Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Little Mother

(British WWI poster.)

One of the most memorable sections of Robert Graves' WWI memoir, Good-Bye to All That, is his reprinting of a newspaper letter written "By a Little Mother" and the reactions it spurred. It might help to know that "Tommy Atkins" or "Tommy" is "a term for a common soldier in the British Army."

It's late in the year 1916, and a disillusioned Graves is recovering from injuries back in England:

England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language. I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible. Quotation from a single typical document of this time will be enough to show what we were facing.


By a Little Mother
A Message to the Pacifists A Message to the Bereaved
A Message to the Trenches

Owing to the immense demand from home and from the trenches for the this letter, which appeared in the The Morning Post, the editor found in necessary to place it in the hands of London publishers to be reprinted in pamphlet form, seventy-five thousand copies of which were sold in less than a week direct from the publishers.

Extract from a letter from Her Majesty

The Queen was deeply touched at the 'Little Mother's' beautiful letter, and Her Majesty fully realizes what her words must mean to our soldiers in the trenches and in hospitals.

To the Editor of the 'The Morning Post'

Sir,–As a mother of an only child–a son who was early and eager to do his duty–may I be permitted to reply to Tommy Atkins, whose letter appeared in your issue of the 9th inst.? Perhaps he will kindly convey to his friends in the trenches, not what the Government thinks, not what the Pacifists think, but what the mothers of the British race think of our fighting men. It is a voice which demands to be heard, seeing that we play the most important part in the history of the world, for it is we who 'mother the men' who have to uphold the honour and traditions not only of our Empire but of the whole civilized world.

To the man who pathetically calls himself a 'common soldier', may I say we women, who demand to be heard, will tolerate no such cry as "Peace! Peace!' where there is no peace. The corn that will wave over land watered by the blood was not split in vain. We only need that force of character behind all motives to see this monstrous world tragedy brought to a victorious ending. The blood of the dead and the dying, the blood of the 'common soldier' from his 'slight wounds' will not cry to us in vain. They have all done their share, and we, as women, will do ours without murmuring and without complaint. Send the Pacifists to us and we shall very soon show them, and show the world, that in our homes at least there shall be no 'sitting at home warm and cosy in the winter, cool and "comfy" in the summer'. There is only one temperature for the women of the British race, and that is white heat. With those who disgrace their sacred trust of motherhood we have nothing in common. Our ears are not deaf to the cry that is ever ascending from the battlefield from men of flesh and blood whose indomitable courage is borne to us, so to speak, on every blast of the wind. We women pass on the human ammunition of 'only sons' to fill up the gaps, so that when the 'common soldier' looks back before going 'over the top' he may see the women of the British race at his hells, reliable, dependent, uncomplaining.

The reinforcements of women are, therefore, behind the 'common soldier'. We gentle-nurtured, timid sex did not want the war. It is no pleasure to us to have our homes made desolate and the apple of our eye taken away. We would sooner our lovable, promising, rollicking boy stayed at school. We would have much preferred to have gone on in a light-hearted way with our amusements and our hobbies. But the bugle call came, and we have hung up the tennis racquet, we've fetched our laddie from school, we've put his cap away, and we have glanced lovingly over his last report, which said 'Excellent'–we've wrapped them all in a Union Jack and locked them up, to be taken out only after the war to be looked at. A 'common soldier', perhaps, did not count on the women, but they have their part to play, and and we have risen to our responsibility. We are proud of our men, and they in turn have to be proud of us. If the men fail, Tommy Atkins, the women won't.

Tommy Atkins to the front,
He has gone to bear the brunt.
Shall 'stay-at-homes' do naught but snivel and but sigh?
No, while your eyes are filling
We are up and doing, willing
To face the music with you–or to die!

Women are created for the purpose of giving life, and men to take it. Now we are giving it in a double sense. It's not likely we are going to fail Tommy. We shall not flinch one iota, but when the war is over he must not grudge us, when we hear the bugle call of 'Lights out', a brief, very brief, space of time to withdraw into our secret chambers and share with Rachel the Silent the lonely anguish of a bereft heart, and to look once more on the college cap, before we emerge stronger women to carry on the glorious work our men's memories have handed down to us for now and all eternity.

Yours, etc.
A Little Mother


"The widest possible circulation is of the utmost importance.' The Morning Post.

'Deservedly attracting a great deal of attention, as expressing with rare eloquence and force the feelings with which the British wives and mothers have faced and are facing the supreme sacrifice." The Morning Post.

'Excites widespread interest.' The Gentlewoman.

'A letter which has become celebrated.' The Star.

