Remembering Robert Fentiman

I started this month with two frantic weeks of research, paper presentation and working at the Great Yorkshire Show.  By the time the last event, a two-day conference on the emotional history of war at the British Academy, came around, I was exhausted, sick of train travel and worried that my children no longer knew who I was.  I seriously considered giving it a miss; I wasn’t giving a paper and wasn’t sure how emotional history might be significant for my work on RAMC servicemen.

However, I had booked a hotel room and paid for my train ticket, so I packed my bag and headed back to London.  And boy am I glad I went!  Not only was it a conference attended by many of the most notable historians of the cultural history of war (walking into the room where coffee was served felt a bit like seeing large parts of my PhD bibliography made flesh), but it forced me to rethink the nature of my work as a form of emotional history.  In fact, the ideas about emotional labour and the archiving of emotion that I took away from those two days have made me completely rethink the structure of the book proposal I am in the process of writing.

I still have a huge amount of work to do sorting out how my work is located in the history of emotions, but I’ve been thinking about one idea in particular over the past couple of weeks.  During the round table session which closed the conference, one point was made three times, in three different ways, namely how do we, as historians, research and write about emotions that make us feel uncomfortable.  The conference was divided into sessions on love, fear and grief.  None of these are comfortable emotions, of course, and the evoke strong reactions in us as historians and in those who read what we write.  But there are other emotions felt by participants in war that we didn’t discuss directly, skirting around or mentioning only in relation to other emotions: anger, joy, relief, pride, shame.  These are emotions that don’t necessarily fit into the narratives we want to tell ourselves about war.  They highlight the power of war not only to traumatise, creating victims of its participants, but also to brutalise, even dehumanise, the perpetrators of violence.  But they are as important a part of the historical narratives of war as an emotional experience as those easier, possibly more acceptable emotions.

Which brings me to Robert Fentiman.  Robert Fentiman is one of the central characters in Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1928 novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Like his brother, George, another key character, Robert served in the war.  Unlike George, who was gassed and suffers from shell shock throughout the novel, Robert, is described as ‘frightfully hearty – a regular army type.’ [1]  Indeed, he chooses to remain in the army after the war.  Throughout the novel, the differences between himself and his brother are emphasised.  Where George has a fit of hysterics upon the discovery of his grandfather’s corpse, Robert [spoiler alert], laughs with humour when recalling using the two-minute silence to hide the body in order to commit fraud. Neither is a particularly attractive character.  George is depicted as bullying his wife while Robert is described as ‘thick-skinned; the regular unimaginative Briton. I believe Robert would cheerfully go through another five years of war and think it all a very good rag. … I remember Robert, at that ghastly hole at Carency, where the whole ground was rotten with corpses–ugh!–potting those swollen great rats for a penny a time, and laughing at them. Rats. Alive and putrid with what they’d been feeding on. Oh, yes, Robert was thought a damn good soldier.’ [2]

Neither George nor Robert is particularly emblematic of how we like to construct our image of veterans of the First World War today.  As I have argued before, our culture wants to smooth out the image of shell-shock sufferer, to remove the violence and ugliness in order to create the image of a victim we can pity without qualms.  But, even in this bowdlerized form, the shell-shock sufferer retains an important place in our cultural memory, indeed an increasingly important place as the definition of shell shock expands to encompass an increasing number of men.  By comparison, we seem to have little cultural memory of the Robert Fentimans of the war, the men who went through it phlegmatically, found an acceptable niche for themselves in post-war society, and displayed little or no sentiment about publically commemorating the dead, however much they privately honoured their comrades.

Some might argue that such men did not exist, that even if they did appear to display resilience in public, the psychic wounds that war inflicted on them were repressed, to echo down the generations and that, to this extent, all men who had been under a rolling barrage, as Robert Graves and Alan Hodge asserted in 1940, suffered from shell shock. [3] Yet Graves and Hodge go on to assert that what they called shell shock was a temporary condition. The resilient, even thick-skinned war veteran was certainly a common enough cultural figure for Sayers to place him in direct, antithetical comparison to the equally emblematic shell-shock sufferer in a popular novel that sold well in the interwar years.  George and Robert Fentiman are two sides of the same coin, and would almost certainly have been recognised as such at the time, yet today we only remember one of them.

As I say, it is not easy to write about men like Robert Fentiman.  They aren’t particularly likable or sympathetic.  They do not fit into our definitions of heroes.  But these men too fought the war; they too must form part of our history.  The challenge that War: An Emotional History set me was how to write about these men whose emotions I struggle to recognise and respond to in a way that is honest and does them the honour they deserve.  I will be grappling with this over the next couple of months.  If you would like to hear how I get on, I will be giving a lecture on The Fentiman Brothers at War: Shell Shock, Emotional Resilience and the Cultural Memory of the First World War at the Freud Museum in London on 2nd October. Do join me.

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, New English Library Paperback edition (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003), 14.

[2] Sayers, 99-100.

[3] Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Lond Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 (New Yorkk: W.W. Norton and Company, 1940), 16.

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Letter to an Unknown Soldier

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about the 1418Now project, Letter to an Unknown Soldier. Since then the project has been running and, as of my writing this, over 15,000 letters have been received, with more than two weeks left to run.  In my previous post, I said I was going to write my own letter.  Here it is.

Dear Bill, or is it David?

