Why Not War Writers? A Manifesto

Horizon, October 1941
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Playwright, critic and political activist George Bernard Shaw

The role of writers to-day, when every free nation and every free man and woman is threatened by the Nazi war-machine, is a matter of supreme importance.

Creative writers, poets, novelists and dramatists have a skill, imagina­tion and human understanding which must be utilized as fully as the skill of journalists. They bring home with a depth and vividness impossible to the writer of a newspaper report or feature article, the significance of what is happening all about us, yet seldom to us ourselves or to all of us.

We all live in a very small illuminated circle and our work often loses much of its meaning because we do not see the relation of our every action to the conduct of the war. Books can implant this consciousness. A novel will create a picture which will not be effaced by to-morrow’s newspaper. Books can, by reason of their larger scope, include many of the bad things which must be remedied beside the good things which must be made better. Books are less suspect than the newspapers, public estimation of which is very low.

At the beginning of the war, it was assumed that the function of the creative writer was to write a good book about the war . . . after the war.

Experience of two years of war has shown to writers that their function is to write a good book about the war now.

When war broke out, many writers were hesitant. They did not see the issues as clearly as they had seen the Spanish Civil War, for example, or the last European war. The Times and other papers asked why this war produced no poets. The poets wrote essays on why they couldn’t write poetry. The cultural front of writers was broken into dissentient groups of two and three.

With the invasion of Russia, feeling has crystallized. It is no longer possible for anyone to stand back and call the war an imperialist war. For every writer, the war is a war for survival. Without victory our art is doomed.

The Government also is discovering that it is making a mistake in reserving the occupation of journalism but not of creative writing. During the Spanish War writers of international reputation such as Hemingway, Malraux and Silone1 exerted a deeper influence than journalists. Their propaganda was deeper, more humanly appealing and more imaginative than newspaper men had space or time for.

The Government distinguishes between war artists and war photogra­phers. Both are reserved and the function of each is regarded as distinct. The first has to give a permanent aesthetic significance to the events of the war, the second a news or documentary significance. It would be logical to apply the same principle to writers as to journalists, and give them the same facilities.

As things are, however, writer after writer is called up, or seeing no possibility of using his special talents in the interest of his country, has volunteered for war service.

The demand for books about the lives which other people were leading, for accounts of experiences briefly detailed in the newspapers meant that many newspapermen started to write books. But just as, with the exception of Messrs. Priestley and Wells, novelists make bad journalists, so the journalists make bad novelists. They had the advantage, however, that their journalistic facilities enabled them to collect material.

This was the general picture; the men who could write the books couldn’t get the material, and the men who could get the material couldn’t write the books. There were, however, some notable exceptions (Leo Walmsley, John Strachey, J. L. Hodgson—Linklater2 was sent to Iceland).

The first principle, therefore, to be established, is: Creative writers must receive the same facilities as journalists.

Journalists are interested in the unusual. For creative writers, the sphere of interest is much wider. The everyday lives of people, the routine jobs, the small sacrifices are often more important because more universal than extraordinary events. For certain writers, however, action, danger and adventure are the greatest source of inspiration; for them the bombs, the submarine, the landing party, the battle front, the bomb-disposal squad. For others, organization, industrial growth, social welfare. Why are there no novels of value about the building of shadow factories, the planning of —wartime services, the operation of, shall we say, an evacuation scheme? Why are there no satires on hoarders, or the black market? Why no novels of army life? Because the writers who could write them either have the knowledge but not the time, or the time but not the knowledge to do so.

Before the war, both publishers and writers were constantly on the look-out for book subjects, and all that needed to be done was to find the author or raise the cash to write the book. To-day, subjects abound. But the author cannot get leave from his unit to write the book or, alternatively, cannot get the passes from the M.O.I, to collect the material. The second principle is therefore that—Creative writers should be used to interpret the war world so that cultural unity is re-established and war effort emotionally co-ordinated. Though the policy of any creative writer must have a longer term than this, he can meet the national need on the short terms of victory.

Newspaper articles are ephemeral and local. Books have a longer life and a wider circulation. Books can tell Americans, Australians, Canadians, Indians, Russians about the war in Britain, while most newspaper articles would be unintelligible.

Applying our first principle (that the creative writers should be given the same facilities as journalists) we argue that American and Russian poets, dramatists and novelists should be asked to come to Britain and find the material for their writing so that they can interpret to their peoples what is happening here.

Similarly, British writers should be sent to the Americas, the Dominions and Russia so that they can report back, by stories, plays and poems what is happening over there. There is an interchange of material aid; there are political and military alliances; there is a united determination that Nazism and Fascism should be crushed. So there should be a free cultural interchange of creative writers, to establish during war the international understanding that is the chief aim of peace.

