Book Review by George S. We’ve been reading fiction by Compton Mackenzie this month, but I deviated from the brief slightly by reading an example of his non-fiction. He published Gallipoli Memories in 1929, fourteen years after his participation in the unsuccessful military campaign. He tells us that he had spent years pursuing ‘that elusive phantom of the great war novel’ and that this first volume of his memories ‘marks a complete surrender to the overwhelming fact, or, if you will a meek acceptance of Byron’s statement, that truth is stranger than fiction.’
To have taken that society on the promontory of Kephalo and extracted from it the juice to feed my own imaginary creations came finally to seem quite unjustifiable. [….]Somehow the solid fact of Achi Baba stands as doggedly between me and my dreams of a great war novel as it stood between us and our dreams of Constantinople.
The book begins at the beginning of the War, with Mackenzie wanting to enlist, but being refused:
So back I went to Iver, crestfallen; and there I sat up all night and every night for two months writing the last three hundred pages of Sinister Street. I used to have my breakfast when the rest of the household was having tea, and about six o’clock Seeker used to get home from John Street with the evening papers and all the garnered rumours of the day. No wonder the left-hand pages of the manuscript are scrabbled over with names like Louvain and Ypres and Valenciennes. They must have been written down almost automatically while my conscious mind on the right-hand page struggled with those reputedly mellifluous sentences […] The book was being printed as I wrote it so that it might be ready for publication within a month of penning the last word.
By the middle of the next year he had moved to Capri, and was nearly at the end of his next huge novel, Guy and Pauline when he received a message from his old friend Orlo Williams, who had been talking to Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Hamilton had just bought Volume II of Sinister Street, and when Williams told him Mackenzie was looking for a commission, Hamilton said:
Write to him and tell him to get into communication with Eddie Marsh 1 and get sent out to me as a Marine or anything, and I will find him a job of some kind, sub-cipher officer or something like that.
Eddie Marsh was Winston Churchill’s secretary, but also a powerful literary figure, patron of the Georgian poets, especially. He is an example of how intertwined the literary and political establishments could be at the start of the twentieth century.
Mackenzie rushed through the last hundred and twenty-five pages of Guy and Pauline in about a fortnight, grew a military moustache, and tried to act the part of a soldier. There is a very long sequence of comic fiascos in his quest for something approaching a correct uniform.
Mackenzie presents himself very much as an outsider in the world of soldiering, not really fitting in, dressed in the wrong uniform, and at first quite without a job. At one stage there are only two men in headquarters who have no jobs, himself and the senior diplomat who has been earmarked to govern Constantinople once the British capture that city. They never get anywhere near, of course, but are held up on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, with Turkish guns dominating them from the hills.
Eventually Mackenzie is given intelligence work, at first collating information about Greeks who might possibly be spies, then investigating some of these. Finally he is given an adventurous task of trying to convince Turkish intelligence that the planned attack will happen not at Suvla, but elsewhere. He is proud that his efforts caused the diversion of some submarines away from ships carrying in troops. Everything he does is very much a sideline, and the real campaign is always happening just out of sight. Only occasionally do we get an image of how vile conditions on the peninsula were for the men who were fighting: Once he goes near the front line:
‘And you’ve got your foot in an awkward place,” he called up to me. Looking down I saw squelching up from the ground on either side of my boot like a rotten mangold the deliquescent green and black flesh of a Turk’s head.
The relatively few descriptions of actual war are interesting, for instance when he insists that the sound of a certain kind of shell approaching is not a whine, but whinnying, like the sound of a mule. And:
The most terrifying noise was that of big bombs being dropped from a Taube over the aerodrome. This was an appallingly exultant ooooh-ah-ooooh-ah — oooh-ah — oooh-ah — oooh-ah — ooh-ah — ooh-ah — ooh-ah — ooh-ah quicker and quicker until the blinding bang at the end left the heart twitching and gasping like a flatfish on the floor of a boat.
Since he is quartered with the Staff, Mackenzie sees very little of the soldiers who are bearing the brunt of the fighting. He expresses lyrical admiration for the Australians, however:
Their beauty, for it really was heroic, should have been celebrated in hexameters not headlines. […] There was not one of those glorious young men I saw that day who might not him self have been Ajax or Diomed, Hector or Achilles. Their almost complete nudity, their tallness and majestic simplicity of line, their rose-browned flesh burned by the sun and purged of all grossness by the ordeal through which they were passing, all these united to create something as near to absolute beauty as I shall hope ever to see in this world.
