War Memoirs 1917-1919

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Bion's War Memoirs is perhaps the most exceptional piece of autobiography yet written by a psychoanalyst. The first section of the book is documentary, consisting of the entire text of the diaries which Bion wrote as a young man to record his experiences on the Western Front in 1917-1919. The photographs and diagrams with which he illustrated his recollections are also reproduced here. The diaries are followed by two later essays in the second part in which he reflects upon his wartime experiences. These meditations are influenced by his psychoanalytic training, and perhaps also suggest how his approach to psychoanalysis was influenced by his war-time experiences. Together, these diaries and essays provide a most moving picture of war and its effects.

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DIARY

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DIARY

France

June 26, 1917, to January 10, 1919

This is Bion’s factual record of his war service in France in the Royal Tank Regiment between June 1917 and January 1919, written soon after he went up to The Queen’s College, Oxford, after demobilization. Hand-written and contained in three hardbound notebooks, it was offered to his parents as compensation for having found it impossible to write letters to them during the war (see Commentary, p. 202). It has none of the nightmare quality he so vividly depicted in The Long Week-End; he would have been unable to express his very recent painful experiences, especially to his parents. But it is evident that he had them in mind throughout: detailed descriptions of tanks and equipment, explanations of battle strategy, photographs and diagrams were included for their benefit—and ‘bloody’ became ‘b——

in deference to their disapproval of swearing, a by no means unusual attitude at that time; Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ had been first performed only five years earlier, shocking audiences with Eliza’s ‘not bloody likely’.

 

1917

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In writing this, I cannot be absolutely accurate in some things, as I have lost my diary. In the main it will only be my impressions of the various actions. I do not intend to write much about life outside of action except in so far as it will give an idea of the life we led. My dates of events out of the line cannot be accurate. Actions are, however, accurate as they are very clearly stamped on one’s memory! I don’t intend to write much about the general scheme of action except in so far as it touched on our particular affair. For one thing, you can get that in nearly any report. For another, the general scheme touched one very little, and in the action itself everything is such terrific confusion that you can only tell what is happening in your own immediate neighbourhood. I shall try to give you our feelings at the time I am writing of. Although now one sees how unfounded some of our fears were, yet at the time we could not tell, and it was just the uncertainty that made things difficult to judge and unpleasant to think about.

 

COMMENTARY

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COMMENTARY

In the early 1970s I decided to make a typescript of Bion’s diary to facilitate any future reading of it and as an insurance against any possible loss of the original—somewhat late in the day, its having already survived many house removals in the ‘20s and ‘30s, London bombing raids in the ‘40s, further house removals in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a voyage of six thousand miles to California in 1968. That typescript tempted Bion to read the account for the first time since he wrote it fifty years earlier and to make some revealing comments on his reactions. As he rightly observes, ‘I am amazed to find I wrote like an illiterate when I had already been accepted at Queen’s’.

The commentary is written in the form he used in A Memoir of the Future, although here the conversation is between two characters only: BION, the inexperienced young man of twenty-one, and MYSELF, the wise old man of seventy-five. Memories come flooding back, reinforcing his dislike of his personality and poor opinion of his performance as a soldier. He says, ‘… I never recovered from the survival of the Battle of Amiens. Most of what I do not like about you [MYSELF] seemed to start then’. Fortunately this lack of self-esteem was offset by his pride in his family and his work as a psychoanalyst—the two areas of his life that were of greater importance to him than any other.

 

1972

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Lying beneath the stars, wrapped warmly in our blankets, my friend and I discussed the wonderful news. ‘I really feel almost sorry for the Germans. They haven’t a chance with France and ourselves against them. They have really gone too far this time/

It was August 1914. The diary was written in 1919 at The Queen’s College, Oxford. Since I wrote it I have not referred to it again till now, sixty-three years later. I write this under Californian skies.

* * *

I have changed some names as a way of avoiding hurting those who might recognize someone loved and no longer able to defend themselves. Nevertheless, I know that very little effort would be required to link the battles, the units engaged and the people who took part. I rely on the inertia of those who might make cruel use of what I say, to protect myself and others from unnecessary pain. There is no criticism that I make of others which could not with equal justice be applied to me.

There is one spirit from the ‘vastie deepe’ [Shakespeare, Henry IV] that I can conjure up. Here he is: powerfully built, inclined to fat but otherwise, superficially at least, physically fit; somewhat surly, though rarely given to outbursts of laughter; it is noticeable that he does not smile. His best friend at The Queen’s College once told him, with shrewd and kindly acuteness, ‘You do rather retire from the college and sulk/ His name is BION.

