This is one of two articles that offer a broad survey of the various ways in which British writers took part in the enormous mobilisation for the war effort of 1914-18. Its aim is to answer the famous question “What did you do in the War?” on behalf of a much greater number of authors -- in this article nearly ninety -- than are usually considered in the context of that conflict, including writers-to-be, whose literary careers began during or after the war itself, and a small number of Irish authors, as these were still British subjects at the time. This article identifies the kinds of military service undertaken by male writers of the wartime generations. It does not, though, attempt to give details of regimental affiliations, ranks, or military decorations. Its companion-piece, “British Authors’ Civilian Participation in the First World War”, covers the kinds of auxiliary support roles in which men and women writers were involved.
This is not an account of war-writing, but a synoptic presentation of available biographical data about writers and those who later became writers, whether or not they wrote principally or directly about their war experiences. It is organised according to the locations and kinds of military service undertaken by active and prospective authors. Some of these writers, it will be found, served in more than one war-zone, and several in more than one military role: those who had served in the failed Gallipoli Expedition of 1915 would usually be transferred to the Western Front in 1916, as was the case with A. P. Herbert, later a novelist. A serviceman who was invalided out of the Western Front after injury would commonly then be transferred to training or administrative service at home: Robert Graves and J. R. R. Tolkien are among those cases.
The first category of war experience covered below is active military service overseas: in the first place on the Western Front, then in other less-remembered theatres of conflict such as Gallipoli and Palestine. The second category is that of uniformed military service on the Home Front, typically in training camps, garrisons, anti-aircraft batteries, supply and transport depots etc. Finally, coverage is provided here of some literary non-participants, here meaning men of military age who did not serve, being medically or otherwise exempt, or simply absent.
1. Writers on Overseas Military Service
The first salient fact about the authors, and young authors-to-be, who enlisted for military service in the First World War is that the overwhelming majority of them did so voluntarily, whether in eagerness (as with Siegfried Sassoon or Rupert Brooke) or in dutiful reluctance (Charles Sorley, Isaac Rosenberg), or from a growing conviction that they should not exempt themselves (Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas), or from perverse personal motives (Graves hoped thereby to delay taking up his student place at Oxford, which he dreaded). Of these volunteers, most joined up at the earliest opportunity -- Sassoon even managed it a day or two before Britain had even entered the war -- or at least at an early stage, 1914 or early 1915. Three of our writers were already professional military officers serving at the time of the war’s outbreak: Osbert Sitwell, soon to be known as a verse satirist and later as a novelist, with the Grenadier Guards in London; Julian Grenfell, who would write one of the war’s most famous poems, “Into Battle” (1915), with a cavalry regiment in South Africa; and Cyril McNeile, who wrote war fiction and later pulp thrillers under the pen-name “Sapper”, with -- as that pseudonym indicates -- the Royal Engineers.
Under the initial Army requirements, soon to be significantly relaxed, of height and physical fitness, tall athletic types like Sassoon were admitted easily, but others were at first turned away: the artist-poet David Jones was rejected as too fragile in November 1914, but tried again and was admitted two months later. Among the many literary men turned away on grounds of poor eyesight was the musician-poet Ivor Gurney, but he succeeded in enlisting early in 1915. The other important requirement was age: the Army needed men aged between 19 and 34 for overseas service, so those in their late thirties (and by mid-1918 their forties too) were usually assigned to Home-Front duties or to Staff appointments overseas. Some who were over-age concealed this impediment in order to take active part -- as in the cases of Ford Madox Hueffer (later surnamed Ford) and of Hector Munro, the short-storyist known as “Saki”; the novelist and journalist C. E. Montague even dyed his silvery hair black for this purpose. Some of these volunteers could have found safe positions in a garrison or camp at home, but insisted on facing the dangers of overseas posting: Edward Thomas, for example, was in his late thirties and could have stayed on as a map-reading instructor in an Essex training camp, but chose to volunteer for the Front. Only a small number of writers were compulsorily enlisted after conscription was introduced in the early months of 1916, the Imagist poets Richard Aldington and Frank Flint being among these rare literary conscripts, along with the young actor Noël Coward.
