On “The Secret Battle”: An Interview with Editor Austin Riede

[Jillian Murphy]    We’re here to discuss The Secret Battle, which you’re the head editor of, but not the original writer, because when was it first written?

 [Austin Riede]       It was written in 1919. First published in 1919, right after A. P. Herbert finished with the war. When the war had finally ended, he describes writing it sort of on a whim, sitting down one day and thinking that he should get out this story that was bothering him. So, it was first published in 1919.

[JM]     Which is why one of the reasons we wanted to start doing World War I novels was because of the 100-year anniversary of the war. How did you first encounter The Secret Battle?

[AR]     Well, I knew about the book because when I was in graduate school, I was doing research on World War I literature, and there is so much literature that deals with shell shock. I hadn’t really known TSB to be explicitly about shell shock at that point—which it actually is not explicitly about shell shock, but I’ll come back to that later. I just didn’t have room for it in my dissertation, so I put it aside as something I would come back to later. I’m really glad I got a chance to do that here. Because in the part of my disseration, which was not all about shell shock, but the chapter that was, I was focusing on a couple of better known novels—Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, the later which was written before The Secret Battle and is one of the earliest novels still a part of the Great War literature canon that deals with shell shock early on, though in a very different way. So basically, I didn’t have room for it then, but I’m really glad I got to revisit it for this project.

[JM]     So it’s kind of an old interest you’ve been able to come back to and explore.

[AR]     Well, yeah, I hadn’t actually done that much research into it in the past. I just knew it was sort of out there, as this book that was sort of on the margins of the canon of Great War literature.

[JM]     Why is the presence of shell shock so significant to the novel, even though it is not the primary focus?

[AR]     I think because, when Herbert is writing, people still don’t understand shell shock, and Herbert himself doesn’t fully, and nobody really does. Shell shock was such a confusing phenomenon for the army of the Great War because British men do not have hysterical break downs. This is a given. British men are stoic and they keep a stiff upper lip and they will see it through no matter what. During the war, you have these phenomena of these men being unable to move, paralyzed, being mute, unable to speak, and no one can understand why this it. It does not seem possible to them, because it is a mental problem. This can’t be hysteria, because hysteria is understood to be a distinctly female problem, with the root of the word actually being the Latin word for uterus.

So what is this problem? Why are these men breaking down in this way? This can’t be psychological, it must be a physical problem brought on by the explosion of a shell in close proximity that physically damages the brain in some way. This is not really what it is. It’s mental break down after either an extremely traumatic event or prolonged mental and psychical pain on the body. And no one can understand it that way because British men ideologically, culturally, they don’t do that. Obviously, they do. Anybody will break down under the right circumstances. It was very confusing. Even after the war was over, it was confusing. It was also understood to be possibly a fraud. It was understood to be malingering, pretending to be ill when you were not actually ill. But the phenomenon was so wide-spread that Herbert’s novel is one of the first to try and understand what is going on with this problem, which is at the heart of the novel. But it really comes into the public consciousness, much more when the parliament does a full-fledged big inquiry into shell shock, which is published in 1922. They interviewed medical doctors, psychologists, all kinds of people to try and determine what is at the root of this pervasive problem throughout the army. It’s during that time that Virginia Woolf is reading this as she’s writing her novel Mrs. Dalloway which features a shell shocked character. It takes several years for the phenomena to begin to be understood with a little more sympathy, begin to be understood really at all. People were still trying to figure it out as it unfolded, beginning largely in the later years of the war, but by 1916 when the war has turned into just a massive, industrial scale slaughter of people. The break down was everywhere. It was all over.

[JM]     What was it about the early 1920s that prompted parliament to start this inquiry? Was it just because it was so pervasive among the community, as you said, or was there something more?

