Siegfried Sassoon on Apulia, Camp Life, Conrad, and the Jews; Jack Martin on the Attractions of the Italian Front; Happy Birthday to the Master of Belhaven; Wilfred Owen on Flowers and Death; Edmund Blunden’s Long Reprieve: the Beginning of the End of Undertones

A flurry of short anecdotes and updates, today, and then a longer excerpt from the last pages of the Undertones.

 

Siegfried Sassoon has reached a rest camp in Taranto, an important way-station on his journey to Egypt. Plenty of time to write! First, he indulges in literary landscape painting:

Blue water, and rusty, parched hills away on the other side. Towns like heaps of white stones, ‘far away.’ One on a hill.

It hardly seems like only a few weeks since the lush hunt-scapes of the Emerald Isle–but variety is the spice of life.  Sassoon soon switches gears, taking on an unfamiliar voice, that of the old campaigner in the boomtown cantina:

The usual riff-raff, always playing poker in the Mess. Staff officers. Colonels, Majors, Australians, Flying-men—all sorts—their eyes meet one’s face and then slide down to one’s left breast to look for medal-ribbons. But it would need a Joseph Conrad to picture the scene in the Mess here.[1]

Hey, good idea! And, indeed, when Sassoon comes to adapt these diary entries as Sherston he will be more explicit: he is, in fact, reading Conrad, and seeing the personalities of the rest camp in these terms. He’ll even quote a bit from Chance, before moving on to his next Great White Explorer’s observation of strange tribes, namely the strange and exotic Jews of London.

Sassoon glances into a noisy tent where he finds that members of the Jewish Battalion are being entertained by professional comedians from among their ranks. He is, of course, a big, athletic, hunting-and-cricketing country fellow who has never thought of himself as Jewish (see footnote here), so perhaps the phrase “little Jew” is just an example of the typical, casually anti-semitic modes of thinking and writing, a century back. (But to be written and then reprinted as a diary-in-“novel”-which-is-basically-a-memoir it must be either very casual or quite deliberately “casual,” mustn’t it?) Yet, when he uses the phrase “curved Hebrew beak” to describe a nose, one wonders if Sassoon is even aware of the anti-semitism directed at him… I don’t think it is supposed to be “all in good fun.” Rather, it’s a good reminder that the relatively recent effort to purge hateful stereotyping from acceptable discourse is not mere tiresome political correctness but rather an attempt to improve the world by preventing the casual dehumanization of those deemed to be different…

 

Jack Martin‘s northern Italy is a far cry from Sassoon’s south, and not just in the generally clean-cut behavior of the men of his signal section: instead of pleasing landscapes, he finds teeming vermin.

Early in the morning I had occasion to go into the billet and at my approach hundreds of rats scampered away in all directions. I shone my torch round the billet and it is certainly the most rat-infested building I have ever seen. They are much smaller than the Belgian variety but they make up for it in quantity….

But at least it’s quiet:

The quietness of this front can be judged from the fact that our front-line troops wash and shave in the Piave which is as open to Fritz as it is to us. Also, Brigade Sports are being arranged… A boxing ring is already in course of construction. And this is being in the line!![2]

 

And let us share in the satisfaction of Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven:

My birthday again. I believe I have now reached the age of thirty-five, which is quite respectable, though still quite young for a colonel.[3]

 

One more letter, now, before we get to the end of today’s writing. Wilfred Owen, is writing to his mother again, in another mood of florid late-night forth-holding. This reads almost as if Owen is doing a sort of wartime aesthete’s late night talk-show opening monologue… well, really, exactly like that, if there were such a thing. In any case, he does a particularly nice job of doing what these letters do: combining very unwarlike doings with the (inescapable) talk of the war and pointed recourse to whatever consolations are available. Generally, for him, this means beauty, whether in the form of attractive young men, poetry, antiques, old houses, or, as in this case, flowers.

Midnight, 22 February 1918

I got so thoughtful last night that I could not go on writing. I hope I did not Harrow[4] you too much.

That ‘Last Words’ seems to have rather a harrowing effect on you. I have shown it to no one else as it is not chastened yet. It baffles my critical spirit.

What can I talk about tonight?

Priestley bought some wonderful large Ranunculi this morning; and they are so fine that nothing would do but he must buy a fine bowl to set them in. So we are winning at least the ‘Warness’ of War. Things look stupefyingly catastrophic on the Eastern Front. Bainbrigge of Shrewsbury, (over some oysters we consumed in our little oyster-bar this afternoon) opined that the whole of civilization is extremely liable to collapse.

Let us therefore think of more enduring things, my lovely Mother.

Such as the February flowers. These are they whose whiteness I have not yet suffered enough to buy. They are what I prayed to when Colin had Scarlet Fever. I could not buy them then for poverty. Now I cannot buy them for shame: For to my extraordinary thinking, it is a wicked traffic, this of grabbing up the Mediterranean Narcissi, and vending them to the rich. Still they are to be seen in the shop-windows of Grange Road West; in Birkenhead; and in Scarborough, and I suppose in Bermondsey, Stockport, Dudley, and perhaps in the uttermost parts of Lybia about Berlin.

