Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing about the war between the wars

By accident, really, I came across an article from the 1930s in Trove about war novels. However, with Anzac Day coming up here in Australia next weekend, it seemed apposite to follow up. So, I did – and was somewhat surprised by what I found.

Not surprisingly, World War 1 was still fresh in people’s minds in the 1930s, and there were many opinions on how war should be written about. Erich Maria Remarque’s now classic All quiet on the Western Front was particularly controversial at the time and discussions about it provide some insight into those opinions. First published in 1928, it appeared in English in 1929 (translated, in fact, by an Australian, Arthur Wesley Wheen, himself a World War 1 soldier.)

“the most graphic picture I have had of the war” (Woman reader)

All quiet on the Western Front was a big hit, particularly with women readers. An article in the Port Adelaide News (14 March 1930) reports that “the popularity of the war novel is still maintained in England, where every girl typist seems to have read All quiet“. Apparently one Council Library system had bought a record number of 126 copies of the book, but they had 553 people on their waiting list. Unfortunately, the article said, “borrowers, strong in that possession which is nine ‘points of the law are lending All quiet to relatives and friends before returning it”. (Love it!)

Here in Australia All quiet was also popular with women, as The Herald (14 February 1930) reported in its article, “VC attacks war novels”. Captain W.D. Joynt V.C., speaking at a Legacy Club luncheon, denounced “recent war books” including All quiet. At the luncheon, Captain Peters, of booksellers, Robertson and Mullen’s, said that women “had been the largest buyers and readers of the book”. It had “achieved such success that it was affecting the sale of wholesome [my emph] English novels”. He continued that the boom of interest in war novels “had brought out some good war books, but not many, and unless the protest was made the women and young people would get a wrong impression of the soldiers”. A motion had been put “to deplore” such books, but it failed, not because attendees disagreed but because they feared the motion would increase interest in the book!

So, what was the problem? Wikipedia summarises the controversies in its article, but I’ll share some of what I found in Australian newspapers. The main concern seemed to be that its presentation of war denigrated the heroism of the soldiers. It had too much “muck”. One speaker at the luncheon said that “the book showed contempt for the men who served at the war, and brought grief to dependents of men who fell at the war” while another said that the phrase “give ’em muck” was applicable to the book. He said he had “read one or two chapters and refused to go further. It is full of Continental grossness. The coarse language is superfluous. This type of book should be banned.”

Interesting that women were reading this “muck”.

The writer in Freeman’s Journal (10 April 1930) comments on the new fashion for war novels, saying that for some time people had had their fill of war news but

Now it has come into its own again, and, perhaps under the influence of the peace movement, it concentrates on the most repulsive aspect of war, sometimes deliberately trucking to the appetite of so many readers for word-pictures of the evil aspects’ of human life. Many of these novels are as wide of the truth and as repulsive as Zola’s La Debacle, which professed to give a realist picture of the war of 1870, but was a horrible libel on the people of France, representing her young soldiers as mostly imbecile fools or blackguards. 

He goes on to describe another novel – not Remarque’s – that has, as its central figure, an utterly incapable Anglican chaplain. He says:

It was by self-sacrifice and earnest efforts to be helpful that they [Anglican and Non-conformist chaplains] won the respect of the men. It is an insult to their memory to write of them as this novelist does, as if they were either hopeless failures or self-seeking idlers.

Similarly, the Singleton Argus (28 April 1930) reports on one Rev. C. J. Macaulay, who was the principal speaker at the West Maitland Anzac Day service. Macauley made “a scathing attack … on salacious war novels”. He doesn’t name any, but said they “paint vile pictures, not so much of war, as of the men themselves”.

Interesting that women were apparently reading these “vile pictures”.

Were women seeing something different? Were women, like Lady Kitty’s woman reader, appreciative of “the grim reality” that its opponents wanted to hide? Lady Kitty writes that “it is remarkable what a vogue war novels are having now, especially among women. The type of immediate postwar sentimental romance has given way to simple narratives which reveal the common soldier’s point of view.”

Writing about war

JP McKinney, Crucible

Meanwhile, in 1934, Australia’s RSL instituted a war novel competition. It was “open to all men and women who served abroad during the war as members of the Australian army, navy or nursing services”. The novel had to “depict the life of an Australian soldier during the war, and his reactions to the various conditions and environment through which he passed. The sequence of the story and descriptive matter must be historically and geographically correct”. It was won by JP McKinney (who, alert readers among you may know, was Judith Wright’s husband, though much later.) His novel was published as The crucible, in 1935.

