[This article first appeared in Stand To! No. 31. Spring 1991. Stand To is sent to all members three times a year and the digital archive of all 118 editions is available online].
Although there is no comprehensive collection of the war writings of the British modernist writer and painter Percy Wyndham Lewis, it is possible to divide his literary response to the First World War into four categories, depending upon the way in which it approaches the subject. This does not include the first version of his novel Tarr, the story 'A Soldier of Humour', or the essay 'Inferior Religions'.1
Firstly, there are those works which are set against the background of war and only deal with it indirectly through its effect on civilian life. These are the play The Ideal Giant, which was the title of an edition which also included The Code of a Herdsman' and 'Cantleman's Spring-Mate', that was privately published for the London office of The Little Review in November 1917 and the series of 'Imaginary Letters' which appeared in The Little Review between May 1917 and April 1918. Of a total of seven letters, the third of which is 'The Code of a Herdsman', the last three in the series were written by Ezra Pound.
Secondly, there are those stories which feature as their main characters soldiers on the home front and which focus on the malignant effects of nature, rather than war, on the individual. 'The French Poodle' was published in The Egoist, III, no. 3, in March 1916. In the same issue was a short piece, 'A Young Soldier', which formed the thematic basis for 'Cantleman's Spring-Mate', Lewis's most famous short story, which appeared in The Little Review , IV, no. 6, in October 1917. In turn, this was supplemented by a similar story, 'The War Baby', published in Art and Letters, II, no. 1, Winter 1918.
Thirdly, there are the retrospective works that Lewis wrote about the war, although there is a great continuity between these and his contemporary impressions. Apart from the war memoirs contained in Parts II and III in the autobiographical study Blasting and Bombardiering (in both the original and revised editions of 1937 and 1967), Lewis reworked and extended the project entitled The Crowd Master' at some time between the end of the war and the preparation of the book. This initially appeared in Blast, no. 2 (pp. 94-102) and was the basis of a novel which remained uncompleted.2
Finally, there are the works which were written as a direct commentary on the war. Besides the 'War Notes' in Blast, no. 2 (pp. 9-16 and 23-26), these were to consist of fictionally based accounts of the war as Lewis witnessed it as a soldier. In a letter to Pound (unpublished and held by the Department of Rare Books of the University of Cornell), not dated but evidently part of a series that Lewis sent from the French front in 1917, there is a suggestion that these war stories were originally intended for a published collection: 'I am writing a book called 'The Bombardier': only in my head, of course . . .' Before the end of 1916, Lewis drew up a list of his published and unpublished writings, which included a projected collection entitled 'The Bull Gun'—'Consisting of sketches, stories, etc. that I may find time to write at the Front'.3 This list, which is also held by the University Library at Cornell, was published in E nem y N ew s (the newsletter of the Wyndham Lewis Society), no. 10, May 1979, with notes by the late Bernard Lafourcade who suggested that at the time they were written and published, the stories 'Cantleman's SpringMate', The War Baby' and 'The French Poodle', as well as the fragment entitled 'The Crowd Master', were not considered by Lewis to be 'war stories'. This was the description used in the foreword to the 1927 collection The Wild B od y (Chatto and Windus) to distinguish them from his earlier short stories. The documentary nature of the one piece that was written for this new collection (or at least the only one that has survived), itself entitled 'The Bull Gun', implies that it would not have been a purely fictional exercise and was something of a contrast to another projected work that Lewis planned to write about the phenomenon of war. In fact, the only story that can be regarded as exclusively fictional is 'The King of the Trenches', which was first published in the second, Calder and Boyars, edition of Blasting and Bombardiering and which may well have been written after the end of the war as part of Lewis's retrospective view of his war experiences.
Published here for the first time, 'The Bull Gun (At a Camp of the RGA)' is transcribed from a typescript held at Cornell and is numbered 7.11 in Mary F. Daniels' Wyndham Lewis: A Descriptive Catalogue. It is dated '1916-17' and its full title refers to the Royal Garrison Artillery Camp at Weymouth where Lewis was assigned as a bombardier, specialising in the operation of the six inch howitzer, before leaving for France in May 1917.4 It was the basis for the description of the training camp in the chapter entitled 'The Bull Gun' in Blasting and Bombardiering, although only a fraction of the original material was used.5 The Bull Gun' can be seen as a literary precursor to Lewis's visual exploration of the machine in the setting of war which resulted in his 'Guns' exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in London in February 1919. Certainly, its use of the metaphor of the bull-fight expressed his desire for an equilibrium between man and the mechanical world which he previously attempted through the visual medium of an experimental style of Vorticist painting
The Bull Gun (At a Camp of the RGA) by WYNDHAM LEWIS
© The late P. Wyndham Lewis and the Estate of Mrs G. A. Wyndham Lewis by permission of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a registered charity).
Published by permission of the department of Rare Books, Cornell University Library.
This is a training unit of the RGA—I don't know what the rules may be, so I will mysteriously call it W— (Every German whose business it is to know will at once realise to which depot this refers; but this article is written primarily for English consumption.)
After Dover, with its alarm-siren announcing Taubes, Arctic wind-blasts at night, and super-Swedish instructor, this climate, with its sheltered heat, was peculiarly southern. It appeared of about the temperature of La Rochelle. But when I was in the Gironde a particularly heavy form of work known as 'light shifts' was not with me to doubt the heat of the sky.
