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Writing in the Post-War World of Agatha Christie
By Christopher Huang
Agatha Christie has won the world over with her fabulous detective novels and her star character, Hercule Poirot. Less renowned is her time in WWI as a nurse, an experience that, without a doubt, inspired her narrative universe. Christopher Huang, the author of A Gentleman's Murder, a detective story about a murder in a gentlemen's club of British 1914-1918 veterans, discusses the influence of WWI on Agatha Christie's work. Uncover Huang's post about one of the greatest detective writers of all time.
Christie's time as a nurse and dispenser in the First World War without doubt informed her choice of poison as the predominant murder weapon in her novels (AGATHA CHRISTIE ARCHIVE) Image credit: The Telegraph
It’s no secret that Agatha Christie’s career as a mystery novelist began with the First World War. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was written at the close of the war, and Hercule Poirot made his debut there as one of the numerous Belgian refugees seeking asylum in England during the war. Christie herself had served as a volunteer nurse, dispensing medications, and this experience becomes visible in her use of poisons in multiple books afterward. What is perhaps a little less obvious is the way in which the war’s negative impact on society appears in her work. Part of this absence might have to do with familiarity; generally, you have no need to draw attention to something when your audience is intimately familiar with it. It might also reflect a distaste for unpleasantness; as a form of escapist literature, the whole point of the mystery story was to put the harsher realities of the post-war world aside and lose oneself in something a little more positive.
As someone writing a hundred years after the end of WWI, I do not have the same perspective that writers like Agatha Christie had of the post-war world. Its presence does not surround me or inform my environment. With hindsight and the distance of a hundred years, we’re privy now to some objective, historical information that was unavailable to people living at the time, but the subjective experience must still be gleaned from the pages of then-contemporary literature. Agatha Christie may not have addressed the issues directly, but aided by what we know now, we can still get an idea of what it was like to live with the aftermath of the First World War.
David Suchet playing Christie's Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Image credit: Express
Among Christie’s works, the most obvious reference to the impact of the First World War must be The ABC Murders, which, very early on, begins to set up a shell-shocked veteran, Alexander Cust, as the prime suspect in a spate of serial killings. She describes him as someone with an ineffectual personality, weak-willed, and prone to suggestion. We also know he’d received a head injury during the war and has suffered from frequent headaches ever since. Because of difficulties stemming from his trauma, he’s had difficulty holding down a job, though he has recently found employment selling stockings door-to-door.
His situation is not unique; one of the characters in the book comments on the persistence of an ex-Army man acting as salesmen—a qualification so specific as to suggest ubiquity—while another mentions feeling “sorry for these wretched men who go around and try to get orders.” Between them, they suggest the reality of war veterans living in reduced circumstances, engaged in an occupation that exists more as a form of charity than as a legitimate career option. The fact that The ABC Murders was published in 1936 also suggests that the eighteen years since the end of the war have not been sufficient for the hard-hit veterans to find their feet again. The off-handed brevity of the comments about veterans hints at a familiarity that readers in 1936 were expected to share and understand. These readers knew exactly why ex-Army men in particular might figure prominently as door-to-door salesmen, and why their entire category of men might be described as pitiful and wretched. The reality was that these WWI veteran-salesmen were alive, knocking right outside the front doors of ordinary readers at the time. The ABC Murders says more about their condition through its reticence than it could with any lengthy passage of descriptive prose.
A modern reader, however, doesn’t have the same background historical knowledge of WWI, and a modern writer would be obliged to be explicit with the details.
Conversely, a modern reader does have a better awareness of PTSD than a reader of a hundred years ago. A few minutes of research can give us a list of known effects ranging from the common to the rare, so we have some idea of what a traumatized veteran, such as we would find in the post-war world of the 1920s, might experience. A modern writer touching even briefly on the subject of WWI can be fairly certain of getting certain objective details right. However, even the experts were only just beginning to grapple with the phenomenon of PTSD in the 1920s and 1930s. As such, to understand the subjective attitudes of the general populace towards veterans with PTSD means turning once again to the literature of the period.
A writer’s life: Agatha Christie wrote most of her novels at her London home in Kensington Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images. Image source: The Telegraph
In The ABC Murders, a great deal of the tension hinges on the possibility that Cust might be subject to what we would today call a dissociative fugue state: that he might, in such a state, commit a string of murders without realizing it. In 1936, that suggestion made Cust easily credible as a suspect, perhaps more easily than it would today. But the actual medical accuracy or likelihood of a PTSD-induced fugue is unimportant compared to what the trope actually says about the popular perception of shell shock and PTSD at the time. It tells us that people then were indeed afraid of how a shell-shocked veteran might behave and that they must have believed that the fugue state of Cust was a natural extension of war trauma. From there, the modern writer can extrapolate a certain wariness for those veterans with difficulty adjusting back to civilian life. It would be unsurprising as well to find that those same veterans would vehemently repudiate any suggestion that they’ve been adversely affected. It is, I think, universal throughout the ages that no one wants to be thought mad if madness means being labeled a danger to one’s surroundings.