During my research, I came across a letter to the editor written by McKinney concerning his novel, and writing about war. He was responding to reviewers who seemed to criticise his novel for being “largely recollections cast in the form of fiction” or “more or less autobiographical”. (Helen Garner knows the feeling!) McKinney wanted to correct these misconceptions. He writes:

A writer of fiction is permitted, by the canons of his art, to draw for his material upon both his own and other peoples’ experience and upon his imagination, the only demand made of him being, if his work is to be judged as literature, that he keep within the bounds of probability. His accepted function is to illuminate life— or at least that aspect of it which he treats —from all angles. The greater the fidelity to life and actuality the greater his achievement. 

But, he says, people seem to see war fiction differently:

In the case of the war novelist, however, it appears to have become unconsciously assumed that he shall write only of what he knows from his own actual, personal experience; and he is either denied, or assumed not to have availed himself of, the privilege of his fellow craftsmen of ranging into the realm of what may be called created fact. 

So, he writes, “I granted myself the fiction writer’s full privilege, the only restriction I placed upon myself being that I make no sacrifice of truth to dramatic effect”. The characters are all created he said; they’re “types” not “persons”.

J.P. McKinney did go to war, but, some readers here may be interested to hear the words of T.C. Squire, editor of London Mercury (reported in Tasmania’s Advocate, 10 January 1930). He was critical of the current crop of war novels, like Remarque’s, suggesting that they came out of “hysteria” rather than from thinking, compassionate, “religious” men. He concluded his comments with

And it may be that the novel of this war (there is precedent for it) may come from some Tolstoi or Hardy of the future, who never saw a bullet fired and never looked in the face of the unnecessary dead.

And here, I’ll conclude with Henry Savage from The Port Adelaide Gazette (10 January 1930). He was, I think, a local businessman and religious official. He wrote about war novels:

There is a great difference between the horrors of war and reading of its horrors; between reality, that is to say, and the interpretation of reality in terms of art. Will the story of Eden ever stop simple Adam from being lured to his hurt by curious Eve? Will Hamlet make a man of action out of a dreamer and give him faith and resoluteness? Can it be done?

Ignoring Adam-and-Eve, I pass his question on to you!

35 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing about the war between the wars

  1. My father’s father fought in WWI, in France with the first AIF. Dad, who enlisted in the Navy in the last months of WWII after finishing high school was fascinated by WWI in particular and wrote/collated two books about it – Quiet Flows the Somme, a collection of Australian poetry, and The Colonels – a listing of all the men who commanded whatever it is a colonel commands in the first AIF. I have all his books, including 15 boxes of war books under the spare bed (which one day my children will have to carry down three flights of stairs, as I carried them up).
    Australia was roused to war by the reporting of Murdoch and Bean, who were at the forefront of constructing the legend of the brave, larrikin Anzac, and I can imagine the affront that was felt from the publication of All Quiet on the Western Front.
    I don’t have any figures, but it is quite likely that all those women readers included a lot of Australia’s anti-conscription majorities.

    • I never found out, Bill – because Dad didn’t seem to know – why his father didn’t go to WW1. He was 25 when it started, so maybe that was the reason? My father enlisted for WW2 in around 1942, though spent most of it training in the Western Australian desert for the Middle East, only to end up in PNG.

      You have a point about some of those women readers at least.

      15 boxes of war books! Lucky children. My father read a lot of WW2 history, particularly in his retirement.

      • The First AIF was all volunteer so hopefully your grandfather stayed home because he had some sense. It would be interesting to know the age profile of the volunteers, quite possibly the majority were in the range 18-21.

        • Yes, that’s what I rather suspected ie that the majority of volunteers were younger men. He probably had more sense too! He had met my Grandmother some time in 1914 – at least we know they went to the beach on Boxing Day 1914 as I have the shells to prove it – so he possibly had his mind on another future!

  2. I completely understand the attraction of a well written novel about WWI for women in the post war years. After all, they were living with (and often caring for) veterans with physical and psychological injuries, who generally were unable to discuss or describe their experiences. Reading a book like ‘All Quiet’ was at least an opportunity to gain some insight into what their menfolk had endured.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    • This was also my immediate reaction – that the book helped women understand why their husbands, brothers, sons returned as changed and often broken men who refused to talk about their experiences.

