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Jack's Life

Douglas Gresham
Douglas Gresham, author of Jack's Life and stepson to C.S. Lewis

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BOOK EXCERPT

Daring, Duty, and Despair

By Douglas Gresham
Broadman & Holman Publishers

CBN.com – Excerpt from Jack's Life, Broadman & Holman Publishers

In the holidays before Jack’s last term at Malvern College, Jack had come to know a near neighbor of his in Belfast, a boy about three years older than himself, named Arthur Greeves. They became friends because of Jack’s good nature and good manners. Arthur was sick and in bed, and his mother thought that a visit from someone might cheer him up. Arthur was thought to have a weak heart (though it turned out later that he didn’t at all), and his mother used to spoil him and put him to bed as soon as he felt even the least bit tired or out of sorts. Jack, being the good-natured and well brought up boy that he was, went along to Arthur’s house to visit the lad who was probably not in the least ill but merely bored silly; and much to his surprise, he found that he was reading a book of Jack’s beloved Norse myths. At once they were launched into a deep and lively conversation, and the acorn was planted of a relationship that was to grow into a giant oak tree of a friendship, a friendship that was to last for the rest of Jack’s life.

It is interesting to look back on because the two boys were different in so many ways. Jack hated the thought of being ill and loathed having to stay in bed. Arthur on the other hand enjoyed being sick and would take to his bed at the slightest provocation or just not get up at all if he didn’t feel like it. I suppose that being the youngest of five children, it might have been his way of ensuring that he got his share (and more) of attention from his busy mother. Jack loved to work, while the mention of the word would almost reduce Arthur to helpless weakness.

The two boys became fast friends. So close were they that when they were a bit older, they discussed the secret things of boyhood, girls and what they felt about them. Arthur was not averse to falling in love with almost every girl he met and would tell Jack all about it. Jack was a little less excitable, but he too had his share of longings, and he told Arthur all about his relationships—some real and some imaginary. With Arthur, Jack shared many of the secrets of his heart. Arthur had a fine taste in literature and was already widely read. After all, he spent a great deal of time in bed before radios were invented to say nothing of television; he never went to any formal school and more or less educated himself at home from books until he was twenty-five years old when he went to an art school.

Arthur began to recommend books for Jack to read, and he had such a wide experience of books that he was able to give Jack some good advice in this matter. Jack read everything Arthur wrote to him about, and Jack in turn advised Arthur on what to read next. In this way they both encouraged each other to forge ahead in reading. Soon though, Jack was reading all the great classics of Europe in their original languages, and he left Arthur far behind in this regard.

While he was Great Bookham, Jack did not spend all his time reading and studying. He also went for long walks through the wild countryside of the county and again came face-to-face with the various animals that haunted the woods and fields. In England in those days, hedges were used more than fences to separate fields, and then, as today, each hedge was like a city for wild birds and animals. All kinds of English songbirds nested in them, and among their roots foxes had their earths (which is what a fox’s home is called), badgers their setts, rabbits their burrows, and throughout them weasels and stoats hunted and fed. Surrey was also home to huge old trees, oaks, ash trees, horse chestnuts (or “conker” trees) as well as sweet chestnuts and elms. Squirrels leapt and played in the branches, and the world was alive with sound and movement. Surrey was a beautiful place back then, but over the years since, the towns have slowly spread out and grown larger and larger, many of them just joining up, swallowing little villages as they did so. Now it is mostly covered with houses, towns, and motorways. Jack revelled in his walks, and in his reading as well. Some of the authors he read were pretty advanced for someone not yet eighteen, but he also read books by people like John Buchan, H. H. Rider Haggard, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and other more popular writers; he had long loved the works of E. Nesbit.

