Guy Chapman

Guy Chapman, one of Britain’s most revered First World War writers, came to Leeds at end of the Second World War. He had been married to Storm Jameson, the novelist and graduate of the University, since 1920s. He was Professor of Modern History at the University between 1945 and 1953. He was an unconventional academic, for the chair of Modern History was his first university post. Apart from his celebrity as a writer, his war record was an important part of his appeal to the University.

Chapman had joined the Royal Fusiliers as a junior officer at the outbreak of the First World War, fighting in the Battle of Somme in 1916 and serving on the Western Front until the armistice in 1918. He won the Military Cross, was awarded the military OBE, and was twice mentioned in despatches. At the age of fifty he re-joined the army and served throughout the Second World War. In 1942 and 1943 he was one of the leading members of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, the controversial unit that some critics blamed for the soldiers voting Labour in 1945. At Leeds, Chapman was one of the national figures involved in introducing international relations and political science into the curriculum of British universities. International relations, he told the Vice-Chancellor of the University, ‘is a subject which almost more than any other, should be treated with academic severity’.

Guy Chapman, Image courtesy of Special Collections

Guy Chapman, Image courtesy of Special Collections

In the 1930s Chapman was a professional literary figure with a long-term interest in pursuing advanced academic work in the historical profession. In 1937 he began work on Vain Glory, a compilation of war writing for the publishers Cassell. In Vain Glory, Chapman sought to show the war as it was fought, based on the accounts written by those who experienced it. Like many other veterans, his preference was for works by authors who had witnessed combat. He prefaced the work with a note on the war writing:

This book is not an anthology of literature. It is an attempt to display the War of 1914-1918 through the eyes of those who took an active part in it. You may ask: Has it not been done truthfully by hundreds of historians? The answer is, No. There is no truth about the War.”

Chapman sought to distinguish works of history from personal recollections, but argued that memoirs told a higher truth. This was what he meant by the ‘truthfulness’ of the war in popular culture. For a memoirist, publisher, and, eventually, a university historian, like Guy Chapman, the desire to preserve the memoir’s important role in the representation of the War, was paramount.

Guy Chapman’s own memoir, A Passionate Prodigality, published in 1933, already displays many of these themes. Chapman was not disillusioned by war. Nevertheless, the loss of so many comrades infused his book with regret for the fallen. For Chapman war was part of the human condition, probably unavoidable, but still destructive of men in their youth for little purpose. To Chapman, however, there was deep countervailing morality in the good cheer of the average Tommy.

Chapman remained entranced by the War for the rest of his life. He wrote of war: ‘Once you have lain in her arms you can admit no other mistress.’ He saw combat as horrific yet enticing. At the end of his life he reflected that the War had civilized him:

What the survivor remembers is not the fears he knew, the pains, but the faces and a few words of the men who were with him, les pauvres couillons du front.”
Guy Chapman, A Kind of Survivor, 1975

Chapman recalled the men he served with, their language and spirit, as being something rich and complex. This sense of unit loyalty and camaraderie came with tragic undertones. He was perpetually conscious of the war dead. To him and many of his compatriots they were not a generation that should be pitied for serving, but one that should be remembered for their sacrifice. He was still reflecting on these ideas when he died in 1972. Storm Jameson edited his final manuscript and had it published. She presented a copy to the University of Leeds in 1979.

With thanks to Professor Simon Ball