The covering of foreigners’ ways in wartime, discussed in my last post with special reference to WW II, had a sub-genre of humour, often black humour as suited the times.
In a kind of mix-and-match, foreign nationals might be subject to scrutiny in the journalist’s own country or an Allied third nation, typically by examining how foreign troops or diplomats handled themselves.
The presence of American personnel in “England” (as often then styled) was an evergreen in war-era journalism. The confrontation “Over There” (a WW I term that nonetheless applies here) was often pictured as a tectonic clash, and has been studied by social historians and other specialists ever since.
This 1944 article by the veddy British-sounding Beverley Baxter is a perfect illustration of the genre. It was published (or reprinted) in Australia’s Townsville Daily Bulletin. Baxter was a noted journalist and editor for the Beaverbrook newspapers and by the time of writing, a Conservative M.P.
Clearly he was well-enough known to address regularly American service organizations, and host senior officers for dinners and têtes-a-têtes. To his credit he also visited the American wounded and interviewed them.
The article, written with verve and style, is well-paced. It starts with a gentle but firm critique of American habits early in their stay that discomfited Britons. Flashing money, “The Girl Question”, dominating cabs and restaurants, are examples cited. Baxter also makes an interesting contrast between the beer-drinking habits of Britons and Americans.
Next, he makes a measured critique of early American battle performance, diplomatically blaming a green general staff, not the men below. He notes that their British allies wryly assessed Americans’ performance in Tunisia by the slogan “Praise the Lord and pass the Guards Division”.
But then the tone changes. He states that American troops toughened in Italy, and expressed frank admiration for their nonpareil fighting qualities in France.
He ends by saluting the Americans forces as friends and “humanitarians” among other superlatives. He explains that having spent time in Britain and proven themselves in the European theatre, they came to a fuller understanding of the country that hosted them, with behaviour more courteous and nuanced.
But in the earlier period when disporting themselves guilelessly, Baxter spoke frankly of their pointed ways, still with humour. An example:*
The American is much more girl conscious than the Briton. Despite the endless attempts of American advertisers to prove that the American girl suffers from an extraordinary number of physical disabilities which render her social success difficult, men of the U.S.A. insist upon placing women on a pedestal, instead of sharing the platform with them like the Englishman does. The Romeo of Pittsburgh searches the caves of metaphor to find new terms of endearment. ‘Baby,’ ‘Cutie,’ ‘Bright Eyes,’ ‘Angel,’ ‘Baby Doll,’ and ‘Sugar’ (I believe that under extreme provocation ‘Custard’ has been used) are some of the jewelled words tossed on Juliet’s balcony. Let there be no mistake. These epithets fall most agreeably upon the female British ear…
Baxter refers to Canadian troops a couple of times but in an oddly off-kilter way. Once, he states that like the British but unlike Americans, Canadians are not inclined to trumpet their achievements. Yet he concludes by viewing Canadians of a piece with the Yanks, stating Britain will miss both very much for the sparkle they brought to domestic life. It seems Baxter couldn’t get a fix on Canadians, or wanted to avoid the issue.
This got me thinking, who was Beverley Baxter? It turns out, he was a Canadian! Although of Yorkshire-raised parents, he was born in Canada, grew up there, and served in its Engineers Corps during WW I. He only moved to England when he was almost 30.
He must have retained something of his Canadian accent, and the Canadian background surely assisted the bonhomie and ease he established with Americans.
And in truth, despite the expostulations of our chattering classes, the two peoples are six of one, half a dozen of the other. At bottom, anyway.
*Needless to say the words are of their time.