They walked among us


Last night I picked up Dorothy L. Sayers\’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, a Lord Peter Wimsey novel that I last read decades ago. Because it is a book I have read before the scenes and characters are familiar yet due to the years that have passed since that last reading some of the details felt quite fresh to me.

This morning I woke up with a mental \”itch.\” What was it about the early chapters of the book that had bothered me? I couldn\’t quite put my mental fingers on it but I knew something was there.

Then, this afternoon, I got it.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club does not just begin on Armistice Day in the late 1920s. The opening chapters are suffused with allusions to and memories of the Great War. The scene is a gentlemen\’s club in London and the members of that club, members of the social elite of the time in London, were if anything more likely to have served in the war than would the average man on the street. Wimsey himself was in the military during (what we refer to as) WWI rising to the rank of Major. Wimsey was injured before the end of the war and was one of the many soldiers who suffered from shell shock. The first person Wimsey talks to after entering the club (George Fentiman) is another veteran of WWI and a fellow sufferer from shell shock. Wimsey has arrived at the club in order to meet with a Colonel who puts on a dinner for his late son\’s friends every Armistice Day. The son had been killed in action during the war.

Fentiman\’s brother also served in the Great War and at the time book opens was still in the military. Fentiman\’s grandfather was a General (having served in the Crimean War.) When a dead body is found at the gentleman\’s club the doctor who arrived on the scene (also a club member) had been an Army surgeon during the war. Wimsey met his valet (and assistant in detection) Bunter during the war when Bunter was a Sergeant.

The Great War cast many shadows over the years between the Armistice in 1918 and the beginning of WWII. The servant \”problem\” grew larger as men (and women) who found jobs in the military and in factories during the war decided not to go back to the villages their families had lived in for generations. Men whose fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers had worked the land or been in service had been taught skills and given a glimpse of a life in which one was not expected to be \”at the ready\” twenty-four hours a day. The ratio of men to women in Britain and Europe was altered by the war and a generation of women faced the reduced likelihood that they would ever marry. Fewer of the women in the workforce were only there until they got married and had children.

The fact that members of one\’s own family might be the people who are put on the front line of fighting does not make pacifists of politicians. One needs only to look at the history of the British Empire to know that. But one does wonder how much it alters things when the people who decide who goes to war (and how well equipped the troops are, and how well they will be treated when they return home, and if they have adequate pensions) know that the chances that they or someone about whom they care deeply will be on the front lines are vanishingly small. One wonders if the people who vote those politicians into (and out of) office would make the same decision in the voting booth if their support for the troops required more personal effort than putting a decal on their car.

Today the sons, daughters, cousins, mothers and fathers we send into battle are rarely people we know. Their families are rarely people we will ever have to speak to. For most of us war, fighting, death, shell shock, injury and trauma have become just another thing to be outsourced.

6 thoughts on “They walked among us

  1. It seems to me that one of the most visible after-effects of the peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s is that soldiers are societally reviled – not usually to their faces, but there's often a feeling of \”must be a violent thug\” or \”couldn't find a real job\”.The perception that modern wars are fought to defend not the people of a country but rather the economic interests of companies that may not even pay tax there is doubtless also a factor in the low status of the armed forces in general – as though they had any choice about where or when they fought.The soldiers I've known have all been thoroughly good people…

  2. It seems to me that one of the most visible after-effects of the peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s is that soldiers are societally reviled – not usually to their faces, but there's often a feeling of \”must be a violent thug\” or \”couldn't find a real job\”.That really isn't my reading of the situation. The Victorians didn't have an influential peace movement – and as my rebuttal that this has anything to do with the peace movement rather than something that has generally been with only wars with conscription springing to mind as exceptions, I present Tommy by Rudyard Kipling. I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o'beer, The publican 'e up an' sez, \”We serve no red-coats here.\” The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die, I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' \”Tommy, go away\”; But it's “Thank you, Mister Atkins,'' when the band begins to play, The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play, O it's “Thank you, Mr. Atkins,'' when the band begins to play. I went into a theatre as sober as could be, They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me; They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls, But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' \”Tommy, wait outside\”; But it's \”Special train for Atkins\” when the trooper's on the tide, The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide, O it's \”Special train for Atkins\” when the trooper's on the tide. Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap; An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' \”Tommy how's yer soul?\” But it's \”Thin red line of 'eroes\” when the drums begin to roll, The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll, O it's \”Thin red line of 'eroes\” when the drums begin to roll. We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too, But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you; An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints: Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' \”Tommy, fall be'ind,\” But it's \”Please to walk in front, sir,\” when there's trouble in the wind, There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind, O it's \”Please to walk in front, sir,\” when there's trouble in the wind. You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires an' all: We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational. Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' \”Chuck him out, the brute!\” But it's \”Saviour of 'is country,\” when the guns begin to shoot; An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please; But Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool – you bet that Tommy sees!

  3. \”But one does wonder how much it alters things when the people who decide who goes to war (and how well equipped the troops are, and how well they will be treated when they return home, and if they have adequate pensions) know that the chances that they or someone about whom they care deeply will be on the front lines are vanishingly small.\”What was treatment of veterans like in (say) 1800's England? My guess is 'crappy'. Also, how good were the supplies and logistics? Were they carried out as if the politicans'/elite's sons were involved?

  4. \”It seems to me that one of the most visible after-effects of the peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s is that soldiers are societally reviled – not usually to their faces, but there's often a feeling of \”must be a violent thug\” or \”couldn't find a real job\”.\”IMHO, veterans were generally not treated well throughout a lot of US history; we're living in the aftermath of WWII, where thins were different (and probably so because the mass of recent veterans was huge, and had clout).

  5. Good points all…because if you look into it \”other ranks\” were historically treated dreadfully in Britain (as they were in other countries.)What made the First World War crucially different than earlier wars is that horrors of war consistently reached into the ranks of the junior officers. In English books written in the 1920s and 1930s the \”good man broken by the war\” has become a fairly common character.The sons and brothers of the kyriarchy are now among those who are facing the worst of the war. And so war begins to be written about quite differently than it was a few decades earlier.For example, Wimsey (Sayer's protagonist) is the son and the brother of Dukes. He also suffers from what would today be diagnosed as PTSD. The generational divided among the sons of the upperclass/gentry was between those who saw war as part of the \”Great Game\” and those who saw it as a soul destroying tussle enterprise.The perks of class and money did not protect these young men when they went out to the fields of Flanders. Looking at the US today it seems that the families of privilege are doubly protected. They seldom serve and when they do they are seldom put in harms way.

  6. @Francis — sorry, blogger threw your comment into the spambox (which I think Kipling would have found amusing/ironic) and I \”unspammed\” it. I knew that poem by heart as a child and I think it is perfectly on point.My father (who loves Kipling) and was in the Canadian Army during WWII and the Korean War as as noncom and warrant officer has ripe words about the British military. For him the answer is the intersection between war/the military/class. WWI did break the back of much of the class system in England (not all by a long shot) and it certainly did set into stone the idea that the people who send you into combat should be willing to do the same to members of their own family. It doesn't stop wars but it does, I think, do something to stop the abstraction and distancing that seems to be going on the US right now.As to how America treats it veterans — let me just say that as the child of two veterans and the niece of four veterans with a cousin currently serving — I am appalled at the way the US discards members of the military when they are no longer of use.

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