Monday, November 11, 2019

. . . And Letters from the Western Front

Today is known as Armistice Day in the UK. In the US, it's known as Veterans Day. The holiday is on November 11 for a specific reason, which I assume a lot of the readers of this blog will know: the First World War (the Great War, as it was known then) ended with an armistice that was signed at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Of course, the peace didn't last, and it was not, alas, the war to end all wars.

The Great War is not as well-known and is less-studied here in the US than it is in Europe. It is still very much in the consciousness of the people of the UK, something I noticed while living there. Because of my research for my novel-writing, I've been getting more and more interested in the history of the Great War.

Today, on Armistice Day, I decided to work some more on transcribing the war letters of Peter Llewelyn Davies. If you've been following along at all, you know that Peter was the namesake of (and one of the inspirations for) Peter Pan. The Great War was a major disruption in his life. He was 17 when war broke out in summer 1914. He was about to start at Cambridge, but instead he enlisted alongside his older brother, George. (Their other brother Jack, who was, chronologically, between them, was a career Navy man and was already in service; their two younger brothers weren't old enough to serve, though Michael very nearly was, because he turned 18 in 1918 and the war ended the day before he was due to enlist.)

Peter spent what he considered to be too long in England, training and waiting. Even after George was killed in March 1915, he was eager to join the fight. When he got his wish at the very beginning of 1916, he found he didn't really like war after all. He quickly became sick of it (he said that while everyone hated the war to varying degrees, he and his like-minded friend had "reached the superlative" in their hatred of it). He wrote a bevy of really fabulous letters home to JMB, talking a lot about the conditions of the trenches. I'm still working through them, but you can see the grimness of the situation, and of his own mindset, coming through.

Peter was sent home with impetigo and shell shock (but mostly shell shock, I think) once during the war, then went back into the trenches, where he acquitted himself with distinction. For a stretch of several days, as his unit was retreating under heavy pressure, Peter was the commanding officer because all the more senior officers had been killed.He got the Military Cross for his service.

Like a lot of men, the stress of war seems to have gotten to Peter. He doesn't seem to have gone back to university. He was living with a married woman for a time, working in an antiques shop in Soho. Then JMB helped, with money and connections, to set up a publishing company for him ("Peter Davies Ltd.). Many decades later, in 1960, Peter committed suicide. Though there were a number of contributing factors (his health was bad, his wife was suffering from Huntington's disease, his finances were disordered), I think the trauma of the war stuck with him all his life.

Below is one of the letters I transcribed today. Peter makes an amusing [to me] reference to British versus American spelling and gives a vivid account of an aerial dogfight.

July 20th [1916; added later, by Peter, presumably]

Dear Uncle Jim,

The last few days have been marked by the total absence of dug-outs, washing, and p√Ęte de foie gras. That is to say, we have been roughing it considerably of late. One cuts bully-beef, one doesn't shave, the dirt remains untroubled on cheek and hands as well as the rest of the body, and one has to do without those delightful 20 foot deep refuges, which I as signalling officer have usually managed to frequent. I don't in the least enjoy lying in a little slit in the ground with or without a waterproof sheet over it while 5.9-inch high explosive shells are frightful all round. Nor do I much enjoy getting my wires broken at frequent intervals all day and night. In fact, [illegible] rather at sixes and sevens.

Which is also the title of one of the books by O. Henry which reached me two days ago. These are very good and just right for occasions such as the present. He is the leading American humourist, or rather humorist, of the day, I suppose.

The other day I heard that the 19th battalion was on our left, and walked over to them to find Pemberton, scarcely recognizable through mud and beard. He, I think, dislikes warfare as much as I do.

(Later) I have just witnessed an exciting but gloomy spectacle. [A] large fleet of about a dozen enemy aeroplanes suddenly appeared in the distance. Only one of ours was anywhere near, and this immediately attacked the leading German, either from sheer audacity, or because he couldn't see the others. There was a rattle of machine-guns, and the two wheeled and darted about with extra-ordinary rapidity. But after a few moments the rest of the Germans came up and several opened fire on ours, which very soon staggered and gave a lurch sideways, then came slowly and unsteadily downwards, finally dropping the last twenty feet like a stone. He fell in our lines, but I'm afraid there was no doubt about the result. It was exactly like a battle between birds.



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