Forgotten: R. H. Mottram

It’s become a historical trope, not to mention a clever marketing ploy, to use forgotten in book, article, blog and documentary titles, whether actually warranted or not (Google ‘forgotten history’). It’s catchy, pithy, and excites curiosity. In the case of Ralph Hale Mottram (1883-1971), one time Lord Mayor of Norwich, it’s actually deserved.

Even the First World War centenary was not enough to generate a buzz. No biography. No new editions of his wartime books. No conference in his name. Nope, nothing, other than a blog here, a laudatory newspaper piece there,[1] not a peep. Indeed if a quizzical look appears on your face; if your lips silently enunciate Ralph-Hale-Mot-tram under your breath, ‘Yes, I’ve heard that name before – but where?’; you’re surely in good company.

An employee of Gurney’s Bank (Barclays, from 1895), where several generations of Mottrams had made a living, young Ralph dabbled in poetry in the pre-1914 era. A bachelor, privately educated, fluently French (his mother insisted on schooling and vacations on the continent), and a congregant of the progressive Unitarian Octagon Chapel, Mottram was a fairly typical Kitchener volunteer, trading a reasonably comfortable existence for khaki in 1914.

Ypres

Posted to the 9th Norfolks, 6th Division, British Expeditionary Force (BEF), as a reinforcement subaltern in October 1915, Mottram was fortunate: he avoided the battalion’s bloodletting at the battle of Loos, a particularly awful and bloody fiasco even by particularly awful and bloody fiasco First World War standards.

Yet Mottram’s subsequent introduction to the trenches north-east of Ypres was hardly a party.

Besides being given responsibility for a length of trench, upon which, he was solemnly reminded, the defence of Ypres – indeed the entirety of the BEF’s position in Flanders – rested, there was the dreary Flemish winter; poor drainage; and the randomness of casualties caused by enemy artillery which always seemed to have the upper hand. (Which, given the meticulously sited superior German artillery positions enfilading the Ypres salient, it usually did.)

Older than his fellow officers, who were often barely out of their teens and more robust, Mottram, 32, physically broke down. Evacuated with a fever in November 1915, a convalescence in sunny Nice followed (fortuitously, it presented an opportunity to brush up on his French[2]).

But his return to the trenches in early 1916 did not last long.

Adam and Eve at Péronne (Art.IWM ART 2981) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20810

‘It’s a horrible business!’

Answering a call for French speaking officers in February 1916, Mottram reported to 6th Division HQ in Poperinghe. Briefly queried on his qualifications, he was handed a sheaf of blue forms and told to get on with it. His job? Divisional Claims Officer, responsible for adjusting civilian damage claims – dégâts, the ‘horrible business’ to which a 6th Division Q staff officer referred – lodged against the 6th and arranging for the rental of local land and buildings.[3]

Although he didn’t know how long the posting would last, his relief was palpable: ‘Next morning I started my new job in which French & business training are both useful. Please don’t imagine I am a “staff officer”, but I live with them, under a real roof, & shine my buttons, & wash my hands.’[4]

Norfolk Record Office, MOT 134 dated 22 February 1916

It was, to say the least, a remarkable turn of events, one that, given the life expectancy of junior officers – about six weeks – likely spared his life.

Coinciding with a mild stomach ulcer, Mottram experienced a cognitive ‘blank period’ when memory let him ‘down almost completely’ in August 1916. His luck continued to hold, however, and following hospitalization he joined the Claims Commission’s HQ in Boulogne, whereupon he was promoted to a full lieutenancy.[5]

Norfolk Record Office, MOT 134 dated 13 September 1916

Even if the hours were long on the coast, there were compensations: a Ł300 annual pay-packet, his own bedroom (‘sheets!’), regular meals, tennis, golf, bridge, drink, walks in the dunes, congenial companions, horses that needed exercising. He thought his life ‘a perfect Heaven on Earth’ – having experienced the trenches, the hyperbole is forgiven – and moreover the ‘surest way of obtaining regular leave out here.’ Most significantly, he never again served in the trenches, much less went over the top (though there were hairy moments during the April 1918 German Flanders offensive). Besides Boulogne, he spent lengthy spells in Doullens and Hazebrouck.[6]

Imaginings

When I began researching relations between British troops and local civilians on the Western Front, it became very clear, very quickly, what we already knew plenty about: the trenches, battle, command, the front.