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While Jack was learning and growing, the war was also growing, though nobody seemed to be learning much from it. The news from the front always seemed to be bad no matter which side you were on, and it always was bad with more and more young men killing and being killed. It was impossible for Jack to be unaware of all this, and yet at the time it seemed distant, as if it were some strange dream of which he was not a part, at least, not yet. Though even in Surrey, on a still night if the wind was just right, he could hear the mutter and grumble of the far distant guns in France. About this time and with the encouragement of Kirkpatrick, Jack began to take his own writing more seriously. He began to have dreams of one day becoming a great poet and worked hard to try to learn as much about poetry and all forms of writing as he could. One author whom he encountered, by what seemed to be complete chance, was to change his whole life. One day at Great Bookham railway station, which like many stations then had a bookshop where travelers could buy something to read on their journeys, he found a book called Phantastes by a George
MacDonald. MacDonald had been a minister in Scotland. He had died in 1905, but he left behind a large number of extraordinary books, and Phantastes is one of the most extraordinary. It is a fantasy that mixes all sorts of characters and events and keeps the reader alert and wondering all the way through. Jack read it and said later that he was never the same again. In the years to come, he was to read everything that MacDonald had written, and most of it delighted him.

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Warnie had gone off to Sandhurst to become a career soldier. Now it was Jack’s turn to decide what he was to do with his life. Obviously he wanted to go to university (he preferred Oxford) and study literature with the hope of becoming a university teacher and a great poet at the best, and a schoolteacher or a linguist at worst. However, World War I was by now in full swing, and Jack would be liable to be called up to join the army if he stayed in England. Kirkpatrick had no doubts at all about Jack’s ability to gain success at Oxford, but if he returned to Ireland, he would not have to fight in the war. Jack had to make up his own mind which way to go. In the end Jack decided that he would stay in England and would therefore join the British army. Warnie was by this time already serving as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps, and it may be that Jack decided to follow his brother’s example yet again. It is also likely that Jack regarded it as his duty to fight against what he saw as an evil that needed to be defeated. Jack had read so much about the history of the world’s great events that he had a well-developed sense of duty. By this time he was amazingly well read, and his knowledge of literature was far in advance of most young men his age. To enter a college at Oxford University, Jack had to sit for two separate exams.

The first was a scholarship exam in order to win some assistance to enable him to be at a college at all because his father really couldn’t afford to support him fully. In December 1916 Jack sat for a scholarship exam in classics, which is the study of ancient history and languages like Latin and Greek. Jack was dismayed by the exam as it was a particularly difficult one, and he was convinced that he had failed. Although his first choice, New College, passed him over, University College awarded him its second of three open scholarships.

The second was an exam to gain entrance to Oxford University called Responsions. Responsions was just a simple exam to ensure that the student was capable of the sort of study that every undergraduate must perform, and most students of a scholarship level would not have had to study for it. For Jack though, this was not the case at all because he knew almost nothing about science and was not interested in it, and his ability in maths was almost a negative quantity. So after he did the scholarship exam, it was back to Kirkpatrick to study for Responsions. He also studied Italian at this time, when really, he should have concentrated more on science and math. His idea was that if he failed to achieve a career at Oxford, he might enter the government service in the Foreign Office, and speaking several languages would be an advantage. At this point in Jack’s life, it seems that God took a visible hand in his progress. Jack sat for Responsions, and he failed the exam. He failed it because he could not pass the math part of it. He was allowed to sit for it again, but he failed it for the second time. Despite this double failure, for some unknown reason the people in charge still invited him to join University College Oxford, though if he wanted to remain there, he would have to pass the Responsions exam at some stage; and so his career as a scholar began almost unofficially. It is hard to imagine anything good coming from something as horrible as a war, but as we shall see, God had his own plans for C. S. Lewis.

