World War I is the least fun war. It is canonically the most depressing and disheartening of all the slogs of war, polishing off both a generation of young men and the idealism and faith of the western world. Its novels are tragedies; its poetry is agonizing. After all the horrors and the end of a civilization as they knew it, all that was really achieved was the rise of world communism, the inevitability of a second, bloodier war, and modern art. No one was laughing.
Of course, at the time no one knew that this would be “that kind of war.” No one knew they were making history — no one ever really knows they’re making history in the moment,which is why texts from the 1960s are frequently not insufferable, while later texts about the ’60s almost always are. Before the Great War, war had been a bit of a jolly romp, a blood stirring adventure, and it took a while for people to figure out this was going to change.
And so boys adventure novels, which had previously led kids along a Henty-paved road through crusade and rebellion to imperial conquest, brought them to the trenches and (Biggles!) the air. Col. James Fiske (not a real colonel; just a pseudonym), Frederick Sadleir Brereton, and Percy F. Westerman all wrote the kinds of books that Howard Pyle might have in an earlier age, books that more or less explicitly asserted that war was still 1. glorious 2. adventuresome and 3. fun. A typical title is A Lively Bit of the Front; the opposite, you’ll note, of all being quiet.
(Servia, or Serbia, incidentally, comes across splendidly in the book pictured above. A hardy people, boldly fighting for their freedom! The idea that Serbs may have anything to do with starting the war is not really examined.)
The luckiest of these writers, though, was H. Irving Hancock. Before the war, around 1910 or so (sources are not consistent on dates), Hancock had begun writing a series of books about a gang of young chums called Dick & Co. (because of Kipling, readers of the time would have understood that the “& Co.” indicated a story about friends at school). He followed their rather tepid and priggish adventures through grammar and high school and then sent two of the characters to West Point and Annapolis, detailing their cadet lives and graduating them just in time to send them to war. This is pretty much the equivalent of the Hardy Boys enlisting after the first dozen books. (Hey, it happened to Beetle Bailey.)
Even more remarkable, though, was Hancock’s other series, Uncle Sam’s Boys, which started in 1910 with peacetime recruits and eventually spun WWI into a parallel and hypothetical universe in which Germany invades the US. At the Capture of Boston, In the Battle for New York, etc. Hancock rather pessimistically projected these future events of the long war into the 1920s. (If anyone finds a digital copy of any of these books, please let me know. I’ve only read the prewar Uncle Sam’s Boys, so I don’t even know who wins!!!1!)
Adventure novels would scarcely die out, like poetry, in the wake of the war, but they grew less militaristic and would often retreat into fantasy. The idea of gunning down your enemies (excluding, of course, the most violent children’s adventure book I’ve ever read) would soon be gauche
Next: Humor and the Great War.