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Book of the Month

December 2008

The Bookman

Special Christmas Number, 1918

London: 1918
MS Farmer 348/5

The 11th November 2008 marked the 90th anniversary of the Armistice that brought the First World War to a close. Our choice for December's Book of the Month returns to the first year of that long-awaited peace with a feature on The Bookman, Special Christmas Number, 1918. This issue went to press in the month following the end of the most destructive war in British history to date. In a feature-length Christmas supplement, The Bookman periodical brings together a variety of articles and reviews to pay tribute to the literary heroes of the war.

Front cover of The Christmas Edition, 1918

The Bookman was a monthly literary periodical devoted to "Book buyers, Book readers and Book sellers." It was established in 1891 by the Aberdeen-born William Robert Nicoll, a liberal journalist working in London, and ran until 1935 when it was absorbed by the London Mercury. A middlebrow publication, priced at 6d, it was intended to appeal to aspirational readers with limited disposable income. It offered book reviews and colour illustrations as well as longer pieces of literary criticism and special features on authors. The formula proved commercially successful and became a platform for the publication of early work by writers such as J. M. Barrie and W. B. Yeats. The Bookman was, of course, also an important advertising vehicle for its publishers Hodder & Stoughton, featuring many adverts and current publication lists.


The annual Christmas Double Issue edition became a popular institution, with its feature-length children's literature supplement and colour illustration plates by notable artists. Typically festive and colourful, it was the highlight of The Bookman's publishing year. However, after four years of war, the 1918 Christmas edition adopted a more sombre tone, reflecting the solemnity of a bereaved nation. The Christmas issue of 1918 focused instead on the significant literary output of the war. The war touched every area of human consciousness and literature proved no exception. In fact, in an age when poetry formed an important part of the cultural diet of the population, the First World War proved a great literary phenomenon. In the early stages of the war, in August 1914, the Editor of The Times was receiving 140 unsolicited poems a day for publication.



Cover pages from other issues of The Bookman

Christmas Double No, December 1911
 (Stack Gen Hum Pers Vol. 41)

October 1912
 (Sp Coll Whistler e1.20)

October 1911
(Stack Gen Hum Pers Vol. 41)


 "Poets in Khaki," page 83

The first page of the supplement opens with a printed memorial to the writers of the war. It reads as a Roll of Honour, mimicking the form of stone memorials to fallen soldiers that became so common during, and particularly after, the war. These memorials became an iconic aspect of the Great War legacy. The Imperial War Graves Commission made the decision that bodies should remain where they fell, and be interred in military cemeteries. Unable to access loved one's graves, memorials provided an important substitute in the grieving process.  In Britain, where one in six families suffered a bereavement, temporary community memorials, roadside calvaries and monuments sprung up all over the country. They expressed the desire for remembrance in the aftermath of the war, with permanent memorials forming the cornerstone of Remembrance Day and Memorial Ceremonies.


The use of names on memorials - a practice that had grown throughout the 19th century - became almost universal in the Great War. Prior to this, war memorials were intended to celebrate military victories rather than mourn the dead, and rarely bore the names of the fallen. In a century of devastating warfare, memorialisation moved increasingly towards the commemoration of the dead and the recording of individual names was adopted in an effort to find consolation and meaning. The largest example of this was British architect Sir Edward Lutyen's Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme bearing the names of 73, 367 missing, presumed dead, Allied soldiers. Here, this practice is replicated in print form as the names of war writers, both surviving and fallen, are presented alongside the titles of their major works.

As well as British writers, the supplement also prints contributions from several different nations. Included are poets from America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, acknowledging Britain's debt to her Imperial and Commonwealth forces and the wider international community of volunteers such as the French Foreign Legion and American recruits. This reflects the significance of the Great War as the world's first truly global conflict in which some 30 plus nations took part.


    Detail from "Poets in Khaki" memorial

The writers honoured in this roll call are discussed in further detail in the editorial piece "Poets in Khaki" by St. John Adcock. This article of literary criticism offers a contemporary perspective on the literature of the war and indicates that the war generation were already aware of the lasting significance the "enormous body of verse, touching on... infinitely varied aspects" was to assume. It provides a detailed account of the writing the author considers to be the most prominent, interspersed with portrait plates, photographs and tributes to various writers who served in, and wrote about, the war. In doing so, this article presents several writers of the war who are now largely unread by modern audiences.

