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Percy F. Westerman: Jingo Fiction or Science Fiction?
Captured at Tripoli | The Flying Submarine | The Sea-Girt Fortress | The Dreadnaught of the Air | The Dispatch Riders | In the Thick of the Fray at Zeebrugge | Billy Barcroft R.N.A.S | Rounding Up the Raider | Unconquered Wings | The Black Hawk
Re: Westerman | H.G. Wells | F. Hernaman-Johson | Edgar Rice Burroughs | Capt. W. E. Johns | Hugo Pratt (Corto Maltese)
§ Percy F. Westerman (1876-1959), although forgotten today, was at one time Britain's most prolific author of adolescent boys' fiction, having published 174 novels between 1908 and 1959 and selling 1.5 million copies internationally. While many of his books used the Royal Navy and various nautical settings, many dealt with early aviation which was seen back then as an arm of the Admiralty. He wrote both naturalistically and speculatively, so that many of his stories are more science fiction than fact, although fact is always the fundamental. He knew a lot about naval matters as he was a keen amateur sailor and during WW 1 served as a navigation instructor in the Navy and the Royal Flying Corps. He also lived most of his adult life on a converted Thames River barge moored on the River From at Wareham, Dorset... which might confirm his debt to G.A. Henty (1832-1902) who also lived on a yacht in nearby Weymouth and exalted the British Empire as a sacred calling.
the shock of the old
Visually, his early books have vintage cachet, look good on the coffee table or face out on a bookshelf, even if battered by a hundred years of corroding light and careless hands. The colour graphics and debossed text on the face boards have that primitive imagery that remind you of pottery motifs and linoleum. They look old, almost forbidden. They're not easy to find anymore. One or two are available in paperback, and, encouragingly, more are turning up as eBooks (sometimes free).
But are they any good? Or are they relics best left in the graveyard of history?
Westerman's heroes were 17 to 20 year old youths -- the adolescent on the first step of manhood -- which makes the majority of his fiction fit for adults. Occasionally he would write from the point-of-view of a 20 or 30 year old (The Third Officer, The Wireless Officer, Standish and others) but usually he was recruiting from the late teenage group. Just as there is often an ambiguity between realism and fiction in his technological detail, there is an ambiguity of sensibility in his characters and their world view. Patriotism is assumed, although there's no easy xenophobia; his young subalterns obey their elders, the jingo jive, and when they don't, they always survive to learn their lesson and earn reinstatement. Fast cars, motor cycles, speedboats, destroyers, submarines, experimental airships, prototypical aircraft, and the occasional sailing dingy and yacht are the means by which his stories move and the characters who inhabit them. His Standish character anticipates W.E. Johns' famous action aviator Biggles and any number of his young heroes could be James Bond in the making.
So the preposterous is only one blueprint away from the real. For today's reader, Westerman provides not only nostalgia for the period, but also a clear window into technology and its symbiotic interaction between fantasy and survival. The Westerman universe is one where the past, present and future are fused as an existential wedlock. His heroes act, leave the thinking to others. Strap on a Helia jump kit, hop between mountain peaks and over South American canyons? Just do it, lieutenant. Lead a night raid on an eastern European belligerent using an experimental British heli-plane? Just do it, lieutenant. Donate your services and motor cycle to the Belgian army to fight the Hun, even though you're only 17? Just do it, lad. While patriotism can be easy, and fear left for others, this risk-taking can only be rationalized as institutional.
colonialism and imperial desire
Westerman picks up the flag where Henty drops it, championing the British Empire as a moral standard in the cause of civilization. While self-interest is usually modest (except in villains), and religion scarcely mentioned, his books exist as eloquent propaganda through the artifice of fantasy. While he uses 'coincidence' shamelessly at times, his plots nevertheless have a dangerous level of authenticity, enough to temper the absurd or ill-disguised brain-washing. People get hurt, people die, and Nature is always ready with a deus ex machina to ruin a voyage by land, sea or air.
