When war was declared, Leslie Hartley was still at Harrow. By the end of August, 1100 Old Harrovians had enlisted. Hartley signed up for the school corps, where he did drill and rifle-range practice. He didn’t enlist “because I didn’t want to. I was utterly unbelligerent, and hated the idea of fighting, in however good a cause” (quoted Wright, 46). In December 1914 he won an exhibition at Balliol College, Oxford; he arrived there in October 1915. There were some forty undergraduates there: some of them black (“all very clever, I believe, but still black”) and almost all with some sort of physical disability. Just across the staircase from his room was Aldous Huxley, who had been rendered almost blind by an eye disease. Hartley was not a fit young man; but he knew he did not have the disabilities of some around him, and clearly worried about what he should do.
A letter written to his mother by a family member said
“We are very much concerned about Leslie, and would all urge that he does not sacrifice his education and his future to enlist or to make munitions of war. I can understand how he feels. No boy or man likes to hold back or be thought a coward. But it takes far more courage to be misjudged than to enlist. And Leslie can serve his country far, far getter by going on to Oxford than by enlisting or doing those other things. England is going to need just such men as Leslie presently—men with gifts such as his” (quoted Wright 50).
In April 1916 he enlisted as a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He started in Bexhill, moved to Shoreham, and then to Catterick in Yorkshire. It was after Christmas there when he was called on to attend an officer’s training corps in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. (The corporal in charge of his hut at Catterick said “We always thought you were a gentleman”: quoted Wright 52.) He passed his tests, and became Second Lieutenant Hartley; but he did not pass his medical, so was judged fit only for Home Service: in his case, defending East Anglia from German invasion.
He was stationed in Colchester, and then, in February 1918, in Walton-on-the-Naze. He was battalion education officer, and battalion sports officer. He spent two months in the Third London General Hospital, with bronchopneumonia, and eventually got a judgement from a medical board—in September 1918—that he should be invalided out of the war. The elderly officer in charge of the board said “My poor boy, you have done your utmost for King and Country” (quoted 54). Hartley’s biographer comments: “What did it matter that Hartley knew this was not true? It was enough that the unhappiness he had endured was over” (Wright 54).
He returned to Balliol in October 1919. He was in a new world, and one which he disliked (though not as much as the world that began in 1945). He was always an enemy of the State, and for him it was 1914 that saw the assertion of the State’s powers, making way for the moral deterioration of the post-war years. It was no accident that he set The Go-Between in the golden summer and Golden Age of 1900.