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The background


The essay as printed in Contemporary Review




Programme for the film preview of Oh! What a Lovely War


HW’s revised typescript review of Oh! What a Lovely War



Published in Contemporary Review, Vol. 218, No. 1265, June 1971, pp 303-313

Editor: Rosalind Wade (wife of Dr William Kean Seymour, who nominated HW for the Royal Society of Literature in 1954. The two men met through the West Country Writers Association.)





The background:


This important essay on Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig had a somewhat convoluted history. (Indeed, it has its origins by default in the First World War.) A short introductory passage about FM Earl Haig will put things into context.


Douglas Haig was born in Edinburgh in June 1861 to parents whose business was Haig & Haig Whisky Distillers. Haig was educated at Clifton College and Brasenose (Oxford University). He went on to Sandhurst (1884), passing out at the head of the merit list. In 1885, aged 24, he was commissioned into the 7th Hussars, and in due course saw active service in the Sudan in 1898, and the South African War, 1899–1902, with a subsequent rapid advancement in rank. He was appointed Commander, I Corps, British Expeditionary Force, in August 1914, Commander of the First Army at the end of December 1914 and, with the demotion of Field Marshal Sir John French, made Commander-in-Chief on 19 December 1915. After the war ended he returned home and was Commander Home Forces until that was abolished in 1920.


In recognition of his war service for the nation, he was created Earl Haig of Bemersyde in October 1919, with the subsidiary title of Viscount Dawyck.


Greatly concerned about the plight of ex-soldiers, in June 1921 Haig became the founder of the British Legion and devoted the rest of his life to its service. While working in London he died from a heart attack on 29 January 1928, aged 66 (not, as HW states in his essay, 58).


There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding Haig's leadership in the First World War – the Great War, as it was then called – with strongly held views both for and against. I think it has to be said that the man did the best he could in the circumstances in which he found himself – often with little support and even downright chicanery from those in Government. However, that does not concern this entry other than that, after some very early criticism of the 'Generals', HW came to understand the complexities of their work and was a strong champion of Haig himself.


Haig's son, George Alexander (1918–2009), only ten years old when his father died, became the second Earl of Bemersyde. He was an artist by profession, painting landscapes and nature. He served in the army in the Second World War and, after capture, was one of those imprisoned at Colditz. In the 1960s he and his family had a holiday cottage at the foot of the cliff at Pickwell, just below HW's Field at Ox's Cross, directly above Black Rock. The two men became friends, and there are several letters from Haig in HW's archive (now at Exeter University). As he always signed himself 'Dawyck' (the subsidiary title), I shall refer to him as Dawyck Haig to differentiate him from his father.


As a creative artist Dawyck appreciated HW for his creative literary work. In about 1993, he and I were in touch through a mutual friend, and he stated that he had read the Flax of Dream novels and Tarka while at Stowe (a public school), and that they had eased his homesickness for his beloved River Tweed (the Bemersyde estate is on the Tweed). This letter reinforces the thesis of HW as Romantic and the root of HW's creative imagination. Dawyck writes: ‘The mood of Romanticism was very much part of those early 1930 days and part of the ethos of 1914–18 under whose shadow I grew up.' Dawyck very much appreciated HW's championship of his father at a time when so many others criticised him. He also stated that he found HW a man of immense charm and kindness, and that he always enjoyed every moment he spent with him. He very kindly made copies of HW's letters to himself for the HW archive.


There is mention in HW's diary in the mid-1960s of having tea with the Haig family at Pickwell, and of inviting them back to Ox's Cross for tea. HW mentions Dawyck's young family, and various cousins who also holidayed there, as delightful. Dawyck's son Alexander, the present third Earl, was born in 1961, so was only six or seven years old at the time.


In September 1968 Dawyck Haig invited HW to Bemersyde to attend the unveiling of a memorial to his father: a 5.9 German howitzer presented originally to FM Earl Haig by the Army Council in recognition of the British capture of the Hindenburg Line in 1918. Now restored, the unveiling – on the 50th anniversary – was at the Infantry Depot at the Glencorse Barracks in Edinburgh.



fm 2 gun



HW travelled to Scotland by train on 28 September and was met by Dawyck and young Alexander, and was made very welcome at Bemersyde for the weekend. HW thoroughly enjoyed the visit, particularly being an 'old soldier'. On his return HW sent Dawyck a pair of sixteenth century fire-dogs from his hut as a thank-you. In his 1993 letter to me Dawyck said they were still used daily, even in mid-summer, in the drawing room fireplace: a lovely sharing of the warmth of 'ancient sunlight'.


