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J B Priestley: A Soldier’s Cause

J B Priestley was an author, playwright, broadcaster and social commentator. Best known for his plays such as ‘An Inspector Calls’ and his postscript radio broadcasts during the Second World War, his work commonly explored social and economic inequality.

In this short film, Dr Will Butler, Head of Military Records at The National Archives, uses Priestley’s service record to highlight how his experiences on the battlefield during the First World War shaped his ideas on social reform.

‘Literary Lives’ traces the footsteps, through the marks they left in our records, of some of our nation’s famous, and less famous, authors, spotlighting moments in their lives that have shaped them into the characters we know them to be today.

Transcription

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Will Butler]

Author, playwright, broadcaster and social commentator, John Priestley, was born in 1894 in Bradford, Yorkshire. Best known for his plays, notably, An Inspector Calls, and his postscript radio broadcasts during the Second World War, Priestley achieved huge success during his long and varied career.

Before becoming a writer, Priestley, like many young men, served in the British Army during the First World War. Initially as a private and then as an officer, Priestley was injured in combat, gassed and buried alive – experiences that were tragically typical for many young men serving on the front line.

Priestley’s writings and beliefs were profoundly affected by his military service. His experience of the officer class and the huge loss of human life influenced his plays and novels and shaped his ideas on social reform.

Priestley’s war can be traced through the records, here, at The National Archives.

[J.B Priestley Voice-over]

‘I have seen some terrible sights, and endured some hardships, but believe me, I never lost my nerve, and strange to say, I felt a strange exultation of the soul at the expense of the body. Do not be afraid for me; I am not afraid.’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Will Butler]

In September 1914, Priestley, along with hundreds of thousands of young men, enthusiastically volunteers as a private in the British Army, just one month after the declaration of war.

He is posted to 10th Battalion, West Riding Regiment, where he trains in towns across southern England.

[J.B Priestley Voice-over]

‘I am well in health and in spirits, but I am getting more and more impatient and disgusted as times go by, and we are still fooling about here.’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Will Butler]

Keen to engage in combat, he departs for France in August 1915 and is sent to the front line where he first experiences the reality of trench warfare.

[J.B Priestley Voice-over]

‘On Saturday … we were subjected to a fearful bombardment by the German Heavy Artillery – they simply rained shells … and there were we, the poor, long suffering infantry, crouched in our trenches, expecting each moment to be our last.’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Will Butler]

Under severe pressure, his patience for the officer class runs thin and, now frustrated, he writes home to his family, complaining of his companies treatment.

[J.B Priestley Voice-over]

‘I am disgusted with my company officers as a whole, and the way in which our men are badgered and hampered by silly little rules and regulations which other regiments have not to submit to.’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Will Butler]

In April 1916, he is injured, receiving a gunshot wound to his left hand, the result of a rifle grenade.

[J.B Priestley Voice-over]

‘It dropped right into the bay of the trench I was in, and killed one and wounded four. I’ve had some very narrow escapes from them this last day or two … They’ve made me rather nervy.’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Will Butler]

After recuperating at hospitals behind the lines in France, Priestley returns to the front.

[J.B Priestley Voice-over]

‘The part of the line we hold now is absolute ‘hell’… one night, while I was at the base, a Zeppelin dropped four bombs on the camp, killing and wounding a few … I’ve given over thinking about passes. Never mind, I shall be home with a ‘blighty’ soon …’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Will Butler]

But Priestley returns home sooner than expected. In June 1916, his luck runs out and he is buried alive in a dugout by an exploding shell and is sent back to England to recover in hospital. Here his service record suggests that he is suffering from shellshock.

After over a year out of action, on 29 January 1918, Priestley earns a commission as an Officer. Due to his medical history, he is posted to the 20th Prisoner Of War Company, responsible for the escorting of German Prisoners of War behind the lines.

[J.B Priestley Voice-over]

‘The Medical board decided I was B2, unfit for active service but fit for something.’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Will Butler]

He carries out this duty from the autumn of 1918 but by January 1919, he appeals for leave as his health has again deteriorated.

[J.B Priestley Voice-over]

‘I have been unwell for some days past … and found it impossible today to proceed to Folkestone. Will you please grant me an extension of leave as… it will be some days before I shall be capable of enduring a long journey.’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Will Butler]

Priestley returns to France in February but by March he is discharged. He receives 13 wound stripes during his time in service and he is entitled to a number of medals, including the 1915 Star, but he decides not apply to receive them.

Priestley wrote little about the war, but his service had a clear impact on his work. His experience of class disparity can be seen in his books and plays, as can his distain for the officer’s class, though he ended up becoming an officer himself later in the war.

Priestley’s years after the conflict were occupied by his desire to affect positive change in society. He saw missed opportunity for further social reforms after 1918 and became heavily involved in left wing organisations. He was monitored by the British intelligence services in the 1930s as a suspected communist, and he ran for Parliament during the Second World War as a candidate for the Common Wealth Party. He was later a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

After witnessing first-hand the effect social and economic circumstance can have on ones quality of life, Priestley used his words and celebrity to encourage a more fair and inclusive society. Just think, how could you use your life experience to make the world a better place today?

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