Watch this Space

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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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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2 Responses to Watch this Space

  1. Clare Hopkins says:

    Your theme of sacrifice is particularly resonant at this season of Passover and Easter, and also in the aftermath of the recent suicide bomb attack in Brussels. Thank you for a post which has provided much food for thought.

    I haven’t read Adrian Gregory’s The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War, but like you, I rather baulk at the idea of ‘redemptive sacrifice being second nature to the British population’ of a century ago. Your conclusion that ‘distance from events…makes it seem to us now that George was driven by self-sacrifice as an ideal’ is more plausible. Even so, the more I think about this, the less convinced I am. Could it be that the belief that soldiers willingly sacrificed their lives is simply one that we have inherited from the bereaved survivors of the War?

    I wonder if Kittie Calderon’s papers include the ‘dead man’s penny’ and commemorative scroll that she would have been sent as George’s next-of-kin. (See, for example, The illuminated text that accompanied every fallen soldier’s memorial plaque read:

    “He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom. Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.”

    ‘The path of duty’ was surely very clear to the British population of 1914. The letters and diaries of the fallen of George’s alma mater Trinity College are full of it. (My apologies for my Oxford-centric focus here; I hope that one college’s alumni are not too unrepresentative of the Edwardian officer-and-gentleman class as a whole.) One particularly explicit exposition of duty comes in a letter from John Harley (an archivist in civilian life) who, as it happens, was serving alongside George Calderon with the Oxford & Bucks in Gallipoli. Two days before the Third Battle of Krithia John wrote to his father:

    “You cannot think how one longs for home and the feeling of peace – I certainly have never in my life realised what it means as I do now. I am certain there is not a man here, private or officer, who would not give anything if only the war would come to an end, although of course they all realise that until Russia is crushed it is impossible…’ Then, in a postscript dated June 3: ‘…we are going up to the firing line tonight. There is something very big indeed coming – and one feels one must be prepared for anything… It may be that before you get this letter I may be killed… What the future has in store is simply in God’s hands. One just has one’s duty to do.’ [Imperial War Museum, Papers of Lieutenant John Harley, Document 17434.]

    Acceptance that doing one’s duty may lead to death is not self-sacrifice. The closest reference I know of to that comes from Trinity’s English tutor, Reginald Tiddy: “It seems to me that officers will stand a very poor chance of surviving this war, but I can’t really see how I can stay out of it, having had quite a fair amount of happy life, when these poor kids are being shot like this’. (Quoted in ‘R.J.E. Tiddy – a Memoir’, in R.J.E. Tiddy, The Mummers’ Play, (Oxford 1923).) But Reginald Tiddy was thinking about enlisting in order to spare the life of an individual, albeit a hypothetical one. I cannot think of any examples of officers voicing their intention of dying for a cause.

    That concept however is ubiquitous in tributes to the fallen, obituaries, memorial volumes, and perhaps most of all, in the letters from the parents of young men. There was great comfort in believing that a precious life had not been wasted; and the bigger the cause, the greater therefore the value of their loved one. Surely Laurence Binyon knew this instinctively as, so early in the War, he penned the line that you quote, ‘fallen in the cause of the free’. (What propaganda this is! As is, in his next stanza, the implication that death in war is intrinsically heroic: ‘they fell with their faces to the foe’.)

    The royal scroll defined each man’s death as a sacrifice, it confirmed his importance, and it demonstrated the nation’s gratitude. But I do wonder what Kittie made of it. George had indeed fallen with his face to the foe, running as hard as he could towards the Turkish lines, and he ‘passed out of the sight of men’ just as the scroll so euphemistically describes. But she never wanted him to go to War. The most compelling of the various motives you have proposed for George enlisting is that he planned to write about the experience. To this end, he instructed Kittie to preserve his letters, and, as you regularly illustrated on the blog, what brilliant letters they were. Kittie did her best to ‘see to it that his name be not forgotten’. She brought out his book about Tahiti to great acclaim –

    – but his great work on the Great War never appeared. With the safe distance of a hundred years now passed, is there not an argument to be made for concluding that George Calderon died in vain?

    • It is more than kind of you, Clare, to pick up your Comment pen again, after such champion service all through the year of ‘Calderonia’ proper. Thank you indeed for sharing with us your highly informed thoughts at this ‘Season of Passover and Easter’. I think I broadly agree with your argument about the self-sacrifice topos. Less from me will be more. I think your Comment is a very important one in ‘Calderonia’s’ comment-history.

      We know from George’s War Office file that Kittie was very concerned to receive the correct medals for him, with correct inscriptions. But neither they, nor the ‘dead man’s penny’, nor the commemorative scroll you kindly provided the link to, have survived among her papers. The only commemorative artefact I have seen is a scroll Kittie bought produced by the Overseas Ex-Service Men’s Association testifying to George’s name being on the Helles Memorial.

      Thank you, too, for reminding us of the reasons that Jack Harley and Reginald Tiddy, alumni of the college (Trinity, Oxford) that you are Archivist of, gave for fighting. Although Harley was in the Worcestershire Regiment, there can be no doubt that he knew George Calderon, as he was attached to the 1st KOSB ‘with two other officers of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry’, as he put it, and he was killed in the same first wave as George on 4 June 1915. It was most moving reading his long letter to his father in the Imperial War Museum last summer (see my post of 27 July 2015).

      I think you are right: soldiers spoke of their ‘duty’, not ‘self-sacrifice’. They knew that, at the end of the day, ‘theirs was to do and die’ (as Kemal told his troops at the Anzac front on 25 April 1915). Yet they had their reasons for regarding it as their ‘duty’: I can think of plenty of causes that officers are on record as saying that they were fighting and therefore dying for, including George. The conventional wisdom among some sections of our chattering classes today that officers and men did not know what they were fighting for — that they went to fight merely because of white feathers and conscription — is ridiculously condescending and naive.

      I also agree that the concept of their self-sacrifice was overwhelmingly the stance and prerogative of the survivors, i.e. the third parties, be they families, partners, church, society or the King, who did not go off to war and were left to come to terms with its harvest. I’m indebted, as in so much connected with this project, to Johnnie Pym, a descendant of two of the Calderons’ closest friends, for drawing my attention to a book called In the Day of Battle by the Bishop of Stepney, which was published in 1915 for the comfort of the war-bereaved and went through many editions. There can be no doubt that it was very popular, and it’s highly likely that Kittie Calderon read it. The Introduction to it, by the Bishop of London, sets the subject squarely in the context of the, quote, ‘young and blameless’ fallen replicating Christ’s redeeming self-sacrifice. Yet, surely rightly, numerous theological writers attacked this notion as heresy! (See Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (CUP, 2014), pp. 156-57.)

      George’s political writing of 1912 is definitely ‘millenarian’; he speaks openly of the ‘New Age’ that is coming. There is documentary evidence that this is what he hoped would emerge from the War and that this was the great ‘idea’ (in Laurence Binyon’s phrase) that George was fighting for. It has often, of course, been said that war, however tragic, can be a great driver of technological, political and social change. An example of the latter would be the post-war enfranchisement of women in Britain, which George might still not have welcomed. However, the end to Edwardian luxury, the crumbling of the class system, the redistribution of wealth and greater equality of income (see Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century), that all followed on World War One, were things that George Calderon fervently desired. In those terms, then, I don’t believe he died in vain. I believe events have vindicated him and his death.

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