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Response to Review of ‘A Student in Arms’: Donald Hankey and Edwardian Society at War

Stuart Bell is of a mind with John Bourne, founder of Birmingham’s Centre for War Studies, about my ‘A Student in Arms’: Donald Hankey and Edwardian Society at War (Ashgate). In his series editor’s preface, Dr Bourne writes:

A reassessment of Hankey’s life and work is overdue. Dr Ross Davies has provided it. His beautifully-written and perceptive analysis is based on a large number of private papers, which were thought not to exist, brought together from across the Hankey family and across the world. Davies has rescued Hankey’s work from ‘the winnowing flail of time’ and presented a fascinating account of the social, cultural and religious values at the heart of Edwardian society at war.

To Stuart Bell ‘A Student in Arms’: Donald Hankey and Edwardian Society at War is:

an excellent piece of scholarly writing, contributing significantly to our understanding of A Student in Arms. While Donald Hankey continues to defy simplistic labelling, Ross Davies’ work has made him much less of an enigma.

I regret, though,  that Mr Bell so misreads my book that he can write of Donald Hankey as primarily known for ‘a volume’ of essays. There was not one but two volumes or ‘series’ of the A Student in Arms papers (1916,1917). I go into the ensuing bibliographic confusion at some length on pp. 196/7, for it has continued to this day. I am sorry to see Mr Bell giving this confusion fresh life.]Since Mr Bell pounces upon ‘typographical errors’, however, I cannot forbear pointing out that his review names Hankey’s literary collaborator as ‘his sister Helen’, when Hankey did not have a sister of that name. Hankey’s sister Hilda was his literary collaborator; Helen was their mother, and she died before Hankey became ‘A Student in Arms’. This infelicity, I hope, is a typo, as I trust is the mention of the Rugby School mission as being in ‘East’ London rather than West, as in the book, twice. Then someone called ‘Handley’ creeps into the review; in my book as in life the surname of the man behind the pen-name ‘A Student in Arms is Hankey. He was attached to the Oxford & Bermondsey Mission, not to the ‘Bermondsey Mission’, of which there were many.

I’m grateful, as Mr Bell marks me down on three other points, for the opportunity he and Reviews in History afford me to enter pleas in extenuation. First, there is my ‘perfunctory’ reference to Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willie’) as ‘a Kipling emulator’. This Mr Bell finds ‘hardly fair on either writer’. He finds me repentant on that score, for I value both poets highly; I should have been more precise and written that Studdert Kennedy ‘emulated’ or drew upon Kipling’s verse forms.

Secondly and thirdly, I’m also taken to task for the ‘surprising’ omission from my sources of Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory, and then for ‘during the long gestation period’ of my book making ‘no explicit use’ of James Kissane’s biography, Without Parade: The Life and Work of Donald Hankey, a [sic] Student in Arms (2003). If faults these be, I hasten to explain that they arise neither from inattention nor disrespect.

Kissane has done much service as a primer for the general reader, in the unnecessary absence of a fuller study (of which more later) but is synoptic and not based upon manuscript sources. Todman is indeed a thoughtful and vigorous statement of the now-venerable revisionist movement in Great WarGreat War history, but other than that has no bearing on Hankey, does not draw upon or even mention him or his work. Like Kissane, therefore, Todman is of limited applicability to the task I set myself. This task was to keep close as possible to the now-available Hankey papers, to Hankey’s life, work, audience and influence, and to what was said or written about him at the time. The clincher, however, is that I had yet to read Todman or Kissane before I completed my study for the simple reason that they had yet to be published. Although I subsequently read these two books I felt no need to draw upon them.

My own study was ready in 2000, three years before Kissane and five before Todman. It took another 14 years for ‘A Student in Arms’: Donald Hankey and Edwardian Society at War to see the light of day, more than twice the time it took to research and write, and three times as long as the Great War itself. This was not wasted time, except for historians of the war, because during the ‘long gestation period’ of the Hankey book, I published studies of F. W. Harvey and Drummond Allison, and have begun a third.

An explanation of the foot-dragging over publication of the Hankey research is to be found in the history of publishing in turn-of-the century Oxford. Donald Hankey was always going to be a chancey proposition, both as a university research and a publishing project. At the turn of this century, Donald was part-English Literature, part-History, but mostly ‘Donald Who?’ He did not even make The Penguin Book of First World War Prose (1989); not because the editors, a poet and an academic, objected on grounds of taste or political correctness. It was just that neither had heard of him. Donald, said one, ‘must have escaped the cultural sieve’.

In the following decade, however, I found willingness to fashion a finer sieve. Two Oxford English dons, John Carey and Jon Stallworthy (also a poet) and a London historian, Brian Bond, were happy to encourage a study, backed by new papers, of what amounted to a ‘forgotten’ English Literature  / History fusion writer. So too was Hermione Lee of the Oxford English Monographs Committee, which recommended the resultant DPhil to Oxford University Press:

This clearly is an admirable thesis, and the examiners were right to suggest that it offers a major contribution to knowledge in [sic] the period.

