As a child grow-ing up in Ottawa, each Nov 11 I went downtown to the War Memorial to watch the ceremonies commemorating those who had lost their lives. An integral part was the proud march of the veterans of the first and second world wars. This past year, I went down again after many years of not doing so. The number of veterans of the Great War, as it used to be called, was very few.
My participation this year coincided with my viewing of a British film, Regeneration, which was based on a novel of the same name by the UK author Pat Barker. Her book is part of a trilogy she had written on the men shell-shocked by the war, some who became opposed to the horrific slaughter they experienced first-hand. Although Barker is a heterosexual woman, homosexuality is a recurring theme in the books. The third novel in the series, The Ghost Road, went on to win the prestigious Booker Award in 1995.
As a gay person growing up in the post-WWII period I have read many accounts of gays and lesbians who fought in that war. These stories speak of the freedom they felt in leaving their family homes in middle and rural America to live and fight among like-minded men and women. After the war, many survivors chose not to return to their places of birth but to flock to urban centres in order to continue exploring their sexuality freely. While many historians of my own age cite the riots of Stonewall as the impetus behind the gay revolution, others note that it was the returning soldiers 20 years earlier who actually laid the foundation for the movement.
What then was the reality for those of the homogenic persuasion during the Great War? This is one of the things that makes Barker’s novels so compelling. They take place during a period in Britain still reeling from the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde. For most gay men of that time, their relations required subterfuge due to the threat of imprisonment. And yet the war, which in its beginning based military ranking on social class, in the end broke down such distinctions. The hostilities dragged on longer than expected. The need for soldiers became critical. Those with the right combination of skills – a degree of education, ability to lead and to motivate – were moved into the officer class.
One of these people was Wilfred Owen, the renowned war poet. Having been fascinated by his portrait in Barker’s novel, I read a biography of him by the author Dominic Hibberd. Tracing the sexual orientation of Owen was a challenge. Hibberd’s biography was the first to do so. Owen’s younger brother, Harold, who had access to Owen’s papers after his death in the final days of the war, had deleted many sentences, ripped out whole pages in fear that his brother’s homosexuality would be noted. In addition, Owen’s poetry is anti-war. In the period of British jingoism following the war, Harold felt this would bring further disgrace upon the Owen family.
Reading Owen’s poetry you cannot help but recognize his burgeoning homosexuality. Initially, he buried it by making classical allusions to male beauty, strength and collegiality. But after meeting Siegfried Sassoon, an established gay poet with whom he fell in love, the homosexual context of Owen’s poetry becomes less inferred. Sassoon, who was from a well-to-do family, had written an anti-war declaration despite his stellar military record. His act inspired and infused Owen’s writings. Oddly, while Sassoon’s poetry was heralded in his day, he is largely forgotten today. Owen, who wrote brilliantly but briefly before his death, is the writer people still read. It was as if the male comradeship provided to him by the war brought everything into focus in his life and in his writing. Sassoon also gave Owen a letter of introduction to the gay London cultural elite, who in turn assisted and helped him, not only in terms of his writing but also in coming to terms with his own sexuality.
Both Owen and Sassoon appear as characters in Barker’s trilogy. As I read the biography and then the remaining two novels, I kept wondering about the lives and loves of our soldiers on the European front lines. While Barker’s novels are wonderful reads, they are fiction. Where can one find the true tales of sexual awakening, rejection and the return that must have comprised the lives of some of the Canadian men in that period? The few remaining survivors of the Great War are all centenarians. These stories of their compatriots are lost to us. Perhaps there are letters. But have these suffered the same fate as Owen’s jottings – censored by mothers, fathers or brothers? Were they even written? Fears of reprisal and shame are powerful inhibitors for those that must live under a reign of recrimination and reprisal.