The Grinning Shadow that sat at the Feast:
an appreciation of the life and work of Hector Munro 'Saki'
Professor Tim Connell
Hector Munro was a man of many parts, and although he died relatively young, he lived through a time of considerable change, had a number of quite separate careers and a very broad range of interests. He was also a competent linguist who spoke Russian, German and French. Today is the 90th anniversary of his death in action on the Somme, and I would like to review his importance not only as a writer but also as a figure in his own time.
Early years to c.1902
Like so many Victorians, he was born into a family with a long record of colonial service, and it is quite confusing to see how many Hector Munros there are with a military or colonial background. Our Hector’s most famous ancestor is commemorated in a well-known piece at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tippoo's Tiger shows a man being eaten by a mechanical tiger and the machine emits both roaring and groaning sounds. 1 Hector's grandfather was an Admiral, and his father was in the Burma Police. The family was hit by tragedy when Hector's mother was killed in a bizarre accident involving a runaway cow. It is curious that strange events involving animals should form such a common feature of Hector's writing 2 but this may also derive from his upbringing in the Devonshire countryside and a home that was dominated by the two strangest creatures of all - Aunt Augusta and Aunt Tom. Even Hector's sister Edith (who wrote a valedictory for her brother in the 1920s) concedes that they were eccentric to a fault, though this almost certainly gave Hector one of his other key themes - the overbearing aunt who appears as a figure of menace. In this, of course, he is not unique, as Rudyard Kipling provides us with some harrowing insights into his own childhood and P G Wodehouse based much of his literary output on them, with titles like Aunts Aren't Gentlemen and phrases like “aunts calling to each other like mastodons across some primeval swamp”.
Be that as it may, Ethel is defensive of their upbringing, crossing swords with later commentators such as Graham Greene about how bad their childhood really was. It was certainly different; Hector did not go to school till he was twelve, and left at fifteen. His education really came from his father, who retired and spent several years teaching the children and travelling round Europe with them. This would explain Hector's taste for mid-European settings, the Gothic castles, the wolves and eerie Brothers Grimm-type tales. It would explain his command of French and German, though why he should be fluent in Russian is less clear.
At 23, he follows his father and brother into the colonial service in Burma, as a police officer. He writes original, witty and perceptive letters to his sister, in which he seems to be quite aware of the inconsistencies of colonial rule, the vagaries of the Far East, and the wealth of wild life to be found.
There is a wonderful episode where he seems to have acquired a pet tiger cub, and he takes it back to his hotel, which upsets the old English lady in the next room:
“The situation was awful – in my room a noise like the lion-house at 4p.m. while on the other side of the door rose the beautiful Litany of the Church of England. Then I heard the rapid turning of leaves, she was evidently looking for Daniel to gain strength from the perusal of the lion’s den story; only she couldn’t find Daniel so she fell back on the Psalms of David. As for me, I fled, and sent my boy to take the cage down to the stable. When I came back I heard words in the next room that never came out of the Psalms; words such as no old lady ought to use…” 3
Strangely enough, he does not seem to be attracted to colonial life as a literary theme, as Kipling is doing almost at the same time, and as Somerset Maugham will do only a few years later. Admittedly, the colonies do appear almost incidentally in the short stories of Saki, either as a destination for ne'er do well young men, or something to be remembered wistfully by older men in retirement. He tells of a military Johnny he found hanging around on a loose end at the club:
“He’d spent most of his life on the Indian frontier, building roads and relieving famines and minimizing earthquakes, and all that sort of thing that one does on frontiers. He could talk sense to a peevish cobra in fifteen native languages, and probably knew what to do if you found a rogue elephant on your croquet-lawn; but he was shy and diffident with women.” 4
On occasions, however, the autobiographical element shines through, mainly in Saki's key novel The Unbearable Bassington, in which the young protagonist dies of fever. And the ne’er do well who can settle down to nothing is summed up neatly:
“He had gone to grow tea in Ceylon, and fruit in British Columbia, and to help sheep grow wool in Australia.” 5
But he is also aware of the hidden human tragedies. There is Judkin, one of those men
“who have breathed into their lungs the wonder of the East, have romped through life as through a cotillion, have had a thrust perhaps at the Viceroy’s Cup, and done fantastic horsefleshy things around the Gulf of Aden. And then a golden stream has dried up, the sunlight has faded suddenly out of things, and the gods have nodded “Go”. And they have not gone. They have turned instead to the muddy lanes and cheap villas and marked-down ills of life, to watch pear trees growing and to encourage hens for their eggs.” 6
Worst, and most autobiographical of all is Comus Bassington – “the Boy who never came back”. In reality, Hector Munro suffers seven bouts of malaria in fourteen months and has to be repatriated.
Once he has recovered, he decides to become a writer, and chooses the rather curious theme of Russian history. It takes three years for The Rise of the Russian Empire to get published, and it was not well received. Edward Garnett, who became a commissioning editor for publishers like Unwin and Jonathan Cape, slated it, but then his wife was the first person to translate Dostoevsky and Chekhov into English. 7
It is not certain when Munro began to write his short stories, but the first seems to come in St Paul's magazine in 1899. The following year he finds a new direction when he teams up with Francis Carruthers Gould and the prestigious Westminster Gazette to produce an early form of political satire. "The Westminster Alice", a blend of clever cartoons that turn contemporary political figures into characters from Alice in Wonderland, are combined with stories that transfer the topsy turvy logic of Lewis Carroll into tales that highlight the shortcomings of the politicians of the day. 8 They cannot be understood by the modern reader without a lot of footnotes about the politics of the day, but it is curious that the complete set was re-published in the USA in the 20s, and sold far better than anyone had ever expected.