For that we must be thankful.

Their odour is disinfectant of souls, as Carbolic is of mortal breath. Narcissi and Carbolic: that is all Life. The Field Daffodils and the Field Dressing Station: these are the.best ideas of Heaven and Hell for the senses.

You will notice that Christ is never represented with the Syrian Lilies in His hand. That is to be expected: for as one says ‘There were many Christians before Christ; The astonishing thing is: there have been none since.’

One Spring, Carbolic may have saved you and me. Every Spring the Narcissus is enough to save a man’s soul, if it be worth saving…

He goes on for a bit more in this mode: floral, florid, and making half-intelligible references to family history as he advises his mother, in some obscure way, about his brothers.

I had meant this to be a consoling kind of letter, and if you read it rightly, it will prove so:—In spite of this Latest News: Leave only once in 3 months (8 days)!

Always your own loving Wilfred x[5]

 

Several of our writers–even Owen, in other moods–have the gift of writing with a deceptive simplicity. No, not “deceptive:” rather, with a fine-grained or exquisitely bespoke simplicity. But Edmund Blunden, although he is an excellent stylist, is never merely a stylist. He can do the same artful-simplicity trick with argument, with theme, and with meaning. To whit: what was the story of his time in France? It was the story of innocence and experience, love and endurance.

And luck. The last chapter of Undertones of War is called “My Luck,” and it closes with a very simple point: Timing is everything.

Today, a century back, the Battalion War Diary for the 11th Royal Sussex records that “LIEUT E.C. BLUNDEN M.C. proceeded to U.K. for sixth months rest.” Although the guilt and the relief hit him immediately, he couldn’t have known, today, with quite such finality how total a commutation this is. The long leave means that Blunden will survive: he will miss both the German Spring Offensive and the final advance of the allies, and he will live to write a book.

But the battalion will stay, and Blunden can’t bring himself to take his own story beyond theirs. So he will end the book with this departure, beginning today, ending tomorrow.

Everyone began to feel the strain of sleeplessness, and a relief was expected. One weary private, having to express himself, chose the Brigade Major on his morning round as the object of his satire: “Look at ‘im,” he cried to his embarrassed neighbours. “Military Cross an’ all — look, chum.” The Brigade Major was himself a humorist and saved the satirist from some grim expiation. While relief was still expected, I was shown a brigade message referring to me, and applying to me the same treatment as had already taken Vidler and others from us — namely, six months’ duty at a training centre in England. This order was, like all my recent movement orders, good and bad, too; but it seemed time I went. Not that my nerves were spent — I felt better than usual in that respect; but I was uneasy in my job, and could not bring myself into the proper relations with my seniors. Besides, the battalion altogether was now strange and disordered. Doctor Crassweller, whose wit and wisdom and Wilsonian aspect had been our delight since he came to the battalion, would hear no sentiment from me on this occasion. He gleamed satisfaction as if he and not I were going into peace; he passed on to me the kindest things he had ever heard said about me; and he warned me on no account to volunteer to return before my time, for by Nature’s ordinance such an action was equal to suicide. I hated to mention to my old friends, such as Sergeant Ashford, that I was departing. I scarcely dared to face my servant Shearing, now wearing his Military Medal for admirable courage in last September’s Menin Road massacre. Poor Ashford stood, delighted for my sake, but not glad that I should go; old hands were now very few; he looked between smiles and tears, tapped with his foot, took my hand, and I think he then divined that it must be his own fate to stay in Flanders. All congratulated me, but I felt I ought to have been in a position to congratulate them.

Some unanalyzed notion led me to go round the battalion trenches thoroughly, the last day I was there, and the walk was lively, for most of the crucial points were being “registered” by German guns; the railway valley was now in a poor state, and men did not loiter there. One or two nights had been particularly anxious and bombarded ones, and the future here would evidently be much the same as that of Ypres. It was some comfort to be told that the battalion would be relieved in a night or two; in that belief, which was a delusion, I said good-bye, and went away. The long duckboard track to Revelon Farm was for the moment quiet, and I was glad, for having made the severance I was unashamedly eager to reach England. Had a shell come, I thought I should have exemplified in action the mild joke then current:

A. “Did you hear that shell just now?”

B. “I did. Twice. Once when it passed me, and again when I passed it.”

I passed a night with Maycock, ruddy-faced and buoyant as ever, at the transport lines. Old Swain was actually adjutant now, gray-headed as he was, so I had already bidden him farewell…[6]

Tomorrow will bring us to the most beautiful (but hasn’t that been Blunden’s special adjective all along?) ending of all the trench memoirs.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 215-6.
  2. Sapper Martin, 175-6.
  3. War Diary, 459.
  4. This is a mild joke about a book that Owen has been reading, and telling his mother about.
  5. Collected Letters, 534-5.
  6. Undertones of War, 271-4.

Wilfred Owen Dances Alone; Siegfried Sassoon’s Idyll on the Rails

It’s been a while since Wilfred Owen has written one of his slightly creepily enthusiastic letters to his mother… but here’s one!

