There was a long news item in The Times last week headed ‘Army gallantry awards under fire’. To clarify, this was not about awards-made-under-fire, but about ‘Britain’s centuries-old military honours system’ being ‘questioned amid allegations that a second Military Cross has been awarded after exaggerated accounts of a soldier’s gallantry’. When I read the piece, it wasn’t the content that surprised me, it was the fact that in a 2014 newspaper the word ‘gallantry’ was used seven times.
As any dictionary will show, ‘gallant’ is a tricky word, especially as it can change its stress. Its meaning ranges from ‘noble’ and ‘brave’ to ‘showy’, ‘grand’ and ‘amorous’. Presumably these ambiguities derive from its ancient French origins in the language of chivalry and courtly love. It is a fine old word — a gallant word, in fact… But when people read it in a military context today do they even understand what it means? Is ‘gallantry’ really appropriate in an age of improvised explosive devices? Can war conceivably be ‘gallant’ any longer? Was it ever? Do modern British soldiers themselves use the word ‘gallantry’? Surely what it comes down to today is courage?
I suppose what amazes me is that a word very commonly used in the language of the First World War is still used of military bravery today. ‘Gallant’ for ‘courageous’ seems euphemistic, trivialising, effete; it even suggests the subject is an amateur soldier, that war is not a deadly serious, professional business. As such, of course, ‘gallant’ sounds quintessentially Edwardian. But in fact plenty of Edwardians questioned the use of ‘gallant’ after experiencing trench warfare, machine gun barrages and poison gas.
Another Edwardian word that I have difficulty with is ‘sporting’. In his memoir of George Calderon, Percy Lubbock wrote that after a production of one of George’s plays the actors would present him with a silver cigarette-case ‘in recognition of the very sporting manner in which he had conducted rehearsals’. I literally do not understand what ‘sporting’ means here. Does it imply that they all approached rehearsals like a game of cricket? Why would you want to do that?
Almost exactly a hundred years ago, the Daily Mail wrote: ‘The inevitable miseries of war can, on the one hand, be restrained and limited, without any loss of military advantage, when it is waged by gentlemen and sportsmen, and on the other hand can be indefinitely extended, when it is waged by Germans.’ Surely this is completely delusional?
Some Edwardians already thought so. One of the most popular poems of the age was Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitaï Lampada’, with its final line ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’. It was regularly alluded to in the journalism of the first year of the War and as Newbolt’s biographer Susan Chitty has said, it ‘spawned a mass of games-playing war poems’. Yet the critic E.B. Osborn remarked at the time: ‘I cannot understand why this stout old nation persists in thinking of war as sport. Sportsmanship is our new homely name for the chevalerie of the Middle Ages.’
Similarly, Kittie Calderon refers several times to George’s ‘soldiering’, e.g. ‘the moment G. was fit for anything he meant to get back to soldiering’. There is no indication that she is using the word pejoratively. It seems merely the neutral descriptive word for what George was doing; indeed it feels as though this was the word he used himself. But to us, surely, it makes being a combatant soldier sound like a part-time, dilettante activity, something you ‘have a go at’, like golf or watercolours. It seems to trivialise it.
Yet we should doubtless always remember the Edwardians’ peculiar sense of humour. They would never call a spade a spade if they could call it something funnier that they had seen, perhaps, in Punch. Understatement, euphemism and jolly irony were the norm. Avoid sounding serious and at all costs avoid sounding ‘professional’. Perhaps, then, ‘gallant’, ‘sporting’ and ‘soldiering’ are simply examples of Edwardian irony?
Perhaps we are more professional, more pedestrian and more boring than them?!
Next entry: A different mystery, then