Roads to Glory
Chatto & Windus, 1934
(Originally published 1930)
It took me three books in three steps to reach these vivid short stories of the First World War by Richard Aldington: Hugh Cecil's Flower of Battle, Aldington’s Death of a Hero and Vivien Whelpton’s insightful tour de force Richard Aldington: Poet, Soldier, Lover. Thanks to Whelpton I now know when reading Aldington that there’s an element of satire in his storytelling. Aldington may not be Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, but there’s always a latent sense of anger against a world that could take us to war. In this respect, were I to provide a cover for Road to Glory, or better still, seek to produce it as a series of original films for Netflix, visually I’d be thinking along the lines of ‘Road to Damnation’ or ‘Road to Perdition’.
There are twelve short stories in Road to Glory. Each is quite different, not just in the story's context (year and location), but in style, with different storytelling techniques adopted, examples including using excerpts from a fictionalised diary, an exchange of letters and a story interwoven with pieces of poetry. I rather think that anyone reading these stories will pick out a different favourite. Here they are:
- Meditation on a German Grave
- At All Costs
- Of Unsound Mind
- Killed in Action
- Bundles of Letters
- Booby Trap
- Sacrifice Post
- The Lads of the Village
- Love for Love
- The Case of Lieutenant Hall
- Farewell to Memories
Meditation on a German Grave
This reads like a foreword, Aldington lets you know that he is more than just a story teller, that he has a view on the nature of memory and takes a cynical view of society and its response and treatment of combatants. Nor will he shy away from the use of profanity, 'mucking' for the 'f' word and the discrete use of asterisks elsewhere. His approach is considerably moderated since the publication, with redactions, of his first novel ‘Death of a Hero’.
In a way, the most journalistic of the stories, Aldington wishes or concludes that “It must never happen again, never, never. It was the duty of the survivors to the dead so to warn the world that this abomination never occurred again.” (Aldington, 1934. p.45). And yet along came another world war after what he always called ‘the long armistice’ and writing in early March 2022 the world appears to be on the brink of Armageddon once more.
For reasons of semantics my curiosity picks out that Aldington refers in derogatory terms to the way in which the end of the war might be celebrated, as the outbreak of war had in some places been celebrated when he asks rhetorically “Would they ‘maffick’ in Paris?” (Aldington, 1934. p.45). My M.A. dissertation on ‘enthusiasm’ in the first weeks of the war, responses, behaviours and enlisted returned so often to the word ‘to maffick’ or describing young men as ‘mafficking’ that I could have easily written a separate paper on it. It all stems from the relief of Mafeking in May 1900 and the excuse for alcohol fuelled celebrations that in some parts of the country led to ‘bands of boys’ excusing themselves from work to go marching, drinking and womanising. It was starting to look like an annual May event as the date was remembered each year until Quakers, local authorities and the press stamped it out - 'too Prussian' and certainly ‘not British’ was the conclusion.
At All Costs
There’s a Blackadder Goes Forth sense of doom right from the start in “At All Costs”. These exact same events had been experienced by the author during the war and have been put down here from the perspective of one who did not return. It is that moment in a war film when you know that the combatants are going in against impossible odds.
“Half of them would go into the bombardment, which would be terrific. Bombs, bullets, and bayonets would finish off the rest. The dug-outs would be wrecked with bombs and high-explosive charges.” (Aldington, 1934 p.64)
Here Aldington uses characterisation and story to take a dig at lower middle-class sentiment, religiosity and behaviours. Rendered an orphan our seven year old protagonist Harry is sent to live with an aunt. “The aunt informed Harry that the deaths of his parents were the just judgement of God, exhorted him to be God-fearing and respectable, and found him a job in a factory rather before he had reached the statutory age. (Aldington, 1934. p.77).
The outcome of Harry’s war you can glean from the title.
Of Unsound Mind
In the last story we had execution, in this one it is suicide. This is a doomed love story that we know must end in tears - it does. Love outside marriage is something of a theme with Aldington too, who could never understand society’s hypocrisy when it came to love and sex and for a period the publishing world’s insistence that sex could only occur between a man and his wife within marriage, and to imply that anything else was going on was heresy.
Killed in Action
This is a Cain and Abel story which ends in murder, and another theme that filmmakers developed in later generations - rivalry that turned into hate within the tight confines of a platoon.
A Bundle of Letters
This is a cleverly constructed exchange between mother, Commanding Officer and a somewhat delicate boy in which efforts are made, without success, to use the ‘old boy network’ to keep an only child away from harm.
Here, Fate in all its ghastly contrasts, balances two outcomes for young men who have come through the war: one to a fancy banking job in the City and marriage to the bank owner’s daughter, the other crippled, emasculated, broke and unable to find employment.
My late grandfather Jack Wilson MM served as a machine gunner during Third Ypres. His most vivid tales, the ones he always returned to, were about the various pillboxes he was sent in to that had names like ‘Courage Post’, ‘Egypt House’ and ‘Suicide Corner’. Here Aldington creates in a young officer a sense of doom about one such post where he had served, avoiding death against the odds, is injured and must return. It is as vivid as any movie. You see it, hear it, smell it and taste it.
As an aside, Aldington has also learnt to express trench language in a way that publishers will permit so it is all ‘mucking’ this and ‘bally’ that.
The Lads of the Village
Written at a time when the now iconic and widespread village, town and municipal war memorial has made its appearance, Aldington paints a picture of depressing rural decline. Here, as so many do, the stories of the men named on the memorial are told while bemoaning the collapse in agriculture, the Manor House and pub life and custom.
Love for Love
Here a young virginal soldier is smitten by a girl, who turns out to be someone else’s girl, and possibly many a man’s girl. It rather reminds me of the 21 year old Prince of Wales being wined and dined by fellow officers, then put into a room with a young woman provided to seduce him. He returns often, is overcome with a crush and must be directed elsewhere as she was ‘taken’.
The Case of Lieutenant Hall
This is a slowly unfolding nightmare that the master of horror, Stephen King would be proud of. This is a Shakespearean downfall, it is a tragedy like Macbeth as a young officer who killed a number of Germans as they gave themselves up in the last days of the war is then haunted by one of this number.
Farewell to Memories
In his concluding story Aldington becomes reflexive and philosophical in a piece that is quite journalistic. Aldington asks rhetorically “Who will tell its tragedy, comedy, pathos, horror, sacrifice, heroism, filth, degradation, misery, sorrow, cowardice, lust, exploitation, hypocrisy, greed, guilt, dreadful beauty-for in those days every passion and attribute of men and women were stirred into frightening activity? It will be done by one who did not endure it, for those who will not care about it.” (Aldington, 1934. p. 258)
Aldington, Richard Roads to Glory (1934) Chatto & Windus. (2nd Edition)
Review by Jonathan Vernon (Digital Editor) March 2022
Also see: Whelpton, V. Richard Aldington: Poet, Soldier and Lover 1911-1929 (Part I) The Lutterworth Press (2013)
Other work by Richard Aldington
Seven Against Reeves
The Colonel's Daughter
All Men Are Enemies
The Crystal World
A Dream in the Luxembourg
The Eaten Heart
Imagist Anthology, 1930
Fifty Romance Lyric Poems. Chosen and translated by Richard Aldington
Artifex: Sketches and Ideas
The Spirit of Place: selections from D. H. Lawrence by Richard Aldington
D. H. Lawrence
Medallions. Translated by Richard Aldington
The Alcestis of Euripides. Translated by Richard Aldington.
Letters to the Amazon. By Remy de Gourmont. Translated by Richard Aldington.
Selections from Remy de Gourmont: CHosen and translated by Richard Aldington.