Midnight, 21 February 1918 [Scarborough]

My own dear Mother,

My purple slippers & enchanter’s fleece are on, and off is the brisk soldierly authority, which is such a hindrance to my writings to you.

All day I’ve been hoping you’ve had weather like to ours. The Elements left nothing to be desired except a mild fire at half past four.

Which I had.

In truth, I am very comforted in Scarboro’. ‘For everything’ that Solomon mentions, ‘there is time’ except the singing and dancing. I cut the Local Concerts and the Select Bachelor Dances. Yet I do dance, privately in my room, to the music of good news from you. I dance when the melody of a good line comes into my noddle; I dance also when I dash my bad foot against a stone…[1]

Evidently he is in high spirits–still “drunk,” perhaps, in a rather fin de siècle aesthete’s fashion, on the pleasures of life in an old town. Perhaps we are missing a key element of the epistolary conversation, but it might simply be that a useful component of what we might see as a thorough-going “make hay while the sun shines” escapsim is to write in this mode to his most receptive reader. (But then again, Owen is not the sort to be idly allusive: as we may know–if more from Pete Seeger or the Byrds than King James’s scholars–Solomon’s list of things for which there is time is rather evenly weighted between things pleasant and thing painful or ominous. This is a time not just for singing and dancing, but for gathering stones together…)

 

Still, wouldn’t Owen rather be writing careful revisions of sharp, compressed verse, and sending them off to Siegfried Sassoon? But if he were, he wouldn’t get a swift response. Sassoon is speeding toward the east, having arrived yesterday at Foggia on the Adriatic, and heading now further down toward the heel of the Italian boot, where his next ship awaits.

Sassoon is a moody diarist, but he has warmed easily and quickly to the gentle task of writing the diary-as-travelogue. His critical faculties–his tendency to carp, that is–kick back in at the end, but for most of today, a century back, he seems to surrender to the poet’s dream of an Italian tour.

February 21

Awoke to find the train going through a region of olive orchards, hoar and ancient, bent and twisted, with rough stone walls, and Primavera spreading her arms in a dazzle of almond-blossom, sunlit and joyous, with the Adriatic, in delicate glimpses of level blue, a mile or two away beyond the bleached-grey boles and branches. Quite an idyll.

About noon we come to Brindisi; and I take a shower-bath and dry myself in the sun and the bracing breeze, in a garden close to the railway, where ‘ablution-sheds’ etc are put up among fig-trees, vine-pergola, and almond-blossom, with a group of umbrella-pines at one end overshadowing an old stone seat for summer afternoons. Lunch in Brindisi city gate. Sailors. Picturesque. Spanish effects.

About 3—on again—the final stage to Taranto—across a flat, cultivated plain, fringed and dotted with the tufts and cloudy haze of bloom, rose and white, and the wind-swayed dull silver of tossing olive-trees, all in the glare of spring sunshine, with green of cactuses and early wheat. Bare fig-trees; silver; the most naked trees ever seen. Further on we came to a stony region with dry rocky hillsides—always the olive-trees.

Grottaglie at sunset  A city crowning a hill: ivory-white houses, flat-roofed, climbing one above another, a dim brown castle with tower and sheer wall, the whole rising from a cloudy tangle of rosy fruit-orchards in blossom. Dim with dusk, the city shines in the last glow of a clear sunset; it faces the west and seems lit from within, smouldering and transparent with its own luminous beauty, magical, enchanted; to the left a long sweeping line of dim trees, a narrow border fringing an expanse of open country. A city of fiery opal, moonstone, amethyst, set in silver and turquoise. Oriental, not Italian—perhaps more Spanish than either—a dream-city girdled with orchards (and probably a damned smelly place for all that).

Reached Taranto about 9 in moonlight.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 534-5.
  2. Diaries, 214-5.

Max Plowman Under Miraculously Pleasant Arrest; Edward Heron-Allen Chucks a Live One

Today, a century back, Max Plowman updates his friend Hugh de Selincourt on the progress of his protest.

My Dear,

Just a bulletin.

Medical Board reported me “Fit for General Service”.

The day before yesterday I found a note waiting for me when I came in in the evening telling me to go to the Reserve Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regt. at Whitley Bay forthwith, signed by the Adjutant.

Yesterday morning I replied acknowledging it and adding “but as it is now more than five weeks since I tendered the resignation of my Commission I regret that I am unable to comply with these instructions… We had a long & very amiable talk about the war & it was another case of Paul before Agrippa! & we ended a pleasant hour by my being put under “close arrest” (they hadn’t the power to make it “open”) & with his promise to fix up a General Court Martial as quickly as possible. “Close arrest” simply means that I have to put up with one of the subalterns I’ve been sharing this room with, all day as well as all night…

It all goes on being miraculously pleasant…

One of the problems with principled Pacifism is that it can’t easily be contained. Plowman began in the ambulances, then went into the infantry and fought on the Somme. Now he will fight no longer. But if the war is wrong, what can he do?

