1/18/12 - a.a. milne, winnie-the-pooh, and the great war

In today's excerpt - when World War I began, many British felt it would be good for the moral character of the nation—an antidote for a country where "the lower classes seem to have no discipline." There were hours and days of singing and rejoicing in the streets. Among those who were not enthused was a young Cambridge-educated man named A.A. Milne, an editor of Punch and later the author of Winnie-the-Pooh. He nonetheless volunteered and served in the trenches of France. Europe suffered ten million deaths during that war, and Winnie-the-Pooh was written in the bitter aftermath:

"A.A. (Alan) Milne says in his autobiography that he would have liked to ignore the four years he spent in the army. 'I should like to put asterisks here, and then write 'It was in 1919 that I found myself once again a civilian.' For it makes me almost physically sick to think of that nightmare of mental and moral degradation, the war.' But of course the war cannot be ignored. In 1914, no one (reader, writer, or hero) can ignore history.

"Alan Milne overheard hideous talk in the smoking-rooms of golf clubs and recorded it in the issue of Punch that came out the day after war was declared. 'What England wants,' someone said, leaning back and puffing at his cigar—he was, of course, himself well past military age—'What England wants is a war. (Another whisky and soda, waiter.) We're getting flabby. All this pampering of the poor is playing the very deuce with the country. A bit of a scrap with a foreign power would do us all the good in the world.' He disposed of his whisky at a draught.'We're flabby,' he repeated.'The lower classes seem to have no discipline nowadays. We want a war to brace us up.'

"It is difficult for us to understand, after all the killing of one Archduke had led to the deaths 'of ten million men who were not archdukes', just how widely the war was welcomed in 1914. The newspapers carried pictures of grinning young men, rejoicing and waving their hats on their way to the recruiting offices. Asquith, the Prime Minister, wrote to Venetia Stanley: 'The streets are full of cheering crowds,' and the Commons applauded his announcement of the ultimatum, although the Kaiser had already described the treaty respecting Belgian neutrality as a mere scrap of paper. The Times reported that, outside Buckingham Palace,'for more than four hours the singing and cheering of the crowd was maintained without a break.'

" 'How glorious is the complete unity of the nation,'wrote (Alan's wife) Daphne's aunt, Anne de Selincourt, on 19 August. 'So many of the finest types in Britain one feels are meant for a crisis like this. Liege will go down in history like the Seven against Thebes or the Pass of Thermopylae, won't it? 'Two years later, when Alan Milne was himself on the Somme, she would write sadly from a hospital in France, where she was working for the American Red Cross: 'One really begins to feel that every young creature one has ever heard of is going to be killed.'

" 'War,' Milne had often said, 'is the most babyish and laughably idiotic thing that this poor world has evolved.' But now that England was actually at war, and there was nothing laughable about it (he could also see clearly, as so few people could at the beginning, that there was nothing glorious about it either), Milne felt he had to do something. As soon as war was inevitable, he had written to Edward Marsh, begging him to find him some work in the Admiralty."


Ann Thwaite


A.A. Milne, His Life




Copyright 1990, 1992, 2006 by Ann Thwaite


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