A Rum Job for Robert Graves and the Royal Welch; Edward Thomas on Writing and on the Phone

Robert Graves is full of tall stories, and this one sounds a head too high to be true–but, as it turns out, it’s only a bit stretched.

Due to a strange concatenation of accident and illness, the twenty-one-year-old Graves, a schoolboy at the start of the war, found himself temporarily in command of a Regular Army battalion, the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. Not only that, but during the day or two of his tenure the Royal Welch were due to participate in small attack–which, of course, did not feel like a small matter to the men who were supposed to cross the thickly mudded expanse of No Man’s Land with little to no support..

Opposite our trenches a German salient protruded, and the Brigadier wanted to ‘bite it off’ in proof of the Division’s offensive spirit. Trench soldiers could never understand the Staff’s desire to bite off an enemy salient. It was hardly desirable to be fired at from both flanks; if the Germans had got caught in a salient, our obvious duty must be to keep them there as long as they could be persuaded to stay. We concluded that a passion for straight lines, for which Headquarters were well known, had dictated this plan; but found no strategic or tactical excuse.

This is a bit cynical, but it’s also a common complaint and not, on its face, completely unfair. We’ve just heard Rowland Feilding, a sober, experienced soldier, make similar complaints about a similar operation, if in very different terms. There have been other such operations bruited, attempted, even successfully carried out, all along the line, lately. It seems to be a particular scourge of this winter–with the Somme battle three months behind and the next major British effort nearly two months away, the middling sorts of generals want to tidy up their maps and generate reports of their success and efficiency.

Now I’m being a bit cynical, but the wasting of lives on small offensive operations that can’t achieve anything of strategic importance seems misguided enough; doing it in terrible conditions and in such a way that major-attack-like casualties are all but inevitable seems particularly unimaginative, brutish, and, on several levels, self-defeating. But bureaucracies really do work that way, sometimes; and machines built for big efforts often trundle on, on low power, when they should be off and held in readiness; and conservative institutions will continue to generate behavior that has long been valued and rewarded (planning and executing “attacks,” as opposed to efficiently minding the attritional store) even after they have been shown to be destructive.

Graves, in his own telling, stepped up and stopped the raid–or at least demanded that it be postponed due to the mud. In Good-Bye to All That he goes to a brigade conference–probably yesterday, a century back, perhaps today–and shocks the old brass by refusing to participate. He doesn’t deny–nor dwell upon–the fact that he is only continuing his battalion’s policy in recent days under other commanders: object vociferously to a murderous and pointless plan. The 2/RWF, who consider themselves still an elite Regular battalion, have proven time and again that they are an aggressive, highly motivated unit, and the feeling is that they have the moral authority to resist plans like this.

For Graves, the depravity of the Staff (the local staff, mind you, at Division level) is confirmed by the fact that they resorted–today, a century back–to what was essentially a bribe. He includes the carbon copy of a message form still in his possession when he wrote his memoir (I doubt that Graves would entirely invent such a thing) and carrying today’s date:

So yo ho ho and an extra ration of rum. Graves learns shortly after his performance at the conference that the raid has indeed been postponed, and he took full credit for it, linking the cancellation to his “decision” as temporary O.C. (Officer Commanding) 2nd R.W.F. to object to the plan.[1]

Which annoyed his comrades. Sassoon, a fellow Fusilier with better relationships with some of the other officers of the battalion than Graves could boast of, will complain, and Dr. Dunn will describe the battalion’s resistance to the raid without mentioning Graves’s part. Nevertheless, the Welch will not be sent forward to ruin, tomorrow, and will presumably have to forgo the 7 1/2 gallons of liquid courage that have been offered…[2]

 

And in a less contentious vein, today, we have Edward Thomas writing to Eleanor Farjeon, of billets and books. Death isn’t hovering behind the next Brigade Order here, and Thomas, in any event, is disposed to sharper, quieter cynicism.

Feb 21

My dear Eleanor,

Your letter has just found me out in —— I am right in the town now, temporarily (I hope) on the headquarters staff of the Group which our battery is under. I don’t know why I am transferred except the little Adjutant here is away and an officer was wanted in his place. I hate office work, but so far I have avoided most of it and just go about with the Colonel or supervise jobs such as the present one of moving into a new billet—a fine modern mansion in the new quarter. We could have a room apiece if we liked. Our own guns all round us are the chief annoyance at present…

My proofs sound as if they would be perfect. Thank you ever so much for reinstating that line in ‘Lob’ and separating ‘When he should laugh’ from its neighbour. I shall begin reading again when the book arrives. For a week I haven’t read a Sonnet a day. I couldn’t think of writing, or so it seems. Except letters, that is, and a very brief diary.

Which we will continue to read, although Thomas, like others, is often in the habit of expanding upon his diary’s observations in his letters. When he does this, I’ll forgo the diary…

Farjeon is concealing the truth, by the way, that the printer has done a slapdash job in setting “Edward Eastaway’s” Poems. But she is working hard on correcting them…

The next bit from Thomas is quite funny.

My Colonel…  thinks because I am a writer that I might be able to write a diplomatic letter to a Town Mayor. He seems to think the chief thing in writing is to make grammatical sentences.

This is precisely the fate that befell R.H. Mottram and a number of other writers–and those who let on that they speak good French are even more likely to spend their days shuttling between desk and local dignitary. But Thomas is suffering a worse fate, now, during his temporary assignment to an Artillery Group H.Q.: minding an uncongenial and vaguely threatening piece of technology:

Now I am left alone at dusk in the old billet, now empty, to hang on to the telephone till they can get through to the new billet. It would be annoying to have to hang on all night. You will chuckle cruelly at the idea of me at the telephone.—I believe you are going to bring out a book of parodies now. The line ‘The greyness of the twilight and myself’ is, I believe, very just although impossible…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 242-3.
  2. When he revises Good-Bye to All That, Graves will alter "hear the decision" to "hear of my stand at the conference." See also R.P.G., Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 350 n22; Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 299-300.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 250-2.

Rowland Fielding Reports on a Raid: Murder–and Mercy; Vera Brittain Misreads Her Brother; Charles Moncrieff is Back from Amiens, and (Vyvyan) Holland

This will be one of those “three points of an obtuse triangle” sorts of days. There is a minor update, down at the end, on Charles Scott Moncrieff, and a heartfelt, revealing, but not very warlike letter from Vera Brittain to her brother Edward. And then there is the war, in the shape of Rowland Feilding‘s report to his wife on the fate of the raid conducted by his battalion (“his” in the double sense of affiliation and command) yesterday, a century back.

February 20, 1917. “Doctor’s House,” Kemmel.