This was when Munro must have come to public notice for the first time, so it is perhaps ironic that he begins to publish under his pen name Saki.
Most commentators believe that this comes from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which is certainly more plausible than suggesting that the name comes from a South American marmoset or the town of Nagasaki. However, I have never been quite convinced. For a start, why should Saki be described as the cup bearer to the gods? Omar Khayyam may be described as the Heretic Poet of Persia, but Islam is monotheistic and Moslems do not drink alcohol. There seems to be a transference from Saki to Ganymede in Greek legend, but that only complicates the matter, because of Ganymede's pederastic relationship with Zeus, something which would have been immediately apparent to an educated Victorian audience. And my other problem is that Saki does not even appear in my copy of the Rubaiyat.
One of Munro's biographers records that he actually found five verses of the Rubaiyat copied out among some family papers kept by relatives of Munro. The other, in a splendid piece of literary detective work, spots the fact that Ethel gave brother Charlie a copy of the verses for his wedding present. Saki himself refers quite frequently to Omar Khayyam in his stories, though with so little reverence that he hardly seems to be repaying a debt of honour or acknowledging the master in some way. On the subject of Christmas presents he remarks:
“I am not collecting the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyám. I gave the last four that I received to the lift-boy, and I like to think of him reading them, with FitzGerald’s notes, to his aged mother.” 9
Now I checked my edition of the Rubaiyat and discovered that Fitzgerald actually produced four versions. The verse about Saki does not appear until version three - and does not appear at all in other English translations, which must give rise to the query as to whether the reference to Saki is key to understanding the text, or whether the word appears in the original at all. (I would check, but my Old High Persian is a bit rusty...)
And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one--turn down an empty Glass!
And when Yourself with silver Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!
And when like her, oh Sáki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
And in your blissful errand reach the spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!
And when like her, oh Sáki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!
1859 1868 1872 1879
There are at least a dozen other translations in English (including one co-authored by Robert Graves). These examples are by Edward Whinfield (1883), Arthur Talbot (1908), editions that Munro might well have known. Compare the crucial Saki verse:
Edward Whinfield (1883)
Comrades! when e'er you meet together here,
Recall your friend to mind, and drop a tear;
And when the circling wine-cups reach his seat,
Pray turn one upside down his dust to cheer.
Friends, when ye meet together, ne'er forget;
The one, whom o'er the cup ye oft have met;
And, when ye drink a draught of wholesome wine,
At my turn, upside down a goblet set!
What the translations do have in common is the exhortation to drink and celebrate the fleeting pleasures of life, and there is a clear note of impending loss or doom. The former would seem to fit in with Munro's hedonistic characters, and commentators are quick to compare the allusions to the brevity of existence with Munro's own untimely death. Now Hector Munro must have contemplated his own demise during seven bouts of fever, but there was no inkling in around 1900 of a catastrophic war to end all wars. And again, why the emphasis on wine and drinking? For this we have to turn to none other than the other memorable Persian poet Hafiz of Shiraz, whose Fourteenth Century poetry was also known to the Victorians, and whose use of imagery is thought to refer to some kind of celestial rather than earthly intoxication.
For saki is an Arabic word meaning a water carrier, a bit like the bhisti or Gunga Din figure of Indian literature. In the caravanserai of the East it was customary for the saki to meet incoming travellers to offer comfort and refreshment. It is clear that sexual favours might also be on offer, and that the water bearer was likely to be male rather than female, a topic that Sir Richard Burton dwells on in detail in the commentaries at the end of his translation of The Arabian Nights.
This aspect of the name I find the most problematic. The aesthetes, led by people like Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, had looked in some detail at the love that dare not speak its name, and John Addington Symonds, a significant literary figure in the period, wrote openly about homosexual attraction - one of the first people to do so in English literature. Ethel Munro, rather ingenuously, notes that the family met him in Davos during their tours around Europe, and that Hector used to go to his house to play chess. The photo taken of Hector during his first sojourn in London would seem to place him among the Aesthetes, people like Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson, although of course there is no indication that Munro was a poet or attended meetings of groups like the Rhymers Club.
However, the aesthetic movement must have been shaken to the core with the trial of Oscar Wilde, which took place in 1895, the year before Hector came to London.
The News of the World says:
“Society is well rid of these ghouls and their hideous practices. Wilde practically confessed his guilt at the outset, and the unclean creatures with whom he chose to herd specifically owned that the charges were true. It is at a terrible cost that society has purged itself of these loathsome importers of exotic vice, but the gain is worth the price, and it is refreshing to feel that for once, at least, justice has been done.” 10
The Daily Telegraph is no less critical:
“… it is well, perhaps, that the lesson of his (Wilde’s) life should not be passed over without some insistence on the terrible warning of his fate. Young men at the Universities, clever sixth form boys at public schools, silly women who lend an ear to any chatter which is petulant and vivacious, novelists who have sought to imitate the style of paradox and unreality, poets who have lisped the language of nerveless and effeminate libertinage – these are the persons who should ponder with themselves the doctrines and the career of the man who has now undergone the righteous sentence of the law.” 11
In a lengthy editorial it goes on to target the aesthetes quite specifically:
“We speak sometimes of a school of Decadents and Aesthetes in England, although it may well be doubted whether at any time its prominent members could not have been counted on the fingers of one hand.”
“…there has lately shown itself in London a contemporary bias of thought, an affected manner of expression and style, and a few loudly vaunted ideas which have had a limited but evil influence on all the better tendencies of art and literature.”