i) The Western Front
An important feature of military service on the Western Front which is obscured by the simplified images we retain of it -- almost always of the infantry, going “over the top”, or cowering in waterlogged trenches -- is the sheer variety of experiences it could include. Some of this variety arose from the specialisation of military roles: artillerymen, for instance, never went over the top, as the infantry infrequently did, but they were prime targets of enemy shellfire, which is how three literary gunners were killed (Edward Thomas, the poet-critic T. E. Hulme, and the novelist William Hope Hodgson), although others, including the future thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, survived. Those who served with the Royal Engineers, including McNeile and briefly Rosenberg, had a different experience of the war again, as did those assigned to the Machine Gun Corps (Gurney, and the novelists Henry Williamson, Ian Hay and Alec Waugh), and of course those in the Royal Army Medical Corps, such as the medically-qualified Warwick Deeping, later a popular novelist.
Aviators on the Western Front were exempt from the dangers of the land war below -- which is why some infantry officers (Owen and Herbert Read, both unsuccessfully) applied for transfer to the Royal Flying Corps -- but they faced hazards of their own, principally being shot down and killed, as happened to the “ace” pilot and minor war-poet Jeffery Day, or captured (as with W. E. Johns, later the author of the popular Biggles stories, and with Lance Sieveking, subsequently a radio dramatist and novelist). Even training as a pilot was risky enough: the young songwriter Ivor Novello -- “Keep the Home Fires Burning” was his tune -- crashed twice as a trainee, and was transferred to a desk-job before he could do any further damage. His flight instructor had been Ben Travers, later a successful author of farces. (Day, Sieveking and Novello were all in the Royal Naval Air Service, later merged with the RFC in 1918 as the new RAF.)
In normal infantry battalions, too, a junior officer would have a different kind of experience and a different range of risks from others according to temporarily assigned functions such as Transport Officer (Sassoon, Hueffer), Signals Officer (Tolkien, A. A. Milne) or Field Works Officer -- in charge of trench repairs, as the young poet Edmund Blunden was for a time. Even a private soldier could be released from routine duty for specialist service: David Jones in late 1916 and much of 1917 was plucked out of the ranks because his skills in drawing had been noticed, and seconded to Battalion HQ for work on updating of military maps.
Although there are some notable cases of literary men remaining private soldiers throughout their service (Gurney, Rosenberg, Jones, “Saki”), most young writers were by virtue of their educations deemed officer material from the start, and quickly received commissions, then underwent months of training at regimental camps. Two exceptions to that were Brooke and the future novelist Charles Morgan, who were rushed into action scarcely trained, for active service at Antwerp (October 1914). Others such as Owen and Thomas applied for commissions while doing preliminary officer-cadet training, in both cases with the Artists’ Rifles, a London battalion that specialised in such induction. Others still applied for officer commissions while serving overseas in the ranks, and came home to retrain: Aldington, Williamson, Hulme, and J. B. Priestley, later a novelist.
A few officers found themselves posted to staff duties behind the lines: Maurice Baring, a minor poet in his forties, joined the RFC and was employed as an aide to its senior commanders. R. H. Mottram of the Norfolk Regiment, a future war-novelist, found himself after some front-line action seconded to a staff job dealing with compensation claims for the billetting of British forces on French properties. The young journalist Howard Spring, later a popular novelist, worked in the intelligence offices of British General Headquarters. F. L. Lucas, subsequently an academic literary critic and poet, spent the final months of the war as a staff intelligence officer interviewing German prisoners for useful military information.
Varying war-experiences of those kinds arose from specialised military functions; others arose from the intermittencies of military deployment. It is now often wrongly assumed that infantrymen and their officers were stuck in front-line trenches for months on end, but this never happened, the British Army having an efficient system of rotating relief whereby those at the very front facing the enemy would be relieved by others coming up from the reserve trenches within a matter of days. This system also allowed for periods of rest-leave in billets, for periods of retraining at base camps and relocation to other sectors, and for periodic home-leave too, in addition to further weeks or months of hospitalisation and convalescence required by those injured or unwell. Despite all that, it is now common to find biographical summaries loosely claiming that -- to take the case of the long-serving Blunden here -- a writer could have spent “two years at the front”, or even an impossible “two years in the firing-line” (Ricketts 158; Webb 51). Blunden indeed first arrived in France in March 1916 and was eventually posted home for training duties in March 1918, but his life between those dates was certainly not spent continuously in the front line, nor even at the Front in the broader sense. Blunden in fact benefited from three periods of home leave, several weeks out of the line in rest camps and training courses, and a spell of secondments to Battalion and Brigade headquarters. He was certainly exposed to front-line dangers for longer than Owen or Sassoon or Graves were, but he did not endure two years of them.