It could be either, couldn’t it: ol’ Bill, still and stoical in his endurance of all the laughable horrors that war throws at him; young David, so beautiful in his youth and ‘all the glory of his joy’ and sacrifice. You might be either, or indeed both.

Is that too simplistic, asking you to stand for two figures emblematic in their own right? How can we ask you to embody the experiences of 5 million men, the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, those who served on the front lines and those who worked behind them, those who survived and those who didn’t? As has been pointed out to me, and as I fully acknowledge, speaking of the men of this war only in terms of unity can never be a full reflection of the huge variety of the experiences encompassed by so many men over four and more years of a world war.

And yet… And yet, after a decade and a half reading the words you wrote, in letters, in diaries, in memoirs, some intended for public consumption but most written only for the loving, private eyes of friends and family, your voice speaks to me in tones at once both varied and familiar. Each fragile sheet, telling its unique story, does so in a voice so completely of its time that I could not mistake it for anything else, that I recognise it the moment I see it, scribbled in indelible pencil, poorly typed on flimsy forms, etched in elegant ink penmanship. Its tones, by turns mundane, flippant, horror and grief struck, or simply relieved, groping for words to describe the previously indescribable or relishing the simple pleasures of life as only young men can, has invaded my own, shaping my thinking and my writing as surely as the images described have shaped my understanding of war and how it was experienced.

I do not always like you. You are, inevitably, of your time, with all the attitudes towards women, class, empire that this implies. But for every statement of belief in a eugenicist solution to a predicted post-war crisis or casual patronising of those not of your class, there have been twice as many to remind me of your common humanity, your youth, your idealism, your sensitivities to sight and smell and taste, your artistic impulses, your lust for adventure, for experience, for life. You have made me laugh and made me cry, yes, even in the public space of the archive. You have moved me beyond measure and you continue to do so.

I would like to believe that, after all this time, these 15 years in which you have become my profession as well as my obsession, that I know you. Or at least that I know you better than most. I have read the counter-examples to the clichés, can cite the exceptions to any generalisation about you or your experience, even as I try to pin you down by making generalisations of my own.

Yet that sense of knowledge is as much a myth as any, isn’t it? I can never know you any more than you would understand me and my interest in your story. You remain standing there, aloof and ultimately impenetrable, leaving me, as always, with more questions than answers.

And still I long to know. Who were you? What was it like? How did war shape you and through you the society you left behind or, for the majority of you, in which you had to carry on living? These are the questions that define me as a historian, and my search for the answers, hidden in your millions of words, in those stories that made it home to the attic and the archive, waiting to be uncovered, has helped define me as a person, too. I have been shaped and changed by all that I have read and heard, by all that I now think I know. I hope it is for the better; I believe it cannot be for the worse than I might have become in other circumstances. I may not know you, but you have made me and will continue to do so until the day I stop asking questions. And for that knowledge, for all that you have done for me and continue to do, for all the inspiration you have granted me, the tears you have provoked, the insight into men and mankind that you have provided, for all the lessons you have taught me, I thank you.

Yours, with affection and gratitude,

Jessica Meyer

Enduring War: A review

So I am currently in London, part way through the first of a mad pair of weeks encompassing a meeting, two conferences, a couple of days in the archives and two days with the BBC at the Great Yorkshire Show. To ease myself in, I began Monday morning with a wander around the Enduring War exhibition at the British Library.

This is an ambitious exhibition, given the size of the space it occupies. Divided in to six sections, from the ‘The Call to Arms’ to ‘Grief and Memory’, the exhibition not only tries to tell a complete story of the war, but as a contributing partner in the Europeana 1914-1918 project, attempts to do it from an international perspective. Inevitably, some things are missed, while others are under-analysed. For instance, the caption to one photograph ends with the statement ‘There was an increase in Protestant church attendance in Britain in the first weeks of the war but, for a number of reasons, this was not sustained.’ There is no indication as to possible reasons why church attendance was not sustained, leaving this viewer with a sense of incompleteness.

In fact, the section on ‘Faith Under Fire’ is possibly the least satisfactory of the six. The claim about the prevalence of protective charms and rituals is never really demonstrated, in part because the use of the library’s resources places limits on what is available for display. The original manuscript of Ruper Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in the first section is extraordinarily moving, but there is no equivalent of, say, Adolphus, the mascot who has become the face of the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds. Excellent use is made of posters, particularly in illustrating the Russian perspective, and the use of ANZAC trench journals makes a double point with an elegant lightness of touch. Nonetheless, the material on display does not consistently feel capable of carrying the full breadth of the story that the exhibition is attempting to tell. Indeed, so broad is the narrative that it isn’t always evident what the curators understood by the exhibition’s subtitle, ‘Grief, Grit and Humour’.  All three elements are addressed episodically but don’t really feel as if they are the central thread of a coherent narrative.

Having entered the exhibition from the side, and followed the chronological path to the dead end around a corner in the separate space that houses the section on ‘Grief and Morning’, I ended my visit by deliberately walking back around to look at the audiovisual displays at the front entrance. And here the exhibition managed to produce what was for me its most powerful and moving display through its series of video booths of montages of postcards from the front, the accompanying audio just the messages scrawled on each one. Very simple, yet entirely mesmeric, the displays demonstrate the art of the everyday that, as much as the war poets, artists and musicians whose work is, once again, presented throughout the exhibition, defined the First World War as a profound cultural experience in Britain and across Europe.