Arthur Graeme West (1891-1917) is known for one remarkable book, The Diary of a Dead Officer (1919), consisting of an introduction by the editor, ’C.J.’ (Cyril Joad), extracts from West’s 1915-17 diary, and a few essays and poems. Joad, later a well-known Oxford don and in 1919 a keen pacifist and atheist, edited the book as pacifist propaganda. It was published jointly by the left-wing Herald newspaper and Francis Meynell’s Pelican Press (Meynell’s other publications had included Sassoon’s protest in 1917).
Graeme West was born in Norfolk, but his parents soon moved to Highgate, London. His father, a former missionary, was a grimly religious man who must have been appalled by the Diary. Graeme became a boarder at Blundell’s School, where load was his contemporary, and in 1910 both young men went up to Oxford as Balliol scholars. Oxford brought out West’s intellectual interests and his quiet charm.
Joad presents West as shy, hopeless at games and completely unsuited to soldiering. This cannot be entirely true: West’s army file reveals that he was in fact a member of the university’s OTC for his four years at Oxford. Soon after beginning a fifth year in October 1914 he decided to apply for a commission, but he was rejected for poor eyesight. Nevertheless he joined up in the ranks of the Public Schools Battalion in February 1915, soon becoming a lance corporal. Sent to France in November, he was repeatedly in action. His poem, ’The Night Patrol’ (March 1916), makes him one of the first poets to write about front-line actualities from direct personal experience:
We crawled on belly and elbows, till we saw,
Instead of lumpish dead before our eyes,
The stakes and crosslines of the German wire.
We lay in shelter of the last dead man,
Ourselves as dead, and heard their shovels ring…
In April 1916 West was accepted for an officer training course in Scotland. There, as the Diary vividly describes, three or four months of being ordered about by bullying, stupid NCOs did more to turn him against war than the trenches had done. In August he became a second lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. His ’The End of the Second Year’ records his loss of religious faith at this time, a loss that seemed to him more momentous than any battle. He visited Joad, met other pacifists, and wrote to his new battalion refusing to rejoin the army – but he could not bring himself to post the letter. He went back to France, rose to the rank of Acting Captain, and was killed by a sniper’s bullet near Bapaume on 3 April 1917.
The few surviving records of West, apart from the published Diary, show that load’s editing has partly obscured the real man. The Diary gives no hint, for example, that by early 1917 West was deeply in love with a girl he had met in England, and that he had written to Bertrand Russell, promising to help build a new world after the war. He was less pessimistic, less ’dead’, than Joad’s portrait of the ’Dead Officer’ suggests. But by 1916-17 he certainly loathed the war. His 1916 poem, ’God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men!’, has a place in the history of 1914-18 verse as a furious denunciation of the young soldier-poets who were still writing about the war as ’epic days’, a happy game:
In heaven above
A genial umpire, a good judge of sport,
Won’t let us hurt each other! …
Ah, how good God is
To suffer us be born just now, when youth
That else would rust, can slake his blade in gore,
Where very God Himself does seem to walk
The bloody fields of Flanders He so loves!
The Diary of a Dead Officer being the posthumous papers of Arthur Graeme West (dated 1918 on the title page, but actually published in January 1919). Reprinted with a new introduction by Dominic Hibberd, Imperial War Museum, (Arts and Literature Series) Number 3 (1991).
Dennis Welland, Arthur Graeme West: a messenger to Job, Renaissance and Modern Studies, ed. G.R. Hibberd (1966).
Samuel Hynes, An introduction to Graeme West, (English Literature of the First World War Revisited [Series]), ed. M. Roucoux (Amiens, 1989).