Blunden’s active service at the Front was comparatively lengthy because he remarkably escaped injury or serious illness, despite suffering the effects of poison gas on three occasions. Others experienced short periods of very dangerous front-line action interspersed with -- or terminating in -- prolonged periods of hospitalisation and convalescent restriction to home postings. Robert Nichols, regarded by some as the rising star of poetry in 1917, had lasted only a few weeks at the Front before being sent home with shell shock, never to return. Milne, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis each lasted about 5 months in France before being invalided out, the first two with “trench fever” -- a common wartime affliction transmitted by lice. The young Eric Linklater, later a novelist, was sent home after five months too, having been shot in the head while serving on the Somme front in 1918. The Western-Front service of the Irish dramatist St John Ervine lasted just over a year, 1917-18, but concluded with wounds that required the amputation of one leg. Probably the shortest active service among writers was that of Charles Morgan, who within days of the retreat from Antwerp was mistakenly led across the border of the neutral Netherlands and interned there.
Jones, Gurney, William Hope Hodgson and the future poet-critic Edgell Rickword were all sent back twice to British hospitals, while Williamson and Priestley found themselves invalided out three times, the latter prolonging his home stay with officer training. Sassoon was another who was sent home three times (once with fever, twice with wounds), this in addition to a broken arm during initial training in 1914 and a spell in a Rouen hospital with rubella. The Scottish poet Charles Scott Moncrieff, later famed as Proust’s translator, was repeatedly out of action with recurrent trench fever and later with jaundice too, before a serious leg wound removed him from the Western Front for good. Hueffer spent more time in French hospitals and convalescent homes than at the Front itself. Herbert Read’s service on the Western Front was interrupted by 13 months at home recovering from injury and illness or on training duties. Owen’s time in France, less than seven months in all, was similarly interrupted by 16 months as a convalescent confined to hospital or to home-base duties. Graves spent more time in France than that, about 14 months, with several breaks for leave and training, but serious injury and an element of shell shock confined him to Britain after July 1916, his attempted return to the Front in early 1917 being cut very short by bronchitis. Our familiar image of a British officer in this war does not usually include him lounging on the Côte d’Azur, but that is where both Hueffer (at Menton) and Scott Moncrieff (at Nice) were sent to convalescent homes for parts of their war. The young Scottish writer C. M. Grieve, later known as the poet “Hugh MacDiarmid”, also ended up on the Mediterranean for seven months after the Armistice, working as a RAMC sergeant at a war hospital in Marseilles.
Several of these writers could count themselves luckier than most because the timing of their various home leaves and convalescences took them out of some of the worst fighting in which they would otherwise have been caught up. Rosenberg, for example, missed the Battle of Cambrai (November 1917) because he was bed-ridden with influenza at the time. A few of our writers were unavailable for the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916) because as late recruits they were still in training (Owen, Thomas, Aldington, and the future playwright R. C. Sherriff among them), while many others had already been invalided home permanently or temporarily: Priestley, Read, Scott Moncrieff, and Osbert Sitwell, the latter having cut his finger, from which blood-poisoning had developed. As for those who did take part in at least one phase of that prolonged offensive, the list is lengthy, and includes “Sapper” McNeile, Milne, Herbert, and the novelist Gilbert Frankau. On its infamous opening day, 1 July 1916, the worst in the history of the British Army, the minor poet W. N. Hodgson was killed, and Joe Ackerley, later to become a war-dramatist and literary journalist,was wounded. In the first month of the battle Jones and then Graves were wounded and sent home, Graves having at first been left for dead. Sassoon had also been in the action for a few days, but in late July was sent home as unfit after a high fever, possibly of the “trench” variety. Blunden’s battalion joined the offensive in early September, and were still engaged there until November. In the previous month the minor poet Leslie Coulson had been killed, and Tolkien briefly brought into action before a transfer to Ypres. In the final stage of the battle in mid-November, “Saki” was shot dead by a sniper.