This authenticity of technological detail and his use of minimal characterization -- making his protagonists mere masks for the reader -- imparts a sense of "right" to his patriotism and cultural bias. The Westerman point-of-view is essentially that of the missionary soldier (i.e. Chinese Gordon), even if religion is sublimated and combat an issue of survival or simply a police action. The British Empire is paternalist. The antagonist is usually German, although sometimes it's 'the yellow peril' or some clumsy Latinos in some crypto-fascist South American republic. Occasionally, though, it's a rogue Brit with a grievance against the Royal Navy, or the government. Class is seldom an issue, as if Westerman's characters know and accept their place in the social machine, understand the moral and political logic of it. The middle-class is the only class. Still, one of his favorite antagonists is the cashiered officer, and his struggle to regain respect and readmission to the military family. This is even true of his "gone rogue" characters like Captain Flick, inter-War pirate and former Navy officer with a grudge. In The Blackhawk (1934), Flick flickers between fits of homicidal largesse and acts of Dickensian generosity, a special schizophrenia for the era, a war echo that clouds his judgment. So, unlike his German or Latin villains, Westerman's British badmen are never all bad, are like wolves with children, more lick than bite.
You could say this cultural bias is part of the exoticism needed by the action adventure novelist. The world beyond one's country is perceived as 'animal' and thereby anthropomorphic in tradition, where, just as in children's literature, animals are personified, given human form. Huns are dangerous. You never find any reasonable Germans in Westerman. They're barbarous, they're killers, at best buffoons. In Billy Barcroft R.N.A.S (1918) they use chlorine gas, bomb villages and kill babies; in Hunting the Raider (1916) they cast women and children adrift at sea, and in The Dispatch Riders (1915) they kill, loot, pillage and rape the Belgium town of Louvain into submission and international infamy. In 1917 the historian Arnold Toynbee published 'The German Terror in Belgium', which laid out the barbarous actions of the invaders, i.e. "In the market-place of Gembloux a Belgian despatch-rider saw the body of a woman pinned to the door of a house by a sword driven through her chest. The body was naked and the breasts had been cut off." So there's enough documentary material to support this bias, yet today the doctrine of moral relativism and political push-back makes writers like Westerman and even H.G. Wells appear as dangerous chauvinists.
There's no question that the Empire and the impact of foreign culture had something to do with this nuanced colonial thinking. Just consider the opening lines of Wells' The War of the Worlds (1897):
'No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own... No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.'
And why would the Martians be interested in Earth? Because 'they're ready to welcome a missionary exercise'? No. Their planet is dying, and with it, their resources. Wells elaborates:
'That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars. The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts.
'And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them...."
This brilliant piece of sub-textural writing, which reads like an allegory, is just as applicable today as it was in 1898 as our current world approaches material exhaustion. The 'Martians' can be a euphemism for anyone -- German imperialists, British imperialists, evangelist Americans, international communists, 3rd World dictatorships, rodent colonies, et al. No late Victorian rhetorical decadence here; the prose is lean, ironic and modern. It's no coincidence that Wells was one of the first to use electric heat in his house.
Westerman, on the other hand, thinks and writes in a more fundamental way, more like a Meccano exercise:
'Sir Brian Strong, inventor of the anti-aircraft rays that by neutralizing the electrical ignition of an internal combustion engine had made aerial warfare an impossibility, had good cause to express his indignation. A humanitarian at heart, he had laboured, suffering hardships and rebuffs, until success had crowned his efforts. No heavier-than-air machine could remain "up" save by the leave of the officials in charge of the numerous "Strong Rays" stations in every principal town in the civilized world.' (p. 10, Unconquered Wings, 1924)
The mix of idealism and techno adulation is tempered by democratic caution. The idealism is never extended into social engineering the way it was in communist Russia or National Socialist Germany. The optimistic embrace of technology is never viewed as a dangerous thing in Westerman except when in the hands of the enemy... and with good reason: German airships were the first to extend aerial warfare to civilian targets, to presage the idea of "total war' and the demoralization of the enemy's will to fight back. While the Zeppelin attacks killed just over 500 people and injured nearly 2000 more throughout England between 1915-18, the phantasmic image of these bombers in the clouds were judged a failure in military terms, although the effect on the popular imagination was powerful. Rumours of a secret Zeppelin base operating from a remote valley in the Lake District played well for a fictioneer such as Percy F. Westerman.
