Monday, 15 August 2016

Famous Writers Who Served in World War 1

World War 1: A Terrifying Muse

"Write what you know" is standard advice to aspiring writers. Many of us struggle for inspiration, life seeming too mundane to commit to paper. During the Great War, there was no shortage of material to inspire and haunt the men and women who served in trenches and hospitals. Some wrote about the people they met or lost, the living nightmares they witnessed or the hopes they had for a peaceful future. A few works are explicitly about the war, whilst in others experiences are woven into the detail of their books. In all cases, their books are enduring memorials to the life and times of those who served in World War 1.

J R R Tolkien
Unlike many young men of his generation, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien did not rush to join up when Britain declared war in August 1914. He was at that time studying at Oxford and engaged to be married. He ignored hints from shocked relatives that he was failing in his duty and instead undertook to complete his degree before entering the army. Once he had completed his finals, he took a commission in the Lancashire Fusiliers and trained as a Second Lieutenant for 11 months at home.
Tolkien, by now a trained signals officer, departed for France in June 1916. He was newly married and his wife, Edith, naturally fretted for her husband, so Tolkien devised a code for use in their letters by which they could evade the censors. Edith was thus able to keep track of his movements on a map at home. She cannot have been comforted when she learned that his battalion were involved in the Battle of the Somme. However, unlike some of his friends, Tolkien survived and by October 1916 he was removed from the trenches as he had contracted Trench Fever. He suffered ill health for the remainder of the war and did not see front line action again.
It was while convalescing in 1917 that Tolkien began writing The Fall of Gondolin, an early tale of Middle Earth. Perhaps this story of a city beset by an evil enemy with fearsome dragons and serpents, might have been inspired by the Germans' attacking with their tanks. Some have also suggested that in the shrieking of the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings might be similar to the shrill scream of artillery shells as they travel through the air before impact. Tolkien himself said that the Dead Marshes "owed something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme".
The war left Tolkien physically and emotionally exhausted; he was ill and had lost all his closest friends. Although he confirmed that the Lord of the Rings was not based on history, it is clear that elements of his experiences in the war found their way into his work.

Vera Brittain: From Undergraduate to Pacifist
Vera Brittain wrote her memoir of her experiences of the Great War inTestament of Youth. At the time that it was published, hers was the only female voice that recalled the war. It is perhaps still the most passionate and intimate. Testament of Youthmade Brittain an instant success on its publication in 1933. However, her belief in pacifism, borne of her wartime experiences, saw her sink out of favour once war was declared again in 1939 and there was even unfounded gossip that she was a Nazi collaborator.
In 1915, Brittain was studying English Literature at Oxford University, thereby achieving an ambition to break free of her conservative middle-class family. Only a year into her course, she left her studies to in favour of nursing with the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) so that she could do her part for the war effort. It was a move that left her exhausted and heartbroken, but which inspired her to write one of the most moving accounts of the war.

Brittain's decision was partly due to so many of her friends enlisting. She was particularly close to four men: her brother Edward; Edward's friend and later Vera's fiancĂ©, the poet Ronald Leighton; Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. All four were killed during the war leaving Brittain devastated and committed to pacifism. Testament of Youth conveys the nervous tension suffered by Brittain and the enduring damage caused by war.
After writing Testament of Youth, Brittain wrote Testament of FriendshipTestament of Experience as well as novels. Her wartime correspondence was published posthumously in Letters of a Lost Generation. She is also well-known for her role as a feminist and pacifist.

Agatha Christie
Like Vera Brittain, Agatha Christie served as a nurse with the VAD. She married Archie Christie in December 1914 but the couple were rarely together as Archie was stationed in France with the Royal Flying Corps. Bored and alone, Agatha offered her services at her local hospital. She had limited nursing skills but felt that she had a vocation for the work and proved herself a capable and caring nurse.
Christie used her experiences in the war to enrich her writing. She was from a wealthy background but at the hospital found herself mixing with men and women of the working class, allowing her to write about a wider range of characters. In addition, her home town of Torquay played host to a number of Belgian refugees, planting the seed for the idea of her famous Belgium detective, Hercule Poirot.
After nursing for a couple of years, Christie was transferred to the hospital dispensary. She was not all together happy as she greatly enjoyed nursing, but nevertheless threw herself into the new challenge and qualified as an Apothecaries Assistant. The knowledge she gained of poisons and medicines can be seen in her books, which include more than 83 cases of poisoning.
The dispensary was quieter than the wards and Christie used the time to start a novel. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was written in 1916, although not published until 1920. Hercule Poirot made his debut in a case of poisoning.