Wilde is referred to as “the prisoner of Saturday” who set an example to the “weaker and younger brethren”. It adds, “his fugitive success served to dazzle and bewilder those who had neither experience nor knowledge of the principles which he travestied…”
The article then goes on to attack Art for Art’s Sake, Art as Eccentricity, and repeats its warning to “the young men and maidens, the students whose zeal outruns their sobriety, the writers who yearn to show themselves unconventional and daring”, and concludes,
“Remember that it is far better to overtax the brain by reading, and to strain the muscles of the heart by excessive athletics, than to worship false ideals of art and life, and seek to shift the unalterable standards of right and wrong.”
And if the example of Oscar Wilde had faded by the time Munro was making his name, there was the tragic case of another Hector - Hector Macdonald, "Fighting Mac", the most popular soldier in the British Army. You all know him - he is the military figure on the Camp coffee label. He was considered by many to be the true victor at Omdurman, and yet his lowly origins (he had risen from the ranks) caused jealousy and dislike. When he was appointed military governor of Ceylon a malicious whispering campaign was started about his taste for little boys. He returned to London in an attempt to clear his name, and when he saw how the press was treating him, committed suicide. And that was in 1903. Public attitudes not so much towards homosexuality itself so much as homosexual activity drew an inevitable hostile public reaction. Even in the 1930s Somerset Maugham (who lived quite openly with his male secretary in the South of France) was warned to moderate his social behaviour in England by his own brother - who also happened to be attorney general. So it somehow seems unlikely that a young man, from a good family but still lower upper middle class (as George Orwell might have said) would draw unnecessary attention to himself by choosing a name with clear uranian overtones.
So where might the name have come from? This picture provides a clue. It is also the first time that a Russian lady wearing little more than a big smile and a couple of buckets of black mud has been displayed at Gresham College.. And welcome to the town of - Saki, as those of you who can read Russian will have spotted. Saki is a resort in the Crimea, not far from Yalta. It has been famous since ancient times for its curative black mud, and is still a well-known centre for rest cures and sanatoria. Munro spent three years studying Russia, so it seems quite feasible that he had come across the town. The thought of people covering themselves in black mud while in a state of undress would almost certainly have appealed to the Victorian mind, and in particular to someone who sets more than one story in a Turkish bath. He was a frequent visitor to the ones in Jermyn Street, which ironically are advertised on the very page of a London paper, the Pelican, which reported the trial of Oscar Wilde.
The foreign correspondent
Hector Munro spends nearly five years abroad as a foreign correspondent, firstly in the Balkans, then in Warsaw and St Petersburg, and finally in Paris. The Morning Post styles him as "Our special correspondent" and Ethel Munro recounts her adventures when staying with him in St Petersburg, during which time they both witness the massacre at the Winter Palace in January 1905 - and a bullet misses Hector by a few inches. Ironically, she comments on the quality of his reporting:
“Hector was the only foreign correspondent whom General Trépoff, Governor of Petersburg, did not send for. The others had given their papers very high figures for the casualties, and Hector, from information supplied by his spies, put the number of dead at about 1500”. 12
Perhaps Munro just knew a lot of people. It would certainly be in character for him to be sociable and have a wide range of acquaintances. It would also be quite characteristic of him to perform his work with particular care.
This surely leads to the question as to whether Munro was involved in Intelligence. One of his biographers writes (rather unquestioningly) that he corresponded with the Foreign Office during his time in St Petersburg, and he seems to have moved either in diplomatic circles, or with people who did. So I consulted the consular records for 1904 and 1905. All the original correspondence is kept on file, which provides a lot of interesting reading, ranging from firms trying to sell everything from patent candleholders to pickled herrings, and the innumerable adventures of English governesses.
The first thing that drew my attention was a despatch sent by the Foreign Office via the Moscow Embassy, dated 29th June 1904:
“From an examination of the correspondence received from your Consulate during the past few years it appears that little, if any, information of a general or political nature relating to events in your Consular District has been furnished to this Embassy.”
There may have been special reasons in the past for the absence of any reports of this kind, but it is evident that much information of an interesting nature could be supplied to His Majesty's Representative by His Majesty's Consular Officers without in any way departing from their proper attitude of intelligent observation and without exceeding their legitimate functions as Consular Officers. Any action on the part of Consuls in the pursuit of information, tending to bring them into conflict with the local authorities is greatly to be deprecated, but occasions must necessarily arise from time to time when His Majesty's Consuls are in a position to acquire information of a local or general nature which may be of considerable utility to His Majesty's Representative. Such information before being transmitted should be carefully sifted and. in the absence of a safe opportunity for the transmission of a letter or despatch, should, unless of an urgent nature be forwarded by post in a cyphered despatch."13
This theme re-appears in what would seem to be a genuinely commercial context. The editor of "The Partner" ("Home, Colonial and International Trader") writes on 23rd November 1904 concerning the supply of commercial intelligence:
"Of course I do not suggest that a Consul should supply information which would be inadvisable or improper, but there are many subjects upon which information can be given and upon which opinions may be expressed which do not come, perhaps, within the scope of Consular Reports."
The editor then offers to pay contributors for articles on Russian trade and methods, difficulties or ease of railway transit, cartage etc., but much of that information could clearly be of strategic value too.
The international situation at the time was tense. Russia and Japan went to war in February 1904, which apparently put the British expat population on edge as Britain was perceived to be pro-Japan, and the Dogger Bank incident did nothing to calm sentiment. Then there was internal unrest, not to mention difficulties involving Russian control of Poland. So Russia is of particular interest to the Press at this time, and journalists appear in the consular records. Angus Hamilton, who distinguished himself as the Timescorrespondent during the Boer War, arrives as a reporter for theManchester Guardian and enquires about getting a press photographer's permit. And his wife writes to ask if she could use the Consulate as a poste restante since she won't know precisely where her husband is. Then there are two telegrams from Maurice Baring, dated February and April 1904. The style is quite informal, telling the Consul were he will be staying in Moscow, and the other confirming what time he will be arriving.