Westerman used the idea of a secret base in many of his novels. In Unconquered Wings (1924), Sir Brian Strong has a secret base near the Lake District for the construction of his heli-plane, a VTO aircraft that anticipates the Harrier Jump jet or the V-22 Osprey by sixty years. In Dreadnaught of the Air (1914), Wittinghame has a secret base for his revolutionary 800 foot airship The Meteor concealed in the woods of a lonely manor on the South Downs. In The Flying Submarine (1912), the secret base is in an abandoned Cornish tin mine. More significantly, though, Westerman presents a more realistic scenario in The Sea-Girt Fortress (1914) when he imagines a German Zeppelin base located in three artificial caves on the island of Heligoland in the North Sea.
His description of the base is both credible and imaginative:
'Peering through the gap between the turntable and the encircling wall, Hammerton could see the sun shinning upon the upper portion of the red sandstone cliffs that enclosed the vast artificial basin... between each pair of caverns constructed for the accommodation of the Zeppelins was an iron ladder running perpendicularly up the sheer wall of sandstone. These were connected by an open lattice platform just above the crown of the arch formed by the caves, and were evidently for the purpose of faciliatating the movements of the airships when entering or leaving their bases.
''They are naval airships," announced (Hammerton), for men were swarming up and down the ladders with the seeming recklessness that only seamen dare show, and they were wearing uniforms of the German Imperial Navy.
'"Here she comes," said Detroit, as the huge hulk of a Zeppelin emerged slowly yet steadily from its resting place... over the heads of the two watchers passed the unwieldy craft. Now they could hear the jar of the framework as it settled on the turntable. Then, with hardly a sound and barely a tremour, the platform began to move until the bows of the Zeppelin pointed in the direction of the great incline. The six propellers began to revolve, and the airship, gathering way, rose rapidly and steadily....' (The Sea-Girt Fortress, 1914, pgs. 138-140)
And what does this remind you of? The lair of the villain in a typical James Bond novel. While you know Ian Fleming was influenced by his boyhood reading of Sapper-McNeile's Bulldog Drummond novels and the spy adventures of John Buchan (and of course by his work in Naval Intelligence during WW 2), it would seem reasonable to assume that he was also familiar with the works of Percy F. Westerman. Fleming was a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, and worked from an obscure office in the Admiralty. His imagination -- like that of his generation -- was groomed entirely by the 'Britannia Rules the Seas' chant and her frenetic competition with Imperial Germany. Secret bases were a fact and Westerman was an early master of the genre and widely read. The nationalist imperative was a natural driver for not only military technology but also the science fiction imagination. So Fleming is/was an extension of the jingo sci fi set up by F. Hernaman-Johnson, Percy F. Westerman, et. al. H.G. Wells is the great figure within the movement, of course, although his fiction contains subtleties of politics and culture and the craft of writing that none of his successors -- including Fleming -- have.
But what Westerman does have is the raw excitement of adolescent discovery, which, like early sex, is hard to beat, whatever the blunders, the ignorance and ill-informed prejudice. The dangerous beauty of the airship is like a femme fatale, recurs in various guises within his WW 1 novels. The fascination, the awe, the delicate integration of Man, machine and Nature that these 'dreadnaughts of the air' represented still resides in the supernatural mind of modern superstition, even though their day has come and gone, a technological detour that led nowhere except as the still-born hallucination of the cigar-shaped UFO widely reported by pilots, police, drunks and out-patients. The image is in the collective mind, as the noise of history, an echo that revisits like an ancestral gene. Lighter-than-air? The lost highway of aviation, sir.
Today, when sci fi writers dream of alien motherships hovering over the great cities of the world, holding them captive for some nefarious design, few realize the incubus for the image. The night raids by the Zeppelins during WW 1 certainly implanted it, although it was writers like Hernaman-Johnson and Westerman who anticipated it. The Polyphemes attacked Europe, the Klausavians attacked England. In Unconquered Wings (1924), Westerman describes a mysterious 1,000 foot ochre coloured airship that appears over London, hovers provocatively above the Admiralty before disappearing into the Thames fog, her engines apparently immune to the Strong anti-aircraft rays that since the Great War had rendered military air attack futile.
