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The Memoir

Draycot began his memoir in 1937 (the diary entry for 20 October reads: ‘I start to write my story of the Great War’). Entitled ‘Pawn No. 883. Being the Adventures of a Pawn of War in the Affair of 1914–18. Recollections of My Activities during the First World War, 1914–1918’, it took over a year to complete. Written by hand, it was subsequently typed by Draycot himself. Only parts of the hand-written script have survived. The primary purpose of the memoir is to reveal the horror and futility of war.

It is important to consider what differentiates the memoir from the other media discussed here. It emphasises the situation of the subject in a social environment, directing the reader’s attention to the lives of others and how their actions influence the narrator. Lacking the interiority and subjectivity of other autobiographical texts, it features a subject that is constituted in the verbal statements and actions of others: the ‘I’ of the memoir is ‘externalized and ... dialogical’.i Draycot’s memoir is concerned with the influence of authority on the private soldier’s actions. It contains repeated references to orders from above and reflections on the competence, or lack thereof, of the commanding officers. The narrated ‘I’ is a ‘pawn’ in the service of others, a number to be manipulated.

Memory is clearly an important factor in memoirs. It is no coincidence that Draycot subtitled his memoir ‘Recollections of My Activities’. The capital letter in the possessive pronoun stresses that they are Draycot’s recollections and no one else’s. ‘Pawn No. 883’ is a series of reminiscences supported by his diary entries (of which more in the second article). It is an attempt to create a coherent story that makes sense of experiences and motives that appeared to be bizarre at best, and downright evil at worst.

Memories are ‘records of how we have experienced events, not replicas of the events themselves’.ii The context in which we recall how we experience events is politically charged: which memories was Draycot ‘permitted’ to record? What did he forget or deliberately omit, and why? How did his intended readers (members of the Lynn Valley community in which he lived, and fellow ex-soldiers) influence the content and style of the memoir? How outspoken could he be about the conduct of others, especially that of his superior officers? While it is impossible to answer such questions without access to Draycot himself or his contemporaries, they should be borne in mind in discussing the fictional nature of his textual and pictorial representations.

Draycot’s recollections purport to be the truthful reflections of a private soldier. As Jean Norton Cru argues, military history has misrepresented reality through misguided motives of patriotism, glory and tradition: ‘If anyone knows war, it is the lower ranks, from private to captain’.iii The voice of the private soldier is absent from many historical accounts. Memoirs by famous public figures such as David Lloyd George (penned at the same time as Draycot’s memoir) were often written in the spirit of self-vindication rather than out of a desire for truthful documentation.iv Meanwhile, official histories by commanding officers were criticised for their inaccuracies.

One such history is Lord Beaverbrook's Canada in Flanders, published in 1917 (Draycot refers to Beaverbrook’s memoir in ‘Pawn No. 883’). Beaverbrook admits in his preface to the fifth edition that the earlier editions contained a number of factual errors. His response to the critics is interesting. He admits to methodological problems as he confesses ‘it was not until long afterwards that it was possible to collect and collate the whole of the battalion diaries’. He acknowledges that Canada’s involvement in Flanders was both ‘great and confused’, and, although fresh evidence had come to light, he decided against reconstructing his narrative in order to avoid spoiling ‘whatever merit it may possess’.v He confesses that even the new volume contains inaccuracies and that his account is in part fictional.

i Lee Quinby, ‘The Subject of Memoirs: The Woman Warrior’s Technology of Ideographic Selfhood’, in Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory: The Brain, Mind and the Past (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 297–320.
ii Daniel L. Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory (Chicago: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 16.
iii Jean Norton Cru, War Books: A Study in Historical Criticism (San Diego, CA: San Diego State University Press, 1985), 1 and 8.
iv Andrew Suttle, Rewriting the First World War: Lloyd George, Politics and Strategy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 196 and 202.
v Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, Canada in Flanders (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1917), v. Available at OnRead.com.

Next: The Memoir - Part Two
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