Tag Archives: First World War

Town Major of Miraucourt: Priestley’s 1918

Town-Major

Front cover of The Town Major of Miraucourt, Turnpike Books, 2017

This little pamphlet made a welcome appearance in our post-tray today.  The Town Major of Miraucourt is a short story by J.B. Priestley, reprinted by Turnpike Books, and on sale from 1 December 2017.  Nicely timed for Christmas present-giving!

The pamphlet is now part of the J.B. Priestley book collection at the University of Bradford, where it and copies of all the other titles mentioned in this piece are preserved and made available to the public.

I’d like to reflect a little on The Town Major of Miraucourt and its unique place in Priestley’s immense output.  It is the only fictional work based on the author’s experiences during the First World War.

Why was this Priestley’s only fictional account of the War?  Surely the five years Priestley spent in the Army were rich in potential incidents and characters and ideas for a novelist or playwright to explore?  Yes, but he decided not to pursue this approach.  As he later explained in his memoir Margin Released, first of all, he wanted to forget about the War and get on with the life so shockingly interrupted.  Then he came to realise that as a writer he was not drawn to war: it did not inspire him.  He found it impossible to reconcile the two faces of war, the grotesque mixture of murderous slaughter with the “slapstick, so much gigantically solemn, dressed-up, bemedalled custard pie work” of Army life.

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Detail from cover of The Lost Generation, by J.B. Priestley

Yet he did (I think) manage to reconcile these elements in ‘Carry On, Carry On’, the unforgettable middle section of Margin Released.  Priestley tore into the folly and ignorance that sent his generation to its mechanised death, while documenting the fun, silliness, quirks and everyday humanity going on at the same time.

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Priestley with officers and men of the 2nd Devonshires.  Archive reference: PRI 21/2/8

In Town Major, written over thirty years before Margin Released, Priestley also captured the humour and reflected on the meaning and implications of war.  The story is set in 1918, beginning with a barely fictionalised account of Priestley’s life at that time.  He, like his surviving contemporaries, had been through so much by then: trench warfare, serious injury, brutal training camps, the loss of his friends and comrades.  In 1918 Priestley had returned briefly to the Front, been gassed, rated B2 by the medical board (fit but not fully fit), and sent to work with the Labour Corps depot.  His protagonist has the same experiences, which then however take a weird turn.  En route to Rouen, he finds himself in Miraucourt, a mysterious French village seemingly untouched by war.  There he meets a group of soldiers who echo Shakespeare’s own larger-than-life creations: are they Falstaff and his company …?

Town Major shares the woozy, dreamy quality of ‘Carry On, Carry On’: Priestley and his fictional counterpart are traumatised and weary, adrift in a chaotic, devastated and disconnected landscape where anything might happen and time has little meaning.  “There was perhaps always a suspicion in one’s mind that the whole thing might be slipping out of any kind of control, even that of roaring death.  Sanity, one concluded, might easily be bombed away for good and all.”

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Title page of The Town Major of Miraucourt, Heinemann, 1930

This evocative story has been relatively inaccessible until now.  It was first published in the London Mercury of October 1929 and reprinted as a limited edition in vellum with slipcase by Heinemann in 1930.  Its only later appearance in full was in the compilation Four-in-Hand (Heinemann, 1934), although parts were included in Priestley’s Wars (Great Northern, 2008).  So the reprint is most welcome and will (we hope) bring this glimpse of Priestley’s war to new audiences almost 100 years on.

 

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“There were no men left …” Bradford and the Somme

1 July 1916 was the first day of the Somme Offensive, which became known as the most terrible battle of the First World War, the battle of the Somme.

Two battalions of Bradford ‘Pals’ were among the troops of 93 Brigade crossing No-Man’s-Land at Serre, towards barbed wire and machine guns that were not supposed to be there: artillery had been bombarding the German lines for seven days, but in Serre bad weather had hampered efforts.  The advance went ahead anyway: ‘The Corps Commander was extremely optimistic, telling everybody that the wire had been blown away (we could see it standing strong and well), there were no German trenches and all we had to do was walk into Serre.’ Colonel Howard (93 Brigade Major).

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1st Bradford Pals battalion button-hole badge, IWM (full credit below).

The men did not stand a chance: among the shocking casualty figures of that first day alone, the worst day in the history of the British Army, we see that of 2000 Bradford men advancing at Serre, only 223 survived.

The Pals battalions had been set up during the early stages of the war, before conscription was introduced in 1916.  Allowing men to sign up and serve alongside their family, friends, colleagues etc made them more likely to join, and many such battalions formed around the country. The 1st Bradford Pals, (16th (Service) Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment), began recruiting in September 1914, enthusiastic patriotism ensuring that the battalion reached full strength within the month.  Recruitment for the 2nd Bradford Pals (18th (Service) Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment), which began in February 2015, was much slower as the first fervour gave way to the reality of industrial stalemate trench warfare.

The story of the Pals is particularly heart-breaking because the losses struck whole communities at once: the men joined together, fought together, and died together, leaving cities in mourning.  We should not forget of course that many other Bradford men served (and died) in other battalions participating in the Somme Offensive and throughout the war.

