Boys' Books and the Great War

By Paris, Michael | History Today, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Boys' Books and the Great War


Paris, Michael, History Today


Michael Paris looks at the romanticised image of war in boys' popular fiction prior to 1914, and at the sustaining appeal of the genre in spite of the realities of that event.

IN SEPTEMBER 1914, nineteen-year-old Roland Leighton wrote to his close friend Vera Brittain,

   I feel ... I am meant to take some active pan in this war. It is to me a
   very fascinating thing -- something, if often horrible, yet very ennobling
   and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the
   reach of cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.

Leighton, like most other young men of his age, had grown to manhood under the spell of the pleasure culture of war -- the experience of war transformed into romantic and chivalric stories for the entertainment of the young, and which had become increasingly common during the later nineteenth century. These fictions, however, were not only a source of exciting and escapist adventure, but promoted patriotism, manliness and a simplistic imperial worldview that emphasised duty and the need for sacrifice if the British Empire was to endure. They indoctrinated their readers with the credo that an Englishman was more than a match for any mere foreigner; that war was a game, and that battle was an exciting experience in which young men could demonstrate their loyalty to the motherland and find fame and honour. In the popular novels of G.A. Henty, Captain F.S. Brereton, Herbert Strang, Percy F. Westerman and Robert Leighton, and in the pages of The Boy's Own Paper, Pluck, The Boy Friend and countless other story papers, young men were captivated by thrilling tales of the little wars of empire such as With Spear and Assegai, Fighting the Matabele, With Kitchener in the Soudan or One of the Fighting Scouts. Other stories related the exciting events of imaginary future wars as the Russian hordes or the legions of the Kaiser invaded Britain and were only defeated at the last possible moment by English pluck. Indeed, so many of these tales appeared in the two decades before 1914, that many young readers were convinced that a great European war was virtually inevitable. Yet in these tales of conflict, authors softened, sanitised and romanticised battle, disguising its brutal reality with a veneer of chivalric and sporting imagery, so that, as in Henry Newbolt's Vital Lampada, a bloody battle in the Sudan could be transformed into little more than a hard fought match between the School and a rather unruly visitors' eleven:

   The sand of the desert is sodden red, Red with the wreck of a square that
   broke: The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead, And the regiment blind
   with dust and smoke. The river of death has brimmed his banks, And
   England's far, and Honour a name, But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the
   ranks: `Play up! play up! And play the game!'

In August 1914, then, young men who, like Rowland Leighton, had grown up with this romantic image of war, volunteered in their thousands for the greatest of all adventures; anxious, not that they might be killed or maimed, but only that they would get to France too late to take part in the fighting. But for those too young to enlist, reading about the war was the next best thing; as one veteran later recalled, `our curiosity to know what it would be like to be under fire had to be satisfied from the novels of G.A. Henty, and Captain F.S. Brereton'. Thus the pleasure culture of war operating through boys' fiction had, during the last decades of peace, prepared young men to play their part in the next great war and would now continue throughout the war years, to act as part of the unofficial propaganda effort to prepare younger boys for future service, by sanitising the realities of war and emphasising the exciting and romantic nature of battle.

But the fighting on the Western Front was not the glamorous adventure the young had expected: the reality was brutal, bloody and terrifying.

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