By the time of the Third Battle of Ypres (late July to November 1917, often referred to as “Passchendaele”), Owen and Sassoon were still at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and more writers who had succumbed to illness or wounds during the previous year had become unavailable: Graves, Milne, Tolkien, Hueffer, Williamson, Lucas, Scott Moncrieff, Herbert. A few others were on officer training courses (Aldington, Priestley) or had by now been captured and interned, as had happened to Ackerley, to the future biographer Hugh Kingsmill, and to Gurney’s best friend, the Gloucestershire poet F. W. Harvey. This left a depleted literary presence at Third Ypres. The young Irish poet Francis Ledwidge was killed by a shell-blast on the opening day. Gurney was overcome by poison gas there, and invalided out, while Sherriff was also wounded. Blunden took part in the first three days of the offensive, before taking three weeks’ home leave. Read was also present, but only for the October phase. David Jones was also in the battle for four days in August before being withdrawn and transferred to a much quieter part of the Front. Jones and Blunden were thus the only literary soldiers to have taken part in both the Somme and Third Ypres offensives.
ii) Far-Flung Battle Lines
Composed in early 1916, Edward Thomas’s poem “Roads” declares “Now all roads lead to France” (Thomas 107). Thomas’s own road was indeed to end just south of Arras more than a year later; but there were other wartime roads that led well beyond France. The Western Front was the most usual destination for British servicemen, but not the only one. Some served in one or other of the smaller campaigns against Turkish and Bulgarian forces. Hardly any literary men served in the Royal Navy itself, which had little room for recruits: applicants such as Brooke and Herbert were assigned to the Royal Naval Division, a marine-like infantry force under Naval command. The RND was the spearhead of what turned out to be the disaster of the 1915 Gallipoli Expedition. Brooke died of blood-poisoning while on his way to take part in that (April 1915), and was buried by fellow RND officers including Patrick Shaw-Stewart, later the author of one remarkable posthumously-published war poem. Also at Gallipoli with the RND was A. P. Herbert, who was invalided home in July with enteritis. The novelist Compton Mackenzie entered the campaign as a Royal Marines officer, but was assigned briefly to clerical work with the General Staff there, before being recruited for intelligence duties in Greece (of which more below). One of the army chaplains with the Gallipoli Expedition was Ernest Raymond, who subsequently became a prolific novelist, indeed best known for his sentimental war-novel Tell England (1922), set partly at Gallipoli. Other writers who served there include Deeping (in the RAMC), Coulson, Ledwidge, Johns, and the minor war-poet Geoffrey Dearmer. Most men who survived the Gallipoli disaster were later transferred to the Western Front, where Shaw-Stewart, Ledwidge and Coulson were to be killed.
From late 1915, some British soldiers found themselves posted in and around the Greek port of Salonika (now Thessaloniki) as part of a predominantly French defensive force. Not much fighting against the Bulgarians ensued there, but a great deal of manpower was depleted by malaria. The future “Hugh MacDiarmid” (C. M. Grieve) was posted to Salonika as a RAMC sergeant, and almost inevitably contracted malaria, but struggled on through three relapses before being sent home in early 1918 as unfit, condemned to serve out the war in Blackpool. Also at Salonika after his Gallipoli service was W. E. Johns, who likewise succumbed to malaria and was sent home, later to retrain as a RFC pilot and flight instructor. Francis Ledwidge was there too, taking part in a failed British expedition into Serbia in late 1915. Another writer posted there was William Mercer, already the author of humorous tales under the pen-name “Dornford Yates” and later famed for light thrillers too; Mercer was invalided out in 1917 with a recurrent rheumatic condition.
Attached to the predominantly Indian forces sent to Mesopotamia (later Iraq) were some British contingents of the Service Corps, in which was found the Australian-born poet J. Griffyth Fairfax, whose war verse would appear as Mesopotamia (1919); and of the Royal Engineers, among whose motorcycle dispatch-riders was G. Wilson Knight, later an influential Shakespearian critic. Elsewhere in the Middle East was the subsequently far more famous T. E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) who was closely involved in the Arab Revolt and its subsequent coordination with the official Palestine and Syrian campaigns. Sassoon put in a brief -- and in the event pointless -- appearance on the Palestine front in March 1918, supervising some road-mending to the north of Ramallah before being posted back to France again.
