Saki: The Open Window and the Birds of WW1

Fanny Nushka Moreaux; 2012, “Automne 1931”

“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.

“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”

Framton Nuttel is in the county for a nerve cure. He labors under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure.

He has the misfortune to carry a letter of introduction to a Mrs Sappleton.

While waiting for her to appear he is entertained by her very self-possessed niece, Vera who has a grisly and highly active imagination. Romance at short notice was her speciality.

In classic H.H.Munro “Saki” style what happens next is both ghastly and absurd. As a reader you get to choose your point on the spectrum of humor and horror.

The Open Window

Munro himself is a bit of an enigma. His stories often featured the follies of well-bred, effete and dim-witted young men-about-town and the elegant and idle life of the Edwardian well-to-do. He jumped at the chance to serve when war began, refused a commission and thrived on the hardship of the front line.

He grew up virtually parentless. His father was an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police stationed in Burma and his mother died when he was two.

In 1872, on a home visit to England, Mary Munro was charged by a cow, and the shock caused her to miscarry. She never recovered and soon died.[2]

He was brought up by cold and puritanical aunts. Read The Lumber Room and Sredni Vastar to get a sense of what that was like.

Hector, his elder brother and his sister were brought up by their father’s sisters, two maiden ladies, who were devoted to the children, but had old-fashioned Scottish ideas of discipline. Their home was near Barnstaple, a lonely house in a garden shut in by high stone walls with meadows beyond. The three children had no companions, and were thrown on their own resources for amusement. One of their diversions was to produce a newspaper. All through his childhood Hector professed violent Tory opinions, and at a very early age he began to take an interest in politics and to read any books or papers dealing with them that came his way. He loved, above all, the woodlands and the wild things in them, especially the birds. His delicate health caused his aunts somewhat to temper their severity in his case, but I fancy they must have had some difficulty in curbing his high spirits; for he was a thoroughly human boy and up to every sort of prank. Rothay Reynolds. The Toys of Peace

In 1896 he moved to London to make his living as a writer. He wrote many wickedly funny and sometimes macabre stories and sketches that satirized Edwardian England.

Munro had two writing personas. He usually published his journalistic work under his given name but used the pen name of “Saki” for his short stories. There are two theories on the choice of “Saki”. Saki is Farsi for ‘cup-bearer’, as in the ancient Persian poem The Rubayat of Omar Khayyam. However, saki is also the name of a South American monkey and Munro’s stories are certainly mischievous and playful. Both appear in his work.  

On August 3rd 1914 Munro went to the House of Commons to hear the speech by Sir Edward Grey the Foreign Secretary.

This even life in town, occasionally varied by a visit to a country house, was rudely disturbed by the shock of war. Munro was in the House of Commons when Sir Edward Grey made his statement on the position that this country was to take up. He told me that the strain of listening to that speech was so great that he found himself in a sweat. He described the slowness with which the Minister developed his argument and the way in which he stopped to put on his eye-glasses to read a memorandum and then took them off to continue, holding the House in suspense. That night we dined at a chop-house in the Strand with two friends. On our way Munro insisted on walking at a tremendous pace, and at dinner, when he ordered cheese and the waiter asked whether he wanted butter, he said peremptorily: “Cheese, no butter; there’s a war on.” A day or two later he was condemning himself for the slackness of the years in London and hiring a horse to take exercise, to which he was little addicted, in the Park. He was determined to fight. – Reynolds

Munro was ready for war and eager to enlist. He was over military age and not robust.

In the first weeks of the war there seemed little chance of his being able to become a soldier. “And I have always looked forward to the romance of a European war,” he said.- Reynolds

When at last Munro managed to enlist in the 2nd King Edward’s Horse, he was supremely happy. He put on a trooper’s uniform with the exaltation of a novice assuming the religious habit. But after a few months he found that he was not strong enough for life in a cavalry regiment and he arranged to exchange into the 22nd Royal Fusiliers. He chafed at the long months of training in England and longed to get to the front, but military discipline was to him something sacred and, whether in England or in France, he did his utmost to conform himself to it and to force others to do the same. One of his comrades told me that at the front they would sometimes put their packs on a passing lorry; it was against orders, and Munro refused to lighten the strain of a long march in this way, although the straps of the pack galled his shoulders.- Reynolds

Munro refused to accept a commission.and appeared to relish the hard life of an infantryman. The army pulled his upper teeth which were rotten and Munro grew a mustache to hide the gap. He chafed to get to the front.