Disappointingly, the confidential reports are written by the ambassador and the record has been printed, so none of the raw material remains. Some of the consular records are in cypher (and one is in Ancient Greek!)
I have found no trace so far of Hector Munro. But he was clearly well-connected during his time in St Petersburg. He knew Maurice Baring and HW Nevinson (both of whom reported on the Russo-Japanese War – Baring for the Morning Post and Nevinson for the Manchester Guardian).Munro also appears in Rothay Reynolds' account of his time as a journalist in Russia. Munro also seems to fit in well with other long-term commentators on Russia like Anthony Gerhardie, another literary figure, or Somerset Maugham, who is undoubtedly involved in espionage, and Arthur Rackham, whose reporting for the Guardian so incenses the Foreign Office that they withdraw his passport after the War in 1919. But then he does go on to marry Trotsky's secretary.
So there seems a strong possibility and in the circumstances it would seem logical. MI5 was not formed until 1909, and even then it was clear that overseas intelligence gathering was not systematic. But a cross-over between writing and espionage seems to be a feature of life in the 20th Century, with figures including Compton Mackenzie and Graham Greene, not to mention Frederick Forsyth and John le Carré.
In any event, Munro moves on to Paris in 1906 and increases his repertoire to cover cultural events and actually hosts a party for Nijinski when the Russian ballet comes to London. This might be the point at which he acquires a higher social profile, which in turn furthers his writing career when he finally comes back from abroad.
London and the literati
Munro was fortunate in that London was very much a focus for literature in this period. Higher literacy levels as a result of the Education Acts of 1870 and 1902 had led to an explosion in popular magazines, while the municipal libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie overtook the longstanding subscription libraries of the sort run by Boots the Chemist. And what a time it was for literary output - writers who have stood the test of time like George Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling, prolific authors who are less remembered today like G A Henty and Edmund Gosse, young hopefuls like Joseph Conrad and W B Yeats.
And writing was breaking the boundaries - new poetic movements, a vibrant London theatre, and a move away from the three-decker and ponderous high Victorian novel to the more exploratory themes of Samuel Butler or E Nesbit.
One key publication that Munro would have known, and which was at the heart of controversy, was the Yellow Book, an artistic and literary review which attracted the avant garde. Aubrey Beardsley did the illustrations and John Lane was the editor. Oscar Wilde was a contributor, although it is not true that he was grasping a copy of it when he was arrested (the book in question was actually a French novel). 14 But it was enough to provoke a mob to go round to John Lane's offices at Bodley Head and smash the windows - another indication of public sentiment at the time. John Lane, of course, was to become Munro's short story publisher.
It seems unlikely that Munro as a young man about town would have spent all his time in the British Museum reading Russian history books and he must have made contact with other aspiring writers. One friend who undoubtedly had an influence was Anthony Hope, better known as the author of The Prisoner of Zenda. He wrote some lighthearted pieces for the Westminster Gazette as early as 1894, which clearly builds on the fashion for one-liners and quick retorts of the kind that had made Oscar Wilde famous. The Dolly Dialogues appeared in book form (the first book, incidentally, to be illustrated by Arthur Rackham) and contains such oddities as:
“Boys will be boys. And even that wouldn't matter if only we could prevent girls from being girls.”
“- You oughtn't to yield to temptation.
- Well, somebody must, or the thing becomes absurd.”
"He is very fond of making things which he does not want, and then giving them to people who have no use for them." 15
So who does Munro know? What circles does he move in? He belonged to a gentleman's club, the Cocoa Tree in St James's Street, which was for medium business types, rather than the Savile or the Reform, where the leading literary figures of the day would meet. 16 He also seems to have been something of a protégé of Lady St Helier, a leading social figure and patron of the arts.
He had his connections via leading publishers. His first publisher, Grant Richards, was also the publisher for George Bernard Shaw, not to mention G K Chesterton, John Masefield, A E Houseman and Arnold Bennett. The major figures for Munro, however, were J A Spender (editor of theWestminsterGazette) and subsequently John Lane at Bodley Head. In his role as a newspaperman, especially a political commentator, celebrities might have wanted to know Munro for their own cautious reasons. But they would also have been wary of the damage he could cause. Winston Churchill, for example, is lampooned in The Westminster Alice and in “Ministers of Grace” where he appears as Quinston. 17
Munro was presumably out of circulation in London during his time as a foreign correspondent but after 1908 his short stories begin to appear regularly in The Bystander, he writes book reviews for the Spectator andThe Athenaeum, and becomes a parliamentary correspondent for theMorning News. Satire seems to work with light-hearted verse for the Daily Express and a kind of Commons sketch in the Outlook called “The Potted Parliament”. In the Bystander he begins a series of unlikely interviews, like the deposed King of Portugal being interviewed by Oscar Hammerstein. He attempts a reprise of The Westminster Alice in The Bystander but this does not get very far as the illustrator (who is only known as 'Pat') is not as accomplished as Carruthers Gould. Perhaps Munro is acquiring a certain level of gravitas, given his role as a parliamentary reporter and his standing with publishers. He is interviewed for the Bodleian in 1912 and makes the telling remark, "A humorist is almost invariably expected to be funny for life." 18
By now Munro is clearly diversifying, experimenting with theatre and moving towards becoming a novelist. The Unbearable Bassington appears in 1912 and then When William Came a year laterin 1913. We can only speculate where his literary career would have led after that. He knew that war was becoming inevitable, and his writing indicates his own private view emerging. There is a curious quotation from William, when the German conquerors decree that only the British will be exempt from military service in the new Empire as they have made such strenuous efforts to avoid it in the past. He writes almost longingly for:
"The martial trappings, the swaggering joy of life, the comradeship of camp and barracks, the hard discipline of drill yard and fatigue duty, the long sentry watches, the trench digging, forced marches, wounds, cold, hunger, makeshift hospitals, and the blood-wet laurels"
Literature and the coming of war
When William Came, published in 1913, was Munro's contribution to the Literature of the Coming War, which begins to appear as early as 1871 with George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking. Germany is usually seen as the adversary, (though France still pops up once or twice) and some popular newspapers encouraged, and quite possibly created, spy scares. H G Wells' War in the Air (1909) involves Britain and Germany (but not France or Russia) and subsequently the USA and then the entire world, as air blockades bring international trade to a halt and civilisation to an end.20 More typical perhaps, is Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands of 1903, where a plot to smuggle German troops across the North Sea which is foiled by a small group of lads. Then there is William Le Queux and The Invasion of 1910 (published in 1906) 21 Ironically, very few people foresaw the outcome of human wave attacks on emplacements protected by barbed wire and machine guns.