At the end of March 1969 HW attended a preview of the film Oh! What a Lovely War as the press representative of the Daily Express for whom he had been asked to write a review for its general release the following week. Given a film programme when he arrived, HW scribbled notes of his reactions to the film on the back of it while watching (see Appendix for a reproduction of the programme, together with HW's notes).



fm prog1 small



Although there is no mention of it, the film was based on the stage musical of the same name produced by Joan Littlewood and her partner Gerry Raffles in March 1963 at Stratford East (London) Theatre Royal. That there is no public credit to that on the programme is rather shocking. The Littlewood version was dressed in costume of the Pierrot character from the Commedia D'el Arte style, but with war-time tin-hats, and had no actual killing (Joan Littlewood was against that); it was meant as a burlesque. Joan took her story line from The Long Long Trail by Charles Chilton and Alan Clark's The Donkeys. The actual title is from the First World War song Oh! It's a Lovely War by J. P. Long and Maurice Scott.


It is also noticeable that Len Deighton's name does not appear on the film credit list, although (as can be seen from HW's own contact with him – see below) it was his company that backed the film and he wrote the script – and was originally the producer. At some point there was evidently a major row and Deighton refused to have his name included on the credit list (though apparently he later regretted that!).


HW had had some contact with Len Deighton the previous year, and had told him that he could use information from his war volumes for background information and authentic scenes. HW noted Len Deighton's Brighton film office and personal phone numbers at the end of May 1968: at which time, when staying with us near Chichester (50 miles from Brighton), he went over to Brighton to watch the filming. Unfortunately he did not record any details about this in his diary, which tended to be about his emotional problems at this time. On his return, it was evident that his foray to the filming had not been very successful, and in the light of the above information about Deighton one can understand why. Apart from those tensions the film crew would have been very busy, and not really have had time to give HW any attention.


After the press preview the film was given major and favourable prominence in that weekend's Observer Colour Supplement (30 March 1969):



fm 4 observer



The cover is a still from a version of the final sequence, which ends in a helicopter shot which slowly pans out to reveal thousands of war graves. It is regarded as one of the most memorable moments of the film. According to Richard Attenborough, 16,000 white crosses had to be hammered into individually dug holes due to the hardness of the soil. In fact the shot of John Mills as Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig standing by the crosses was not used in the final cut; instead the sequence features, as a much more effective and poignant contrast, the women and girls of the archetypal Smith family in white summer dresses on the grass, their menfolk all dead in the war. It is interesting to note that at the press preview of the film it was the John Mills sequence that was shown, as the final paragraph from HW's essay, subsequently deleted at the proof stage, illustrates:



fm 5 finalpara



A few days after the preview HW (back in Devon) recorded in his diary:


Easter Sunday, 6 April 1969: I've been writing & recasting an article ordered by the Daily Express – my reactions to a film (which I saw in a preview at a Wardour St. theatre) Oh! What a Lovely War. It must go off today, it is wanted for next Tuesday's issue.


There would have been no post the following day being Easter Monday and a Bank Holiday so one can sense the panic in HW's diary entry:


Tuesday, 8 April: My article on Oh! What a Lovely War – written 4 times, taken to Barnstaple station & sent off on 8.55 train to Paddington … I telephoned Alan Smith of Features to this effect. They want it for tomorrow's paper … At 3 pm I telephoned. It had arrived.


Later 'Features' telephoned that it was being withheld for Derek Marks [the Editor] to read. Later, at 7 pm, I telephoned & was told not being used.


The heavily revised typescript of HW’s review is in the Appendix. (Of course, a ‘clean’ copy would have been sent to the Express.)


Wednesday, 9 April: Felt depressed that I'd failed to write a good essay on Lovely War. The D.E. today has a good & balanced review of the film – much superior to my own verbose extravaganza.



fm 6 printed review



The real problem was that HW's piece included too much about his own experience of the war, and was not really a review of the film itself. HW (as an old soldier who had taken part in the events portrayed, and as a supporter of FM Earl Haig) was somewhat incensed by the attitude portrayed, which came across in his review: so it may be that Derek Marks was worried about possible repercussions from advertisers against the newspaper. Certainly the lateness of the review’s arrival would also have been a contributory factor, as there would have been no time for the newspaper to ask for revisions, even if they had wanted them. HW asked for his typescript to be sent back: the accompanying letter was courteous – but formal rather than friendly.



fm 7 refusal






There is then a gap of several months before the next item in this mini-saga. We move to the beginning of 1970. On 5 January HW received the following telegram, which he pasted into his appointments diary:



fm 8 telegram



This had evidently been discussed previously: an introduction to be written by HW for a proposed book of Earl Haig's post-war speeches to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the British Legion (in June 1971). HW noted:


. . . a telegram from Dawyck Haig – will I meet [etc] & discuss the book on F.M. Haig. I'm supposed to introduce with 10-14,000 words - “all facts” says D.


