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Getting to Know the Colonel

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The name on the cover of the battered paperback unceremoniously pushed to the back of the bookstall’s foreign languages section was vaguely familiar: André Maurois. The title of his book could not have been simpler, just 1885–1967 Mémoires. So a pound or two spent to satisfy my curiosity seemed worthwhile. And I was right.

Maurois was a literary celebrity of the 1920s and 1930s who became one of the French great and good after his election in 1938 to the Académie française. He had wanted to write from an early age but, for a man who worked in his family’s textile mill, it could only be a matter of scribbling in his spare time. Still, he learned and became fluent in English, and not long after the outbreak of the First World War, he was sent by the French authorities to a British unit as an interpreter. From this experience Maurois wove the collection of sketches that made his name: Les Silences du Colonel Bramble (1918).

Colonel Bramble is not the sort of war memoir in which a general recalls his actions or a private soldier reminisces about suffering in the trenches. Rather, it is a kindly look at the British, more of an affectionate tease than a serious analysis of military organization. The book does not have a strong narrative line but it does transport the reader straight into the officers’ mess of the fictitious Lennox Highlanders, stationed on the Somme, allowing us to eavesdrop on the conversation of four central characters who come from a huntin’-shootin’-fishin’ world in which physical prowess is highly prized.

Indeed, Colonel Bramble opens at a brigade boxing tournament to which Aurelle, the interpreter and narrator – manifestly Maurois himself – is taken by Colonel Bramble and his second-in-command, Major Parker. This provides a suitable introduction to discussion and dismissal of intellectual values. ‘I hate the clever types,’ Bramble tells Aurelle, followed quickly by, ‘I b

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The name on the cover of the battered paperback unceremoniously pushed to the back of the bookstall’s foreign languages section was vaguely familiar: André Maurois. The title of his book could not have been simpler, just 1885–1967 Mémoires. So a pound or two spent to satisfy my curiosity seemed worthwhile. And I was right.

Maurois was a literary celebrity of the 1920s and 1930s who became one of the French great and good after his election in 1938 to the Académie française. He had wanted to write from an early age but, for a man who worked in his family’s textile mill, it could only be a matter of scribbling in his spare time. Still, he learned and became fluent in English, and not long after the outbreak of the First World War, he was sent by the French authorities to a British unit as an interpreter. From this experience Maurois wove the collection of sketches that made his name: Les Silences du Colonel Bramble (1918). Colonel Bramble is not the sort of war memoir in which a general recalls his actions or a private soldier reminisces about suffering in the trenches. Rather, it is a kindly look at the British, more of an affectionate tease than a serious analysis of military organization. The book does not have a strong narrative line but it does transport the reader straight into the officers’ mess of the fictitious Lennox Highlanders, stationed on the Somme, allowing us to eavesdrop on the conversation of four central characters who come from a huntin’-shootin’-fishin’ world in which physical prowess is highly prized. Indeed, Colonel Bramble opens at a brigade boxing tournament to which Aurelle, the interpreter and narrator – manifestly Maurois himself – is taken by Colonel Bramble and his second-in-command, Major Parker. This provides a suitable introduction to discussion and dismissal of intellectual values. ‘I hate the clever types,’ Bramble tells Aurelle, followed quickly by, ‘I beg your pardon, messiou.’ It is clearly in order for Aurelle, as a Frenchman, to be an intellectual. For Parker, ‘tennis and golf rule out reading’, and in any case, he says of the British, ‘we’re stupid and it’s a great strength – when we find ourselves in danger we don’t recognize it because we don’t think much and that keeps us calm so we nearly always come out of it with honour intact’. Bramble is a gruff man. ‘He didn’t talk much and then always in brief phrases but Aurelle learned to appreciate his dry humour and the charming smile which sometimes lit up his rugged face.’ Hence Les Silences. Bramble controls the Mess, of course, and that means he can insist on having his limited choice of records, best described as light classics, played on the Mess gramophone. ‘He only liked familiar entertainment and the good cheer of the bottle.’ But he has a strong sense of order. ‘Toasts are fixed for each day of the week: Monday our men, Tuesday ourselves, Wednesday our swords, Thursday our sports, Friday our religion, Saturday our fiancées or wives, Sunday absent friends and ships at sea.’ The other two main characters are O’Grady, the doctor, and MacIvor, the padre. O’Grady is loquacious, argumentative, a bit of a bar-room sage. The doctor, Parker comments acidly, ‘is a bloody Irishman and he can’t hold his tongue’. At one point Bramble intervenes: ‘Parker, do you see any means of reducing him to silence?’ ‘A grenade Number Five, sir,’ says the Major. MacIvor is a conscientious but gung-ho Anglican clergyman, out in the trenches daily with cigarettes for the men, and described by Aurelle as ‘an old military chaplain with a visage tempered by colonial suns’ who ‘was accepting this distressing martial life with the enthusiasm of a child’. O’Grady likes to bait him from time to time. ‘Padre, aren’t you the minister of a religion of peace and love?’ MacIvor puts that down easily. ‘My boy, the Master said we must love men: he never said we must love the Germans.’ But the Germans get the better of him in the end; he is killed by a stray shell. Through Aurelle, Maurois tries to find the essence of the British. In one chapter described as a diary, Aurelle notes how he is enjoying the growth of Parker’s respect for the French Army and records an exchange with Parker and O’Grady.