I with my Headquarters officers reached Shamus Farm at about 4 o’clock yesterday morning, in a dense fog. The men of the raiding parties were already filing in and out of the ruins, loading up with Mills grenades and  smokebombs and all the other paraphernalia necessary for the undertaking. The green oval patches were being stripped from their sleeves, and everything by which the battalion might be identified, such as letters, regimental numerals, and cap badges, were being collected and put away in sandbags. Each man, as he completed these preliminaries, passed silently into the communication trench leading to the firing line, where all was absolutely still—uncannily so.

…At seven o’clock I passed along the fire-trench, where the raiders were now waiting for the moment of Zero. Most were cheerfully tucking green miniature Irish flags into their caps or buttonholes, and all seemed full of confidence.

What follows is both a quick tactical sketch and a litany. It’s not that it’s inaccurate, or unclear: Feilding was there, just behind the attack, in command, and he’s clear-headed and a good writer. We could hardly have a better vantage point on a raid. And yet the sequence–a position on the line, a rush, a report of wounds and deaths; repeat–is something between black comedy and threnody. Why are all these men going forward, one after another, to be torn by bullets and shrapnel? Because that was the plan, and they stick to it.

At 7.15 the three parties, comprising 9 officers and 190 other ranks, without any preparatory bombardment, scaled the parapet, and made a wild dash across Noman’s Land. At the same moment our artillery opened, according to
programme, and put a box barrage round the selected section of the enemy trench.

The centre party reached the German wire, but found it uncut, having—perhaps owing to the fog—missed the gap. 2nd Lieut. Williamson, second in command of the party, was killed as he neared the wire, and 2nd Lieut. Kent, commanding, was wounded in the arm but continued firing with his revolver at the enemy, holding up his wounded arm with his free hand. When he had fired off his six rounds he lay down and reloaded. J. White—a private—then stood up and bombed the enemy in the trench. This party found a covering group lying out in front of the German wire, which however fell back into the trench as our men approached.

The right party had no casualties till it reached the wire. Then 2nd, Lieut. Bradshaw, second in command, was wounded, and a minute or two later was hit again and killed. 2nd Lieut. Cardwell, commanding the party, was also wounded severely by a stick bomb, which blew away the calf of his leg. His men then threw all the bombs they were carrying across the wire into the German trench, after which, seeing that the party on their left was retiring, and having lost both their officers, they fell back.

The first wave of the left party started off well under 2nd Lieut. Cummins, a very gallant young officer whom I had put in command in place of the original commander, who was the officer I have mentioned as being absent on a course. The Sergeant, Hackett, was almost immediately killed. The party met with heavy opposition, and some of the men behind them faltering. Captain Garvey, who was in charge of the assaulting parties, ran out across Noman’s Land to rally them.

He fell wounded, and Lieut. T. Hughes, commanding the left support, ran forward to help rally the waverers. Private John Collins did the same. This man acted with great dash, rushing recklessly towards the German trench, shouting “Come on the Connaughts”—a cry which some of the enemy took up. Sergeant Purcell and Privates Twohig and Elwin also did their best to encourage the others, the latter standing up and firing with his rifle at the Germans, who now began freely to expose themselves, till he fell, shot through the neck.

At last, prudence–or is it free will, or some sort of permission to abandon foolish and painful hopes and refuse further profligacy?–reasserts itself.

Hughes showed great gallantry, again and again exposing himself; then, recognizing that the raid had failed, he fell back, and with the aid of Cummins and two privates—King and Healy—carried Garvey back to the shelter of our trench.

In the meantime the enemy had been retaliating violently upon our front line and communication trench with high explosive and shrapnel, as was to be expected.

Less expected is the sequel:

After some two hours the firing on both sides died away, and by 9.30 all was quiet. An incident then took place which I think was as remarkable as any that this most unchivalrous of wars can have yet produced.

Our dead and many of the wounded still lay out in Noman’s Land, when the fog lifted and the German trench became clearly visible. As I stood in the middle of the fire-trench a man came running to me and reported that the enemy had allowed what he called “an armistice,” for the purpose of collecting the wounded who were lying in front of the right extremity of the section.

I hurried along the trench and found that this was literally true. Already parties of men were out dressing the wounded and carrying them back to our line. One of my officers and a German were bending together over a wounded man alongside the enemy wire. The Germans, in considerable numbers, were lolling over and even sitting upon their parapet, watching the proceedings. My own men were doing the same. As the stretcher-bearers started to move the dead the enemy called out to “leave the dead alone,” but no notice was taken of this.

I asked how this extraordinary state of affairs had originated. I was told that the Germans had called out in English, “Send out your stretchermen,” and that a number of volunteers—stretcher-bearers, real and self-constituted (the latter of course stretcher-less)—had immediately climbed over the parapet.

I noticed Private Collins. He is one of the “wild men” of the battalion. He was sauntering about with a pipe in his mouth, wearing a bomber’s waistcoat, the pockets bulging with bombs. This was obviously out of order under
the circumstances, and was only asking for trouble;—in fact the Germans, I had been told, when they issued their invitation to the stretcher-bearers had stipulated (rather naturally) that the latter should come unarmed.

I told Collins to put down his bombs, which he did rather sheepishly, as though he had suddenly remembered for the first time that he had them on. Then, after a parting warning, I moved off towards the left section of the trench, to see how things were faring there.

The “armistice” had spread, and the scene, if possible, was more remarkable than that which I had left. The distance between the enemy’s trench and ours is considerably less here than on the right, being not more than 40
yards at the narrowest point.

I found numerous Germans—almost shoulder to shoulder—leaning over their parapet, exposed from the waist up:
on our side it was the same. All were interestedly watching the stretcher-bearers at work in Noman’s Land. A German officer was walking excitedly up and down along the top of his parapet, shouting in perfect English to my men to “get their heads” down or he would open fire, at the same time gesticulating vigorously with his arm.

The whole proceeding was of course highly irregular, and the last of our wounded and dead having by this time been recovered, I ordered, the men below the parapet, and a second or two later every head on both sides had disappeared: both the German trench and ours had become normal, and the war had re-started.

Thought I to myself, “These people cannot always be so bad as they are painted”: then I proceeded to take stock.
But the enemy had exacted payment for his generosity. The officer I had seen near the German wire was missing,
as were one or two others.

There may be something to be said in the case of the officer. He had foolishly neglected to remove his revolver (or rather revolvers, since he had two) before going out, and having looked into the enemy’s trench was perhaps fair game.

At the same time, by what subterfuge he and the others were inveigled into becoming prisoners, I do not know, and shall not know till the war is over; if then.

 

This letter has read largely like an official report–Feilding must describe the truce to someone, just not those in a position to disapprove of so unwarlike an action. The next letter reads very differently, and shows the strain that he has been under: he is, after all, both the commander of a battalion that he couldn’t protect and a subordinate to generals who will punish this breach of murderous decorum. And although he had no volition in the matter of the “raid,” he cannot feel that he doesn’t have responsibility for the losses.

February 20 (Night).

