Courage, mon amie
You speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
A year ago this past autumn – a year before the old life so shockingly blew away – I made a long-contemplated trip to France and Belgium to see the cemeteries of the First World War. My quest, though transatlantic, was a modest, conventional and somewhat anorakish one: I hoped to locate the grave of my great-uncle, Rifleman Lewis Newton Braddock, 1st/17th (County of London) Battalion (Poplar and Stepney Rifles), the London Regiment, who had died in the war and was buried near Amiens. Facts about him are scarce. My grandmother, whose only brother he was, has been dead now for twenty years. No one else who knew him is still alive. By stringing together odd comments from family members I’ve learned that he worked as a greengrocer’s boy in Derby before joining up in 1915; that he served first in the Sherwood Foresters; that he managed to survive three years before getting killed during the final German retreat in June 1918. My mother, born eight years after his death, claims to have heard as a child that he was shot accidentally – ‘by his own guns’. But my uncle Neil, her only brother, can’t believe ‘they would have told the family that.’ Newton was said to be artistic: two dusty little green-grey daubs – both of them Derbyshire landscapes – are among his surviving effects. There are two photographs of him in uniform – one from the beginning of the war, the other from the end. In the first he looks pale, spindly and rather stupid: a poorly-fed, late Victorian adolescent overfond of self-abuse. In the second, the one with the moustache, he is stouter, tougher, dreamier, and looks distressingly like both my mother and my cousin Toby. My companion Blakey says he looks like me. I don’t see it. I’ve been fascinated by him – and the Great War – since I first heard of him, at the age of six or so. I’m now 48.
Somebody should write about women obsessed with the First World War. Everybody knows Pat Barker, of course, but there’s also Lyn Macdonald – a former BBC producer whose dense, addictive, exhaustively researched oral histories of the war (1914: The Days of Hope, 1915: The Death of Innocence, Somme, They Called It Passchendaele, The Roses of No Man’s Land, To the Last Man: Spring 1918) are a fairly devastating moral education for the reader. And once you begin to delve, as I have done, into the netherworld of popular military history – battlefield guides, memorial volumes, regimental histories, military-souvenir websites – it is peculiar how many lady archivists you encounter. Some of these, it’s true, are part of husband and wife teams: the prolific Valmai Holt, for example, author, with her husband, of My Boy Jack? The Search for Kipling’s Only Son (1998). (John Kipling died in his first half-hour in action – at the age of 18 – at Loos in 1915. Though his stricken father carried on a 20-year search for his grave, his remains were not found until 1992.) When not writing, the Holts run a sprightly operation known as Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Tour Company. ‘Their Battlefield Guide to the Somme and Battlefield Guide to Ypres,’ reads one cheery promotional blurb, ‘have brought these areas to life for tens of thousands of people.’
Other female obsessives work in austere isolation. The late Rose E.B. Coombs MBE, former Special Collections Officer at the Imperial War Museum, is the author of Before Endeavours Fade: A Guide to the Battlefields of the First World War (1976 and 1994). Miss Coombs’s bleak volume, illustrated with her own amateur snaps, is a necrophile’s delight: photograph after photograph, in tiny, eye-straining black and white, of crosses, graves, plaques, inscriptions, bombed-out block-houses converted into monuments, decaying trench relics, dank rows of cypresses, grassed-over mine and shell craters, obscene-looking barrows, and yet more crosses and graves. Some of the photos show boxy 1970s cars parked in the background – a peculiarly depressing sight – and anonymous male tourists with period comb-overs and long sideburns. I bought my second-hand copy through the mail from a military book dealer in Dorset and its once-glossy pages reek of must and damp.
My own war fixation is equally grim and spinsterish; its roots primal and puzzling. My first awareness of the Great War came, quite literally, with the crack-up of my parents’ marriage. They had emigrated from England to California in the early 1950s and divorced ten years later, in 1961. (I was born in San Diego in 1953.) It was a bit of a mess – my mother had been having an affair with a lieutenant in the Navy – and in the convoluted aftermath my irascible grandfather, a former buyer for the Co-op in St Albans, prevailed on her, the Extremely Guilty Party, to come back to England and rehabilitate herself in some respectable, out of the way spot. My baby sister and I were bundled onto a plane at 4 a.m., me sobbing dolefully at the break-up of my little world. Gone into transatlantic blackness – for ever, it seemed – my cowboy hat and Mickey Mouse books, the pixie-cutted members of my Brownie troop, our blue and white Rambler, and the sunny back patio where my father had, in happier days, filmed me in vivid Kodachrome disporting in a plastic blow-up pool.