 

AMIENS

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AMIENS

As Bion writes in the Prelude to this unfinished narrative, memories were aroused by our train journey in France on August 3rd 1958. I remember his being visibly moved as he talked of his painful recollections; I became heavy-hearted, thinking of the lost generation of young men and those who were left to carry with them the burden of bitterness and disillusionment throughout their lives.

He writes in the third person and becomes the story-teller, attributing some of his own actions and experiences to other characters. It is a solemn chronicle of tired men grown cynical after years of futile losses and dashed hopes, unable to feel any enthusiasm now that the tide has turned in their favour and an end to fighting is at last a possibility. The only relief from the atmosphere of anxiety and fear is in the wry, ironic picture he draws of Major de Freine, although at the time, as he told me, he (transposed to Cook) found it impossible to see the ‘funny side’ of that living caricature of a cavalry officer of the ‘old school’.

 

Prelude

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The train was now travelling at speed. The sideways gentle oscillation of the coaches blended rhythmically with the thundering forward surge of the train itself. It was hot. The men working in the fields were bare to the waist. We could see them toiling over the vast rolling expanses of cornland that the train was now passing through.

Francesca sat opposite to me, looking as usual cool, neat, beautifully turned out, with her sweetly smiling face. She studied the menu, and in a moment or two the waiter came up to us, and we ordered our cocktails, which arrived in glasses already frosted with the contrast of their contents and the warm, humid air of this hot summer’s day.

The fields disappeared as we approached the outskirts of a town, and soon we were threading our way through the network of rails and points that made up Amiens station. Amiens—so that explained it. Some twenty minutes earlier we had passed a peculiar configuration of the ground about which Francesca- had questioned me. I had recognized at once the signs of shell-holes overgrown with weed. They pock-marked the ground round about some marshy pools, where the willow trees hung green and graceful in the bright sunlight. Still they seemed to be ineradicable, to be very little older than the shell-holes had been in the war, where one marvelled at the speed with which they were covered up with weed and willowherb in the period of the war itself. What surprised now was that so little further disguise had taken place. As the train sped through the complex of lines, I said to Francesca that it seemed strange that it was almost forty years ago to the day when I had last been here, and in such very different circumstances. It was a dream for her to be sitting opposite to me—a girl so beautiful, so loving, so near to a dream that I had always thought could never, never come to pass for me.

 

Fugue

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I

In the early evening of August 7th, 1918, Captain Bion, DSO, had been ordered to rest before the battle, since he had been at work from early dawn after several days of prolonged preparation of his tanks for action. He lay down on a rug on the grass of a high plateau overlooking the valley of the River Luce. Before him was a screen of trees of the wood in which the tanks of his battalion were concealed from enemy observation. The green leaves hung heavily in the hot evening air, their colour touched with bronze in the rays of the declining sun. He was twenty years old, and he commanded a section of the 3rd Company of the 5th Tank Battalion. Sharing the rug with him was 2nd Lieutenant Asser, aged eighteen, just newly joined with the battalion. The time was approximately 14.00 hours. The battalion was due to take up its positions for action, commencing the march-to-battle positions at 18.00 hours. The 3rd Company was to lead the battalion, and Bion’s section was the last one in the order of route. He and his companion composed themselves for sleep.

 

AFTERMATH

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Parthenope Bion Talamo

Had everyone gone mad?’ (p. 69).

I I This question came to Bion’s mind while commenting on what should have been one of the more peaceful and less frightening moments of his war years, the Christmas 1917 break from fighting, and refers to the brutish behaviour of men off duty. He gives it no immediate answer, but reading War Memoirs makes me wonder whether he did not perhaps spend a good portion of the rest of his life exploring the avenues of enquiry that it opened up, as he moved through the study of history to teaching, medicine, psychotherapy and finally psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytically informed study of groups.

The diaries themselves are almost raw material, with hardly any emotional or intellectual elaboration, a far cry indeed from the war poems of Owen or Sassoon. Even the later versions of the same experiences delineated in Bion’s autobiographical writings (1982, some parts of 1992) do not seem to have undergone great changes. It is interesting to note that some episodes are carried over almost unchewed and apparently undigested into A Memoir of the Future (1991), as though no further working-through were possible.

 

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