Novelist, dramatist, poet, editor and Captain in the East Surrey Regiment
Joseph Randall Ackerley was born in Kent in 1896. He became a Captain in the 8th East Surreys and was profoundly affected by his First World War service, haunted by ‘survivor’s guilt’. His play Prisoners of War (1925) based on his wartime experiences, was outspokenly pro-gay, as were his other books and poems. He also edited and wrote the introduction to Escapers All (1932), a volume of personal accounts of First World War POW camp escapees.
Known for his eccentricity, his personal and professional friends, including many Surrey gay icons, were all part of the homosexual literary set. Ackerley joined the BBC in 1928 and was literary editor of its Listener weekly magazine from 1935 to 1959.
Ackerley and The Great War
‘I was a pretty boy and used to being run after’.
Like most middle class boys in public school education, Ackerley applied for a commission at the outbreak of war and was gazetted a Second Lieutenant in the 8th (Service) Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, on 14 Sep 1914; he was a few months short of his 18th birthday. He was later promoted to a Captain. In April 1915, he was billeted in Colchester, along with Captain ‘Billie’ Nevill, who was later killed in the famous East Surrey football charge at Montauban, on the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916. During final training in Salisbury, in May 1915, Ackerley met his best friend of the war, Bobby Soames.
Two incidents on the Western Front haunted Ackerley for the rest of his life. On the first day of the Somme, the British suffered 60,000 casualties; Ackerley was shot in the arm and peppered with glass shards. Frightened and dazed, he lay in a shell-hole for six hours as men all around him were picked off by German snipers. Ackerley’s cap was shot from his head but he was eventually taken to the safety of a first-aid post. This attack saw the death of Bobby Soames.
Later that month, in an attempt to exorcise the nightmare memory Ackerley wrote The Everlasting Terror, which was published in the November issue of the prestigious English Review. It is dedicated ‘To Bobby’ and ends with a memorial to him:
And so through all my life and days,
In all my walks, through all my ways,
The lasting terror of war
Will live with me for evermore.
Of all the pals whom I have missed
There’s one, I know, whom Christ has kissed,
And in his memory I’ll find
The sweetness of the bitter rind –
Of lonely life in front of me
And terror’s sleepless memory
The second incident occurred in May 1917 as Ackerley led his men on an attack at Cérisy, Arras. The troops were unprepared for a counter-attack and Ackerley, shot in the buttock and thigh, was again left lying in a shell hole for hours, with dead and dying officers. He was eventually collected by a German stretcher-bearer and after an exhausting journey wrapped in louse-ridden blankets, he ended up at a hospital in Hanover.
Recovery and awakening
After recovering, Ackerley was sent to a string of POW camps before being transferred to a neutral site at Mürren, in the Swiss Alps. He used this experience as inspiration for writing The Prisoners of War, which revolves around a Captain’s comfortable captivity in Switzerland and his longing for an attractive young Lieutenant. At Mürren, Ackerley met the author Arnold Lunn, who confronted him about his sexuality. Lunn immediately set him to read the ‘standard works’ on the subject of homosexuality such as Otto Weinberger and Edward Carpenter. Such writers were a revelation to him.
The war dragged on; Ackerley’s brother, Peter, a Lieutenant also in the 8th Battalion, was killed in France in August 1918 and Ackerley narrowly avoided Spanish Flu, which killed several of the inmates at Mürren. Ackerley finally returned to England in December 1918. Experiencing a precarious relationship with his father, Ackerley felt that the wrong son had returned from the war and this haunted him throughout his lifetime.
The nominal roll for the 8th Battalion shows that Captain J R Ackerley went overseas with the unit on 27 July 1915. The ‘remarks’ column states that he was wounded and missing from 6 May 1917 and recorded as a Prisoner of War. The roll also records Ackerley’s brother, Peter, who was killed in action in August 1918 (SHC ref 8227/2/5).
No service papers can be found for Ackerley and we assume that he did not apply for his medals as no medal index card can be found either.
Ackerley, Forster and others
Ackerley is linked to many other Surrey LGBT icons including EM Forster, Noel Coward and Harry Daley; he also discovered and promoted the writer WH Auden, who had been a pupil at St Edmund’s School, Hindhead. John Gielgud was a friend of Ackerley’s and he attended the opening night of The Prisoners of War.
Ackerley met Forster in the early 1920s and the two became great friends, Forster acting somewhat as a confidant and adviser on Ackerley’s complex love life. The two exchanged hundreds of letters over the years and towards the end of his life, Ackerley sold his letters from Forster, for £6000. Ackerley did not live long enough to enjoy the money, dying of a coronary thrombosis at his home in Putney on 4 June 1967. His autobiography, My Father and Myself was published posthumously in 1968 and two years later Portrait of E M Forster was published, with a collection of his own correspondence, The Ackerley Letters, following in 1975.
Text by Di Stiff, Surrey Heritage
- Photograph of Captain J R Ackerley, c.1916 can be found in an East Surrey Regiment photograph album (SHC ref ESR/18/2/2 p.6).
- Photograph of Ackerley (see above), with fellow officers, possibly in France, c.1916. This photograph comes from an album compiled by the brother of Captain Billie Nevill, who was killed at Montauban (SHC ref ESR/25/NEVI/1, p.26).
- The nominal roll for the 8th Battalion shows J R Ackerley went overseas with the unit on 27 July 1915. The ‘remarks’ column states that he was wounded and missing from 6 May 1917 and recorded as a Prisoner of War. The roll also records Ackerley’s brother, Peter, who was killed in action in August 1918 (SHC ref 8227/2/5).
- The war diary for the 8th (Service) Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, at Montauban, the first day of the Somme, 1st July 1916, runs to seven pages and includes the deaths of Capt Billie Nevill and Ackerley’s best friend Lieutenant Bobby Soames. The First World War diaries of both the East Surrey and the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiments are available to view online courtesy of The Surrey Infantry Museum http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk.
- Obituary notice for Captain J R Ackerley, Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment Newsletter, November 1967, p.5
- Peter Parker, A Life of JR Ackerley, 1989.
The Prisoners of War (first performed 5 July 1925)
Escapers All (1932)
My Father and Myself (1968)
E.M. Forster: A Portrait (1970)