R H Mottram: The Spanish Farm Trilogy

May 20, 2019

51m2b9ula+L._AC_UL436_  I came across this in a second-hand bookshop last year; I’d never heard of it or the author; now that I’ve read it, I really am not sure what to make of it…

Let’s start with a summary: according to Wikipedia, R H Mottram wrote dozens of novels, all of which seem to have disappeared without trace. He served in the Great War, and published this trilogy in 1929, so ten years after, like a good deal of the literature from those days. The novels are linked by place: the Spanish Farm, which lies more or less on the Belgian/ French border, and a few miles behind the British front lines in Flanders, around Ypres. The first book describes events from the perspective of a young Flemish woman, a farmer’s daughter, showing how she struggles to survive when troops are constantly passing through, being billeted, demanding to be fed, and helping themselves to whatever they fancy. She helps her father to keep the farm running and is also determined to track down the son of the local baron who actually owns the land, with whom she had an affair before he went off to war. And she also has a brief relationship with a French-speaking British captain who is billeted at the farm.

The second volume looks at the war from the same place, but this time from the perspective of the British officer, Skene: we see his war experience as well as the relationship that develops with Madeleine, the farmer’s daughter. The third part is from the viewpoint of yet another British officer, this time a behind-the-lines one who is charged with trying to resolve a growing scandal which is creating tensions between the British and French: a British solder vandalised a wayside shrine on the farm’s property and in due military form there must be an identifiable culprit, an arrest, an investigation and the payment of compensation… in the middle of the war. A satire worthy of Evelyn Waugh…

A good deal of the trilogy is actually pretty dull – the writing is lacklustre, the use of language run-of-the-mill, and yet it also rings true as a document of the times which could only have been written by someone who had been there. There is the grimness of the border territory – which anyone who has passed through the area will recognise – and the struggles of ordinary people to get on with their lives, their business, their survival. And the central female character is particularly feisty and determined and usually gets her way – a very interesting creation by a male writer in the late 1920s. Her sexual freedom is quite convincingly depicted, too, and I found myself reminded of some of the strong women who populate various parts of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.

The portrayal of the British army officers is also very enlightening. We see how family, background, schooling and career paths were considered so important. Ridiculous amounts of time are spent in bureaucracy and infighting between various sections with different axes to grind; I did get the impression of everything being ultimately on so colossal a scale that nothing was ever going to work as intended, and that therefore the ordinary soldier was randomly disposable.

All novelists who have set stories during the Great War seem clear about the general incompetence of the higher levels of command, and also the utter futility of trench warfare, and Mottram is no exception. The experience of leave is generally portrayed as surreal, and men are glad to get back to the reality and camaraderie of the front, even though death stares them in the face: those at home just do not get it…

So Mottram was there and experienced it all, understood the total pointlessness of the war, and at times comes across as powerfully as Barker, Faulks and others. He doesn’t pass over shell-shock, either. Upon reflection, what shocked me most was the laconic nature of his presentation of warfare: no gross or gruesome details; insanity as routine and accepted as a side-effect of warfare.

And then there was the cynicism, the bureaucracy, the class divide, the casual racism of the logistics corps behind the lines, low-risk jobs and a cushy number generally: a whole class of officers totally divorced from the reality of the war itself.

I said at the start of this post I was unsure what I felt: ultimately it’s a useful read, interesting at times but not all the time, a book that complements other reading but probably isn’t necessary unless you’re after completeness.

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