[AR]     I think that Herbert’s novel gets to this idea that, possibly, an injustice has been done to men who were punished for actions that were not really in their control. The member of parliament who proposed this said it was because there was a possible problem of a real injustice being done. We know that we don’t punish people who are suffering mental break down in the same way. There’s what we understand now to be a legitimate medical reason for the actions of men—which was just not comprehensible to the people at the time. And it wasn’t really possible to analyze the situation in as much detail while the war was going on, because, obviously, people were preoccupied with the war itself. And also because trauma is often delayed. Trauma often doesn’t surface until later. A lot of men who thought they got through it were coming home from the war and were not able to adjust back to civilian life. It was very common, and we saw this often. In the United States, we’ve seen this repeatedly, with Vietnam and also with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as a major problem right now.

[JM]     Do you believe the effects of World War I as such a grand war and as an industrial occurrence, as you said, influenced how severe the shell shock and PTSD were for these people, verses wars that had been fought before that?

[AR]     Yes, I think so. I think the nature of the war—the scale was grander, and the weaponry was more . . . advanced. I don’t really like that word, but it was. The armies involved in the Great War had gotten better and better, scientifically, in an industrial way of creating things that could take apart the human body. Machine guns, obviously, the tank.

[JM]     Non-natural means.

[AR]     Yeah. In wars previously, a battle—well, as the weaponry became mechanized, they got a lot worse. And poison gas, and just the conditions that went on. It was just static for stretches of long time. The men that went to World War I, who eagerly went to the recruiting stations on August 4, of 1914, were expecting a grand adventure. And the discourse in journalism around that time was about how this was going to be a grand European adventure. It was also expected in August of 1914 that it would be over by Christmas. Nobody really foresaw how the war would unfold, so their experience was very different.

They envisioned themselves striding across the battle field, to meet the foe on the field of battle as noble warriors, and they ended up sitting in a muddy ditch for four years, just trying to maintain this trench. It was actually quite the opposite [of what they expected]. There’s a book by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar called The Madwoman in the Attic and a sequel called Sex Changes, and they talk about how the war transformed the places of the sexes.

For women, it was liberating. Women could become nurses and travel all over Europe. They would go into factories. They could go into universities, because the men were not there to go. It entailed a lot of movement for women, whereas it entailed the opposite for men. Being stuck in one place, and it’s very domestic, in a strange way. Trench warfare became very domestic. The officers became very concerned with overseeing getting nice socks for 300 men and making sure the meals were being brought in and prepared. The men were busy maintaining whatever they had built up in the trench—which of course was being destroyed by the enemy. It was a real reversal of roles and very much the opposite of what was expected. Part of the strain of shell shock was being actually incapacitated—not being able to move, not being able to do anything, being stuck in one place. Many people have described war, and this war has been described, I’m not sure who by, as long periods of horrible boredom punctuated by moments of extraordinary terror.

[JM]     How was the public reaction to The Secret Battle?

[AR]     That’s a good question. I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t a gigantic hit when it came out. And it came out in the context of a ton of war books. Some more and less serious. Some still jingoistic. Some, like West’s The Return of the Soldier, already beginning to try and understand this.

I can say it did have a public effect because Winston Churchill read it. Churchill was probably partially inspired to read it because he was kind of the brains behind the Gallipoli Campaign, which is described in the book and which is one of the things that makes this book particularly interesting. Most of the war novels were set in northern France, and much of this one as well, but it begins with the Gallipoli Campaign, which Churchill planned and which ended up being a disaster. Of course, it’s well-known in Australia and New Zealand. It’s a real part of what consolidated their national identity, because the casualties were overwhelmingly from the ANZACs, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. But there were British there as well, and Herbert was one of them. Churchill read the novel, and Herbert heard later that Churchill was inspired by it and had done something to alter how court martials were carried out in the military. Here in this novel, we see a court martial, which is really a miscarriage of justice. It was described that way by the narrator, and Herbert saw it that way. It was a very unjust proceeding against Henry Penrose, the main character in the novel.

[JM]     How does your current research tie-in to The Secret Battle, or how does it relate to shell shock in America?

