Hugh Kingsmill in the Great War

Hugh Kingsmill Lunn (who from 1927 wrote always as Hugh Kingsmill), enlisted initially as a private in a regiment of cycles. Late in 1914 he received a commission into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He married Eileen Fitzgerald early in 1915, and lived with her in Blandford, where he was stationed. She was very anxious about the possibility that he would be sent abroad, and threatened to kill herself if he were. As Kingsmill put it (quoted in Holroyd, Kingsmill, 54) “for reasons more complex that the simple aversion from physical violence, naturally assumed by others to be the sole popsicle explanation for remaining at home”, he stayed in England until November 1916.

He opens his war memoirs by saying that at that date a large number of officers left the Naval Division camp in Blandford, to replace the heavy casualties in the recent fighting at Beaumont Hamel.

The other officers in the carriage were quieter and more thoughtful than usual, and when one of them raised the question of personal immortality, the rest joined in without any embarrassment, and all agreed that there must be a future life. Without this belief, one of them said, it would be difficult to face active service, and the others nodded (12).

His battalion ended up near Rue, at the mouth of the Somme. His company commander went on leave, and Kingsmill found himself in charge. A fellow officer wrote to him, remembering his command (quoted 22):

You used to give your orders for the day from your bed. They were taken by the sergeant-major, leaning through the window. On one occasion when you were supposed to inspect the guard, you didn’t like the idea of going through the mud, so you sent for the guard, and inspected them through the doorway, in slippers, with a newspaper under your arm.

Another officer in his battalion wrote home to his fiancée about his fellow officers. Of Kingsmill he wrote (43-44).

He has more individuality, perhaps, than any man in the Battalion. He has a very sympathetic nature, but at times, through thoughtlessness, gives the impression of being selfish … He is one of those people whom nature never intended to live in a confined space … If he does not knock over the candle, he upsets the table and scatters the food all over the floor. Failing either of these little acts he kicks the brazier over, or looks for a stud he has not lost, carefully holding a dripping candle over your tunic all the time. He has other little ways such as dropping jam on the petrol can which we use for sitting on, or snatching away the only light just as one is negotiating a difficult corner, in the desire to find his fountain-pen which is is holding all the time in his left hand.

The end of his military career therefore seems quite typical. He took part in an attack on 5 February 1917, and wandered off with a young Tommy. Suddenly he saw a group of German soldiers, and he told the young man to run. The Germans killed him almost immediately. Kingsmill himself ran until he lost his breath, and then came upon another group of Germans. He spoke to them in German, and they laughed. He debated whether to carry on, and then turned to run. He saw more soldiers, and thought they were English, and ran towards them. At the last minute he saw the pickelhaube. He tripped over, and was surrounded by his captors. He handed over his revolver in surrender.

It was a glorious night, and as I looked up at it, I suddenly realised that the war was over for me, the curtain of death rolled up, and life stretched out before me once again (68).

A few days later:

A middle-aged German soldier approached me, and asked whether he had been correctly informed that my name was Lunn. Ah, good! In that case, might he hope that after the war I would use my influence with my firm, that famous travel organisation, to send him clients? He had a comfortable and inexpensive hotel in the Tyrol, and wish to open it for winter sports. He would esteem it the highest honour if he might furnish me with his name and address. I promised him my support, and went on my war, cheered by this reminder of the past (72-73).

He was for a while in Cambrai, with three other unwounded British soldiers. All of them were aware that courage, and the desire to take one’s share of a common danger, were two powerful instincts:

In surrendering unwounded, we had done violence to both these instincts, and our tempers accordingly became morose. Each of us may have felt that he, personally, had gone some way beyond what could be reasonably required of him to escape capture, but, the ideal being always irrational, the sense of gulf remained, and as it was not dissipated in open talk, converted itself into ill humour (74).

He arrived in the officers’ prisoner-of-war camp in Karlsruhe in Germany on 15 February 1917, and spent fourteen months there; from 24 April 1918, he spent seven months in a similar camp in Mainz. The food was poor, except for the very occasional food-parcel; but time passed. Kingsmill wrote a number of one-act plays for putting on at camp: Prout the Perfidious, and two parodies of works by Conan Doyle and E.W. Hornung: Humlock Sholes and Waffles.

The differences of the French and the English characters showed themselves in various ways at Karlsruhe. It was rare during the summer to see a French officer without a tunic, or an English officer except in shirt-sleeves. The shows put on by the English were generally farcical, full of incident, and horse-play, and given by actors who had drunk sufficiently. The French plays were performed in absolute sobriety, with a grave regard for technical finish (131).

The French and English officers did have conversations at times, though Kingsmill recalls one English officer complaining bitterly “He wanted me to talk about Shakespeare!” (131). One English colonel, who had never heard of Attila, got a lecture from one German officer about why it was offensive to refer to the Germans as “Huns”: “When it was over he said that, of course, he now entirely understood why the Germans objected to this term” (135).

Towards the end of Kingsmill’s stay in Karlsruhe the camp expanded considerably, and so did its cosmopolitan nature. When he arrived it was for English, French and Belgians; when he left there were Serbians, Italians, Japanese, Russians and Portuguese (160-161).

Kingsmill reminisces in his book The Progress of a Biographer (London: Methuen, 1949) about his first book:

My first book was a novel [The Will to Love], written in captivity an reflecting a mood of general disillusionment, such as is common in the late twenties. This mood was no doubt intensified by the unnatural life of a prisoner-of-war, but owed very little to my feelings about the war; for my illusions have been about individuals, not about mass movements, and, since at its outbreak I did to expect the war to further my felicity, I felt no bitterness against it as it drew to its tired close (4).

In spring 1918, Kingsmill recalled, a book reached his camp in Mainz: Eminent Victorians, by Lytton Strachey. It was hot off the press, as it had been published on 6 May 1918. He spotted it in the arms of fellow-prisoner Alec Waugh (Evelyn Waugh’s elder brother, who although he was only 19 had published two books already); Kingsmill assumed from the title that it was going to be a bore.

That I assumed the title was unironic illuminates the state into which biography had fallen: and the immediate impression the brevity, coherence, and verisimilitude of the book made on me suggests the indebtedness to Lytton Strachey of everyone who has written biography within the last thirty years (7).

The inhabitants of the camp at Mainz were not excited by the Armistice. It had obviously been coming for some time, but “Most of us were either ill or convalescent. Tinned food, confinement and the grippe had subdued everyone, except a handful of die-hards” (22o). Of his captivity, he wrote (quoted by Holroyd, 64):

The perpetual confinement, the perpetual society of one’s own sex, and the consciousness of being a dead weight are more wearing than one realises at the time, and usually require a year of so to recover from them. Taken in one stretch, the twenty-one months of my captivity were too many by quite half, but I have often thought since how satisfactory it would have been had I been able to bank them and draw two or three weeks whenever I want a respite from ordinary existence.

Kingsmill and his companions crossed from Germany into Holland on November 25th, and sailed into the Humber two days later. He disembarked in Hull, and went to Ripon, where there was a reception camp for repatriated POWs. On the train, they are depressed by the political rants they read about in the Daily Mail.

“I see,” I said, “that if I write my memoirs of captivity, I shall have to call the book ‘Held by the Hun’. Of course, I shall reserve the right to reissue it, say, in ten or perhaps fifteen years under the title ‘An Englishman visited the Fatherland'” (231).

My information comes mainly from Hugh Kingsmill’s war memoirs, Behind Both Lines (London: Morley & Mitchell Kennerley, 1930): for details of other sources see under the general page on Kingsmill.

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