When a young boy asked Major Basil Barrington-Kennett what a gentleman was, he replied, “A gentleman is a man who loves God very much and has beautiful manners.” It is a definition that appears in the pages of Flying Corps, H.Q. (originally published in 1920) and undoubtedly applies to its author, Maurice Baring.
I’ve mentioned Baring in earlier posts, but as a literary rather than as a military man. His tastes were cosmopolitan, especially for an Englishman; he was returning from one of his prolonged visits to Russia in June 1914 when the great powers were preparing for a conflict that many saw was inevitable. Baring unhesitatingly declared his sympathies for Serbia and against Germany and Austria. Yet he was free of anything like real hatred, as he reveals in his polite conversations with German prisoners (being fluent in that as well as a half-dozen other languages).
The English man of letters was whimsical and amazingly long-suffering. It is this paradoxical combination that gave the British their legendary resiliency during two world wars. If he seemed to cut an awkward figure in uniform, when compared to the athletes, adventurers and career officers who rushed to the fighting in France, it must be remembered that most men of that generation, including (and one might say, especially) the educated and upper-classes, were anxious to see action. At age 40 Baring did not end up in the trenches, but he did become a staff officer and translator with the fledgling Royal Flying Corps.
A chaotic individual in peacetime, and a poor math student, Baring turned out to be a very efficient administrative adjutant. His memoir is filled with scraps of technical and logistical details, which shows that he took his new work very seriously. That said, the literary Baring still shines through. Flying Corps, H.Q. is the work of a Christian humanist who discusses popular novels, modern languages and the works of Dante and Homer, interlaced with a fine sense of morality and decency amidst the terrible tragedy of what was to date the bloodiest conflict in Western history. Despite a grueling schedule, with infrequent leaves to England, Baring was a voracious reader. In that respect he was not alone in his erudition. Baring indulges in poetry in his spare time, and other well-known poets, like Rupert Brooke, fought (and died) in World War I.
One comes away from Baring’s memoir with a sense that here was a generation of men remarkable in more ways than one. As he said of his friend, Bassington-Kennett: “He was the most completely unselfish man I have ever met: a compound of loyalty and generosity and gay and keen interest in everything life has to offer.”