The way things are going, we shall spend the next four years in tears. The commemorations of the First World War centenary depict the trenches on the Western Front as appalling places where young, promising men died in unimaginable horror, possibly for no, or the wrong, purpose: all was sorrow, regret and pointlessness.
In the hope that there might be other, more nuanced narratives, I have set myself the goal of reading widely about the war: recent histories, of course, but also those books written during it or soon after its end, since they more truly encapsulate the thoughts of those who went through it all. This naturally means the war poetry as well as the prose works of Sassoon, Graves and Blunden, but also Mr Standfast, my grandfather John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay story, and his four-volume History of the Great War.
In 1914, John Buchan was 39 and an established publisher, writer and Parliamentary candidate. That summer, plagued by duodenal ulcers, he went with his family to Broadstairs to convalesce by the sea. There he wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in October 1915, when it was an immediate success. In the autumn of 1914 his application to join the Army was turned down, so he suggested to Thomas Nelson, the Edinburgh publishing company of which he was a partner, that it issue a history of the war in monthly parts. Hilaire Belloc agreed to write it but then dropped out, so Buchan was forced to undertake the work himself. The result was Nelson’s History of the War, published in 24 volumes, the first appearing in February 1915. The royalties he gave to the families of the firm’s employees away at the war.
In early 1915, The Times employed him as a war correspondent, and he reported on the second Battle of Ypres. That autumn, he was sent by the Foreign Office to observe the Battle of Loos. The next year, he was seconded to General Haig’s headquarters in France to draft communiqués
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The way things are going, we shall spend the next four years in tears. The commemorations of the First World War centenary depict the trenches on the Western Front as appalling places where young, promising men died in unimaginable horror, possibly for no, or the wrong, purpose: all was sorrow, regret and pointlessness.In the hope that there might be other, more nuanced narratives, I have set myself the goal of reading widely about the war: recent histories, of course, but also those books written during it or soon after its end, since they more truly encapsulate the thoughts of those who went through it all. This naturally means the war poetry as well as the prose works of Sassoon, Graves and Blunden, but also Mr Standfast, my grandfather John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay story, and his four-volume History of the Great War. In 1914, John Buchan was 39 and an established publisher, writer and Parliamentary candidate. That summer, plagued by duodenal ulcers, he went with his family to Broadstairs to convalesce by the sea. There he wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in October 1915, when it was an immediate success. In the autumn of 1914 his application to join the Army was turned down, so he suggested to Thomas Nelson, the Edinburgh publishing company of which he was a partner, that it issue a history of the war in monthly parts. Hilaire Belloc agreed to write it but then dropped out, so Buchan was forced to undertake the work himself. The result was Nelson’s History of the War, published in 24 volumes, the first appearing in February 1915. The royalties he gave to the families of the firm’s employees away at the war. In early 1915, The Times employed him as a war correspondent, and he reported on the second Battle of Ypres. That autumn, he was sent by the Foreign Office to observe the Battle of Loos. The next year, he was seconded to General Haig’s headquarters in France to draft communiqués and then in July, while still in France, commissioned into the Intelligence Corps, principally handling press matters. In early 1917, he was recalled and made Director of a Department of Information answerable only to the War Cabinet. In late 1917, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, turned the Department into a Ministry of Information under Lord Beaverbrook, with Buchan as Director of Intelligence. In the next two years, he visited Flanders and France a number of times. It was an intensely pressured and anxious job, particularly for a man who valued truth so highly, and it was not helped by the unpredictability and self-serving instincts of the politicians and newspaper barons with whom he had to deal. But the very worst day of those years for him was 9 April 1917, when both his younger brother Alastair and his friend and business partner, Tommy Nelson, were killed at the Battle of Arras, within half a mile of each other. Buchan may not have been a combatant, but he had seen the fighting at first hand, and he had more than his share of sorrow, with a number of his greatest friends dying in the conflict. At the end of the war, he was given the task of winding up the Department, and did it so carefully that scarcely a trace of its work remained (much to the frustration of later historians). In his autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door, he