Christie touched on these darker aspects of her post-war world only lightly. However, the hints are there, and all it takes is some reading between the lines to form an idea of what lies just beyond the frame of the picture she paints with her novels. Writing now, a hundred years after that First World War, I find that getting the hard facts about historical events is easy; research will tell you how many people died, how many people suffered, how many people got away with barely any ill effects. For the subjective experience, however, literature provides the best clues, even when they are seemingly insignificant. As in Christie’s The ABC Murders and as in her other works, the silences, the assumptions, and the inaccuracies can be as eloquent as the historical facts and figures.
The cover of A Gentleman's Murder by Christopher Huang
Christopher Huang grew up in Singapore, where he served his two years of National Service as an Army Signaller. He moved to Canada where he studied Architecture at McGill University in Montreal. Huang currently lives in Montreal. A Gentleman's Murder is his first novel.
Category: WWrite articles main
The Story of Freddie Stowers, the First African American Recipient of the WWI Medal of Honor
By Courtney L. Tollison Hartness, Ph.D.
While researching African Americans who served in the WWI American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) from her community, oral historian and Furman history professor Courtney L. Tollison Hartness discovered the compelling story of one soldier whose influential and enduring legacy would have been inconceivable to him. September 28, 2018, marked the centennial of his death. His name was Freddie Stowers, and he was the first African American Recipient of the WWI Medal of Honor. Yet, he didn't receive the award until 73 years after he perished during the Battle of Meuse-Argonne.
Donors and family members unveil the statue of Freddie Stowers on the campus of Anderson University. Photo Courtesy: Paul Brown, The Greenville News
The centennial commemoration of the end of World War I was a long-anticipated global event. Around the world, throughout the years and months leading up to November 11, 2018, the centennial of major offensives and battles was observed in meaningful and elaborate ceremonies.
However, it must also be said that these centennial years also represent the 100-year anniversaries of the deaths of millions of people.
Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate to have spent time interviewing people about their lives and their contributions to historical events. From the living, we also learn about those who died and never got to tell their story. From 2007 to 2010, my students and I interviewed over 60 men and women who served in, contributed to, and/or were personally affected by World War II. A significant number of these interviewees were African American veterans. Their oral histories reflect courage and pride but were often tinged with bitterness and resentment resulting from the way African Americans were treated during that era. After Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, it was fascinating to hear how these veterans’ perspectives on their service had evolved.
A few years later, I was privileged to spend two weeks participating in a seminar at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. At their 13-foot bronze monument to the Buffalo Soldiers, dedicated in 1992 by General Colin Powell, I reflected on the African American veterans I had interviewed, and how the complex feelings they had in regards to their service during World War II must have been shared by Buffalo Soldiers who preceded them.
In anticipation of the centennial of World War I, I began researching African Americans who served in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) from my community. Most compelling was the story of one soldier whose influential and enduring legacy would have been inconceivable to him. September 28, 2018, marked the centennial of his death.
Freddie Stowers was born in the tiny town of Sandy Springs in upcountry South Carolina in 1896, the same year that Plessy v. Ferguson provided judicial justification for racial segregation. As the grandson of slaves, Stowers’ life in this small southern town would have been strictly circumscribed by the racial customs of the day. He married a young woman named Pearl, with whom he had a child, Minnie, named for one of his sisters. He worked as a farmhand before being drafted into the Army, where he served with the 371st Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, one of only two African American divisions. Before sailing to France, he trained at Camp Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, about two hours away from his hometown.
The author photographed with descendants of Freddie Stowers after an event in Greenville, SC that commemorated the centennial of the end of the war. Location: Grenville (SC) County Library Photo Courtesy: Hiram Springle
As an African American infantryman in World War I, Stowers was an extreme minority. In 1917, when the U.S. entered the war, our country was only 52 years removed from the Civil War that had broken us apart over issues focused on race. High racial tensions prompted many white southerners to fear the arming and training of mass numbers of African American males, and white southern politicians lobbied against using African American men in combat and against placing them in southern training camps. Ultimately, racial prejudice dictated the roles and responsibilities approximately 90% of African American males held during the war, which included loading and unloading cargo, digging trenches, burying bodies, cooking, and chauffeuring. Stowers was among the 10% of African American servicemen from World War I who served in combat.
As a member of the 93rd Division, Stowers served under French command. Only two days after American Expeditionary Forces launched the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Stowers led an attack on Hill 188, which had been fortified by the Germans. As Stowers and his fellow soldiers approached, enemy troops climbed out of their trenches with their hands up in supposed surrender, yet when Stowers and the others drew closer, the German troops opened fire. Stowers pressed onwards to the machine gun nest that posed the greatest threat, and, after those senior to him in rank had gone down, encouraged his men to similarly attack the enemy’s defensive fighting position. After successfully overcoming the first set of trenches, Stowers reorganized the men in his platoon and attacked the second set of trenches. During this attack, Stowers was struck but fought on until struck again. As he collapsed, he continued to encourage his men to forge ahead. They were ultimately successful in driving the Germans from the hill. Stowers died that day, at the age of 22, and is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery about 160 miles northeast of Paris.
