A Broken Man: Jerome K. Jerome, The War Game, Little Wars and his service in the Great War

https://www.jeromekjerome.com

One of the literary figures supporting H. G. Wells and his development of the Floor Game and Little Wars was the author Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927) or J.K.J. as he is known in Little Wars. I mentioned him in a recent blog post:

https://manoftinblog.wordpress.com/2021/01/21/the-invisible-men-and-women-behind-h-g-wells-little-wars-and-floor-games/

Jerome K. Jerome (JKJ) and Little Wars

As H G Wells says of the origin of Little Wars being the spring loaded cannon, “It was with one of these guns that the beginning of our war game was made.” It was at his seaside home at Sandgate in Kent, England. Wells had two young sons, Gip and Frank Wells, born 1901 and 1903, to whom the “irrepressible debris of a small boy’s pleasures” probably belonged. Wells wrote:

“The present writer had been lunching with a friend – let me veil his identity under the initials J. K. J. – in a room littered with the irrepressible debris of a small boy’s pleasures. On a table near our own stood four or five soldiers and one of these guns.”

“Mr J. K. J., his more urgent needs satisfied and the coffee imminent, drew a chair to this little table, sat down, examined the gun discreetly, loaded it warily, aimed, and hit his man. Thereupon he boasted of the deed, and issued challenges that were accepted with avidity. . . .”

“He fired that day a shot that still echoes round the world. An affair – let us parallel the Cannonade of Valmy and call it the Cannonade of Sandgate –occurred, a shooting between opposed ranks of soldiers, a shooting not very different in spirit – but how different in results! – from the prehistoric warfare of catapult and garter. “But suppose,” said his antagonists; “suppose somehow one could move the men!” and therewith opened a new world of belligerence. The matter went no further with Mr J. K. J. …” (H G Wells, Little Wars, 1913)

Here Wells’ war game with toy soldiers moved from skittles or a shooting game more to one of strategy.

Like Chesterton, Wells and Nesbit, Jerome K. Jerome has a Literary Society devoted to his work: https://www.jeromekjerome.com

Reading his biography page on the website, Jerome can be seen as a hidden casualty of the Great War that Wells warned about in his Pacific last chapter of Little Wars in 1913.

Jerome wrote in his memoirs that in August 1914: “I heard of our declaration of war against Germany with cheerful satisfaction. The animal in me rejoiced. It was going to be the biggest war in history. I thanked whatever gods there be that they had given it in my time. If I had been anywhere near the age limit I should have enlisted. I can say this with confidence because later, and long after my enthusiasm had worn off, I did manage to get work in quite a dangerous part of the front line.”

“Men all around me were throwing up their jobs, sacrificing their careers. I felt ashamed of myself, sitting in safety at my desk, writing articles encouraging them, at so much a thousand words. Of course, not a soul dreamt the war was going to last more than a few months. Had we known, it might have been another story. But the experts had assured us on that point. Mr. Wells was most emphatic. It was Mr. Wells who proclaimed it a Holy War. I have just been reading again those early letters of his. A Miss Cooper Willis has, a little unkindly, reprinted them. I am glad she did not do the same with contributions of my own.”

The newspapers had roped in most of us literary gents to write them special articles upon the war. The appalling nonsense we poured out, during those hysterical first weeks, must have made the angels weep, and all the little devils hold their sides with laughter. In justice to myself, I like to remember that I did gently ridicule the “War to end war” stuff and nonsense. I had heard that talk in my babyhood: since when I had lived through one of the bloodiest half centuries in history. War will go down before the gradual growth of reason. The movement has not yet begun.” (P.281, Jerome’s My Life and Times)

At first Jerome was keen as any other volunteer or writer to do his bit, preferably near the front line (or “got out”). However by his age his options were limited including the ‘Home Guard’ of the Volunteer Training Corps VTC, nicknamed the “Gorgeous Wrecks” or Rejects from their red GR arm bands:

Jerome K. Jerome’s 1925/6 memoir “My Life and Times” was written a year or so before he died:

“It was in the autumn of 1916 that I “got out,” as the saying was. I had been trying to get there for some time. Of course my age, fifty-five, shut all the usual doors against me. I could have joined a company of “veterans” for home defence, and have guarded the Crystal Palace, or helped to man the Thames Embankment; but I wanted to see the real thing. I had offered myself as an entertainer to the Y.M.C.A. I was a capable raconteur and had manufactured, or appropriated, a number of good stories.”