I fly to you when I am in trouble, and I am feeling very sick at heart, to-night. Ivan Garvey—the ideal Company
Commander—the bravest, the cheeriest, the most loyal and perfect of men, was reported a few hours ago to be dead of his wounds. How readily he undertook the work when I first proposed it to him!

As I passed the Aid Post yesterday, on my way back from the line, I went in, and found him asleep under morphia, so did not get a chance to speak to him. Nobody thought he would die then. Priestman, the Brigade Major, who had been by my side during the affair of the morning, had seen him earlier before I was able to get away from the fire-trench. He told me he was semi-conscious then, and that he had thought he (Priestman) was me. I like to think that he asked for me.

My God! if the people at home could actually see with their eyes this massacring of the cream of our race, what a terrible shock it would be to them! But we must see it through. All are agreed upon that.

Nine of my best officers went over yesterday. Three of these are left to-day. And, in addition, one more of my Company Commanders (Fitzgerald) is gone, as the result of this enterprise. He was wounded while cutting the gaps through our own wire, preparatory to the raid, so severely that he too may die.

But all this is not unusual. It is the toll to be expected from a raid when it is unsuccessful, and indeed often when it is successful; and the success or failure of a raid is largely a matter of chance.

I was present at the burial of some of the killed this afternoon, including that of two of my most promising young officers. That is the tragedy of the war. The best are taken. The second best are often left in the safe places.

General Pereira came and saw me this morning, and stayed some time. He was more kind and consoling than
I can say. Private Elwin, too, has died.[1]

I have been unable–in a cursory search–to find out anything more about the officer who strayed too close to the German wire. The story is so strange, and yet not unlikely. Was the German truce a ruse? Spontaneous mercy followed by spontaneous opportunism? Most likely, perhaps, is that the truce was a spontaneous act of mercy, and the later capture of the British officer was due to the action of German officers who, like Feilding, happened upon a truce in progress–and thought better of it.

Feilding tells the story of his small disaster as straight as it can be told, it would seem. And yet his dismay at the pointlessness of it, the bloodiness of the poor plan, poorly enacted, is so palpable that it feels worse than it was: I don’t know about the officer and the “one or two” other prisoners, nor do I know how many men were wounded. But, according to the CWGC, “only” ten men were killed: the three officers and the sergeant, Private Elwin, and five other men with one stripe between them.

Will there be any calling to account for the failure of the raid? Or, rather, for the “armistice” which followed? Or even for the failure of the armistice and the apparent capture of an officer wandering No Man’s Land in broad daylight? It will take a few days to find out.

 

From combat, then, to war as catalyst and background to young people’s self-discovery. Vera Brittain’s correspondence with her brother has been slowed by her posting to Malta, but the intensity of the exchange has only deepened. Today, a century back, Vera’s lofty mind dwells on the problem of sex…

Malta, 20 February 1917

You & I are not only aesthetic but ascetic — at any rate in regard to sex. Or perhaps, since ‘ascetic’ implies rather a lack of emotion, it would be more correct to say exclusive–Geoffrey is very much this, and Victor, & Roland was. What I mean by this is, that so many people are attracted by the opposite sex simply because it is the opposite sex–the average officer & the average ‘nice girl’ demand, I am sure, little else but this. But where you & I are concerned, sex by itself doesn’t interest us unless it is united with brains & personality; in fact we rather think of the latter first, & the person’s sex afterwards. This is quite enough to put you off the average ‘nice girl’, who would neither give you what you want nor make the effort herself to try & understand you when other men, who can give her what she wants, are so much easier to understand. . . .

That is Vera’s ellipsis[2] and it gives me a chance to cough meaningfully and swoop in before all this gets out of hand. She is both quite perceptive, here, and very, very dim. She would be a modern woman, engaging the boys on her own terms, and yet she is still very much a provincial young lady, blind to the complexities of real life.

Once again I preface this analysis with the warning that late 20th century categories (I don’t quite flatter myself that I am more up to date than that) can only clumsily be applied to the sexual identities of Edwardian and Georgian England. Pigeonholes are much nicer than closets, but still constraining.

Yet oversimplification is an expedient wickedness here–let sexual complexity suffer so that I am not guilty of leaving strategy to wither, unbefriended and oversimplified, all alone! It’s more or less accurate to say, simply, that the reason Edward Brittain is disinterested in nice girls is that he is gay. Or leave identity out of it, and stick to interest: he is probably far from being able or willing to acknowledge this even in a private way, but he is interested in… nice boys. Moreover, it seems very likely that Geoffrey is too–and quite possible that they have been interested in each other.

Asceticism? Perhaps, but that’s not really the question when it comes to Edward and the sexual appeal of young women. And as for Vera, there were many obstacles between Vera and Roland’s kiss or two and what should have followed–a formidable mother, all the ignorance and fear of their upbringing, a German machine gun. But Vera, although she subordinates the whole crew–herself and the three boys–to Roland, is still blinkered. She and he were “ascetic,” when it came to sex, but Edward is not necessarily the same way–he is necessarily secretive, and so we cannot know.

One might hope that she is wrong about his asceticism as well. There was certainly repression and dissimulation, but perhaps there was connection, too. Perhaps, in that brief, intense, training-camp friendship, there was pleasure given and taken between Edward and Geoffrey.

As for Victor, he fairly obviously has feelings for Vera, and I can’t recall him expressing much enthusiasm for intellectual rigor and sensual restraint. But he is bring roped in to the group–last, as usual, the dullest of the group. How, if it were the case that he felt physical passion for Vera, would he broach that subject? His please would fall on ascetic ears… But never mind; Victor is in France, and overlooked, and Vera is in Malta, disinterested in the possibly lustful glances of her fallen fiancé’s–and beloved brother’s–less brilliant friend.

I shouldn’t be too hard on Vera; it’s sad that the most important relationship she has in her life must have this silence near the center of it. I hope that Edward smiled tolerantly when he read her fond hopes for his future sexual happiness:

I think very probably that older women will appeal to you much more than younger ones, as they do to me. This means that you will probably have to wait a good many years before you find anyone you could wish to marry, but I don’t think this need worry you, for there is plenty of time, & very often people who wait get something well worth waiting for.

. . . I think the old saw about young women being so much older than young men for their age has always been very untrue & since the War is more so than ever… in the things that really count it is the boy who is grown-up; he has had responsibilities which under the present benighted system of educating women she has never had the fringe of — especially if he is at a Public School. The boy of eighteen or nineteen has probably — and since the War certainly, had to cope with questions of morality & immorality whose seriousness would astound her if she  understood it, and deal with subjects of whose very existence she is probably ignorant…

Exceptional as I was, I don’t think the I of the days before I had loved & lost Roland would satisfy the You of to-day.