"...these creatures, which came upon us from the void, these children of a nightmare had not troubled in the very slightest to imitate the Lord of Creation. They were unmistakably, undeniably, insects." (The Polyphemes)
F. Hernaman-Johnson's 'The Polyphemes: A Story of Strange Adventures Among Strange Beings (1906) is an early sci-fi novel in the jingoist idiom. Here a south Pacific race of black ants set out to conquer the world, and advance to the stage of bombing Europe using their sophisticated (for the time) dirigibles. Westerman's first novel was published in 1908; his first airship novel, The Flying Submarine, in 1912.
The fear of invasion, a source of concern for any British government since Napoleon's failed attempts, was a source of inspiration for Westerman, and he, like several of his contemporaries was influenced by Erskine Childers' classic 1903 novel 'The Riddle of the Sands.' Here the Germans are preparing an invasion fleet of barges in the Frisian Islands, planning to land them in East Anglia. The plot is discovered by two young Englishmen on a sailing holiday -- a combination that Westerman was to adopt and use repeatedly in his early novels.
Exoticism is not always beyond the horizon. While Westerman liked the volatile republics of South America and lost islands in the Pacific, he did use domestic settings. In the early 20th C Great Britain hadn't shrunk to the point where mystery was impossible, loneliness expunged in a sprawl of urban chatter. Planes could land in a field, hide in a barn, or submarines hijacked as they left the shipyard, raid the merchant lanes... and boys could sail to Heligoland, fight the Hun and come back men. The arc of technology was increasing, space shrinking, yet everything was still visceral, hands-on, still within the control of the pilot, not the robot. And all this evolution came from the sea, the art of sailing, of navigation, the play of the wind and the stars.
So there's a sense of control, both of the individual's fate, and of moral responsibility, whereas today robotics have rendered us passengers with no responsibility except to consume. Decisions are made for us, cybernetic paternalism rules, and we're just along for the ride. The self-reliance that is characteristic of Westerman's heroes and villains a hundred years ago has diminished to the point where actions are prompted by traffic lights and computer apps. His world is an analogue world, closer to the elements, anthropomorphic and classical. Self-discipline is paramount, decadence impossible (except in those lazy, off-white tropical cultures beyond the anglo-saxon horizon).
Sometimes his technology seems far-fetched, yet it nearly always conforms to the operational equipment of the day or can be excused as an experimental model for the near-future. The Achilles heel of the airship -- the highly inflammable hydrogen gas, which in fact brought an end to the airship era with the horrible crashes of the R-101 in France en route to India (1930), and the Hindenberg in New Jersey at the end of a flight from Rio (1937) (although the 'hydrogen industry' now claims it was the aluminium hull coated by iron oxide that was at fault) -- is addressed by new discovery and invention. Safe "Helia" gas in The Flying Submarine and Helia or 'super-helium' in The Airship Golden Hind. In The Dreadnaught of the Air (1914) Whittinghame's airship is a 800 foot behemoth built in four interlocking sections that can detach and reform independently even in the air, a concept that takes the safety architecture of airtight hull sections in the battleship designs of the day one or two steps further. So Westerman uses speculative fiction to advance a few ideas to improve upon existing technologies without abandoning realism... which is why, perhaps, his use of coincidence, luck and virtue-rewarded appear exaggerated, as everything else in the Westerman world is fairly normal.
Today, his writing can be criticized for its archaic wordiness, that Victorian hangover of circumlocution that both exasperates and dazzles. The pomposity of it emerges as poetry despite itself, despite the redundancies and prevarications. In fact, it's only the early novels from his Edwardian youth, those fantasies that recast Verne, Henty and Rider-Haggard as flashlight stories, that this dead rhetoric might be problematic for some readers today. But he gets better: when the Great War starts in 1914, the language becomes more disciplined, more authentic as evidenced in The Dispatch Riders, Wilmshurst of the Frontier Force, The Sea-Girt Fortress and others... and curiously, after the War ends, some novels (such as The Airship Golden Hind) revert to the stagey poetics of his pre-War apprenticeship. It's as if there's a relaxation of reality, where hardship and death fade back into the shadow world of the theatre or narratives specifically spun for the innocent.
