The Plain Unvarnished Tales

I take my title from the opening of ‘One Young Man’ which is ‘the simple and true story of a clerk who enlisted in 1914′, (revealed in the preface to be Reginald Davis), edited from his personal diaries by John Ernest Hodder-Williams into the published form. In similar manner to the post about Johns’ adventure fiction, this post looks at the simply written experiences of the war, those sticking more to an extended diary than memoir. Predominantly these are simple written testaments of experience, linear narratives focusing upon events and facts as opposed to emotions and impressions of the experience and they largely use a limited range of imagery and literary techniques in this depiction. However, they are still interesting reads and can offer insights into the culture of the war, and through ‘One Young Man’ I shall try and show their interest and worth.

As said, the editor of this work is Sir Ernest Hodder-Williams and he writes in the first chapter his intent for the work and why he feels it is important: “for the most part it is told exactly in his own words. You’ll admit its truth when you have read it, for there isn’t a line in it which will stretch your imagination a hair’s breadth. It’s the plain unvarnished tale of an average young man who joined the army because he considered it his duty – who fought for many months. That’s why I am trying to record it; for if I tell it truly I shall have written the story of many thousands – I shall have written a page of the nation’s history.” That’s what these stories can be seen to do, to different extents of success, add a different style of story to the collection, not one beginning with fox-hunting and exploring the goings on of high London society but one of the Y.M.C.A and working class comradery- arguably the experience of the masses.

An example of this attempt to present a mass voice of experience comes in chapter two in the form of the mothers of soldiers, and is highlighted through an authoritative voice in the narrative as the editor makes his observation and highlights it in the story how women too suffered. A key way stressed upon is how the loss of the house’s breadwinner and ‘protector’ was such a significant change to all their lives: “let me pay my tribute to this one young man’s mother. There are so many like her that I pay it to thousands. Not only did she refuse to put obstacles in the way, but she would have no bargaining with patriotism. ‘She would manage quite well’. It meant more boarders in the little home, it meant the breaking up of the old sweet privacy and quietude of the household, but – she would manage quite well. God knows the heartache and the sorrow behind the sacrifice she and the thousands like her have made”.

It is hard to escape the conflict’s brutality, and here again it is through simple plain speaking language that the work depicts this – not through emotion but with fact: “In our little compartment of six two were killed within a month and one wounded; the other three survived until the first of July, when one was killed, one was taken a prisoner of war, and I was wounded and rendered unfit for further service”. When describing his trench experience he again uses facts to present the nature of experience in favor of emotion: “it is bad luck if you are hit. No one was killed in our company all the time we were in, and only three wounded…” This can be seen to present the rapidly installed cavalier relationship to personal safety felt at the front, as three people suffering war wounds is seen as “not much to worry about” and a small insignificant number in relation to the grand picture.

Of course, however, as the war continued then so did the casualties and in 1916 the protagonist witnesses firsthand the Somme. Here too the writing remains informative as opposed to descriptive, but a little more of the emotions felt are allowed into the account: “The wounds were terrible, mostly bayonet. None were dressed; there had been no time, they were just as they had been received. Many a poor chap succumbed to his injuries as he staggered along our trench. To keep the gangway clear we had to lift these dead bodies out and put them on the top of the parapets. It was ghastly, but you get accustomed to ghastly things out here”. Following this harrowingly simple depiction of men losing their lives the protagonist then dismisses the immediate emotional aspect of the suffering felt by referencing the fact that it is now tragically the norm – that you just “get accustomed to ghastly things”. This gives an insight into a fundamental coping mechanism often reffered to by both soldiers and their loved ones, repression of experience.

Despite the style of frankness used, at times there are deeper moments of consciousness depicted, especially concerning war trauma. Whilst the narrator repeats the idea that “you get accustomed to ghastly things” and that “time and repeated experiences of this kind toughen if they do not harden a man” he does also concede the psychological wounds suffered in the hardening. Following work as a stretcher bearer, he describes the group he was with as returning “exhausted, nerve-shaken” and in ghastly need of sleep. This is then continued by the later impact of the experience: “The sights we had seen, the nerve-racking heavy shelling had upset our chaps pretty badly. Many of them sobbed. To see and hear a man sob is terrible, almost as terrible as some of the wounds.” Here he describes in mirroring simplicity the psychological wounds, indicating them to run as deep as the physical with them “as terrible as some of the wounds” – though not acknowledging them to be as such.

Frank descriptions of suffering and confessions of psychological trauma dominate many of these accounts and I hope that this piece shows that whilst they are not always of high literary merit in relation to their stylings, they are still interesting, of value and in need of reading for their revelations regarding the war culture.

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