Does she stray closer to the mark, at the end? Perhaps, but only to miss it and continue on…

I don’t think it’s a question of upbringing at all… of course it may be true that Father’s very Early Victorian attitude towards women may unconsciously have influenced & even reproduced itself in you a little–I have noticed occasionally a slight suspicion of patronage in your dealings with women; I don’t really think this is because you think their sex inferior so much as you realise their inferiority (as it probably is) to you in personality & brain. I, conversely, feel the same with many men! But it is necessary to be rather more careful in dealing with women, as if a man patronises a woman she always thinks it is because of her sex, whereas if a woman patronises a man, he (if he is acute enough to notice it, which he generally isn’t) never puts it down to his!

. . . It is such a wild stormy night & the sea is beating the rocks like anything. On this island, the land seems to shrink as one knows it better, & the miles & miles of sea between here & home to get longer & longer — though I can still write to you across them! But one begins to understand a little the significance of the Revelation — ‘And there was no more sea.’ For here sea is the very symbol of separation.[3]

 

Finally, today, Charles Scott Moncrieff‘s time as a sick man in Amiens is over–but it has proved to be personally fruitful. He will find a desk job with his unit and begin busily essay-ing and reviewing…

B.E.F., Shrove Tuesday, February, 1917.

I got back to the Regiment last night. I am Second in Command again for the present as the Colonel is taking the Brigade while the Brigadier is having measles…  I saw various friends at Amiens, including Vyvyan Holland, whom I had not seen for years, also the Sheepshanks who was in College with me, and Gibson of Lister House, who was 2nd in Command at Cimiez last year. I am living on the road that Herries and I galloped madly down on the morning of the Battle of Loos—on my 26th birthday. . . [4]

Vyvyan “Why? Why?” Holland is, since his brother Cyril was killed by a sniper in 1915, the sole surviving son of Oscar Wilde. Now an officer in the artillery, Holland is a committed Catholic and a writer and close with Robbie Ross, his father’s lover, friend and executor.

This puts Moncrieff in the outer orbit of another one of our central literary circles–and, with the friendship with Holland revived, he will come in closer. Given the discussion of Vera’s letter and our general level of prurience, it seems prudent to make the usually unremarkable remark that Holland, as it happens, was straight…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 151-7.
  2. Or the editor's?
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 320-2.
  4. Diaries, 125; Alas and apologies that I was not monitoring Moncrieff as early as 1915...

Isaac Rosenberg, Strained and Weak; F.S. Flint is Read (by Richard Aldington) and Freely Given (by Ford Madox Hueffer)

Today is a day of literary letters, headed back across the channel in loose formation, nodding to each other in terse recognition, and speeding their pleas to the same few destinations. First, a wilting off-shoot of the Georgian/Dymock set–and after him the Modernists.

Isaac Rosenberg had written to Gordon Bottomley in early January about his plans–lousy and otherwise–and his reading.  He was fairly chipper, then, even about his miseries: “I fancy it was a touch of the flue… I wonder if Aeschylus as a private in the army was bothered as I am by lice.” Less so, in a letter postmarked today, a century back:

Dear Mr Bottomley

Your letters always give me a strange and large pleasure; and I shall never think I have written poetry in vain, since it has brought your friendliness in my way. Now, feeling as I am, castaway and used up, you don’t know what a letter like yours is to me. Ever since Nov, when we first started on our long marches, I have felt weak; but it seems to be some inscrutable mysterious quality of weakness that defies all doctors… I believe I have strained my abdomen in some way…[1]

Still, the letter included a “sketch” of “Louse Hunting,” and all was not as dark as Rosenberg’s mood. Not long ago Eddie Marsh had written–informally, of course–to Rosenberg’s adjutant, with the result that he will be transferred, probably at some point this month, from the “works” battalion to a less labor-intensive job in a trench mortar unit.[2]

 

It’s a small literary world: Bottomley is good friends with Edward Thomas and central to the now far-flung Dymock crew. Rupert Brooke was the strongest connection between Dymock and the Georgian Anthology, but Bottomley and de la Mare are others, and even if Thomas has avoided Marsh’s influence they are known to each other. And Marsh, of course, is not intervening lightly in Rosenberg’s military career–he was also a crucial early patron. Between Bottomley and Marsh there are few promising young writers of somewhat traditional verse more than one friendly letter away.

But oh yes–there are other literary microcosmoi, and with our advantage of historical vantage, we know that another small world considering au courant and modern will grab the stage and boot Georgian Poetry into the footlights. Or footnotes.

The Modernists, grouped around a few small journals,[3] see the Georgians more as almost indecently exposed targets of opportunity, prim ladies showing a touch of ankle while the Imagists are stripping to their all togethers to describe. Although Richard Aldington ceded his editorial post at The Egoist to his wife, H.D., when he went for a soldier, he still knows who and what to read.

Yesterday, a century back, Aldington wrote to F.S. Flint, his good friend and fellow subaltern in the Modernist enterprise; today, the august Ford Madox Hueffer, something of an elder statesman among the young ruffians (how’s that?) aimed a missive at the same target. We may set a record, today, for box-barrage-style name-dropping.

Although Aldington could hardly be more unlike his fellow poetical footslogger Ivor Gurney in either personality or poetic  predilection–Gurney has made a literal Dymock pilgrimage–the two rising poets and private soldiers offer the same criterion for poetic appreciation: is it pack-worthy?

My dear Franky,

I carried your poem and Manning’s poems in my pack for I know not how many kilometres–what more devotion to
literature can you ask? I am immensely pleased by your poem, & as I wrote to H.D., feel that it justifies amply your months of silence… Certainly, compel Monro to print the poem in a chap-book & add any “dug-outs” you have…

The horrid thought strikes me that, if U.S. goes to war, Amy will insist on writing and publishing patriotic verse. This must be barred strenuously–we have foreborn to intrude our nationalism, to “let wrath embitter the sweet mouth of song”; so must she. I have sent H.D. a few scraps of vers libre put down from time to time recently. They may not be much good, for I think they are lazy due to a state of intoxication derived from the happy discovery that one can boil Quaker Oats in one’s “billycan”…

This concern–that Amy Lowell will influence the decline of Modern poetry in America even as she has helped to elevate in England, fades into yet another reverie about war’s end. A popular topic, this winter:

I am back for “a rest”, having shed no blood of my own or anyone else’s, save when I gashed my thumb on a bullybeef tin. And poor May Sinclair will go on thinking I’m an ’eroe”! What women have to answer for! After the war–when everything will of course be ideal–we must rendez vous in your earthly paradise & idle long days in sun and long grass… I desire my Horatian otium cum dignitate [leisure with dignity] just as much as ever. If I get back you will not find me a rampagious & lustful legionary, but the same apostle of pastoral culture as of old. Old books, old wine, old pictures–young women & young songs…

Well, I will conclude this empty raving…

Au revoir, old lad, & a hundred congratulations on your fine piece of work.

R.