But Westerman does eventually evolve into the leaner, more secular style of modernism. For most writers, it was journalism and science that led them there; for Westerman, it was technology. At times, his descriptions read like a surveyor's report, as if he sees everything in terms of science, with distances, angles and logic. One of his best novels, The Black Hawk (1934), is completely modern with a plain narrative structured like a film scenario. It's obvious that after twenty plus years that he has escaped the effete calligraphy of the Victorian style.
Burroughs vs. Westerman
Another contemporary of Westerman's who had it in for the Hun was the American, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950).
Burroughs, who writes in the rhetorical style of Sir Walter Scott, but thinks in the bizarre dream mode of Jonathan Swift, has the same cultural preferences, the jingoism and scientific romanticism ('a thousand years of osculatory memoirs portending') (Chessmen of Mars). Burroughs has repeated flashes of metaphoric eloquence -- both in language and in imagery -- while Westerman often uses redundant rhetorical flourishes. Both authors operate on a level of subliminal parody, like children dressed as adults, although Burroughs is more likely to submerge into dream and Westerman to sustain naturalism. Westerman is political, his plots more like government intelligence reports of events imagined, whereas Burroughs is inclined to detach entirely from the natural world, i.e. his Barsoom/Mars series, where Earth is just a memory and Mars an alternate world of animal evolution. True, his Tarzan novels are implicitly political -- of all the animals in his jungle, the Hun remains the most dangerous -- but the message never interferes with the action, and the adventure carries on.
In 1912 Westerman published 'Captured At Tripoli', an adventure novel which has two British youths and a war correspondent captured by some Bedouin allied to the Ottoman Empire. Eventually they escape and during their flight through the edges of the Sahara they come across the skeleton of a Crusader in a suit of armour, which in turn leads them to discover a 'lost city' populated by the descendants of some European knights. While you might think of Rider-Haggard, it's interesting to note that in Edgar Rice Burroughs' "hate the Hun" novel 'Tarzan Untamed' (1920) Tarzan discovers the skeleton of a Conquistador in a jungle ravine in West Africa, and later, the lost city of the Maniacs, themselves mutant descendants of some unknown explorers. Coincidence or rip-off? Or working within a genre (the 'lost world') perhaps. Rider-Haggard's King Solomon's Gold Mines (1885), She (1886) and Allan Quatermain (1887) are the benchmarks, and you can bet that both Westerman and Burroughs read Rider-Haggard, along with Kipling (The Man Who Would Be King) and Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World). Popular culture demands popular thinking, and 'old Africa, land of mystery' was part of the popular imagination by the end of the Victorian era, and this extended into the twentieth century. While it might be part of the ancestral echo, it was certainly an extension of Egyptology. The cult of Egypt inspired not only art and industrial design, it also opened the door to the unwritten history and culture of Africa south. For Burroughs, it was to be a Darwinian festival, and he rose to the occasion with Tarzan the Apeman, an English aristocrat gone rogue in the jungle, a brilliant meld of the European superman and the prehistoric caveman. For Westerman, it was the politics of colonial competition, of war, technology and the spread of the anglo-christian ethic.
But both Westerman and Burroughs enjoyed a rumble, enjoyed asserting the superiority of the modern civilized warrior over the beast. Tarzan wrestles a panther to the death, a British soldier strangles a lion with his bare hands, and when all is said and done, both men speak English, even if one eats his meat raw and the other cooked. It's absurd, yet the gap between what we are and what we were, is always a measurement of the absurd.