One such was Jack Priestley, the Bradford lad who would become J.B. the famous author, though he survived the war, escaping the Somme by a lucky chance.  He had joined up soon after war was declared, alone, travelling to Halifax on a tram, to sign up for the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment.  His friends joined Bradford’s Pals battalions en masse a little later on. One beautiful morning in June 1916, he was sorting out rations for his men in a small dugout which was hit by a massive trench mortar.  Jack spent the Somme summer convalescing in a country house in Rutland, not returning to the front line until 1918.

Jack (JB) Priestley with concert party at Hambleton Hall convalescent home, Summer 1916 (ref PRI/2/6)

Priestley (second from left) and concert party at Hambleton Hall convalescent home, 1916 (reference PRI/2/6)

Together with the impact of the war on the German community which had contributed so much to the city’s industrial growth, the loss of a generation of young men seriously diminished Bradford’s economy, culture and society.  Much later Jack Priestley bore witness to what he had seen, and who and what had been lost:

“… I should not be writing this book now if thousands of better men had not been killed; and if they had been alive still, it is certain that I should have been writing, if at all, about another and better England.  I have had playmates, I have had companions, but all, all are gone; and they were killed by greed and muddle and monstrous cross-purposes, by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs, by diplomats working underground like monocled moles, by journalists wanting a good story …”. English Journey.

Sources: these stories are richly documented online and in print, and I have drawn on much sources in writing this short account.

The title is from the report of Sergeant-Major Cussins in the ‘1st Pals’ War Diary of 1 July 1916, quoted on the Bradford Pals website.

Colonel Howard’s quotation is taken from the Western Front Association’s page about Serre.

The information about recruitment is from Bradford: remembering 1914-18 by Kathryn Hughes.

Priestley on the First World War: English Journey, Margin Released, key writings collected in Priestley’s Wars, and in my chapter in Bradford in the First World War (contact me if you can’t get hold of a copy).

Credit: badge copyright IWM, full details on this page.  Shared here under IWM non-commercial licence.

 

How did the First World War affect Bradford people?

What was life like for people living in Bradford during the First World War?  How did they cope with the challenges of “long working hours, restricted opportunities for recreation and relaxation, … darkened streets, the increased cost of living and the rigid economy“*?

In her new book, Bradford: remembering 1914-1918, published today, local researcher Kathryn Hughes discusses these questions in the light of new discoveries in Bradford archives.  I am very much looking forward to reading it!

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*Bradford Sanitary Association Annual Report 1915, quoted by Dr Hughes on the Bradford WW1 website.

Rediscovered: J.B. Priestley in the Yorkshire Post

Last weekend the Yorkshire Post published a really interesting piece about J.B. Priestley’s First World War experiences.  The article, by Steve McClarence, uses objects from Priestley’s Archive to tell the story: his shoulder-badge, his photographs, his letters, and above all Priestley’s unforgettable writings about the War in Margin Released and English Journey.  You can see the archive objects for yourself in our current exhibition at the Bradford Industrial Museum.

 

 

JB Priestley: soldier, writer, painter …

J.B. Priestley: Soldier, Writer, Painter.
Curated by the J.B. Priestley Society
Bradford Industrial Museum. 

19 April – 17 August 2014

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This summer we bring a unique opportunity to see some different sides to  J.B. Priestley.   You knew he was a writer (we hope).  He was also a …

Soldier …
Aged just 19, “Jack” Priestley joined the British Army in September 1914.  The next five years changed his life forever and that of his home city of Bradford.  The Industrial Museum has a major exhibition about Bradford’s Home Front which our display complements.  We are showing Jack’s letters home and the photographs and memorabilia that travelled with him for the next 50 years.  He used them for inspiration when he drew together his experiences in the dream-like tour de force that is the middle section of his 1962 memoir Margin Released.

Painter …
JB loved art and later in life took up painting as an enjoyable hobby.  The J.B. Priestley Society have assembled 30 of his works for this show.   These intriguing survivals  illustrate the love of landscape that makes so many of his books unforgettable , his understanding of art, and his extensive travels.   A few are still for sale, if you would like a unique bit of Priestleiana in your life.

The exhibition is free and open to all.  You can find out more about opening times etc. on the Museum’s website.

 

 

New! J.B. Priestley Archive Catalogue April 2013

We’ve just put the latest edition of the catalogue of the J.B. Priestley Archive online.

YMCA "On active service" letterhead from one of J.B. Priestley's letters home.

YMCA “On active service” letterhead from one of J.B. Priestley’s letters home.

Lots of new things and improvements in response to readers’ needs, including:

  • Enhanced section on Priestley’s unpublished scripts for books, plays, television and film.  These  include collaborations with Fred Hoyle and Iris Murdoch.  Lots of detail on the physical nature of the scripts e.g. amendments by Priestley.
  • More letters, notably Priestley’s incredible Great War letters from the trenches.
  • Detailed cataloguing of files on Priestley’s art collection, indexing the artists he collected.
  • Programmes, press cuttings and other responses to Priestley 2008-2012.   Definite revival of interest, encompassing several less well known plays, and from scholarly, political and literary angles.
  • Some sections renumbered for ease of use (don’t worry if you’re using the old numbers, we can cross-refer between them).

More on all the above in future blog posts!