Our first few months in England were spent in my grandparents’ little brick bungalow, at the foot of Caesar’s Camp, near Folkestone. (Their house and lane have since disappeared – razed to make way for the stark, moonscaped run-up to the Channel Tunnel.) It was in those lonely, quiet days – the clock ticking on the mantel-piece, the adults discoursing in another room – that I first examined my great-uncle’s bronze memorial disc, which stood on a bookshelf next to my grandmother’s Crown Derby. It was six inches across, heavyish, and the same greeny-gold colour as a three-penny bit, a piece of coinage with which I had recently become acquainted. I was immediately charmed by its glint, its inscriptions, its palpable seriousness. It seemed to have survived – like a dense, tooth-breaking wafer – from some unknown time and place. I asked my mother, only slightly babyishly, to ask my grandmother if I could have it – for my new collection of oddments, begun when our plane had stopped in Iceland for refuelling and my mother bought me a ceramic puffin from the tiny airport gift shop. This request – received with embarrassed laughter – was not granted.
The following three years in England, a stagnant time characterised mainly by my mother’s depression and sexual loneliness, deepened my war curiosity without clarifying it. We moved to our own little bungalow in nearby Sandgate, at the top of a rise just below the Shorncliffe Army Camp. There were several new things here. I saw my first person without a leg, an old man with a horrible stump in Sandgate High Street, and though I never mentioned him to anyone, I was terrified for months we would run into him again. The village had its own little grime-blackened war memorial – standard vintage and style – and an air of lugubrious decay unlike anything I had encountered before. The grey waves of the Channel flopped endlessly and drearily on the shingle beach that ran alongside the High Street. This blighted strand, impossible to walk on in bare feet, bore no resemblance to the palm-studded sands of infancy and toddlerhood. I fixated on orange-flavoured Aero bars as a means of survival.
My primary school, Sir John Moore’s, was part of the Shorncliffe Camp. I have no recollection of the sun shining during my sojourn there. Each day I walked to school and back past deserted, dusky parade-grounds – the occasional ghostly soldier in puttees looming up out of the mist. Except for a few barracks and the redbrick officer quarters, all dating from Napoleonic days, the place seemed largely uninhabited. Once in a while an Army lorry lumbered up Artillery Road: my first suicidal fantasy had to do with flinging myself under one in the presence of my horrified parents, now strangely reunited, as if by magic carpet, to witness the act. This, I know, makes it all sound bad: but Sir John Moore’s wasn’t really so awful – our teacher once took us out to make bark rubbings – and I soon developed a powerful aesthetic attraction to the various uniforms I saw, the officers’ peaked caps and regimental insignia especially.
But when I dream of the place – and sometimes I still do – my brain usually fixes on the baleful rituals of Armistice Day. Nothing was explained. Who, or what, was an armastiss? It was never made very clear. Nonetheless schoolmates and I were duly instructed to bring cut flowers from home – the bottoms of the stems to be moistened with a wrapper of wet tissues in aluminium foil. My mother obliged – I’m not sure how, given that nothing very posy-like grew in the leftover building rubble around our house. And intriguing, too, the break in schoolday routine. At half-past ten we mustered in the playground by the toilets – no talking, straight lines, wipe your noses please – then set off through the Camp. We passed by Sir John Moore’s pokey little museum, the Folkestone bus stop and the abandoned cinema. We trundled across playing fields, skirted stinging nettles, rounded unknown corners, then ascended a rolling procession of new-old Kentish hills: hills that must have been quite close by, but, uncannily, never seemed to exist except on that particular day. At the top of these, the sky suddenly lifting, an astonishing vista broke out before us: greensward and chalk and Lear-like white cliffs, the cold massy sea and lofting gulls, the distant line of France, and everywhere, like some vibrant, disturbing retinal trick, hundreds of identical graves, sweeping down in rows to the cliff edge, as far as the eye could see.
We stayed near the top, of course, our teacher deploying us in little ranks till each of us ended up with our own white marker to stand in front of. The grave at one’s feet at once prompted animistic dread. Were you supposed to stand right on the spot under which the dead person lay? Could he feel your presence through the grass? If so, it was creepy, possibly even foolhardy, to be there. Might he not, late at night, get up from his grave, glide down Artillery Road, and seek you out? Southern California, a place entirely lacking in cemeteries, offered no precedents. The scariest thing back there had been a Time-Life book of my father’s with a picture of a grim, tiny-eyed shark, jaws open wide in prehistoric eagerness. This was far worse: a ghastly corpse-face at the bedroom window! The tattered rendition of the Last Post, by a pair of insect-buglers on the hill opposite, didn’t help. A prayer was said; the bouquets deposited; the tremors persisted. I had yet to see any Night of the Living Dead movies at this point; but when I did, back in San Diego a few years later, alone in the cheerless TV ‘den’ of the house my father now shared with his new wife and stepdaughters (the same place I was sitting when I saw Oswald get shot), I realised I already knew all about them.
