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E. W. Hornung’s Unpublished “Diary,” the YMCA, and the Reading Soldier in the First World War
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On the afternoon of 2 September 1914 Charles Masterman, Liberal cabinet minister and newly installed head of the War Propaganda Bureau, convened a secret meeting at Wellington House, formerly headquarters of the National Health Insurance Company. Some of Britain’s most high-profile authors had been invited, and no fewer than twenty-five attended in person, each keen to contribute to the Allied propaganda offensive. At the conference table that afternoon were, among others, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Masefield, Thomas Hardy, and H. G. Wells. Rudyard Kipling sent his apologies but promised to help the Bureau in any way he could. Attendees at that first meeting, along with others recruited subsequently, would soon start to make determined writerly interventions on behalf of Britain’s war effort. Ford Madox Ford started writing When Blood Is Their Argument for Wellington House in September 1914. A second propaganda book, Between St. Dennis and St. George, followed in January 1915. Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes out of retirement to fight the Germans in “The Last Bow.” Both Kipling and Conan Doyle toured the front lines and wrote of their experiences in propagandistic form, Kipling as France at War (1915), Conan Doyle as A Visit to Three Fronts (1916). Writers associated with Wellington House would ultimately produce some of the most influential and widely read British books of the war: John Masefield’s Gallipoli, Arnold Bennett’s Over There: War Scenes on the Western Front, Ian Hay’s First Hundred Thousand (1916), and John Buchan’s Hannay thrillers.

The conflict did not necessarily loosen its grip on these authors even after the Armistice. For Kipling, the world after 1918 was, as he described it in one letter, “a land of ghosts.” After the loss of his son, John, at the Battle of Loos, Kipling spent years trying to find out what ultimately had happened to him. After the war, he devoted himself to writing a history of John Kipling’s regiment, the Irish Guards, and threw himself into work with the Imperial War Graves Commission. Conan Doyle would travel to other realms in search of his dead son, Kingsley, recording what he believed were spirit messages from him and other war casualties in Pheneas Speaks, issued by his own Psychic Press and Bookshop in 1927. Despite their passionate and enduring support for the Allied cause, both writers have, as Dorothea Flothow has written of Kipling, become “symbols” in popular memory of parental grief and the private tragedies of war. They have been incorporated into the postwar narrative of disillusionment, even though both maintained a strong belief in the war’s righteousness even after the deaths of their sons.

The speed with which Britain mobilized its publishing industry and popular writers for war illustrates the extent to which the First World War was a conflict about competing national cultures, fought with words as well as weapons. While the attempts of Kipling, Conan Doyle, and the other Wellington House authors to influence the war’s course by writing books are well known, the “self-mobilization” of Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, the crime novelist and short-story writer E. W. Hornung, is less famous. Born on 7 June 1866, a year later than Kipling, Ernest William Hornung’s life and career shadowed and intersected with those of his better-known associates in almost uncanny ways. Already a published novelist at twenty-six, Hornung met Conan Doyle’s younger sister, Constance, in 1892, and they were married a year later. He evidently made a good first impression. “I like young Willie Hornung very much,” Conan Doyle wrote to an aunt. “He is one of the sweetest-natured most delicate minded men I ever knew.” The couple’s only child, Arthur Oscar Hornung, was born on 24 March 1895. As the Hornung family regularly holidayed in the same Swiss skiing village as the Kiplings, Oscar, as he was known, and John Kipling grew up knowing each other well. Despite their age difference and the fact that they attended different public schools (Kipling, Wellington School; Hornung, Eton), by the time of the First World War, John Kipling regarded Oscar as his “closest friend.”

Between 1898 and 1905, Hornung...



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