One such writer is the American Alan Seeger. Now considered a relatively minor poet, his writing captures that initial spirit of idealism and enthusiasm so prevalent in the early war years. As a volunteer, it was the same sense of "triumphant idealism" which St. John Adcock notes in Seeger's writing that prompted him to sign up. With America officially neutral until 1917, Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion in a bid to reach the Western Front. His poem, "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France," which is quoted at length in The Bookman, perfectly sums up this sense of romantic idealism. When "Europe's bright flag of freedom" is threatened, he is eager to jump into the fray:

     "Now heaven be thanked, we gave a few brave drops;
     Now heaven be thanked, a few brave drops were ours."

The same longing for the perceived glamour and adventure of war is also present in Seeger's most famous poem, "Rendezvous," in which he eerily predicted his own death:

     "I have a rendezvous with Death
     On some scarred slope of battered hill,"

Seeger was to die, caught in machine gun fire, in July 1916. This welcoming of death displays a touching naivety now ruefully associated with the Great War. These poems are similar in sentiment to Rupert Brooke's sonnets, and perhaps suggest the reason why Seeger's work is today not as popular as it was during the war. It represents an earlier innocent enthusiasm that seems so sadly ironic in retrospect of the carnage that was to come. However, this mode of writing was soon to give way to an unprecedented sense of realism in war writing. As St. John Adcock goes on to show, the portrayal of the "seamy" side of war continued to grow as idealism gave way to disillusionment and a desire to "reveal the naked horror of the realities" of battle.

Alan Seeger, illustration plate, uncredited  

Leon Gellert, portrait plate, photo by May Moore

The epitome of what St. John Adcock describes as the "seamy" representation of war can be found in the writing of Leon Gellert, who was "terribly conscious of that revolting, inglorious underside of war." Gellert, from Adelaide, was posted to Gallipoli after the outbreak of war, but developed dysentery and septicaemia after three days of solid fighting. He was discharged from army, but his experience of the horrors of warfare found its way into his verse. In "Songs of a Campaign" he chose to depict the effects of warfare on the men who fought. His war poetry portrays grit, disillusionment and "the piteous wreckage of humanity" in verses about the ordeal of the soldier such as "The Attack at Dawn" and "Before Action," or the after effects of war in "The Cripple," or "The Blind Man." In fact, his writing is emblematic of the disillusionment that extended warfare brought, and similar in tone (if less satiric) to that of the British poet Siegfried Sassoon. This type of anti-romantic war poetry was one of the great revelations of the First World War. Where, in the past, an idealistic language of noble and heroic battle had dominated war writing, the First World War was said to have shattered notions of heroism. St. John Adcock attributes this shift of perspective to the mass conscription of the Great War, where armies consisted of recruits rather than professional soldiers.

John McCrae in uniform, photo uncredited

St. John Adcock touches on another Commonwealth writer who responded to the tragic side of warfare. Canadian writer John McCrae's "In Flander's Fields" is one of the more famous poems of the war, still often used in Memorial Day Ceremonies, with the opening lines:

    "In Flander's fields the poppies blow,
    Between the crosses, row on row".
It employs typically elegiac conventions in offering pastoral consolation for the bereavement of war. The poppies McCrae iconizes in his poem have become emblematic of the Great War, and were chosen in 1921 as the most fitting symbol for the British Legion's Poppy Appeal.

McCrae, a Canadian writer and doctor of Scottish Presbyterian extraction, served as a medical officer in the war. He composed his famous poem during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, allegedly on a scrap of paper in the trenches in response to the death of a comrade, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. McCrae died of pneumonia on the Western Front in the January of 1918, and is himself, now buried in one of the 2500 British military cemeteries in Flanders.
Another Commonwealth writer to whom Adcock turns is Robert Service. Although labelled the "Canadian Kipling," Service was born in Lancashire, and raised in Hillhead in Glasgow. He attended the newly-founded Hillhead Boys School, site of the current Hillhead High - a fact commemorated today by a plaque on site. He fostered dreams of becoming a cowboy in the days of Gold Fever and emigrated to Canada aged 22 with just $5 in his pocket. His appetite for travel and adventure was unquenched, however, and his days were spent travelling the world. Living in Paris at the outbreak of the war, he joined a band of volunteer American ambulance drivers. Despite his non-combatant role, he experienced heavy shelling, and frequently came under fire. He recorded his first-hand observations of war in Rhymes of a Red Cross Man. His accessible style reached a mass audience in America and topped bestsellers lists. In fact St. John Adcock claims in The Bookman "No Canadian poet has a wider popularity with civilians and soldiers than Robert Service. I have heard ballads of his recited in huts behind the lines in France." He quotes "Song of Winter Weather" to demonstrate Service's popular touch

