Rediscovered: JB Priestley in the trenches

Alison Cullingford, Special Collections Librarian, with some of the JB Priestley items from the 1st World War.
Alison Cullingford, Special Collections Librarian, with some of the JB Priestley items from the 1st World War.
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Most know JB Priestley as a writer, but it was his experiences of the Great War which informed much of his work. Stephen McClarence delves into a new exhibition which lays bare his time on the front line. Main pictures by Bruce Rollinson.

Half a century after being wounded in the First World War, JB Priestley discovered a bundle of letters he had sent home to Bradford from the trenches. They brought back terrible memories.

Nicolas Hawkes with work by his step father, JB Priestley,  exhibited at the Bradford Industrial Museum

Nicolas Hawkes with work by his step father, JB Priestley, exhibited at the Bradford Industrial Museum

“Some of the worst nights, in the winter of 1915,” he recalled, “were spent carrying heavy coils of barbed wire up communication trenches, knee-deep in water and sometimes under shellfire, continually slipping and then being pinned down by the coils of wire.”

This graphic description comes from his 1962 memoir Margin Released, useful background reading for JB Priestley: Soldier, Writer, Painter, an exhibition opening today in his native Bradford that includes the first public showing of 30 of his paintings, a lesser-known aspect of his life. The war, Priestley admitted, was “an open wound that never healed”. It jolted him out of his easy-going way of life and was to be a radical influence on his political outlook.

“I saw men, no weaklings but powerful fellows, break down and weep,” he wrote in Margin Released. “It was not the danger, which might easily have been worse – though I lost every close friend I had in the company that winter – but the conditions in which the lower ranks of the infantry were condemned to exist month after month... drained away health, energy, spirit.” The best of his generation had been “sorted out and then slaughtered, not by hard necessity but mainly by huge, murderous, public folly”.

Priestley’s letters to his father and stepmother, which he often signed “Jacky”, naturally avoided such outspokenness (they had to, if they were to get past the official censor). But they are still surprisingly frank and they’re represented, together with mementos of his war service, in the new exhibition, at Bradford Industrial Museum.

“Enclosed are flowers plucked from the parapet, probably growing out of dead men,” he wrote in one letter. “There are plenty in these parapets, it’s no uncommon sight to see a hand or a foot sticking out.”

Priestley volunteered in 1914, aged 19, for the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment, one of many young men who signed up because they saw the war as “a challenge to what we felt was our untested manhood”.

He was soon stumbling through a nightmare world. “Half-blinded by the last snowstorms of the winter,” his platoon discovered “old trenches that had simply been wired off, and when we explored them we found them filled with bloodstained clothing, abandoned equipment, heads, legs and arms.” For a time the platoon was based in a French village cemetery, sheltering among marble and granite monuments and “having to duck down as machine-gun bullets ricocheted off the funeral stones”.

By the end of the war, Priestley had been wounded three times. He was one of the lucky ones. After his first 18 months on the front line, almost all the others who volunteered with him back in Bradford were dead. He felt like “a mouse in a giant mincing machine”.

The wartime part of the Priestley exhibition has been curated by Alison Cullingford, special collections librarian at the University of Bradford’s library, whose JB Priestley Archive includes, among much else, 70 of the author’s pipes. We met a couple of weeks ago, when she was setting up the exhibition, unwrapping everyday items that have become treasures.

Here was Priestley’s Field Message Book – a list of the men in his platoon at one end, a few lines of his youthful verse at the other, scrawled in pencil and suggesting he was no Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke in the making (he later found his poetry embarrassing and tried to suppress a wartime collection he had privately printed).

Here was his khaki shoulder-badge, and a wallet containing his 1918 discharge certificate (“Age 23 years, 139 days” with fresh complexion, blue eyes, dark brown hair and no “marks or scars”) and his Officers’ Commission, inscribed on stiff paper in heraldic prose (“Our trusty and well-beloved John Boynton Priestley...”).

Another wallet contained the flimsy remains of a ten-shilling note, probably one he enclosed with a letter. It had, he wrote, “been gnawed by rats or mice in the trenches. They gnawed through the back of my pocketbook.”

And there were photographs, including a striking portrait of him in lance-corporal’s uniform, cane tucked under his arm. His “innocent pudding face”, as he aptly described it, has an almost larky expression; he looks a bit of a lad, a bit of a card. “He looks so young,” says Cullingford, whose chapter on Priestley’s war service – in the History Press’s Bradford in the Great War – is essential reading. “There’s a dream-like quality about what he later wrote about the war, but there’s stuff in the letters that you wouldn’t necessarily think the authorities would want the people at home to read.”

After the war he was even more outspoken. Cullingford unfolds The Lost Generation, an “Armistice Day Article” published in 1932. “We flung away brilliant young manhood as if it were so much dirt and now we are paying the price for it,” he wrote. “Who can tell what genius was poured down that vast drain? Sometimes I feel like an old man, for I seem to know intimately more dead men than living ones. To think about an old playing field is to see a crowd of ghosts.”

The following year Priestley set out to research English Journey, his great and compassionate analysis of “the state of the nation”. Arguably the book’s most moving section is the account of his return to Bradford for a regimental reunion.

There he met men he hadn’t seen the war, including Private Paddy O’Neill, sent away on an errand shortly before a giant trench mortar exploded a few feet from Priestley. “The world blew up,” the author recalled, but he was rescued and sent back to Britain to convalesce. At the reunion, O’Neill told Priestley that when he got back from his errand, “where you’d been, Jack lad, there was nobbut a bloody big hole.”

Priestley and other battalion veterans had arranged free reunion tickets for anyone who couldn’t afford them. Even so, some veterans were so poor that “they said they could not attend the dinner even if provided with free tickets because they felt that their clothes were not good enough.”

It inspired one of Priestley’s most powerful passages. The men, he wrote, had “stood in the mud and water, scrambled through the broken strands of barbed wire, saw the sky darken and the earth open with red-hot steel, and came back as official heroes... and now, in 1933, they could not even join us in a tavern because they had not decent coats to their backs.

“We could drink to the tragedy of the dead; but we could only stare at one another, in pitiful embarrassment, over this tragi-comedy of the living, who had fought for a world that did not want them, who had come back to exchange their uniforms for rags.”

Thirty years on, he was even more bitter in his condemnation of the war and its officer-class ethos. “The British command specialised in throwing men away for nothing,” he wrote in Margin Released. “I went into that war... free of any class feeling. No doubt I came out of it with a chip on my shoulder; a big, heavy chip, probably some friend’s thigh-bone.”

The Priestley exhibition runs until August 17 at Bradford Industrial Museum. 01274 435900, (closed Mondays). Also opening there today is another war-themed exhibition, Bradford’s War: 1914-1918. Running until November 21, it looks at life on the Home Front and how the conflict affected industry, women’s lives, leisure and attitudes to war and injured and disabled people.

• Priestley’s Wars by Neil Hanson (Great Northern Books, £9.99)