23/3/16. I have now revised 92% of the typescript of my book. I shall tackle the last two chapters, which cover Kittie’s life 1915-50, after Easter. One reason for leaving them till then is that there are two pieces of new information that I am waiting for, which will probably have to go into the revision — there’s another kind of spanner that can affect one’s plans and deadlines! I will blog about these new items in a week or two.
The experience of revisiting chapter 14, which covers the last year of George’s life, was not so much dreadful (see last week’s post) as complex, and complex in an unexpected way. Yes, re-reading the extremely thick files on 1914 and 15 was draining, eviscerating at times; I was torn between not wanting to relive it and feeling I must relive it in order to ensure the revision was ‘fresh’. But actually I did not get caught by emotion more than two or three times whilst working on the chapter; I think what I was mainly experiencing was the brain remembering the pristine impact on me of these events in George’s life, and writing the first draft, rather than reliving them. I gather that that is how it works with injuries: you may appear to be struck down again by an injury you had years ago, but actually it is largely not the same, real pain but the brain being triggered by stress to ‘recall’ the pain. Anyhow the events as I revisited them were more at arm’s length, the revision was more dispassionate. This was a good thing, as when you are revising you really do need to stand further back from your text. Thus I spotted a number of things that I had skated over before, and was able (I think) to improve them.
The new thing that I found myself meditating as I revised the chapter was the extent to which, by singlemindedly propelling himself in 1914 and 1915 to the very most dangerous points in the war zones, George was consciously offering himself for ‘sacrifice’. Last year I considered the views that by signing up he was seeking ‘Adventure’, that he was suffering from Peter Pan Syndrome (‘to die will be an awfully big adventure’), that he was merely collecting material for a future book, or that he knew he was terminally ill and so his death was a kind of assisted suicide. But what if he believed that his highest duty was to sacrifice himself for ‘the cause of the free’, as Binyon puts it in ‘For the Fallen’?
In his classic work The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (CUP, 2008), Adrian Gregory writes (p. 156) that ‘the idea of redemptive sacrifice was second nature to the [British] population, whether they realised it or not. […] Patri-passionism, the redemption of the world through the blood of soldiers, was the informal civic religion of wartime Britain’. But I have to say, I have never had that impression. It has always seemed to me that, whether amongst war poets, soldiers or the general population, the belief that self-sacrifice was glorious because it was needed to win the war did not come glibly or easily, it was hard wrung, delayed, and never accepted by some.
There is an outstanding example of what it could mean, though, in a book I have read recently, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf, 2008), by Drew Gilpin Faust. The American Civil War was in a way the first modern, ‘industrial’ war, and the effect of it on the American nation was similar at many points to that of the First World War on the British people. The young philosopher and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr volunteered to fight for the North out of certain moral beliefs, and went through the whole Civil War. Drew Gilpin Faust quotes intellectual historian Louis Menand to the effect that ‘the war did more than make Holmes lose those beliefs. It made him lose his belief in beliefs’. Obviously, it was exactly the same for many British soldiers, war poets, nurses and families. However, thirty years after the Civil War Holmes gave a speech entitled ‘Soldier’s Faith’ in which he said:
The faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.
Drew Gilpin Faust (p. 270-71) paraphrases Holmes’s argument:
The very purposelessness of sacrifice created its purpose. In a world in which ‘commerce is the great power’ and the ‘man of wealth’ the great hero, the disinterestedness and selflessness of the soldier represented the highest ideal of a faith that depended on the actions not of God but of man. ‘War, when you are at it,’ Holmes admitted, ‘is horrible and dull. It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine.’
It was many years after his active service in WW1 that Stanley Spencer wrote of his altarpiece ‘The Resurrection of the Soldiers’ at Sandham Memorial Chapel: ‘The truth that the cross is supposed to symbolise in this picture is that nothing is lost where a sacrifice has been the result of a perfect understanding.’ Holmes’s and Spencer’s insight came with time. Like Owen’s uncharacteristic poem ‘Greater Love’, it was hard won. After surviving a WW1 battle you were unlikely to believe in ‘patri-passionism’.
I have never found a reference in George Calderon’s correspondence to ‘sacrificing’ himself for a cause or an end. There is no doubt that he insisted on being where the action was because he wanted Adventure, risk, a story to tell afterwards. He was prepared to drop all his considerable literary projects in 1914 for that.
But there is equally no doubt that he believed in what he was fighting for — freedom from brutal oppression. In my final chapter of his life I argue that he was also fighting for the new world order that he deeply believed would emerge from the war. Perhaps his own motivation did not go beyond that, but it is our Holmesian/Spencerian distance from events that makes it seem to us now that George was driven by self-sacrifice as an ideal.
A Happy Easter to all followers and visitors.
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