With Prophetical Insight
The Anvil of War: Letters Between F. S. Oliver and His Brother: 1914-1918. Edited by Stephen Gwynn. (Macmillan. -12s. 6d.)
Reviewed by J. M. N. JEFFRIES
F. S. Oliva was a man of the type which causes the F.-ench to say "they do not make two like that." He is amid me acknowledged historians. On passing policies he wrote great pamphlets, in a noble manner unseen since the eighteenth century. He knew most men of any importance in the country : if there was anyone he did not know he probably had but to mention it and he would meet him within a week, as likely as not as a guest in his own house. This was before the Great War. When the war came he entered, to quote Mr. Gwynn, "deeply but unofficially into the councils of the war cabinet." The Prime Minister came to talk and to rest and even to resolve dissensions with colleagues at Oliver's board. Haig invited him to take control at G.H.Q. in France of all civil affairs in which the British armies were involved, and found time to write to him even in the moments of our greatest peril.
Withal, this historian, this wielder of English, this confidant of statesmen, of admirals' and of commanders-in-chief, was a man of business, at the head of one of the large London stores. He began one of his chief political pamphlets with the sentence, "I am a draper." He had made a remarkable success of drapery, too. Besides this he was a Scots laird, the owner of 'a fine estate at the foot of the Cheviots, with gardens to all appearance modelled upon his prose style.
Throughout the war he wrote letters to his brother in Canada. Mr. Gwynn has made a selection of these, and with one or two of his brother's replies and an admirable introduction by Mr. Gwynn they constitute this book. The interest of these letters coming from such a man in such a position in such a time can be imagined.
They contain full-length portraits of Haig, Kitchener, Lloyd George and other figures of the war. Few men have been dissected in their lifetime as Mr. Lloyd George is dissected here. Oliver's crosssection of him is perhaps the best tribute that ever he will receive, for the calm classification of his defects gives the greater value to the catalogue of his countervailing merits. Haig is shown to the life. Oliver's fervent affection for him does not prevent him from noting Haig's too lenient choice of some of those immediately surrounding him. For proof of this, observes Oliver, he would have chosen me. Was ever a writer so detached?
He concludes that in England the four persons who did most for winning the war were Mr. Lloyd George, Lord Milner, Sir Henry Wilson and a man of whom more and more I get the impression that he is a sort of human secret formula, Sir Maurice Hankey. Kitchener is shrewdly judged. One character Oliver does not quite grasp. At the Admiralty "Winston is too self-confident and forgets that he is only a civilian." As though Mr. Churchill ever could be only anything.
After an erratic trial-ball, an extraordinary length of prophecy is maintained in this book. Oliver twenty years ago saw things coming which not everyone in their midst sees yet.
Two points remain to be made. Willy Oliver was a worthy recipient of the letters. His analysis of the battles of the Somme is as good as anything ever written of the war. Secondly, F. S. Oliver had his limitations. He is unjust to Lord Northcliffe, Mr. Birrell, Lord Beaverbrook. He is contradictory about Sir William Rebertson, odd about Lord Balfour. He bursts into a thoroughly commonplace, unmotived, unsupported, unexplained "sutorian" explosion over the "failure of the Churches." Lastly, his ignorance of what Italy was doing, and his admission of the wide indifference to what she did, show only too well how the seeds were sown which we are reaping to-day.
Signpost, An Independent Guide to Pleasant Ports of Call. By W. G. McMinnies (Simpkin Marshall. 3/6). We are glad to hear that this is an " independent" guide, because it looks like an advertisement which we should expect to obtain free or at a nominal rate. It describes hotels and road-houses all over the country and all receive praise. At one of them the food is stated to be "first rate." We know it is only second rate. Beaconsfield is not in Middlesex, nor is Bourne End, nor Farnham (see page 23). The book however may well find a place in the motor's dashboard cubby hole..
The Veil of Veronica. By Gertrud von le Fort (Sheed and Ward. 3/6). A welcome cheap reprint of a novel with Rome, its old paganism and its living beauty, as its backgrcund.