Many African American soldiers served under French command in World War I. Freddie Stowers’ gravesite in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is featured above, fittingly decorated with the flags of the United States and France. Image source: Wikipedia France
While the circumstances of his service and sacrifice are enough to warrant our gratitude and respect, the continued impact of his death in redressing racial inequities in our country has helped transform our nation.
The entire 93rd regiment was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre (War Cross), an esteemed military honor. At the time, deeply-rooted racial prejudice infiltrated nearly all aspects of American society, and the United States government failed to appropriately recognize the efforts of its African American soldiers. Not a single African American soldier received the Medal of Honor in the years or even decades closely following not only World War I, but World War II as well.
In 1990, the U.S. Congress asked the Army to review Medal of Honor records, citing extreme racial inequities in the awarding of medals from World War I and World War II. The United States’ highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, originated during the Civil War. African American soldiers received this distinction for service in the Civil War, Native American Wars, Spanish American War, and beginning again with the Korean War in the 1950s. Yet, in 1990, no African American soldier had received a Medal of Honor for service in either World War I or World War II.
During their investigation, the Army located paperwork from World War I recommending Freddie Stowers for a Medal of Honor. A team traveled to France to study the circumstances of his death, and the Army Decorations Board approved the honor.
Seventy-three years after he was killed in action, Freddie Stowers became the first African American recipient of the Medal of Honor for World War I. Stowers’ surviving sisters, Georgina and Mary, stepped forward at the White House ceremony on April 24, 1991, to accept his award from President George H. W. Bush.
The posthumous awarding of the Medal to Stowers contributed to an official report that decried institutional racism as the root cause for the lack of military honors to African American soldiers in World Wars I and II. Furthermore, subsequent studies suggested that discrimination had impacted not just African American soldiers, but also Jewish Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Japanese Americans.
Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama continued the commitment begun by President George H.W. Bush to redress these inequities. Collectively, from 1991 to 2015, these presidents awarded over 50 Medals of Honor, most of them posthumously to male minorities for their service in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Left: During the Obama administration, Sergeant Henry Johnson of the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, became the second African American recipient of the Medal of Honor for service in World War I. Sgt. Maj. Lewis Wilson (image right) of the New York Army National Guard accepted the posthumously awarded medal on Johnson’s behalf. Image courtesy of U.S. Army, Sgt. Garry McFadden/Released.
Given the racial climate within which Stowers lived, the lasting and powerful impact of his courageous service on our nation’s treatment of our most lauded men and women in uniform would have been unfathomable to him. When Stowers was a child, President Teddy Roosevelt shocked the nation when he dined with an African American at the White House; 90 years later, the White House hosted a ceremony in his honor.
Stowers’ death contributed to the campaign to end a nasty war. One hundred years later, his legacy has contributed to the mitigation and reconciliation of our country’s long history of racial prejudice.
For more information on African American Medal of Honor recipients, read Brothers in Valor (2018), a recently released book by Robert F. Jefferson.
Note: An earlier version of this piece was published in The Greenville News on September 30, 2018.
Dr. Courtney Tollison Hartness is Assistant Professor of History at Furman University. Previously, she served as the Founding Historian for the Upcountry History Museum-Furman University and Founding Director of the Furman University Oral History Project. She specializes in modern American History and in Public History. Her current research focuses on World War I. Her forthcoming book, titled “Our Country First”: The Making of a South City During the Progressive Era and World War I, contains more information on Freddie Stowers, other soldiers from Upcountry South Carolina, and the ways the community contributed to and were impacted by World War I.
She has been a Fulbright Scholar (Ukraine), a fellow in Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office, and a Mellon Grant recipient for ASIANetwork’s Faculty Enhancement Program (India). She is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Military History Instructors Program at Fort Leavenworth and the Riley Institute’s Diversity Leadership Initiative.
She has published two books, curated three museum exhibits, worked on several documentaries, conducted over 100 oral histories, and served as historian for memorials, markers, and sculptures throughout downtown Greenville, including the Major Rudolf Anderson Memorial and the Native American Memorial on Prospect Green.
As a public historian, Tollison maintains an active presence in the arts and humanities across the state. She serves or has served on the boards of Spoleto USA, the S.C. Historical Society, Humanities Council SC, S.C. Sesquicentennial Commission of the Civil War, S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, Carolina Ballet Theatre, the Advisory Board of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, and Christ Church Episcopal School Alumni Board.
She was interviewed by NPR in 2018 about the Meuse-Argonne offensive. She has also been featured on WYFF-TV, WSPA-TV, SC-ETV, SC-ETV Radio, and has published in The Greenville News, TOWN, Belle, Post and Courier (Charleston), and the Greenville Journal. In addition, she has also been interviewed by National Public Radio (NPR), NTV Russia, The Boston Globe, C-SPAN, USA Today, the History Channel, and ABC News.