“Empty raving,” quotha? Naturally, but this is something a man–a ponderous master like Ford Madox Hueffer–could do with a lighter sort of brio, especially if he is behind the likes of drunken junior Modernist officer cadets like Manning…

Attd. IX Welch, No. 6, 1.B.D.
B.E.F., France
19.2.17

I very ungraciously didn’t answer yr. letter–wh. reached me in the far South. However, I was lazy there–where the Mediterranean spurts up into the rosemary and lavender. But this is the bare, cold & trampled North, with nothing
but khaki for miles & miles…Bare downs… & tents… & wet valleys… & tents…& AAC guns… & mud… & bare
downs…& huts…& bare downs…& RFC…& mud…& motor lorries… & mud… & bare downs.

And I am promoted to Adj.–& run a Bn. much as I used to run the Eng[lish] Rev[iew]–It’s the same frame of mind, you know, & much, much easier–or more difficult, according to one’s mood…

Surely this great literary effort must in effect be some sort of preamble?

I want to ask you a favour: I somehow pine to publish a vol. of poems before the war ends or I am killed. Cd. you, do you think?, arrange for someone to publish:

Antwerp
The Old Houses
Two or three poems written in the trenches & other nasty places
& Heaven

in one volume? And could you collect and arrange them, somewhat in that order?

…I fancy it wd. make a pretty good volume. I have got rather a good one written to the dead of the Welch Regt & so on…. Let me know?

I do admire yr. work very much–you know. “Cadences” is an ever so beautiful volume.

And here’s the funny bit. “I admire your work very much.” Enough to schlepp it? Surely yes? You are, after all, an officer, with a servant, who hasn’t been in trenches in months, you must have trunks of books…

I gave it to some people in Mentone–not because I.did not value the gift, but because it wd. spread yr. fame a little–& because in my valise here it wd. only disintegrate amongst revolvers & straps & the mud in wh. one lives.

Goodbye, my dear.

I am personally very happy in this sort of life: in the end it suits me better to write:

“O.C. Canadaous will detail a fatigue party of 1 NCO & 10 men at 4:30 a.m…” than to watch the Mediterranean foam spattering over rosemary and lavender–for I don’t believe I am really, really Highbrow–as you truly are.

But God bless you, all the same…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, ed., 89-90.
  2. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, ch. 18.
  3. E.G. Blast, tied to various writers we read here, including Ford, below; and the newer Wheels, featuring the Sitwells and other Grenadier Guardsmen, several Imagist Anthologies... and yes, there are also people like Pound and Eliot being published, somewhere, presumably...
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 182-6.

Edward Thomas in Arras (and Wales); Siegfried Sassoon in Quarantine; Charles Moncrieff in Church; David Jones in Fragments; Rowland Feilding in Expectation of Disaster

There is anticlimax, and then there is anticlimax. Siegfried Sassoon, after months of girding himself for the return to battle, arrived at the base camp in Rouen two days ago, only to witness misery, mourning, and estrangement. Once he found his billet things hardly improved–he ignored his fellow officers and read Hardy and Chaucer. At least he was on his way to his battalion… until today, a century back, when he was sent to the hospital with the measles. The German measles…

 

One literary subaltern into hospital in a French cathedral town; another almost out: Charles Scott Moncrieff, who has seen more of the war than Sassoon, has not shown the same inclination toward protest or despair. With only intermittent letters it’s hard to guess at the roots of a man’s personality. But one readily available explanation is his faith:

I got away from Hospital on Sunday morning, and heard Mass at the Cathedral. There was a very small congregation, mostly grouped round the sides of the choir. It was bitterly cold, but we all sang lustily. . .[1]

 

Carreg Cennin

Edward Thomas has been writing briefly but faithfully in his “War Diary” since arriving in France. It contains his movements, his thoughts, the petty annoyances of his fellows, the sage sayings of his batman, a record of letters sent and received, and–best of all–compressed observations, notebook jottings for future poems. (Thomas, barely two years a poet, has from the very beginning been in the habit of reworking his observations into poems, often long after they were noted down.)

Today, there is a lovely bit, taking an artilleryman’s day on the Western Front and overlaying it with old rambles in Wales. In the poet’s mind, one medieval ruin evokes another, and we might see the old ruin shading into Faerie, while the recently smashed old building stands for the horrors of modern war.

Arras Town Hall

Afternoon to Arras–Town Hall like Carreg Cennin. Beautiful small white square empty. Top storey of high house ruined cloth armchair and a garment across it left after shell arrived. Car to Mendicourt and back by light of star shells…[2]

What will the poet make of such things?

 

Speaking of London-born, Welsh descended, Wales-loving poets, David Jones wrote a letter to a friend today, a century back. The letter made its way to Jones’s father, who copied a passage from it and carried the quotation around with him. It’s the only bit from Jones’s letters home that remains:

I am glad you called to see my people. I often wondered how they really took the war. I thought I knew what it was to love them before I left home — but I know now in truth… At any rate I shall see you in what our fathers called “the green fields of AvalIon’.

Like so many other soldiers, Jones was unable to save the letters he received at the front–but he, too, would record a short scrap from a letter: his mother once wrote “Really, David, the spelling in your last letter was a disgrace to the family–a child of four would do better.’’[3]

 

Finally, today, Rowland Feilding has grim news–more for himself than for his wife, Edith. There is a raid planned for tomorrow. And, he fears, it is not planned well. You can’t judge a leader from his letters, but Feilding makes both a fetish of complete honesty in these letters to his wife and an honest attempt at living up to that ideal. He feels he has no choice but to play his role, and it is tearing him up, so he writes home for solace. One could almost miss the fact that he is not likely to suffer in his own body the effects of this needless and ill-planned assault. He is heartbroken that he will have to send his men into such a thing.

February 18, 1917. “Doctor’s House,” Kemmel.

It is late at night, and at half-past three to-morrow morning we set off on a rather desperate enterprise, for the proper conditions for which we have been waiting many weeks; so long, in fact, that the programme has begun to
lose its bite.

The intention is to raid the enemy at three points in daylight, in a fog, or, failing a fog, under cover of a smoke cloud, without preliminary bombardment.

The weather so far has been entirely and persistently inappropriate to our purpose. The days have been clear and sunny; the nights bright with stars; and the wind has blown from the east into our faces, so that an artificial fog has been out of the question. Hence the long delay. To-night it seems that we may have the conditions we have wished for.

I am not entirely satisfied with the arrangements. First, Roche, the Trench-Mortar Officer, in whom I have complete faith, was sent away on a fortnight’s course, for a rest—much against his own will as well as mine—before the cutting of the enemy’s wire, which had been entrusted to the medium mortars, was anything like completed; and without him I do not quite trust the rest, either to make the necessary gaps, or to keep them open, when made, against the enemy’s repair work.

Secondly, I have lost two of the principal officers whom I had detailed for the raid—both leaders of assaulting parties; one wounded; the other away on an officer’s course (the curse, often, of us Battalion Commanders, since we have no option in the matter, and are obliged to send away officers when called for, however little we can spare them). I have applied for this officer back again, and have been refused him. Consequently, though the raid has been well practised over a replica of the German trench which I have had prepared behind our line, the training of these two important adjuncts has been thrown away.

