Lance Sieveking in the Great War

This is all that the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, by C.A. Siepmann, sSieveking in navyays about the War:

When the First World War was declared in 1914 Sieveking joined the Artists’ Rifles but soon transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service. On active service, first in east Africa, later in France, he went on night bombing raids, was promoted captain, and was awarded the DSC. But on 28 October 1917 he was shot down behind the German lines and imprisoned until war’s end.

More snippets of information can be gleaned from Sieveking’s writings. In The Eye of the Beholder (1957), a collection of reminiscences about people he had known, he introduces the Great War while writing about the artist Paul Nash, whom he met in the first days of September 1914. They had both enrolled in the  Artists’ Rifles. “It was friendship at first sight” (47). They met while drilling in Russell Square in Bloomsbury. Some were drilling in OTC uniforms, but most, like Sieveking, were in ordinary clothes. They found themselves sitting on the ground eating their lunch-time sandwiches, and Sieveking offered his neighbour Private Nash one of his large oval Snake Charmer cigarettes from his flashy cigarette case. Sieveking was a “nut”, in his own description: eighteen years old six foot six, with long hair marked back, wearing “a tightly-fitting suit of bright reddish-drown, pointed shoes, and fawn-coloured spats” (48). He stooped, and was clumsy. Nash was 24, confident, authoritative, and “a superlatively elegant dandy”, embodying the popular conception of the artist in all respects save that he was spruce and clean. later, he took Sieveking a few steps away from Russell Square, to Queen Alexandra Mansions in Judd Street, to meet his girl friend Margaret Theodosia Odeh, who had taken a first class honours degree in Modern History from Oxford, and who was known to everyone (we are in the world of P.G. Wodehouse, after all) as Bunty. “One of the most extraordinary women I have ever met,” wrote Sieveking (54). Paul and Bunty were married in December 1914, in St-Martin-in-the-Fields, with a large number of prostitutes from Piccadilly and Leicester Square, friends of Bunty’s, in attendance.

A letter from Paul to Bunty in May 1917 noted that there were an awful lot of references in her letters to “nice Mr Sieveking” or “dear old Sieveking”, taking her out and “cheering her up”. This, Lance Sieveking notes quickly, was his father: “by late May 1917 I had been at the front almost continuously for over two years ad could not trot about on little pleasure jaunts” (57).

Once, when on a brief leave, he was having supper with Bunty and his father in Queen Alexandra Mansions. They heard explosions, and rushed on to the flat roof, and saw a Zeppelin in the beam of three searchlights, dropping bombs. “It was the first air raid” (57). His last reference to the War in this chapter on Paul Nash was a comment that “I and those of my friends who were not killed, as most of them were, came home and went on with their lives”, including Paul and him (58).

The second person connected with the war whom Sieveking mentions was Eddie Marsh. Sieveking had been in the Artists’ Rifles for about eight months, and shared a small tent with eleven other men (including Paul Nash).

I had begun to realise that I was inconveniently tall for the trenches, and I applied for a commission in the flying branch of the Navy. However, the Admiralty would not commission me until the War Office had released me, and the War Office would not release me until the Admiralty had commissioned me (84).

Nash introduced Sieveking to Eddie Marsh, Private Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty (someone called Winston Churchill). In April 1915, Sieveking went to the Admiralty, and entered Marsh’s office. It was not a good day; Marsh had just heard of the death of his dearest friend Rupert Brooke. (“It was years before he met Christopher Hassall, the young poet who to a great degree was able to take Rupert’s place” 85). Sieveking and Marsh strolled in the Guards’ Parade, Marsh taking his arm and talking to him about Brooke. Sieveking was fascinated by his “period” voice; and by the way in which for Marsh his monocle was part of the conversation. (“He used to screw it into his ye at a certain point, and hen later, with great effect, open his eye very wide and allow it to drop onto his waistcoat at the end of its black cord” (84).

It was not long afterwards that Asquith “made the cardinal error” of requiring Churchill to resign.

I like to think that his very last act before leaving the Admiralty on his last day was to sign that shimmering, that miraculous document: the memorandum which gave a commission as Flight Sub-Lieutenant R.N. to Private L. de G. Sieveking (86).

In the memoirs, he says nothing about his time in the Navy. But he opens chapter 10 with the words:

At the beginning of November 1917 I arrived at the offizierkriegsgefangenanlager at Karlsruhe, and met a very remarkable pair of friends. There began then a series of encounters which has continued, with intervals, ever since. Both Hugh Kingsmill Lunn and John Ferrar Holms are dead… (97).

