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Montague, Charles Edward

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Charles Edward Montague, (1 January 1867 – 28 May 1928), was an English journalist, known also as a writer of novels and essays.  He fought in the First World War, but as a result of this became an ardent pacifist and critic of wars and the way they were fought.  And his writing is extremely graphic and strong in its depiction of the horrors:

Many of our dead on ridge. More Germans in sunken lane under trees. Millions of flies black on them. Blackened faces. Open eyes staring up at the sky as if asking whether there is any god anywhere.

Montague worked for the Manchester Guardian and after the war he returned to the Manchester Guardian and stayed there until he retired in 1925. He wrote several books including the novels A Hind Let Loose [a light hearted satirical fantasy of journalistic life] and Rough Justice (1926), Right Off the Map (1927), and Action (1927).  Montague became well known for his vigorous leading articles partly collected in Dramatic Values (1911).
Among his other works are two works based on his experiences in World War I—Disenchantment (1922), an essay drawn from wartime diaries and articles that expresses the bitterness of the survivors, and Fiery Particles (1923), comic and tragic stories of life in the trenches.

From Disenchantment (1922)

 

The freedom of Europe, The war to end war, The overthrow of militarism, The cause of civilization - most people believe so little now in anything or anyone that they would find it hard to understand the simplicity and intensity of faith with which these phrases were once taken among our troops, or the certitude felt by hundreds of thousands of men who are now dead that if they were killed their monument would be a new Europe not soured or soiled with the hates and greeds of the old. So we had failed - had won the fight and lost the prize; the garland of war was withered before it was gained. The lost years, the broken youth, the dead friends, the women's overshadowed lives at home, the agony and bloody sweat - all had gone to darken the stains which most of us had thought to scour out of the world that our children would live in. Many men felt, and said to each other, that they had been fooled.

 

During the war, he blew himself up “I had the rotten luck to be blown up while instructing our Grenade company in bombing; and a month in hospital, spent in growing a nice new skin...”  The details are very sketchy, but it appears that the morphine he was given had quite an effect on him.

We could find no written records of any of the more extreme spiritual experiences, such as OBEs, but something happened and he clearly knew what inspiration can be like when it really comes in an unsolicited way.  We are still wondering whether this was an OBE...

In Hospital

We from the sunless, airless trench,
The mud, the muddy bread, the stench,
Of No Man's Land, where English, French,
And Germans rest,

Came on an English April day
Through sun-filled railway-cuttings, gay
With English primroses, away
Into the West,

And found ourselves with Plymouth Sound
Beneath us, and Drake's bowling-ground
Above; and from the heights around
The bay there came

The boom of English guns, the call
Of English bugles. Best of all,
In this kind Devon hospital,
The old, the same

Strong gentleness of nursing eyes
And mothering hearts, and hands that bring
Health radiant as an English spring
To wounded, sick, and suffering.

29-April-1916

Life

Charles Edward Montague, the son of Francis Montague and Rosa McCabe was born on the 1st January, 1867. His father had been a Catholic Irish priest but after falling in love with his future wife, the daughter of a successful merchant from Drogheda, Ireland, he left the Church and in 1863 moved to England. Charles was educated at the City of London School and Balliol College, Oxford.  At Oxford he gained a First in Classical Moderations (1887) and a Second in Literae Humaniores (1889).

.....presently an undertone, a waft of the still, sad music of humanity, makes itself heard. Charity is humming softly at her ancient tasks. ...

 

While at university Montague wrote several literary reviews for the Manchester Guardian. In February, 1890, the editor, C. P. Scott, invited him to Manchester him a month's trial. Scott was impressed by Montague and soon gave him a full-time post.

Montague shared Scott's political views and together they turned the Manchester Guardian into a campaigning newspaper. They both believed that the main tenet was "to bring all political action to the same tests as personal conduct". This led the men to oppose the Boer War. Montague also wrote about the theatre and by the early 1900s was acknowledged as one of Britain's leading drama critics.

C. P. Montague eventually became assistant editor and played an important role in the development of the newspaper when C. P. Scott was a member of the House of Commons between 1895 and 1906. The bond between the two men was reinforced in 1898 by Montague marrying the editor's only daughter, Madeline Scott, at the Unitarian Chapel in Manchester.

Like C. P. Scott, Montague argued in the summer of 1914 against Britain becoming involved in a war with Germany. However, once war had been declared, Montague believed that it was important to give full support to the British government in its attempts to achieve victory. “war is a thing first to be avoided by every honorable means and then to be won by every honorable means”. Montague wrote to Scott:

 

I have felt for some time, and especially since I have been writing leaders urging people to enlist, a strong wish to do the same myself. I wrote last week to the War Office to ask if there was any chance of getting over the difficulty of my few years over the limit of age, and I was told that although the War Office could not directly break the rule itself, it did not veto exceptions made by those responsible for the raising of new battalions locally.

Although forty-seven with a wife and seven children, Montague volunteered to join the British Army. Grey since his early twenties, Montague dyed his hair in an attempt to persuade the army to take him. H. W. Nevinson would later write that "Montague is the only man I know whose white hair in a single night turned dark through courage."   On 23rd December, 1914, the Royal Fusiliers accepted him and he joined the Sportsman's Battalion.

