Dr Viv Whelpton talks about the life and service of Great War poet Richard Aldington. Aldington (1892-1962) was an English writer and poet who is best known for a semi-autobiographical novel the Death of Hero published in 1929.
Viv was formerly a teacher and is now a Great War historian and author. She has an MA in War Studies from King’s College London and is an an accredited member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.
Tom Thorpe [TT]: It is the 5th of September 2022 and this is episode 268. On this week's Dispatches podcast, I talk to author and historian Dr. Vivienne Whelpton about her research into the life and legacy of the Great War poet and author Richard Aldington. She spoke to me from her home in England.
TT [00:01:03] Viv. Welcome to the Dispatches podcast. Can you start by telling us about yourself and how you became interested in Richard Aldington and the Great War.
Viv Whelpton [VW] [00:01:16] I was an English teacher and I came to an interest in the First World War through teaching its literature ... and taking my A-level students to the Western Front and starting to read and understand more and more. And when I retired in 2006, I did an MA in War Studies at King's College London. And I also joined the Guild of Battlefield Guides and became an accredited guide. So that's where I am as regards the First World War.
VW [00:01:49] As for Aldington, I was very much aware of how moved my students were by his war poetry, particularly his poetry about the aftermath, about surviving the war or attempting to survive the war. And then I read the remarkable 'Death of a Hero', which I think we’ll come to later. So that's me and that's my interest in the War and in Aldington.
TT [00:02:12] So I wondered whether we could start with Aldington's early life, his childhood, parental family and education. Can you tell us a bit about that?
VW[00:02:21] Yes, because in fact, they're enormously important to his development, both personally and professionally. He grew up in a middle class family. He was the oldest of four children. But it was an incredibly dysfunctional upbringing. And it included the fact that both his school education and later his attempt at university education were disrupted by his father's bankruptcy, something that would make him bitter, really, for the rest of his life. And I also came to think as I was writing the biography, that he was sexually abused as a child. So all those things that I think would affect his ability to form long lasting relationships and also to cope with the aftermath of the war.
TT [00:03:08] And so what did Aldington do in terms of his professional life and what was his personal life like before?
VW [00:03:13] Well, he was actually enormously successful, having had to drop out of university without completing his first year. He met two very important American poets living in England. One was Ezra Pound, who started the Images Movement and involved Aldington in that, and the other was Hilda Doolittle, 'H.D'. ... with whom he fell in love. And they were married in 1913 when Auden was 21 years old. So it was an incredibly happy and fulfilling kind of experience that those few years, except, of course, having decided that he would earn his living for the rest of his life by his writing; he was never going to be financially secure.
TT [00:04:01] Sounds a bit like my life. So what exactly did he write before the First World War? And was pretty well known for his literary endeavours.
VW [00:04:12] Reasonably well known, I think. He contributed to an Imagist anthology that Ezra Pound brought out. He also published a book of his verse himself - his imagist verse. And he became the literary editor of The Journal, a small journal but quite influential journal called The Egoist. And he was beginning to make a name for himself as a translator and a critic.
TT [00:04:37] What exactly was the Imagist Movement? I think he might. My little criticism is pretty weak. And while my listeners probably and our listeners may be similarly ignorant.
VW[00:04:48] ... Well, of course, it's not much thought about these days, but it was really the beginnings of modernism. It was an attempt to produce poetry that was succinct and concise and concrete, that used the language of every day - and significantly was written in free verse rather than rhymed in metric verse.
TT [00:05:12] And was this really sort of, I suppose, a trend or fashion. Literature goes through and breaks away from the Edwardian and late Victorian sort of romantic ideas.
VW [00:05:20] Absolutely. Yes. Yes.
TT [00:05:23] And so we get to 1914. What happens? What does Aldington do on the outbreak of war? Why does he join up? And can also just just tell us how old he was when the war broke out in 1914?
VW [00:05:35] Yes. So in 1914, he was 22 and he didn't do anything to start with. He carried on his life as normal. He didn't feel committed to the war. And in fact, when he did join up in 1916, he was what we refer to as the later tested Derby Man. In other words, he got in there just before he would have been conscripted as a married man anyway. He still felt not a great deal of commitment, but he didn't feel that in all conscience he could stay out and take the conscientious objection route, perhaps when he, you know, he knew people who were fighting and in some cases dying. Guy de Breschna, was a friend of his, the French sculptor and artist, and he'd been killed in 1915. So, yes, so he did go in.
VW [00:06:22] He went out to the Western Front in January 1917 as a private in the 11th Lesters, which was a pioneer battalion, and they were on the Lens Loos sector. He returned home in May, so he had four or five months, which are vividly described in 'Death of a Hero' and then back to England to train and be commissioned as an officer. So he was finally rushed out to the Western Front in April 1918. He was in the 9th Royal Sussex, and they had been really, really mauled in Operation Michael. They fought about four defensive actions in a period of about two weeks. So he went out there and initially was back on the same front in the same sector Lens and Loos.