Burroughs is more inclined to symbolism. In the city of the Maniacs (Tarzan the Untamed), the mutant population worship and humiliate an old English woman whom they've kept prisoner for sixty years, as if she's a supernatural Queen Victoria rather than what she really is, that is, the kidnapped daughter of a British missionary. The idea owes something to Rider-Haggard's white warrior race ruled by two sisters in 'Allan Quatermain', although Burroughs is implicitly a humourist, as degradation is part of his poetic cynicism. Westerman can be cynical too -- witness the occasional inserts about the state of the Royal Navy and outmoded protocols -- although his cynicism is mostly political rather than rooted in his view of the human condition. For example, when he wants to put the boots to someone, he follows the party line:
'...and the German, whenever he is confident that he is on the winning side, exhibited all the brutality and cruelty of his Hunnish ancestors. Attila was a scourge; his modern descendants are simply imitators, who, having their veneer of civilization, combine science with the bestial brutality in their methods of waging war' ('Wilmhurst of the Frontier Force' 1918)
If Westerman has a failing, it's probably that he has no good Germans and few reasonable ones. While he often characterizes Latins as lazy and incompetent, he does admit their occasional genius. For example, in his early work, The Flying Submarine (1912), Don Miguel O'Rourke is a sophisticated inventor who uses an old Cornish tin mine as a base to develop and test his submersible airship, then flies it back to his home country in South America where he uses it to depose a corrupt dictator, become president himself, and win a war against a bordering country... all this with the help of a standard Westerman hero, Sub-lieutenant Holmsby, as Don Miguel -- while a genius -- has moments of paralyzing fear. Even the Japanese are favored, as in Rounding Up the Raider (1916), where a Japanese liner is sunk by a German raider and the passengers cast adrift without mercy... but of course the Japanese were our allies then. But Germans... they're swine, and are to blame entirely for the first Great War. As Peter Barcroft the writer -- proscribed by the Kaiser -- says in Billy Barcroft R.N.A.S (1918), the point of this war is to gain "a lasting peace built on the ruins of German militarism". Naive optimism, as we now know, but nevertheless the statement is an accurate reflection of the British thinking of the time. Prussian militarism was to blame. Their later industrial revolution and the consequent population explosion and the fact that Germany was largely a land-locked country doesn't come into it. The natural competition between nations and cultures doesn't come into it, except as a casting for good and evil. The threat is existential, the eye of history jaundiced.
You might well wonder if Percy F. Westerman was a paid political propagandist or recruiting agent for the British government of the day. It's possible, although his name doesn't appear on the list of writers contributing to Lloyd-George's War Propaganda Bureau, set up in the fall of 1914 under the stewardship of Charles Masterman. Some participants will be familiar to readers of British literature: Arthur Conan-Doyle, Ford Maddox Ford, Thomas Hardy, John Masefield, G.K. Chesterton, G.M. Trevylan, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, et. al. Certainly Westerman thought of himself as worthy; in Billy Barcroft R.N.A.S the Kaiser dispatches a Zeppelin to Lancashire to abduct Billy's father because of his written insults against the Fatherland. The Zeppelin makes a night landing in a field near Barcroft Snr's cottage, but wouldn't you know it, the snatch-squad kick in the door and grab a visiting neighbour by mistake, a man who is in fact a German spy. This incident is probably a humorous admission by Percy F. that his anti-German war novels would have his name on any proscription list the Kaiser might have.
The Bureau was revived as the Ministry of Information for WW 2, and many writers contributed. Of particular interest is H.V. Morton's 'I, James Blunt', a "what if Hitler occupies England" novella published in 1942 as commissioned war propaganda.
There's nothing unique about this, either for WW 1 or 2 or any other war. Artists were hired to paint propaganda posters or design camouflage decor for military weapons, and writers did their bit. Captain W.E. Johns, the author of the popular aviation Biggles novels, wrote for the government during WW 2, and Johns is the natural successor to Westerman in the adolescent action novel genre. While they do overlap, Westerman was writing and publishing long before Johns, and in fact his aviation cop Standish precedes Biggles as an 'air policeman' (Standish of the Air Police 1938 vs. Sergeant Biggleworth 1950). It is interesting to note though that both these writers wrote their most vital and authentic stories about the Great War -- Westerman, at the time, and Johns later, although he wrote from combat experience and Westerman didn't.
Edgar Rice Burroughs certainly had in for the Hun -- consider the opening lines of 'Tarzan the Untamed' (1920):
Hauptmann Fritz Schneider trudged wearily through the somber aisles of the dark forest. Sweat rolled down his bullet head and stood upon his heavy jowls and bull neck. His lieutenant marched beside him while Unterlieutenant von Goss brought up the rear, following with a handful of askaris the tired and all but exhausted porters whom the black soldiers, following the example of their white officer, encouraged with the sharp points of bayonets and the metal-shod butts of rifles.
There were no porters within reach of Hauptmann Schneider so he vented his spleen on the askaris nearest at hand, yet with greater circumspection since these men bore loaded rifles -- and the three white men were alone with them in the heart of Africa.
