H.H. Munro (“Saki”) in the Great War

H.H. Munro UniformOn Bank Holiday Monday, 3 August 1914, Munro went to the Commons to hear Sir Edward Grey (Foreign Secretary, 1905-1916).

When the actual tenor of the speech became clear, and one knew beyond a doubt where we stood, there was only room for one feeling; the miserable tension of the past two days had been removed, and one discovered that one was slowly recapturing the lost sensation of being in a good temper  (quoted Langguth, 248)

“I have always looked forward to the romance of a European war,” he had once said to a friend. On 25 August he was accepted into the 2nd King Edward’s Horse. He telegraphed his sister Ethel: she thought it was the most exciting and delightful message she had ever received. He had written “Enrolled”; it came through as “Enroled”. His biographer Langguth commented: “He was entering on the last impersonation of his life.”

At John Lane, his publishers, the editors speculated on the fact that he might find young men easier to pick up in the Army. He told them to get in touch with his brother, C.A. Munro (the governor of HM Prison, Mountjoy, Dublin), if anything happens, and added “It is only fitting that the author of ‘When William Came’  should go to meet William half way.”

In the end, it became clear that the demands of the cavalry were too much for a man of his age and health. He was transferred to the 22nd Battalion of Royal Fusiliers. His upper teeth were pulled out as they were rotten, and grew a moustache to hide the damage. He was detailed to teach German to his mates. He refused a commission, although with his friends and connections it would have been the easiest thing. But it would have delayed his arrival at the front, because of the extra training. He became a corporal; his final promotion was to lance-sergeant.

Despite this, in spring 1915, he was still in England. He wrote to his sister Ethel:

We have a good deal of fun, with skirmishing raids at night with neighbouring huts, and friendly games of footer; it is like being boy and man at the same time. All the same I wish we could count on going away soon; it is a poor game to be waiting when others are bearing the brunt and tasting the excitement of real warfare” (Langguth, 257).

He was continuing to write, material that could easily be construed as propaganda. In The Morning Post, for instance, he declared “Nearly every red-blooded boy has had war, in some shape or form, for his first love” (quoted Langguth, 258). Often his own prejudices are very clearly shown:

One must admit that we have in these Islands a variant from the red-blooded type. One or two young men have assured me that they are not in the least interested in the war—‘I am not at all patriotic, you know,’ they announced, as one might announce that one was not a vegetable or did not use a safety-razor. […] One felt that the war would affect them chiefly as involving a possible shortage in the supply of eau-de-Cologne or by debarring them from visiting some favourite art treasure at a Munich gallery. It is inconceivable that these persons were ever boys, they have certainly not grown up into men; one cannot call them womanish—the women of our race are made of different stuff. They belong to no sex, and it seems a pity that they should belong to any nation; other nations probably have similar encumbrances, but we seem to have more of them than we either desire or deserve (quoted Langguth, 259-60).

In an article for  The Bystander he gave advice to other orderlies in the Army.

Develop your imagination: if the officer of the day remarks on the paleness of a joint of meat hazard the probably explanation that the beast it was cut from was fed on Sicilian clover, which fattens quickly, but gives a pale appearance; there may be no such thing as Sicilian clover, but one-half of the world believes what the other half invents (quoted Langguth, 262).

He finally left for France on 7 November 1915.

His letters home suggest that, whatever he felt about what he was experiencing, he was determined to keep a sense of humour. He sent a Christmas verse to Ethel: “While Shepherds watched their flock by night /All seated on the ground / A high-explosive shell came down / and mutton rained around” (quoted Langguth, 267), while to his little niece Felicia he wrote:

I think you would enjoy going out at night to mine the wire entanglements in front of our lines. You have to creep, creep like a prowling cat, and when the enemy sends up a flare every few minutes, you have to press yourself flat on the ground and pretend to be a lump of earth. It reminded me of the times when you and I were wolves and used to go prowling after fat farmers’ wives (quoted Langguth, 268).

He went on leave to England in June 1916. Ethel saw him off at Victoria Station, and shouted, over the din, “Kill a good few for me!”

The last piece he ever wrote was about “Birds on the Western Front”.

In the chill, misty hour of gloom that precedes a rainy dawn, when nothing seemed alive except a few wary waterlogged sentries and many scuttling rats, the lark would suddenly dash skyward and pour forth a song of ecstatic jubilation that sounded horrible forced and insincere. It seemed scarcely possible that the bird could carry its insouciance to the length of attempting to rear a brood in that desolate wreckage of shattered clods and gaping shell-holes, but once, having occasion to throw myself down with some abruptness on my face, I found myself nearly on the top of a brood of young larks” (quoted Langguth, 274-75).

He was hospitalised in Autumn 1916 with malaria, but discharged himself when he heard that an attack was in the offing. The battle of the Ancre began on 13 November 1916. On 14 November, he and his men were resting in some trenches, at 4 a.m. They were advancing to take Beaumont-Hamel. Munro’s friend Spikesman heard Munro say “Put that bloody cigarette out”. Then there was a shot from a German sniper. It was an hour later that Spikesman discovered Munro to be dead, and that those must have been his last words.

All the above information comes from A.J. Langguth, Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981).

 

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