Edward Knoblock in the Great War

Edward_Knoblock in uniformThe ODNB celebrates Edward Knoblock‘s war experiences in one sentence:  “He served in the British army with the intelligence service during the First World War, holding the rank of captain.” It says that his book of poetry, Cot 5, published in 1915, was written on board a hospital ship, suggesting that he joined by 1915, but it says that he joined after he had become a British citizen, in July 1916; and a month later he changed his name from Knoblauch to Knoblock. Knoblock’s own autobiography clearly states that he changed his citizenship soon after the sinking of the Lusitania, which was 7 May 1915; but, then, the autobiography is thin on detail (and heavy on name-dropping). However, he did work for a year in one department before transferring to another department, and that, he says, was autumn 1916 (autobiography, 215); so the date in ODNB must be wrong. As it is in another one: Knoblock was on a hospital ship only once, for two months in the summer of 1917, so if he wrote his book of poetry there it could not have been published in 1915… (I have not yet found the actual publication date; the BL only have the second edition of 1918.)

When war began to look inevitable, Knoblock’s first worry was for his sister, who was on a Rhine holiday with an American friend. But, to his relief, she returned safe and sound, on the last train out of Belgium, though without her luggage and after three days and three nights of travel with very little to eat.

We waked up and down Manchester Street as she poured out her story full of vivid details of all sorts. At every station she had witnessed the departure of the German troops—thousands of flags flying, thousands of people waving good-bye from every window. A young German officer wedged into her compartment had said to her: “None of these men will ever come back. Neither will I.” It all seems like a crazy impossibility then—his passionate uprising of the nations after such a long happy dream of peace. “Pray God England is not dragged into it,” we both said to each other. The next thing there came the news of Germany’s invasion of Belgium. That night, at midnight, we knew that England, too, had declared war. […] Our modern fever of uncertainty dates from that midnight hour of August, 1914. We lost an old world never to gain a new one (194, 195).

The day after war was declared, Knoblock went to see his doctor to see if he was fit; he had only just undergone and operation, and the doctor said that he would not be fit for months. So Knoblock went to the War Office with a letter of introduction, offering his services as a translator. He was told to set down all his qualifications and send off an application. He never got an answer. “I don’t blame anyone. The whole world was in dreadful confusion for many weeks” (199). There was confusion, and there were rumours. The disorganisation effected everything, and this effected everyone: “there was a universal sense of living for the moment, which was only natural under the circumstances. The very uncertainty of life led to a relaxation of all former standards. People ate, drank ,and lived for the day” (200-201).

Knocblock decided to spend most of the first year writing plays for charities of various kinds. He helped Lady Paget with a matinee, which raised six thousand pounds. She would sell boxes in the theatre to bankers, and when she found out that they were too busy to actually attend, she sold the same box to another banker. Lady Ripon had helped found a hospital “to which Queen Alexandra had gladly lent her name”. When she wanted to put on a concert at Christmas 1914 in the hospital itself, she asked Knoblock to help. The Queen came to the concert. At the end, a wounded man called out “Three cheers for Queen Alexandra!” When the cheers died away, another soldier called for “Three cheers for Charlie Chaplin”, and the cheers were deafening. The Queen, however, was too deaf to hear what the soldier had called out: “she bowed again, more graciously than ever, which caused a good deal of suppressed sniggering among the wounded” (206).

Knoblock determined to apply to the War Office again, and the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, which did not budge America from its position of neutrality, was the final straw. He became a British citizen, and “in a very short time I was working in the Intelligence Department” (208). He worked with Sir John Wallinger for a year, before being transferred to another section. He would do a lot of travelling; and a lot of sitting at his desk writing reports.

In itself Secret Service is far from reputable. All the things one has been taught as a child as being the essentials of clean living are disregarded. Lying, deception, opening other people’s letters, overhearing conversations on the telephone and worming secrets out of others by any methods available, are here the order of the day. No wonder if a spy is caught he is shot. He deserves it. For his code of honour is despicable—if honour can be mention in such connection. His motive alone saves him from being detested even by his own countrymen. As we were bound to secrecy, naturally I shall not go into the various methods we employed… (209).

He did tell the story of being back a secret document from a “certain neutral country”; but that is all he tells from that first year of his service.

In autumn 1916 he was transferred to another department, and received his commission. He was sent to Greece to join Compton Mackenzie, who was in charge of the Annexe of the Legation in Athens. The Greeks were then neutral, but the Germans were doing everything to win them over. The King favoured the Germans; the Venizelists favoured the Alliance. A French battleship was at the Piraeus. Shooting started between the Greeks and the French on 1 December, and Knoblock was there to see it.