All very sad and picturesque (poor little female-Terence!); but enough to explain a forty-year Craving for More? For just such a craving – acquisitive, pedantic and obscurely guilt-inducing – is what I ended up with. Not all at once, of course: like most obsessions, this one took a while to get going. In my twenties, as a literature student, I read and acquired the obvious classics: Graves, Owen, Sassoon, Remarque, Barbusse, Brittain, Fussell. But I had lots of other fads and hobbies going too: opera, Baroque painting, Kurosawa films, the Titanic, the Romanovs, trashy lesbian novels. Sometimes my preoccupations overlapped: I became fascinated, for example, with the long World War One sequence in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. I read up on butch lady ambulance-drivers at the Western Front. But the world had not yet retracted to a grey, dugout-sized, lobe-gripping monomania.
Then, starting in my thirties, things seemed to intensify. I was in England teaching in my university’s overseas programme in 1989, as it happened, on the 75th anniversary of the start of the war. (An item on the news one evening, showing tottery, beribboned veterans saluting at the Menin Gate, reduced me to sudden tears.) I began absorbing ever more specialised fare: Macdonald’s books, Taylor and Tuchman on the political background, battle histories of Gallipoli, Verdun and Passchendaele, books about Haig and Kitchener, VAD nurses, brave dead subalterns and monocled mutineers. I read Michael Hurd’s desolating biography – The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney – on the train to Edinburgh, the city where the nerve-wracked composer, on his way to insanity and death, was hospitalised after being gassed in 1917. I stared at the few surviving pictures of him: the one in a private’s tunic (2nd/5th Gloucesters); the one where he’s standing, in ill-fitting civvies, alone and blank and looking down at the grass, in the grounds of his asylum in 1922.
And more and more I began investigating the filthy minutiae of 1914-18 trench warfare. John Keegan, the Face of Battle man, was my trench guru. I read all his books. I became an armchair expert on Lewis guns and enfilade fire, shrapnel and mortars, wiring parties, trench raids and listening-posts, the tricky timing of the creeping barrage. I pondered the layout of dugouts and communication trenches, the proper distance between parapet and parados, the placement of machine-gun nests. (They’re always called ‘nests’.) It seemed at the time, I realised, an odd obsession for a girl. But it seemed to go along with various other un-girlish things about me: my vast bebop collection and dislike of skirts, my aversion (polite) to sleeping with men.
I remember a conversation with a famous feminist poet in the late 1980s in which I grandly pronounced it a ‘disgrace’ that so few women knew anything about military history. In an apotheosis of pomposity – and also to see if it would get her goat – I boasted about my great-uncle and proudly asserted that I could never have been a pacifist in August 1914.
Over the past ten years the folie has only become more involved. A couple of years ago I started collecting first editions of World War One books. (Latest Internet bandersnatch: a battered copy of Reginald Berkeley’s Dawn, a patriotic tear-jerker, complete with garish pictorial dust jacket, about the martyrdom of Nurse Cavell.)
I’ve got several faded trench-maps and a tiny, pocket-sized ‘Active Service Issue’ book of Psalms and Proverbs, issued by the Scripture Gift Mission and Naval and Military Bible Society in 1918. Every year, when I go to London, I load up on greasy wartime postcards in one of the memorabilia shops in Cecil Court. (‘Helping an Ambulance through the Mud’, ‘Armée Anglaise en Observation’, ‘The Destruction at Louvain, Belgium’, ‘Tommy at Home in German Dugouts!’) I’ve got a whole shelf on war artists: C.R.W. Nevinson, Paul Nash, William Roberts, Wyndham Lewis, and the skullishly named Muirhead Bone. I’ve got books about Fabian Ware and the founding of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I’ve a 1920 Blue Guide to Belgium and the Western Front and a Michelin Somme guide from 1922 – both published for the so-called ‘pilgrims’, the aged, widowed and dead-brothered, who flooded France and Flanders after the war seeking the graves of the lost. I have scratchy recordings of ‘Pack up Your Troubles’ and ‘The Roses of Picardy’; a tape of a (supposed) German bombardment; and yet another of a Cockney BEF veteran describing, rather self-consciously, the retreat from Mons. I have videos and documentaries: Renoir’s Grande Illusion, Wellman’s Wings, Bertrand Tavernier’s Life and Nothing But, and a haunting excerpt from Abel Gance’s famous anti-war film J’Accuse. And then, too, there are all my mood-setting ‘highbrow’ CDs – the songs of Gerald Finzi, Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, Gurney, Ernest Farrar. (The baritone Stephen Varcoe is unsurpassed in this repertoire.) I have but to hear the dark opening bars of Finzi’s ‘Only a Man Harrowing Clods’ to dissolve in sticky war nostalgia and an engorged, unseemly longing for things unseen.