“The Y.M.C.A. had tried me on home hospitals and camps and had approved me. But the War Office would not give its permission. The military gentleman I saw was brief. So far as his information went, half the British Army were making notes for future books. If I merely wanted to be useful, he undertook to find me a job in the Army Clothing Department, close by in Pimlico. I suppose my motives for wanting to go out were of the usual mixed order. I honestly thought I would be doing sound work, helping the Tommies to forget their troubles […]”

A few years younger, Jerome could have joined the Cavalry or Yeomanry. In an earlier chapter ‘The Author at Play’, Jerome mentions his dislike of game shooting, his dislike of fox hunting (because of the fox) and his love of riding and driving carriage horses:

“I learnt riding with the Life Guards at Knightsbridge barracks. It was a rough school, but thorough. You were not considered finished until you could ride all your paces bareback, with the reins loose; and when the Sergeant-Major got hold of a horse with new tricks, he would put it aside for his favourite pupil.”

There is a whole chapter in his memoir (published in 1925/26) about his war experience, starting with his news of how foreign wars were reported, supported or opposed in Britain throughout his childhood, almost taking the Queen’s shilling out of poverty:

“I was down on my luck when the Russo-Turkish War broke out. There were hopes at first that we might be drawn into it. I came near to taking the Queen’s shilling. I had slept at a doss-house the night before, and had had no breakfast. A sergeant of Lancers stopped me in Trafalgar Square. He put his hands on my shoulders and punched my chest.

“You’re not the first of your family that’s been a soldier,” he said. “You’ll like it.”

It was a taking uniform: blue and silver with high Hessian boots. The advantages of making soldiers look like mud had not then been discovered.” (Chapter 12, The War)

… right through to the shifting colonial and international tensions in the build up to WW1 and how he served with the French Ambulance units. You can read this for free in this Project Gutenberg ebook free download:

https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/jeromejk-mylife/jeromejk-mylife-00-h-dir/jeromejk-mylife-00-h.html

Jerome with his French Ambulance Unit – Image source: https://www.jeromekjerome.com

Over service age in 1914, he volunteered to serve in the Ambulance units in France and the experience of what he must have seen had a lasting effect on the comic novelist.

When he returned to England, his secretary observed “The old Jerome had gone… in his place was a stranger … a broken man”.

JKJ – player of Little Wars, sportsman, comic novelist – “Those who talk about war as a game … ought to be made to go out and play it.”

This quote came from his 1925/26 memoir, remembering his experiences in the Verdun French sector where a field hospital was shelled by the Germans but also thinking about his trip to America (1915) shortly before.

Now writing as Ambulance Driver Nine, he notes:

“The town was strangely peaceful, though all around the fighting still continued. Our Unit, Section 10, had been there the winter before, during the battle, and had had a strenuous time. During the actual fighting, Hague Conventions and Geneva regulations get themselves mislaid. The guns were eating up ammunition faster than the little tramways could supply them, and the ambulances did not always go up empty.

“Doubtless the German Red Cross drivers had likewise their blind eye. It is not the soldiers who shout about these things. I was on the “Lusitania,” the last voyage she made from New York to Liverpool, before she was torpedoed. We were loaded to the Plimsol line with war material. The Germans were accused of dropping shells on to the hospital. So they did. How could they help it? The ammunition park was one side of the railway head and the hospital the other. It was the most convenient place for both. Those who talk about war being a game ought to be made to go out and play it. They’d find their little book of rules of not much use.”

Presumably his quote about playing at war was not too much of a dig at his friend Wells’ Little Wars Chapter IV and its warning about the blunder of Great Wars?