This training camp, then, is a sweltering centre for the intensive production of multitudes of gunners. Hundreds of heavy men arrive weekly from Orkney, Tipperary, and Birmingham. They are as far as possible of the carthorse type, for they are going to be very heavy gunners. Our 6 inch Howitzer (let every free German in England immediately make a note of this. This article, by the way, Fritz, bristles with information) cannot be served by midgets, or featherweights. Our draughts lumber up through the gate in massive parties, and flood the huts with some of the best beef remaining in England, chiefly married (NB: THIS IS THE END OF THE FIRST PAGE OF THE TYPESCRIPT AND SOME WORDS ARE MISSING HERE) (and I may say, for the information of their wives, almost pleasantly uxorious) beef. They sit down on their straw mattresses, gaze round them, and after a period of reflection, open their kit-bags, and begin polishing their buttons. Next day a perspiring Bombardier, perhaps, like myself, will have to propel these trampling hulks about the field with the usual word of command; and after they can form squad on either flank in a steady, dogged, though not brilliantly pretty way, they get directly on to the business for which they have come, the working of guns of an ungainly type.
From this preliminary picture the reader will see nothing but cart-horses, and my companions, if they read this article, might accuse me of a romantic, and perhaps unflattering exaggeration. So I had better add that in the Royal Garrison Artillery men of every calibre (size I mean) are required, and obtained. But the things that must always distinguish that corps from others, is the stately avoir-du-poids necessary for the work to be done by the navy-gunner. On the other hand, as its role in the field develops (and today the RGA covers all guns in the field over the 70-pounder [sic] of the RFA not counting other things like anti-aircraft, trench mortars, or mountain batteries) that certain deliberate weight may cease to be such a characteristic of it as a detachment of its men march down the street. But they surely will have a monopoly of the nimble. The Infantry, with their tremulous fifes, quick, gay stepping, flashing bayonets, gladiatorial conditions, seek, evidently, another and more palpably exhilarating perfection, than the heavy, grimy groups of men, who work a big gun. The recoil of that gun—its sweep backwards, and its return to the 'firing position'—is probably the most graceful thing about the gunner's life. The gun's harsh and acrid slam when it 'goes off' mixes strangely with this quick, graceful movement. The romance of the Tug guns' which has boomed loud for over a century, and whose frantic bellow will be the last echo in Europe as the German bull expires, is, anyhow, the gunner's property. And (talking of Corridas) as it is questionable if there is any living Espada equal to the task of ending the Teutonic buffalo, we have brought (or are in the process of bringing) as good a bull as he into the ring, and who can roar as loud. It is only a pity that the steel cannot be pitted against the steel, instead of gorging such multitudes of gladiators. The crowds of crepe in the auditorium, instead of the white mantillas, make it too heavy, indigestibly Germanly heavy a spectacle for even a decent super-God. But we are not the showmen, although we are forced to contribute to the success of the spectacle. Let us piously hope that the wicked promoter, once the show is done, will be forced to give the money back and even (for we are metaphorically in Spain) be stabbed to death by someone of the many he has wronged.
There is not so much then, even in the human material of which our corps is composed, of the splendour of the Espada, or Banderillo, as in the huskiness of the Bull. Batteries of Howitzers seen together must be rather like a drove of bulls and RGA are bulltenders rather than bull-fighters. They train their bulls, that is, their guns, to fight other bulls, or bull-guns. They make them bellow like immense toys by pulling a string. They push them about in peaceable moments, sweating, cursing them. And a certain solidarity grows up between these clumsy dusky objects and their drovers and attendants. This solidarity must evidently be different to that existing between a cavalryman for instance, and his horse. It is a peculiar relationship when you consider that the nature of these monsters is to destroy, that they are as idle, and useless otherwise, as a Turk, and that the nature of man is so composed, generously violent and peaceable on the whole.
1) Tarr was first published as a serial in The Egoist (III, no. 4, April 1916 to IV, no. 10, November 1917 inclusive); 'A Soldier of Humour' appeared in two parts, in The Little Review , IV, nos 8 and 9, December 1917 and January 1918; 'Inferior Religions' was also first published in The Little Review , IV, No. 5, September 1917.
2) The Department of Rare Books of the Library of the University of Cornell has a typescript (numbered 46.11 in Mary F. Daniels' Wyndham Lewis : A Descriptive Catalogue ) entitled 'Cantelman' (note the different spelling of the character portrayed in the story 'Cantleman's Spring-Mate ). This is an extension of the fragment published in Blast, no. 2, changing the name of its central character, although he bears no resemblance to the character of Lewis's famous short story.
3) As quoted in Enemy News no. 10, May 1979, p. 12. In Blasting and Bombardiering , Lewis also wrote that revolving in my mind was a book about the War' (second edition p. 6) and then goes on to describe briefly what eventually appeared in Part III ('A Gunner's Tale') of the autobiographical study.
4) Lewis quotes directly from the original article in Blasting and Bombardiering : 'The "Bull Gun", an article which I wrote at the time, speaks of "the romance of the big guns, which has boomed loud over the century" ' (second edition, p. 96). In the original typescript, he mistakenly refers to 'our 5 inch howitzer', and I have taken the liberty of correcting this to 'six inch'. Perhaps Lewis was thinking of the weight of the gun, rather than the gauge. 5 After enlisting in March 1916, Lewis spent a week at Fort Burgoyne in Dover before moving on to the artillery training camps at Weymouth.