[AR]     I’m interested in how shell shock was understood in America at the time, because our involvement with the first World War was so different. Shell shock was obviously well-known all over Great Britain. France was suffering from a trauma that was beyond the trauma of the French soldiers. France was invaded, and that’s nationally traumatic. Similarly on the German side, there’s an immense deal of trauma in Germany. Russia had more casualties, I believe, than any other belligerent nation. All over Europe, Europe was destroyed, whereas America comes out really being the only power that can be said to have ‘won’ the first World War in any kind of practical way.

America comes out of the war rather on-top-of-the-world, having suffered not as long. We were only in the war for a year and a half. There was certainly extraordinary casualties. Shell shock isn’t the pervasive problem that it is in America, to today to an extent. Partially also, the United States was forewarned. We knew, having observed the war as it went on for three years, that the American military and medical establishments actually prepared for the fact that shell shock would be a problem. Which, of course, Great Britain could not have done. None of the European nations could have done that. Yet it does appear in American literature of the Great War.

If you think about how many gigantic literary figures of Great Britain were in the war. For us, the really big canonical figures of Modernism, a lot of them are involved in the periphery of the war. Hemingway was an ambulance driver, clearly, he saw some of it. E. E. Cummings was also an ambulance driver and was imprisoned, and that’s in his novel The Enormous Room, and Faulkner—we’re not entirely sure. He tried to join the Royal Air Force and may have exaggerated how much of the war he saw. Probably not as much as he sometimes claimed. They are also writing in the context of the war and they’re writing about the war, but how shell shock appears in those kinds of novels may be very different. And we don’t have at all the same body of trench poetry that emerged in Great Britain with authors like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Men who were there, more or less, for the duration and were able to write poetry describing the events. And some of the shell shock is embedded in that poetry by Owen and others.

I’m interested in the quality of how these different nations understand it, and I also think that the United States of America is rather enormous, compared to the European countries, where you would see on the streets of London or Berlin or Paris, you would see all these wounded veterans all over the place. It was more diffuse in the United States. You do get references to some mentally impaired veterans in a lot of novels. Interestingly also about the United States: This was one war where African Americans participated in large numbers, and you see references to shell shocked African American soldiers in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and later with Toni Morrison—because people are still writing about the war and writing about shell shock. Toni Morrison has a shell shocked character in her novel Sula, and even in Great Britain, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy from the 90’s explores how Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met when they were being treated for shell shock. So, this literature of shell shock is still very much alive. It’s not really limited to the novels that were produced by people who experienced the war directly—or even lived through it and did not participate in it. I’m interested in the different qualities of how shell shock is understood in these nations that experienced it so differently, but that both did experience it. That is what I’m trying to work out in an edited collection, which will be peer reviewed, coming out from the University of North Georgia Press, called Trans-Atlantic Shell Shock.

[JM]     What was your biggest challenge working on The Secret Battle and editing it?

[AR]     Well, with The Secret Battle, something I realized going through it is that Herbert was obviously writing for a contemporary audience. I don’t think he saw himself writing for posterity, so he didn’t feel the need to explain what some things were, because those things would have been very familiar to the British-reading public, just from the newspapers. You can see this in his descriptions of the landscape at Gallipoli, of his use of certain terms that would have been familiar to a British audience in 1919 because they’d been following the war in the papers, but these are terms that have gone out of the lexicon, and certainly for an American audience.

Part of it was that I had to look up a lot of things to make sure I had it exactly right. What he was referring to when he used certain war jargon or when he talked about the geography of the area. I think he naturally assumed his audience would be familiar with a lot of what he was writing about. But that’s the point of doing not just writing an introduction and editing it, but really, thoroughly annotating the novel. I had to ask myself many times whether or not a certain reference deserved or needed an annotation. If there was any doubt, I would rather give an annotation. For instance, at one point, he mentions the Haymarket in London. For someone who’s never been to London, they may not know that the Haymarket is not actually a market. You might envision a sort of open, farmer’s market sort of thing, but it’s not. It’s a wealthy district where there are a lot of theaters, not farm animals or anything like that. Stuff like that. An older reader, somebody experienced with war literature or someone from London would know that, but an American college student probably would not. Just deciding what should be annotated was part of it. What needed a footnote. Something that wasn’t so much a struggle as just questions I had to continuously ask myself.