He sent back a 'telegraph' to Dawyck agreeing to meet him in London on 24 January.


Then on 9 January HW noted: ‘I am to meet Dawyck Haig at 4.40 pm Charing X for Tunbridge Wells on Sat. 24 January to stay with Lord Cornwallis at Ashurst Park, Tunbridge Wells.’


At this time HW also had the proposed film The Vanishing Hedgerows already on his mind, ongoing articles for the Daily Express (a series of nature articles that was later collected in Days of Wonder, ed. John Gregory, HWS, 1987; e-book 2013), and was emotionally embroiled with 'Anna' ‒ Annabel Cash (his letters to her are held in the HWS Archive at Exeter University): all of which was preventing him from writing his latest book The Scandaroon. He was also revising The Gold Falcon (on which I was helping) for a proposed new edition to be published by Macdonald.


On 21 January 1970 Annabel Cash wrote to say she was actually in love with a young man of her own age. This came of course as a huge blow. On 22 HW travelled to London, and handed over the revised Gold Falcon to Macdonald. The next day he met with David Cobham discussing the early stages of The Vanishing Hedgerows film.


On the morning of the 24 January (Saturday) he met up accidentally with his friend Maurice Renshaw and 'his lovely' daughter Pixie, and Mary Hewitt and 'two beautiful girls' (one a writer with secretarial skills – HW was instantly interested!). The group had lunch together then, in due course, as planned, HW met up with Dawyck Haig and a priest (who was to edit the speeches etc.), who button-holed him with 'words, words, words, about the Haig speeches booklet'.


Met at Wells by chauffeur in Rover motor-car, & driven to Ashurst Park. Met Col. – who was 1st A.D.C. to Haig (F.M.). Drinks & confab in a little room with Col. Ld. Cornwallis, descendant of various soldiers & sailors in history.


Dined at Hever Castle, met charming chap Gavin Astor, son of Ld. Astor & husband of Lady Astor (daughter of F.M. Earl Haig). Splendid party. I played the part of 'hero' (?) of 1914-18.


Gavin Astor excellent man. Also his son, ex-3 years with Lifeguards. Back to Ashurst at 10.35 pm. Bed & whisky. I wonder where I am going. But have taken my place with these delightful people. . . . Strange to see one's rags – shirt, vest, dressing gown, all laid out for one.


(The discerning reader will note just a hint of nervousness there: HW was feeling out of his depth and worried about the impression he was making – shades of Newmarket in 1915!)


Discussion continued the following day, but HW reveals he was confused and frustrated by the others telling him their own ideas about what he, HW, should write, noting that Lord Cornwallis


is very good: he as a post-war ADC to Haig, writes a brief fore-word. The original idea was a 3/- booklet of 150 pp to be printed in Scotland & paid for by Dawyck (£800).


How distributed, I asked. From this, a book to be published by Macdonald arose, my piece to be 12-15000 words.


Undoubtedly the 'Macdonald' idea stemmed from HW, who was in constant touch with his publishers (currently The Gale of the World, The Scandaroon and the projected revised Gold Falcon); indeed he had visited two days previously! But all the discussion depressed him and he went to bed at 10.30 pm:


appalled by work ahead – I felt I'd fail – the Haig thing & The Vanishing Hedgerows etc.


Before he left, he was given a copy of the planned outline for the book:



fm 9 officialnotes


fm 9a officialnotes



HW returned to London Monday morning and, having been to Macdonald with the new proposal, travelled on back to Devon later in the week. In the file is a copy of a letter written by Dawyck Haig to Macdonald, dated 6 February 1970, basically suggesting that they publish the proposed book on his father; however it is a rambling six pages long and becomes increasingly unclear. Nevertheless, it does set out the plan. This is the first page of his letter, a carbon copy of which Dawyck sent to HW:



fm 10 letter Dawyck



Haig then goes into detail about how he envisages the book: that he has already approached an Edinburgh printer and would wish them to be given the job with breakdown of their costs, £974. Further that he, together with Dr Sawyer, editor as above, has asked Mr Henry Williamson to write about 10,000 words, and that HW had suggested approaching Macdonald and has already made a preliminary approach which has been accepted. All of which totally was unnecessarily long-winded! He goes on to give various suggestions for variations on the content of the book, and how he could distribute it via the British Legion and other ex-service organisations. He explains that he wants all profits to go to ex-service organisations, and points out both HW and Dr Sawyer (the priest editor) will give their services for free; and that Lord Cornwallis (explaining his connection as ADC to Earl Haig etc. at length) has written 'a very suitable and charming Foreword'. Haig plans to include a photograph of his father – and after further polite phrases signs himself formally: ‘Haig (Earl Haig of Bemersyde)’. It is, unfortunately, not a letter that would impress a busy publisher.