He had been shot down while piloting a night bombing raid over the Rhine. He was sent to this camp with two other pilots who had been shot down, and in the camp saw other naval officers: “English, French, Serbians, Russians, Portuguese, Italians, Belgians, and Japanese” (98). It was Kingsmill (as he was latter known), or Lunn, as he then was, or Hughie as Sieveking came to call him, who was detailed to explain the workings of the camp to the three new arrivals. His friend Holms was, Sieveking thought, another fascinating character. They talked literature; and indeed, to entertain the other inmates, they wrote “literature”. The main item of the Christmas and New Year’s entertainment was Sieveking’s play The Light that Lied in a Woman’s Eyes. Kingsmill described it in Behind Both Lines, which Sieveking quotes on p. 108 of The Eye of the Beholder.

Sieveking had borrowed Huret, who spoke English perfectly, and made up as a pretty girl, to play the heroine in his farce. Unfortunately Huret took himself seriously as an artist. Sieveking’s extravaganza had neither plot, characterisation, nor connected incidents. It was a medley out of which the actors improvised gags, business, whatever suggested itself, spurred on by the roaring of the audience, cries of encouragement from the wings, and applause from each other. Out of this Bacchanalian chaos, Huret tried to create a part. His annoyance merged into anger, his anger into fury, and the distortion of his face between the rage he felt and the wounded love hee struggled to convey was worth watching, when, at the climax of his part, he turned from Sieveking, foully murdered on the floor, to Ringer, his swaying and smiling assassin, and articulated with a dreadful effort: “How could I see one loved one cheat and betray another, without my heart being torn in twain?”

Sieveking added that:

I shall never forget that moment. Huret’s face was so excruciatingly funny that I was unable to remain lying dead on the floor, but sat up and gave myself up helplessly bellow after bellow of laughter, tears runngi down my face. Huret never spoke to any of us again (108).

In the summer of 1918, Sieveking was sent to another camp, and did not see Kingsmill and Holms again until after the War.

There is one further insight into Sieveking’s war experiences, however, to which I was alerted in Sieveking’s chapter on Aleister Crowley. When Sieveking was a second year undergraduate at Cambridge, in 1922, he found people coming up and asking him what Aleister Crowley was like, and whether he had seen him recently. “Surely you know him, don’t you? He appears to know you.” (245) Sieveking had not heard of him (or his unsavoury reputation, which had begun to cling to Sieveking too).

Five minutes later I went into Heffer’s bookshop and bought  The Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley, just published by Collins. On page 24 I came on a paragraph beginning “I suppose everyone has read The Psychology of Flying by L. de Giberne Sieveking;” and going on to quote passages out of that rather harmless, woolly work. Apparently this and other references had led to the assumption that Crowley and I knew each other (245).

“The Psychology of Flying” is not a book, as that implies, but an article published in The English Review in June 1922 (volume 34, pp. 538-547). Sieveking began flying after his transfer to the Royal Navy, and so this article illustrates one aspect of the war on his development. He talks about the change of attitude that flying brings to the mind.

Quite involuntarily one sees the world—the whole world—from an entirely new point of view, owing to having got up in the air above it. It may not seem important to have any particular physical attitude in order to get any particular mental attitude. But in reality it is (539).

In part, Sieveking argued, it was the result of speed, which seems to speed up the mind, and clarify it.

Down below there are too many thought waves always traversing and counter-traversing each other; too many other personalities close around, clogging up the ducts of every other individual mechanism

High, high up in the clearer air, the mind seems to be, as it were, purged of certain glutinous structures. It revolves with an altogether unprecedented velocity and perfect precision (541).

As a result, after a long flight of several hours, the pilot is exhausted: “this is emphatically not only physical and nerve strain. It is an intellectual strain also” (542). There is a feeling of being alone, “completely alone with something … or someone else” (545). With this comes a certain recklessness, a lack of fear. He suspects that this mental change is permanent, and will develop with the next generation of flyers.

I would not say that any new qualities that are now dormant or semi-dormant may develop into a hitherto unknown predominance. I should say, for example, that these conditions which I have been describing will prove to be of the first importance spiritually. That such qualities as intuition and telepathy, which are only now used involuntarily and in entirely irregular watts, may evolute more quickly with the influence of flight quite as much at the command of the individual as hearing, tasting, or learning by heart (545).

Part of the experience was to do with being absolutely alone, and part by the fact that others may be aiming searchlights or guns at you. “Flying is an unnatural state for a man. But war flying is an unnatural state of an unnatural state” (547). But Sieveking expresses himself convinced that flying intensifies intellectual life, and that it will play a part in the evolution of the human mind. One can see how Aleister Crowley would be interested in this; in a way it is a new type of drug. But one can also see why Sieveking later turned to the writing of science fiction.