While the chief preoccupation of the First World War centenary will be, rightly, remembering the war dead, it would be remiss to ignore the literature the war spawned, not least because the writers that produced it were soldiers with first-hand experience. Every writer subverted the concept of warfare as the pursuit of some noble and valorous ideal, instead showcasing disastrous leadership, inadequate military training and the unmitigated trauma of trench warfare.
In terms of literary genre, we associate the Great War with poetry. The majority of war poems were written while the war still raged. The likes of Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg never lived to see the armistice and so their verse reads as immediate and authentic responses to the hardship and horrors faced.
With the exception of Siegfried Sassoon, those who swapped the gun for the pen on a full-time basis at the end of the war largely preferred to funnel their recollections into fiction. That poetic immediacy was lost but memories and ideas could ferment over a healthy gestation period and develop as mature prose. For some reason the best of the postwar novels appeared in 1929, a decade after Versailles: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune and Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. Penguin Classics will re-release the last two in 2014. Now, though, they have added another war novel from 1929 to their ranks, Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero. Aldington (1892-1962) was an Imagist poet, novelist and biographer who mixed with T S Eliot and Ezra Pound and later became close friends with Lawrence Durrell. Unlike his contemporaries, his work is rarely read today and much of it languishes out of print. With luck, the overdue inclusion of Death of a Hero to the Penguin Classics range will introduce him to a new generation of readers. For those seeking an overview of the conflict or a chronicle of how it swept up and snuffed out individual lives, here is a graphic, vitriolic and incredibly moving testament.
The death of Aldington’s hero is announced on the first page. George Winterbourne has been killed in action. Aldington pans out to show how the four people who knew him most react to and deal with his death. We meet his strictly religious father and then his spiteful drama-queen of a mother who, on receiving the telegram informing her of her son’s death, pretends to faint into the arms of her latest young boyfriend before breaking into histrionic sobs.
As Aldington embellishes these “grotesques” we feel like we are immersed in a blackly comic Wildean farce. There is little let-up on meeting George’s wife Elizabeth and mistress Fanny, both of whom are witty caricatures that use their wiles and predatory instincts to snare attentive lovers.
However, a fifth person close to George emerges. Our nameless narrator who meets George at an officer’s training camp tells us he decided to write up his friend’s life as “an atonement, a desperate effort to wipe off the blood-guiltiness” of having returned home in one piece. Suddenly, and in the first of many instances, Aldington changes tone, sliding seamlessly from farce to straight sincerity. The narrator’s bile frequently intrudes to comment on or rail against the folly of war (“the whole sickening bloody waste of it, the damnable stupid waste and torture of it”) or the uncloaked hypocrisies evinced by George’s supposed nearest and dearest – “the makers of his body, the women who held his body to theirs”.
We move on, or rather back, to George’s youth. A schoolteacher (“a moral vulture”) informs George’s class (“his palpitating prey”) with eerie prescience that “Within 10 years one half of you boys will be DEAD!”
George’s mother worries that her young son spends an unhealthy amount of time painting: “Wasn’t he old enough to have a gun licence and learn to kill things?” After enduring “the mawkish love of adolescence” George meets Elizabeth and soon both get caught up in the whirl of London’s polite society, attending salons and soirees and discussing art, social reform and, daringly, sex. “What’s wrong with adultery is not the sexual part of it all, but the plotting and sneaking and dissimulation and lies and pretence,” Elizabeth declares, and from this moment on every relationship depicted is an open one, even George’s marriage.
So far Aldington has plotted a similar course to that of Graves’ memoir, Goodbye to All That. Like it, Death of a Hero does not entirely deal with war. The run-up is just as important as the actual conflict for it heightens the eventual disastrous waste of life: a character is carefully, almost lovingly, built up, fleshed out and grasped by the reader, only to be casually and remorselessly killed off.
Aldington’s calm before the storm involves stunningly evocative landscapes and long, slow summers. But the bucolic serenity of England’s green and pleasant land inevitably gives way to a besieged and ravaged France. Aldington marches the reader and his hero into battle, taking us from one “show” to another. One assault is so big it starts out as “indescribable” but the passages that follow demonstrate that Aldington is up to the challenge: “The roar of the guns was beyond clamour – it was an immense rhythmic harmony, a super-jazz of tremendous drums, a ride by the Valkyrie played by three thousand cannon. The intense rattle of the machine-guns played a minor motif of terror.” In the first half-hour of bombardment “hundreds upon hundreds of men would have been violently slain, smashed, torn, gouged, crushed, mutilated”.
When not engaged in physical combat, George fights off boredom, lice, rats and freezing temperatures, and wrestles with psychological torments. So rich is the detail that the reader can feel the cold and the fear. Aldington forces us to share George’s plight, to cohabit this “graveyard of the world – dead trees, dead houses, dead mines, dead villages, dead men”. As characters go over the top and never return, or fall victim to tear gas, shell shock or “whizz-bangs”, George discovers it is not the Germans he hates, but his order to slaughter: “The very apparatus of killing revolted him, took on a sort of sinister deadness.”
As war drags on with no end in sight, Aldington allows his narrator to interpose more and more with his caustic views and gimlet-eyed observations. War becomes impersonal, more “a conflict with dreadful hostile forces of Nature than with other men”. When George is finally granted some home leave he re-enters civilian life and visits music halls and Lyons’ cafes but in a trance, “dumb, dreary and khakied”, and unloved and unrecognised by those that once cared.
What began as farce and then solidified into hard realism is now biting satire. Aldington is at his most satirical when playing mordant little word games that he sprinkles throughout. This war is not the so-called war to end all wars, rather “a war to breed wars;” George’s mother saved his life when young – “saved him for a German machine-gun;” “George’s country did not want his brains, but his blood;” and after being told the army will make a man of him – “Alas! it made a corpse of him.” Alexander Pope wrote that satire should expose Vice, Folly and Humbug. Our narrator offers a variation of this, his tone at its most trenchant, when describing war as “the reign of Cant, Delusion, and Delirium”.
Near the end, when George notes that “there was still nothing to report on the Western Front” we can’t help but hear Remarque’s title. Death of a Hero has much in common with it and other First World War literature, but what makes it a unique, even exceptional, antiwar novel, is the reach and pungency of its satire, together with its full-scale birth-to-death trajectory of a rounded, knowable character mowed down while on the cusp of life.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.