Friday, December 11, 2015

WILLIAM ARCHER’S “WAR IS WAR” (Another invasion of Belgium play)

When World War One began, William Archer (1856-1924) was a distinguished man of letters.  Archer was a drama critic, the English translator of Henrik Ibsen’s plays and the author of numerous books, mainly related to theatre. He began his professional journalistic career as a drama critic in 1884, with the London newspaper The World.

Since Archer was in his late fifties in 1914, he was beyond the age to join the military.  He was determined to help his country.  His initial work was in censorship, but in 1916 he was appointed to British War Intelligence.  It was during this assignment that he was required to study documents relating to the German invasion of Belgium. His primary study was of Germany’s written defense of its soldiers conduct during the invasion of August, 1914. This document referred to as The White Book is titled Die volkerrechtswidrige Fuhrung des belgischen Volkskrieges.
William Archer was incensed by the cruelties he read about. He decided to write a play depicting the German soldiers’ actions during their invasion of Belgium. War is War was completed sometime in 1918. In the Preface to the published edition of the play, Archer states “War is War was finished in its present shape some time before I knew of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Burgomaster of Stilemonde.”  Maeterlinck’s play relating to the German invasion of Belgium was translated into English in 1918 and it was successfully produced in England. (I have two earlier posts related to Maeterlinck’s play.) 
Archer’s play never received a staged production for a number of reasons, but it was published in March 1919. In addition to the short Preface, the book version of War is War has a long Postscript subtitled “The Evidence in the Case.”  Archer used the Postscript to document many of the incidences he included in his play.
You may be wondering if Archer’s play is similar to the one written by Maeterlinck? Without making this question a major point of my post, the basic similarity relates to the fact that both plays address the first several days of the Belgium invasion. Each one is set in a village that is seeing the first wave of German soldiers. The types of characters are also similar. Much of what happens during Act One share a strong resemblance, but each play takes a very different path from that point forward. Archer stated in his Preface: “I have tried in this play to depict twenty-four hours in the life of a typical Belgium village—the catastrophic descent from unapprehensive serenity to devastation, decimation and ruin." His ultimate purpose appears to provide the reader with the “realization of the meaning which militarism attaches to the phrase ‘War is War’.
Archer’s play is set in the fictional village of Pirenne, between the German frontier and Liege. The time of the play is between 8 A.M. on August 5, 1914, and 8 A.M. on the following day. The first act of War is War is set on the grounds at the front of the Burgomaster’s two story house. It is a sunny morning and the chores are being done before breakfast is served in the courtyard. The Burgomaster’s family includes his wife, adult daughter named Suzanne, the local schoolmaster--engaged to Suzanne, the Burgomaster’s father and a couple of servants. It is during this act that a division of German soldiers arrive and commandeer the village. The Burgomaster and the local priest are quickly arrested and are to be taken to the town hall. Just before the Burgomaster is marched away to his imprisonment, Lieutenant Kessler arrives. He is a member of the German infantry; however, he had been a house boarder at the Burgomaster’s the previous spring and he had fallen in love with Suzanne. The direr situation becomes more demanding when the property is commandeered in order to house the German Colonel and five of his officers.
Act Two is set at the house as well; however, it is night, with faint moonlight. The Officers are being served dinner in the courtyard. The Germans reveal their perceptions of the current situation and the treachery aimed at them by disgruntled Belgium citizens. Shortly chaos breaks out and the German soldiers swing into war mode. Soldiers set the Burgomaster’s house on fire, the German cannons are fired and the women in the Burgomaster’s family are marched off to be locked in the schoolhouse for the night.
Act Three is set in the village's public square. It is the following day at 8 A.M.  The German soldiers are in control of the situation and many of the people of the village are locked either in the schoolhouse (women) or the church (men).  The looting by the German soldiers took place before they started burning the buildings in the village. The citizens of the village are to be dealt with prior to this infantry division’s departure.  The Colonel pronounces the death sentence for specific villagers and the firing squad begins to carry out his instructions as the final curtain falls.
William Archer’s play commences on the second day of the German invasion so that it demonstrates the early conduct as well as the state of mind of the invasion forces. Archer included one character that is based on a real person. He used the name of the actual person—Captain Walter Bloem (1868-1951). Bloem was renowned due to his popular 1912 trilogy about the Franco-German War (1870). Archer believed that Bloem’s most popular novels from the trilogy, The Iron Year and People against People, keyed the World War One German soldiers to expect treacherous and vile battlefield incidents as well as deadly attacks carried out by Belgium citizens. These Belgiums were known as “francs-tireurs”.  In the Postscript to the play, Archer discusses at length his evidence against Bloem.
The publication of the play was obviously important to Archer. He was committed to revealing the scale of devastation that the invading German Army caused in Belgium even without provocation. He felt compelled to reveal his proof of such atrocities.
This play is available to read on-line through Hathi Trust Digital Library.

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