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And so to Oxford, the City of Dreaming Spires, a wonderful place for a romantic who wanted above all things to immerse himself in classical studies. Oxford in 1917 was a quiet and almost painfully lovely place. There was almost no traffic in the city streets, and the quiet so beloved by those who are dedicated to study seemed to flow in and around the buildings and the halls of its ancient colleges and fill the soul with peace. Horses and carriages were still the most common means of transport, as cars were still for the rich and thus were few and far between though lorries and delivery vans had begun to appear here and there. Students scurried to and fro wearing their academic gowns, and almost the whole city was given over to study and learning. April, the month in which Jack went up to Oxford, is a lovely month in England, as it is the month that begins to hint at the first promise of spring.

As spring dances on, the trees which abound in Oxford burst into bud, blossoms are soon to be seen everywhere, and spring flowers splash the walks, parks, and gardens with color. Daffodils, tulips, narcissus begin to give back the brightness of the watery early sun and early dandelions, daisies, and buttercups just start to show their delight at the warming of the year, preparing for the riot of color they are soon to enjoy. Greeted with the sights sounds and smells of Oxford in the springtime promise of a new summer, Jack fell completely in love with the place. If you go to Oxford today, you will find it choked with cars and buses and trucks. Often (as my son James once remarked) the air is too thick to breathe and too thin to plough. Heavy industry invaded the area of Cowley with car factories and such, and the huge numbers of people who came to work there so swelled the population that the place has never recovered. There is a constant roar of engines and wheels all day long, and it is nothing like the gracious, quiet, and lovely place that it once was. But even so, when you have finally managed to put out of your mind the modern-day desecration of the city, it is still a beautiful place. To Jack in 1917 it was heavenly.

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Jack was to enter University College, usually called “Univ,” on April 26 for the beginning of the summer term and would start a career that would see him in Oxford for the next thirty-nine years barring a short time when he was a soldier in the army.

Jack now entered a new world. His rooms at Univ. were reasonably large and comfortable. He had a servant, employed by the college and known as a “scout” to look after his housekeeping; and his meals were provided. Dinner was served in a small hall or lecture room as there were not many students at the college. Most of those who should have been there were off fighting in the war. Other meals were brought to him by the scout. Univ. was at that time more like a military base than a college, as a large part of it was being used as a hospital for wounded soldiers. Jack did not start formal studies, though, because he was soon to be enlisted in the Officer’s Training Corps at the college and would have no time for classical study. The seriousness of the situation that England was in at this time of World War I can be seen in the fact that there were just twelve undergraduates at Univ. and of those only three, including Jack, were freshmen. Almost an entire generation of young men was killed in that terrible conflict.

Jack found the O.T.C. training to be physically demanding and not at all what he was used to or liked, but despite that he enjoyed himself immensely. Jack loved the rivers of Oxford and the trees and fields that still surrounded the town in those days. He revelled in swimming and walking whenever his training duties allowed him time off. He was also just beginning to discover the wonderful libraries that Oxford provides. Like most students with the whole world of wisdom still to discover, Jack loved to sit for late hours of the night and talk about all sorts of things, and he joined a variety of clubs and societies. Soon though, he was moved from the comfort of Univ. to a more military environment temporarily established at another college called Keble. Here he met the man who was to be his roommate, a likable young man called Edward (Paddy) Francis Courtenay Moore, who, like Jack, was from Ireland. The two young men were soon fast friends.

He and Paddy had a tiny room more like a cell than anything else and furnished with two iron beds and little else. They had no sheets and no pillows but slept in their pajamas under woolen blankets. This was the first time in his life since Wynyard School that Jack had to rough it, but with his Wynyard experiences behind him, this was not really much hardship for him.

Paddy’s mother had come to Oxford to be near her son and to see him as much as possible before he was sent to France to the trenches. She knew all too well that the chances of him ever coming back were slim indeed. Thus there entered into Jack’s life a person with whom he was to be associated for more than thirty years. As we have seen, Jack had long ago lost his mother and had ever since been bounced around from place to place, some horrible, some better, but none except Great Bookham ever homelike. He was only eighteen years old, his father was immovable from his Belfast security, and Jack must have been feeling desperately alone and homesick. In any case he was pleased to be invited by Paddy to join in with his family on occasional outings. Paddy’s mother, Mrs. Janie Moore, was about the same age Jack’s mother would have been had she lived and was separated from her husband. Paddy also had a sister Maureen who was about eleven at that time. Jack delighted in the easy and cheerful family atmosphere that he encountered in the company of these three expatriate Irish folk.

