Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography is an unvarnished look at an English infantry officer’s transformation from an amateur soldier to a jaded veteran. Chapman served with the 13th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, a New Army battalion of volunteers who had enlisted specifically for service in the Great War. Originally published in 1933, his memoir gives an immediacy to events now one hundred years past. In some ways, the book may appear cliché, replete with tails of casual violence and sudden death, pompous staff officers and out of touch commanding generals but Chapman’s writing exudes authenticity and integrity.
A Passionate Prodigality is a very personal work. Readers vicariously experience what Chapman saw at a very low level in a rifle battalion, interspersed with periods as a lowly adjunct to higher level staffs. Chapman at no time provides any broader discussions of operations, strategy or political maneuverings, thus the reader is left with little context the wider war. Chapman’s world is confined to what he can see in front of him. Anything occurring over the horizon is irrelevant. This narrow field of view works well, as readers are immersed in the immediacy of the moment. The earlier pages of the book, a section appropriately labeled The Amateurs contain anecdotes of the life of the battalion, a time when writes Chapman, “we were in fact amateurs…pathetically eager to achieve the status of the professional.” The book recounts the battalion’s arrival in France and details the process of learning the rudiments of life and war in the trenches. Over time, Chapman’s battalion gains a modicum of professional skill, but fights their war at a distance, patrolling, raiding German trenches and enduring artillery barrages, however, they rarely ever actually see a German soldier. This changes on July 1, 1916.
The Battle of the Somme is the watershed event experienced by the British Army in the First World War, and Chapman’s battalion was in the thick of it. The battalion participates in a series of attacks that deplete its ranks and drain the vitality of the survivors. At this point, Chapman is no longer an amateur. As if to mark this transformation, Chapman receives orders reassigning him from his battalion to a course on general staff work, which sees him performing a variety of duties at Brigade, Corps, and Division Headquarters. The contrast between the line and the staff is stark, despite routine visits to the frontline. Chapman’s exposure to the professional officers with whom he works makes little impression beyond convincing him that he would vastly prefer returning to the line. A run-in with his division commander, during which in a breach of decorum Chapman reports to the general’s quarters before the senior officer has a chance to exchange his pajamas for a uniform, results in Chapman losing his staff qualifications and resuming his post with his battalion.
Chapman’s return is marked by resignation. At this point, the war drags on as 1917 passes into 1918. Men continue to die, and Chapman’s writing is infused with a sense of weariness. No longer an amateur, no longer enamored of professionals, Chapman now refers to his comrades and himself as grognards, or old soldiers, the term coming from the nickname of Napoleon I’s Old Guard itself. As the book nears its conclusion, tension and excitement are absent from its pages. As it becomes apparent that the Germans are in retreat and that victory is close, Chapman conveys that all concerned just want the business concluded. News of the armistice is met with a victory celebration, notable for freely flowing alcohol but otherwise unremarked upon. The book concludes with the hasty demobilization of the battalion, returning to an uncertain future in England, while Chapman and a few others volunteer for occupation duty in Germany. Chapman ends the book with words that make a fitting epitaph for his battalion. As he entered Germany, “no trumpets sounded.”
A Passionate Prodigality is an honest memoir. Chapman’s writing is straight forward and without hyperbole. The book lacks maps or illustrations and does not serve as a general history of the Western Front. None of these points are flaws however, because the book is meant to be one man’s recounting of what he saw. The book succeeds remarkably well in doing so.