  "No it isn't the guns,
     And it isn't the Huns -
     It's the MUD,

Service's colloquial style emulated, and appealed to, the common soldier. Yet it also conveyed the realism of day-today conditions in the trenches rather than the excitement of battles and charges. Strangely, though originally immensely popular, Service's poetry and novels are now rarely read, and his autobiographies are largely out of print. Perhaps one reason for this is that his light-hearted humour and optimistic approach to the war appears, in the eyes of modern-day readers, to trivialise the war.

    Robert Service, portrait plate, photo by J. Kennedy

Another writer popular at the time, and especially with the troops, was Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, more commonly known as Woodbine Willie. A British parish priest, Reverend Studdert Kennedy served as a chaplain in the British Army. He was extremely popular amongst the troops for his compassion and courage in braving the front line to help wounded and dying men. His nickname was bestowed upon him for his habit of doling out the cheap and popular Woodbine brand of cigarette that was favoured by the forces.

Woodbine Willie authored Rough Rhymes of a Padre, a collection of popular and humorous rhymes as opposed to high literary output.  Like Service, his use of the vernacular approximated the speech of the average grousing Tommy.

 "Woodbine Willie" photo by W. W. & R. Dowly

            Detail from page 87, from "Fighting Hard" by C. J. Dennis

The Australian equivalent of Woodbine Willie and Robert Service was C. J. Dennis, "probably the most popular Australian poet today," according to St. John Adcock. Although he didn't serve in the army, his poetry dealt with the issue of the war. He produced verse in a colloquial Aussie dialect through his characters, such as Ginger Mick and Doreen.

     "I suppose you fellers dream, Mick, in between the scraps out there
     Of the land yeh left be'ind yeh when yeh sailed to do yer share"

His writing was popular with the home audience for some 50 years, and the initial print run for Songs of a Sentimental Bloke of 40,000 - unheard of for poetry - sold out almost immediately. It was lauded as the Australian troops' "trench bible" and sold well in pocket editions small enough to carry to the trenches. His writing is declared the "quaintest, liveliest, most picturesquely colloquial of Australian war ballads" in The Bookman, filled with "humour and pathos." On Dennis' death, the Australian Prime Minister called him the "Robert Burns of Australia" for his canonisation of the Australian dialect into literature.

John Buchan, detail from title cover,
portrait photo by Bassano

The Bookman also pays tribute to the venerable Scottish writer and Glasgow University graduate John Buchan in a separate article by David Hodge, entitled "John Buchan as War Historian." Regrettably this section is missing from Special Collection's copy of The Bookman, and may have been torn out by the previous owner of the periodical, Henry Farmer. Perhaps, as a fellow resident of Glasgow, this article was of particular interest to Farmer or his associates.

Buchan had several roles during the war. Unfit for service due to a lifelong health issue with stomach ulcers, he was instead given a notable role as Director of Information at the War Office. He visited the Western Front twice, and was involved in the authoring and dissemination of propaganda. He was also a celebrated fiction writer whose spy-catcher series -  including titles such as The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle - spanned the war years. The focus of the article, however, is Buchan's work as the principle writer on the contemporary serial, Nelson's History of the War, which recorded the history of the war as it was happening. Hodge praises the "lucidity" of the history serial, which explains complex military operations simply and adopts a cool perceptive tone. He declares it to be as readable as Buchan's fiction.
The Bookman's supplement on the literature of the war is an original document from a period that still fascinates current generations. It offers a contemporary perspective on writers who were read by those who lived through the war, offering us poets that have long-since fallen into obscurity. The Big Name poets of Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Rupert Brooke who today dominate the landscape of First World War poetry, are notable in their absence. The Great War will soon pass out of living memory and valuable sources such as this will soon prove to be our only link to the past and the attitudes of those who lived through such an epoch-making period.  

Detail from the front cover

"Introducing: William Robertson Nicoll" by Jason Goroncy at Wordpress, (page accessed 19/6/08)

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Go to previous Books of the Month

Aimee Cook (Graduate Trainee on placement in Special Collections), December 2008