Now, when I can remember to think of it, I am weighing over the pros. & cons of “Alternative service” should I be hauled up by the Tribunals, & at present I am growing more convinced that failing absolute exemption I shall not accept any alternative, on the grounds that if I have to come into contact with militarism I decline to make terms with it & being a “conscientious objector” cannot admit that the military service act has any validity or any power over me. I think that alternative service under the military service act is another name of civil conscription, & that civil conscription in time of war is, on grounds of principle, more objectionable than military conscription…[1]

 

Meanwhile, Eager Eddie Heron-Allen–a man approaching the war with similar deliberate speed but on an opposite vector–has been piling on the “firsts” of late. Today marks his training-camp baptism of another sort of fire.

20 February 1918:

I was detailed at 2pm to march a platoon to Broadwater Devon (we do get sick of that tramp) to throw live bombs. I might have served on a court martial, but I wanted to see real bombing, so I wrapped up in my Burberry, for it was raining gaily, and led the platoon out. They were in full marching order, and seemed very grateful when I gave them 10 minutes rest by the roadside, before attacking the last (and worst) mile.

We got to the bombing pits at 2.45 pm, and I was keenly interested. First we ploughed across country to the stores, a large hut entirely filled with boxes of loaded bombs, and fetched half a dozen boxes back to the shelter, a great mound of earth with a ‘dug-out’ on one side and two ‘cells’ at either end, from which the bombs are thrown over a parapet at marks, trees stuck up in the ground. The boxes were carried into trenches and prepared there so that if anything went wrong they could be thrown out at once. Each box contains 12 bombs and a box of 12 detonators, beastly little things like a red worm, which if not handled carefully blow your hand off…

In the trench each bomb was tested, the detonator is put in, secured if it looks flabby with a pinch of plasticine, the base plug is screwed on, and the bomb put back in the box upside down…

Two men throw at a time alternately. The man looks out over the parapet for an instant and then gets down, points one hand in the direction of the mark, and throws with the other. As it goes through the air the spring flies off, and we all duck out heads under cover. The explosion is tremendous, and bits of bomb come flying over our heads and pattering on our logs, any one of which would kill us if we didn’t ‘duck’ in time. I found a chink on my side through which I could see the bomb. After seeing half a dozen, Densham caught me, and told me gaily that I ought to have been killed through my chink. So I thought I had seen enough of that.

When all the men had thrown three bombs we went down and had a shy. After my first I mentioned to Mates that I had never even thrown a dummy before, and he opined that I had better leave well alone…

Yes, he’d better, hadn’t he. The instructors themselves then toss a few and become concerned when a double-toss produces only one explosion. They all go out to investigate, since an instructor can’t leave a possibly unexploded bomb on the range… and here the reader would grow nervous, were it not for Heron-Allen’s jaunty tone. It’s all so fascinating!

They find nothing, conclude that there had simply been a simultaneous explosion, and head back to their billets. And so, for once, bombing practice concludes without major incident…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 97-8.
  2. Journal, 168-9.

Siegfried Sassoon Wends His Way East; Rowland Feilding has a Rare Accident

Siegfried Sassoon is on a solitary and abbreviated Grand Tour, crossing France and Italy en route to Palestine, with nothing but a few new acquaintances, a head cold, and his bag full of books to help him pass the time. Yesterday he indulged in a book that was not on his carefully curated list–to his chagrin.

February 18

Through Novi and Vochera, where we halt for lunch 12-1. Glaring sunlight and cold wind—dried-up land. All afternoon we crawl through vinelands, with the low, blue, delicate-edged hills on the right—a few miles away, till the sun goes down and leaves an amethyst glow on that horizon, and at 7.30 we reach Bologna.

Reading Lewis Seymour and Some Women all day—an easy-flowing, unpleasant-flavoured book—great relief to turn to Pater’s Botticelli essay, and then to Hardy’s Woodlanders. Nasty old man, George Moore.

Jolly companionship of the journey, in spite of the animal squalor and so on. Harper rather hipped and fussy—bad campaigner, I fear. Howell-Jones sensible and philosophical. M. Robinson has my heart with his dear impetuous ways, kind and willing and cheery.

So not rally all that solitary, in fact. Today, with all quiet in London and France, we’ll continue to trundle along with Sassoon.

I do want to say one thing about his diary, which is now being regularly updated for the first time in months: it’s a travelogue, yes, but he’s not just marking time or recording the stages of his journey. He’s also making notes again, in the sense that he is once again thinking about writing about what he sees. This is important, I think: never mind “indoor” and “outdoor” Sassoon–that is an imperfect binary distinction imposed retrospectively. But whether or not he is experiencing the war as something he might write about is an important indicator of his mood. When he is despairing, he writes angrily, unproductively, for the moment at hand; when frustrated or indulging in “mindless” activities he only writes to record them.

So he is once again content, it would seem–and yet not mindlessly content, as he portrayed himself during the period of huntin’ and drillin’ in Ireland.

February 19

After a night-journey of freezing gloom, the train stopping occasionally in cavernous stations, we reached Faenza about 2.30 a.m. and slept in the train. Turned out at 8 to a sunlit morning and soon found ourselves washing and drinking coffee in a hotel, moderately comfortable. Clean, narrow tall streets, a market-place full of gossip and babble of cloaked, unshaven, middle-aged men, with a sprinkling of soldiers in grey with yellow collars. We stay here twelve hours. The fountain in the place was festooned with ice, like melted lead.[1]

 

And Rowland Feilding is traveling in an entirely different direction. We have seen the Master of Belhaven use the perquisites of a commander–free time and the influence to obtain leisure facilities–to persecute peripatetic partridges, but Feilding satisfies a desire not for bygone pastimes but novelty:

February 20, 1918. Vadenay.

Yesterday afternoon I at last satisfied my ambition, and flew in an aeroplane. It was a glorious day, and, piloted by a little French corporal, we mounted to something over 5,000 feet and cruised for three-quarters of an hour at that altitude. It is a wonderful feeling. We were so high above the captive balloons that they looked like peas, or
rather beans (which is their shape).

All was going well when, suddenly, a crack and a whizz: something was wrong in front. Bits of metal came flying back, missing the pilot, but making a hole in each of the wings. A piece 2 1/2 feet long caught up in the stays and fluttered there. The propeller made a hesitating turn or two, then stopped, and I—who was as ignorant as a babe of what was the matter, and knew only that we were 5,000 feet above the ground—began to wonder what would happen next.

I think I should have expected under the circumstances to feel frightened, but my pilot remained so self-possessed, and the aeroplane began to descend so steadily, that a feeling of almost complete confidence came over me, and I do not think my heart beat one pat the faster.

I repeat this as a study in sensations, and because I think the experience (having regard to the fact that it was my first time up) was interesting and peculiar.

The pilot steered the machine round and round in little spiral curves towards the earth, while I sat and watched the landscape getting closer and more defined, and as a precaution fixed the strap which is provided for the purpose around my waist. As we neared the tree-tops we got rather wobbly (my pilot was manouevring for position and was
keeping the aeroplane level), but finally we landed smoothly on the very aerodrome we had started from;—when I felt much relieved.

They tell me it was a rare accident. It was caused by a valve of the engine, which was of the rotary type, blowing loose, and cutting the steel housing of the motor, round the complete circle. It was some pieces of the housing that had come flying back, and the force required for the operation illustrates the immense power of these engines (250 horse-power).

The engine was of course wrecked; but I have had my fly, though I daresay I am not so keen to repeat it just at present, even if I get the opportunity.

It is wretched thinking of you all in London while these beastly raids are going on.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 214
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 252-3.

Bayoneting With Edward Heron-Allen; Wilfred Owen’s “Last Words”

First, today, another very entertaining entry from our great latecomer, Edward Heron-Allen. He is recently commissioned, still under training, and very much in England. But he has advanced, thematically, as far as the “Bull Ring.” Other than this not being in France–and the instructor not being notably Scottish–it fits the pattern well:

…I was detailed to watch advanced bayonet practice which was extremely interesting and real. The men start in a trench, go ‘over the top’ in waves, across a plateau of sand jumping obstacles, and over a ditch into a trench where they stab recumbent sand bags, painted to represent Huns. They form on the other side and rush a row of hanging Hun-bags, and then make a final charge on the last trench, which means a six foot jump landing with one’s bayonet well through another row of Hun-bags. A concealed instructor pulls wires which make Hun heads bob up on the way, and you have to jab those en passant. As the men yell furiously the whole time the scene is cataleptically exhilarating to watch, and the men evidently enjoy it vastly. I should not care to do it myself![1]

 

Wilfred Owen, though he could hardly top this, also has some exhilaration to share. In this rather strange letter to his mother, he describes how exploring the older parts of Scarborough with a Belgian painter led to an aesthetic euphoria.

Last night I took an artist johnny—called Claus…  (a fat old tub, with round spectacles, and a conical head) …to Scarborough, where there’s not a house built since 1780, not a street much wider than Claus, and miles of it, mind you, miles of glorious eighteenth century. It was twilight…

Not a soul in the alleys.

Not a lamp lit. A dim moon—and the Past.

And we got excited. What excited us, who shall say? We jumped about, we bumped about, We sang praises, we cursed Manchester; we looked in at half open doors and blessed the people inside. We saw Shakespere in a lantern, and the whole of Italy in a Balcony. A tall chimney became a Greek Column; and in the inscriptions on the walls we read romances and philosophies.

It was a strange way of getting drunk. I wonder if the people in the officers’ bar suspected that evening how much more cheaply a man can get fuddled on fresh air and old winding passages?

Very nice, and refreshingly un-1918: it’s a passage that throws us back to Baudelaire or ahead to Dylan, c. 1965.

But it’s still 1918, and euphoria is not all that Owen has been experiencing:

I am sorry you have disturbing and daylight-lingering dreams. It is possible to avoid them: by proper thinking before sleep. I confess I bring on what few war dreams I now have, entirely by willingly considering war of an evening. I do so because I have my duty to perform towards War.

Sudden seriousness. And, perhaps, another explanation for the metaphorical drunkenness. Owen seems to have exorcised another segment of his war experience in producing this poem draft, which he prefaces with a stern warning to his mother, whose Christian faith he risks offending:

There is a point where prayer is indistinguishable from blasphemy. There is also a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable, from prayer.

As in this first verse:

Last Words[2]

‘O Jesus Christ!’ one fellow sighed;
And kneeled, and bowed, tho’ not in prayer, and died.
And the Bullets sang—‘In vain’
Machine Guns chuckled ‘Vain’
Big Guns guffawed ‘In vain’

‘Father and Mother!’ one boy said.
Then smiled—at nothing like a small child; being dead.
And the Shrapnel Cloud
Slowly gestured ‘Vain!’
The falling Splinters muttered ‘Vain’.

‘My Love!’ another cried, ‘My love, my bud!’
Then, gently lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
And the Flares gesticulated, ‘Vain’
The Shells hooted, ‘In vain’
And the Gas hissed, ‘In vain’.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Journal, 165-6.
  2. This will be revised and re-titled "The Last Laugh."
  3. Collected Letters, 533-34.

The Master of Belhaven Has Great Fun; Rudyard Kipling Tries Out a Jest; Isaac Rosenberg in the Gloomiest Depths

We have a jarring triple contrast for today, a century back–a diary entry and two letters, each in a very different mood and aspect.

We begin, wrong-footedly, with the comic relief. The Master of Belhaven is nothing if not a sportsman. But those Germans, on the other hand, they really do put up a poor show…

I walked over to Welch’s detached section with him in the afternoon. He lent me a gun and we put up quite a lot of partridges. The birds are very wild now, and we did not get any. However, it was great fun. The Hun, who is no sportsman, amused himself by putting out shrapnel not far off, but they were too high to be at all dangerous.[1]

 

Then it’s an abrupt and painful transition from a colonel with the leisure to shoot (at) partridges on a lark–and the good breeding to forgive the birds of the battle zone their wildness–to a private with very much less in the way of time and sport and fun. Isaac Rosenberg, is less interested in the birds of No Man’s Land than most of our poets are–but he’s a dab hand with the rats.

Dear Mr Bottomley

I do not know when I begin a letter whether to plunge right to the depths into the gloomiest of Byronic misanthropy (as indeed, my inclination pushes me to,) or be nice and placid & acquiescent about things. I know if I didn’t explain myself properly Id only appear weak & stupid, & as the situation does not give me the chance to explain myself, it must be left unexplained just yet, at least…

I have been transfered… my own Batt is broken up & what was left of them mixed with other Battalions… Poetry has gone right out of me I get no chance to even think of it. My ‘Unicorn’ is dead, & it will need a powerful Messiah to breathe life into its nostrils. I could more easily draw than write but the weather is too cold for that, if I did get the time… Thank you for what you say about my ‘Kolue’ speech. If the war does not damage me completely Ill beat that yet.

Yours sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[2]8.

These sorts of bulletins–“it’s miserable, but let us hold onto hope”–are the best Rosenberg has been able to manage, of late. But if poetry really has been driven right out of him then he is, at least, still holding on to the last fragments he was able to produce before his transfer… we shall see them soon.

 

Speaking of production, here’s a strange one. Rudyard Kipling and several cronies have recently decided to begin the distinctly sui generis (and extremely English) project of composing a sham fifth book of Horatian odes. In this letter to C. R. L. Fletcher, then, we might expect to find Kipling in his mode of master yarn-spinner–and we do. He is excited by the game, there is a burst of creativity couched in hale-fellow encouragements… but it’s not all fun and games.

Bateman’s, Burwash, Sussex

Feb. 17.1918.

Dear Fletcher

…I think highly of any good “fake” and the idea of the original M.S.–of a decent rich brown tinct–is very fine indeed. Thus are Immortal Works built up! ‘Only hope we’ll have some paper left after the war! Facsimiles cost like sin: but I foresee an edition de luxe in the years to come!

And I think too the notion of fresh hands in the game is fun. We oughtn’t to keep the fun to ourselves…

All good luck be with you.

Ever

RK.

This selection of the letter more or less captures the tone. He is writing, again, about the project of composing odes in the style of Horace and rendering them in Latin. And that’s not all. He is thinking, too, about that collection of short ancient verses known to classicists (and well-educated 19th century Englishmen more generally) as the Greek Anthology. The anthology is rich in epitaphs, and Kipling has been mulling these over. There is a post-script–and it doesn’t sound like a joke.

P.S. How does this go into Greek. It’s out of the sepulchral unchristian epigrams of the missing parts of the Anthology:

On an R. A. Subaltern

Death fell upon my Son from out of the skies while
he was laughing, they tell me, at some jest. Would
I had known what it was. It would serve me through
the years when I shall not laugh.

The grammar is mixed I think.[3]

The striking thing is that this epigram–which Kipling proposes, perhaps jokingly, to render into Greek–is not at all lighthearted. It’s a suitably stoic ancient-style epigram, one that would fit well, perhaps, with what the mourners on the hither side of the generational gulf might want their public sentiments about their “fallen” sons to sound like. Which is why this epigram, published later in revised form, is often presented as if it is written by Kipling about his boy Jack. And, of course, how could his only son be entirely absent from his mind? But there is no mention of Jack, here–instead it is the classical heritage, on the one hand, and the Royal Artillery (Jack Kipling was an infantry officer) on the other…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 457.
  2. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 117-
  3. Letters, IV, 483-4.

