Gary Raymond asks why has Wales’ military history been so absent from debates about national identity, and looks at the republication of Frank Richards’ two early twentieth century army memoirs, Old Soldiers Never Die and Old Soldier Sahib from The Library of Wales.
The public discourse of Wales is one obsessed with notions of national identity, and yet it has always been quiet in recognising that Wales is, historically, a soldiering nation. It is not that the country’s contribution to the military history of Great Britain has gone undocumented, but rather when the same old faces churn out the same old topics – coal-mining, socialism, rugby, singing – the military, from Agincourt to Helmand, is conspicuously absent. This year, however, has seen the achievements of Welsh regiments come more into the limelight, as we commemorate the First World War. For Wales, the most significant resurrection from this concerted effort of the arts and media establishment, has been David Jones, the London-born modernist poet and painter. Alun Lewis has had a few minutes in the sun (not enough). Edward Thomas has gone largely unmentioned (perhaps wait for the centenary of his death in 2017). But it is perhaps the republication of Frank Richards’ two memoirs by the Library of Wales, Old Soldiers Never Die (1933) and Old Soldier Sahib (1936), that is the most important. It means that Wales now has at least, in this modern age, recognised its own great war literature.
Richards’ memoirs are significant for two reasons: they give a brilliant insight into the life of a soldier in the early stages of the twentieth century (the aspect that made them best-sellers in their day), and they give up something of Welsh working-class character of the time. That the Richards’ books have been lost for so long is in itself something of a peculiar tragedy, and in bringing them back The Library of Wales series (in partnership with Parthian) has much to be applauded for. The series has been hit and miss, but validation of the project as a whole comes in the form of titles such as these. The Library of Wales is not just a conservation-resurrection project, but it is contributing powerfully to that ever-winding public debate about what Wales is and who the Welsh are. And Frank Richards too now has a say in it.
So why is it that Welsh militarism is rarely part of that debate? Perhaps it is felt by some that the achievements of Welsh regiments were in the building of what many this side of the border feel was the English Empire. Certainly at the time of First World War, Welsh non-conformism, still with the slander of the Blue Books ringing in their ears, fighting for Queen and Country was not necessarily viewed as the same as fighting for Wales. Saunders Lewis was still evoking its toxic ghost in the 1960s. Wales, then, has not romanticised soldiering in the same way it has coal-mining and rugby because, as Dorothy Edwards explores so beautifully in her short story “The Conquered” (1927), there is no substance, no soul, in singing the songs of the conqueror.
Or perhaps it is just because Wales has never been very good at preserving and exhibiting this part of its national character. Why does it take a project like The Library of Wales to bring back such a bona fide classic as Old Soldiers Never Die, when Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (Richards’ commanding officer and literary mentor) has never been out of print? Perhaps it’s because the debate around Welsh identity is stultifyingly introverted, and soldiering is mostly, by its nature, about going out into the world.
But Richards’ books, it is obvious from page one, where he recounts drinking with a few of his “cronies” in the Castle Hotel in Blaina when word comes that war has broken out with Germany, are Welsh to the core. It is absurd to think they have been ignored for so long (like so many other Welsh writers). Is it that, unlike David Jones’ high art, Richards’ books have been too working-class, regarded as too unliterary in their account of war, to merit the embrace?
Whereas Jones’ now un-forgotten modernist masterpiece poem, In Parenthesis, is a difficult, if startling, multi-layered Waste Land from the trenches, the true tale of war is not just a wormhole for high art. War must be looked at through the diversity of the eyes that bare it witness, which is why we must have our Stendhals (who trudged the frozen trail with Napoleon in Russia in 1812) as well as our Mailers (who landed in the sweat and fug of the jungles of the South Pacific in World War II), our Sassoons (a Cambridge scholar) as well as our Rosenbergs (a Jewish engraver’s apprentice from Stepney). Frank Richards, with his unerring lack of pretension or literary tricks, fills holes in the tapestry of the era in which he lived, and at the same time speaks loudly about the Welsh working-class experience. It is the memoir of a regular solider, Welsh born-and-bred at that, and tells the day-to-day, gets into the oil and grease of the mechanics of soldiering in both the outreaches of the British Empire, and the trenches of the Western Front. This is a very different take on things than the one from Jones, a passionate and precocious twenty year old who came from six years at the private Camberwell Arts School where he had learned to paint under a pupil of Gauguin.
