West was born in Norfolk in 1891, but, by the age of 10, his family had moved to Highgate, north London. From 14, he boarded at Blundell’s School, Devon. In 1910, he won the school’s scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, and for several years immersed himself in classics and then literature. In 1915, he signed up for the Public Schools Battalion, was promoted to lance corporal, and soon saw war action in France. In 1916, he joined an officer training course in Scotland, before being made a second lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Although he was disillusioned with the idea of war, and was even considering becoming a conscientious objector, he went back to France, to the trenches, where he was killed by a sniper’s bullet on 3 April 1917. A few further details about his short life are available at Wikipedia, The War Poets Association, Lives of the First World War, or the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
Most of the biographical information about West, however, comes from the same source: a book published the year after his death which includes extracts from his diary, poetry, and an introduction. The Diary of a Dead Officer being the posthumous papers of Arthur Graeme West was edited by Cyril Joad, an Oxford colleague, as a work of pacifist propaganda. (Indeed, West is only remembered today because of the publication of this diary.) It was first produced in 1918 by the left-wing paper The Herald (and printed by Francis Meynell’s Pelican Press, which also published Siegfried Sassoon’s Protest). The following year, though, it was re-issued by the mainstream publisher George Allen & Unwin. Copies of this latter can be read freely at Internet Archive; and several pages can also be viewed online at the British Library website. More recently, the diary has been republished by the Imperial War Museum in 1991 and again by Greenhill Books (an imprint distributed by Pen & Sword Books) in 2007. See also Callum James’ blog.
According to the British Library, The Diary of a Dead Officer ‘is seen as one of the first realistic accounts of life in the army and the conditions in the trenches’. It charts, the BL says, the growing disillusionment of a British officer who enlisted out of a sense of duty and patriotism: ‘These principles soon changed to a growing sense of disenchantment as he experienced the reality of army life and the way the war was being conducted in France.’ The diary also contains poems ‘that are regarded as among the first realistic poems of the war’, such as The Night Patrol and God! How I Hate You, You Young Cheerful Men!
Here are several extracts from West’s diary.
13 May 19160
‘Early morning parade occurred with saluting with canes for an hour; various new stunts introduced. Speech by Company Sergeant-Major to the effect that if our kits, caps, and huts were not clean and correct we needn’t think we would go on leave, because we wouldn’t; we would stay and clean them.
Rifle inspection. Several men were had up for moving on parade, among them C_ for scratching his chin. They were brought up before Captain R_, who asked if they had any excuse. They hadn’t, and he told them about discipline, about disciplined troops always beating undisciplined, of how the new officers were all found totally unable to stand still on parade, how if they had been guardsmen they would be made to stand before a clock for an hour, that they had to stand still without moving an eyelash and were cursed for moving their eyes.
The C.O. inspected us in the huts with about ten people oozing after him. Cursed a few men for long hair or hat-band not properly white; no more said. Afterwards C.S.M. had us all on parade, said men were not to be on C. O.’s parade again with dirty boots, that overcoat buttons were to be clean, and all clean in respect of kit and equipment. Then he went on with a long rigmarole about men from Territorial Force units, and some formal filling up of papers. This lasted twenty minutes, during which time he had us at attention or at ease the whole time, never easy. Finally he did nothing with the B.E.F, men at all, and we need really never have been brought out there. The C.O. to-day ordered all the spittoons to be removed from the canteen because of the look they gave to the place; the canteen-man had paid eighteen shillings for them. We learnt about now that the Battalion being full the course would now start in earnest and we might look forward to another four months; we might really have been away all the time.’