After receiving military training at Climpson Camp in Nottingham, Montague went to France in November, 1915. The following month he wrote to Francis Dodd:

 

The one thing of which no description given in England any true measure is the universal, ubiquitous muckiness of the whole front. One could hardly have imagined anybody as muddy as everybody is. The rats are pretty well unimaginable too, and, wherever you are, if you have any grub about you that they like, they eat straight through your clothes or haversack to get at it as soon as you are asleep. I had some crumbs of army biscuit in a little calico bag in a greatcoat pocket, and when I awoke they had eaten a big hole through the coat from outside and pulled the bag through it, as if they thought the bag would be useful to carry away the stuff in. But they don't actually try to eat live humans.

When he arrived at the Western Front, his commanding officer questioned the wisdom of having a man in his late forties in the trenches. Montague was sent before the Medical Board and had to wait until the end of January, 1916, before being allowed to return to the trenches. However, three months later, a new ruling banned all men over forty-four from trench work.  The journalist, Philip Gibbs, later recalled:

Prematurely white-haired, he had dyed it when the war began and had enlisted in the ranks. He became a sergeant and then was dragged out of his battalion, made a captain, and appointed as censor to our little group. Extremely courteous, abominably brave - he liked being under shell fire - and a ready smile in his very blue eyes, he seemed unguarded and open. Once he told me that he had declared a kind of moratorium on Christian ethics during the war. It was impossible, he said, to reconcile war with the Christian ideal, but it was necessary to get on with its killing. One could get back to first principles afterwards, and resume one's ideals when the job had been done.

 

Montague was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and transferred to Military Intelligence. For the next two years he had the task of writing propaganda for the British Army and censoring articles written by the five authorized English journalists on the Western Front (Perry Robinson, Philip Gibbs, Percival Phillips, Herbert Russell and Bleach Thomas). He also took important visitors for tours of the trenches. This included David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells.

Montague became disillusioned with the First World War. He wrote in his diary in December 1917:

To take part in war cannot, I think, be squared with Christianity. So far the Quakers are right. But I am more sure of my duty of trying to win the war than I am that Christ was right in every part of all that he said, though no one has ever said so much that was right as he did. Therefore I will try, as far as my part goes, to win the war, not pretending meanwhile that I am obeying Christ, and after the war I will try harder than I did before to obey him in all the things in which I am sure he was right. Meanwhile may God give me credit for not seeking to be deceived.

George Bernard Shaw was one of those who Montague took for a tour of the frontline trenches:

 

At the chateau where the Army entertained the rather mixed lot who were classified as Distinguished Visitors, I met Montague. Finding him just the sort of man I like and get on with, I was glad to learn that he was to be my leader on my excursions. The standing joke about Montague was his craze for being under fire, and his tendency to lead the distinguished visitors, who did not necessarily share this taste into warm corners. Like most standing jokes it was inaccurate, but had something in it.... Both of us felt that, being there, we were wasting our time when we were not within range of the guns. We had come to the theatre to see the play, not to enjoy the intervals between the acts like fashionable people at the opera.

After the war, he returned to the Guardian, but felt that his role was diminishing as the years passed. He finally retired in 1925, and settled down to become a full-time writer in the last years of his life.

 

Disenchantment (1922), a collection of newspaper articles about the war, was one of the first prose works to strongly criticise the way the war was fought, and is a pivotal text in the development of literature about the First World War. Disenchantment criticised the British Press' coverage of the war and the conduct of the British generals. Montague accused the latter of being influenced by the "public school ethos" which he condemned as a "gallant robust contempt for "swats" and for all who invented new means to new ends and who trained and used their brains with a will".

Montague was the father of Evelyn Aubrey Montague, the Olympic athlete and journalist depicted in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire.  Charles Edward Montague died of 28th May, 1928 aged 61.

Charles Montague, Disenchantment(1922)

Soldiers have endless occasions for talk. Being seldom alone, and having to hold their tongues sometimes, they talk all the time with that they can. And most of their talk was sour and scornful.

Most of the N.C.O.'s and men in the field had come to feel that it was left to them and to the soundest regimental officers to pull the foundered rulers of England and heads of the army through the scrape. They assumed now that while they were doing this job they must expect to be crawled upon by all the vermin bred in the dark places of a rich country vulgarly governed.

They were well on their guard by this time against expressing any thoroughgoing faith in anything or anybody, or incurring any suspicion of dreaming that such a faith was likely to animate others; a man was a fool if he imagined that anyone set over him was not looking after number one; the patriotism of the press was bunkum, screening all sorts of queer games; the eloquence of patriotic orators was just a smoke barrage to cover their little manoeuvres against one another.

The lions felt they had found out the asses. They would not try to throw off the lead of the asses just then; you cannot reorganize a fire-brigade in the midst of a fire. They had to wait.

 

References

  • Dramatic Values (1911), reviews
  • The Morning's War (1913), a novel
  • Disenchantment (1922), essays [thoughts on the First World War]
  • Fiery Particles (1923), short stories
  • A Hind Let Loose (1924), a novel
  • The Right Place (1924), travel writing
  • Rough Justice (1926), a novel
  • Right off the Map (1927), a science fiction novel
  • Action (1928), short stories
  • A Writer's Notes on His Trade (1930)
  • "Two or Three Witnesses", a short story

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