In a great piece of literary detective work, Lora A Sifurova has managed to track down the source for a quote from a Russian periodical that Saki refers to in ‘Birds on the Western Front’. She has written about it here:
Tomorrow (16th November) marks the hundredth anniversary of Hector Hugh Munro’s death. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet while taking a rest in a shell-hole with members of his company, near the French town of Beaumont-Hamel, on the western front.
His last words were addressed to one of the other men he was with: “Put that bloody cigarette out!” and it was presumably either the glowing tip of that cigarette or the noise of Munro’s order that alerted the German sniper to potential targets. It is tempting, if perhaps fanciful, to think that Munro, who as ‘Saki’ had dispatched so many of his characters to macabre, often arbitrary fates, might have seen some irony in the manner of his own death.
When the the First World War broke out in 1914, Munro was actually in the Houses of Parliament and witnessed the Prime Minister’s announcement. He was 43 by then and thus too old for the army. He hurried to enlist nonetheless. A year earlier he had written When William Came, a bitter fantasy of Britain under German rule (“William” being the Kaiser Wilhelm). In it he castigated the weak-willed Edwardian Britons whose lack of martial spirit had contributed to British defeat. Munro, it seems, was determined not to be like that. “It is only fitting that the author of When William Came should go to meet William halfway,” he wrote in a letter to John Lane, his publisher. He ended up in the 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers after transferring from King Edward’s Light Horse.
After training, Munro and his battalion arrived in France in late 1915. The picture that emerges of him as a soldier is as distant as is imaginable from the effete and amoral dandies of his short stories. There is a photo of him carrying a bucket, his uniform rumpled, sleeves rolled up, a scrubby moustache on his top lip. If he was unrecognisable, then that perhaps suited him. Always an intensely private individual, he may have been happy that only a few of his fellows recognised the witty satirist Saki.
He continued to write nonetheless. As well as a few short stories-cum-reports from the front, such as ‘The Square Egg’, as well as more inconsequential pieces. He clearly retained his taste for black humour. Around Christmas 1915 he composed a mock carol:
While shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground,
A high explosive shell came down
And mutton rained around.
Critics and biographers have viewed Munro’s actions as an expression of his political conservatism. If one wants to get more Freudian, then joining up could perhaps also be understood as a sublimation of his (presumed) homosexuality, allowing him to live within an environment that was all-male yet socially approved and assertively heterosexual. Whatever the reason, his apparent joy in army life (as recorded in his letters) as well as his conspicuous bravery under fire indicate that his decision to risk his life for his country as a common soldier was sincere. His social class and his education, such as his knowledge of German and familiarity with Mitteleuropa, made him an obvious candidate for officer rank, or even something like intelligence work, but he refused such offers more than once.
He was by all accounts a much liked and respected member of his troop. Writing about him after his death was reported, the second-in-command of his battalion said:
You will see in the papers that Sgt. Munro [sic], Hector Munro ‘Saki’ the writer was killed, one of the men that I really and honestly admire and revere in this war. He steadfastly refused a commission, and loved his friends in A Coy. […] when he got really ill two months ago, instead of going home and making the most of it as those other blighters do, he managed to get back to us about a week ago.
The reference here is to a bout of malaria Munro came down with in the autumn. (He had first caught the disease two decades earlier while working in Burma.) He was sent to recover in hospital, but, knowing that a ‘push’ was imminent, he discharged himself early and returned to the front on 11 November.
The battle of Beaumont-Hamel was one of the last major engagements of the Somme. Beaumont-Hamel was the name of one of the German’s ‘fortress villages’, heavily fortified to control the valley it was in. The Allies had already tried to take it back in July, with a horrendous loss of life (particularly among Canadian regiments – in Newfoundland the date of the start of the battle is a day of remembrance). On November 12th they launched another attempt again. Four days later, during a brief respite in the fighting, Munro uttered his fateful final words.
His name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing:
(The biographical details in this article are mostly drawn from Langguth’s biography.)
- Quoted by Langguth, p. 253 ↩
- Quoted in Langguth, p. 267 ↩
- Quoted by Tim Connell in ‘The grinning shadow that sat at the feast: In commemoration of Hector Munro, ‘Saki’’, online at http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-grinning-shadow-that-sat-at-the-feast-in-commemoration-of-hector-munro-saki ↩
[In the run-up to Remembrance Day, here’s a piece Saki wrote while serving in the trenches in northern France in 1916 (with some extra pictures).]
Considering the enormous economic dislocation which the war operations have caused in the regions where the campaign is raging, there seems to be very little corresponding disturbance in the bird life of the same districts. Rats and mice have mobilized and swarmed into the fighting line, and there has been a partial mobilization of owls, particularly barn owls, following in the wake of the mice, and making laudable efforts to thin out their numbers. What success attends their hunting one cannot estimate; there are always sufficient mice left over to populate one’s dug-out and make a parade-ground and race-course of one’s face at night. In the matter of nesting accommodation the barn owls are well provided for; most of the still intact barns in the war zone are requisitioned for billeting purposes, but there is a wealth of ruined houses, whole streets and clusters of them, such as can hardly have been available at any previous moment of the world’s history since Nineveh and Babylon became humanly desolate. Without human occupation and cultivation there can have been no corn, no refuse, and consequently very few mice, and the owls of Nineveh cannot have enjoyed very good hunting; here in Northern France the owls have desolation and mice at their disposal in unlimited quantities, and as these birds breed in winter as well as in summer, there should be a goodly output of war owlets to cope with the swarming generations of war mice. Continue reading