The First World War took a devastating toll on the Scottish population. Michael Brown states that “military identity, military tradition and military nationhood have been claimed as defining characteristics of Scotland and Scots” (2016, p. 50). Throughout the first years of the war, Scotland provided – and lost – a disproportionate number of men (Harvie, 1998, p. 24). During the Battle of Loos in late 1915, the majority of those fighting were Scots; there were more Scots present during this battle than at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Scotland has a strong military tradition, and at the outbreak of war in 1914, the Scottish nation returned to tales and myths of legendary Scottish battles, such as Bannockburn, to motivate and excite them at the prospect of combat. Plain writes that the ‘myth of national identity and martial prowess’ (2016, p. xiii) that was so prominent in Scotland’s culture was a driving force in pushing young Scotsmen to enlist. Scotland’s military tradition was recognised by other nations involved in the war, and T.M. Devine states that Scotsmen were seen as ‘excellent, aggressive shock troops who could be depended upon to lead the line in the first hours of battle’ (2012, p. 309). However, the unprecedented devastation caused by the world’s first mass mechanical war was unlike any battle any nation had ever witnessed. Myths of medieval soldiers engaging in hand-to-hand, face-to-face combat were far from the new, technological gas and machine gun combat that soldiers were thrust into during the Great War. Ideas about Scottish valour and hardiness were challenged by the unforeseen mechanical and inhumane destruction of this war.
In the post-war decade, many soldiers across many nations wrote about what they saw as the true brutalities of the First World War, opposing romanticised narratives of glorified soldiers and heroic battles. However, looking at several reviews of these novels, the potency of military folk myth and tradition in Scotland seems to have endured, with many reviewers denouncing gruesome, melancholic, and anti-heroic narratives about Scottish military identity. F.E Whitton, a reviewer for The Bookman in 1930, reviews H.D. Gauld’s memoir, Scotland Yet!, stating that there is ‘some fine writing in it, but there is a “Dismal Jimmy” air about the book’ (Whitton, 1930, p.358). The reviewer of Phillip Gosse’s Memoirs of a Camp Follower (1934) for the Aberdeen Press and Journal writes that Gosse ‘has written the first war book in which birds and little beasties are given more prominence than shells and strafes’ (1934, p. 2). Narratives that deviate from the brave and heroic Scottish military imagination are met unsuccessfully. Similarly, a reviewer of the Canadian author George Godwin’s Why Stay We Here? (1930) for The Aberdeen Press and Journal applauds the novel, stating it was ‘inspired by a realism which is not revolting’ (1930, p. 2). A.A. Hanbury Sparrow’s The Land Locked Lake (1932) is praised by a reviewer for The Montrose Review, who approves that ‘there are no squalid or dreadful tales of horror’ (1932, p. 7). Books that do not conform to the narrative during the War Books Boom of gruesome viscera are praised by Scottish reviewers, perhaps because they do not disturb the nation’s romanticised military tradition.
Although it is impossible to meaningfully establish what books sold better throughout Scotland during the War Books Boom, through looking at contemporary reviewers’ opinions, there is some indication that Scotland’s military cultural identity influenced receptions. Despite the horror and brutality of the mechanised combat in the Great War, images and memories of heroic medieval battles and courageous soldiers continued to influence Scotland’s collective cultural identity.
(edited by Andrew Frayn)
“Among the Books from Day to Day.” Aberdeen Press and Journal. 22 March 1934. 2.
“Among the Books from Day to Day.” Aberdeen Press and Journal. 28 February 1930. 2.
“Books to Read.” The Montrose Review. 25 November 1932. 7.
Brown, Michael (2016). “‘Men Brave And Strong’: Bannockburn, the Auld Alliance and Scottish Martial Identity in the Late Middle Ages.” In Scotland and the First World War: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Bannockburn, ed. by Gill Plain. Bucknell, PA: Bucknell University Press. 49-64.
Devine, T.M. (2012). The Scottish Nation: A Modern History. London: Penguin.
Harvie, Christopher (1998). No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Twentieth-Century Scotland. 3rd edn. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Whitton, F.E. (1930). “Five Books on the War.” The Bookman, 79.271 (December 1930). 223 <https://data.journalarchives.jisc.ac.uk/view?pubId=bp1000302143419301434_19301201_3089261pdf&terms=bloem%20whitton&tab=date> [accessed 25 November 2021].
Note on funding
This blog is part of a research project on The War Books Boom, 1928-30 led by Andrew Frayn. This was partly funded by Edinburgh Napier University, and funding for a cognate project came from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland. Beth Campbell’s work on this as an intern was funded by the Centre for Literature and Writing at ENU.
Project twitter account: https://twitter.com/warbooksboom