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Frequently Jack and Paddy were sent out on exercises and traveled here and there, sometimes billeted in homes and sometimes sleeping out beneath the stars. This was supposed to toughen them up for life in the trenches, but it was complete silliness, for nothing could prepare anyone for the horror and filth of trench warfare. Soon enough Jack was commissioned as an officer, a second lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry, and was given a month’s leave before being called to active service. During this leave Jack and Paddy made a pact between them that should one or the other of them die in battle, the survivor (if there was one) would care for the dependants and family of the one who had died. If Jack had died, Paddy would have been committed to looking after Jack’s dependent family members who at that time were nonexistent though it might have meant taking care of Albert or Warnie should the need arise. If Paddy were to fall, Jack would be duty bound to take care of both Janie and Maureen. This was an agreement that Jack was to take seriously, in keeping with both his romantic nature and his sense of honor.

To this day no one really knows what was going on in Jack’s head concerning the relationship he had developed with Janie Moore. Some people like to believe that he had a love affair with her; others, that he simply allowed her to take the place of a mother in his affections. He must have longed so much for a mother at that time, for he was all too well aware that he was poised, about to plunge into the midst of darkness, death, and destruction, unlikely ever to return. The truth is that nobody knows and probably nobody ever will. Certainly, he loved her as well as the family atmosphere that he had grown accustomed to with Paddy’s family and that he had missed so cruelly ever since he was ten years old.

Also, when his leave began, he was ill with flu or something of that nature. So instead of going straight home to Ireland and his father’s house, he spent the first two weeks of his leave with the Moore family at their home in Bristol, where Mrs. Moore nursed him back to health, and only then went on to Ireland and Little Lea. In his place most young men might well make the same decision, but it was the cause of deep distress to Albert Lewis who could not understand why Jack would want to be anywhere rather than at home with him. Albert had tried desperately hard to fill the gap left in his sons’ lives by the death of their mother and had—as almost all fathers must in these circumstances—failed miserably. His attempts to be a friend and companion to his sons had actually driven them away from him. Albert was unaware of what his efforts had cost him and was hurt by what he probably saw as Jack’s betrayal. The two were never close but any hope of achieving closeness with his sons died in Albert when he realized that Jack had wanted to spend time with Paddy’s family instead of with him. It was foolish really, for all fathers have to learn that their children move on, leave them behind, and cease to be merely a part of their parents. Jack at eighteen was perhaps a little early in this, but that itself was mostly Albert’s own doing by projecting him out into the world by himself when he was but nine years old. Now, ten years later, reaping what he himself had sowed, Albert was puzzled and upset. Jack naturally enough was not prepared to discuss the matter.

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When he came back from his month’s leave, Jack was sent to a camp near the coastal town of Plymouth where he was to take charge of a party of men who were under training. He had virtually nothing to do all day. Once he had handed his men over to an instructor, he had no further duties until he took command of them again when they had finished their day’s training and then simply led them back to the barracks.

A little over a month later, he received orders to report to Southampton to catch a ship to France and the fighting. In those days as today, soldiers about to be sent into battle were given a few days or in this case a mere forty-eight hours of leave in which to say their good-byes and tidy up any loose ends of their lives. Jack went to Bristol and Mrs. Moore’s house, having first invited his father to come and visit him there and see him before he left for France. His telegram to Albert read in part “Report Southampton Saturday. Can you come Bristol? If so meet at station. Reply Mrs. Moore’s house.” Albert, who must have been dreading just such a telegram, would not, could not, or simply was unwilling to allow himself to understand that Jack was telling him to come at once to Bristol for what was likely the last chance to see his son alive. He sent back a message that said he didn’t understand Jack’s telegram. I for one do not believe that, and had Albert made the effort to rush to Bristol, it is conceivable the entire history of Jack’s life might have been changed. Jack was as hurt by his failure to do so as Albert had been by Jack’s spending two weeks of his previous leave with the Moores, and the rift between them that these two events caused was to last for a long time and in fact was never properly healed.