The least-remembered campaigns of the war were those in what were then German colonies in Africa: German East Africa (now Tanzania), where Francis Brett Young, a qualified doctor before he became a popular novelist, served with the RAMC before being sent home with malaria in 1918; and Cameroon, where the future novelist Joyce Cary served in 1915-16 before he too was invalided home.
2. Writers on Home-Front Military Service
To serve in uniform but within Britain or Ireland was an undignified fate reserved for those, whether volunteers or conscripts, who were medically classified -- or after active service, reclassified -- as unfit for the rigours of any overseas front. In the first category, of those never sent overseas, we may count the “Georgian” poet Wilfrid Gibson, who tried to enlist no fewer than four times but was turned away on the basis of poor eyesight; eventually during a second round of conscription in 1917, he was taken into the Army but assigned a desk job in a military transport depot. Another such poet, Edward Shanks, enlisted in 1914 but was invalided out in the following year, thus never reaching France. A third poet of the same grouping, Ralph Hodgson, saw something more like military action, serving with east-coast anti-aircraft batteries at first under Naval auspices and then under Army command. Moving on from those early volunteers to one of 1916, we find yet another “Georgian”, the poet and publisher Harold Monro, who reluctantly enlisted just before he would have been drafted. Munro gained a commission with the Royal Garrison Artillery, and after his training served with anti-aircraft batteries in Manchester, London, and Coventry until a medical board reclassified him as unfit for officer duties, after which he was found a desk job at the War Office. Among the later conscripts, the future novelist L. P. Hartley was called up in 1916, and went through officer training, but ill-health confined him to home duties, and eventually to discharge from the Army in early 1918. As we have noted, the Imagist poet F. S. Flint was conscripted, but in his case rather late, beginning his military service in early 1918 and thus serving less than a year in Army clerical duties.
Two younger -- and thus later -- conscripts can hardly be said to have served at all. Richard Hughes, later a novelist and radio dramatist, began his officer training at the age of eighteen a few weeks before the Armistice, but had to be taken out of it for hospital treatment on an abscess, so his war never got under way. Earlier in 1918, the 18-year-old actor -- and later of course playwright -- Noël Coward was medically classified as unfit with weak lungs, but then to his alarm marched off to a Labour Corps camp, from which he absconded and -- through a contact at the War Office -- got himself reclassified as fit, applying now for training with the Artists’ Rifles. Soon he had a nervous breakdown and was confined to hospital. This was followed by a succession of unexplained -- and possibly imaginary -- ailments until the Army decided to discharge him in August, with a scarcely-deserved service medal and a pension.
The returned-convalescent category of servicemen reassigned to home duties is a large assortment of cases too numerous to list. Notable instances include Graves, at first seriously injured and then bronchitic as well as traumatised: he served out the last year of his war as a cadet instructor at Rhyl. Scott Moncrieff spent months in hospital having his wounded leg repaired, and was then in early 1918 assigned to a desk in the Military Intelligence department MI7 of the War Office. Hueffer was by early 1917 a shell-shock case with additional if unexplained breathing difficulties. His light duties at first were carried out at Abbeville, supervising prisoners of war, but he then took on training work at home, eventually becoming a staff lecturer and itinerant training-inspector responsible for the north of England. For injured officers not completely invalided out of service, training work or other garrison-based administration was the norm, as in the cases of Blunden, Tolkien, and Williamson; otherwise desk jobs in intelligence or propaganda were found at the War Office, as with Munro and Scott Moncrieff.