It is in fact way outside of Wales that we need to look to find a book that comes close to Richards’. Old Soldiers Never Die is most closely related in tone and idea to Norman Mailer’s masterpiece of the Philippines Campaign, The Naked and the Dead, that beat of a novel about the America GI in World War II. But even here in the end one cannot escape the fact that Mailer has literary ambition, whereas Richards has none. The comparison ends up emphasising the value of Richards’ book as something apart from Mailer, the consummate, self-aware literary man bounding with both eyes wide-open into the Hemingway-tradition of writer-as-anti-sissy. Richards is not only disinterested in such claims to a seat on literary Olympus, but he seems uninterested in literature altogether. Gore Vidal, who spent fifty years in a love-hate relationship with Mailer, said of The Naked and the Dead,
My first reaction… was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since… I do recall a fine description of men carrying a dying man down a mountain… Yet every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken not from life, but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbons of a Dos Passos work.
He could not have found such objections in Old Soldiers Never Die.
Old Soldiers Never Die reads for long sections like an interview with the questions removed. Richards writes in relaxed, conversational terms. (“His name was Casson. I wrote it down here first as Carson, but an old soldiering pal tells me I got it wrong”.) His account of the Christmas Day Armistice in 1914 is so matter-of-fact it abandons all absurdist notions associated with the legend. Every paragraph is compelling in its simplicity, in its lack of theatre.
Old Soldier Sahib is no less remarkable in what it provides. If Richards gives a no-bullshit account of the life of a regular soldier in the trenches, then he does the same for the India and Burma of the British Empire here. Robert Graves, who spotted Richards’ gift and guided Old Soldiers… and …Sahib to publication, was in awe of Richards’ ability to eschew literariness. The Library of Wales edition republishes Graves’ excellent introduction.
Many writers could not have resisted the temptation to make the battle-ground as littered with feathers as a poulterer’s shop in Christmas week. Many writers also would have failed to carry on the story of Bern the murderer beyond the point where he was sentenced to death. But Richards has not fear of anti-climax, because the importance of the story lies less for him in the simple tale of a man sent mad by wounded pride and affection, than in the relation of tragedy to the whole disinterested military setting: more important than the fact of murder, to the troops at Kilana, was the keeping up of race prestige during the hanging.
And it is Graves who draws attention to the truism that a lack of literariness does not equate to a lack of intellectual or moral rigour. Richards’ work suggests craft is bondage, and the chaos and magnitude of war is not served correctly by artisanal posturing.
Graves also offers in his essay a very succinct line on the Welshness of the soldiering tradition.
The South Welsh miner has a very limited moral code, but he sticks to it; and it tallies well with the army code.
But Graves does not mention – although he would not have failed to notice – the intelligence, good-heartedness and good-humour of Richards’ work. For both books, Richards is an excellent companion, as good as any travel writer in some instances, when leading us through the outer regions of the Empire.
On the Plains it was impossible to carry out long-distance signalling except from high buildings some miles apart. Agra and its surroundings were ideal for this kind of work. I don’t suppose that the old Mogul Emperors would have built their beautiful tombs and buildings at such a height I they had known that after their time the tops of them would be used by British signallers as convenient posts for fixing their heliographs and lamps.
In Graves’ own account of the two books’ germination, he recalls how Richards reluctantly wrote out the second as he found “pen-pushing a wearisome occupation”. Graves notes how Richards’ literary style is that of an army signaller somewhat long in the tooth – “his reported dialogues and monologues read like authentic speech written down for sending”. So Richards, if you carry this argument forward, is about as authentic as a reader is likely to get.
Not too much can be made of the fact that Richards was a “timber-man” in a South Wales coalmine, outside of his stints in the army. Graves was an Oxford man, a poet, who in his summer breaks from Charterhouse would go mountaineering in Harlech with his friend George Mallory. Graves opens Goodbye to all That with a tribute to his famous friend. Remember Richards’ starts with afternoon drinking in the Castle Hotel, Blaina. Graves realised that his own testament of the war was steeped in literariness, a knowingness that came with a passion for Greek and Roman classics, a love for cultures who saw nothing unusual in great soldier poets. So, rarely has the experience of the “grunt”, the “scum of the land” as Wellington labelled his infantrymen after the Peninsular war, been recorded so authentically as it is in the work of Frank Richards.
Literature is the great aspic of any cultural strand, and the Welsh literary establishment is an important player in the development of this national debate about identity, whether the dominating philistinism of the Welsh mainstream media likes it or not. That we have ignored these great writers – Richards, Jones, Lewis and so many others – is not, then, just an insult to their sacrifice, but lessens us as a nation of people trying to understand who we are.
Frank Richards has a voice that is resolutely Welsh and working-class, and it is his seemingly natural-born talent for documenting his experiences in writing that makes his books about the day-to-day of soldiering perhaps the most important publication in Wales this year.