Not bad for someone who was reportedly Stalin's favorite author. In Burroughs, the brutal law of the jungle is observed with the dispassionate eye of Thomas Hobbes (life in the state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short") or -- if you prefer -- with the naive eye of Henri Rousseau the painter. The imagery is as precise as it is primitive.
colonialism and modernism
The East Africa struggle between the British and the Germans --largely forgotten today -- provided the setting for several of Westerman's novels, including 'Rounding Up the Raider' (1916) and 'Wilmshurst of the Frontier Force (1918). If Burroughs had a 'poetic' view of WW 1 in the East African theatre, Westerman's was more real, if just as anti-German. No doubt he read the news reports of the Smuts campaign, studied his geography, and -- as usual -- the weapons and ordnance used. So in 'Wilmshurst' particularly we get an authentic picture of the vicious tools of death and destruction: "Caltraps" (feet spikes), "wired muskets" for ambush, land mines... the Miganga plateau bunker... "flaming brands" (torches) and the 4.1 inch guns salvaged from the Kðnigsberg raider disabled in the Rufigi river (here, the guns are eventually destroyed by seaplane bombs)... and so on. Ah, the Huns and their bag of dirty tricks!
Perhaps the only incredible incident is when an officer strangles a lion with his bare hands; you wonder, of course, if Westerman had read the first Tarzan novel, 'Tarzan of the Apes' (1912), threw in this incident for comic relief. While most of the action is gung-ho, the narrative voice does drift into humour, for example, the secret agent Ulrich von Gobendorff who infiltrates the WAFF unit when it's heading for German East Africa is a homicidal buffoon. But unlike Burroughs, Westerman has no women as characters; in Tarzan the Untamed, the 'spy' appears to be a young German beauty, whom Tarzan rescues and protects despite his loathing for Germans, and, of course, there's an easy pivot at the end when Bertha Kircher is revealed to be the Honorable Patricia Canby, "one of the most valuable members of the British Intelligence Service attached to the East African forces."
So while the 'only good Hun is a dead Hun' survives as a maxim for both writers, the Burroughs hatred is more personal. Westerman's Germans are always more distant, as if the romance of war technology stands between him and any enemy made of flesh and blood. Westerman admits no sense of achievement by the adversary -- only cunning in the service of murder and mayhem. You'd think there would be some respect shown for the GEA colonial military commander, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. Despite General Smuts' rear attack from neighbouring Rhodesia (plus supporting forces from the Belgian Congo), von Lettow-Vorbeck was able to retire into the hinterland, inflict thousands of casualties along the way. He managed stay undefeated and uncaptured for the rest of the war, conducting a guerrilla campaign from Portuguese Mozambique and northern Rhodesia using a force of predominately 'askaris' native soldiers led by German officers.
The fact that he salvaged the Königsberg's guns as field artillery is a remarkable story onto itself, and is mentioned in both Westerman's Wilmshurst and Rounding Up the Raider novels. Raider is quite a good action read, and the final act takes place in German East Africa, taking its inspiration from the entrapment and subsequent disabling of the Königsberg in the Rufigi River delta. Westerman reinvents the action as a weaponized German merchant ship (a "raider') called the 'Pelikan' that's forced to seek refuge in GEA after sinking several ships in the Pacific and South Atlantic. Three Royal Navy subalternates -- who were taken prisoner when returning home on a Japanese liner, a Pelikan victim -- escape into the jungle and conduct ad hoc commando raids on German installations, including salvaged 4.1 inch gun emplacements constructed to stymie the eventual arrival of the Royal Navy "monitors' (floating artillery).
The romance of the wounded light cruiser Königsberg (prior to the war, the Kaiser's schutzstaffle for foreign visits) retreating to the sanctuary of the Rufigi and subsequently being disabled by Royal Navy shells continues to this day. The late Hugo Pratt (1927-1995), the premier Italian 'long-form' illustrator-novelist, used the incident in his Corto Maltese story The Leopard Men of the Rufigi. That Pratt freely pillaged the annals of adventure literature for his plots has been admitted; his favorite authors included Robert Louis Stevenson, Baron Corvo, Edgar Rice Burroughs and many others. Although he was a restless soul -- not unlike his apolitical soldier of fortune character, Corto Maltese -- he always had a large library on hand. Several biographical sources state that he got into English literature while interned in a British concentration camp in Libya (his father was an officer in the Italian army). Did he read Westerman? Did he have to? His knowledge of Africa wasn't all learned from books; he lived in Ethiopia prior to WW 2 as his father was part of the Italian occupation force. And both he and Westerman were influenced by Stevenson.