The quotation above is not from Professor Lee or her committee but from OUP, who nonetheless turned down the book, twice. Each time I recalled the occasion upon which OUP came to lecture aspiring DPhil students. OUP, they were warned, published few DPhils. To be selected, a study had to answer satisfactorily three questions: why does the subject matter, to whom does it matter, and why could it not be covered in a couple of articles? The project indeed began as two-part article in Stand To!, the journal of The Western Front Association, of which John Bourne is Vice-President.

I found no papers were registered so, using printed sources, I pressed on with the article. Yet I could not shake off Sportin’ Life’s admonition that ‘It ain’t necessarily so’. I decided to test the assumption that just because papers are not registered does not necessarily mean that none exist; and so it proved. Surely the Great War did matter, to many different audiences? And the material for an extensive study was now to hand. The study had merited the thumbs-up of Oxford and London’s finest. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, first there were the priorities of OUP at the beginning of this century. These, as the OUP lecturer made clear, were all to do with to shifting units. That meant publishing what was fashionable. English Literature and dead, white English authors were out, it seemed, especially male ones; in were ‘women’s studies’ and post-colonial soul-searching.

Even so, both times ‘A Student in Arms’: Donald Hankey and Edwardian Society at War was put to OUP, the editors liked the book, as my quotation above suggests. But then another, anonymous, lot of academics pounced. These were the publisher’s readers, ears ever close to the ground, pens ever poised to snipe at work in which they had had no hand. Their quibbles about a book I saw as original and ground-breaking struck and strike me as fatuous and, as they were anonymous, unworthy of quotation. By contrast, Ashgate, to whom I eventually turned, was all I had hoped OUP would be. Perhaps OUP is so today.

To my mind, Stuart Bell strikes exactly the right note in describing Hankey as an ‘enigma’, and too interesting a one to label, let alone ‘solve’. He was a practical soldier-writer, but also a mystic, in the sense that mysticism is ‘the direct experience of the divine as real and near’, and a mystic ‘a writer whose experience is informed by such experience’. His work exemplifies the inter-relation between literature and history, a zone where idealists and zealots can do a lot of harm.

What gives Hankey his significance for historians, I suggest, is that he ‘spoke’, calmly and with direct knowledge, to such a vast international audience, military and civilian, male and female. His audience ‘listened’, literally as well as figuratively, for his writing was read out in army camps, ships and hospitals as well as from pulpits. Free of rancour, bluster or jargon, Hankey’s reflections upon the war helped people to make some sense of and so to fight or endure the Great War. His writing and his audiences’ reaction to it, offer a window onto the Edwardian mind, at all levels of a society that was already at war with itself before it took on the Germans and their allies.

This ‘window’ was obscured for three-quarters of a century by the apparent loss of Hankey’s papers, with penalty time tacked on by Oxford carpers. All I set out to do was give that window a wipe by tracking down and assembling Hankey’s papers wherever they might be found, then to make some sort of sense of them, and to publish the results as readably as I could. That I have now done, and am busy with another cache of the ‘non-existent’ private papers of another ‘forgotten’ writer. This is the soldier-writer, poet, novelist, actor, dramatist, and Special Operations Executive fatality, Stephen Haggard (1911–43).

The least of my troubles was tracking down Hankey papers. I owe much to another Donald Hankey, the third Baron Hankey, and great-nephew of ‘A Student in Arms’. This Donald neither looked over my shoulder, nor sought to vet the book or the DPhil from which it sprang. I saw Stuart Bell’s review the day before I was to call upon Lord Hankey to present him with an early copy of the book, and discuss which library or museum would make best use of the Hankey Archive. How agreeable it was to bring with me, after the book’s interminable ‘gestation’, the evidence from Reviews in History that A Student in Arms’: Donald Hankey and Edwardian Society at War is well-received.

Stuart Bell’s review in Reviews in History was the first I had seen, and it put a spring in my step. Someone who knows what he’s talking about had confirmed that yes, I have done a decent piece of ‘window-cleaning’. The timing was good for another reason, in that it came when I was chafing at the gulf between the official hoo-hah over the Great War centenary and the dismal standard of observance I could see and hear around me.

My local authority, Lambeth, had held a Remembrance Day ceremony that few in the large crowd could see and next-to-nobody could hear; the war memorial is on a traffic island, and the service unamplified. The Last Post was played not by a live bugler but on a recording from a tinny little boombox; this in Lambeth, a borough that has an orchestra, and is home to Brixton, that hive of musicians. Like Hankey, Rifleman Arthur Hutson, a Lambeth comrade and correspondent of his, is commemorated on the Thiepval Monument to the missing of the Somme. But a century later, Rfmn Hutson’s name is still missing from the Lambeth memorial. Even in centenary year, Lambeth won’t spend the money to put him there. And just up the road, the Imperial War Museum is closed until July; on BBC Radio 4 I’d heard someone say ‘Lord Kitchener was the architect of the Great War’.

I did not set out to have last word on Donald Hankey. As a recovering journalist, what matters to me is having the first word, reasonably-argued and -evidenced. If, as Stuart Bell and John Bourne appear to concede, that is what I have had with ‘A Student in Arms’: Donald Hankey and Edwardian Society at War, then that is more than enough for me. One should never shoot the messenger if the news is bad, but it isn’t, so does this mean I shouldn’t say that I have good reason to be grateful to Stuart Bell and Reviews in History?