The carbon copy letter was included in a letter from Dawyck Haig to HW dated 7 February 1970, thanking HW for his (no doubt 'thank-you') letter and stating:


It's good of you to waste your time & talent on me. I began a speech last week in H. of Lords (on pollution) “Henry W'son has described the birth of a river as “the faint cry of a River new-born” . . .


[And then continues:] I think my father Never let up after the War, as well he might after his war-time ordeal but continued to march on working continually on behalf of the survivors & the dependants of those who fell. That is the Main Point of the Book.


He then gives some salient points on his father's life (for HW's guidance in writing the proposed introduction):


. . . Childhood spent in Fife – youngest son of a large family – with a very close relationship with his mother ('The Heraldic Heiress of the ancient family of ―— [unreadable] & Dawyck').


This all continues for ten pages in rather scrawling hand that is difficult to read; he ends by writing round the edges of the page that his father was:


a man of principles which were correct after careful thinking out. He was a mixture between abstract thinking and man of action.


He was a warm kind human father, very much a simple countryman – loved cutting trees & making a garden.


HW noted in his diary on 10 February that he had received the letter but he is disturbed about having to write to 'toe the Dawyck line'. After this he goes to London for the writing of the Vanishing Hedgerows treatment – where he was given a


large foolscap envelope with heavy data re Pollution, Conservation etc for the Film Treatment of “The Vanished Hedgerows”.


I was appalled; Haig and Hedgerows. Frantic, fearful, morbid. I simply can’t work for such Officialese Data Govt Department Prose.


On 12 March he recorded: 'Soon I'll be at end of Hedgerow & free to begin the Haig portrait.'


But the following day, 13 March:


Quite a shock by post today. Dawyck Haig writes a long, dashed-off letter with some astounding news. He has, unknown to me, been in contact with Macgibbon of Macdonald & Co, & fixed up that I do not write the proposed appreciation of Haig, but it will be done by John Terraine, biographer of Haig; and I am OUT. . . . [John Terraine, 1921–2003), a well-known military historian] After the usual courtesies, he comes to the point:


"I am afraid you will be very cross with me when I say that I have decided to ask John Terraine to carry out this task. He has been involved in my father's work for many years & knows the whole thing from A to Z. He has the advantage of being somewhat younger & therefore of not having any emotional involvement in the 1st War & therefore is acceptable as a non-partisan on 1st war matters."


The explanation continues in like manner. HW notes that he returned the copies of FM Earl Haig's speeches and had included a copy of the First World War series with his Christmas Truce article in it – so Dawyck would see that he could be objective! (This article appeared in Purnell’s weekly magazine History of the First World War, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1970, and is collected in Indian Summer Notebook, ed. John Gregory, HWS 2001; e-book 2013.)


Then, on 8 June, HW received a short typed and formal letter from Dawyck:


As you were kind enough to help over the proposed book about my father's speeches . . .


and enclosing a copy of his letter to the Secretary of the British Legion, which reveals that basically Macdonald (on the advice of John Terraine) has said that the book would not serve the purpose for which it was intended, and so it is being abandoned; 'but hoping something can be salvaged'perhaps an appropriate newspaper article to mark the occasion in due course.


That idea must have stayed in HW's mind, and we now see an example of his loyalty and tenacity. Unfortunately there is a hiatus in information but, in effect, we find in January 1971 that HW has decided to rewrite his Oh! What a Lovely War essay and, incorporating his ideas formed for the aborted Haig introduction, transform it into an essay on Field Marshal Haig. The following 'Notes' possibly belong at this point:



fm 11 HW Haig notes



His appointments diary for 8 January 1971 records: 'Writing Oh What a lovely War for Contemporary Review'; and, on 11 January: 'Finished 4th rewriting of Oh War. It is good.' This is the first page:



fm 12 HW ts



Main diary, 11 January: . . .At the moment I'm revising my (unprinted) remarks on Oh, What a lovely War, which the Express decided not to publish when the film opened, to success, in London. I shall have over 4000 words I think & wonder if this will be too long for The Contemporary Review, now edited by Bill Kean Seymour's wife, Rosalind Wade, novelist. Title: – Reflections on the Brighton Rubbish Dump.