3. Exempted or Absent
A final note should be made of some writers who did not serve. These fall into three groups: the invalids, the Conscientious Objectors, and the outright absentees. Among those who could not serve was the Welsh poet W. H. Davies, who in addition to being over-age had only one leg, following an amputation in earlier life: his contribution was to give poetry readings at war-charity events. His fellow “Georgian” poet Gordon Bottomley was always in poor health, and bed-ridden for much of the war, while another of that ilk, the poet-critic J. C. “Jack” Squire, was turned away for his poor eyesight. The novelists J. D. Beresford -- physically disabled since childhood -- and Ronald Firbank -- a fragile consumptive -- were also fully exempt. The literary Powys brothers Llewellyn and Theodore were rejected on account of pulmonary and cardiac weaknesses respectively. Edwin Muir, later a notable poet and translator, was also classified unfit, and spent his war years working at a shipbuilding office in Glasgow. The young poet L. A. G. Strong was a teacher in prep school, and thus professionally exempt.
D. H. Lawrence was enraged not only to be evicted from Cornwall under emergency wartime legislation (as a victim of suspicious locals, his wife being German), but to be summoned no fewer than three times under conscription procedures: twice to Bodmin, while still in Cornwall (1916, 1917), and finally to Derby in September 1918. His first medical examination cleared him as wholly unfit; on the second and third occasions he was classified fit only for light non-military duties, but was never called to perform any.
The category of Conscientious Objector (CO, in popular parlance “conchie”) is a very small one. This status followed from provisions of the Military Service Act of 1916 intended mostly to protect Quakers and other religious minorities, although others could claim moral objection to bearing arms and thus be exempted from that -- although not from all war work when found fit enough -- if judged to be genuine by a local Tribunal. Some who applied for CO status were found to be completely unfit in any case, and not required to do any form of non-military service, as with the semi-invalid Lytton Strachey. The novelist Gilbert Cannan was granted CO status but then had a nervous breakdown, preventing him from taking up alternative work. Some others were permitted to do rather light farm work, but on that account they appear in the parallel article to this one, on civilian war participation. The young poet John Rodker -- later a translator and small-press publisher -- responded to the onset of conscription by going on the run, and was hunted by the police as a deserter. He was sheltered at times by a fellow-poet and pacifist, R. C. Trevelyan, otherwise by his lover Mary Butts (herself later a novelist) until apprehended in April 1917. His application for CO status was upheld on condition of what amounted to punitive agricultural labour at an official Work Centre, the disused Dartmoor Prison. Rodker managed to abscond from that regime in early 1918 and went underground for the rest of the war.
A few writers managed to absent themselves from the reach of conscription, by staying overseas. P. G. Wodehouse is a notable case, he being too busy throughout the war making his fortune as an increasingly successful librettist for musical revues on Broadway. It was possible for expatriates in the USA to enlist through British consulates or missions, and the middle-aged novelist J. C. Powys attempted just that in 1918 (military age having been raised to 51 at that point), only to be rejected for a slight pulmonary weakness. Hugh Lofting, later the creator of Dr Doolittle, had earlier crossed the Atlantic from his American home in 1916 to serve in the Irish Guards. Wodehouse, though, saw no urgent reason to enlist, and might well have been rejected anyway for weak eyesight. James Joyce’s case is not of the same type: he spent the war years in neutral Switzerland at Zurich, but had he chosen to return to Dublin he would not, as an Irish resident, have been subject to conscription. (For fear of inflaming nationalist sentiment, the British authorities had exempted Ireland from those measures.)
A far less reputable literary absentee was the minor -- very minor -- poet and occultist charlatan Aleister Crowley. Aged 40 in 1916 and thus conscriptable, Crowley spent the whole of the war in America, drumming up gullible acolytes for his variety of supposed “magick” (which usually turned out to mean anal sex with prostitutes) and fleecing them of their money. At some point he became involved with a pro-German propaganda magazine called The Fatherland, for which he was a paid contributor, his articles including the complaint that London had not been sufficiently bombed. On another occasion he pulled a stunt for the newspapers in which he seemingly burned his British passport in solidarity with Irish nationalism. His activities were tracked by the British authorities, although on his post-war return to England in 1919 he was neither arrested nor questioned, possibly having been written off as a self-publicising crank.
Ricketts, Harry. Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great
War. London: Chatto & Windus. 2010.
Thomas, Edward. The Annotated Collected Poems. Ed. Edna Longley. Tarset: Bloodaxe. 2008.
Webb, Barry. Edmund Blunden: A Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1990.
Citation: Baldick, Chris. "British Authors’ Military Service in the First World War". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 15 September 2016 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=19481, accessed 03 June 2023.]