'We would like to see it hung up in our wards.' Hospital Blue.

'One of the grandest things ever written, for it combines a height of courage with a depth of tenderness which should be, and is, the stamp of all that is noblest and best in human nature.' A Soldier in France.

'Florence Nightingale did great and grand things for the soldiers of her day, but no woman has done more than the "Little Mother", whose now famous letter of The Morning Post has spread like wild-fire from trench to trench. I hope to God it will be handed down in history, for nothing like it has ever made such an impression on fighting men. I defy any man to feel weak-hearted after reading it... My God! she makes us die happy.' One who has Fought and Bled.

'Worthy of far more than a passing notice; it ought to be reprinted and sent out to every man at the front. It is a masterpiece and fills one with pride, noble, level-headed, and pathetic to a degree.' Severely Wounded.

'I have lost my two dear boys, but since I was shown the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter a resignation too perfect to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give my sons twice over.' A Bereaved Mother.

'The Little Mother's" letter should reach every corner of the earth–a letter of the loftiest ideal, tempered with courage and the most sublime sacrifice.' Percival H. Monkton.

"The exquisite letter by a "Letter Mother" is making us feel prouder every day. We women desire to fan the flame which she has so superbly kindled in our hearts.' A British Mother of an Only Son.

- As printed in Good-Bye to All That, by Robert Graves. Chapter 21, pp. 228-232.

Paul Fussell comments on the letter and its reaction in his introduction to the book, after relating how Graves had mistakenly been reported dead to his parents:

Thus, the world that the war has taught Graves to see is a world of contingency and constant mistakes, not to mention outright fatuity. Hence, the farcical mistransmission in Morse code that sends a battalion assigned to York to Cork instead.

But the prize mad document in Grave's collection is probably the Letter of the "Little Mother," which first appeared in the London Morning Post and was then widely reprinted to loud acclaim. It was designed as "A Message to the Pacifist" agitating for a negotiated peace. The "Little Mother" registers her pride in having supplied her only son to be killed. The testimonials earned by this famous letter suggest a society for which the only accurate term would be "sick": "A Bereaved Mother" writes, 'I have lost my two dear boys, but since I was shown the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter a resignation too perfect to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give my sons twice over.'

The wide gulf separating Graves' vision from that of the ordinary patriotic British citizen can be measured in one letter from a outraged reader of Good-Bye to All That:

You are a discredit to the Service, disloyal to your comrades and typical of that miserable breed which tries to gain notoriety by belittling others. Your language is just "water-closet," and evidently your regiment resented such an undesirable member. The only good page is that quoting The Little Mother, but even there you betray the degenerate mind by interleaving it between obscenities.

Graves's fellow officers in his regiment did not go quite so far, but many were furious at his levities and what they considered his disrespect to those fallen in a noble cause. Sassoon and Edmund Blunden were so outraged that they set to work annotating a copy of the book, entering over five thousand words of corrections on two hundred and fifty pages. (They planned to deposit this annotated copy in the British Museum, but never did so.) And the book appalled some readers not directly concerned with the dignity of the army. Graves had taken a broad aim, saying good-bye not just to militarism but—as he said—to stylish chatter about politics, religion and literature, as well as such concerns of the empty-minded as drinking, dances, ad "fun." Those are what "all that" encompasses.

Graves's reliance on broad comedy to make very serious points about life and death seems to anticipate and illustrate Friedrich Dürrenmatt's post-Second World War conviction that "comedy alone is suitable for us." The reason? "Tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, a sense of responsibility," none of which we have got:

In the Punch and Judy show of our century... there are no more guilty, and also, no responsible men. It is always, "We couldn't help it" and "We didn't really want that to happen." And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty, collectively bogged down in the sins of our fathers and of our forefathers... That is our misfortune, but not our guilt... Comedy alone is suitable for us.

As I wrote earlier, Graves' book is cynical and cerebral, witty and sarcastic, and may occasionally be unreliable in its details. But I'm reminded of Maynard Mack's observation about Shakespeare's King Lear, that "it abandons verisimilitude to find out truth," as well as Jan Kott's assertion that the cruelties of Lear and Titus Andronicus resonated more with contemporary audiences after WWI and WWII. Graves captures his own shifts in attitude, and creates a memorable, stark portrait of the insanity and horrors of WWI. It remains a valuable first-person account.

I'll discuss "the Little Mother" a bit more in the final piece today, but I thought its flag-waving, obstinate madness was remarkable enough it warranted its own post.

(This post is part of a series on war, and a smaller set of posts for Armistice Day 2009.)

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