Noël Coward in the Great War

Coward in The Knight of the Burning Pestle_1920

Coward in Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle in 1920

“My period in the British Army was brief and inglorious,” begins Noël Coward’s account of his encounter with the British military. It was late in the War: he had been born in 1899, so was only fifteen in the first year of the war; he had also in 1914 developed a tubercular gland, which caused him to spend some time at the Pinewood Sanatorium in Wokingham. This illness was only a brief break in his stage career, however; he had made his first appearance on the professional stage in 1911, and had engagements every year after that.

In January 1918, however, he was called before a medical board. They were satisfied that his history with TB debarred him from active service, or even from entering an OTC; but they said that he would be called up for some kind of service. Some time later “a horrible little grey card fluttered through the letter-box of 111, Ebury Street, summoning me immediately to a medical board at the Camberwell Swimming Baths” (53).

At the end of several hours of beastliness during which I stood about naked on cold floors and was pinched and prodded by brusque doctors, I was told to dress myself, given an identification card, and ordered to line up with a group of about fifty men in various stages of physical and mental decay. […] [They were taken to Whitehall for paperwork.] This over, the sergeant again took us in charge and we marched along Whitehall, along the Strand and over Waterloo Bridge to Waterloo Station. I kept my head averted in case any of my friends should see me on their way out from their matinées at the Adelphi and the Vaudeville. We entrained at Waterloo and finally arrived at Hounslow where we marched to the barracks and were put into one hut, all fifty of us, and dealt out slices of bread and margarine, cups of greasy cocoa and three blankets for the night (54).

The following morning uniforms were handed out, but Coward slipped a sergeant a ten-shilling note and got permission to take the rest of the day off in order to straighten his affairs at home; as soon as he got back, he had a word with his mother, and then took a taxi to the War Office with a list of senior officers to contact. In the end it was a lowly Lieutenant Boughey who said that there had been a mistake; he was too well to be in a Labour camp, and he should be enrolled into the Artists’ Rifles. The real army was much more acceptable to Coward, even though he found it difficult to put on an appropriately military demeanour: “my puttees kept on coming undone, and I dropped my cane seventeen times” (55). Coward was subject to ideas he knew to be reprehensible, that it was all a terrible waste of time and that he should be getting on with his career. He was also subject to headaches, which got very much worse after he tripped, hit his head, and remained unconscious for three days. He was taken to the First London General Hospital, and stayed there for six weeks. He and a friend managed to persuade a cook to give them food normally reserved for officers; and the two of them also found ways of illegally leaving the premises: Coward even managed to get to a show at the Vaudeville.

After he was discharged from hospital, he had a week’s leave, and then returned to “Light Duties”. His headaches returned, and deep depression, and he was taken to the General Military Hospital in Colchester. “There I remained through July and August, passing the time in bed by writing a bad novel” (61). The head medical officer told him that he had recommended that he be given a full medical discharge. But the medical board a week later did not take his advice, and ordered Coward back to the Artists’ Rifles. The head medical officer retuned from his holiday, told Coward that the medical board had been “bloody fools”, and within a few days another medical board finally signed out of the Army. When all the paperwork was done, he took a taxi back home from Liverpool Street, along the Strand and the familiar streets.

I almost wept with sentimental love for it all; it seemed like æons has passed since I had been part of it. I reflected then, without a shadow of embarrassment, upon my unworthy performance as a soldier. There was no room in my heart for anything but thankfulness that I was free again to shape my life as I wanted (63).

My sole source of information (so far) is Noël Coward’s Autobiography, originally in three volumes (Present Indicative (1937); Future Indefinite (1954), and the uncompleted Past Conditional (1986) but printed in one edition by Methuen, London 1986. I used the 1999 Methuen paperback edition.