      I was born during WW2 when my father was serving in the 9th Field Ambulance, both in Australia and New Guinea. He refused to tell us kids anything about his war experiences: that was in the past, he’d done the job, nothing to talk about. Many years later, in his late 70s, I was able to convince him to be interviewed on tape (I said I HAD to do it for a university assignment). While he personally was not on the front line, his experiences were profound. For example he spent the last year of the war working at Kenmore Hospital, which was transferred to the army as a military psychiatric hospital in WW2. It was clear that he had never previously talked to anyone about his experience, not even to my mother (who had passed away years earlier). An uncle died in Concord Repatriation Hospital some years after the war. An aunt had married him on his deathbed. I never heard his story.

      Perhaps we tend to forget how little was actually known to the civilian population about the realities of war before Vietnam – see Television’s War, by Michael Arlen, the New Yorker, 1967.

      • Yes, good point Jeannette about civilians not knowing the sorts of things civilians know now.

        And, good on you for managing to get your Dad’s story (or some of it anyhow!)

        • Haha, Denise! My father wasn’t a big rice fan (he was in PNG too – maybe that’s why?) He would sing a couple of silly army songs to us. But he never told us much about the actual “war” stuff.

  3. Robert Graves was my very first read of The Great War, and I felt afterwards that I could not read another; and yet I was glad to have come to the reality of it.
    Much later I found Sebastian Faulks, who provided much the same reaction. But my second-eldest sister put me onto Pat Barker ..
    I’ve read so much of the British p.o.v. now that I am certain I need read no more.
    I can’t grasp what the devil Henry Savage thought he was saying: how could he possibly mean that there’s no point iin writing of certain things because that won’t change them ?!!

    • I haven’t read Graves on WW1 , M-R. In fact, I’ve read much more on WW2. 1 “like” war novels (though not the “adventure” style) more than crime, because of the history behind them. I’ll never say no to a good war novel (except to say I can’t fit it in right now.) If you ever do feel like trying or other one, I’d recommend Peter Carey’s Fly away Peter. It’s Aussie, for a start!!

      Love your response to Savage, though I didn’t take him as strongly as you did, though I suppose that was partly his meaning. However, I’m more interested in the fact that he was seriously questioning “art” and the intention behind it. How far can ”art” go in changing how we think and what we do? Why do we teach literature in schools. Just to read for entertainment ? Or to encouraging thinking? And if it’s to encourage thinking the next step must be to think about the right and wrong of our own actions and thoughts and to perhaps change them?

  4. Hardy may never have heard a shot fired, but Tolstoy served in the Crimean War. What was Squire thinking?

    Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory draws more on memoirs, I think, than on fiction. It is certainly worth reading. My recollection is that the writers discussed were mostly English, though I think the New Zealander Eric Partridge gets a page or two. The book is worth a look if you find it.

    The tone of most of the better fiction dealing with the war was negative. Yet after the standard twenty-year interval everyone was back at it. There were many more draftees than volunteers, but in the US at least there were quite a few of the latter. It is easy for constant readers to overestimate the effect of books, when an awful lot of people read very little.

    “Will Hamlet make a man of action out of a dreamer and give him faith and resoluteness?”

    Most militaries rely less on Hamlet and more on training and discipline.

    • Thanks for this George. I’d forgotten about Tolstoy, but, really, I was focused on the point that you can write about, can imagine things you haven’t experienced.

      Fussell’s book sounds interesting. the article that inspired this post, and to which I might return, fused on Australian writing, and seemed to mostly include non-fiction – memoirs. Maybe some were fiction from soldiers. I needed to check before I wrote about them, which is why I left them for another time.

      I am considering a second post about wnkng about war, party because I found some discussion about whether it was right to argue for no war – ever.

  5. Hi Sue, I took an interest in WW11 mainly because of my father who was a Rat of Tobruk, and like your dad, also served in PNG. My dad would not talk about the war, but he did say he was saved by a German in Tobruk who gave him water in the desert. I agree women and men read about war because of trying to understand. I did find Graves book The Great War very confronting. I do have a a book of poems by Michael Thwaites (An Australian who won the Royal Medal for Poetry 1939), The Jervis Bay. From Come Death Suddenly “I saw a bundle of rags and blood”. I think Hamlet could make some men of action, but their dreams later on would be horrendous, and they would not go to war again..