‘It’s curious,’ he said to me, ‘you always collect more prisoners than we do and your losses are less than ours – why is that?’ I kept a modest silence. ‘It’s simply that,’ said the doctor, ‘the French take this war seriously while we persist in seeing it like a game. You know, Aurelle, the story of Peter Pan, the little boy who never grows up? The British are like Peter Pan: there are no big people among us – that’s charming, but sometimes dangerous.’

Maurois explained in Mémoires that O’Grady and MacIvor were based on real people but that he formed the characters of Bramble and Parker from an amalgam of officers he had met. During the nights of shelling at Abbeville, to banish his worst fears, he sat down to recall the conversation of these men. Very quickly, he later recalled, the conversations took the shape of a book which he typed up at army headquarters when he had a spare moment. His source material, of course, was in English which he then had to translate into French. A friend introduced Maurois and the manuscript to Bernard Grasset, a young publisher, who took it on. Proof copies appeared in March 1918. Some went to the Abbeville public library, still open in spite of nearby fighting. They were snatched up. Proof copies were equally popular in Paris. This was a time when the outcome of the war was by no means certain, for Ludendorff had launched his great spring offensive, which nearly succeeded in breaking the Allied lines – ‘for a few days I believed the war was lost’, Maurois wrote in Mémoires. Grasset, though, encouraged by the reception of the proofs, decided on a print run of 5,000. Then there was a second run of 10,000, a third of 20,000 and yet another of 50,000. ‘We had won – la partie était gagnée,’ remembered Maurois. Les Silences proved to be a balm for troubled times. At least that was how Maurois saw it years later. ‘Because this slim book appeared at a time of distress, because it mingled a melancholy humour with our sadness, because it opened a door to hope, because it portrayed our allies with sympathy, its success was immediate.’ The book established Maurois as an author and gave him the scope to write two sequels, Les Discours du Dr O’Grady and, much later, Les Nouveux Discours du Dr O’Grady. Not only that. Les Silences acted as a calling-card, introducing Maurois to a wide range of people in British and French literary and political circles. He even had Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief, chuckling over Colonel Bramble, and Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister, hoping for a chat. At last he could turn his back on the family textile mill. In fact, the book proved to be the literary debut of one of France’s most popular biographers, whose subjects included Shelley, Disraeli, Byron, Turgenev, Chateaubriand, Proust, George Sand, Victor Hugo, Madame de Lafayette and Balzac. And the secret of his success seems to have been the semi-fictional technique of character analysis that he established in Les Silences du Colonel Bramble.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55 © Paul Cheesright 2017


About the contributor

Paul Cheeseright is a former reporter for the Financial Times who has responded to Brexit by reading more in French.

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