Copping, Souls in Khaki

Souls in Khaki is Arthur Copping’s 1917 write-up of his ‘personal investigation into spiritual experiences and sources of heroism among our lads in the firing line’. In his foreword to the work, General Booth shows the outlook towards the war that the book is written with – that whilst the war was horrific, within its destruction came moments of spiritual realisation and compassion from men: “For us of the Salvation Army the present fratricidal war is an inscrutable agony. Nevertheless it may be that, when much that now fills with horror a world of woe has passed away for ever, gracious deeds and experiences such as are referred to in the following pages may still remain a precious and enduring heritage to all who believe in the grace of God and in the power of Love” (vi). In short, this book’s content is the rose, not the thorn. When I came across this book therefore amongst the bookshelves of one of Canterbury’s many quaint and stereotypical collectable book shops, I was intrigued to read an account of the war focussing on this alternate element and the words of a witness to the war from a new perspective for me – one who travelled with the Salvation Army during the conflict. What is a predictable aspect of the text but which needs identifying early on here, is that it is a glowing endorsement for the Salvation Army and the work of God. So if this was to be used in any academic setting, of course this perspective and bias would need to be acknowledged – it is a work of propaganda of sort, just for an organisation rather than a nation.

One of the interesting themes present in the work apparent from the outset is its appreciation of the soldier’s sense of duty to serve and the bond this brings between troops. “Each of those brown-skinned boys,” writes Copping, “with his careless laugh and healthy grin, had preferred to face danger, pain, and sudden death rather than suffer the free peoples of Europe to be dominated by military oppression.” (12) This analysis of the troop’s motive for enlisting is far removed from other depictions dominant in literature where soldiers enlisted out of a sense of adventure and as an escape from their mundane lives – the idea of it all being over for Christmas and it presenting an adventure in Europe. A favoured example of this being depicted is in Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night where the protagonist, Bardamu, enlists as a result of him joining in the fervour of the army marching by – “Enthusiasm lifted me to my feet!” (5) But then after he’s marched a little down the road with them away from the fanfare of the town, Bardamu says to himself “this is no fun anymore!” (6). For Copping, however, there is no doubt that those serving who he witnesses from the stance of the Salvation Army are doing so for the greater good and from a sense of their moral duty. Discussing the journey to France, Copping writes of the feeling around him, believing that “when you come to think of it, how could those voluntary defenders of freedom be anything else but happy?” and that “with the voyage begun, nobody (unless ruled out by a sea-sick tendency) could resist the contagion of our young fellows exaltation” (43).

This positivity continues in regards to the perception of those at home of the soldier’s on their return – that the war has shaped the men and they have grown from it. This is again a view contrasting many accounts of the war where writers depict the war’s destruction of flesh and mind, particularly regarding cases of shellshock regularly included in the conflict’s literature. For example, in the chapter ‘Faithful Fighters’ Copping shares what a woman officer of a North London Salvation Army corps said to him about returned men who come to the SA events: “They were splendid before, but they are still more splendid now. Of course in some cases their experiences have been terrible, but one can’t help seeing that they have come through the awful trial with new strength and a new steadfastness – yes, and with a new sweetness in their smiles.” (32-33) There may be a brief acknowledgment of the war’s hardships, yet it almost seems as though its presence is more to accentuate the men’s standing than to observe the war’s brutality.

Eventually, though, the narration turns its eye towards a more, dare I say it, realistic and less stance orientated observational account. And therefore if you persevere and read beyond the blind optimism of the Salvation Army and of the Tommy’s souls, the work begins to be worth reading. For example, on arriving in France he visits a town taken over by the war, one lived in by its French habitants but dominated by the British army. Copping writes of the place that “here one found a town in tribulation, with its Casino, hotels, and various other institutions turned into hospitals.” (44) On reaching the arriving hospital train bringing the wounded to the town, Copping speaks of what he sees when he looks at the men there: “those scores and scores of stricken men and lads lay motionless – all the vigour of their young manhood dwindled to helpless, unmoving figures swaddled in blankets.” (47)

Unfortunately not. Souls in Khaki would not be Souls in Khaki if Copping did not add a sentimentality with his additional sentence linking back to the greatness of the men’s souls, concluding this observation of the wounded with: “For the sake of his country, each had risked a mangled body – and incurred it” (47).  And this is the theme and infuriation with the work. Copping will make a well phrased and individual observation from his privilidged stance become diluted and generic by always sticking to the stance the work intends to produce – the war’s spiritual experiences and events of heroism.  I shall now quote in full the next account of the wounded men in this town, showing how despite the observations he shows himself able to make, he always then has to, in my view, undermine them by returning to his set in stone stance:

Standing on the pavement, I found myself scrutinising the nearest ambulance, which wanted one more case to complete its complement; and while my eyes were fixed on that grim interior, so suggestive of helplessness and suffering, an incident occurred that went far to relieve the tension of my thoughts and give me a sounder insight into the passing scene.  There was movement in one of the upper bunks, and, with the aid of elbows, a lad raised himself into a half-sitting posture and looked about him with a face of healthy colour lit up by cheerful curiosity. Here obviously was a boy engaged on a wonderful adventure. The enlistment, the training, the fighting, the wound, the railway journey – everything, so far, had been delightfully interesting (his expression seemed to indicate), and now he was all agog to know where he had to to, and what was going to happen next. (48-49)

So this concludes my post here. Souls In Khaki offers the chance to read an account of the war from the eyes of a keen observer, one viewing varying aspects of the conflict from the privileged position of one not involved in the fighting but following the Salvation Army. And, whilst there are moments of touchingly written observation of men at their most vulnerable and of sights that, like Copping observes, give us a “peep behind the scenes” (47), the work’s continual cemented determination to present one focal view and one focal assessment of the war left me with a bad taste in my mouth of disappointed frustration. If I were to read it neutrally, then this would not be the case and I would read his views with interest. However, I struggled to accept his assessment of men’s spiritual growth during the war and of what he portrays men of feeling, and as a result of this I can perhaps understand why a piece of original war literature published in 1917 was being sold off cheap in a collectables shop and is not a classic of the war. It has moments of sensitive depiction and insight, and is of academic interest to me perhaps, but I still do not rate it overly highly. 3/10

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