Nearly half a century has passed, yet we continue to be enthralled by World War II. We watch reruns of The World at War on PBS, never miss Casablanca when it’s featured, and can even sit through The Longest Day one more time. Not so with World War I, which, though older, was in a sense a more modern war. Where World War II was, to the public, a traditional war, in which the forces of light did battle with those of darkness, the First World War was perceived as a clash of states, not philosophies. Like Vietnam, it had many celebrity pacifists and draftdodgers; like Vietnam, it left people disspirited and cynical.
Many insights into the attitudes of World War I can be found in the recently published Talking Across the World—a collection of letters between an Englishman, serving in France as an ambulance driver, and his sweetheart in Australia. Olaf Stapleton taught working-class adults in Liverpool, but he also wrote books on the history of life, much admired by people like H.G. Wells and the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane. After the war, in the 30’s and 40’s, he produced scientific romances, which had a considerable following, and are said to have influenced writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Doris Lessing, who regarded him as one of the fathers of modern science fiction.
This collection of letters is as much a conventional love story of two people separated by geography and the exigencies of wartime as a debate between them on the war itself. Olaf, a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, was reluctant to join up: “I won’t go fighting abroad if I can help it, because that is not our business.” Agnes, back in Australia, thought it the duty of all who could fight to do so. The argument of pacifism versus war was to continue for the whole duration.
A socialist who intended to devote his life to improving the lot of the working class by teaching and writing, Olaf resolved his dilemma—”I am tired of letting other people fight while I dream”—by joining an ambulance unit organized by the Society of Friends. Though not a Quaker, Olaf’s family was affluent enough to be able to purchase an ambulance, which Olaf would then drive for the unit in France.
In January 1915, he was able to write to Agnes and tell her that he had applied for the job. “I won’t go unless I can get an essential, strenuous and if possible perilous job; for it would be terrible to feel one was shirking hardship and danger.” Ambulance drivers were in fact exposed to enormous dangers. Although they did not bear arms, they came under fire, and many lost their lives in heroic efforts to rescue the wounded. Stapleton and his unit were awarded the Croix de guerre by the French government for the services they rendered.
For her part, Agnes sees fighting as a regrettable necessity: “If we could get back all we have lost by any other means than by fighting for it, I would rejoice among the first that no more blood need be shed. Isn’t that all we are fighting for?” When Australia held referendums over introducing conscription, Agnes supported the policy: “Why should the generous brave men go do their share while the selfish cowardly shirkers stay at home and do nothing for anyone but themselves? It doesn’t seem fair. We all have shares in our country.”
The debate between the two never turns acrimonious; they do not allow politics to dominate their lives, or their love. The young couple were first cousins who had met when Agnes was a young girl of nine and Olaf was 17. Agnes went home to Australia and did not visit England again until she was 19, but Olaf had retained vivid memories of that earlier visit and was soon in love with her. In their long-distance courtship lies the charm of the letters; one is reminded of Clarissa, and the tension that can be evoked in this literary form.
Olaf is certain from the first: “I remember a certain day some ten years ago . . . I, being I suppose, a romantic kid, was wonderfully impressed. It is rather quaint, and a little comic, but from that moment I thought of little else but you . . . and if I did not feel sure, dead sure, that I could be all that you ever want, indeed I would not even try to win your love. But in my heart I know it. I have nothing wonderful to offer you, but because I love you I am made strong enough to do anything and bear anything. You shall see if not so, both you and I will know it. But it is so.”
Agnes, who returned to Australia soon after the war broke out, was more hesitant. “I have always talked to you about why we should not be engaged—about Mother, and about being too young and about being so far away in the future, etc., etc. . . . but the one big thing and only thing remains which is that yet I do not really love you. . . . If really I were filled with the fire you are filled with I could be old enough and wise enough and I could speak to conquer Mother and all the world and I could wait a very age.” But as the correspondence continues—occasionally interrupted by the sinking of the mailship by enemy ships—Agnes increasingly realizes she is in love, and they become engaged.
Like most women of her day, Agnes is not well-educated, at least not in the academic sense. But she has a good eye and ear. The homey family outings and daily life in Australia, both in Sydney and up in the mountains, are recounted with a beguiling naturalness. By contrast, the intellectual Olaf is initially patronizing in the way he discusses lofty subjects and quotes liberally the great books he reads. As the years pass, however, he comes to admire the simplicity and straightforwardness of her observations and arguments, and apologizes for his arrogance.
His accounts of the war and of his experiences as an ambulance driver are well-written, if familiar. But that verbal facility so suitable to debate and monograph is just too stiff for letters to one’s beloved. Only when writing of his feelings or commenting on Agnes’ own letters does he relax and write with more ease.
The literature of World War I is a rich and abundant collection, far more distinguished than that of any subsequent war. For the first time war was put under the microscope, and what was seen there was then described by perhaps the best-educated generation ever to fight. And to this examination they brought not only their education, but all the modern impulses that flourished at the beginning of the 20th century: aestheticism, atheism, socialism, and the naiveté that came from too many years of comfortable peace—England had not been in any danger of direct invasion since the Napoleonic wars, over a hundred years earlier. Talking Across the World reminds us again of not only that literary heritage, but that of all the many wars of our century, World War I was indeed the Great War, precisely because it was approached and fought with a peculiarly modern sensibility.
[Talking Across the World: The Love Letters of Olaf Stapleton and Agnes Miller, 1913-1919, edited by Robert Crossley; Hanover, NH: University Press of New England; $27.95]