VW [00:07:14] Then he was sent on an intelligence and signals training course. And he finally rejoined his battalion for the 1918 Battle of Cambrai as the battalion signals officer. And the battalion was involved in the occupation of the villages to the northeast of Cambrai. And then finally in the Battle of the Sambre, the taking of the Condé River - the crossing. And they reached the Mons-Meuberge Road on 9th of November. But he wasn't demobbed until February 19, much to his frustration. So that was his war experience.
TT [00:07:53] And did he leave any sort of letters or diaries from his war experience?
VW [00:07:57] Yes, he had a long correspondence with H.D.. I'll come to that in a minute. But to that point, their relationship was in a lot of trouble. And so there are his letters to her from that period. Yeah. And of course, 'Death of a Hero', which although fiction, is very, very closely modeled on his experience.
TT [00:08:16] So ... we come to February 1919. He is demobilised along with many other millions of other men. How does ... he earns a living. And how does the war affect his ... personal relationship with H.D.? I think you've alluded to that already.
VW [00:08:36] Basically, he felt his life was ruined. He was in a very traumatised state. And he came back to see those who'd stayed in civilian life being very successful, about which he felt very bitter. And of course, you know, some of them were American. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were Americans living in England. So the war really had not touched them at all. He was too old at 27 to retrain for a trade or profession. His writing, which is what gave him a living, was not happening. He'd lost his creative powers. He felt that he'd probably lost them permanently. And worst of all, of course, the relationship with H.D. was destroyed.
[00:09:17] When he came back to England in 1917, he'd flung himself into a rather passionate affair. I think it was a kind of carpe diem mood. He was sure he was going to get killed. And H.D. had responded by a relationship of her own, which had left her pregnant. And given that they had lost a child, a stillborn child in 1915, something they'd never really dealt with. It was the end of the relationship, and he was to regret that for the rest of his life, although he did have other relationships.
VW [00:09:52] She was snatched up. There's no better word for it by a young woman who was the daughter of Sir John Elliman, the shipping magnate. So very, very wealthy. And H.D. remained with her for the rest of her life until she died in 1961. So that was that for Aldington. He retired to the Berkshire countryside. He eked out a living translating and working as the French reviewer, French literature reviewer, on The Times Literary Supplement.
VW [00:10:21] But in 1929, he abandoned England. He never lived here again, went to France and in about 20 weeks wrote 'Death of a Hero'. This kind of blisteringly angry novel about the war, which he says was a process of catharsis, but I don't think it actually ever worked as that.
VW [00:10:41] So he ... spent the Second World War in America working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. But after that, he went back to France and never came to England.
TT [00:10:51] So before we get into the 'Death of a Hero' because obviously that's the work he's most well known for. He also wrote a tremendous amount of other stuff as well in the 1920s. What sort of subjects did he cover during that period?
VW [00:11:03] He wrote a long poem called 'A Fool in the Forest', which was very much about the war, about the aftermath of war, and a collection of poems called 'Exile', which says It all doesn't really. But other than that, it was kind of hack work he was doing, really. He became a novelist through 'Death of a Hero'.
TT [00:11:22] Which brings us neatly onto 'Death of a Hero'. So what is this work about? Why did he write it when he did? And what sort of impact did it have?
VW [00:11:32] Yes, well, it was true of quite a lot of combatant writers, wasn't it, that it took them a decade to decide that actually they'd got to write about it, that it wasn't going to go away and that they must write. So people like Sassoon and Blunden and, you know, lots of people like Manning and so on. So it was that - it was that process of writing out all that, all that anger and so on. And it was one of the earliest of the war books, and it was a bestseller. It was absolutely sensational because it is the angriest of them all, I think. But it's not angry about the military leadership. It's angry about Edwardian society and politics and the values that actually led us into the war. And that's what he feels most bitter about.
VW [00:12:22] And the other thing that made it a short term success was something sensational. There were large passages his publishers insisted had got to be expurgated, and he thought that. And in the end, he had to accept it. So he insisted on having asterisks put in whenever there was a word or passage that had been taken out, which of course caused great curiosity amongst his readers as to what those words and passages were.
VW [00:12:48] And I think one of the saddest things is that in 2014, when Penguin Classics brought out a new edition, they went for the expurgated text, along with its asterisks and along with the frequent use of the term mucking instead of the F-word. So, yes, it's strange that they made that decision.
[00:13:08] It's a very modernist work in that it flits between the viewpoint of his protagonist, George Winterbourne, and a narrator. It uses all kinds of types of text, snatches of songs, trench signs and onomatopoeic descriptions of artillery fire, poems, all kinds of things. But nevertheless, it's not a fragmented narrative. It's sequential.
VW [00:13:40] The first part of it deals with George Winterbourne's childhood, basically Aldington's childhood. It's very satirical.
VW [00:13:49] The second part deals with those years in London as an artist before the war. And there's some very satirical portraits in there with people like Pound, and Eliot and D.H. Lawrence and [ ].
