Some queer goings-on in the trenches

The army was a happy hunting ground for gays during the Great War, writesA D Harvey

In John Buchan's thriller novel Greenmantle, published in 1916, his hero is surprised and a little disgusted by what he sees in the private quarters of his German antagonist, Colonel Stumm:

At first sight you would have said it was a woman's drawing room. But it wasn't. I soon saw the difference. There had never been a woman's hand in that place . . . I began to see the queer other side to my host, that evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army.

It was not exactly unknown in the British army, either. The sexual orientation of the first world war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, which has subsequently become celebrated, was not public knowledge at the time, but during the war at least 230 soldiers were court-martialled, convicted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment for homosexual offences.

During the same period a number of other military personnel, having been arrested by the ordinary police, were tried and convicted in civilian courts. Lieutenant Wilfrid Marsden of the Royal Flying Corps was sentenced at the Old Bailey to two years' hard labour for "gross indecency" in January 1916. Found among his papers was a letter from a 20-year-old second lieutenant in the King's Royal Rifle Corps, F R West, which was read out in court:

I had unusual luck after I left you. I strolled passed the Union Jack Club but saw only drunkards etc, so rushed with all possible speed to the old beat where I soon picked up a charming girl very fair with blue eyes and slightly wavy hair who was in the Red Cross show, uniform very becoming, stationed at Yarmouth of all places. He was up on four days leave and was perfectly charming and very affectionate. He gave me his photo. His legs my dear, were too wonderful and I am feeling very tired to-day.

This letter was handed over to the military authorities, and West was brought back from France, where he had been serving in the trenches for the previous three months. He was court-martialled and cashiered.

West seems to have wished to re-enlist as a common soldier: his file contains a letter from an officer in the Brigade of Guards to a lieutenant-colonel in the adjutant- general's department, asking: "Are any special steps to be taken in connection with the enlistment of late officers of the 'Dirty Brigade' and the selection of their future regiments?" Another second lieutenant, H C B Runnals, who was court-martialled on two counts of indecency at about the same time and sentenced to a year's hard labour, was by March 1917 serving as a private in the Army Service Corps.

One might have thought that in the middle of a world war the authorities would have had something more important on their minds than the sexual proclivities of the lads in khaki - and indeed, more officers were convicted of indecency with other men in the 18 months following the end of hostilities than during the 52 months of the war itself. (Or perhaps this is an indication that the opportunities for sexual escapades improved once the troops moved out of the trenches and training camps into properly organised cantonments.)

Of the 17 officers court-martialled for indecency between the outbreak of the first world war in August 1914 and 30 September 1918, ten were tried by courts martial held in the UK during the 12 months ending 30 September 1916 - the period in which Britain's volunteer army was undergoing its most rapid expansion.

A number of "temporary gentlemen" appointed to commissions in the New Army turned out to be not quite officer material: almost a fifth of officers court-martialled in the 12-month period in question were charged either with indecency or with scandalous conduct. (Scandalous conduct, when not referring to sexual misdemeanours, usually meant passing dud cheques.)

By no means all these errant officers were boys who had just escaped from their mothers and had misunderstood the standards of behaviour that were expected of those holding the King's commission. At least two of the gays sentenced to hard labour in the spring of 1915 had been regular army officers during the Boer war. Frederic Llewellyn, having served in South Africa in the Imperial Yeomanry, had been commissioned in the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1900, left the army in 1907 or 1908, rejoined in 1914 and by the time of his arrest was second in command of the 8th (Service) Battalion, the Oxford and Buckingham Light Infantry. S G O Rudderborg saw action against the Boers with Brabants Horse, before being commissioned in the King's Dragoon Guards. By 1914, having left the regular army, he was a lieutenant in the Territorials. Alfred C Boyd, who apparently had been too young to serve in the Boer war, became an officer in the Territorials in 1907. Boyd was tried on nine separate counts of indecency, Llewellyn on six; since their trials belong to a series held at the same venue (the Guildhall at Westminster), it seems not unlikely that they were members of an established coterie of officers who had a long experience of exploiting the army as a happy hunting ground.

It may even have occurred to people in the War Office that the cases of Llewellyn and Boyd might be the tip of the iceberg, but no one seems to have stuck his neck out by writing a memo on the subject. There was a war going on, after all - and in any case, it was whispered that the secretary of state for war, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was having a love affair with his good-looking military secretary, Lieutenant-Colonel Oswald Fitzgerald.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain