Saturday, 16 July 2016

James Norman Hall (1887 – 1951) – American poet, writer and WW1 war correspondent who served in three of the Allied Armed Forces during The First World War

With many thanks to the Facebook Group Great War Doughboy Search: American World War One Veterans for sending me details of James Norman Hall – originally from Colfax, Iowa - who is surely one of the most interesting soldier poets of the First World War

James was born in Colfax in the State of Iowa in the United States of America.  He was educated at local schools and began writing poetry at a young age. He graduated from Grinnell College in 1910 and became a social worker in Boston, Massachusetts, while trying to establish himself as a writer and studying for a master's degree from Harvard University.

James was on holiday in Britain during the summer of 1914 when World War I broke out.  He had cycled to Scotland hoping to meet his hero author Joseph Conrad.   Posing as a Canadian subject, he enlisted in the British Army, serving in the Royal Fusiliers as a machine gunner during the Battle of Loos on the Western Front in France.

His father became ill and James requested compassionate leave.  When the truth came out about his nationality, he was given an Honourable Discharge from the British Army.   James returned to the United States to look after his father and while there, wrote his first book, “Kitchener's Mob” which was about his experiences of WW1.  It was published in 1916 and sold quite well in America.

After a speaking tour to promote the book, James returned to Europe in 1916 on an assignment for “Atlantic Monthly” Magazine, commissioned to write a series of stories about the group of American volunteers serving in the French Air Force’s Lafayette Escadrille – a squadron of French fighting planes.  However, after spending some time with the American airmen, he volunteered to serve in the French Air Service.  By that time, the original squadron had been enlarged and was called the Lafayette Flying Corps, which trained American volunteers to serve in regular French air squadrons.  During his time in the French Air Force, James was awarded the French medals the Croix de Guerre with five palms and the Médaille Militaire.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, James was made a Captain in the American Army Air Service.   There he met another American pilot, Charles Nordhoff. After being shot down over enemy lines in 1918, James spent the last months of the war as a German prisoner of war (POW).  On his release, he was awarded the French medal the Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) and the American Distinguished Service Cross.

After the war, James went to live on the island of Tahiti, where he and Charles Nordhoff, who had also moved there, collaborated on writing a number of successful adventure novels, including the “Bounty” Trilogy, which was turned into a film in 1935 by MGM with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable.   As well as the various Bounty films, other film adaptations of James’s writing followed - “The Hurricane” (1937), which starred his nephew Jon Hall, “Passage to Marseille” (1944) with Humphrey Bogart, and “Botany Bay” (1953), with Alan Ladd.

In 1940, Hall published a collection of poems under the title “Oh Millersville!”  This was published with the pen-name ‘Fern Gravel’ and the poems were written in the voice of a little girl of about ten years old.  The collection was well received, and the truth did not come out until 1946, when Hall published an article entitled "Fern Gravel: A Hoax and a Confession" in “Atlantic Monthly”.   He explained that he had apparently been inspired by a dream he had in which he saw himself back in his Iowa childhood among a group of children, one of whom was a little girl called Fern who wanted her poems to be written down. When he woke up, James immediately wrote down Fern's poems, which are first-person observations of life in a small, provincial American town.

James married a girl called Sarah (known as ‘Lala’) Winchester in 1925 – his wife was part-Polynesian. The couple had two children - Conrad Hall (1926–2003), who worked in films as a director of photography, and Nancy Hall-Rutgers (born 1930).  James died in 1951 in Tahiti and was buried on land on the hillside above the house he and Lala lived in for many years. On his grave is a line from one of the poems he wrote in Iowa at the age of 11: “Look to the Northward stranger, just over the hillside there. Have you in your travels seen a land more passing fair?”

There is an appreciation society and a museum run by members of James’s family -