Olaf Stapledon Has a Succession of Thrills

It’s Olaf Stapledon‘s turn to paint a picture of the cold calm of February–for us and for Agnes Miller, on the far side of the world. All is quiet, but he does his best to provide a few thrills:

16 February 1918

Frost again, almost as hard as ever. Too cold to work on one’s car without grim determination and much pausing for swinging the arms, too cold to read or write in comfort, and often too cold in bed. Of course it’s not really as bad as that. Probably if it were a real hardship one would not grouse about it; but as it is just bad enough to annoy, one makes a song. One spends all day putting one’s hands into one’s pockets or blowing one’s fingers. I am busy at present. First, two fairly busy duty days, ending with a bus caked in frozen mud, then two days of work on the car badly behind time, then duty again. For real joy I recommend the washing of a frozen car with water that, instead of taking off the mud, covers it with a layer of glass almost instanter. And a wind like a thousand little safety-razor blades shot at you; and the old car valenced everywhere with icicles that grow visibly as you swill the water on. Altogether it was not a very successful washing, in spite of the liberal use of a screw driver to chip off the ice and mud. My last duty day was a busy one compared with what we sometimes have. In the night we had a gas alarm—all the sirens echoed down the valley in a most eerie fashion and people began getting out of their blankets and  investigating things and even putting on their masks. The four Englishmen, being a thoroughly sluggardly lot, lay abed hoping for the best. Needless to say the gas never came our way, & where it did go it hurt no one,—so our confidence was justified. When it was my turn to leave the place I started with two men in the car. We jogged along a hundred yards—Bang! not a gun, oh no far worse, a burst tyre, the first I have had for months. So out we got, Romney [George Fox] & I, and jacked up the hind leg of the old beast and changed the tyre; an ancient ragged relic it was. And the two “types” inside prattled and wanted to help; and other types passing begged for a lift and were sternly refused. Soon we were on the road again, but were presently held up by a big tourer that was frantically trying to turn around in a very narrow place. So we sat & watched, and evilly hoped that he would back too far and go over the edge for our amusement; but he didn’t. When the road was clear we toiled up the screened hill, picked up two sick men on the top, two more further on, and kept on picking up patients until we were full. It was just like a bus, an omnibus! There was ever so much traffic on the road, & we were late, so it was exciting winding in & out, blowing a feeble horn, shouting “Eéééé là bas!” and “À droit là!” and “Attention mon vieux,” or when necessary other things more powerful. . . . And then as luck would have it we came across an exceptional number of uncivilised American horses. (War horses all come from S. America.) They were being led in pairs. A large number of them took fright at us and flung about all over the place as we passed, so there was a glorious muddle. The air was a seething mass of horses’ heels, as the journalists might say! Said Romney, “By Jove, I swear I’ve never had such a succession of thrills!”[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 281-2.

Siegfried Sassoon Heads East; Edmund Blunden Bangs Around in No Man’s Land

Siegfried Sassoon has broken out of the war’s pattern–and he hardly seems broken up about it. He has arrived back in France, but instead of an interminable and miserable slow train up the line, he cuts across the grain of the war, and across the unspoiled hinterland of France, bound–still slowly, but much more scenically–for the east.

February 15

Awoke in the railway carriage to find a bright, frosty morning—and the train in a station. We started about 9 and crawled to St Germain (fifteen kilometres from Lyons) Arriving there at 12:30. The morning journey was through fine country—fir-clad hills and pleasant little valleys threaded by brooks and shallow rivers.

Notes (oxen pulling a tree: boy standing among trees looking down-at the train). Yesterday was through level, brown, buff, sand-coloured places. To-day dark-green firs are the colour-note, and the sun shines gloriously on all, and warms my face as I crane from the window to see the unfolding prospects.

We stay at a rest-camp near the station—bath and lunch—in the afternoon go marketing. The blue Saone River flowing nobly along. We leave again to-night…[1]

Sassoon’s diary has taken on a different cast, reminiscent more of Edward Thomas‘s field notes of a soldier intending to return to his poetry than of his own recent modes of hunt diary or journal of self-discovery.

 

Although Edmund Blunden doesn’t describe his brief stint as battalion adjutant, it’s likely that this passage of the memoir refers to tonight, a century back. According to the battalion diary–the 11th Royal Sussex are now near Gouzeaucourt, on the old Cambrai battlefield–“Companies [were] employed at night on working parties, cable burying, & improvement of defenses.” The fact that there were no casualties (unlike on several other nearby nights) makes the dating more likely, if far from airtight. It is yet another study of the ominous quiet on the German side of the line.