These are the first and last pages of the draft:



fm 13 rev ts


fm 13a rev ts



On the reverse of this last page HW has written a further note regarding Haig:



fm 13b rev ts



The first page of another revised and tidier version:



fm 13c tidier version



On 12 January he was still revising it as he read it to his friends the M'Kinnels 'in their wee house, before the fire, in Appledore.' The next day he posted it off to a new typist living near Shaftesbury (a struggling writer friend of his daughter Margaret, who lived in same village).


14 January: I decided today – I write this in the hut at Ox's Cross at dimmit light – 5.55 pm – by the embered fire – to give a better title





fm 14 final version



The typescript is now 30 pages long.


On the 25 January HW travelled to stay with his daughter Margaret.


The TSS of 'Reflections on the death of a Field Marshal' was brought to the house by Mrs. Tom Eastwood. Magnificently typed!


At dinner with guests: 'I read my Reflections, & they liked it.’


HW continued on to London, and on 28 January handed over the typescript to Rosalind Wade:


in hall of Nat Lib Club [National Liberal Club] . . . I had intended to offer Reflections to a wider medium, Sunday Times or The Times, but had ½ promised to Rosalind Wade, & did so. . . .


(On the same page are: ‘Notes for Pigeon book, ‒ Vanishing Hedgerows, ‒ New Forest Child’: HW constantly moving on to the next project.)


However it is evident from the following letter, dated 19 February 1971, that he also offered the essay to the editor of the British Legion Journal. There is a copy of the January 1971 issue in the archive from which he would have got the necessary details.



fm 15 British Legion



But they turned it down:



fm 17 BL letter



The letter being addressed to HW at the National Liberal Club, he would not have received it when he wrote to Rosalind Wade as below. However, looking at the content and lay-out of the British Legion magazine, it is clear that HW's essay would not have been suitable: far too long and detailed. All the items in the magazine are 'officially' short and to the point, most reporting the various meetings of groups all around the country and news of old soldiers.


24 February 1971: Telephoned Rosalind Wade.


a) I have recast the Reflections on Death of F.M. & will send the revised copy as soon as possible: or take to London on Monday 1 March.


b) The British Legion Mag. will run article in July 1971 issue.


c) Please return the typescript of Reflections which you have.


d) I would like about 200 booklets printed out at my cost.


On 30 May 1971 HW was at Spode House on Cannock Chase at a meeting of the Aylesford Review group.


I read, at 5–5.30 pm, Reflections on the Death of a Field Marshal – to appear on 1 June in the Constituted Review [sic] . . . I don't recall whether or not I wrote in this journal that the British Legion bigwigs decided not to publish Reflections in the British Legion Magazine – apparently Dawyck Haig was for it but his oldest sister Alexandria dead against it.


(This reminds him of his own sister Kathy.)


In a letter from Rosalind Wade dated 30 May she states that their printer cannot undertake the printing of the proposed 200 offprint booklets of the essay, but offers alternative suggestions. HW noted on this: 'Replied 6 June 1971. Don't bother further.' One presumes he had decided not to proceed.


There is one last small detail to record which makes a very pleasant ending to this section. On 25 February 1972 HW visited Hartland Abbey, on the north coast of Devon, to visit the 'Parish Priest' about a reading he is to give during the Hartland Festival that August. At this point he plans to read the Francis Thompson essay on


Shelley, conjoined to my early experiences of reading F.T.'s poems in Flanders in 1917, which appeared in a limited £3/3/- booklet some years ago.


However at the actual event on 1 August 1972 HW, accompanied by his son Robert and Margot Renshaw ('Melissa' of the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight), instead read ‘Reflections on the Death of a Field Marshal’:


It was a pleasant occasion: the parish priest (late Commander R.N.) Lockyer is a recent & valued friend of mine. The audience was about 70% young people: the attention was 'rivetted': and the applause sincere – I enjoyed reading the essay: the fact that I wrote it was negligible: it was the Context that mattered: & it was true. Haig was an apt & balanced Commander-in-chief - & the disparaging verdicts of big people like the late Basil Liddell-Hart & the merchant entertainment types like the director of “Oh What a Lovely War”, were likewise unfactual.


The event was reported in the North Devon Journal:



fm 17 NDJ cutting






The essay:



fm cont cover




fm article1

fm article2

fm article3

fm article4

fm article5

fm article6

fm article7

fm article8

fm article9

fm article10

fm article11





A reproduction of the corrected proof copy of the above essay was printed in HWSJ 34, September 1998.







Go to Appendix:


Programme for the film preview of Oh! What a Lovely War


HW’s revised typescript review of Oh! What a Lovely War





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