And what we knew a lot less about?: what the troops did, with whom they came into contact, how they conducted themselves, when they were behind the lines, either as support or reserve troops, or at rest – a chunk of time that, though varying by sector and over time, amounted to about fifty per cent of total time on the Western Front.[7]

Enter Mottram.

A family man at the armistice – he was married Christmastime 1917, and returned to a wife and son in 1919 – Mottram rejoined the bank but pursued writing in his spare time. With a preface provided by John Galsworthy, a family friend, his first novel, The Spanish Farm, won the 1924 Hawthornden Prize. Sixty-Four! Ninety-Four! (1925) and the Crime at Vanderlynden’s (1926) followed. Published together as the Spanish Farm Trilogy (1927), Mottram finally left the bank, embarking, instead, on a literary career during which he published over 60 books.[8]

The late Hugh Cecil gently nudged me, then a doctoral student, towards Mottram’s Spanish Farm Trilogy. He was wise to do so. As Cecil observed in The Flower of Battle, Mottram was less interested in the trenches (the ‘moments of extreme danger’) than the much broader canvas of northern France and Flanders, thank goodness. It was here, after all, where the BEF’s lengthy lines of communication extended to the base ports and its crucial logistical business took place.[9] The army’s camps, shops, narrow-gauge railways, hospitals, billets, dumps, training facilities, remount depots, canteens, gardens, manoeuvre grounds, aerodromes, and sundry laundry, repair and refit infrastructure, inundated the area, as did, even more importantly, a vast, often put-upon native population, often farmers, small shopkeepers, day labourers, sometimes refugees, denuded of men of military age.

And this is Mottram’s point of departure. This was the fodder, the lived experience, the tableau, the perspective, that fuelled his war writing. There were resourceful Flemish peasants, recalcitrant French liaison officers, overwhelmed mayors and burgomasters, avaricious shop owners and estaminet keepers, and, caught in the middle, both cushion and sounding board, claims officers like Mottram. And this is what makes his Spanish Trilogy Farm so valuable, so unique, and at the same time probably accounts for it being, a century later, so ignored. Like a priceless antique in a recently redecorated living room, it just doesn’t fit in.

The Western Front’s Past and Present

Reviewing my NRO research from the summer of 2001 – that final, glorious summer before 9/11 – I’m reminded that I examined only a few of the 149 boxes comprising Mottram’s papers, mainly his wartime letters to his mother and fiancée, but still came away with several pages of notes, a few xeroxes, and a better understanding of his day to day life. Nothing earth-shattering, I’m afraid, yet still useful. If one thing does ring through, it is his devotion to and worry for his mother, who was widowed during the war. He is a good son.

Since Mottram’s interwar heyday when he was a best-selling and award-winning author; a sought after speaker; a Great War veteran of both local and national significance, his stock has fallen. To my mind, this has little to do with his relative merits – as a Great War writer and chronicler, his importance was reaffirmed during my recent pandemic re-reading[10] – and plenty to do with current trends.

Certainly the figures who dominate our understanding of the Western Front, who created the cultural edifice upon which our historical imaginations still rest – think Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Vera Brittain, Paul Nash, Edmund Blunden; their verse, their disillusionment, their pain, their trauma, their grief – won’t be unseated any time soon, least of all by Mrs. Mottram’s son, good though he was.