[JM]     I completely understand that. When I had to copyedit The War in the Air I had that same issue, because I had to decide are we changing these spellings, are we keeping something consistent. What’s worth it to change or even what can we change?

[AR]     Well, I tend to feel like, though it’s an American press, I tend to want to keep the British spellings because it is British, and I know this has caused some problems in my class. I mentioned The Return of the Soldier earlier. It was published in Great Britain in 1918, but then published in American, and the American publishers changed a lot of things. The two novels, when I’ve taught it before, people will have different editions, so they’ll have different text. For instance, there’s a great moment where the narrator is describing the wife, whose husband is the soldier who will return, and it says she looks like a model, that you wouldn’t be surprised to see a large 7p next to her head, which means 7 pence, which would be the price of a magazine, so it looks like she would be on the cover of a magazine. In the American version, they changed that to 15 cents, but I think “Why would Rebecca West be describing it in those terms?” when she’s British.

[JM]     It doesn’t carry the same meaning behind it.

[AR]     Yes. The Secret Battle is a British text. Let’s let it be, in all its British-ness. On the other hand, I understand if people want to change things because it is an American press.

[JM]     That makes sense. It’s certainly a challenge with editing foreign texts. What, ultimately, is the “secret battle”? Is it just shell shock, or is it something more?

[AR]     The Secret Battle is a novel where the word “shell shock” only comes up once near the end, and it comes up as a question. The soldiers are debating. What the secret battle is, is what happens to Henry Penrose. The novel opens by the narrator saying that he wants to write down the account of Henry Penrose because the narrator feels that Penrose was not handled fairly. The secret battle is the narrator’s own battle to go on. To continue in the face of this really, horrible, denigrating experience of being in the war. That it’s a battle you have to fight internally with yourself, to make sure you go on, not give in to break down.

In the novel, Penrose is basically convicted of cowardice, of running away in the face of the enemy. The actual circumstances are not nearly so cut and dry. It also has to do with some older, career officers who have a grudge against him for one reason or another. The secret battle is his internal struggle to keep going during this war, and this is a secret battle that is not necessarily so secret because we know that you’re going to be fighting a major, internal battle when your command is to stand up and run towards the German machine guns that are firing at you. Every part of your instinct will tell you not to, yet you must overcome and get out of the trench and be torn apart by machinegun fire.

It’s obviously a difficult thing for these men to make up their minds to do, and yet they do it in huge numbers. We can consider that it’s part of military discipline or part of the idea that you’re trained as a soldier to do as you’re commanded, no matter what. That training is, in warfare, necessary and powerful. Penrose is struggling like everybody else is struggling, with the necessity of constantly putting himself in the kind of danger that our instinct tells us to avoid. There are cases of shell shock that involved paralysis, men could just not walk, and there was no spinal injury, though it was assumed that there must be some kind of physical injury if a man cannot walk. But I think a lot of it is that the body is taking over and preventing the man from doing something that he wants to do, but which is extraordinarily dangerous. It’s just putting yourself constantly in extreme danger.

And so Penrose is fighting that battle with himself, to keep himself under control, to keep himself in control of himself, and not to give in to panic, terror, what they call “thunk,” getting the wind up, there’s various slang for this in the novel. These two things are not recognized as being related or the same, this fear and shell shock as a mental disorder, but they exist on a kind of continuum. And over and over and over again in war literature, we see that the war experience changes the soldier, and that change can come out in various ways. But nobody wants to acknowledge that change. Often times a soldier himself does not want to. To admit to having shell shock would be shameful, to admit to having any mental problems as a result of combat would be shameful. And certainly civilians don’t want to see it. It’s embarrassing to civilians. It’s upsetting and embarrassing to the families of the soldiers, when they exhibit symptoms of irritation or whatever. So many stories are of men who become so used to life in northern France at the front lines, and they go back to London and they cannot relate in any way to what people in London are living through, or anywhere in England, and are so alienated. Other people also eventually tired of the war. They don’t want to hear about the only thing the soldier can think about, which is his experience in the war.

