As more archival resources find their way online, the sheer variety of lived experience in the British World during World War I is becoming increasingly evident. Popular memory of the period has long been dominated by the experiences of soldiers on the Western Front—what Adrian Gregory calls “the view from the trench parapet” (293). Yet, as Gregory points out, only a small minority of the British population—less than 5 percent—ever witnessed the trenches. The lives of most people were lived elsewhere. And even the lives of the soldiers themselves were hardly dominated by fighting, which occupied only a small part of the time that military personnel spent in the services. How that surplus of time was experienced—whether it weighed on minds, or was savoured; was spent alone or in company—is one of the questions that I’ll be asking during my time as RED research associate.
One of the major historians of World War I, John Ellis, has dismissed reading as “a not very popular occupation” with soldiers during World War I (146). The soldier “who wanted something to read was the exception,” he argues, and the efforts of government and voluntary organizations to supply reading materials for soldiers he dismisses as having had “very little effect” (147, 146). Yet, as the photograph above shows, these facilities were used, and the photographer, at least, was keen to provide this image of troops away from the lines, absorbed in books. Even if troops who read were exceptions, it is clear from surviving evidence that books and the exchange of letters provided potent psychological coping mechanisms for soldiers, as well as those they left behind. As Bård Mæland and Paul Otto Brunstad have recently stressed, boredom is one of the key phenomena of military experience. Soldiers have historically looked for means of distraction from the spaces they found themselves in, and forms of consolation for the time they were losing, out of their home environments and away from loved ones. Books have long filled this role. The East India Company established lending libraries for soldiers in India in the early nineteenth century (Murphy 75–76), and Mæland and Brunstad record the importance that soldiers attached to finding fresh reading material while in camp during the American Civil War (13). Books, in other words, could be a preoccupation, a way of removing oneself mentally, if not physically, from one’s immediate surroundings.
British and Commonwealth soldiers in World War I were no different. In September 1916, for instance, A. R. Williams wrote to his parents that men in the trench around him could be seen “reading scripture under the ugliest conditions of peril” (qtd. in Watson 96). Under rather more relaxed circumstances, in camp behind the lines in the Summer of 1918, Canadian officer Ivan Maharg recorded getting “good novel [Joseph Stratton's] ‘A Vision of Beauty’ & read[ing] till 11 P.M.” The next day, Maharg “censored a few letters, played catch with the Batmen & read my novel till 2[pm].” (Maharg was killed in action barely three months later.) Robert Lindsay MacKay, a young subaltern in the 11th Battalion of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was, then, probably not that exceptional when he records that he, too, spent much of his time on active service absorbed in books. However, looking back on his younger self from the perspective of 1972, his preoccupations seemed retrospectively odd—perhaps even inappropriate:
World shaking events, great defeats and victories elsewhere, did not greatly concern him. Day by day he devoted himself to his varying jobs, as signalling officer, assistant adjutant, or platoon officer, and to the factors influencing these—trench tours, finding the way “there and back”, pre-battle and post-battle conferences, training, shelling and machine gun fire, and the ever present mud. When out of the line in reserve areas he became bored at times and rode either on cycle or horseback around the countryside with his officer friends looking for an inn or estaminet where a good dinner might be obtained, while when the weather was bad he sat in his billet or lay in his tent reading poetry or “The Browning Love Letters”. An odd soldier indeed!
MacKay did not find the Brownings to be convivial company. Indeed, he forced himself to finish the correspondence as a kind of mental exercise, perhaps even bordering on obsession. Having finished the book, he self-mockingly congratulated himself on achieving “one of the biggest feats of the war! It has taken a tremendous effort of will on my part to get through them,” he continued, and he wrote “that if I had been in love I could have written better letters than those!!” Perhaps, however, MacKay was less of an “odd soldier” than he thought. Many others snatched moments to themselves through reading and writing, temporarily absenting themselves through textual engagements with another world. Indeed, the boredom—the inaction—that MacKay remembers in the Epilogue to his diary may have been a much more defining aspect of lived experience during wartime than the post-war emphasis on fighting and battlefield suffering suggests.
Diary of Ivan Clark Maharg, 1918, Canadian Letters and Images Project. http://www.canadianletters.ca/collectionsSoldier.php?collectionid=132&warid=3.
Diary of Robert Lindsay MacKay, 1915–1918, First World War.com. http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/rlm.htm.
John Ellis. Eye-Deep in Hell. London: Croom Helm, 1977.
Adrian Gregory. The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Bård Mæland and Paul Otto Brunstad. Enduring Military Boredom: From 1750 to the Present. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Sharon Murphy. “Imperial Reading?: The East India Company’s Lending Libraries for Soldiers, c. 1819–1834.” Book History 12 (2009): 74–99.
Alexander Watson. Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914–1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.