‘They were prancing. The whole world round them was yelling and prancing round. They were the centre of unending roaring circles.’
One of the ways populations have always sought to make sense of momentous events is to write about them creatively. The armistice of November, 1918 has been represented many times in the post-war drama, poetry and fiction produced in ex-combatant countries and elsewhere too.
Using one of its most well-known novelistic representations, A Man Could Stand Up-, volume 3 of Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford, I’m going to explore three characteristics of the armistice: celebration, silence and ambiguity. What follows briefly sets Ford’s novel in its biographical and historical contexts before investigating its author’s use of the armistice in ways related to plot development and also structure. As we’ll see, this text is inextricably intertwined with the official end of the war in 1918.
Ford Madox Ford joined up in 1915, seeing a brief amount of service before being wounded near Bécourt Wood, just behind the front lines of the Somme in July 1916. Parade’s End, his most significant treatment of the First World War, is now seen as a classic of war literature, and was adapted for BBC/HBO television by Tom Stoppard in 2012, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall. The original work was published in four separate novels between 1924 and 1928: Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up- and Last Post. (Some Do Not… anticipating by some years what became known as the ‘war book boom’ in 1929, when Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues – All Quiet on the Western Front, Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero and Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We all first appeared.)
A Man Could Stand Up- was published in 1926, and emblematized in its title the ability of an ex-soldier to stand and look about him in the post-war world – free of fear of artillery strikes and snipers. The armistice both opens and closes the action of this novel, and the climax it provides was felt to be impressive enough for more than one later critic to suggest Ford should have ended his series there, with volume 3. (One influential edition of the work, Graham Greene’s for the Bodley Head in 1963, made the dramatic decision to do just that – using Ford’s occasional doubts about the value of the fourth volume as his pretext.)
It is not a long novel. In the version published by Carcanet Press in 2011, which I edited, the text numbers 212 pages, and there are multiple explanatory notes on some of those pages. Parts I and III of A Man Could Stand Up- take place on armistice day. Part one focuses on Valentine Wannop, a London teacher and enthusiast for women’s suffrage, as well as gossip about her affair with the male protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, a Captain at the front. Part II, the centre of Ford’s structural sandwich, returns the action to the frontlines and Tietjens’ experience of death and destruction, as well as his desperate thoughts of his unhappy marriage and Valentine, the woman he loves.
Chaotic scenes and sounds of celebration punctuate much of Parts I and III. The quotation heading this article comes from the final chapter of the book as Valentine, Christopher, as well as men from Tietjens’ command, meet and drink and shout their toasts above the dancing. As Part III opens, Valentine is leaving the ‘innumerable crowd’, ‘deafened by unceasing shouts’ to find the house where she would first meet Christopher and spend the night with him (183). ‘Armistice Night! That night would be remembered down unnumbered generations. Whilst one lived that had seen it, the question would be asked: What did you do on Armistice Night?’ (185). Part I, too, has given life to the noise from the streets: there are ‘factory hooters’ ululations’ and explosions from fireworks as Valentine imagines ‘the thing [the armistice], out there, miles and miles away must have been signed – a few minutes ago’ (8).
So what, then, are we to make of this passage that comes soon afterwards:
Was this the moment? She didn’t even know whether what they had let off had been maroons [fireworks] or aircraft guns or sirens. It had happened – the noise, whatever it was – whilst she had been coming through the underground passage from the playground to the schoolroom to answer this wicked telephone. So she had not heard the sound. She had missed the sound for which the ears of a world had waited for years, for a generation. For an eternity. No sound. When she had left the playground there had been dead silence. All waiting. Girls rubbing one ankle with the other rubber sole…
Then … For the rest of her life she was never able to remember the greatest stab of joy that had ever been known by waiting millions. (10)
Why should Ford focus on Valentine missing ‘the noise’, on her experience of silence instead of the climactic signal of celebration? Perhaps his reasons might be related to Juliet Nicolson’s for naming her book about the years 1918 to 1920 The Great Silence? Nicolson begins with the armistice, and the communication sent in Boulogne by the female signaller about the end of hostilities, and the fact that it was met by – silence. The French population packed the streets, but although the church bells were ringing, and sirens and hooters were going off, what this signaller remembered most was the ‘sobbing of a woman’ (26-27). Part II of Ford’s novel, as we know, takes us back into the line of fire, underlining Ford’s refusal to let Valentine straightforwardly experience and celebrate the coming of peace.
At the start of Part III, in fact, leaving the noise from the streets, ‘the silence appeared like Death’ to Valentine (183). And, later, the final scenes of celebration are punctured by careful descriptions of the ‘man with the stick’, the ‘armless man’, and the man with one eye whose life Tietjens saved. Tietjens’ psychological suffering, and his loneliness, are what he most needs to talk to Valentine about. And so, perhaps we can conclude that, in this novel, the attention to the celebration of armistice is always balanced by attention to its silences – permanently encoded in the UK from 1919 in the two-minute silence – leading to a sense, overall, of the ambiguity of armistice.
A Man Could Stand Up- is a ‘kaleidoscopic vision of society at a climactic moment’, as the cover blurb notes. It offers colourful, loud, treatment, from multiple perspectives, of Armistice Day and all that came before. In its plot but also in the way it is structured Ford’s novel gives fictional life to celebration, as well as to the losses that day would always represent.