More British Writers Who Served in WW1
  • ·         C S Lewis - served in the 3rd Somerset Light Infantry before being wounded by friendly fire in 1918. He honoured a pact made with a fellow officer that should one of them die, the other would care for the family left behind. Lewis shared his home with Mrs Jane Moore, the mother of his friend, until she was obliged to live in a nursing home. He still visited her every day until her death.
  • ·         A A Milne - the creator of Winnie the Pooh had a varied military career, beginning as an officer with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, then the Royal Corps of Signals and ending up as a military intelligence propagandist.
  • ·         Dennis Wheatley - master of the occult novel who served as a 2nd Lieuntenant with the Royal Field Artillery, later with the City of London Brigade and the 36th (Ulster) Division. He saw action at Passchendaele, where he was gassed.
  • ·         W Somerset Maugham - initially one of the "Literary Ambulance Drivers", he was later recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service", spying in neutral Switzerland and Russia prior to the Revolution in 1917.

F Scott Fitzgerald  shortly after the end of WW1
Public Domain
F Scott Fitzgerald
It was more the anticipation of war, than the experience of war, that impressed itself upon a young F Scott Fitzgerald. Struggling at college, due to his concentration on his writing rather than his course, he decided that he would drop out and join the army. However, he was concerned that he might die without having made his mark on the literary world, so rushed to complete a novel, The Romantic Egotist, before joining his unit He received a rejection note, but was advised that he should submit further manuscripts.
Fitzgerald took up a commission with the US infantry and the new 2nd Lieutenant was posted for training to Alabama. During a dance at a country club he met Zelda Sayre, the 18 year old daughter of a judge and fell in love. Happily for the young couple, Fitzgerald was spared active service, the war ending before his unit was deployed.

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway tried to enlist in the US Army at the age of 18, but was rejected due to poor eyesight. Instead, he joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and consequently witnessed the carnage of the war first hand. His service went above and beyond that of simply driving the ambulance; he was cited for bravery by the Italian authorities.
Hemingway arrived in France around May 1918 and was then sent to Milan. He was quickly immersed in the war as an explosion at a munitions factory on his first day obliged him to carry mutilated corpses to the morgue. Not long after, he was seriously wounded whilst he was distributing supplies to Italian soldiers in the front line. A shell landed nearby, knocking him unconscious and peppering his legs with shrapnel. Several soldiers were killed and wounded. Hemingway carried a wounded man on his back to the first aid post, suffering more wounds from machine gun fire for which he was awarded a medal.

In a hospital in Milan, Hemingway recovered and formed a relationship with a nurse some years his senior, Agnes Von Kurowsky. The relationship and his experiences in the war inspired his novel A Farewell to Arms. The effects of the war on his generation are explored in The Sun Also Rises, which features another VAD nurse, Lady Brett Ashley, and Jae Barnes, a man still suffering the effects of a war wound.

Hemingway's Citation for Bravery
Hemingway received the Italian Silver Medal for Valour. The citation read:
"Gravely wounded by numerous pieces of shrapnel from an enemy shell, with an admirable spirit of brotherhood, before taking care of himself, he rendered generous assistance to the Italian soldiers more seriously wounded by the same explosion and did not allow himself to be carried elsewhere until after they had been evacuated."

More American Writers of WW1
  • E E Cummings - enlisted in the Ambulance Corps. He was openly critical of the war and was arrested in 1917 and held for over three months by the French military on suspicion of espionage. The experience led to his novel The Enormous Room. On returning to the US, he was drafted and spent the remaining months of the war at a training camp.
  • Raymond Chandler - enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, before going to the trenches with the Gordon Highlanders and ending the war with the Royal Air Force.
  • Dashiell Hammett - served as an ambulance driver with the US Army in 1918, but contracted Spanish flu and later tuberculosis.
  • Gertrude Stein - already a resident of Paris when the war broke out, Stein and her partner Alice Toklas, used their car to deliver hospital supplies.

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