Yet something about my fixation has always bewildered me, as it indubitably has those friends and bedmates forced to enthuse over grimy mementos and The Latest Facts. (Thanks to a troll around at www.fallenheroes.co.uk I recently discovered, for example, that Shorncliffe Camp was a major Great War jumping-off point – notably for the Canadian units who went on to fight, with appalling losses, at Vimy Ridge in 1917. The soldiers in the cemetery were mostly men who had died of wounds or sickness in nearby military hospitals after returning from the Front. But a few graves hold other kinds of casualties: a small group of Belgian refugees, a single Portuguese soldier, several members of the Chinese Labour Corps, some civilian victims of a daylight air-raid on Folkestone on 25 May 1917, in which 95 people were killed and 195 injured.) I guess an obsession is defined, crudely enough, by the fact that one doesn’t understand it. Even as it besets, its determinants remain opaque. (The word ‘obsession’, interestingly, is originally a military term: in Latin, it signified a siege action, the tactical forerunner of trench warfare.) The obsessions of others embarrass and repel because they seem to dehumanise: to make the obsessed one robotic and alien and unavailable. It’s like watching an autistic child humming or scratching or banging on a plate for hours on end.
I suppose it was some desire to get free of a certain robot-feeling – in myself – that prompted my trip to France and Belgium. Not that I was planning on renouncing my books or my collections. (Nor have I.) It was more a matter of, OK, you’ve been talking about it for ever – go find him. Blakey was teaching and couldn’t go: but Bridget could, and wanted to, even though she is not from the Braddock side of the family. She turned out to be the ideal companion. She’s my first cousin, a South Londoner by way of Ipswich. Our estranged fathers are brothers. We knew each other as children – for a brief time, before my mother took us back to San Diego – but then I didn’t see her for two decades, until I looked her up one day in the London telephone book. (After my parents’ divorce I’d let all the Castle relatives go to hell.) Bridget, it turned out, had been in the Army for 11 years – in Germany and Belfast – and was now running the transport department for a London borough. She is slangy and brusque and ultra-competent – knows all about plumbing and engines and dogs – and regards me, the Prodigal Bluestocking, as a bit feckless. A couple of years ago we went down to Dungeness to see Derek Jarman’s garden and ran into a man with his wife and mother-in-law whose car had got stuck in the wet shingle. Bridget had it hitched up in a trice and dragged it free, while the man stood by looking utterly flummoxed and outdone. (‘Ex-military,’ she said, by way of explanation.) Anyway, Bridget set it all up: our Chunnel car-ticket, the package-deal hotel in Ghent, our route map. Needless to say, she drove all the way, from Herne Hill to the outskirts of Ypres, with me a slightly cranked-up presence in the passenger seat.
 John Keegan on the unhappy exploits of the Portuguese army in World War One: ‘Portugal, historically Britain’s oldest ally, declared war on Germany and Austria in March 1916. It eventually sent two divisions to the Western Front, armed and equipped by the British. Put into the line at Neuve-Chapelle, in the British sector south of Ypres, they were attacked during the second great German offensive of 9 April 1918, broke and ran. Large numbers of prisoners were taken. The Portuguese, an unsophisticated and rural people, were unsuited to the strains of industrial warfare and it was unwise of the Portuguese Government to have taken sides. It would have been better advised to imitate Spain in standing apart.’ An Illustrated History of the First World War (2001).
 Chronicle of Youth: Great War Diary 1913-17, edited by Alan Bishop (Phoenix, 384 pp., £12.99, 17 August 2000, 1 84212 094 8).
