Review by George Simmers – see his Great War Fiction blog here
The author was born Lewis Anselm da Costa Ricci in 1886; he anglicised his name to Ritchie and trained to become a naval officer. While still young, he contracted Malta Fever (brucellosis); this cost him the sight of one eye and damaged the other. Unable now to pursue a career at sea, he remained in the Navy, in the accounting branch, but began writing stories about naval life. He took his pen-name from the Bible, ironically hinting at his reason for leaving the career he loved by naming himself after Bartimeus, the blind beggar of Mark 10, 46-52.
The sixty-four stories of The ‘Bartimeus’ Omnibus are divided into three sections – Pre-War 1909-1913, War 1914-1918 and Post-War 1919-1925. These sections refer to when the stories are set rather than when they were written, though, as one or two of the Pre-War section explicitly look forward to more testing times, and some of the descriptions of naval actions were presumably written later, when their details (for example how warships could be disguised as merchantmen to lure submarines) were not confidential.
The best of the pre-war stories are hardly stories at all, but plotless sketches of life at sea (many, apparently, first published in the Pall Mall Gazette). There are descriptions of daily routine, of gunroom conversation, of a shipboard Sunday, and events like the arrival of the mail, or a trip ashore in a foreign port.
The most resonant of the stories is ‘That Which Remained’, about a young Signal Midshipman, nicknamed ‘The Periwinkle’: ‘small for his years, skinny as a weasel, with straight black hair, and grey eyes set wide apart in a brown face.’ This young man loves his work, but is struck down suddenly by brucellosis (or Malta Fever), the disease that ruined the eyesight of ‘Bartimeus’ himself:
After a while he closed his left eye and looked cautiously round the room. The tops of objects appeared indistinctly out of a grey mist. It was like looking at a partly fogged negative. He closed his right eye and repeated the process with the other. His field of vision was clear then, except for a speck of grey fog that hung threateningly in the upper left-hand corner.
By dinner-time he could see nothing with the right eye, and the fog had closed on half the left eye’s vision.
‘The Periwinkle’ is left totally blind; ‘Bartimeus’ himself was robbed of the sight of only one eye, but that was enough to end his naval career.
These early stories are full of a nostalgia for the seaboard life in which the author could no longer directly share. His love of the service is evident on every page, especially those dealing with the young officer’s training, at Dartmouth and at sea. Like many texts of the period (from Stalky and Co. to Tell England) these stories lovingly present institutions whose tough discipline turn boys into men, and enthusiastically endorse even the corporal punishment that seems barbaric to tastes a century later.
His first short story collection Naval Occasions, was published in August 1914. Soon after this he was seconded to the Admiralty, as secretary to Admiral C.L.Napier, and then later worked under Jellicoe. He kept on writing, and his wartime stories one senses a conscious decision to contribute to the war effort.
What I take to be his first attempts at war writing were not very satisfactory, as he went outside his usual range to write a spy story (which includes an ingenious home-made invention for fighting submarines) and a couple of stories about men inspired to enlist. One of these is a dreadfully sentimental piece about a sailor who had deserted his warship to be with the woman he loved. Come August 1914 she is dying, and she urges him from her deathbed to take advantage of the King’s Pardon for deserters and re-enlist. (‘Bartimeus’ is definitely happiest when writing about midshipmen, or about the officer’s mess. The stories story about ordinary seamen mostly read gratingly; the language takes on an arch, condescending tone that one doesn’t find elsewhere.)
Soon, though, he seems to have found his metier, in stories that, like his earlier sketches of naval life, describe a ship’s routine, but put it into a context of wartime dangers. ‘Chummy-Ships’, for example, is about the officers on a ship doing tedious blockade duty who decide to liven things up by inviting the officers of a partner vessel to dinner. There is a great deal of banter and facetious point-scoring between the two crews, but Bartimeus makes explicit the serious subtext underneath the jollity:
War had been their trade in theory from earliest youth. They were all on nodding terms with Death. Indeed, most of the men round the long table had looked him between the eyes already, and the obituary pages in the Navy List had been a reminder, month by month, of others who had looked there too—and blinked, and closed their eyes–shipmates and fleetmates and familiar friends.
War was the Real Thing, that was all. There was nothing about it to obsess men’s minds. You might say it was the manoeuvres of 19– all over again, with the chance of “bumping a mine” thrown in, and also the glorious certainty of ultimately seeing a twelve-inch salvo pitch exactly where the long years of preparation ordained that it should.