R. H. Mottram’s family headstone in the Rosary Cemetery, Norwich.

Lost and Found: A Place for Mottram

Whatever happens to Mottram’s legacy going forward will largely depend on the uses to which the papers held by the Norfolk Record Office, supplemented by his own published work and other archival holdings (a selection of his letters held at the University of Birmingham, for instance[11]), are put.

If a full biography is too daunting a prospect, a focused study of his wartime years and postwar fiction and wartime related writing, perhaps up to 1939, would be a good starting point. For anyone interested in the project, Hugh Cecil supplied more than enough justification a quarter century ago, concluding that ’No English author explored with more honesty and plain intelligence the tragedy of the Great War.’[12]

If it’s not yet patently obvious, I’m a card-carrying member of the R H Mottram Fan Club (the original and only current member), and with good reason: without Mottram’s writings; without his imaginings; without his invaluable tourist guidebooks to the world of behind the front – the people, land and mentalité – my own study may have been abandoned altogether.[13]

Some day, when the acrimony over Haig’s leadership and the memories of trench horrors dissipate, a less emotive, more evidence driven reassessment of the Western Front narrative will emerge, and Mottram’s relevance will manifest itself again.

I, for one, can hardly wait.

Written and researched by Craig Gibson.


[1] See Mark Connelly’s blog ‘The Spanish Farm Trilogy’, https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/gateways/2014/11/07/spanish-farm-trilogy/ [accessed 4 July 2020]; and Patrick Reardon’s ‘The underappreciation [sic] of R. H. Mottram’s World War I novels’, in the 10 December 2015 Chicago Tribune, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/ct-prj-rh-mottram-trilogy-20151210-story.html [accessed 4 July 2020].

[2] Norfolk Record Office, The Papers of R. H. Mottram [MOT], Box 134, Letters 22, 25 December 1915.

[3] See Mottram’s wartime account in R. H. Mottram, John Easton, Eric Partridge, Three Men’s War: The Personal Records of Active Service (New York and London, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1930), p. 81. His account is entitled ‘A Personal Record’, and later, republished, comprises much of R. H. Mottram, Through the Menin Gate (Chatto & Windus, 1932), which includes a dozen other, shorter, previously published essays and stories.

[4] MOT, Box 134, Letter 22 February 1916. The whereabouts and movements of the 9th Norfolks can be traced via its digitized War Diary. See The National Archives [TNA ] War Office [WO] 95/1623. Being an officer – other ranks were rarely mentioned by name – Mottram’s name crops up on several occasions.

[5] See Mottram, Three Men’s War, pp. 110-14.

[6] On his joining the Claims Commission in Bouglogne, see MOT, Box 134, Letters 8, 18, 30 August; 6, 13 September 1916, and from that point forward. The 30 August 1916 letter is incorrectly dated, ‘1915’.

[7] The overwhelming emphasis on the trenches and battle, at the expensive of time behind the front, I’ve dubbed trenchism.

[8] Ralph Hale Mottram, Spanish Farm Trilogy, 1914-1918 (Chatto & Windus, 1927).

[9] Hugh Cecil, The Flower of Battle: How Britain Wrote the Great War (South Royalton, VT, USA, 1996), pp. 107-34; originally published as The Flower of Battle: Britain Fiction Writers of the First World War (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1995), pp. 107-8. The main title is taken from a Mottram poem.

[10] Besides the Trilogy and other works cited in this blog, I tackled R. H. Mottram, Ten Years Ago: Armistice & Other Memories; Forming a Pendant to ‘The Spanish Farm Trilogy’, fwd. W. E. Bates (Chatto and Windus, 1928); idem, Journey to the Western Front: Twenty Years After (G. Bell & Sons, 1936); idem, The Window Seat: Or Life Observed (Hutchinson, 1954).

[11] See the R. H. Mottram Letters, 1928-1946, University of Birmingham.

[12] Cecil, Flower of Battle, p. 134.

[13] See Craig Gibson, Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914-1918 (CUP, 2014).

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