Writer who saw through `joke' of war

Donald Hankey outsold Rupert Brooke during the First World War. But after his death in action his work was allowed to fade - until now. Ross Davies reports
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The Independent Online
In 1915, while in England after being wounded in a futile daylight charge at Ypres in which he lost many friends, a young writer sent an essay to the Spectator. Entitled "Some who were lost and found", it described how soldiers who had been rogues in civilian life became heroes fighting on the western front.

"Never was such a triumph of spirit over matter," it read. "As for death, it was the greatest joke of all... Death, you looked a fool when you tackled one of them. Life! They did not value life! They had never been able to make much of a fist of it. But if they lived amiss, they died gloriously, with a smile for the pain and dread of it."

The writer was Donald Hankey, and his heroic prose made him a household name during the First World War. By 1917 his books were being reprinted in Britain two or three times a month, while the government was running off special editions as propaganda for the American market. There is evidence that he outsold Rupert Brooke.

Yet today, while Brooke's name is known around the world, his work taught in schools and widely available in print, Hankey is forgotten. No full biography exists, and no memorial, although his name appears among the 73,000 on the memorial to the missing of the Somme.

Hankey's slide into obscurity is the more remarkable because, like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and many others, he came to see the war as a thing of horror and not heroism. But the writings that expressed this were largely suppressed.

It was the Somme, with its slaughter on an industrial scale, that changed Hankey, as his private writings show.

He found himself leading working parties to bring in the wounded from no man's land, men who had crawled into shell-holes and lain there for days. Then there were the blackened, mutilated corpses to bury, thousands of them. No longer did he write boldly of death as the greatest joke of all. Instead a note to his sister Hilda spoke darkly of "machine-guns, shellholes, confusion, smoke".

His earlier writing had drawn ecstatic approval at home. The editor-proprietor of the Spectator, St Loe Strachey, declared of one piece that "with all sincerity a Commander of today might... declare that he would rather have written that passage than win a general action." But as the Somme unfolded, Strachey found his young star becoming a liability.

Hankey sent him an account of the conditions his men faced on the eve of battle. "No proper shelter from the rain... still getting very short rations, hardly any sleep, and the amount of protection available against bombardment is absurdly inadequate." Worse still, Hankey wrote, they were twice gassed by their own side.

Hankey voiced doubts that the British shells would knock out the Germans in their deep shelters, and that the opening infantry attack would be the walkover that had been promised.

Above all, he described the battlefield after the failed attack of 1 July 1916. "Here we are where we started," he wrote. "Day and night we have done nothing but bring in the wounded and the dead. When one sees the dead, their limbs crushed and mangled, one can only have revulsion for war.

"It was easy to talk of glory and heroism when one is away from it," he went on. "But here, in the presence of the mutilated and tortured dead, one can only feel the horror and wickedness of war. Indeed it is an evil harvest, sown of pride and arrogance and lust of power."

They were still heroes, "mostly quiet souls, loving their wives and children and the little comforts of home life most of all, little stirred by great emotions or passions.

"If without the imagination to understand fully the terrors ahead, they had some love for liberty, some faith in God, enough when they saw their danger in its true perspective, to keep them steadfast and tenacious."

The Army's field censors passed Hankey's story - they too were sick of the cheery gloss being put on the battle at home. It was Strachey who, thoughshocked, refused to print, both at the time and after Hankey's own death in action.

It was a suicidal daylight charge at the Somme that ended Hankey's life 80 years ago at the age of 31. The scene was described by a Private A Crudgington.

"When we were going over the top, and one of the men's nerves gave way," wrote Crudgington. "He told Lieut D Hankey that he could not go over the top. Lieut D Hankey told him to stop in the trench and help with the wounded when they came down."

Hankey, said Crudgington, "understood human nature", adding: "He knew that a man was not a coward if his nerves gave away under fire."

Then the whistles blew. Hankey was last seen heading towards the German guns through the artillery and machine-gun fire.

When night fell Crudgington and others carried in Hankey's body and dug a pit. But they were called away and the burial was completed by men from another regiment.

Death made Hankey a legend, as it had Brooke 18 months before. Newly discovered papers show that within three months the Foreign Office was covertly distributing 40,000 copies of a collection of his earlier, more acceptable work in the US to show the neutral Americans, in Strachey's words, that for the British the Great War "was not with us a war of plunder".

In its Christmas 1917 issue the Bookman carried Hankey's portrait alongside those of Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander-in- Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France, and the poets Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Charles Hamilton Sorley and Edward Thomas.

In 1917 new editions of Hankey's most famous book, the first of the two volumes of A student in arms, was reprinting twice,sometimes three times, a month. A student in arms was his pen-name, Hankey regarding himself as "a student of human nature".

Why did the legend fade? One reason seems to be that Brooke had Bloomsbury on his side, and Hankey Bermondsey. Although he was a younger brother of Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Cabinet, Donald loathed smart London society before the war and spent less time in the West than in the East End, where he ran a boys' club.

When he died anyone who knew him or could have written about him was scattered around the globe with a war to fight. As memories of the war receded, so Hankey was allowed to become a period piece. His name rarely appears in bibliographies and studies of Great War writing.

None the less his sister, Hilda Hankey, did collect and preserve as many as she could of his letters, journals and manuscripts as well as memoirs of Hankey from friends. Long thought lost, these papers have recently resurfaced. The first full-length biography is being discussed, and the first academic study planned. Literary, historical and military journals are beginning to carry articles on aspects of his brief but vivid life and work.

Finally, Donald Hankey's distinctive part in the First World War is to be acknowledged.