The First World War was different from any other war before or since. Throughout the history of man’s fighting himself, soldiers have always journeyed to the battlefield, fought, killed, and died, and then journeyed away again, either to fight again somewhere else or to go home; but World War I was different, horrifyingly different. In this war men journeyed to the battlefield and fought, killed, died, and then stayed. They stayed in the filth, the destruction, the fire and the blood of the battle; there they lived for days, weeks, months, and even years. Their homes were holes dug into the mire of earth so churned by shelling and bombing for month after month that it was a rancid mess of mixed mud and blood. The very earth of their world was putrid and rotting. This was the most disgusting and ghastly war of all man’s ferocities. In its blood-soaked madness, ten million young men died.

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So Jack was sent off to war after only four weeks of training. To the hell of fire, explosions, waist-deep blood-soaked mud, constant shelling, and mortar bomb attacks. To louse-infested clothes and rat-infested shelters, which were dug out of the walls of trenches in fields so blasted by high explosives that nothing living remained in the churned-up raw soil. There were no trees on the battlefield, no plants, just disease, fire, smoke, mud, blood, the dead, and those creatures that feed upon them. He arrived at the front line and took up his duties in the trenches on his nineteenth birthday, November 29, 1917. He had been in France only twelve days. It is hard to understand today just how this could happen: boys, straight out of school, trained for four weeks, and then thrown into the terrible tortuous mess of war, but we have to remember that the mismanagement of this war was such that England and Germany were both simply running out of men. So many had been killed so quickly that there just weren’t enough young men left to replace them, so boys were given the minimum of training and sent off to kill and to die. Surprisingly (and he was as surprised as anyone was), Jack was a brave soldier and a good officer. Jack had no illusions about his own knowledge of warfare or about his training, and he soon learned that his sergeant, a Sgt. Ayers, knew far more than he ever wanted to learn. This wise man told Jack things like, “The most dangerous thing in the army is a lieutenant with a map,” and it was he who taught Jack what he needed to know to be a reasonably good officer for the five months of combat that he was to survive. It was also this man whose death saved Jack’s life.

Jack fought through months of experiences that he talked about only rarely, and he learned some things he would rather not have known, and others, which left with him a glow that lasted all his life. One of these latter was the fact that no matter what background they came from, there was a kind of loving friendship and comradeship that the shocking and desperate conditions of their lives bred in the men who were compelled to live and die together in this stinking squalor. Jack learned to live in mud, to shave with a
razor dipped in a cup of tea shared by half a dozen officers. He learned to eat whatever food was put before him often within both the sight and smell of dead men, both friend and foe. He learned how to tell the nationality of a dead soldier by the smell of the body as it began to rot. He learned to hurl bombs and bullets at men no older than himself and against whom he held no grudge. He learned to relinquish his humanity and to become a beast of prey.

And all the while, he was writing and reading. It is perhaps surprising, but books were available in the trenches, precious books brought out by officers and men and passed from hand to hand and read again and again until they fell completely to pieces, and a piece of rubber or string was then used to hold the pages together until the mud, blood, and fire finally destroyed them. They were for the most part novels, and stories, and also some of the great poets. The soldiers read anything that could and would take their minds far away from the war. The books were read in a sort of desperation to while away the incredibly long and dreary hours of inactivity between the frenzied bouts of savage fighting. In the trenches Jack worked on a series of poems finally titled Spirits in Bondage, which became his first published book, appearing in 1918 under the name “Clive Hamilton,” and also a work of poetry called Dymer, which came out in 1926 under his own name. This was the beginning of his habit of writing wherever he was and no matter what the circumstances of his life. In a sense it was his way of escaping anything unpleasant that was happening to him. In this way the war, which finished so much for so many people, also began many things in Jack’s life and a career that may well have needed the kick-start that only this experience could have provided.