describes his war mainly in terms of the loss of friends, as well as the battle he had to fight with his digestive system. In the process, he thoroughly downplays his own considerable contribution – partly, I suspect, out of modesty and partly because most of what he had done was highly secret. Something we do know is that he wrote his ‘shockers’ for recreation, and it’s not implausible to conclude that they also helped console him for not having fought in the trenches. There is certainly much emphasis in the wartime novels on courage, endurance and self-sacrifice, virtues he exhibited all his life, even if he never went ‘over the top’. He also used his wartime novels to say things that could not find a place in the patriotic and purposely morale-boosting Nelson’s History or even The Times – in particular about the futility of war, the bellicosity of some British Generals, the waste and confusion of battle, and the goodness of many Germans. There are sympathetic descriptions of a conscientious objector and a sufferer from severe shell-shock in Mr Standfast, and of the Kaiser in Greenmantle. Buchan may have valued patriotism and love of country very highly, and considered the fight a necessary one, but he was no blinkered jingoist. Mr Standfast was written between July 1917 and July 1918 and published in 1919. In it, Richard Hannay, the Scottish/South African engineer and foiler of German plots in The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, is called out of the trenches, where he has recently been promoted to Brigadier-General, and told by Sir Walter Bullivant (the War Office spymaster) that he’s needed for something very secret and dangerous: he must pose as a South African pacifist, and await further orders. He eventually discovers that he has to get on the trail of a spy – a spy who turns out to have been one of the Black Stone gang from The Thirty-Nine Steps, whom everyone had thought dead and buried. This spy has organized a network of agents which is getting important information out of Britain to Germany. John S. Blenkiron and Peter Pienaar from Greenmantle reappear in this book, but not Sandy Arbuthnot, although there is a female addition to the team of counter-spies in the shape of the lovely and intelligent Mary Lamington. They keep in contact with one another by using Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a device for relaying coded information. In some pretty unlikely but brilliantly captured cameos, Hannay falls in love in Gloucestershire, kicks his heels among pacifists in Letchworth, consorts with radical trades unionists in Glasgow, climbs perilously in the mountains of Skye, is chased by Scottish and English police, burgles a French château, tends to Peter Pienaar, now a wounded ex-airman, in Switzerland, and climbs a glaciated mountain col in a tearing hurry, before ending back in the trenches on the Western Front. Fiction writers inevitably draw from their own experience, even if it’s transmuted into something very different in their stories. Buchan, whose skill in describing landscape and weather was second to none, writes vividly about both the Cuillins of Skye and the Col des Hirondelles in the Alps, places he knew well from his mountaineering trips as a young man. His hero, Hannay, uses his military skills to disrupt a trench battle scene being shot on a film set in Yorkshire, which Buchan would have known at first hand from his war work. Moreover, he must have come across Clydeside radicals like Andrew Amos, when he lived in the Gorbals (his father was a Free Church of Scotland minister in what was probably the worst slum parish in Britain), as well as Boer hunters, such as Peter Pienaar, when he worked for Lord Milner in South Africa. And he gives his stomach troubles, and his love of playing Patience, to the appealing American engineer and agent John S. Blenkiron. In the thrilling climax of the book, he cleverly integrates fictional events into a factual context with an extraordinarily vivid and exciting description of the great German offensive in March 1918, when Ludendorff ’s divisions made a major push east of Amiens, under cover of fog, and very nearly succeeded in breaking through. Amazingly, Buchan began Mr Standfast before these events took place. I wonder how many other possible endings his fertile brain had imagined. The fascination of these interweavings of fact and fiction, as well as the blistering narrative pace and the deep seriousness of purpose, far outweigh for me the inevitable flaws of a book written at odd moments, when there was so much else going on: for example, the careless racial stereotyping which, though commonplace then, makes us wince now, as well as the love scenes which embarrass and mildly disturb. The piled-on coincidences don’t trouble me but I do have a problem with the idea of a ‘baddie’ who can so completely change his features as to be unrecognizable. All that said, I can still never put the book down, once started, thanks to its narrative drive, surprisingly complex characterizations and dry wit. These days, when we think of the Somme, it is 1 July 1916, the worst day for casualties in the history of the British Army, which comes immediately to mind. But the fighting south and north of the River Somme from 21 March to early April 1918 was desperate, and absolutely crucial to the outcome of the war. The