18 May 1916
‘A hot day. We did fire-control all the time under the Adjutant, Brigade Officer, &c. One noted, first, their utter inability to teach us anything because there were too many superannuated old martinets trying to do it at the same time; secondly, the lack of doctrine among them all: even if they could have taught, they knew nothing. The way we were taught musketry was laughable. The whole Company was kept in close order, echeloned in half-companies at twenty paces, and moved up and down the field first in single rank, then in ordinary close formation, finally halted in echelon, and given fire-orders by the Platoon Commander and Sectional Commanders, with front rank kneeling, rear rank standing; the C.O. meanwhile stood in the background for a long time, checking people in a peevish ineffectual way for minor irrelevances. It was always the same thing with us; we had three men shouting at us at once when we were on parade, each one eager to outshine the others in his keenness in detecting faults and the strength and accuracy of his denunciation of the offender. It was always impossible to please them all, and when one had you alone he was sure to scold you for methods on which the others had been fondly insistent. Our instructors, and even our officers, were not above confessing that they didn’t know the drill which they were supposed to be there to teach us.’
9 July 1916
‘Went sick. Headache, &c. C.S.M. came in about seven and cursed me for still lying in bed, and went up and shouted at one man who had been in bed two days quite poorly. We were told to wake up, stir up; that he had to get up when he was ill. Did we think the doctor would come and see us there? He (C. S.M.) would go to the doctor as long as he could crawl to him. We were men now, not boys, and we must pull ourselves together; we should get up and begin to tidy up the hut. About twenty minutes after he came in and cursed us all again. After brekker the sick paraded, and G_ was badly scolded for having us there late. Then we were told that perhaps we didn’t know that days when we were sick were struck off our training and had to be completed at the end; perhaps if we had known that we should not have gone sick.’
8 August 1916
‘I now find myself disbelieving utterly in Christianity as a religion, or even in Christ as an actual figure. I seem to have lost in softness and become harder, more ferocious in nature, and in appearances certainly, by virtue of my moustache! So violently do I react against the conventional religion that once bound me - or if it did not bind me, at any rate loomed behind me - that I loathe and scorn all emotionalism and religious feeling. When I was at E_ waiting for a commission to come, I was boarded on two persons, with whom and their friends I had several arguments, I in favour of science and abstract truth, and they in favour of emotion, denying advance of knowledge and running down science itself as a work of the devil. Of course, more often I was simply tolerant of all this sort of thing, e.g. among parsons and my family, but sometimes it burned up very fiercely; as when I found J_ was against me re Christ, and liked to believe he existed, simply because he was a “jolly” character. It seems to me shameful that a man with his power of mind should be regardless of Truth, should hold that the question is one that doesn’t matter; whereas I, of far less able mind, have by my nature’s law to struggle on after Truth with my inferior equipment. He threw cold water on the whole affair and made me for the moment the bitterer. Really, as I see now, the matter is not one of great importance, simply because belief in the efficacy of the figure is the important thing and the reality of the exigence does not longer concern me.’
27 September 1916
‘The French came up behind us in large numbers, very active and talkative. Daylight showed a fearful lot of dead Germans round the trench and an appalling shambles in the dug-outs.
A fairly quiet day, sunny. The French moved about all over the valley regardless of anything. We had two good meals. We were relieved at night by the French.’
29 September 1916.
Rainy and depressing. Up to trenches again by T_ Wood. Seven men killed by a shell as soon as we got in the trench; beastly sight! I went up to find the way at G_ at night. I got back to find a Buszard’s cake - jolly evening. Slept on the floor of a dug-out. Stomach troubles.’
3 November 1916
‘I sit on a high bank above a road at H_. By my side stands a quarter of a bottle of red wine at 1. 50 francs the bottle. The remaining three-quarters are in my veins. I am perfecftly happy physically: so much so that only my physical being asserts itself. From my toes to the very hair of my head I am a close compact unit of pleasurable sensations. Now, indeed, it is good to live; a new power, a new sensibility to physical pleasure in all my members. The whistle blows for “Fall in!” I lift the remnant of the wine to my lips and drain the dregs. All the length of the march it lasts me, and the keenness, the compactness, the intensity of perpetual well-being doesn’t even leave my remotest finger-tips.
The silver veil of gossamer webs are round my hair, the juice of the autumn grape gladdening all my veins. I am the child of Nature. I wish always to be so.’
The Diary Junction