We have a good deal of fun, with skirmishing raids at night with neighbouring huts, and friendly games of footer; it is like being boy and man at the same time. All the same I wish we could count on going away soon; it is a poor game to be waiting when others are bearing the brunt and tasting the excitement of real warfare” (A.J. Langguth, Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981 P.257).

On 7 November 1915 he embarked for France.

In a letter to his niece Felicia he wrote cheerfully about war as a game;

I think you would enjoy going out at night to mine the wire entanglements in front of our lines. You have to creep, creep like a prowling cat, and when the enemy sends up a flare every few minutes, you have to press yourself flat on the ground and pretend to be a lump of earth. It reminded me of the times when you and I were wolves and used to go prowling after fat farmers’ wives. Langguth, P. 268.

Munro’s regiment mobilized for war in November 1915 and landed at Boulogne and then transferred to the 99th Brigade of the 2nd Division and were engaged in various actions on the Western front including in 1916 the Battle of Delville Wood, the Battle of the Ancre and Operations on the Ancre.

When he came home on leave, it was evident that the strain of military life was telling on him. He was thin and his face was haggard. But the spiritual change wrought in him by the war was greater than the physical.

He told me that he could never come back to the old life in London…. The dross had been burnt up in the flame of war.- Reynolds

He continued to write when he could and certainly retained his sense of humor. Around Christmas 1915 he composed a mock carol that he sent to his sister Ethel:

While shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground,
A high explosive shell came down
And mutton rained around.

It was at the front that he wrote his most moving and poignant work – “Birds on the Western Front” – in which he commented the persistence of bird life in spite of the fury of shellfire and bombardment. It was his last work.

The wounded lying there, if any of them noticed the small bird, may have wondered why anything with wings and no pressing reason for remaining should have chosen to stay in such a place… the only other bird I ever saw there was a magpie, flying low over the wreckage of fallen tree-limbs; ‘one for sorrow’, says the old superstition. There was sorrow enough in that wood.

Sorrow enough indeed.

Birds on the Western Front

Memorial at Thiepval

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

Beaumont-Hamel – one of the last major engagements in the protracted battle of the Somme in 1916 – was the name of one the German fortress villages that controlled the valley. Allied forces had tried to take in in July and had suffered tremendous losses especially among Canadian troops from Newfoundland.

Another assault was launched on November 12th.

In The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War H.C. O’Neill describes it this way:

The 22nd and 23rd Battalions, belonging to the 99th Brigade, who were in reserve, found themselves committed to the support of the unsuccessful left flank of the Ancre attack. The 22nd went up to form a defensive flank to the 5th Brigade, but such were the difficulties that this object was not achieved until 9 a.m. on November 14th. But when the line was once taken up it was firmly held, despite a persistent and very accurate shell fire throughout the day. It was nervous and wasting work, but the battalion bore it so well that, on the 15th, they were able to leap forward and seize the Quadrilateral. They were reinforced by the 4th Battalion, who crossed the open and shell-swept ground with only 8 casualties. The position was consolidated and held till 7 a.m. on the 16th, when the battalion was relieved.

Four days later, at night – as men were crossing no-man’s land to occupy trenches evacuated by the Germans and sheltering in a shell-hole – Lance Sergeant Munro was shot in the head by a sniper.

His last words were:  “Put that bloody cigarette out!”  

Munro has no known grave. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme together with 72,245 other British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Battles of the Somme with no known grave.

Ivon Hitchens. Moatlands: Winter-Stage ca.1936

Embedded in the door frame of the featured image is an altered detail from Ivon Hitchens, ‘Damp Autumn’ 1941.


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