ventimiglia—: dirty, dishonest, unaristocratic, roving, and warped by Hellenic and Byzantine dreams—but they do effervesce intellectually, they do have creative desires, and one comes round to them in the end. I wonder if you will ever hear of the poet I have just mentioned—he is a great name in the Eastern Mediterranean and discussed in the little magazines that spring up and die without ceasing in its creeks. C.P. Cavaffy [sic]. He writes short things in Romaic: with much help I have read one or two and thought them beautiful (266).

After the war Forster did his best to make Cavafy better known in England, although he was not widely recognised even in Greece until the 1930s, and not in the English-speaking world until the 1950s. Cavafy was a civil servant working in Alexandria, and Forster met him often. Cavafy was openly homosexual, and it may be that their conversations made Forster happier with his own sexuality. In the summer of 1917 Forster had the first proper sexual relationship of his life, with a bus conductor called Mohammed el Adl. He mentions him elliptically in a letter to Masood on 8 September 1917:

I am fagged out with the weather and the work—not that either has been intense, but they do go on so long. I am weary beyond expression with Alexandria, its trams and its streets. One is as far from the East here as in London. All is so colourless and banal. But I oughtn’t to grumble too much, for I have good friends here, and have lately got to now an Egyptian whom I greatly like and who sometimes reminds me of you. (On the whole I dislike the Egyptians.) (269)

He confided rather more to his friend Florence Barger. And in a letter to her on 8 October 1917 he made a rare reference to his work: “The London Office has created me ‘Head Searcher for Egypt’ whatever that means” (274). Otherwise his letters often strike a rather miserable note. On 3 August 1918 he wrote to Siegfried Sassoon that “I feel so obscure. I don’t seem to shave enough or even wash and the breast of my British Red Cross Tunic is covered with ink and jam” (293). Part of this depression may just be his ignorance of how much longer he had to stay in Egypt. The war ended in November 1918, and in January 1919 he wrote to Florence Barger: “I leave Egypt in comparative content” (299). By March he was home in England and staying in Lyme Regis.

I used Nicola Beaumont, Morgan: A Biography of E.M. Forster (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993) as a guide; and quote letters from Mary Lago and P.N. Furbank, ed., Selected Letters of E.M. Forster. Volume One, 1979-1920 (London: Arrow, 1985).

 

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