WW1 as a Holy Crusade? Ernest Raymond’s best-seller ‘Tell England’ (1922)

Review by Reading Group member

First, a plot summary:

Initially the narrator describes the public school life of himself and his two close friends.  Training to ‘rule the waves’ involves the internalisation of key English characteristics, viz. reserve, restraint, resilience. The teaching of such cultural values is reinforced by caning, ridicule and isolation. Counterpointing this regime is the mischievous behaviour of the boys compounded by their evolving friendships and confused sexuality. An essential guide emerges in the form of a noble rock-like teacher whom the boys hero-worship. The only women around are distant devoted mothers. When war is declared the boys become Junior Officers, resolving to die heroically on the battlefield. But first they want to have ‘lived’. This involves drinking, swearing, a veiled visit to some ‘darkened doorway’ and parading about town practising salutes. On the boat to Gallipoli they encounter an Army Chaplain who guides their religious redemption through a modified form of Christianity which emphasises religious purity and nationalism. Converting war into a ‘Holy Crusade’ would lend a sense of ‘beauty’ to what otherwise was emerging as a futile and inelegant waste of talent and life. The gallantry and deaths of so many peers becomes the motivation to write this book and ‘Tell England’.

Ernest Raymond tells a good story, in a ‘Boys Own’ sort of way.

I found the depiction of school life authentic in terms of the physical and mental punishment and the creatively subversive exploitation of this system and its weaker practitioners by the boys. For example, responding with alacrity to a teacher’s French directive ‘Asseyez vous toute suite’ with ‘Yes Sir, we had two but one died’; stretching out laughing at a witticism into a series of crescendos and diminuendos before fading into a few intermittent laughs and then resurrecting this whole sequence again.

Similarly, the subsequent blindly mechanical mass slaughter in WW1 is counterpointed by the patriotic gallantry and sportsmanship of the young officers.

I also found the cathected relationship to ‘form’ so very middle class. Thus, in place of a family dynamic centered on being at home with two parents, there is a distant idealised mother, an even more remote father figure and, in the foreground, an emotional investment in manners, style, presentation, apparel, e.g. ‘the only joy at camp was dressing up in true tropical kit’ [p234]. Hence not only the fastidious reaction against the vulgarity of a shell blindly wiping out such aspirations but also the need to cosmeticize or stylise war into something more acceptable, e.g. a Holy Crusade.

In regarding war as a romantic and noble enterprise, Raymond can be seen as responding, in a ‘middle-brow’ way, to the needs of many readers in a time of national mourning for the ‘lost generation’. However, in so doing it takes a reactionary fundamentalist stand against a wider modernist trend that in the face of general post-war cultural and spiritual uncertainty and disillusionment was ushering in new codes of morals, understanding and self-expression, e.g. the Freudian unconscious; Surrealism; increased equality for women and representation for the working class. Thus one could regard the aftermath of WW1 as catalysing an epistemological break between dominant paradigms or epistemes. Within such transitional territory the motivation for Raymond’s drive to revivify the traditional values of Anglicanism, in the spirit of St. Aiden and St. Augustine, becomes a conservative response to pervasive faltering or lost faith. 

Indeed such a response bears a family resemblance to the parallel development of National Socialism. Like Raymond, Hitler also served in WW1 and similar hierarchical thinking dominates the outlook of both, e.g. Aryan or the Middle Class at the apex of development with women confined to the domains of children, kitchen and church. They also shared a reaction against modernism and a notion of War as a Holy Crusade, employing the use of religious symbolism towards this end. This is not to suggest that Raymond was a closet Nazi or religious zealot. Indeed, though he served as an Anglican Army Chaplain in WW1 he resigned from the priesthood in 1923 and subsequently served as a Liberal on Hampstead Borough Council. Rather, given the forty subsequent editions of a ‘middle-brow’ novel published in 1922, the most recent being 2005, such a subtext may well account for its enduring appeal.

See also George Simmers’ account of Tell England on the Great War Fiction blog.

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2 thoughts on “WW1 as a Holy Crusade? Ernest Raymond’s best-seller ‘Tell England’ (1922)

  1. Ernest Raymond’s autobiography, ‘The Story of my Days’ (1968) casts some interesting light on this novel. He wrote the first half of the book when he was working as a preparatory school teacher, before 1912.What he wrote then reflects both nostalgia for his own schooldays and the paternalistic view of the teacher.
    He abandoned the book — or what he later called ‘a shapeless mass of stuff’ — some time before 1912, when he discovered a religious vocation and, having become an Anglo-Catholic, studied theology at Durham. He was ordained as deacon in 1914 and fully priested in 1915. Almost immediately he became a chaplain attached to the 10th Manchesters, and sailed for Gallipoli in August. His authorial ambition returned and he decided to write about war, but in a special way:
    ‘But it was on the Peninsula that there broke before me a moment of vision. I saw what to do with the massed and untidy chapters of my school story — or with what seemed the best of them: they would form the first half of a two-part novel which would be a study of my own generation of schoolboys who, after their few years of school, happy or unhappy, had been called upon to bleed and die for England.’
    I think this two-part composition contributes to the book’s power. In the first half there is no foreshadowing of the war with hints of the future. The description of the schooldays are innocent of what will follow – which makes the Gallipoli scenes all the more telling in contrast. (it works much better, for example, than the rather obvious contrast between pre-war ignorance and wartime experience in Cicely Hamilton’s ‘William, an Englishman’ (1919)
    The book is innocent in another way, too. In 1968 Raymond wrote: ‘Another thing that is a cause of wonder to me as I re-read the book is the indubitable but wholly unconscious homosexuality in it,’ since ‘“homosexuality” was a word which — absurd as this seems now — I had never heard.’ Today’s readers are struck by the homoerotic subtext that at times seems pretty explicit, even though the author was apparently unaware of it: the boys are conscious of their attractiveness (‘“I’m the best-looking person in this room,” said Archibald Pennybet.’) and form close emotional bonds (‘There, far ahead of us, was Doe in the company of Freedham, with whom he was turning into a doorway. A pang of jealousy stabbed me, and with a throb, that was as pleasing as painful, I realised that I loved Doe as Orestes loved Pylades.’) Ceremonies of caning are described in lingering detail, and manly schoolmasters become hero-figures of erotic potency. When Doe and Ray have been beaten by the ‘hard’ assistant housemaster, Radley, Doe comes to Ray’s dormitory bed and tells him: ‘Do you know, I really think I like Radley better than anyone else in the world. I simply loved being whacked by him.’
    I suspect that many of Raymond’s original readers would have shared his unawareness that these strong adolescent emotions might be construed as homosexual. An ugly and depraved schoolboy called Freedham lurks on the edge of the narrative, and there are hints that he is involved in ‘beastliness’ – but this is presented in strong contrast to the deep friendship of the two principal protagonists.
    By the way, it’s worth noting that this book quotes a soldier’s song from Gallipoli:
    Oh the moon shines bright on Mrs Porter
    And on her daughter,
    A regular snorter;
    She has washed her neck in dirty water
    She didn’t oughter,
    The dirty cat.
    Mrs Porter would, of course, make an appearance (in a slightly different form) in a now much more celebrated work of 1922, by a writer who would also become an Anglo-Catholic – T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.

  2. George, thank you so much for this contextual detail. It is fascinating the Raymond genuinely didn’t see the homosexual currents in the book when he wrote it – hard for us to credit now, but I do believe him! I’ll make sure the reading group member who read the book sees it.

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