He told me that he had had a hard morning, and I gathered that both Asquith and Grey [the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary] had spent a couple of hours with him, laying the facts of the situation before him, and reiterating the question: ‘Shall we fight, Hueffer, or shall we not fight?’ I had gathered from little things he had let slip earlier that his opinion was highly esteemed by Leading Politicians […] but I had not known that it was esteemed as highly as that, and I have always wished that he could have seen his way to forbid them to fight (quoted Saunders I.469).
Ford was not at the Wellington House meeting on August 2, called by G.C. Masterman to discuss the possibilities of writing propaganda, despite his friendship with Masterman. Those who were there included, in alphabetical order, J.M. Barrie, Arnold Bennett, Hall Caine, G.K. Chesterton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Maurice Hewlett, John Masefield, Gilbert Murray, H.G. Wells and Israel Zangwill; Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch sent their apologies. But Ford did work for Wellington House, and began writing the first of his two propaganda books that month: When Blood is Their Argument: An Analysis of Prussian Culture. He refused to take any payment for this, though he did hope for payment for the second, which Masterman encouraged him to write: Between St Dennis and St George. He also wrote a poem called “Antwerp” after the fall of that city; T.S. Eliot called it “the only good poem I have met with on the subject of war” (Saunders I.473).
Violet Hunt had rented a cottage at Selsey from the local landowner (and writer and general polymath), Edward Heron-Allen, and she and Ford would often stay there. In November 1914 Ford published a story, “The Scaremonger”, satirising Heron-Allen and making fun of his paranoia about submarine invasion. As Hunt said, ‘Allen did go frightening girls about a German invasion’ (quoted Saunders I.473). Heron-Allen was furious and wrote to Ford: “I did not believe that even a German Journalist would sit at one’s table, make one’s house a sort of Inn for the entertainment of his friends and use one’s time money & brains in his service for years & then perpetrate an outrage of the kind” (quoted Saunders I.473). For Edward Heron-Allen’s view on all this, see the early part of his War Experiences.
Ford was busy on his propaganda work during the first six months of 1915; at the end of that period, in July, he enlisted in the army. He explained to his mother:
If one has enjoyed the privileges of the ruling classes of a country all one’s life, there seems to be no alternative to fighting for that country if necessary. And indeed I have never felt such an entire peace of mind as I have felt since I wore the King’s uniform (quoted Saunders I.479).
Ford’s biographer Max Saunders suggests that Ford enlisted in 1915 in part so that he could escape from anxiety about money and about his writing, and escape also from accusations of lack of patriotism because of his German ancestry. On 30 July 1915 he officially changed his middle name Hermann to Madox. But, according to Wyndham Lewis, at least, Ford retained his cynicism:
“When this war’s over,” he said, “nobody is going to worry, six months afterwards, what you did or didn’t do in the course of it. One month after it’s ended, it will be forgotten. Everybody will want to forget it—it will be bad form to mention it. Within a year, disbanded ‘heroes’ will be selling match in the gutter. No one likes the ex-soldier if you’ve lost a leg, more fool you” (quoted Saunders I.480).
Ford joined the Welsh Regiment (renamed the Welch Regiment in 1920), and was gazetted as a second lieutenant on 13 August 1915. He was initially stationed in Tenby, and then in Cardiff, where his time was mostly occupied with paper-work. He was still in Cardiff when Cecil Chesterton’s future wife Ada Elizabeth Jones published an attack on Ford in Chesterton’s New Witness (under a pseudonym) calling him a coward and attacking him for being a German and a Jew. J.M. Barrie wrote to defend Ford, and was told that being a Catholic did not mean that he was no longer Jewish. Wells was so disgusted by the affair that he wrote to the brother of the editor of New Witness, G.K. Chesterton, saying that the publication would never again enter his house (see Saunders I.489).
Ford was sent to the Somme in July 1916, only two weeks after the start of Britain’s most deadly battle. His CO did not allow him to go to the front-line, because of his age (he was much older than most of his fellow officers, and was at the lowest officer rank). Not being in the front-line did not, of course, mean that he was out of danger. On either July 28 or 29, he was blown into the air by the explosion of a shell, and landed on his face. “I had completely lost my memory so that […] three weeks of my life are completely dead to me” (quoted Saunders II.2). He recalls long afterwards:
After I was blown up at Bécourt-Bécordel in ’16 and, having lost my memory, lay in the Casualty Clearing Station in Corbie, with the enemy planes dropping bombs all over it and the dead Red Cross nurses being carried past my bed, I used to worry agonisingly about what my name could be—and have a day-nightmare […] I thought I had been taken prisoner by the enemy forces and was lying on the ground, manacled hand and foot (quoted Saunders II.2).
When he went back to the front, to Kemmel Hill in the Ypres salient, it was quiet by comparison. He described how one day he played the finale of Tristan and Isolde on a defective piano, and a “little, shining, staff captain” came in and said “Don’t get up … Go on playing.” He later discovered it was the Prince of Wales (Saunders II.16). Late in 1916 he wrote to Joseph Conrad to say that he had suddenly realised he was the only novelist of his age to be in the fighting; “I began to take a literary view of the war,” he said later, and various events in his Parade’s End novels can indeed to pinpointed to events in his own experience. At the same time he was, understandably, suffering from depression; he tried resigning his commission so that he could be sent back in the ranks and get into the front-line: “I don’t at all want not to be killed,” he says ambiguously (Saunders II.22). Later in 1916 he wrote to his mother “It would be really very preferable to be dead—but one isn’t dead—so that is all there is to it” (Saunders II.23). He spent some time in hospital, with lung problems (possibly exacerbated by gas), but he was also clearly having doubts about his sanity.
He convalesced in the south of France (where later he was to live), in January 1917, and then was posted to Rouen and later Abbeville; but early in March he was invalided home. The poet Iris Barry describes him at this time: “Semi-monstrous, bulging out of his uniform china-blue eyes peering from an expanse of pink face, pendulous lower lip drooping under sandy moustache as he boomed through endless anecdotes of Great Victorians, Great Pre-Raphaelites, Henry James…” (quoted Saunders II.30). The Medical Board would not pass him as fit to go back to France, and he was put in command of a company of the 23rd King’s Liverpool Regiment. His CO recorded that Ford had great organisational skills, and was a lecturer “of the first water on several military subjects”. For much of 1917 he was stationed at Redcar on the North Yorkshire coast, in a training position. He was promoted to lieutenant on 1 July and to captain on 7 January 1918. From mid-March to August 1918 he had the temporary rank of brevet major. He was so successful in this part of his military life, it seems, that he was offered a post after the war as Educational Advisor to the Northern Command, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He considered it briefly, before decided that he wanted to resume his writing.
In November 1918 he was due to be sent to France, but his name was struck off the list as he was considered indispensable to the battalion at home. He was still in Redcar on Armistice Day, a few days later, and remembers working so hard that he fell into bed 4 in the morning, stone cold sober. His CO said to him, “Well, H., I suppose now peace is here you are the great man & I am only a worm at your feet”, and H[ueffer] cordially agreed (quoted Saunders II.55).
He was gazetted out of the army on 7 January 1919, and moved back to London, marking his separation from Violet Hunt rather ambiguously by taking a flat in the next street to hers.
For the basics of Ford’s life, see Max Saunders in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Saunders’ full biography is much more extensive: see Ford Madox Ford: a Dual Life. Volume I: The World before the War and Volume II: The After-War World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).