 Like Sarajevo, Belfast and Dallas, Compiègne would seem to be one of the strangely doom-laden minor cities in history: my 1920 Guide to Belgium and the Western Front notes that Joan of Arc was captured and turned over to the English there in 1430; Marie Antoinette, aged 15, met her future husband the Dauphin there in 1770; and Tsar Nicholas and the Tsarina were received by President Loubet at the famous nearby château in 1901.
 Siegfried Sassoon, in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930): ‘Markington had gloomily informed me that our [War] Aims were essentially acquisitive, what we were fighting for was the Mesopotamian Oil Wells. A jolly fine swindle it would have been for me, if I’d been killed in April for an Oil Well!’
Vol. 24 No. 8 · 25 April 2002
Terry Castle and her readers (LRB, 4 April) may be interested to hear of my experience as a Japanese boy visiting war memorials in England. In 1977 the headmaster of my school in Yamagata Prefecture announced that he would take a dozen boys from the intermediate school (between the ages of 10 and 14) to accompany him on a sponsored trip to England that summer. Every boy would be expected to walk 12 miles each day. The total length of the trip would be ten days. The money raised would go to charity. Only those at the top of each class would qualify for the opportunity, although we understood this to mean Dr Koshiro’s favourites, of whom I was one. The headmaster’s youngest son would be in the group.
This was the year Dr Koshiro was due to retire.
All of us at the school knew that our headmaster, who was in his early sixties, had been in service in the war. Not unusually for a man of his age, he did not talk about his experiences. The only pupil who expressed any curiosity was female and not one of Dr Koshiro’s favourites.
So we prepared ourselves for two weeks in the beautiful county of Berkshire. We were told before we left, without any of our parents in attendance, that we would be visiting many war memorials. Those of our parents who had been abroad would have done this, Dr Koshiro said; not to visit would be inconsiderate. We had not seen photographs of them only because taking pictures of war memorials was considered inappropriate. We must believe, he assured us, that our parents would have behaved correctly. And so must we. Our visit would be our way of showing our nation’s sorrow for what had happened in the 1940s. I don’t remember that any of us regarded this as particularly onerous; it was like taking time out of a holiday to visit elderly relatives.
Our first night on British soil was spent in a campsite near Henley-on-Thames. We woke to rain denting the tent canvas. As we gathered for morning roll-call Dr Koshiro emerged from his one-man tent in the uniform of a Japanese officer of the Imperial Army. He then read the list of names as if nothing was unusual. For me, the experience was strangely exciting. It was as if we had suddenly become part of a fancy-dress party. In Japan, this would have been almost unimaginable. My enjoyment was somewhat moderated when, as we began our walk, our headmaster unfurled the old prewar Japanese flag. He proceeded with the flag on a short pole resting on his shoulder. He later informed us that this was in imitation of the British Forces surrendering in Malaya. Our little group walked unmolested into Henley and up to the war memorial in the centre of the town. Here we read the names of the fallen and Dr Koshiro led us in a short prayer. It was early in the morning on a Sunday and there were few people about. Standing there in our shorts, we didn’t connect the dead with the war against Japan. Dr Koshiro told us he knew some of these men, that they had died in his camp. The Berkshire Regiment had played a prominent role in the war in Asia. They were all, he told us, brave men. By being here, we were honouring them. That night he told us how despicable some Japanese had been during that dark time. He knew because he had been in charge of a prisoner of war camp in Burma. He promised us that he had done his best to treat the captives humanely. Becoming very agitated, he told us that the Army had sent him drunkards, mental defectives and common criminals as guards; it was they who behaved so cruelly and gave our country such a bad name. As schoolchildren, we were not aware that our country had a particularly odious reputation. We thought of ourselves as rather obscure, though this was perhaps more a reflection of our provincial status.
Along the way I remember two small children, rather poorly dressed and not under apparent parental supervision, asking if the man leading us was the Emperor. Dr Koshiro laughed and gave the children some sweets from home. This seemed to confirm them in their belief. This is perhaps not so strange when we remember it was the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, when many Heads of State visited, though none perhaps in this manner.
In a village, whose name I forget, we were met in the square by a policeman who told Dr Koshiro that he should, for his own safety, exchange his uniform for ordinary clothes. Patiently, our headmaster explained that he had come to pay his respects to the men who had been so badly treated. I remember him using the words ‘apology’ and ‘sorry’. The policeman took him to one side. Later, a sombre Dr Koshiro told us that veterans of the war who lived in the town might be upset by the sight of his uniform. It did not matter, he told us, because he could still pray for their souls however he was dressed. I now understand that the sight of a Japanese officer would be the last thing a former prisoner of war would want to see. The only death threats Dr Koshiro received, however, were when we arrived home, from far-right activists who thought that what he had done was a humiliation for Japan.