These are bitter ironies of modern war. This raid has no strategic purpose, but it is necessarily conducted by a unit that lives under the impersonal thumb of the a bureaucracy created by the needs of grand strategy and an industrial war of attrition. They practice, good–but a surprise assault must depend to a great degree on leadership (in the simple old sense of the word), and the same bureaucracy that requires the raid strips the commander of the men he needs. One hand gins up courses for the long haul while another hurls a unit forward in hope of small local advantage.

Finally, a one-minute’s intense lightning Stokes mortar bombardment which I asked for at Zero has been vetoed, Pereira’s view being that this would alarm the Germans in the front line and bring them to their posts. It would doubtless bring him to his post, but he is apt to forget, I think, that all men are not like himself.

However, for better or worse, we tackle the job tomorrow morning, and all preparations having been completed in so far as is feasible under the circumstances, we have been having a game of Bridge; and now I am off for a few hours’ sleep before starting.[4]

Feilding will be too busy tomorrow, in any case, to write.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 125.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 163.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 150.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 151-2.

Edward Thomas Gets His Kit; Edward Hermon Resigns His; Ivor Gurney is Hungry for Books–and Also for Decent Food

Today, a century back, several battalions attacked Boom Ravine, near Miraumont, in force. Although an accurate German counter-bombardment on their assembly positions caused heavy casualties–which could have easily been predicted from J.R. Ackerley’s account of his brother’s wounding, but was more or less unavoidable if the attack had to go on–Boom Ravine was taken. The Germans still held a nearby hill, and more than two thousand British soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing after the action. I’m not sure what the strategic intent of these winter actions on the Ancre were. They seem pointless, and wasteful–more even than most attacks. Which is also to say they will be, in retrospect, completely useless–at the time they were only, perhaps, dogged and wasteful.

 

A little bit behind the lines, we can get a sharp little perspective on the material differences between a wealthy battalion commander from the landed gentry (Edward “Robert” Hermon) and a poor writer and artillery lieutenant (Edward Thomas). Hermon, back with his battalion after home leave and then a course at 2nd Army School, is cleaning house:

I have been having a drastic overhaul of my kit & am sending you a lot of stuff back (5 parcels) as I have far too much & even by doing this I have not in the least inconvenienced myself…[1]

And Thomas, with his battery at the front for less than a week, has been cold ever since his arrival. Some combination of bureaucratic brilliance–they are exchanging gear with the battery they will replace–and simple snafus has meant that half of his luggage was long delayed. Thomas even wrote for mending wool for his socks and underwear. But things are looking up. As he wrote in his diary today, his “kit arrived late last night.” This removes one worry, but there are others, including his responsibilities as mess officer, a job he can ill afford: “Grandes Graves 2.50 a bottle…”[2]

 

And Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, in high spirits despite hardship.

17 February 1917

My Dear Friend: Here we are, back in our little holes; with strict instructions not to show our heads above ground; in Reserve in fact — deucedly uncomfortable; and expecting to become still more so. To get to this haven of rest we had a 6 hours march with twenty minutes halt, perhaps. So, as you may imagine, there is no literary supplement this week.

Which is to say that it is not every day that an infantry private in wartime can complete a preface or a poem…

Nobody has any water; there may be none for 12 hours or more, and bully beef and biscuits and a little bread provide the wherewithal for philosophers and soldiers to exist. For God’s sake write letters, no-one knows how long this will last. Well, long enough I have existed upon hope, and why not now? And why should we not be cheerful, since this is better than the first line? Farewell, Canteen, thou not un-appreciated, but not overappreciated Home to me: thou wert at zero too oft, but there was freedom in thee and a fairly interesting occupation. Fare thee well. And only the day before yesterday, I was asking myself whether I ever should be able to write a good long movement, or how long it would take! O Evening Dreams!

Gurney makes an effort, here, to think himself onto the far end of the journey his letter will take–not the worst exercise for a cold and hungry man.

…You see, I am so over-wrapt up in myself, that there is little thought left for other people, but all the same it occurs to me that you are sick or sickish with influenza. Soon I hope your book will begin to swell in spite of all drawbacks. Flu or Female Musicians; and soon I hope, too, to be able to see it myself and let fly torrents of praise or vituperation. Duggy Haig seems pretty confident, and Germany must be having the worst sort of time; but O books of any kind seem a long way off.

He doesn’t just mean his own first book, which Scott is preparing. He means anything he might read. Any of us might have pet books, books we can hardly do without… but we don’t have to carry them through miles of muck…

As for my own — “Friends” is with a Trench Mortar Man. “Wild Wales” and R. Bridges “Spirit of Man” are with me. The rest are in the care of a Frenchwoman at Laventie, and someday I must send for them. Anyway, who could read ‘Aeschylus’ now? “Under the Greenwood Tree” is with the Sigs.

I will try to trace the Aeschylus reference–Rosenberg just made one, as well–but I must point out, of course, that in addition to the poetry he is reading, naturally, Thomas Hardy, whose poetry is to some degree immanent in his novels.

Harvey’s book is now known to be with the Brigade Major, so there is a chance of getting it still.

The French are on rations now, and their soldiers dont like it — the only drink about here being wine at 4 francs the bottle. They are a much more cheery lot than ourselves though; I cannot say what they are like in trenches, but out—they are quick to smile and move about quicker than we. All the German prisoners I have seen anywhere save at Havre seem very tame creatures and not at all savage creatures.

Well, we’ve covered the French and the Germans. Which leads us back… home. This is one of the best descriptions of the “Tommy”–or English front fighter–mindset that I’ve read.

Is there hate? And how about fate?

In the mind of all the English soldiers I have met there is absolutely no hate for the Germans, but a kind of brotherly though slightly contemptuous kindness — as to men who are going through a bad time as well as themselves… The whole thing is accepted as a heavy Burden of Fate. I have never been able to accept anything that way myself, and can only envy those who have such an attitude. Best luck with all sickness:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 328.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 163.
  3. War Letters, 135-6.

Edwin Vaughan Digs In, and Reverses Course; Charles Scott Moncrieff in Amiens; Siegfried Sassoon’s Lamentations; Alf Pollard and His Jolly Old Revolver

Last night, a century back, Edwin Vaughan gave up on trying to bury a number of British corpses lying out near their lines. Today he will deal with the after-effects of a more successful burying party.

This morning, carrying out a few improvements to our dugout, we started to level up the ground under our table which is very rickety. The earth was spongy, and we started digging with entrenching tools, but we struck an old blue tunic, and when we gave it a tug, the resistance–and an unpleasant smell–warned us that we had a guest, so we apologized and patted the earth back. As we replaced the table, a message was brought up by a signaller that I was to report to HQ at 6 p.m. to proceed on a course.[1]

And just like that, Vaughan, who only reached his battalion early in the new year and has had all of two days actually in front line trenches, is off on a “refresher course.” We’ll see him next month…

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, mildly ill and recuperating in Amiens, took his turn as a tourist today. This is a young man at pains to show that he is no ordinary tourist… but he isn’t. Scott Moncrieff knows France and the French better than most Britishers…

16th February, 1917.