When I began, as ignorant young men will, to speak of war and warriors with words of admiration and began to show that I had some idea that there was something glorious about it all, Jack told me about a lot of his experiences in World War I. Many of the things that happened to him, and to thousands of others, were absolutely horrible, like the times when he and his men would advance across the land between the trenches of the two armies, “no-man’s-land” as they called it; and on the way, some of the men would become bogged down in waist-deep mud. Jack and the platoon couldn’t stop to pull them out but had to keep on advancing according to their orders, so they left the men where they were, and then after the attack was over and they were returning to their own trenches, they would often find these men again, physically unharmed but completely mindless, as if the horrors of spending a day trapped in the vile stinking morass and seeing the battle go on all around them while they were unable even to move simply snapped their minds and reduced them to nothingness.

Others things were amusing. Like the time that he and his platoon were approaching the shell-destroyed remains of a French farmhouse. Something made Jack suspicious of it, so he discussed it with his sergeant, and they decided that the sergeant would take a skirmishing party of men with fixed bayonets around to the back of the house and charge into it, while Jack and the rest of the platoon remained under cover at the front. Jack heard his men go roaring into the house and stood up to see what was happening. As soon as he did, about thirty young German soldiers came running out of the front of the house throwing their rifles away and holding their hands high above their heads. More followed a moment or so later. Jack felt so sorry for these young men who were obviously completely terrified that without really thinking, he walked up to the officers who were leading them and tried to talk to them. It later turned out that these men had heard a rumor that the British were shooting all prisoners. Jack was so excited and tense that he forgot all of his German, and all of any foreign language that he knew except French, and when he addressed them in French, they promptly fell to their knees and began to beg for mercy. It seems that the French actually were shooting prisoners. Jack finally managed to calm them down, and they were getting to their feet to march off as prisoners of war when the sergeant approached Jack and suggested that it might have looked better had he at least drawn his pistol. Jack said that for some reason it had never even crossed his mind. He also learned that there are no atheists in the trenches. When the shells start to fall and explode among them, everybody starts to pray. I learned from Jack and Warnie that no matter what people or newspapers or politicians try to tell you, there is no glory in war.

Jack was soon to be hospitalized with trench fever, a severe flu-like illness transmitted by lice, but was returned to the front as soon as he recovered. On April 15, 1918, Jack was ordered to advance his troops behind a barrage of British shells fired by big guns from far behind the lines. The shells were supposed to advance before them and fall and explode ahead of them as they went, the idea being to clear the area into which they advanced of enemy troops. That was the plan, but typical of the mismanagement of that war, something went wrong. Soon the howling shells hurtled overhead to rain down with deafening explosions. Jack ordered his men over the top of the trench parapet and led them straight toward the enemy as the barrage of high explosives riddled with shrapnel landed ahead of them, blasting the German trenches and soldiers. Then suddenly, as they advanced with bayonets at the ready, the barrage stopped advancing and began to come back toward them. Soon Jack and his men were being bombarded by their own artillery from far behind them, and to his helpless fury Jack watched his men being blown to pieces in the constant roar of their own artillery support. Suddenly Jack saw a blinding light, everything went completely silent, and then the ground came up slowly and hit him in the face. Jack had been hit by both the concussion and shrapnel from a British shell. His trusted sergeant had been between Jack and the shell when it exploded and was blown to bits. Apart from his own efforts to escape, Jack remembered nothing more of the battle.

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(c) 2005 Broadman & Holman Publishers. Used with Permission.

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