Sunday 12 August 2012

Gilbert Frankau

While putting the finishing touches to my anthology of First World War poetry for Oxford World's Classics, I have been neglecting this blog. What better way to make amends than by starting a series of posts focusing on those poets who have been narrowly excluded from the anthology? I decided at an early stage that I would give generous coverage to a smaller number of significant poets, rather than trying to create an omnium gatherum of versifiers and poetasters. Even so, an anthologist always has regrets about the borderline cases, and this blog seems like the right place to seek expiation.

Gilbert Frankau (1884-1952) has hovered at the edges of the war poetry canon for many decades. He is problematic for three reasons: he hated the Germans with an intensity matched only by his master, Rudyard Kipling; in 1933, he wrote an article for the Daily Express titled 'As a Jew I am not against Hitler' (but soon recanted); and there is the practical consideration that his wartime work remains in copyright in the UK. So, he is politically dubious, and his work comes with a price tag attached. The same is true (on both counts) of one or two other prominent war poets---Frankau was not alone among them in expressing support for Fascist leaders in the 1930s---but his work can be more easily ignored than theirs. As for copyright laws, the absurdity is compounded by the fact that his collected poems are freely available online here and here. Were I blogging from the US, I could include as many poems as I wanted in this post.

Frankau joined the East Surrey Regiment in October 1914, later seeing action at Loos, Ypres and the Somme. He became a regular contributor of poetry to the Wipers Times, and published two war volumes: The Guns (1916) and The City of Fear (1917). In October 1916 he was sent to Italy to counter German propaganda via press and film campaigns. Suffering from delayed shellshock, he was invalided out of the army in February 1918, and began a successful career as a novelist. He served as a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War.

Frankau was a gifted and authentic poet, although the attitudes expressed in a lyric like 'The Beasts in Gray' ('Let the sword decide what the sword began: / "No truce with the Beasts in Gray!"') have not dated well. Having described a friend's torture at the hands of German captors, Frankau in 'The Reason' sums up his unambiguous animosity towards the enemy:

Hate! Not an individual loathing felt
For this one gaoler or the Kommandant
(With pardon and trade orders for the rest)
But absolute revulsion, merciless,
Inexorable, reasoned, and approved---
A plain man's hatred of the Unclean Folk.

It comes as no surprise that the last phrase sounds like something out of The Jungle Books. Here as in so much of his work, Frankau took his cue from Kipling: his boastful admission, 'I've learnt how to hate', is a direct response to Kipling's 'The Beginnings' ('When the English began to hate').

Were Frankau's poetry one long hymn of hate, it would only be worth reading as a necessary corrective to the cherished myth that Tommy and Fritz were brothers-in-arms. But Frankau is much more compelling when he stops denouncing the Germans. Despite its title, 'The Other Side' has nothing to say about the beasts in grey, and more about attitudes in Blighty. The speaker of the poem is reacting to a book of verse sent to him by 'a former subaltern of his battery' who has somehow got back to England. His response is to condemn the florid rhetoric and abstract musings of this representative soldier-poet:

My grief, but we’re fed up to the back teeth
With war-books, war-verse, all the eye-wash stuff
That seems to please the idiots at home.
You know the kind of thing, or used to know:
‘Heroes who laugh while Fritz is strafing them’—
(I don’t remember that you found it fun,
The day they shelled us out of Blauwport Farm!)

But what's the good of war-books, if they fail
To give civilian-readers an idea
Of what life is like in the firing-line…

You might have done that much; from you, at least,
I thought we’d get an inkling of the truth.
But no; you rant and rattle, beat your drum.
And blow your two-penny trumpet like the rest:
‘Red battle’s glory,’ ‘Honour’s utmost task,’
‘Gay jesting faces of undaunted boys,’…
The same old Boy's-Own-Paper balderdash!

The kinds of poetry which Frankau here attacks (and which Arthur Graeme West had also attacked in 'God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men!') have now disappeared from the canon, leaving the impression that all soldier-poetry of the First World War was characterised by resistance and bitterness. But as the attacks themselves make clear, the bulk of the War's soldier-poetry continued to celebrate honour, glory, and a divinely-sanctioned patriotism. Modern readers tend to dismiss and despise such sentimentality, while clinging to the belief that the soldiers of either side felt no animosity towards their counterparts across no-man's-land. Frankau's poetry provides a valuable, if disconcerting, corrective to that equally sentimental but far more fashionable myth.


  1. Gilbert Frankau seems to have been unique in contributing to the Wipers Times under his own name. Everyone else remained anonymous or used initials or a pseudonym. Perhaps this reflects a degree of pomposity. He was over thirty and he was Chairman of the family cigar business.

    Gilbert wrote a poem entitled 'Long Ago' for the Christmas 1917 special double edition. In it he reminisced about carefree drinking days during training at Shoreham Camp in 1914.

    The editor saw fit to alter the poem and Gilbert launched a poetic battle of words complaining that the altered version didn't scan. His poem 'D- - -'(sic) contained the lines: "For you have had the nerve to edit - On some annoying plan - The lines which Gilbert 'dono dedit'...

    The editor replied in kind with 'In Justification', but did apologise in the end: "Yet now to calm a poet's soul
    And eke to get more 'copy'
    We grovel in the ashes, coal,
    And own our line WAS sloppy".

  2. It's ironic, given the virulence of Frankau's views on his enemies, that his great-nephew the actor Nicholas Frankau ended up playing the escaping English pilot Carstairs in 'Allo! 'Allo!, surely the least embittered TV programme ever about a different war....

  3. Hi there. One small correction is due here: the law in the UK and in the US is the same - copyright lasts 70 year post-mortem. The difference is that Frankau's writings were published in the US prior to all the legal changes that brought the US into line with the rest of the world, meaning they are currently in the public domain there.

    I throughly agree that the tendency nowadays to see all the front-line officers and men of the first world war as having the same attitudes as Sassoon/Owen/Graves (i.e., that the war was a collosal mistake, that there was no hatred of the Germans in the front lines but only of those to the rear) does require some correction. The record of Frankau (whose "The Guns" is a fine piece of work even if much of the rest makes hard reading) and others of the same mind is a healthy counter-point to this.

  4. Frankau's poem 'The Deserter' deserves to be better known.

    ‘I’m sorry I done it, Major.’
    We bandaged the livid face;
    And led him out, ere the sun rose,
    To die his death of disgrace.

    The bolt-heads locked to the cartridge;
    The rifles steadied to rest,
    As cold stock nestled at colder cheek
    And foresight lined on the breast.

    ‘Fire!’ called the Sergeant-Major.
    The muzzles flamed as he spoke:
    And the shameless soul of a nameless man
    Went up in the cordite smoke.

  5. i don't know if his poems are very realistic. Battlefield 1 is much better being it was based off real events.

  6. He wrote 3 volumes of war-time poetry, not two. You forgot his 1918 volume 'The Judgement of Valhalla'.