  6. What an interesting post, Sue. As most have pointed out I assume the popularity of All Quiet amongst women was a desperate need to understand what had happened on the battlefields. Coincidentally that is one of my favourite books, but ftom a different perspective: it tells the German side of the story and in doing so shows that the war was pointless because everyone is human!

    I remember reading 1915 by Roger MacDonald and loving it. I was 15 at the time so don’t know if the book would stand up to scrutiny now. I do enjoy a good war novel, though don’t tend to hunt them out, and think my favourite is ‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by HE Bates.

    • Thanks kimbofo. Actually, one of the articles I read was absolutely scathing about All quiet and the other German war novels coming out, basically saying they were incapable as a people of writing thoughtful compassionate work! It was astonishing and showed me just how strong feelings were. It reminded me a bit of how many of my parents’ generation here felt about the Japanese.

      I would like to read 1915. I’m pretty sure Mr Gums has read it. I remember my Mum and her Mum loving Fair stood the wind for France but I’ve not read it. I think I should, for many reasons, now!

  7. Many have already covered the idea of women reading to understand why their menfolk had changed so much after the war, so I won’t say any more, and of course, one of the most powerful (for me) war books out of WWI was Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

    When I was teenaging in the 80’s war movies were big. I had Gallipoli (which the boys I went to school could quote verbatim – an impressive feat indeed since movies didn’t go straight to VCR or TV or streaming like they do now!) There were also the TV dramas of MacDonald’s 1915 and another called ANZACS starring Paul Hogan, the ill-fated Jon Blake and co-written by the dearly missed John Clarke.
    And just for the record, Mr Books and I met at uni in the common room of our dorm as we were watching the Vietnam series with Nicole Kidman, Barry Otto and Nicholas Eadie. Incidentally, the last movie we saw at the theatre before Covid, was Sam Mendes’ film 1917. Our fascination with the muck of war continues (and the larrikinism and mateship and the disdain for bumbling officers and being eternally grateful that he and our boys have not had to go off to war like previous generations did).

  8. First off, thanks for introducing me to Anzac Day. I clicked on the link and understand more about it. In parallel, we have similar commemoration in Canada, Remembrance Day on Nov. 11 where at the 11th hour there will be a moment of silence. And then there are red poppies sold as charity in honour and support of the livelihood of the veterans, who are dwindling in numbers. This event, for those in the opposing stance, is ‘glorification’ of war. Well, to me, it’s a reminder that such horrors had taken place in a supposedly civilized world and hopefully will never happen again. ‘Lest we forget’ is the catch phrase. Albeit I do doubt it looking at current events in the Pacific where you’re much closer I’m afraid. The brewing tension is troublesome, to put it mildly.

    Adding a personal note, my father was on a British warship guarding the English Channel during the Normandy invasion. He was one of the few ‘cream of the crops’ young naval officers from China (at that time the Nationalists) sent to England to receive special, elite training. So that poppy has a personal tie.

    On yet another note, I think there will always be books and movies about WWI and WWII, and may well be from various perspectives, no matter how far apart time separates us from those actual years, just because they’re of such magnitude and globally impactful historic events. Not to glorify war, but just that these are materials too ‘rich’ for the creative mind of the writer and the filmmaker to let them rest.

    • Thanks Arti. Everything you say about your Remembrance Day applies here in terms of attitudes, and of course “Lest we forget”. I think these “days” can be both glorification of war and reminders of the horrors, depending on both “how” they are presented and how people view them. Sometimes the pomp can make it feel more like the former. I have very mixed feelings about the day.

      How interesting about your Dad. Was he treated well by the British?

      And I agree with you about there always being stories about war.

      • Yes. He had made some British friends and had good camaraderie among officers. After the war he settled in Hong Kong, where he fitted in very well as it was then a British colony. I was born there. Now I look at my birthplace with much trepidation and sadness. I’m sure you have heard what had happened there recent these months.

  9. Pingback: Stand Easy | The Australian Legend

  10. Well…if “every girl typist” has read it, how good can it be? LOL

    I second the rec’s for Goodbye to all That (which was assigned reading for a history course and I still enjoyed it…a lovely companion would be Pat Barker’s trilogy, which intersects there, but I won’t say how) and the Rebecca West (which is actually a novella, so much less of a time commitment). The Barker set I’ve read twice, which should give a hint that, while there are grim bits (how could there not be), there is so much else to the story.

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