As for our own safety, we were only once in danger. One night a group of young men, probably drunk, caused a disturbance at our campsite. They were chanting ‘We want the Japs.’ Suddenly we felt that Dr Koshiro might have to save us. He was clearly terrified. Tents were being hit and a considerable commotion was in progress. The oldest among us said that, if necessary, he would fight. Dr Koshiro got out of his tent alone, with his sword, and confronted the youths. By this time others who had been disturbed were standing around in the dark. He said that he had been a camp governor, that he had treated Englishmen badly, and that he was very sorry. He then offered his sword to the leader of the youths, saying that if he felt that a wrong should be avenged, he should do so now. After a brief silent interval the youths turned away laughing, carrying the sword in its lacquer sheath. They did not return. I shall always admire Dr Koshiro for this. We were none of us more than 13 years old. Some of these youths seemed to be in their twenties, perhaps even older.
The next day, we were going to London.
When we arrived for a few days’ sightseeing (no memorials mentioned) the Jubilee celebrations for the Queen were in full swing. Accommodation was impossible to find. We were reduced to camping out in the public parks. We did meet some individuals who were passionately concerned with Japan’s conduct towards Europeans in the war, and yet showed no resentment towards ourselves, or Dr Koshiro. Many Japanese tourists have had similar experiences. I was told that a veteran of the war in Asia had spoken for some time to Dr Koshiro, who had handed him the officer’s uniform. This peace offering was not appreciated, and the clothing was dropped on the ground. After this, the uniform was stowed away and none of us saw it again. I remember joining in the singing and general festivities of the Jubilee holiday.
This is not simply the story of a gentle, deluded old man whose attempts to expiate his guilt were poorly judged. Certainly, he took us with him on false pretences and exposed us to possible harm. If he was trying to impress on us the need to evaluate aspects of our country’s past which have perhaps not received the attention they should in the Japanese curriculum, I can attest that this was a failure. When we returned home our parents were appalled to hear what had happened, and they were all relieved when Dr Koshiro retired. The sponsorship money was not collected, and the very idea of pupils going on trips further afield than the southern islands was dismissed.
In Tokyo some years later, I heard from the elder Koshiro son that his father’s claims about his role in the war had been exposed. It transpired that although he had joined the Army he had been allowed to continue his literary studies. Throughout the period 1942-44 he was preparing his doctoral thesis on Balzac. He had never been a camp commander; he had never left Japan. Unless he felt guilt that he should have been fighting, he had no reason to reproach himself. My interlocutor informed me that his brother, who had been on the trip, was so ashamed of this deception that he had not attended his father’s funeral.
While standing before the memorials I experienced sorrow for so many dead, and this is not an emotion which can be countermanded. I do feel that one does not need to make so public an apology, and that such gestures can often be just that. Dr Koshiro appears to have been under the illusion that he could somehow carry the guilt of the nation on his shoulders. This is a fallacy. The sense of watching a high-risk fancy-dress performance at such a vulnerable age has left me with an ineradicable distrust of compulsory displays of sentiment. Yet I have found it necessary to question Japanese war behaviour, and how the country projects itself: sometimes it seems as if we think we were the principal victim. Perhaps Dr Koshiro is an example of what can happen if a culture internalises its guilt.
In her search for historical and literary exemplars of heroic women, Terry Castle may find some reward in looking back to the ancient Greeks. Sophocles’ Antigone is the first character who springs to mind. But Vera Brittain’s idealisation of the death of her fiancé, and the heroism that she draws from it, made me think of Euripides’ Iphigenia, who, while the soldiers gather at Aulis, impatient for war, is required to submit to her own sacrifice to the goddess Artemis, in order to produce a favourable wind for the ships. At first overcome with fear and weakness and desperately afraid of death, she suddenly changes her mind, caught up in a heady mix of noble patriotism, youthful idealism and romantic intoxication with the cult of male heroism, of which the dashing but quixotic Achilles stands, much like Brittain’s fiancé, as an equivocal representative.
Again, in The Trojan Women, Euripides traces the complex effects of military devastation on a series of female characters. The uncanny mania of his Cassandra resembles Brittain’s traumatic hallucinations, while the black, nihilistic anguish of Andromache resonates with Castle’s ‘ghoulish’ fascination with the sickening realities of death. But it is the emerging heroism of Hecuba that Castle may find most inspiring. At the close of the play, the former Queen, faced with the humiliating prospect of being designated the concubine of the wily Odysseus, lifts her broken body up from the rubble and ashes of Troy and begins the long walk towards the Greek ships.