[JM]     It really emphasizes why this book and why reading and researching this is so critically important to that understanding. If you don’t look into and try to learn about it, it will just continue to be the way it still it. I think this book and your work on it is contributing to that in a positive way.

[AR]     Well, thank you.

[JM]     What is your favorite moment in the book?

[AR]     It’s hard to say a favorite moment. I think the structure of the book is interesting, because it goes from being a very active war story to basically being a courtroom drama. After Penrose is court martialed, the narrator describes it in great detail, and it becomes a little bit of a philosophical inquiry into the nature of bravery and cowardice. This is when one of the soldiers brings up the possibility that this could be shell shock, because Henry Penrose does not seem to be a cowardly person. In fact, he has done everything he can to overcome his natural disinclination to putting himself in harm’s way.

But as far as a favorite moment, in terms of writing and description, I really am happy that he describes what the Gallipoli Campaign was like, there and in-person. There are not many British war books that do that.  Herbert himself wrote, many years later, I believe in the 1960s, he went back and revisited The Secret Battle. He didn’t read the whole thing but he read over the parts set in Gallipoli and he said something like “I saw and I heard and I smelled it all over again” because his descriptions are so vivid about what the landing in Turkey was like. I really am glad that he, shortly after the war, was able to capture what the atmosphere was like at Gallipoli.

[JM]     Do you have any final statements or observations you’d like to share?

[AR]     The Secret Battle is a very important book. We need to understand PTSD. We need to understand the roots of it and the discourse of shell shock. We need to understand what it means, both for the soldier and for the veteran and the civilian, in their interactions at home. Shell shock obviously had a massive stigma against it. To say you were suffering from it was to virtually admit you were not manly. The term “shell shock” is very problematic, and it was recognized to be problematic from the beginning, because what it really is, is PTSD.

[JM]     Recognized from the beginning, as in when it was first diagnosed as a mental illness?

[AR]     Well, the fact that the name isn’t quite accurate, because the name implies something is wrong with the brain physically as a result of the shell exploding in close proximity. And it’s remarkable. There are really fascinating self-help books published after the war by soldiers who claimed they suffered from shell shock and that they’ve gotten over it, and some of them are just fascinating, the lengths they will go to to insist that there is nothing mentally wrong with them, and that there never was anything mentally wrong with them. That it is a physical disorder.

There’s one poignant book where the author is reenacting his trauma in writing it, and he says that if he stoops his head at a particular angle, then he’s okay because he is so insistent that it is physical. He says things like his brain must have been torn down from the back, so that if he rearranges the position of his head, he can realign his brain. Clearly the problem he’s suffering through is mental, but he won’t admit that. There is a real insistence that if something is wrong with a British soldier, it must be physical because, again, the ideology going into the war: British men do not suffer mental breakdown. If they do, there is something wrong with them and their masculinity. A lot of what World War I does—and I mentioned this with Gilbert and Gubar’s Sex Change—is it radically shakes up and changes a lot of assumptions about sex and gender.

The Secret Battle is a really early attempt to understand what is going on with somebody who loses their secret battle with stress, with trauma, with the situation that he’s in. In the United States right now, we need to do more to recognize the problem of PTSD because it gets a good amount of lip-service, but the problem still remains. The suicide rates of American veterans [at the time of this interview] are extraordinarily high, and that stigma is still there. I’ve seen that the stigma is still there when I mention PTSD, and I’ve seen (usually male) cadets snicker as if it’s an overblown thing or something that could never happen to them. Whereas, the writers of the Great War literature early on realized right after the war that it can and will happen to just about anybody under the right circumstances. There are not many human brains who are immune to really prolonged stress and anxiety and really horrifying and traumatic events. A lot of work has been done recently in de-stigmatizing PTSD, but I think we need more, and we need more patience with our veterans and understanding that all veterans have been through something horrifying. We can’t and shouldn’t expect them to be able to reintegrate into civilian life rather automatically. There should be more resources. And I know there are, and that’s good. There were not resources for the men coming back from World War I in the same way as there are now, but more recognition of the problem is important.

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