French had their forces massed in Champagne, some distance to the south-east, thinking that that was where the push would come. But instead the Germans pressed west over old battlegrounds, intending to take Amiens and then have a free route to Abbeville and the sea, so outflanking the Allied forces and capturing the railway lines to Paris. The British forces were woefully inadequate, with only half the divisions that the Germans had, and in places they were outnumbered by as much as four to one, stretched wafer-thin along a 40-mile front. The situation was extremely perilous. It was vital that the Germans never got to know how few were the defenders and their reserves, and that their opponents somehow retreated in good order, when they had to, but also stood firm in front of Amiens and Arras until the French arrived to reinforce them. Hannay and his band have discovered from the captured mastermind of the spy network, the Graf von Schwabing, that the push will indeed be in Picardy. Hannay dashes back to the Front, is promoted to Major-General and takes command of a division south of Peronne, where the Somme turns west, a place about 30 miles due east of Amiens, where Mary Lamington is nursing in a hospital. He puts von Schwabing in the British trenches, so that he will discover what the war that he has promoted so assiduously is really like. Hannay’s ragbag division, desperately short of trained reinforcements,encompasses – in homage to his dead brother Alastair, no doubt – a battalion of Royal Scots Fusiliers, and looks to me to be modelled on the 30th Division, commanded in 1918 by Major-General W. de l’A. Williams. I have not been able to discover whether Buchan ever knew him, although I expect he did, orwhether he asked permission to fictionalize what was an extremely brave rearguard action. Somehow, in the book – as in real life – the division manages to beat an orderly retreat, although the losses are severe. Among them is the brave pacifist Launcelot Wake, who finds peace for his unquiet soul in acting as a runner for Hannay, and who saves the day by swimming the Somme and warning the neighbouring division that the Germans are threatening to outflank Hannay’s men. John S. Blenkiron and his American engineers do a sterling job digging trenches and even get involved in the fighting. And finally, Peter Pienaar, the wounded RFC ace, takes to the air again . . . but I won’t spoil it for you. All I will say is that he thereby proves himself to be not Mr Standfast, as he thinks he is, but Mr Valiant-for-truth, the finest character from the author’s beloved Pilgrim’s Progress. In real life, the Germans pushed the Allies back 40 miles but, exhausted and with overextended supply lines, they never got as far as Amiens. That August (a month after Buchan finished Mr Standfast) the Allies, with the help of the recently arrived Americans, counterattacked, and by November, Germany was suing for peace. If you read the account of this battle in the novel, you can follow it on a Michelin road map. Only a few names have been changed. Even in the comparatively dry, considered and very detailed History, Buchan cannot help but make the account stirring. Of the desperate fighting on 23 March, for example, he wrote, ‘Giddy with lack of sleep, grey with fatigue, tortured by the ceaseless bombardments, summoned at almost every hour to repel attacks on flank and rear, the British troops had shown a fortitude beyond all human praise.’ My grandmother recalled her husband’s demeanour during this time, when the British were finally facing up to the real possibility of defeat by Germany:
During the dark days of the German breakthrough in 1918, when Haig’s dispatch containing the words ‘Our backs are against the wall’ had sent a shudder through the nation, Henry [Sir Henry Newbolt] described to me the lunch hour at the Athenaeum Club . . . When John came in, all heads turned in his direction and whispers were rife. ‘How does he look today? Does he look more cheerful than yesterday?’ Henry always said that John’s imperturbable calm did not vary, and that this did a great deal to steady people.I sometimes try to imagine the scene. My grandfather – short in stature, dapper in the uniform of a colonel in the Intelligence Corps, fine-boned, with an aquiline nose and a forehead lined by a prominent scar that dated from a childhood accident – enters the high-ceilinged dining-room, and the clatter of cutlery falls silent as he greets his friend Newbolt. The swells of the Athenaeum – no doubt, many of them men of public affairs – know that he’s the man who has read all the Intelligence reports from France. No wonder they search his face for signs of anxiety, even despair. Surely, surely, at this time he has no leisure to mull over the ending of Mr Standfast? Or does he? The thought of it fair takes my breath away. It is, frankly, this collision of real and fictional drama that makes Mr Standfast more than just an enjoyable and interesting period piece. And it reminds me how profoundly I regret that I never had the chance to know my grandfather.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 44 © Ursula Buchan 2014
About the contributor
Ursula Buchan can, sadly, discern few common characteristics with her grandfather – except a weakness for tobacco (sternly suppressed), a troublesome digestion and a deep love of upland places.