Thursday, 2 January 2020

After The Wars

On 9 November 1920, a few platoons of British soldiers set out once more for the front. Led by one officer apiece, they went to the still-churned, still-slimy ground where great slaughters, at Ypres, Cambrai, Arras and the Somme, had taken place. They marched to a place of rough wooden crosses without markings, where dead Britons too torn about to be identified had been buried. Just one body was dug up from each site, placed in a plain deal coffin and then brought back to a small chapel. Next, an officer was blindfolded and led into it. He reached out and touched one of the four coffins. The other three were returned to be reburied. The fourth was then taken by train to the Channel, where it was met by a warship and placed inside a larger casket of oak, specially made from a tree cut down in Hampton Court forest. With an escort of destroyers and given the admiral’s nineteen-gun salute as it passed, the dead man–a Scot or a Welshman, a Nottinghamshire miner or a Devon public schoolboy, a man who had died bravely or in terror–no one knew who he was–was then taken to London. Two days after being dug up in France, he was paraded through the streets, his pallbearers being field marshals and admirals, until he was buried deep in the sand below Westminster Abbey. 

On his coffin rested an antique sword from the King’s collection. In the next days and weeks, more than a million people came to say goodbye. Outside, in Whitehall, 100,000 wreaths had almost hidden the base of the brand new Cenotaph. 

Reclaiming, and giving a State Burial to, an unknown soldier had been the idea of a young army padre, later a vicar in Margate, called David Railton. He passed the idea to the Dean of Westminster, who wrote to the King. George was initially against the notion, worrying that it was too morbid, but he was won round. 

As the writer Ronald Blythe later said, ‘The affair was morbid, but grandly and supremely so.’ It proved hugely popular and cathartic, partly because it was in its way democratic. Millions of bereaved parents, brothers and sisters could half-believe that the recovered body was theirs, and certainly that it represented their dead boy. 

There had been much argument about the different treatment of aristocratic or upper-class corpses, which might be returned for burial at home, and the great mass of the dead who were left near to where they fell. Overall, the funerary democrats–led by the poet Kipling–won the argument for all to be treated alike in death, officers and men lying alongside one another with similar headstones. 

This was not trivial. 

At a time of revolution abroad, democracy needed to be symbolized. These were the years of the memorials: the vast Commonwealth memorials in France, requiring their own large bureaucracy and the factory-scale cutting of headstones; the thousands of granite crosses, sculpted Tommies and gold-painted wooden boards in villages, schools, train stations and city squares. In every style from the mimicry of ancient Greek and Egyptian funerary art to the latest in angular modernism, the British raised up AND THEN LIVED IN a Garden of Death. 

Though there was not, in statistical terms, a lost generation as is sometimes still claimed, the three-quarters of a million dead were a ghostly presence everywhere; faces staring out of school and sporting photographs, empty upstairs bedrooms in suburban houses, silent family meals, odd gaps in offices or village pubs between the old and the very young. 

In the ten years after The War 29,000 small country estates were sold off, often simply because there was no heir to inherit them. The wounded and maimed were also visible everywhere. They might be blind, gassed, distressingly unpredictable, hobbling with empty trouser-legs or pinned-up arms. 

The worst were still coping with open wounds which needed to be dressed daily to staunch infection. New plastic surgery techniques, still crude, could last until the late 1920s before patched-up faces were ready. Unsettling smells broke through the cigarette smoke. Park benches were sometimes painted blue to warn passers-by that they were reserved for badly wounded men from hospital, in their floppy serge uniforms and blue caps. 

The exuberance of blood–the erect spirit–of Edwardian times had been drained. 

Though in theory there were enough men for most women to marry, that was cold arithmetical nonsense for the hundreds of thousands who had lost the only one they loved, and who were still wearing black and would never wed. The current author is old enough, just, to remember great-aunts who did not marry ‘because of the War’ and lived single lives–albeit quite cheerful ones–focused on fruit cake and friendship. 

