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date: 27 November 2021

West, (Arthur) Graemefree

(1891–1917)

West, (Arthur) Graemefree

(1891–1917)
  • Dominic Hibberd

West, (Arthur) Graeme (1891–1917), army officer and poet, the eldest of four children, was born at Christchurch Road, Eaton, Norwich, Norfolk, on 23 September 1891. His father, Arthur Birt West (1859–1948), son of a nonconformist minister and sternly evangelical, had been an engineer and a missionary before deciding to live off private means and work for a charity; he married Mary Wingate, née McLaren (1858–1899), who died while the children were still young. The family moved to London, first to 21 Talbot Road, Highgate, and then, after the father's second marriage in 1905, to 4 Holly Terrace, Highgate, in a handsome row of houses overlooking Hampstead Heath.

In the same year Graeme West became a boarder at Blundell's School, Tiverton, where he met C. E. M. Joad, later well known as a philosopher and broadcaster. Joad, good at games and brilliant in the classroom, won the school's closed scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1909. West, according to Joad's later account of him, was a very different type, shy, awkward, and not at all athletic, so there was some astonishment when he in his turn won the scholarship in 1910. Oxford opened up the world of ideas to the two young men. While Joad talked about socialism and the irrelevance of religion, West listened but quietly developed values of his own: literature, love, the beauty of nature and art. He worked hard, took a second-class in literae humaniores in 1914 and, after graduating, decided to stay up for a fifth year.

West is remembered for one posthumous work, The Diary of a Dead Officer (1919), introduced and edited by Joad, who organized the book as pacifist propaganda: West as an individual takes second place. In the Christmas vacation of 1914, according to Joad, West applied 'in a rush of enthusiasm' to become an army officer, 'was turned down for his eyes, and enlisted as a private in the Public Schools Battalion' (Diary, xii). West's army papers merely record that he became a private in the 16th battalion, Middlesex regiment, in February 1915. They also note other details not mentioned in the Diary: his physical development was 'good', he had belonged to the Officers' Training Corps throughout his time at Oxford, was promoted lance-corporal in May 1915 and a year later applied for a temporary commission in the regular army. Joad's portrait of him as unathletic and completely unsuited to soldiering cannot be entirely true. The extracts from West's diary begin in March 1915, but Joad chooses only four for that year. By December West was in the trenches, enduring severe fighting during the next four months. In March 1916 he wrote one of his two most anthologized poems, 'The Night Patrol', an early description of front-line realities but not a poem of protest.

In April 1916 West was sent to a cadet battalion at Gailes in Scotland for four months of officer training. Joad selects twenty-six entries for this period, recording West's disgust at the stupidity, heartlessness, and incompetence of the camp staff, many of whom were older regulars who had never seen the trenches and felt they had to assert their authority. The trainee officer expressed no pity for himself, but by the time he became a second lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry in early August he had lost all belief not only in the war but also in Christianity. He stayed with the Joads, met conscientious objectors, read Bertrand Russell's Justice in War Time, and resolved to inform his new battalion that he would not serve in the army any longer—but he could not quite bring himself to post the letter. In September 1916 he joined the 6th ‘Ox and Bucks’ in France, full of regret that he had not taken a stand against the war from the beginning. He did make one public protest: in October The New Age published a version of his poem 'God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men', a furious condemnation of patriotic soldier–poets who considered themselves lucky to be alive in such 'epic days'.

West kept his courage steady during weeks of horrors on the Somme. The final diary entries, dated 3 November 1916 and 10 February 1917, are happy—and perhaps less untypical than they seem. On 16 February he became acting captain while commanding a company. On 13 March he wrote to his sister that he was 'magnificently and triumphantly' in love with a girl in England, Dorothy Mackenzie, a fact not mentioned at all in the Diary. On 3 April 1917 he was killed by a sniper's bullet somewhere near Bapaume. He was buried at the Honourable Artillery Company cemetery, Ecoust-St Mein, Pas de Calais, France.

Like a number of other anti-war books of the period, the Diary was printed by Wilfred Meynell's Pelican Press and published jointly by Allen and Unwin and the socialist newspaper The Herald, which advertised it on 18 January 1919 as 'a grim, truthful and unvarnished account' of army life. It contains a memoir by the editor (identified only as C. J.), extracts from West's 1915–17 diary, a few letters and essays, and ten poems. Remarkable for its content, its editing, and its very early date, the book is one of the first examples of the way in which memories of the First World War were reshaped by literary means. The original diary seems to be lost and its author's full personality has disappeared behind Joad's editing, probably for ever. Nevertheless West might well have approved of the book and its message: there can be no doubt that he had learned to hate war with passionate intensity.

Sources

  • army papers, TNA: PRO, WO 339/60548
  • nine MS letters from West to his sister Constance, 1915–17, IWM
  • B. Russell, The autobiography of Bertrand Russell (1968)
  • Balliol College war memorial book, 1914–1919, 2 (1924)
  • I. Elliott, ed., The Balliol College register, 1900–1950, 3rd edn (privately printed, Oxford, 1953)
  • A. S. Mahood, ed., The register of Blundell School, 1882–1932 (1932)
  • A. West, One man in his time (1969)
  • D. Welland, ‘Arthur Graeme West: a messenger to Job’, Renaissance and modern essays, ed. G. R. Hibberd (1966)
  • S. Hynes, ‘An introduction to Graeme West’, English literature of the Great War revisited, ed. M. Roucoux (1989)
  • b. cert.
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Maidenhead

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1913, repro. in Balliol College war memorial book
  • photograph, repro. in Diary of a dead officer

Wealth at Death

£1155 17s.: administration, 30 June 1917, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Imperial War Museum, London
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National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London