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.
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!!
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.
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 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
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…
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.