“How much better is this amiable miniature than the Real Thing,” Wells writes in Little Wars. “You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be. Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion …”

Wells’ wartime path diverged from that of Jerome. Wells was very active in Government Propaganda throughout WW1 through the Wartime Propganda Bureau run by his friend and Little Wars opponent Charles Masterman (see the related blog post on the Declaration of Authors).

Maybe Jerome’s remark is aimed at fellow jingo writers and poets like Sir Henry Newbolt with their sporting analogies to war (echoed in the sportsmen’s battalions)?

“Play Up, Play up, and Play the Game!”

(Vitai Lampada! or “They Pass On The Torch of Life”)

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —

Ten to make and the match to win —

A bumping pitch and a blinding light,

An hour to play and the last man in.

And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,

Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,

But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote —

‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

*

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —

Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —

The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,

And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed his banks,

And England’s far, and Honour a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:

‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

*

This is the word that year by year,

While in her place the School is set,

Every one of her sons must hear,

And none that hears it dare forget.

This they all with a joyful mind

Bear through life like a torch in flame,

And falling fling to the host behind —

‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

Sir Henry Newbolt, 1892

*

Like Wells and Jerome, Newbolt signed the 1914 Authors’ Declaration and was part of inspiring a generation of ‘heroic’ war poetry in the style of Rupert Brooke and minor, often public school wartime poets.

It is worth noting that even some of the later antiwar poets like Wilfred Owen started out with a flowery Rupert Brooke style heroic poetic view of the war at its beginning.

Brooke through the Neo Pagans group on the edge of the Bloomsbury group knew Harold Hobson, who played at Little Wars with Wells. We could play this ‘six degrees of separation’ connections and influences game back to Wells and Little Wars with a number of people. You know the sort of thing – Hobson knew Brooke who died en route to Gallipoli, a Churchill inspired disaster of a campaign; Wells can be doubly connected to Churchill through toy soldiers and through Liberal politician Charles Masterman. And so on and so on …

Reading Gissing’s letters to and from Wells and his family, there is a lovely informal group snapshot in Italy c. 1890s of Gissing, Wells, Conan Doyle and his brother in law Hornung. As the ‘Declaration of Authors’ signatures also show, the literary world was well connected at a professional and social, even friendly level.

“[Israel] Zangwill used to be keen on croquet, but never had the makings of a great player. Wells wasn’t bad. Of course, he wanted to alter all the laws and make a new game of his own. I had to abandon my lawn, in the end.” From the ‘Author at Play’ chapter in Jerome’s memoir.

Reading Jerome’s 1925/6 memoir I found that he was not the only one of the Author’s Declaration to suffer during WW1. In his chapter the ‘Author at Play’ about the “internationalism” of winter sports at Davos in Switzerland and such like in the years prior to the outbreak of WW1, p.233 –

“Engelberg is too low to be a good sports centre. We had some muggy weather, and to kill time I got up some private theatricals. Kipling’s boy and girl were there. They were jolly children. Young Kipling was a suffragette and little Miss Kipling played a costermonger’s Donah. Kipling himself combined the parts of scene-shifter and call boy. It was the first time I had met Mrs. Kipling since her marriage. She was still a beautiful woman, but her hair was white. There had always been sadness in her eyes, even when a girl. The Hornungs were there also, with their only child, Oscar. Mrs. Hornung, née Connie Doyle, was as cheery and vigorous as ever, but a shade stouter. Both boys were killed in the war.” (P.233)

Oscar Hornung, Conan Doyle’s nephew, was killed in 1915 – CWGC entry. Like the Hornung family, the Kiplings suffered the added grief of a son missing and an unknown grave until a recent (and disputed) identification – CWGC entry. The tragic story of John Kipling, Kipling’s only son, is well told in the Holt book, play and BBC TV drama My Boy Jack.

As Wells writes it at the end of Little Wars “And if I might for a moment trumpet! How much better is this amiable miniature than the Real Thing!”