In brief, therefore, we propose:

  1. The formation of an official group of war writers.
  2. Writers to be given the necessary facilities for writing their books.
  3. The  international  exchange of writers to be encouraged and accelerated.
  4. A proper proportion of these writers to be of groups most actively engaged in this war.

This statement is prepared by a number of young writers, both in the Forces and in other work of national importance, and is published on their behalf by:

Arthur Calder-Marshall      Arthur Koestler
Cyril Connolly                       Alun Lewis
Bonamy Dobree                   George Orwell
Tom Harrisson                     Stephen Spender3

 ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

This Manifesto was discussed by a correspondent who signed himself ‘Combatant’4 in the December 1941 issue of Horizon.


Dear Sir,

You state, admirably, ‘an artist must be in the war or out of it’, thus explicitly denying the manifesto which bears your name. May I then, without offence, comment on that preposterous document?

What a picture of fun it makes of English writers! First, while Europe was overrun, they were ‘hesitant’. Then one enemy fell out, over the division of the spoils, with his larger and wealthier partner. This welcome but not unforeseen diversion ‘crystallized’ our writers’ ‘feelings’. They are now for total war. So be it. To the less literary this reasoning seems fatuous, and, in the context, their expression ‘the interest of their country’ ambiguous, but it is no time to be nice about the terms of revelation. The roads to truth are devious and manifold. We, who have been in the war since the start, suffered a little from the lack of intellectual company; it was comforting to think of the book-reviewers and mass-observers and poets (of a kind) and Left-Book-Club-sub-group-assistant-organizing-secretaries, pouring in, with their crystallized feelings as succulent crystallized plums, to join us in camp. If they want to write about the war, the way is clear for them. Writers whom, in spite of your Word-Controller,5 you persist in dubbing ‘creative’ differ from painters and journalists and photographers in6 that a single pictorial view of their subject is not enough. They must be, or have been, part of it. Whether they write now or later is a question of individual literary digestion. There is plenty of leisure in the armed forces—at any rate for the lower ranks. The atmosphere is uncongenial for writing, but that is all to the good. It has been too easy to write in recent years. Genius overcomes privation and inferiority. If these young men must write, they will do it the better for suffering some inconveniences. If they are under no immediate compulsion, let them sit tight and store their minds with material for future use.

But what do your chums propose doing? They will like to form an Official Group; they would go onjaunts to the Americas and Dominions; they would have ‘the facilities of journalists’ which, as far as I have seen, merely means the privileges of commissioned rank without its obligations—cheap railway tickets, entrance to ward-rooms and officers’ messes and investitures; they would ‘co-ordinate war-effort emotionally’. Cor, chase my Aunt Nancy round the prickly pear! The General Staff love initials; they would, I am sure, rejoice to put an armlet, D.A.E.C.W.E. on someone’s arm and call him Deputy Assistant Emotional Co-ordinator of War Effort. But if anyone ever again feels disposed to raise the old complaint that the English fail to honour their living artists, let him remember their present modest demands.

I am afraid that I do not believe for a moment that these young men want to write; they want to be writers. It is the Trades Union move detecting a slight on their occupational dignity. They have been whimpering for years for a classless society, and now that their own class is threatened with loss of privilege they are aghast. That is the plain meaning of your manifesto.

I notice it is signed by a novelist who, later in the same issue, has a letter on the subject of O.C.T.U.s.7 Shades of Colonel Bingham!8 That officer made trouble for himself by injudiciously stating what few informed people disputed: that, generally speaking, the proletarian youths who are now being trained as officers have less sense of duty than candidates of gentle birth and humane education. It was injudicious to say this because the demand for officers greatly exceeds the supply of gentlemen, so nothing can be done about it. But the men in charge of O.C.T.U.s. have a difficult job, and Mr. Calder-Marshall is witness to their tolerance. One in three of their candidates are socialist, many of whom are sharp enough in memorizing the facts of their new trade. But duty? Consider a case of Mr. Calder-Marshall; he accepts an eagerly-sought vacancy and takes up three months of his instructors’ time. They are trying to make him a leader in battle. But when he gets commissioned rank he makes no effort to serve the regiment who honour him with their badges, but uses his new position as a step to softer employment. I may not sign my name to a letter dealing with military matters, but if anyone has any curiosity about my identity, please inform him.