In all this dreadful hurly-burly, which went on practically for two days, the English ladies behaved with the utmost calm and courage. One of them stepped coolly on the balcony while the men were firing at the Annexe and told them in very bad Greek to “stop it at once”. Sir Francis Eliot, who was the Minister, I saw, myself, walk out of the Legation, as a dozen or so Greeks started levelling their rifles at him. He drew The Times from his pocket and waved it at them as if to brush away flies. They stared amazed, dropped their rifles, and ran. So much for the power of the Press (219).(I am inevitably reminded of Carry On Up the Khyber… EJ]

On p. 223 of his autobiography, Knoblock mentions that he was on the Hospital ship Rewa for two months in 1917 (June and July); it was a long bout of dysentery. He went home in July, via Malta, where he dined with Commander (later Admiral) Usbourne, in civilised circumstances for the first time for months. He stayed two days in Rome, and looked up at the top windows of the Keats house on the Piazza di Spagna, where he had stayed in December 1899; he then went via the flat that he actually owned in the Palais Royal in Paris, to his own Albany rooms in London. His servant James was out; he could not get in. He dined at the Grill Room of the Savoy, only to discover that since he was in uniform, they had to abide by the rule that officers could not spend more than three shillings and sixpence on a meal. He walked to Albany in the rain, and discovered that his sister and James had missed him at Victoria Station. Not a good day.

The next morning he reported to the War Office, and was given two months’ leave. After nearly a year away, of which three months had been spent in hospital, his ten stone six had dropped to seven stone five: “people that met me all stared at me” (240).

In November [1917] I was out at the front for a little while. I don’t know what impressed me most in the actual war area—the magnificent attitude of the British soldier, his courage, his good nature, his eternal sense of humour under the most appalling conditions—or the tragic ruin of the French countryside. If there was ever a conception of hell realised beyond the dreams of human imagination, it was that part of France known as the battlefields (251). […] Charred remains of trees rose here and there in the landscape; bits of shattered masonry marked the spot where once had stood prosperous villages; huge craters gaped where mines had been sprung, and now and again a rush broken-down tank lay by the roadside while coils of barbed wire trailed aimlessly across the landscape, The November rain washed away the soil and laid bare bones and skulls and fragments of uniforms—the abomination of desolations… (252).

He was in France to work at the Mission Anglaise, and he spent Christmas in Paris, being ordered bak to the War office in January 1918. He had some leisure to work on a new play, Tiger! Tiger! But with the spring his life was upset by continual trips to Paris and other parts of France, bearing messages and bags. He indulged in a spot of flirtation with more than one woman. But he was with a British officer, in Intelligence, whom he nicknamed Florry,  when he heard, late on 10 November 1918, that the Germans had agreed to surrender.

Florry and I were so overcome by the news that for a moment neither of us could speak. Then we filled ourselves two large tumblers with whisky and soda and drank “To Peace”. I have my tumbler still. No one has drunk out of it since (265).

They drove into the small town near her village the next morning.

All the bells of the little churches and chapels began to ring. […] Everywhere flags were flying, and wherever we passed a group of people we were cheered and cheered them in return. It wa a beautiful, mild day. A holiness seemed to lie on the land, a sense of strange, unaccustomed relief that is indescribable to those who did not experience this great, mystic hour (265-6) […] We .. picked up a young French and an American officer and drove out to a little restaurant, where we sat in the garden in the warm November sun, had a delicious meal and a good deal of delicious wine, toasting each of the Allies in turn, the King, the President of France, the President of the United States, Foch, Haig, Pershing, everybody we could think of, ourselves included, till the world seemed rosier tot us than it had for many a long day (267).

He and Florry went to Paris by train overnight, bathed and breakfasted in Knoblock’s Paris flat, and then went into the street and joined the party that lasted three days. He returned to the War Office, only to be sent back to France to deal with the returning prisoners-of-war. He was impressed by a group of British airmen.

When the cheese was passed round, each one cut exactly the same portion for himself. This left a small piece over. I passed it round again asking the man at my right to take the whole piece, “I couldn’t do that,’ he said, glancing quickly at his companions. “Don’t worry,” I answered. “There’s more.” “More!” he exclaimed in surprise. “D’you mean that?” said another almost simultaneously. They were all completely dumbfounded, It showed me clearly on what strict rations they had lived and how evenly they had divided everything. “We were far better off than the local population,” said one. “When we know we were going to leave, we threw all our spare food out of the windows into the street below. The police came and asked us to desist as it was causing a riot” (273).

Knoblock got to Strasbourg, where he found a street named after his family, Knoblauch. He returned to Paris, and, still early in 1919, he was demobilised, “and ready, once more, for the battle of peace” (386).

Eric Salmon wrote the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. My main source of information is Knoblock’s Round the Room: An Autobiography (London: Chapman and Hall, 1939).