The meal finishes in the riotous horseplay of a Battle Royal:
“Come on!” shouted the Junior Watchkeeper. “Bite ‘em in the stomach!” and flung himself upon the Secretary.
The guests waited for no second invitation [….]A Rugby International and a middle-weight boxer of some pretensions, although hampered by aiguilettes and outnumbered six to one, were not easily disposed of. But they were ultimately overpowered, and carried, puffing with exhaustion and helpless with laughter, over the debris of the bridge-table, gramophone and paper-rack, out through the doorway.
They are about to start playing ship polo (with an orange and spoons, and the players seated on chairs, hopping) when the message comes through that the ship is needed for immediate action:
The First Lieutenant of the visitors flung his boat-cloak over his shoulders. “Well,” he said, “we’ve had a topping evening. S’long, and thanks very much.”
Their hosts helped the departing ones into their great-coats. “Not ‘t all,” they murmured politely in return. “Sorry to break up a cheery evening. Let’s hope they’ve really come out this time!”
The Indiarubber Man slid on to the music-stool again, put his foot on the soft pedal, lightly touched the familiar chords, and began humming under his breath:
“We don’t want to lose you—-
But we _think_ you ought to go . . .”
There are many ways of saying Moriturus te saluto.
(The Indiarubber man, by the way, is the Physical training specialist.)
This story was first published in Blackwood’s Magazine, and has much in common with Ian Hay’s The First Hundred Thousand, which ran there as a serial. There is the same light jocular surface, with the same hints of more serious things beneath the surface.
Other stories give fuller depictions of the navy in action. Bartimeus had obviously talked to a lot of sailors (and may well have observed warships at first hand). Often he writes about engagements in which British lives are lost, but objectives have been obtained; these are written, I think, to reassure readers that the sacrifices of war, however painful, are still worthwhile.
The most interesting pieces are those which are hardly fiction, but give accounts of actual naval engagements. ‘H.M. Destroyers Swift and Broke‘, for example, gives a stirring account of the 1917 battle between these ships and German destroyers. The pieces I was most absorbed by were a series of articles about the Q-ships, the British warships that disguised themselves as merchantmen to lure and destroy submarines. The captain had to actually allow his ship to be torpedoed, and to pretend to abandon ship, so that the submarine would come close enough to be effectively attacked. Bartimeus makes very clear the extreme courage involved in such dangerous manoeuvres.
But then, all Bartimeus’s sailors are brave. I’ve found a 1917 Manchester Guardian review (by novelist and playwright Alan Monkhouse) of a collection of these stories. Monkhouse describes the book’s limitations:
[T]hey are all heroes and capital fellows, and it is a jolly war, though, mind you, the emotions are on a big scale and the events terribly tremendous [….] It makes good reading for nervous civilians, and if this is an old-fashioned rhetorical way to write about the war, it does convey something about ‘the indefinable Spirit of the Fleet.’
These stories are the ones that the British wanted to read about their Navy, and the ones that the Navy wanted to read about itself. When a naval operation fails it is because of overwhelming odds, never because of failures or weaknesses in the men.
The post-war stories again describe life on board Navy ships; the best, as in the pre-war collection, are pen-pictures of naval life, light on plot and strong on atmosphere. Some of the stories introduce a new theme – the conflict between serving sailors and the bureaucrats of Admiralty. Others rather sadly deal with men leaving the navy or ships being decommissioned.
His later career is quite interesting. In 1932 he served on the royal yacht Victoria and Albert. In the Second World War he joined the Ministry of Information. He reported on Dunkirk and many other topics, and wrote books about the fight for Malta, until becoming Press Secretary to King George VI in 1944. He stayed in this post until 1947, when he retired.
Would I recommend these stories? The ones describing training at Dartmouth and the life of a midshipman are written with love and are very evocative of their times, and the descriptions of naval wartime engagements (especially those of the Q-Ships) are clear and gripping. The weakest stories are the relatively few that are plot-driven, and the representation of the lower orders is sometimes embarrassing. Reading the whole collection straight through as I did is probably not the best way of tacking this book; on the other hand, anyone who likes an occasional breath of salty air would find this omnibus a very useful book to set on the shelf beside Patrick O’Brien and C.S. Forester.