There is one chapter, the best in the book, where Mackenzie’s separation from the war is put to superb dramatic effect. The second wave of landings, on Suvla Beach, is about to happen. There have been premonitions that all will not go well, and there are failures in communication. Mackenzie and others in GHQ are waiting desperately for news of the success of the mission. The only message that comes through is an ominous one from Anzac Cove, where the Australians and others have been fighting a diversionary battle: ‘When does the next hospital ship come? This one is full’. Gradually the fact of the failure of the attack to reach expectations is revealed.
This is a long book – over four hundred pages, and for me at least, it does not justify its length. Much of it is given over to character descriptions, of the various soldiers, and of the Greeks who may or may not be spies, who are presented as comic-pathetic figures. Some of these Mackenzie found very memorable, but even he expresses doubts:
Even in the case of the most successful comic figures I have drawn I am always left with a desire to say to my reader, “Ah, yes, but if only you could have seen him or heard him or known him as I did.”
If the book has a villain, it is Ashmead-Bartlett, the official newspaper correspondent with the expedition. He never had faith in the invasion, and was the one who, when back in London, joined up with Keith Murdoch (Rupert’s father) to produce a damning report on the Gallipoli project, which led to its abandonment.
Mackenzie describes him:
The official war correspondent, a slim man in khaki with a soft felt hat the colour of verdigris, a camera slung round his shoulders, and an unrelaxing expression of nervous exasperation, walked along the deck with the air of one convinced that his presence there annoyed everybody, and that we all wanted a jolly good dose of physic. Presently he came away from an interview with Sir Ian Hamilton, looking the way Cassandra must have often looked some three thousand years before.
Mackenzie’s most damning indictment of Ashmead-Bartlett comes when he reports a conversation:
“I don’t think I shall stay out here much longer. It’s pretty clear that the whole show is a washout. I saw Hughes Massie, my agent, when I was in town, and he’s sure he can get me an offer from America for a book about the Dardanelles. A thousand pounds advance on a straight twenty-five per cent. Not too bad, eh? Hamilton and Braithwaite can stop my book in England, of course, but they won’t be able to stop it in America, and I’ll go over there to write it if necessary.”
For Mackenzie this amounts to selling out your comrades for money. Ashmead-Bartlett thinks he knows the truth, but for Mackenzie truth comes second to loyalty. When he apologises for a morale-boosting leaflet he wrote that is not strictly true, you can tell that Mackenzie is actually rather proud of this contribution to the war effort, as he is proud of bamboozling Turkish intelligence on Lesbos.
Fourteen years after the event, he is still loyal to the Gallipoli enterprise. By 1929 many were criticicsing it as a terrible waste of men and effort, but Mackenzie insists that the responsibility for failure lay in London, not on the peninsula:
There is no doubt that, with more guns or even with more ammunition for the guns we had, we should have swept up the peninsula, and there is equally no doubt that, if we had achieved such a sweeping advance, the war could have been and probably would have been over by the end of 1915.
The defiantly positive tone of the book can be taken as a criticism of the ‘disillusioned’ tone of much of the war writing at the end of the twenties.
And I have lived to hear Rupert Brooke sneered at for a romantic by the prematurely weaned young sucking pigs of the next generation. It was welcome to find a year or two ago the sanest pages I had read about literature and the war written by an R. N. D. survivor, Douglas Jerrold, at the close of his excellent book, The Hawke Battalion. I commend them to any people who are as much nauseated as I am by the Teutonic hysteria which is the intellectual vogue of 1929.
‘Teutonic hysteria’? He probably means the tone set by All Quiet on the Western Front. Douglas Jerrold had also been at Gallipoli. I’ve not read The Hawke Battalion, but in his autobiography, Georgian Adventure (highly recommended) he gives a very interestingly nuanced account of the campaign.
The accounts of writing Sinister Street and Guy and Pauline at speed hint at Mackenzie’s fatal gift for fluency. This book suffers from it. He needed a tough editor. It is one of those long books inside which there is a much better short one trying to get out.
He wrote two more long books of war memoirs. One of these, Greek Memories, gained the distinction of being prosecuted because he gave away secrets of how British intelligence worked. Maybe I’ll read it one day, but I don’t think I’ll hurry.