VW [00:14:01] And then the third part is quite different. It's an account of his war experience, and it's extremely moving, and bitter, and realist. It's very effective. In fact ... it moves between this sort of declamatory style and this very evocative, almost poetic style. Can I read you a couple of very short extracts, too? Yeah. So here's the more declamatory style.
VW [00:14:27] The narrator says,
"You the war dead. I think you died in vain. I think he died for nothing. A blather, a humbug, a newspaper stunt, a politician's rant. But at least you died. You did not reject the sharp, sweet shock of bullets. The sudden smash of the shell burst, the insinuating agony of poison gas. You've got rid of it all. You chose the better".
And then in contrast, this is a description of when Winterbourne comes back as an officer to the Lens front and he walks up to a cemetery, which is now, of course, in allied hands:
"At dawn, one morning when it was misty, he walked over the top of Hill 91, which probably nobody had been by day since its capture. The heavy mist brooded about him in a strange stillness, scarcely a sound on their immediate front over north. And so came the vibration, the furious drum. The ground was a desert of shell holes and torn rusty wire, and everywhere there were skeletons in steel helmets still clothed in the rags of sodden khaki or field gray. Here a fleshless hand still clutched a broken, rusty rifle. There, a gaping, decaying boot showed the thin, knotty foot bone. Alone in the white curling mist, drifting slowly past like wraiths of the slain with a fire of thunder, of drum fire beating the air, Winterbourne stood in frozen silence and contemplated the last achievements of civilisation".
[Which] gives you some idea of the tone and atmosphere.
TT [00:15:57] How do you feel about his work in Death of a Hero's an English teacher?
VW [00:16:01] It's a very fluid work in one sense, in that he lets his anger go away with it and it does rant in places. But the wit and the satire, though shocking, is actually quite entertaining. And that last section, the section about combatant experience, is really very, very powerful. It's much more understated and realist. And it does give you a very strong sense of what it was like to be there.
TT [00:16:32] Impact you think his works had today?
VW [00:16:35] I think I need to get on to a question. I think you were going to ask me about how his experience of war shaped his creative output after the war? Because that will cast light on that. During the twenties, there were the two works I mentioned at the end of the decade that was 'Death of a Hero' and also a very moving collection of short stories about the war, but also about after the war. And then he went on to write novels, after 'Death of a Hero', all of which reflected on a society that had been through the war. And then that vein dried up, and he became a biographer in the 1940s when he was in America. He wrote a very successful biography of the Duke of Wellington. But in 1953, he published a biography of T.E. Lawrence. And it was a very controversial, very critical biography. And basically it destroyed his reputation and hence his livelihood because his books just vanished from the shelves of bookshops. And his take on Lawrence was a direct result, I think, of his bitterness about the war. And he wrote in the preface, "I have tried to give the evidence in this book fairly and in such a way that it can be instantly verified, though not without some indignation, that such a man should have been given the fame and glory of the real heroes of 1914-1918, by which, of course, he meant those who had fought and died on the Western Front. It was the centrality in Lawrence's work of the Middle East and his own achievements and those of the Arabs that Aldington would reject. But Lawrence was a hero. He was the hero of the First World War at that stage in the fifties. Since then, a lot of biographers have come round a little bit to Aldington's way of thinking. But then it was absolutely shocking. And he became a pariah and his reputation was never really restored. Interestingly, Led by Liddle-Hart. You know, the campaign against him - was absolutely overpowering.
TT [00:18:45] And when did Aldington finally die?
VW [00:18:47] 1962, by which time he'd written several further biographies, but ... had really struggled to make a living. The irony really is that the person who helped him to keep his head above water and remain financially secure was Bryher, Wilfred Ellerman who did it out of her affection for H.D. He and H.D. entered into correspondence after the Second World War, a daily correspondence almost for the rest of their lives. Aldington had ...three medium term relationships, the last of which was a marriage which produced a daughter. But when his wife left him, he brought his daughter up on his own in very poor circumstances.
TT [00:19:31] And my final question is, where can people learn more about Aldington ... And more importantly, where can they learn more about your work on Aldington?
VW [00:19:38] Right. I've got a website, VivienWhelpton.co.uk - And there is my two volume biography of Richard Allington, Poet, Soldier and Lover, and Richard Allington, Novelist, Biographer and Exile. And they're published by Lutterworth.
TT [00:19:57] Vivian, thank you very much for your time.
VW [00:19:59] Thank you very much, Tom. I've enjoyed doing it.
TT [00:20:06] You have been listening to the 'Mentioned in Dispatches' podcast from the Western Front Association with me, Tom Thorpe. Thank you to all my guests for appearing on this edition. The Theme Music for this podcast with George Butterworth, the Banks of Green, which was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Chris Rissman and produced by BIS Records. This recording is part of a collection of orchestral works by Butterworth, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and supported by the Western Front Association. This is available from all good record stroes under the record code B.S. 2195. Until next time.