The silence and inertia in the German trenches were a puzzle, and the old remark about “holding the line with a man and a boy” was passed round among us. One might sit, as I did, upon our parapet, and spend several minutes looking at the opposite line and the ruins and expensive cemetery of Villers Guislain, without any disaster. One night, the whole battalion was ordered to put out wire in No Man’s Land, and although such an order created the usual terrible imaginings, the reality was almost like a practical joke. Conversation went on among the men, the wire was uncoiled with all possible noise, the jangling tin crosses on the ends of the reels were allowed full voice, company commanders bawled for sergeant-majors — No Man’s Land became (to speak comparatively) a parade. Worley was the specialist in charge, and he ran about with his favourite gloves on, putting mistakes right here, and fancy touches on there — and telling me loudly the work was going on well — “is the old General about, d’you know sir?” At last a machine gun was turned on, but the wire was in place, and no harm was done. [2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diary, 213,
  2. Undertones of War, 206.

Isaac Rosenberg is Blunted; Edmund Blunden Hits the Books

Another quiet February day… Isaac Rosenberg has now joined the first battalion of his regiment–a completely new unit for him, as far as friendship and emotional support are concerned. He does not seem to be in good spirits.

We had a rough time in the trenches with the mud, but now we’re out for a bit of a rest, and I will try and write longer letters. You must know by now what a rest behind the line means. I can call the evenings—that is, from tea to lights out—my own; but there is no chance whatever for seclusion or any hope of writing poetry now. Sometimes I give way and am appalled at the devastation this life seems to have made in my nature. It seems to have blunted me. I seem to be powerless to compel my will to any direction, and all I do is without energy and interest.[1]

 

And although he will say nothing about this in his memoir, it would appear that Edmund Blunden–the harmless shepherd, the good-natured innocent–was temporarily appointed battalion adjutant today, a century back. Or so says the battalion diary. It also notes that that the C.O. was sent away on a course, which would have meant that the adjutant was temporarily in command, hence the vacancy. Still, it is an ample indication of the state of things in 1918 that a twenty-one-year-old amateur, not yet three years removed from his post as Senior Grecian at Christ’s Hospital, is now running the day-to-day affairs of a several-hundred-man unit, judging expenses, dispensing justice, etc…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 378.

Edward Heron-Allen Bids the Boys Farewell; Ralph Hamilton Makes Ready for the Tanks

Edward Heron-Allen came under fire today, a century back, for the very first time.

When the firing begins the mud flies in all directions, and spatters back all over the marking shelters–sometimes a bullet comes skidding back, and men get hurt. We watched it for some time, and then had a mild experience of what it was to be ‘under fire.’

Yes, Heron-Allen is on the practice musketry course at Tunbridge Wells. Still, there is some intent behind this apparently merely blustering insistence that new officers expose themselves to slight chances of ricochet hits–they will have to begin to learn the deportment that will be expected of them.

We had been told to telephone back to the firing point when we were wanting to come back, but the range officer said this was ridiculous as the path was well to one side of the line of fire, and it wasn’t worth while to paralyse the British Army whilst we re-joined them. The only possible danger was a ricochet. “Did it often happen?’ ‘Well–only now and then…’

We made for the path quick, before we heard any more comforting reflections. We wouldn’t have hurried for the world!

 

Coincidentally, the only bit of action from one of our writers at the front today also concerns range-marking. Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, continues to prepare his position for the possibility of a German advance, and he is worried about tanks. Anti-tank shooting is the newest discipline of the artillery, and his men are uncertain how to proceed, or even how to judge such short ranges. Hamilton’s solution is to paint symbols on large boards and place them out between the lines.

The men were so stupid about where to put the boards that I galloped about placing them myself. It was quite safe, as there was too much fog for the Hun to see me…[1]

“Quite safe–” yet probably more dangerous than the butts at Tunbridge Wells.

 

But back now to Heron-Allen, who described another scene, today, that once again shows the belatedness of his introduction to the emotional stresses of the long war. In the evening, he wanders down to the train station where a number of recent trainees are departing for the front–it’s a scene right out of 1915.

The scene on the platform beggars description. There were about 50 of them, and good God! how young they were. Some older men going out perhaps for the second time, but the average was nineteen. There were about 20 officers, and the band grouped at the end of the platform and played gay tunes. The boys… shouted, they sang, some danced, one or two, the youngest, were slightly drunk. The officers among them were talking and chaffing, and helping them with tips about the equipment. Our padre was there of course, and was charming with them, especially the few who stood still with an expression in their eyes which I never saw before and hope never to see again…

…when one boy whom I have drilled and lectured to went up and kissed the glass against which his girl’s face was pressed white, I frankly had to go away and pull myself together…

The guards got fussy, the band played ‘Auld Lang Syne’–it was a moment in which one lives at treble speed. On the last note the train moved –the officers all at the saluted (morituros vos salutamur) and the band struck up the regimental march as this cargo of glorious creatures disappeared into the night. We officers stood rigidly to attention till the march was over, and then dispersed into the dark. Many of us were glad it was dark. I met the delicate and educated Brothers, and said with a sickly attempt at conversation ‘Very interesting.’ He replied ‘Very terrible, look at my hands’. He was shaking like a man with ague…

Back to the inn at 10.45pm, and to bed a sadder and wiser man.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 455.
  2. Journal, 156-60.