Munro's knowledge of both Germany and Austria-Hungary led him not to under-estimate what he viewed increasingly as the enemy. His hypothesis was that there will be a minor frontier dispute over colonies. Ironically he foresaw the war with Germany, but not the stalemate of 1915 but the blitzkrieg of 1940. A sudden attack, a quick checkmate and Britain is knocked out of the War, overwhelmed in particular by Geman air superiority. The situation is summed up with the thoughtful phrase about the sons of a once-great family:
"Her eldest son lived invalid-wise in the South of France, her second son lay fathoms deep in the North Sea, with the hulk of a broken battleship for a burial-vault."
Apparently Munro was anxious to get the book finished while it was still topical. It is quite possible that his role as a parliamentary correspondent made him sensitive to the political climate. He was actually in the House of Commons on the day war was declared.
In contrast to the speed with which men flocked to the Colours in August 1914, there seems to have been little inclination to do so until the time of crisis. Despite the perceived threat from the growth of the German Army and Navy, the Liberal government was opposed to conscription (which, in the event, was not introduced until 1916). Even in April 1914 the Mayor of Kensington noted that the local territorial battalion was too far below strength to go on manoeuvres. In August 1914, however, the queue to join up stretched endlessly down Kensington High Street, the local battalion was over strength and so the Mayor got permission to raise a new one - the 22nd Battalion, part of the Royal Fusiliers, a London regiment which today is based at the Tower of London. It was raised from three sources: local men (made up of white collar workers drawn especially from local department stores and blue collar workers from the docks). Then someone noticed that a group of "Colonials" had set up a tented camp in White City, so they were roped in too. 23
And lastly, men from King Edward's Light Horse were transferred across, as it was a yeomanry regiment and so not designated for overseas service. These included Hector Munro, who was anxious to see service abroad. (He also commented in a letter to Ethel that he found life in the cavalry quite arduous - and spent most of the time looking after his horse.)
So this is how Hector Munro seems to have joined the Battalion. But the mixture of educated men and slightly older men seems to have been quite congenial, and in contrast to attitudes in this period. Despite early attempts to form platoons by social class, there was a curious egalitarianism in this particular push. Major Stone, for example, whose archive of letters has provided us with a very clear picture of life (and death) in the Battalion was an Old Etonian, son of an Eton master. But then so was one of the sergeants, a man named Drew who was killed at Vimy Ridge. 24
As the official memoir put it, 22nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers comprised, "A very good type of Londoner and a very good type of Colonial." 25
However, it would be wrong to create some rosy image of a band of brothers. Life at the front was hard and often brutal. A sentry was shot dead on Christmas Day 1915. A private was executed for cowardice in 1916. And after a highly successful trench raid in May 1916 (ten Germans killed, eleven captured in return for no losses in the space of ten minutes) the men had their bayonets and trench clubs inspected on their return to check that every single one was bloodstained. 26
Many older men in fact falsified their age in order to be accepted for service abroad, as (rather more famously) did many youngsters. The officers in the 22nd Battalion were thirty years old on average. The recruits to the 23rd Battalion (another Pals' Battalion called "The Sportsmen") initially called for "upper and middle class men, physically fit, able to shoot and ride, up to the age of 45." So Munro might not have been such an exception after all. Many men in fact joined up over-age. This Victorian dandy (as you may imagine) is my English Great Grandfather. Family legend has it that he was something of a card: he was a saddler, who came from a long line of West Country harness makers. He had a contract to supply the Army on Salisbury Plain (he lived in what is now the Oxfam Shop by Salisbury Cathedral Close.) In his prime, he was also standard bearer of the Wiltshire Mounted Yeomanry. In 1914 he was 52 years of age - and volunteered for the Army Service Corps (or Ally Sloper's Cavalry as it was called colloquially) and spent the entire war in France. 27 So he was almost my age by the time he was demobbed. 28
Hector Munro was involved in three major actions: Delville Wood, Vimy Ridge and Beaumont Hamel, the last action of the Battle of the Somme and the end of the line for Munro. First Vimy Ridge was a costly failure. Delville Wood, only two months later, was a bloody encounter. Over 5000 men died contesting it, and it is for South African forces what Vimy Ridge is to the Canadians, or Pozières for the Anzacs. 29 The 22nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers sent in two companies, which included Munro. They were soon reinforced by every available man, and after a few days were down to 18 officers and 400 men. Eye witness accounts record that Munro distinguished himself in the chaos of the fighting line, holding men together even from different units. This may be why he was promoted to Lance-Sergeant and given some leave in London. His army pal Bill Spikesman writes of him with some admiration:
“Hector on this occasion surprised even me, who had always tried to emulate some one worth while; he stood and gave commands to frightened men, in such a cool, fine manner that I saw many backs stiffen, and he was responsible for the organization of a strong section, giving them a definite “front” to face, and a reassuring word of advice.”30
The experience does not seem to have altered his view of life as a soldier, and having survived two fairly bloody actions, he may have felt lucky, or finally knew how to lead men in battle. His sister Ethel records seeing him off at Waterloo station for the last time in July 1916 with the cheery cry of, "Kill a good few Germans for me!" which would hardly be a sisterly farewell to some shell-shocked wreck of a Tommy.