. . . With the aid of a very useful little ten sous handbook and map I made my way round le viel Amiens yesterday. It is rather dull. There is one church, St. Germain, faintly interesting, and the Belfry, and an old timbered house in the Passage Gossart—closed and tumbling down, of which I should like to get you the pattern of the corbel, rather worn, but seems to be clusters of fruit with animals between. There is a hedgehog—very distinct, at the end, also a monkey reaching for fruit. . . There is a rumour that the British line now extends to Soissons—I don’t suppose there’s anything in it—but I should like to see Soissons. I’m afraid it is one of the Villes Martyres. France is a very wonderful country: this tiny fraction that we are soldiering in, Normandy, Picardy, Artois and Flanders, is so full of interest, and then there are hundreds of other provinces, each with its own characteristics, and all sunny and pleasant. . . . [2]

 

And in another great cathedral town and British base, Siegfried Sassoon arrived and ran straight into the pain and despondency he has been anticipating. Rouen’s Infantry Base Depot (where he will await assignment to a particular battalion) is a great place to wallow in misery and bureaucratic limbo, but even if Sassoon had had some hopes of keeping his spirits up until he got his chance to go up the line and attempt some sort of reckless beau geste, the misery of the war came companionably to meet him on his first night in France.

Not long after arriving, Sassoon lost his way in the huge camp and stumbled into a Guard Room tent. There–and this “almost certainly did occur”[3]–he came upon this sight:

A man, naked to the waist, was kneeling in the middle of the floor, clutching at his chest and weeping uncontrollably. The Guard were standing around with embarrassed looks…

“Why, sir, the man’s been under detention for assaulting the military police, and now ‘e’s just ‘ad news of his brother being killed. Seems to take it to ‘eart more than most would. ‘Arf crazy, ‘e’s been, tearing ‘is clothes off and cursing the War and the Fritzes. Almost like a shell-shock case, ‘e seems.”[4]

Or so “George Sherston” is told in Sassoon’s memoir. This sort of suffering is what Sassoon has been expecting–but not so soon. Even as he begins to hate the war–as he prepares to hate the war–it sneaks up and catches him with a surprise barrage. There’s another, reason, too, for this scene to affect him: it is also almost an externalization of his own bottled-up spirit-in-turmoil. Sassoon lost his brother, after all, and yet he is an officer and a very well-mannered gentleman and would never cry out like this…

But he’ll write a poem, taking this misery and putting it to use–standoffishly, in terms of voice; ironically, in terms of mood… and politically.

 

Lamentations

I found him in the guard-room at the Base.
From the blind darkness I had heard his crying
And blundered in. With puzzled, patient face
A sergeant watched him; it was no good trying
To stop it; for he howled and beat his chest.
And, all because his brother had gone west,
Raved at the bleeding war; his rampant grief
Moaned, shouted, sobbed, and choked, while he was kneeling
Half-naked on the floor. In my belief
Such men have lost all patriotic feeling.

 

You know who hasn’t lost all patriotic feeling? Alf Pollard, that’s who.

If Sassoon is an on-again off-again fire-eater and deeply conflicted thinker-about-the-war, Pollard know what he wants out of the war–“fun” and medals–and, more to the point, how he wants to write it: as stuffed with cliché and cheerful violence as his pockets are stuffed with Mills bombs…

Dearest Mater,

I expect you have wondered why the devil I have got slack in writing again. As a matter of fact I have been unable to. The battalion have had about the hardest time they have ever had while I have been with them…

I had a difficult reconnaissance to do which was fortunately successful… The result of my report was that we went over the top the next night to capture the trench in front. There was practically no resistance on our right, but, on the left flank, where I happened to be in command, they tried to stop us. I was the first man over the Hun parapet and landed right on top of two Huns who tried to do me in, but fortunately I managed to finish them off with my jolly old revolver. Hand-to-hand fighting was rather fun but we soon cleared them out.

The only man senior to me got killed leaving me in command. I discovered a party of Huns behind me at one time but settled their hash after about two hours, and settled down.

We held the trench for several days… I got hit three times, but only slightly, so I stayed where I was. I had my steel helmet dented in at the front to a hole as big as a fair sized egg and then I had it smashed in at the back, and finally I got hit just below the shoulder blade in the back. The effect of all this only lasted about forty-eight hours and now I am quite fit again with the exception of recurrent headaches.

Now we are out again resting, covered in glory. The Brigadier very kindly informed me that he has recommended me for a medal, so you will probably see me down for an M.C. in the next list of honours..

I want some thick socks also a new torch…

Heaps of love.[5]

Pollard follows the quotation of his letter with the remark that “The M.C. materialized in due course,” and he quotes the citation, for good measure. For Pollard, the strategic reasoning behind the raid is neither here nor there–his is not to reason why–and the difficult winter conditions are mentioned only when it comes to the impossibility of improving trenches in frozen ground. He is a yarn-spinner and a glory-hound, not a complainer… but he does have some interesting comments about morale.

One of the problems with disillusionment and disenchantment is that it is bad for morale. In certain cases, low morale might save lives–there would be no unnecessary attacks, the men opposite might “live and let live.” But in others–and there are many voices which consider this the far more typical case–low morale leads to slack discipline, more casualties from frostbite and trench feet and carelessness around snipers and, if the Germans opposite are fire-eaters, a greater chance of damaging raids. Most of the writers who will become gravely disillusioned during this year will either bottle it up (like C.E. Montague), compensate with risk-taking and attempted heroism (like Sassoon) or suffer psychologically (like Wilfred Owen).

One wonders if Pollard’s men hated him for endangering their lives by choosing to lead such ventures. But if they didn’t, they surely respected his courage–and if they, too, preferred action to inaction, he would have been an easy man to follow… hatred is bad, but pride is not much less important than good trenches and regular nourishment…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 34; I'm getting paranoid, now, about Vaughan's truthfulness. This story is far from impossible, but it's still very unlikely. It would be hard for a man to be killed and entombed in a dugout or cellar without a heavy caliber shell being responsible, but then that would have collapsed the whole thing upon him. It could then have been rebuilt, with the body coincidentally just below the new floor level, I suppose... unlikely, again, but not impossible. If this were a trench and not a dugout, it would be more likely that this man was casually and quickly buried after being killed nearby. But, famous as the French were (among the British), for burying men near trenches or even in filled-in shelters in trench walls, digging beneath the floor of a dugout--but only a few inches--to bury a corpse seems... unlikely. But stranger things have happened.
  2. Diaries, 124.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, 323.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 396-7. As Moorcroft Wilson notes, details of this section of the memoir are knowingly fudged; I'm not sure what her conviction that the incident is "almost certainly" true is based on, but I instinctively agree: Sassoon is much more prone to shifting details when he writes in prose about himself than when he writes verse inspired by external events... so I don't see why we would think that he didn't see such a scene upon his arrival in Rouen, given the poem, below. However, it's uncomfortably nestled among changes and shifting detail; I'm not sure if anyone has remarked on how close the next complaint  in the memoir follows Robert Graves's disgusted anecdote of his own recent return to France--both are horrified by new Welsh officers of a certain social background bragging about their exploits in brothels...
  5. Fire-Eater, 187-88.

