James Hilton in the Great War

James Hilton stands for one not uncommon, if rather minor, war experience. He went to public school in 1914, at that point thinking, no doubt, that the war would soon be over. For the last year or so of his school career he must have known that he would, sooner or later, be in the army: even in mid-1918 it was generally thought that the War could go on for years. “Such tragic imminence,” he wrote years later in To You, Mr Chips, “hardly worried us, but it gave certain sharpness to all the joys and a certain comfort for all the trivial hardships of school life” (47). He was duly called up in 1918, but he never saw active service.

In To You, Mr Chips (1938) he talks about his war-time schooldays. He was at The Leys, though in this memoir he names it Brookfield, after the school in which Mr Chips taught. The school was nonconformist in religious terms, and “the school tolerated me even more generously than I tolerated it” (38).

I did not join the almost compulsory Officers’ Training Corps, despite the fact that the years were 1914-1918. My reasons for keeping out (which I did not conceal) were simply that I disliked military training and had no aptitude for it. Lest anyone should picture my stand as a heroic one, I should add that it was really no stand at all; nobody persecuted me—if they had, no doubt, I should have joined.
When later I was called up for military service I responded, chiefly because my friends were in the army and I guessed that I should be happier with them there than on committees of anti-war societies with people whose views I mainly held. If this seems an illogical reason, I shall agree, with the proviso that it is also a more civilised reason than a desire to kill Germans (39).

Through his time at The Leys, the war was always in the background. “Offenders gated for cigarette-smoking in January were dropping bombs in December” (45). The war got closer, and playing-fields were given up for trenches and drilling grounds, and cadet-corps began to take precedence over classes. Hilton found the paradoxes really upsetting: the preaching of brotherly love and forgiveness in chapel on Sundays, and then watching cadets on Monday “bayoneting sacks with special aim for vital parts of the human body. […] I would wonder endlessly whether Sunday’s or Monday’s behaviour were the more hypocritical” (46). Hilton became editor of the school magazine, and wrote articles and stories and poems for it; the school tolerated not only that he wrote poetry, but that he wrote pacifist and revolutionary poetry. The war was the constant background.

I cannot think of my schooldays without the image of that incredible background—Zeppelins droning over sleeping villages, Latin lessons from which boys stepped into the brief lordliness of a second-lieutenancy on the Somme. I cannot forget the little room where my friends and I fried sausages and played George Robey records on the gramophone, and how, in the same little room with the sausages frying and the gramophone playing, one of us received a telegram with bad news in it, and how we all tried to sympathise, yet in the end arrived at no better idea than to open a hoarded tin of pineapple chunks to follow the sausages (60-61).

Hilton did not see active service. It should be noted, however, that both his most famous books are in a sense “Great War novels”. Lost Horizon offered a vision of a place of peace and stability that appealed very much to the generation that had gone through the war. Goodbye Mr Chips is even more explicitly a novel about the Golden Days before 1914.

It is the story of Mr Chipping, a deeply conservative schoolmaster, who starts his career in the fictional school Brookfields in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war. He retires in 1913, but agrees to come back at the outbreak of war, to help fill in for the masters who go into the army. The war caused him to ruminate on the waste of life and of effort: Old Brookfieldians had died in the war against Napoleon too. Chipping averts panic during an air-raid on the school, and helps provide that sense of continuity with the past that is threatened by the death of so many former pupils and masters between 1914 and 1918. At one point he reads out the list of those pupils and masters, and very deliberately (and controversially) adds the name of a former German master, Max Staefel.

Later, outside the chapel, he heard an argument:
“On the Western Front, Chips said. Does that mean he was fighting for the Germans?”
“I suppose it does.”
“Seems funny, then, to read his name out with all the others. After all, he was an enemy.”
“Oh, just one of Chips’s ideas, I expect. The old boy still has ’em.”
Chips, in his room again, was not displeased by the comment. Yes, he still had ’em—those ideas of dignity and generosity that were becoming increasingly rare in a frantic world. And he thought: Brookfield will take them, too, from me: but it wouldn’t from anyone else.
Once, asked for his opinion of bayonet-practice being carried on near the cricket pavilion, he answered with that lazy, slightly asthmatic intonation that had been so often and so extravagantly imitated: “It seems—to me—umph—a very vulgar way of killing people.”
The yarn was passed on and joyously appreciated—how Chips had told some big brass hat from the War Office that bayonet-fighting was vulgar. Just like Chips. And they found an adjective for him—an adjective just beginning to be used: he was pre-War (1947 ed., 98-99).

Hilton uses that adjective at the beginning of his memoir, too. He was writing about a world that was only a quarter of a century away, he notes. “But it cannot be measured by that reckoning. The world today looks back on the pre-War world as a traveller may look back through a railway tunnel to the receding pinpoint of light in the distance. It is more than the past; it is already a legend” (16).

There appears to be no biography of James Hilton; this information is partly derived from Felicity Ehrlich’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, although the various Wikipedia entries on Hilton and his works have also been very useful.


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