Vernon Bartlett in the Great War

Vernon Bartlett was out fishing with his father the day that war was declared; it was a bank holiday.

As far as I can remember, I read no newspapers before the war except to see the cricket scores. August 1914 took me entirely by surprise. I knew and loved Germany, and could pay little attention to the rumours that she was preparing for war. There could not be war with people who had treated me so kindly! (TIML 37).

He learned what had happened when he and his father cycled home, and saw the large crowd of cheering people outside the Daily Echo office. He wrote in 1941 (TIML 38-39):

I cannot remember the important event of taking the King’s shilling. It occurred some time in August and somewhere in Salisbury or Sherborne. […] I joined up—for we were still such snobs that it was not done to fight by the side of men who were not of one’s class—in an organisation called The University and Public Schools Battalion. We had no uniforms and only dummy rifles or old carbines, but our little cardboard badges showed that we were playing our part in the glorious struggle of civilisation against barbarism. […] I had to try and forget that the Germans had ever been kind to me and to give up singing German songs in the bathroom of my billet. I must have been mistaken and misled in my judgement of these people who crucified soldiers and murdered children. Anyhow, I wasn’t going to let any Boche rape my sister! Because I was a “gentleman” and had reached the exalted rank of Lance-Corporal in the school Officers Training Corps I was given a commission in the Dorsets.

He started in Dorset itself, on coastal watch. He then had a short leave in London with his mother; and was sent off to France.

In many ways I enjoyed being at the Front. One had so little time to be introspective. Mud, fatigues, trench mortars, parcels from home and rifle fire—in that order—occupied so much of one’s attention. Apart from the moments of acute terror the worst times, for me, were when we were back in billets, for I had been on so few battalion and brigade parades and was overwhelmed with the thought of the chaos I might cause by confusing left and right (TIML 42).

Bartlett, writing of course in 1941 and therefore perhaps projecting more egalitarian ideas back into the period of the First World War, was fascinated by Class.

I, with my complete ignorance of military matters, but with my public school accent, was, on the opinion no doubt of the men themselves, a better officer than someone who had risen from the non-commissioned ranks. My sergeant who whispered my orders to me on the parade ground so that I might not make a fool of myself was probably not jealous of my higher pay and position. For I was what is called a “gentleman” and it was right that I should have certain advantages quite unconnected with merit (TIML 47).

Bartlett was hit by small splinters on his head, hand and thigh, and was sent off to Rouen on a hospital-train. Unknown to him, his battalion was moved closer to the lines to replace a battalion that had been largely wiped out in the first poison gas attack. His battalion met the same fate. And here there are some pages missing from the rather crumbling copy of Bartlett’s memoirs (on 1941 war-time paper) that exists in the British Library. The Dictionary of National Biography notes that he was in hospital recovering from a wound when the Dorsets suffered a poison gas attack; later in 1915 he was the only man pulled out alive when his dugout received a direct hit. He was invalided out soon after. The lacuna in the British Library copy ends after he had been invalided out, and he has become a reporter for the Daily Mail.

Having served in the war, I was selected to interview men who came home wounded from the Front. Whenever there was a severe battle I would have to go off to some hospital to pick up all the details I could from poor devils who had just returned from it. On one excuse or another, I had to get into those long wards with their stink of anaesthetics and to persuade men to tell me about the one subject they wanted to forget. Then I had to elaborate my material, to write it up until the readers could feel what a magnificent thing war was after all. It was a filthy job—only a little better than that of hounding the last few people of German origin into concentration camps which was the job of my neighbour in the reporters’ room—and I soon discovered that I could not do it. So one day, after I had tried and failed to get some details out of South African soldiers in a hospital in Richmond Park, I sat down in the bracken and, with the help of a map and the official communiqués, invented my first stories from the Front. It was not so very difficult to do, for details must, in any case, be left vague lest the censors be incensed. The little heroisms I described might have taken place at any time in any regiment (TIML 56).

These little fictions became his first “real” book, Mud and Khaki; previously he had published “a slim and appalling book of […] poems of unrequited love” in 1916 (IKWIL 17-18). He left the Daily Mail, and joined Reuters. He would go every day to a temporary government office on the Embankment to hear the Duke of Northumbrerland put a few flags farther westwards on the map to show the German advance in March, and then a little farther eastwards to show the Allies advancing later in the year.

I no longer believed, as most of my acquaintances appeared to believe, that the mere cessation of fighting was going to give us that country “fit for heroes to live in” which Mr Lloyd George and others promised us. I had seen enough of “propaganda” to realise how much it meant the distortion of the truth. I had very little confidence left in the motives and the omniscience of our rulers. The naïve, careless lazy days by the river or on the beach were four years behind me in the calendar but a generation in disillusionment (TIML 66).

Nevertheless, the day of the Armistice was memorable. They had warned him at Reuters that the peace was going to be signed.

Shortly before eleven o’clock I climbed on to the top of a bus at the Bank and by the time we had got halfway down the Strand the maroons went off. I knew what they meant, but it took perhaps sixty seconds before the people around me realised that this was not another air-raid warning but the signal that firing had ceased all over the world. Never had I known, never shall I know, sixty more exciting seconds. From the windows of the Hotel Cecil, then part of the Air Ministry, hysterical typists showered down upon us thousands of sheets of paper, letters, envelopes and memoranda marked secret and strictly confidential—or whatever the proper phrase in the Air Ministry might be. But most vivid of all in my mind was an old lady who also sat on the top of my bus and wept contentedly all the way down Whitehall and Victoria. It was the one day, the only day, when there was no hatred (TIML 67).

Bartlett’s disillusion was completed when he attended the sessions of the Paris Peace Conference. The lies of propaganda, he later thought, poison the atmosphere for years to come. “And consequently I developed a healthy and ineradicable hatred of propaganda second only to my hatred for war itself” (TIML 69). When he was 80, another book of memoirs appeared, I Know What I Like, in which his war experiences take up just one paragraph in chapter 1, which is called “From My Perambulator to Hitler”:

I spent my twenty-first birthday in a hospital train coming down to a base hospital from the Belgian battlefield of Hill 60. (The doctor in charge of the train declared that we must celebrate the occasion with a bottle of champagne. I liked his suggestion, but I disliked him when he said that, although my wound was very light, I must be limited to one small glass, after which he and two nurses swilled down the rest.) An hour or two after I had left my battalion it suffered one of the first attacks of poison gas, and when I returned to it a week or two later I found that so many of my fellow-officers had been gassed, wounded or killed that I was in command of a company. It was from that month of May in 1915 that I developed a hatred of this exaggeration of the Lebensraum idea, and hence of dictators, who almost invariably support this exaggeration. I decided then that, in the event of my survival, the rest of my life must be devoted to any campaign likely to diminish the danger of war. (IKWIL, 14).

My information comes from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, supplemented by Vernon Bartlett’s This is My Life (London: Evergreen Books, 1941) and I Know What I Liked (London: Chatto & Windus. 1974) (abbreviated TIML and IKWIL).

 

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