I must start this week’s Random Book of the Week with a confession: a long line of theft led to me possessing this book. I ‘borrowed’ it from my parental abode a few years ago, my dad had himself ‘borrowed’ it from his own parental abode many years before that, and we think my Granddad ‘borrowed’ it whilst in service during the Second World War, as the inside cover is printed with ‘Services Canteen Fund’ and ‘W.V.S. (Women’s Voluntary Service) Travelling Library’. I am slightly concerned that admitting this may land me and numerous Turners in jail but, as this book provides a way to honour our soldiers on Remembrance Sunday, I will proceed.
The Englishman At War was first published in 1941 and is an anthology that ‘attempts to portray the character of the Englishman in time of war’. The are poems, extracts of novels, plays, and wartime correspondence, from the time of King John getting a bashing from the barons over the Magna Carta business, through to Agincourt, the Armada, the English Civil War, the wars of the American colonies, Napoleon, the Crimean War, and the First World War. Yep, we’ve had a lot of wars. Freeman notes in his introduction that he is conscious of the omissions which are due to the ‘considerable difficulty in obtaining access to books and other sources in this time of war’.
While these extracts are intriguing, arguably the most interesting part of this book is Freeman’s assessment of the English character in his introduction, much of which is clearly designed as a pep talk for troubled times. While ‘doctrinaire conceptions of liberty have not interested him’, the Englishman will ‘struggle to the utmost for his liberties’; yet ‘the temper of the nation has always been monarchical’, as demonstrated by the piecemeal increases in the power of parliament vs the crown, which ‘must all seem very curious to foreigners, who have exercised more drastic measures in dealing with troublesome monarchs’. The Englishman is ‘essentially just’, is ‘no conqueror, but is rather a colonizer, carrying with him those English ideals and habits that he endeavours to establish wherever he goes’. While the English are ‘predominantly conservative in their habits and in their political outlook’, this is not ‘of a reactionary nature (but) evident in the manner in which custom and tradition exercise a force as binding as law’. English humour is ‘unique, and like so many things English, is often misunderstood abroad’. In conflict, the Englishman is chivalrous but ‘very reluctant to go to war, must be convinced he is fighting for a principle, and is only too glad when the whole sorry business is over’.
Freeman also cites much about the English character that sounds surprisingly modern and certainly relevant to our own troubled times, when we are battling over what it means to be ‘English’ and the values we want to carry forward in this millennium. Freeman reminds us that the English are derived from ‘a mixture of primeval peoples, and Celts, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Danes, Normans’ and their character is ‘most profitably studied after the mingling of the races made them what they are’. The Englishman has ‘gained a name for providing refuge to victims of oppression in other countries’ and is ‘quite content that a hundred varieties be practiced of the Christian and other faiths, provided that each live and let live and no fanatics disturb the even tenor of the nation’s life’.
This all began to sound rather jolly, and I almost broke into a rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ (for want of a better national anthem…) whilst loading the dishwasher, but reading the following, knowing it would have been read by soldiers engaged in combat or civilians living under the shadow of war, brought me sharply back to reality:
England, and those nations that maintain their traditions of freedom, are now engaged in the greatest struggle ever waged to preserve their liberties, and their approach to the problems that will emerge from this great holocaust will determine whether these traditions shall survive and spread, or whether churls and fanatics shall gradually people the earth.
No wonder everyone needed a pep talk. We must continue to honour our soldiers, and the civilians that supported them. On Remembrance Sunday, I’ll leave you with my favourite extract from this anthology, The Gallant She-Soldier, taken from the Roxburghe Ballads (a 19th century collection of 17th century broadside ballads), and which ‘celebrates the exploits of a lady who served in the same regiment as her husband, and went under the name of Mr. Clarke’. Hopefully it will cheer you up too.
With musket on her shoulder, her part she acted then,
And every one supposed that she had been a man;
Her bandeleers about her neck, and sword hang’d by her side,
In many brave adventures her valour have been tried.
For exercising of her arms, good skills indeed had she,
And known to be as active as anyone could be,
For firing of a musket, or beating of a drum,
She might compare assuredly with any one that come.
For other manly practices she gain’d the love of all,
For leaping and for for running or wrestling for a fall,
For cudgels or for cuffing, if that occasion were,
There’s hardly one of ten men that might with her compare.
Yet civil in her carriage and modest still was she,
But with her fellow soldiers she oft would merry be;
She would drink and take tobacco, and spend her money too,
When as occasion served that she had nothing else to do.