Eventually, of course, the sadness was too much, the weight of public stoicism too heavy for living, breathing humans to bear. Those who had survived wanted some fun again. The brittle urban gaiety for which the twenties are known was an essential response to the muffled drums and the silences and the hat-doffing to piles of brick and bronze. Ponderous hymn tunes consoled many. Jazz replied. The war had dulled and shabbied the country, so there followed a time of paint and silliness. Upper-crust girls could shock their parents by aping the masses and using rouge and mascara and lipstick. Women began smoking in public. The Great War, like littler wars, had been an overwhelmingly masculine affair. Boys grew into men very fast, and died as men. Men dressed as modern warriors in thick polished belts, heavy boots, rough, bronze-decorated overcoats and peaked caps. In wartime, beards and long hair were symbols of dissidence which drew angry looks and loud comments. So after it was over the younger men who had just missed the war responded with colourful and, to their elders’ eyes, effeminate clothing. Women, in turn, looked a little more like boys. Tubular dresses, bindings round the chest to disguise the bust and short haircuts, the bob and then the shingle, made girls seem unsettlingly androgynous. When the insolent-puppy writer Evelyn Waugh married a woman also called Evelyn, they were called He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn, and they gaze back from photos in identical trousers and shirts with similarly camp expressions. The upper classes and their arty hangers-on led the way, but thanks to the mass newspapers people across the country watched and in some ways mimicked them. Though we think of the most riotous scenes of misbehaviour coming in the twenties, the years of the Bright Young Things, the pattern had been set during the war. A good case-study can be found in the diaries of Duff Cooper, for most of the war working at the Foreign Office and in love with Lady Diana Manners, who had been a great and well-connected Edwardian beauty. His diaries recount an astonishing amount of casual love-making and hard drinking. The affairs are probably mostly not fully physical, because of the dangers of pregnancy, but in variety and number his circle rivalled or outpaced the behaviour of people in supposedly laxer, later days. The fine wines and champagnes gurgled away through the war, as did the old brandies and whisky, and a fair amount of drug taking–morphia, mainly, injected. You could buy what was, in effect, cocaine and heroin quite legally–people sent it to the troops. At one level, it is a record of hedonism and self-indulgence on a scale that would have shattered the constitutions of most rock musicians sixty years later. Yet it is only when set together with the equally astonishing death-rate of their friends that it makes full sense. After yet another friend, an in-law of the Asquiths, has been killed, Cooper recalls Edwardian parties of which he was now the only male survivor and records a day of helpless crying. It ends with him dining in his club: ‘I drank the best champagne–Pommery 1906–because I felt that Edward would have wished it and would have done so had I been killed first.’ He refuses to go out to eat ‘simply because I was afraid that I might cry in the middle of dinner’. Cooper went on to serve towards the end of the war, with spectacular bravery. This determination to drink deep and party while there was still time flowed unchecked into the post-war world. The nearest recent equivalent might be the drug-taking hedonism that flooded American youth during and after Vietnam. As then, in twenties Britain it pitted young and old against each other in an epic generational battle. The jittery, shallow, fancy-dressing army of upper-class children who smashed up bars, invented new cocktails, danced along the counters of department stores, learned to dance the camel-walk, the shimmy, the black-bottom and the notorious Charleston and stole policemen’s hats contained plenty of ex-officers from the front, and many whose brothers, cousins and lovers had been killed. Among those who arrived in London and changed the city’s taste were the first Harlem hot jazzmen, black musicians bringing the allure of early Hollywood pictures and stories of gangsters. Elders and betters looked on aghast; and, as ever, the media, in this case the fashionable new trade of newspaper gossip columnists, stoked up the story. Noe¨l Coward, whose play The Vortex dealt with drugs, was able to pose to a popular newspaper in a silk dressing gown with an expression, it reported, of advanced degeneracy. He promised the London Evening Standard that ‘I am never out of opium dens, cocaine dens, and other evil places. My mind is a mess of corruption.’ Gangs like the Sabinis and the Titanics (the latter apparently so named because they dressed up poshly, like passengers on the liner) fought across Soho, across the racetracks and for control of the new centres of vice in twenties Britain–the nightclubs. 

There you could find ex-officers, Sinn Fein men, gangsters, prostitutes, dancers and drug dealers like the famous opium supplier ‘Brilliant’ Chang. 

There were also homosexual clubs, crowded with men who had failed to heed their monarch: George V, told that an acquaintance was a ‘bugger’, replied with consternation: ‘I thought men like that shot themselves.

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