Owen Barfield in the Great War

The interviews that Owen Barfield did at the age of 98, in the first part of 1996, as recorded in Simon Blaxland-de Lange’s book Owen Barfield: Romanticism Comes of Age (Forest Row, Sussex: Temple Lodge, 2006), form the basis for the story below. The direct quotations by Barfield himself come from this book (with the page references in brackets). 

Barfield remembered that around 1914, when he was in the Sixth Form at Highgate School, his stammering got worse. “It got so bad that in despair one night when going to bed, when asking myself if on the whole I would prefer not to wake up again, I came to the conclusion that I would” (13). In response he composed the first poem that he wrote, and the last one for some time: “Sleep”.

In his last years at school, he had to join the Officers’ Training Corps. He remembering going on exercises—”some kind of route march around Highgate” (15).

It was a strain, because we lived some distance from Highgate. I had to go by train and return by train at night; and after a full day at school on wither one or two days a week I had to go on a route march, or whatever they called it, in khaki uniform, khaki puttees I think they called them. Anyway, by the time you’d had a day in school and all this military exercise afterwards and the train journey home you were pretty well worn out. A bit of a strain all that time. And then of course older boys were joining up, and I remember one boy in the Sixth Form—I think that by that time I was also in the Sixth Form—joined up, and we heard after a few sees I think it was that he was dead, not at the front, but in from kind of accident when he was teaching or learning. This cast a great shadow offer everything (15).

The Sixth Form master, in a sermon, told the boys that “‘if I know anything of the spirit of a public schoolboy, and I think I do, they’re all longing to be in the thick of it’; and I remember criticising this mentally very strongly” (15).

In 1917 Barfield joined up; he followed his brother into the Signals Service, which was part of the Royal Engineers. GHe was posted to Worcester. He started as a pioneer, which is what they called privates in the Royal Engineers, and he spent a lot of time learning the Morse Code. When he was promoted to lance-corporal, he started giving short courses in wireless telegraphy to men who had come back from the front temporarily. They all seemed a lot older than him—”I was rather a baby-face in those days” (16)—and had all been through combat. He applied for a cadetship, as his brother had done, which was his route to promotion as an officer, but they seemed to have lost his papers. He stated in England for around 18 months.

At last his application came though, and he did officer-training, which involved going to riding-school, “learning to ride a horse and various things” (17).

I was then commissioned and became a second lieutenant and was hanging about in the officers’ mess waiting to be sent abroad when the Armistice was signed! But I was sent abroad just the same. You see, the machinery went on grinding. I was quite used to this by then. … I think I may have mentioned before that on active service if you wanted to send a message from one part of the line to another you could do it in various ways. Sometimes you could use an actual line of sticks, sometimes you could use telegraph, sometimes you could use a  runner to send a message. The one thing you never used was wireless telegraphy, because it was in its infancy then, it was almost experimental, there was no reliance on it at all. But once the Armistice was signed and there was no active service, it was never used (17).

As a consequence, he spent the period from November 1918 to June 1919 kicking his heels (his phrase) in Belgium, with nothing to do. He spent quite a lot of time improving his schoolboy French so that he could actually communicate in the language. And then (since the men had nothing otto either) he was selected as one of the officers looking after the education of his unit.  They sent him, in uniform, to Keble College, Oxford, to train for this, and he was tutored by someone with a real interest in English literature. This was why, when he was finally demobbed and went to Wadham College, Oxford, as a student, he applied to switch from reading Greats to reading English language and literature.