However, Corto does meet with a "Captain MacGregor", the British officer in charge of the captured Königsberg wreck, and there is a "MacGregor" in Wilmshurst. It's a generic Scottish name to be sure, and chances are it would occur to an Italian fictioneer just as easily as to an English one like Westerman. Pratt probably met one or two when incarcerated in that camp in Libya, when the British guards were lending him adventure books and comics. In any event, Corto Maltese's adventure with the Germans and the shape-shifting Leopard Men is more of a cultural lesson delivered by dream than the stock combat story between good and evil.
'1918. While in Europe the war was coming to a close, in Africa it was still going strong. The German general Lettow Vorbeck roamed freely in East Africa. His troops seemed like a ghost army, appearing here one minute and there the next. The English, Belgians and Portuguese were losing their minds trying to catch him...' (Hugo Pratt, Corto Maltese: The Leopard Men of the Rufigi)
As a character, Corto Maltese could be considered a secret service agent with an allegiance to no one but himself... and the reader. He's just a neutral POV except when he has to save himself or intervene to save the innocent or the underdog. The gap between Corto Maltese and the Westerman hero is not only the gap between Italian and British culture, but also between colonial certitude and the post WW 2 world weary cynicism of the new, rootless European. Westerman was a believer, whereas Pratt was an observer, a bohemian rather than a patriot. As a hero, the 'de-nationalization' of the man-of-action is a secular phenomenon, a hipster search for the adventure of inner space rather than the missionary search for reward in the natural world. Sacrifice becomes a dangerous, outmoded principle. Relativism replaces ethnocentricity, caution replaces confidence, the drifter replaces the soldier. Wanna die, brother? I don't think so. I'd rather read a book, let someone else do the dying. As Corto says in his Stevensonian 'The Secret of Tristan Bantam': "It's better for me to live without a past."
There's much to be learned from the Westerman world of 100 years ago, even if it's subjective, as fiction always is. In 'The Thick of the Fray at Zeebrugge, April 1918' (1919) presents a brutal in-close account of the British attempts at blocking the Belgium seaports of Zeebrugge and Ostend, which were used by the Germans as a base for their U-boat fleet; both ports were connected by canals to Bruges, 6 miles inland, which provided a safe refuge for the submarine pens. The attacks were more or less suicide missions and were trumpeted as victories by the Admiralty... and of course Percy F. Westerman. The Royal Navy lost nearly six hundred men (as versus less than 20 for the enemy), more than the combined death toll inflicted by the Zeppelin raids on England between 1915-18. While ships were sunk to block the Bruges Canal, the Germans were able to clear a new channel within days, a fact that was down-played by the British government... and Percy F. Westerman.
Of course the sacrifice was scaled against Trafalgar and real politik. The gloating coda wherein Westerman moves forward a few months to describe the surrender of the German Navy confirms his patriotic view of Zeebrugge and Ostend as victories, even if later information about these battles suggested otherwise.
All of which should make his 'novel' nothing more than a piece of fantasy propaganda, perhaps. It is propaganda, to be sure, yet it's also an excellent dramatization of the action. The insider detail of naval combat makes the novel worth reading by itself, despite the occasional lapse into blind triumphalism and jingo speak. If the narrative had been written in the first person, it would pass as top class war correspondent reportage, or in today's terms, the eye-witness participant style of the "New Journalism". As it is, it's historical fiction, it's military fiction, it's science fiction. Still, the flag waving (the White Ensign) can be excused as 'character p.o.v.', even though we know Westerman was a believer.
There's no sub-text in Westerman, and his Anglo-Christian values of self-discipline, courage, sacrifice, and basic humanity might seem mere chauvinism dressed as imperial destiny for today's secular idealist; nevertheless the urgent drive of his narratives are worth discovering (or rediscovering, perhaps).
The "shock of the old" can be quite invigorating.
© LR Jan 2018
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