Foreigners stationed or working in one’s country in wartime provide, or did at one time, a sub-genre of humour for journalism. The fun was often the mordant kind.
Foreign troops or diplomats provided good fodder for these investigations, in particular.
The Americans in “England”, as Britain was summarily called by many then, was an evergreen subject. The social confrontation “Over There”, in both world wars, was typically pictured as a tectonic clash. The grinding of cultures has been studied by historians and other specialists ever since.
A 1944 article by British-toned journalist Beverley Baxter is a good illustration. It was published, or probably reprinted, in Australia’s Townsville Daily Bulletin. Baxter was a noted U.K.-based journalist and editor for the Beaverbrook chain, and by the time of writing a Conservative M.P.
He was well-enough known to be asked regularly to speak to American Forces’ organizations. He also hosted senior American officers for dinners and têtes-a-têtes. To his credit, he interviewed the American wounded on regular hospital tours.
His article, written with style and verve, expressed the popular resentment at flashing of money, taking over cabs and restaurants, and “The Girl Question”.
He also compares the drinking habits of Britons and Americans. Of the Briton, he noted:
Beer has a progressively soporific effect on the Englishman. He soon passes from the argumentative to the sentimental — usually he is sentimental about his old mother— and eventually he becomes sleepy. In a pleasantly tired and friendly mood he goes back to camp, probably singing…
In contrast, the “psychological tempo” of the American increased under influence of his favoured drink, whisky. The result often was, looking for “a scrap”.
Baxter also offered a mild critique of early American battle performance, blaming (perhaps diplomatically) a green general staff. He noted that British forces in Tunisia wryly assessed their ally’s performance by the slogan, “Praise the Lord and pass the Guards Division”.
But soon the tone changes. He notes Americans toughened in the Italian fighting, and expressed frank admiration for their progress in France.
He ends by saluting Americans as friends and “humanitarians”, among other superlatives. He states that, having spent time in Britain, and proven themselves in the European theatre, they came to a deeper understanding of their hosts. Having gone through what we would call now a learning curve, the American soldier ended as “courteous and nuanced”.
Returning to the earlier, problematic period, this passage further illustrates (from one point of view) the hapless foreigner:
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… Let there be no mistake. … [the] epithets fall most agreeably upon the female British ear…
Baxter mentions Canadians a couple of times but in an oddly off-kilter way. He states that like the British, but unlike Americans, Canadians were not inclined to trumpet their achievements. But finally, he seems to view the two nationalities of a piece.
It seems he couldn’t get a fix on Canadians, or didn’t want to go there for some reason. This got me thinking, who was Beverley Baxter?
It turns out, he was a Canadian! His parents were Yorkshire-raised but he was born in Canada, grew up there, and served in its Expeditionary Army during WW I. Almost 30 when the war ended, he decided to stay in Britain.
The Canadian background probably assisted his bonhomie and ease with Americans. He must have retained a good part of his accent, for example.
His envoi: Britain will miss the Americans and Canadians very much for the sparkle they added to domestic life.