In Muddy Squalor: Spirit and Body in the Diary of a Horse Soldier

Friday, January 4, 2019: 11:10 AM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Warren Breckman, University of Pennsylvania
This paper explores the diaries of George Hambley, a Canadian cavalryman in the First World War. Serving on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918, Hambley participated in what seems to have been the final cavalry charge in western European history on October 10, 1918, and he was part of an occupying force north of Cologne on the Rhine River from December 1918 until mid-1919. Comprising 20 volumes, these diaries are considered by many Canadian historians to be the best soldier’s diary of World War One. A devout Protestant, with earnest intellectual and literary ambitions, George’s diaries chronicle his struggle with the soldier’s life, his attractions to the camaraderie of the trenches and his disgust at the license of the other men. Mixing fine-grained accounts of a horse-soldier’s life, reflection, poetry and elements of a commonplace book, the diaries function as a kind of spiritual exercise, imposing rigor and long-range perspective on a life that is threatened not only by corporeal mutilation and disintegration, but also by the depredations of the flesh. In addition to intensive self-scrutiny – a kind of twentieth-century Wallington’s World – the diaries chronicle other efforts to discipline spirit and body, including a number of self improvement technologies ordered by George from mail-order companies and delivered to him in the mud of Flanders. There are many soldiers’ diaries from WWI, but few that go beyond chronicling the quotidian. And in contrast to the great memoir literature of the Great War, George’s diaries, in the distance between his literary ambition and his capacities, contain an earnest directness and something unstudied that does indeed present an intimate history of modern thought operating one or two levels below elite discourses of the War that so indelibly stamped ‘modern memory’.