Your obedient servant,

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊


  1. Ernest Hemingway (1899—1961), American novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1954, wrote and spoke the commentary for the Republican side’s propaganda film The Spanish Earth (directed Joris Ivens, 1937). His novel of the Spanish civil war, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) was made into a popular film. Andre Malraux, French author, played an active role on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war, and on the side of the Kuomintang in China, 1925-27. Ignazio Silone (1900-1978) was an Italian novelist (Fontamara, 1933; Pane e Vino, 1937. English translation, Bread and Wine, 1937) whose anti-Fascism caused him to exile himself from 1931-1944.
  2. Leo Walmsley (1892-1966) was a novelist who also wrote Fishermen at War, and British Ports and Harbours in the ‘Britain in Pictures’ series (to which Orwell contributed The English People). John Strachey, left-wing politician and later government minister, wrote at this time A Programme for Progress (1940), A Faith to Fight For (1941), and Post D: Some Experiences of an Air Raid Warden (1941). Presumably John Lawrence Hodson (1891-1956; OBE, 1947), journalist, dramatist, novelist, was meant. He was a war correspondent, 1939—42, and worked for the Ministry of Information, 1943-45, on publications and film scripts (including Desert Victory). Orwell may have been particularly interested in Hodson because he had investigated unemployment in nine European countries, 1932—33. Eric Linklater (Robert Russell) (1899-1974), Scottish novelist whose Juan in America (1931) was well known, wrote three pamphlets in the series The Army at War: The Defence of Calais (1941), The Northern Garrisons (1941), and The Highland Division (1942).
  3. Arthur Calder-Marshall (1908-1992), prolific author of novels, short stories, and non-fiction books, worked for the British Petroleum Warfare Department, 1941, and the Ministry of Information Films Division, 1942—45, writing many documentary film scripts. He later took up Orwell’s interest in McGill’s picture postcards in his Wish You Were Here: The Art of Donald McGill (1966). Cyril Connolly, author and editor, and a longtime friend of Orwell’s. Bonamy Dobree (1891-1974) was a scholar, academic, and prolific writer on literary subjects. Tom Harrisson (1911-1976), founder, with Charles Madge, of Mass Observation, 1937, organised guerrillas behind Japanese lines in Sarawak, 1944-45. Arthur Koestler, author, journalist, and one-time Communist. Alun Lewis (1915—1944) was a poet and short-story writer. Among his books were Raiders’ Dawn and Other Poems (1942), Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (1945), and The Last Inspection (1942). Stephen Spender, critic, novelist, and short-story writer, was, in the 1930s, one of an important group of anti-Fascist writers. He and John Lehmann edited the anthology Poems for Spain (1939), and he translated Lorca and Rilke.
  4. ‘Combatant’ was, possibly, Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), satirical novelist. ‘Combatant’ writes of having ‘been in the war from the start.’ Waugh was commissioned in the Royal Marines in 1939 and later transferred to the Royal Horse Guards.
  5. Combatant’s use of the expression ‘Word Controller’ does not derive from the Manifesto but from ‘Comment’ (the editorial by Cyril Connolly in the same issue of Horizon, 229-31). This demanded that dictatorial powers be given to a Word Controller ‘to clean up our language': ‘War journalism and war oratory have produced an unchecked inflation in our overdriven and exhausted vocabulary.’ The Word Controller (George Bernard Shaw was put forward as a good choice) would issue licences: ‘Without such a licence it would be a criminal offence to appear in print or on the platform. The licences would be immediately cancelled of all those found using the words “vital: vitally: virtual: virtually: actual: actually: perhaps: probably.” ‘ The more general aim is in the penultimate paragraph: ‘In the times in which we live a writer should not be able to put down more than two or three lines without making it obvious whether he has anything to say. The Word Controller, by banning the verbal camouflage of those who doubt, who twist, who are on the make, or who hope for the best, would clarify propaganda and leave literature safely where it belongs, in the hands of the abnormally sane, or the genuinely mad.’ The editorial, tinged with irony, should not be taken as wholly unambiguous. Thus, ‘The Word Controller, at any rate during the few hours of office before his powers turned his head, would be non-political.’ However, its avowed concern that stale rhetoric and false news can bring ‘a perfect achievement of civilization into confusion’ seems to provide the germ for Orwell’s Newspeak, the purpose of which ‘was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. . . . Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum’.
  6. in ] printed as ‘is’ in Horizon
  7. Officer Cadet Training Unit, an army cadet force particularly associated with public schools.
  8. The Times published a letter 15 January 1941 from Lieutenant-Colonel R. C. Bingham of 168 OCTU on the subject of ‘Junior Officers in the New Armies.’ He argued that the new armies were being officered by ‘classes of society who are new to the job,’ that the ‘middle, lower middle, and working classes’ were receiving the King’s commission, and that these, ‘unlike the old aristocratic and feudal (almost) classes who led the old Army, have never had “their people” to consider. They have never had anyone to think of but themselves. This aspect of life is completely new to them, and they have very largely fallen down on [the job] in their capacity as Army officers.’ Man management was instinctive to ‘old school tie men’ and could not be taught. This letter caused an outcry, and the Secretary of State for War, David Margesson told Parliament that Bingham had committed a breach of King’s Regulations, and the Army Council’s severe displeasure had been conveyed to him. He was also relieved of his command.

Source: CW13-856

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