As a sometime visitor to a great-uncle’s Somme battlefield grave, I’m more confident than Terry Castle that these plots contain what the headstones advertise. Philip Longworth’s The Unending Vigil, which she cites, describes the extraordinary pains taken by the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and its predecessors to identify and where necessary reinter every body which could be found. it’s true that headstones lined up on front-line burial trenches are less orderly than those that result from cemetery concentration and battlefield clearance, but nowhere are bodies ‘piled willy-nilly’. Nor is there anything like the German mass graves at Langemarck or the French ossuary at Verdun. There’s an obvious irony here, but the principle was thought important.
University of Liverpool
The occasional soldier in puttees seen at Shorncliffe by Terry Castle must certainly have been ‘ghostly’ because puttees were replaced by anklets when battledress was introduced c.1939.
Terry Castle describes her great-uncle as looking ‘pale, spindly … rather stupid … and over-fond of self-abuse’. At my Catholic boarding school, it was the thinner, more sensitive and brainier boys who resisted, or persuaded us lesser mortals that they resisted, the temptation of that shameful, secretive act carried out in the inescapable presence of the Almighty and in full view of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of God Herself. The more robust, sportier ones, however, often in small, select groups, would find some remote spot in the school grounds, or a local haybarn, and get down to it with some zest – on the principle that if they were going to sin then they should at least get some fun out of it.
Vol. 24 No. 9 · 9 May 2002
Reading Terry Castle’s essay (LRB, 4 April), I remembered the British cemetery in the small town of Pemba in Northern Mozambique. There are a couple of dozen tombstones, a memorial to men who died in the First World War. One stone reads: ‘237334 Sapper Archibald Rutherford, Royal Engineers, 25 February 1918. Age 21.’ At the bottom is carved: SACRIFICED FOR MONARCHICAL AMBITION.
I find it hard to enter the mental world of someone like Terry Castle who believes it was ‘noble’ and ‘sublime’ for the soldiers in the Great War to ‘slog forward deliberately’ into the streams of bullets fired by the German machine-guns. These sons, brothers and fathers were going to their deaths to gain a few yards of waterlogged French terrain. If they had refused the homicidal orders of their commanders, they would have been shot down en masse by their own guns, as were hundreds of French mutineers. I grew up, in the 1930s, minus one uncle whom I never knew (killed not long before the 1918 Armistice), among friends of my father’s who still struggled to breathe having been gassed in 1916. The prolonged atrocity of that war was a blight on the generation who fought it and on the next generation of us whose view of history as a series of ghastly, often avoidable calamities inflicted by ruling classes on overly meek citizens was shaped by what happened in Flanders, Gallipoli and the rest of the killing-fields.
Terry Castle aligns herself with the British women who have written memorably about the war years, but does not offer evidence that other women from the US might be similarly interested. I count myself among those American females who are also possessed with the years 1914-18, but I have often noted that the Great War is not as much of a presence in American consciousness or culture as it is in England. Where one finds tangible memories of the war in every town in England – memorials in the town square, plaques in churches, framed photographs in homes – it's rare to find in the US as much care taken to preserve the memory of those Americans who fought and died. This no doubt accounts for some of the secretive hoarding of artefacts and reclusive harbouring of facts to which Castle alludes.
University of Wisconsin
Michael Barber says that puttees were replaced by anklets in 1939 (Letters, 25 April). In August 1940, waiting to embark for the Middle East in the ranks of 4th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, I was issued with knee-length puttees as part of my tropical uniform. We were led to believe that these difficult bits of gear were prescribed because – even though we were about to join an armoured division – ours was notionally a mounted unit. We had yet to learn that cavalry (i.e. armoured car) units in the desert were still putting out each evening the signal: ‘Water horses.’
Joseph Nuttgens informs us that at his Catholic boarding school the more robust and sporty pupils used to get together for sessions of group masturbation. Until the last few decades of the 20th century, the English language lacked the resources to make an adequate response to such a revelation. Now, however, on behalf of the civilised world, I say to Mr Nuttgens: thank you for sharing that with us.