Bloog posted by Mark Man of TIN, 2 / 3 February 2021

*

Blog Post Appendix – the ‘pacific’ challenge by Wells at the end of Little Wars, 1913: source – e: text from Project Gutenberg

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3691/3691-h/3691-h.htm#chap06

Little Wars Part VI

ENDING WITH A SORT OF CHALLENGE

I COULD go on now and tell of battles, copiously. In the memory of the one skirmish I have given I do but taste blood. I would like to go on, to a large, thick book. It would be an agreeable task. Since I am the chief inventor and practiser (so far) of Little Wars, there has fallen to me a disproportionate share of victories. But let me not boast. For the present, I have done all that I meant to do in this matter. It is for you, dear reader, now to get a floor, a friend, some soldiers and some guns, and show by a grovelling devotion your appreciation of this noble and beautiful gift of a limitless game that I have given you.

And if I might for a moment trumpet! How much better is this amiable miniature than the Real Thing!

Here is a homeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster—and no smashed nor sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties, none of that awful universal boredom and embitterment, that tiresome delay or stoppage or embarrassment of every gracious, bold, sweet, and charming thing, that we who are old enough to remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence.

This world is for ample living; we want security and freedom; all of us in every country, except a few dull-witted, energetic bores, want to see the manhood of the world at something better than apeing the little lead toys our children buy in boxes. We want fine things made for mankind—splendid cities, open ways, more knowledge and power, and more and more and more—and so I offer my game, for a particular as well as a general end; and let us put this prancing monarch and that silly scare-monger, and these excitable “patriots,” and those adventurers, and all the practitioners of Welt Politik, into one vast Temple of War, with cork carpets everywhere, and plenty of little trees and little houses to knock down, and cities and fortresses, and unlimited soldiers—tons, cellars-full—and let them lead their own lives there away from us.

My game is just as good as their game, and saner by reason of its size. Here is War, done down to rational proportions, and yet out of the way of mankind, even as our fathers turned human sacrifices into the eating of little images and symbolic mouthfuls. For my own part, I am prepared. I have nearly five hundred men, more than a score of guns, and I twirl my moustache and hurl defiance eastward from my home in Essex across the narrow seas. Not only eastward. I would conclude this little discourse with one other disconcerting and exasperating sentence for the admirers and practitioners of Big War. I have never yet met in little battle any military gentleman, any captain, major, colonel, general, or eminent commander, who did not presently get into difficulties and confusions among even the elementary rules of the Battle. You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be.

Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion. Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but—the available heads we have for it, are too small. That, I think, is the most pacific realisation conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.”

H.G. Wells, Little Wars 1913

6 thoughts on “A Broken Man: Jerome K. Jerome, The War Game, Little Wars and his service in the Great War”

  1. Very interesting, I’m a big fan JKJ and love his books. I don’t think any of HG’s biographers hardly mention his toy soldiers so I’m told?, can you recommend a biography of HG?

    Like

    1. I am looking around for a good Wells biography as I no longer have any at home. Obviously leant over the years! The Wells Society might have some recommendations.
      I think Floor Games and Little Wars to many Wells’ biographers are a minor footnote in a prolific public writing career (if not a slight embarrassment esp. so close to WW1 ?) but I think they are a good way to focus on his private/ home life and times, his work and literary connections. Without WW1 I’m sure we would have more of this sort of thing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Considering that it had been in development since at least 1901/2 if George Gissing (dead 1903) was involved, HGW’s sons born and Captain M (Walter S Masterman) was “hot from the Great War in South Africa” (1902), it’s a great pity Wells didn’t get this out sooner – the Little Wars / War Game movement would maybe have sprung up and flourished pre-WW1 like Scouting did?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It goes to show how much free Archive.org / Project Gutenberg richness there is out there, although nothing beats a print copy.
      I am viewing JKJ differently now, not just a light comic novelist, but a more interesting Liberal Edwardian figure conflicted by WWI. The Irene Willis Cooper book from the late twenties, when the major canon of now famous anti war WWI book s came out, on the Liberal changes and challenges of journalism and writing in WWI looks interesting at charting the volte face for writers like Wells and JKJ.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s