Then Fate took a hand, as befits the author of such short stories as "The Hounds of Fate" or "The Lost Sanjuk". Munro suffered a relapse of the malaria that had cut short his career in Burma. However, he knew that the Battalion was due for the front, and did not want to be thought of as a shirker. To quote the second-in-command of his battalion:
"You will see in the papers that Sgt. Munro (sic), Hector Munro 'Saki' the writer was killed, one of the men that I really and honestly admire and revere in this war. He steadfastly refused a commission, and loved his friends in A Coy.
From being a smart man about town he became the dirtiest looking old ruffian you ever saw; and when he got really ill two months ago, instead of going home and making the most of it as those other blighters do, he managed to get back to us about a week ago. He was sitting in a shell-hole talking to two men and was actually in the middle of a sentence when he was shot clean through the back of the head. He did very finely for us all." 31
In fact A Company had been put out to guard the left flank in a night attack on the village of Beaumont Hamel. It was a foggy night, and the fighting had died down by the early hours. Munro and some other men had taken cover in a shell hole. An English officer called across to a friend. A man struck a match, Munro snapped, "Put that bloody cigarette out!" whereupon he was shot in the head by a single round from a sniper. Irony was added to Fate. Saki the short story writer depended for effect on the final punch line. The whole story would lead up to one final twist, and in this one last real-life instance it was his being the epitome of third match unlucky. The sniper must have seen the match, heard the voice, and fired. It is a grim irony that would have appealed to the Saki in Munro.
There is an extra element in Munro's concern about appearing to show funk or being a shirker. One wretched lad in the Battalion, aged 20 went AWOL on the night that Munro was killed. He was picked up by the military police some way from the front line, returned promptly to his unit, court martialled and shot on December 9th. The most telling point at his court martial was that he had failed to perform well at Delville Wood. Ironically, his grave was obliterated in the bombardments of 1918, so his name appears on the memorial at Thiepval alongside those of his comrades as one of the 73,000 men who fought on the Somme and who have no known grave. 32
A further irony was that Beaumont Hamel was the last major action in the Battle of the Somme. But even had Munro survived it, he would probably not have got through 22nd Battalion's next major engagement, at a place called Oppy Wood where, in April 1917, the Battalion lost all but 40 men and the officers back at headquarters. In early 1918 it was merged with the 23rd and 24th Battalions as divisions re-grouped with three rather than four battalions each. Although the Royal Fusiliers served at Gallipoli, the 22nd was never transferred to the East, as Munro had hoped, since he had spent some time in the Balkans as a foreign correspondent.
He might, of course, have relented and gone for officer training. Bill Spikesman did that, and came back to the 5th Battalion.33 Munro's insistence on serving in the ranks is one of a number of mysteries surrounding his military service. He could have been drawn into the propaganda mission, like Anthony Hope, author of the Prisoner of Zendaand The Dolly Dialogues - and who got knighted for his contribution to the war effort. Munro might have raised morale at home, like Rudyard Kipling, who was only five years his senior. He could have obtained a commission quite easily, (he was offered a place in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) but apparently was concerned that he lacked experience and did not want to be sent on a lengthy officer training course when everyone knew the War would be over by Christmas. He had written quite forcefully in the papers about the need for military training, and was publicly scornful of younger men who had not joined up. He had pressed for When William Came to be published as a matter of urgency in 1913, and commented to a friend that since he had published the book it was only right for him to go and meet Kaiser Wilhelm half way.
There is a nice story that a visiting general came to see the Battalion in camp, and came across Munro peeling potatoes. As the General was his old bridge partner there was a moment's embarrassment, then the General offered him more appropriate work - which Munro indignantly refused.
He was an able linguist, and his knowledge of French and German (let alone Russian) could have been put to useful purpose elsewhere. But then he had already been caught up teaching German grammar to fellow soldiers and had avoided being drafted into processing German prisoners-of-war. And he had the action man's disdain for others in cushy rear echelon jobs. In The Square Egg he refers rather disparagingly to “a drifting leaven of local civilians, uniformed interpreters, and men in varying types of foreign military garb.” 34
Interpreters always have occupied an ambiguous position in time of conflict. They may even come under suspicion themselves as sympathisers or collaborators.
Which leads to the second mystery. Munro was a professional journalist. He had been a foreign correspondent in Russia, Poland, the Balkans and France, and had travelled widely in Central Europe, all of which was well known as so many of his stories are set there, and have wolves, foreign countesses and Gothic castles as a leitmotiv.
