Olaf Stapledon and the First World War

lAFM 37“No other book had a greater influence on my life”, wrote Arthur C. Clarke about Olaf Stapledon’s first novel, Last and First Men (1930). Stapledon is perhaps best known today as one of the fathers of visionary science fiction, heir to H. G. Wells and  a major influence upon writers such as Doris Lessing and Brian Aldiss, each of whom discovered copies of that same novel and (like Clarke) were changed utterly. But he was also – perhaps predominantly – a philosopher, educationalist and social reformer, linked to pacifist movements in the 1930s and (until his death in 1950) a tireless campaigner against the prospect of a Third World War between the USA and the USSR.

(William) Olaf Stapledon was born in Wallasey in 1886. His grandfather William, a sea captain, took advantage of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 to establish a shipping agency representing the Holt Blue Funnel Line. Stapledon spent several years in Port Said as a child before being educated at Abbotsholme School and Balliol College, Oxford. He began to write and publish poetry: Latter-Day Psalms, a collection of free verse expressions of spiritual ennui, was published in 1914.

After the First World War, Stapledon went on to become a social reformer and lecturer, for the Workers’ Educational Association and extramurally for the University of Liverpool, where he gained in 1925 a Ph.D in Philosophy. During the 1930s he campaigned for disarmament and World Government, influenced by the ideas of H. G. Wells.

Stapledon in Friends' Ambulance Unit uniform
Stapledon in Friends’ Ambulance Unit uniform

The outbreak of the War in 1914 caused Stapledon to examine his pacifist instincts. In 1915 he joined the Ambulance Unit of the Society of Friends, carrying wounded and dying men and driving ambulances under fire.

He drew on his gruelling wartime experiences in his second novel, Last Men in London (1932), which explores the moral and ethical struggles of his protagonist Paul, who, like Stapledon considered that “To fight for one’s nation against other nations in a world insane with nationalism, is an offence against the spirit.”

In Last Men in London:

A few days later Paul heard of a curious semi-religious ambulance organization, which, while professing pacifism, undertook voluntary succour of the wounded at the front. It was controlled and largely manned by a certain old-established and much- respected religious sect which adhered strictly to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, and to its own unique tradition of good works and quietism. Some members of this sect preached a rigorous pacifism which very soon brought them into conflict with authority; but others, who tempered pacifism with a craving to take some part in the great public ordeal, created this anomalous organization, whose spirit was an amazing blend of the religious, the military, the pacific, the purely adventurous, and the cynical. This ‘Ambulance Unit’ lasted throughout the war. It was formed in the first instance as an outlet for the adventurousness of the younger sectarians, who very naturally chafed at their exclusion from the tremendous adventure and agony of their contemporaries. Throughout its career it contained many such, normal young men eager for ardours and endeavours, who, though they had no very serious pacifist convictions, remained loyal to the tradition of their fathers, and refused to bear arms. Others there were, both within and without the sectarian fold, who, though they profoundly felt that to make war in modem Europe under any circumstances whatever was treason against something more sacred than nationalism, had yet not the heart to wash their hands of the world’s distresses.

Paul’s experiences in war drive him to the edge of mental collapse, something which must have reflected Stapledon’s own reaction, and the nightmarish terror and emotional dislocation of serving in the Ambulance Unit is described in the novel, as well as in a later account, “Experiences in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit” published in a collection of essays by various “war resisters” entitled We Did Not Fight in 1935. Paul/Stapledon’s service was eventually recognised, but this recognition brought about an ambivalent reaction from those proud of their achievements in saving lives, but embarrassed by their complicity in warfare:

The Convoy, having borne itself well, was cited in the orders of the Corps d’ Armée. It was therefore entitled to have the Croix de Guerre painted on its cars. The artists undertook this task. The bronze cross, with its red and green ribbon, was earned also by certain individual members of the Convoy. Should they accept it, should they wear the ribbon? To refuse would be insulting to the French army. But that pacifists should display military decorations was too ridiculous. There was some debate, but the thing was done. Thus did these pacifists, hypnotized for so long by the prestige and glamour of the military, bring themselves to devour the crumbs of glory that fell from the master’s table.

Stapledon medals 1
Stapledon’s First World War medals, including Croix de Guerre, far left

Robert Crossley, Stapledon’s biographer, tells of how, when he was awarded the Croix de Guerre after the Armistice, he tossed the medal into a drawer after his return home and never referred to it in any of his writings about the war.

Last and First Men, Stapledon’s first novel, is an ambitious future-history of the human race, ending up with the eighteenth and final species of humanity on Neptune, written as by a member of the “Last Men” telepathically influencing the mind of an obscure English academic. These “Last Men” try to reclaim the past through telepathic contact with previous civilizations, but this becomes endangered by Neptune’s own imminent destruction. All that can be done is to disseminate human spores throughout space in the hope that some will find a home. In the sequel, Last Men in London (1932), Stapledon attaches this vision to a narrower compass, and focuses on his Neptunian future-narrator’s relationship to the consciousness of his “host” Paul, growing up in the early years of the twentieth century through the First World War and its aftermath. Paul becomes an individual “case-study”, but the use of analytical Neptunian observers, with their wider viewpoint, allowed Stapledon to consider what he considered to be the “racial neurosis blended of guilt, horror, inferiority, and hate” which undermined humanity’s confidence in its own nature. The crisis of the First World War, Stapledon suggests, was that neither its opportunities for individual altruism and heroism nor collective revulsion for its atrocities offered models for human development.

Though it was not yet possible for the masses to reject war, it was no longer possible for them to accept it without guilt.

To the aloof Neptunian observer, the aftermath of the War was a paradox: the renewal of hope for a new world and the corruption of those ideals which could bring it about. It marked the failure of the strivings of the First Men (us) and the beginning of their/our decline.

In a postcard to H. G. Wells in 1934, Stapledon drew himself as a jackdaw, “free, but uncertain” outside the cages of Marxist socialism and dogmatic religion. For Stapledon, perhaps, the War was the most (until the next war, that is) poignant example of the question which runs through all his philosophical and fictional writings, and which he presented in Star Maker in 1937, as the firestorm of the Second World War was growing nearer. How, in the clash of ideologies and nationalisms which the First World War was to herald, can we defend the ideals of both the individual and collective values of humanity

yet preserve the mind’s integrity, never to let the struggle destroy in one’s own heart what one tried to serve in the world, the spirit’s integrity?