Vol. 24 No. 10 · 23 May 2002
I am somewhat sceptical that the letter which appeared above the name Hideki Matsuoka in the issue dated 25 April was actually written by somebody from Japan. It reads like a typical Western romanticisation of Japanese society and culture, as seen in Madame Butterfly or Memoirs of a Geisha. There are a few indications that the writer may not have been really familiar with Japan. 1. The age of students in Japanese intermediate schools is 12 to 15, not 10 to 14. 2. The Japanese don't have a tradition of raising money by sponsored walks, nor generally of giving to charity, unlike in the West. 3. The Japanese are usually meticulously organised when it comes to trips, and it is unlikely that parents would be unaware of where their children were going and what they were going to do. In particular, it's unlikely that they would have allowed their children to stay in tents as opposed to hotels. 4. Japanese intermediate school students wouldn't have worn shorts at a war memorial in Britain. 5. Dr Koshiro would have been roasted if the parents found out what he'd done. 6. I don't believe that men were allowed to continue studies instead of serving in the Army in 1942-44, especially if the studies concerned something fluffy such as literature, and particularly the literature of France, an enemy country. There were very few people who pursued a doctoral degree in Japan back then anyway, and those who did so were unlikely to end up as headmasters of an intermediate school.
Perhaps Terry Castle’s puttee-wearing Shorncliffe soldier was not ‘ghostly’ at all (Letters, 25 April). Anklets may well have replaced puttees in 1939 – though Michael Barber does not say whether he is referring to long puttees, or short – but they proved unsatisfactory: they failed to anchor the trouser bottoms securely. Much more certain is the fact that my husband, in about 1965, fresh from Sandhurst, bought himself a pair of Foxe’s puttees (short) in a pleasing light greenish fawn – which he dyed black (to resemble the anklets) and wore in comfort throughout his Army career and, as a Reservist, into the 1980s. Puttees were reintroduced in the early 1970s – in a sort of chutney-brown colour. They would seem to have the advantage over anklets or the modern high-cut boots of being infinitely adjustable to suit individual ankle configurations – and are highly recommended even for civilian wear, since they keep feet and ankles toasty-warm in the draughtiest house.
Vol. 24 No. 11 · 6 June 2002
I am confused by Kaori Miyamoto’s letter (Letters, 23 May). She accuses Hideki Matsuoka of being a Westerner romanticising Japanese society and culture, then promptly launches into a manifesto of idealised Japanese behaviour that wouldn’t look out of place at the Zennippon Aikokusha Dantai Kaigi (National Conference of Patriotic Associations). To suggest that Japanese parents would be any more aware of where their children were going or what they were going to do than parents in any other culture highlights a problem that has always been peculiar to Japan: the denial of parental fallibility. Were Japanese parents superior to all others, there would not be such high instances of child prostitution in Japan. This, incidentally, is not a modern condition but dates back to the days of the war, when the Japanese Army enlisted ‘comfort-women’ to ‘ease’ the soldiers’ wartime burden. Many of those enlisted – ‘coerced’ is probably the right word – were children. Today the circumstances are different and Japanese schoolchildren are selling their bodies for mobile phones. Do their parents know where they are or what they are doing?
Back in the war there were people who pursued academic studies – not many, but enough to warrant a mention. My uncle was among them. Contrary to what Miyamoto’s schoolbooks may have taught her, history ‘koshiki happyo’ is never the entire story. The Nanjing Massacre did happen, and some Japanese felt shame, perhaps the same shame that Dr Koshiro experienced. Pockets of people wanted their lives back, pockets of people didn’t appreciate the emperor worship that was crippling their country, and pockets of people did what they could to maintain their own sense of dignity and independence – including continuing their studies behind closed academic doors. Ironically, this is what the war came to symbolise for the Japanese. Koshiro was more patriotic than he perhaps thought himself to be, and needn’t have carried so much guilt.
As someone who has only limited knowledge of Japanese society and culture beyond manga and Kurosawa films, I suppose Kaori Miyamoto would think of me as someone who romanticises her people. But if Hideki Matsuoka is not Japanese, why would he make up such a story? There is a reluctance on Miyamoto's part to face up to the real issue at stake: Japan's wartime conduct and its subsequent refusal to acknowledge the effects of xenophobic militarism on its own society, let alone on those nations that Japan invaded.
Marguerite Helmers (Letters, 9 May) conjectures that the fact that the First World War is ‘not as much of a presence in American consciousness and culture as it is in England’ is partly accounted for by the prevalence of war memorials and related memorabilia here. It seems perverse not to mention the obvious fact that the war memorials and the awareness have a common source in the fact that Britain was at war for four years, and the British Empire suffered over three million casualties, with over 900,000 dead, whereas the US was at war for 18 months, with troops in action for less than a year, and suffered 350,000 casualties, with 126,000 dead.