His bellicose attitude, the alacrity with which he joined up and his evident popularity with his fellow soldiers indicate that he had found his particular niche. But it still seems odd that, after the initial excitement had died down, he was not moved out into more appropriate work, even within his own Regiment. The 10th Battalion was called the Stockbrokers, having been raised in the Square Mile. It is perhaps significant that there was a link with the Travellers Club, as there is a reference in the Regimental History to a "twin" battalion, known as Intelligence B, I(b) for short. 35
It began with men from Scotland Yard who spoke French or German and (to quote) "It performed mysterious and wonderful things, such as forming the buffer state between a colonel and a babel of tongues." It expanded into a numerous body of officers and men from various units, recruited for their knowledge of languages. Some had experience of languages through travel, one was a showman with performing bears, while others were the product of a mixed marriage or a foreign education. There was even a professor of languages...36
In France they searched for German agents and generally operated in civilian clothes. Their work spread to Italy, Salonika, the East and, finally, to Russia. I can't but help thinking that Munro would have fitted well into this motley crew, and his contribution to the war effort would have been no less valuable than his time in the trenches. Other writers, such as Somerset Maugham and Hugh Walpole, and Arthur Ransome, all served in Russia: Maugham in intelligence, Walpole with the Russian ambulance brigade, and Ransome as correspondent for the Daily News and The Observer.
And a final oddity is why Munro should have registered his home address as Dublin. Remember that the original call went out for Colonials of all descriptions - and Ireland (strictly speaking) was still a colony under British Rule, the only one other than India to have a Viceroy. Munro had been happily ensconced at 97 Mortimer Street W1 since 1896 - and had even returned there after he finished as a foreign correspondent in 1907. His father died that year and so Munro bought a cottage for his sister in Caterham.37 The Dublin connection comes with brother Charlie, who was actually governor of Mountjoy prison. 38 Hector made Charlie his executor, so it is just possible that there was a confusion on the form about the home address. But the 22nd Battalion was initially raised as the Kensingtons and Colonials, with the latter making up A Company. Perhaps Hector fancied the idea of being in A rather than B Company, or perhaps he had spotted a small technicality: the rate of pay for a British private was 1/- a day, and stayed at that level throughout the War. Dominion troops, however, fared considerably better: the Canadians were paid 4/2d a day, the New Zealanders 5 bob, and the Australians the princely sum of 6/- per day. 39 It would be interesting to see the rate that Hector Munro qualified for! There was, of course, one further slight complication: he was born in Burma, which at the time was part of the Indian Empire, so you will sometimes see his place of birth listed as India.
What might have been
It is perhaps fruitless to speculate on what might have happened had Munro survived - or not even joined up in the first place. So many good men were killed that every walk of life lost its best talent. No fewer than 64 published poets died on the Western Front, and who knows how many budding ones who never had a chance to be known.
What would Munro have come back to do? He would have been 50 in 1920, so it seems unlikely that he would have continued writing about spritely young men of the sort he had seen slaughtered in their thousands. He would happily have passed that mantle on to the much softer stories of P G Wodehouse, and may well have gently encouraged his nephew Dornford Yates in his writing career. He would undoubtedly have enjoyed the more acid style of Evelyn Waugh and perhaps sharpened up his own wit with satirical comment on the country's rulers by returning to his pre-War job as a parliamentary reporter.
He may not have been embittered by his war experiences, but he would have been relentlessly critical of the generals and war leaders whose errors of judgement had led to the deaths of so many good men. He might even have become a Member of Parliament himself in the Conservative persuasion, and joined in the hounding out of Lloyd George from public life. As a popular figure and as one who had served in the ranks he would have attracted a wide ranging vote. With his writing talent and fine voice he could have gone far as an orator. His old CO in the Fusiliers might even have got him a job with the BBC, where he was the gramophone correspondent and founding editor (with Compton Mackenzie) of The Gramophone (which oddly enough, my grandfather wrote reviews for in the 20's and 30's.) Munro might even have aligned himself with Winston Churchill as a critic of appeasement. Whatever the circumstances, I doubt whether he would have faded into obscurity.
Hector Munro was remembered with affection and respect by his peers.Punch said in 1920, "When the literary Roll of Honour of all the belligerents comes to be considered quietly, in the steady light of Peace, not many names will stand higher in any country than that of our English writer HECTOR MUNRO," and it goes on to refer to his "subtle and witty satires, stories and fantasies”. It adds, "There is in every story a phrase or fancy marked by his own inimitable felicity, audacity or humour." 40 His works were re-issued at regular intervals through the 1920s and who wrote the introductory notes is significant: writers like G K Chesterton, A A Milne and Hugh Walpole; old Russia hands like Maurice Baring, H W Nevinson and Rothay Reynolds; Sir John Squire, a key poet in the Georgian movement, and the Liberal Peer Lord Charnwood. 41 Evelyn Waugh did a retrospective on Saki in 1947 and as late as 1963, so did Noel Coward, for the Penguin Complete Saki (which is actually far from being complete). 42 Saki has never been out of print in 100 years. He still appears in anthologies and collected editions. Oddly enough, he has only been serialised once on TV. 43 Emlyn Williams did some sound recordings in 1978 and even produced a one-man show. 44 There is currently an audiobook out on CD containing some of the stories.
As the war generations pass on, and that long Indian Summer of Edward's reign fades into folklore and myth, so the record of a society on the verge of the modern world becomes somehow more attractive, and the piercing observations of human frailty and the acerbic wit add an extra touch to hold the reader's attention. I believe that he was in fact a far more significant contributor to English Literature than we realise, more than a newspaperman, though not quite a man of letters. But he has stood the test of time better than Maurice Baring, who wrote novels and published collections of poetry or Hugh Walpole who was knighted for his services to Literature, let alone GA Henty, who wrote 122 books between 1868 and 1902. 45 Hector Munro was writing a novel a year by the start of World War One. There are technical shortcomings but he may well have matured and written something more heavyweight than his novels and perhaps something deeper than his short stories. He was collaborating on plays; again there seems to be evidence that he was having some trouble with technique, but his quick-witted one-liners and polished style may have allowed him to develop as a playwright, someone perhaps like Ben Travers who had known him at Bodley Head.
So there it is. A man of many parts, who may have been less mysterious had more of his papers survived, and had he even survived himself, but then he was a prime example of the Edwardian age, with a strong sense of Victorian duty. A versatile writer, a sociable man, whose death was much regretted. But he lives on in his work, which has now acquired additional value because of the insights into the world that he inhabited. But the rebellious young men, the overbearing aunts, the absurdity of the humour, the sharpness of the wit, all seem to survive in the modern age. I think there is something there for everyone even today. The fact that so many people have turned out tonight on the anniversary of his death is proof of that.
1 The V&A has a video clip on its website, showing how it all works.
2 “The Music on the Hill” or “The Stalled Ox”,
3 Written from Mandalay, 30th October 1893. The Short Stories of Saki, Bodley Head 1930 page 667.
4 “The match-maker” page 108.
5 “Bertie’s Christmas Eve” page 436.
6 “Judkin of the Parcels” page 62.
7 Garnett encouraged young writers like Conrad, Galsworthy, D H Lawrence and Steven Crane, but he did turn down Somerset Maugham and James Joyce...
8 They also ran five editions of the Not So Stories, satirising political figures as characters from the Kipling’s Just So Stories, but they failed to catch the public imagination.
9 “Reginald on Christmas Presents” page 9.
10 News of the World 26 May 1895 page 132.
11 The Daily Telegraph 27 May 1895 page 133.
12 In Ethel Munro’s “Biography of Saki”. See page 685.
14 John Betjeman's poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde alludes to this episode.
16 Founded in 1698, it was a haven for Jacobites in 1745 and a club with Tory leanings thereafter. Lord Byron was a member.
17 Churchill was also a regular visitor at Lady St Helier's, as Clementine Hozier was her niece, and they were first introduced to each other at Lady St Helier's house.
19 When William came p.762.
20 PG Wodehouse creates a typically lighthearted view of the matter in Clarence Saves the Day, when England is invaded simultaneously by no fewer than nine foreign armies, each blissfully unaware of the others' presence. (It is also the first time that a Mad Mullah appears in English Literature.)
21 It was made into a film with Michael York as recently as 1979.
22 When William came p.745.
23 A newspaper advertisement on 12th September 1914 appealed for men with "any association with the OVERSEAS DOMINIONS and COLONIES".
24 Sheffield page 52.
26 The plans for this raid are still extant at WO95/1372.
27 Ally Sloper was a popular cartoon character. In fact he appeared in the first ever strip cartoon and W C Fields based his character on him.
28 It is interesting to note that of the graves I saw in Picardy, the oldest man (a major) was 54 and the youngest an air mechanic aged 16.
29 3000 South Africans were sent in and five nights later less than 150 came out.
30 In Ethel Munro’s “Biography of Saki”.
32 It seems unnecessary to give his name here. It is quite an unusual one, and there are still people of that name living in the London borough that he came from.
33 He was captured during the German offensive of March 1918 when in command of a trench mortar battery. He was repatriated in December 1918, is exonerated by a military tribunal although on the reserve list, and gets married in 1920. We last hear of him in 1923 when the Civil Service Commissioners ask the War Office for a reference on him – as a clerical officer.
34 The Square Egg page 541.
35 The 10th was raised among City employés following a letter to the Travellers' Club dated August 12th 1914. 1600 men volunteered within 2 weeks.
36 O’Neill (1922) page 10.
37 "Warcot", Woodland Way, Caterham, Surrey.
38 People with an Irish surname might wish to note that Charles Munro supervised the execution of Kevin Barry in 1920.
39 See Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, (2002) First to Damascus, Kangaroo Press page 68.
40 Punch vol. 156, February 26th 1919.
41 Lord Charnwood was a writer himself under his name Godfrey Rathbone.
42 J W Lambert also wrote a perceptive introduction to the Bodley Head Saki in the same year.
43 By Gerald Savory. The series was shown once in 1962 and again in 1986.
45 The show appeared at the Apollo Theatre in London as “Saki”and at the Playhouse Theatre, New York as "The Playboy of the Weekend World".
He also wrote for Boys’ Own Paper.
Page references to the stories relate to the Penguin Complete Saki (Penguin 1976.)
References to Ethel Munro’s Biography of Saki comes from The Short Stories of Saki, Bodley Head 1930 edition.
The two key biographies of Hector Munro are:
C H Gillen (1969) H.H. Munro (Saki), Twayne Press. This is strong on the writing and press context of Munro’s work in particular.
A J Langguth (1981) Saki Simon & Schuster has very interesting information supplied by Munro’s descendents, though care should be taken with some of the data concerning his military career.
For Munro’s military career, there are two seminal works on the 22nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers:
H C O’Neill (1922) The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War, Heinemann.
C Stone (1923) A history of the 22nd (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Kensington), published privately and now in the Imperial War Museum.
Stone’s letters have been edited in a very sympathetic piece of work that gives many insights into the workings of the Battalion and the men who served in it:
G D Sheffield & G I S Inglis (ed) (1989) From Vimy Ridge to the Rhine. The Great War letters of Christopher Stone. Crowood Press.
See also Sheffield’s chapter “A very good Londoner and a very good type of Colonial” in B Bond et al (1999) Look to your front. Kent: Spellmount.
© Professor Tim Connell, Gresham College, 14 November 2006