J.R. Ackerley’s Brother Returns; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Lines, and Face to Face with a Spectre; Ivor Gurney Conjures Three, and Thanks Several Handfuls; Rowland Feilding is Witness to an Execution; Seventeen Letters for Edward Thomas; Siegfried Sassoon Curses Fate, and Departs

It’s another busy day, a century back, with one small sad action in the line and poetry behind it from Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, who today leaves for the front once again.

But first, I did something odd in yesterday’s post. J.R. Ackerley writes the section of his memoir leading up to his brother’s role in the assault on Boom Ravine with heavy, ominous foreshadowing. The exchanged watches, the vision of unstrapping the watch from a dead wrist. Reading it, I was sure Pete Ackerley would die, so I wrote it up that way.

And for some hours, yesterday, a century back, Joe Ackerley seems to have believed that his brother was indeed dead. Then late reports came in that Pete was wounded, but Joe could do nothing. What was one wounded subaltern? The senior officers around him were busy attending to the tactical problems raised by the little raid,

And my brother was lying out wounded in no man’s land, and might have been the merest litter left about after a riotous party, for all the interest the Brigadier, the Colonel, or the Major evinced in his fate. And I did nothing either…

For several hours–and several pages–Ackerley wrestles with the question of what to do. His memory of this horrible time is so patchy that it is almost blank. Did he bravely go out into the open to look for his brother? Were the callous senior officers trying to allow him unofficially, heroically, to rescue his wounded brother? He’s not sure. Was he about to be a hero, or was he being a humbug?

Ackerley is not even sure if he was there, when his brother, finally, crawled back into the trench, wounded in the leg, not dangerously, hoping for another crack at the Huns. Pete Ackerley was sent back with a nice Blighty one, and spoke well of his brother at home. Joe Ackerley concludes the episode–written as the certain loss of a brother undone almost after the fact by a carelessly non-ruinous fate–by noting that “whatever happened I never recovered my watch.”

 

Hard on the heels of this strange account–but there’s a lot I want to cover, today–we have another trench baptism. Late last night, hours after coming up into the front line for the first time, Edwin Vaughan had toured the trenches with another officer, watching the men at work. There–and not for the first time–Vaughan’s anxiety washed over and eroded his heaped-up contempt, leaving him chastened. He may despise the officers and men when in billets, but he was impressed with their professionalism amidst the dangers of the fire trenches at night. Early this morning, after a fitful, drink-induced nap, he took his first turn on duty.

…as my sergeant did not arrive, I went out alone into the trench, where the eerie influences of the night descended up on me. It was deathly still, the mud, the smell of earth, the ragged sandbags, the gruesome litter numbed my brain; a cold fear chilled my spine and set my teeth chattering. I stood shaking and gazing horrified into the darkness, thinking: ‘this is war! and I am in the firing line!’ Then in a panic I set off down the trench. Reaching the first corner I drew back sharply and my heart stood still, for under the trenchboard bridge I saw a dark form pressed against the side of the trench.

In horror I glued my eyes upon it; the light was growing stronger, and it was quite distinct. And now I thought I saw a stealthy movement. Drawing my revolver and with just my head round the bend, I challenged it in a low voice. There was no reply… with my gun well forward I advanced and prodded–an old greatcoat hung on the trench side.

My relief at this anticlimax cheered me somewhat…

Anticlimax–as well as a suspiciously dense conglomeration of typical trench incidents–is Vaughan’s hallmark. But there is a different sort of anticlimax at 8 a.m., when his loathed Company Commander, Hatwell, wakes him under pretext of seeing the lovely morning but really “because he was jealous of my being asleep.”

And right after the beautiful morning? Hatwell gives Vaughan an ugly task: seeing to the burial of several nearby corpses.

Lying flat on their backs, with marble faces rigid and calm, their khaki lightly covered with frost, some with no wound visible, some with blood clotted on their clothes, one with a perfectly black face, they lay at attention staring up into the heavens. This was my first sight of dead men and I was surprised that it didn’t upset me. Only the one with the black face has stayed with me.[1] The thick, slightly curled lips, fleshy acquiline nose, cap-comforter pulled well down over his head and the big glassy eyes have become stamped on my brain.

In the afternoon, Vaughan experiences his first bombardment, rather confusingly described. Although he is in a deep dugout, he sees “the trench wall opposite” blow up and then a dud shell land “on the parados,” which would usually be directly over his head as he shelters in a dugout. These are trench mortars, as he explains:

…very destructive projectiles… their effect is so devastating and demoralizing that whenever they are used we inform our artillery who plaster the enemy lines heavily in retaliation. The idea is that their infantry will know that every time the mortars are used, they will catch out for it…

Vaughan’s first full day in the line is completed by a near miss from a German sniper–“my slip was an act of Providence–” and a failed attempt, after dark, to bury the nearby corpses. The ground is frozen, and they are left under a blanket…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers, is an excellent correspondent both because he has pledged to tell his wife everything and because, despite his responsibilities, he is a sharp observer, and his anecdotes are pointed. Some small tragedies need little elaboration.

February 15, 1917. Facing Spanbroekmolen (Fort Victoria).

Here we are in the trenches again.

This morning, in daylight, a German came running across Noman’s Land with his hands up, and was shot by his own people just as he reached our wire. We shall get his body in to-night.

Ivan Garvey, who commands the Company holding the line at the point where it happened, says that three of his men immediately came rushing along the trench to tell him, and that when he went to the spot he found the platoon gazing over the parapet at the dead German. Some of them wanted to go and fetch him in then and there, but Garvey naturally did not allow that.[3]

 

Edward Thomas has been reading the letters written by his men, working to set up the battery, practicing. Today there was a training “shoot,” then more preparatory work in the afternoon. For several days his comrades have been grating on him, and he has seemed to take solace in his observations of the natural world:  “Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw, lovely white puffs of shrapnel round planes high up…” Well, then: not so much nature reigning alone, but nature in her new context: “Dead campion umbels and grass rustling on my helmet through trenches.”

But this evening, a century back, brought relief and connection: the first post delivery since the battery embarked for France.

Letters arrived at 6. We sorted them and then spent an hour silently reading. 750 letters for me; 17 for me–from Helen, the children, father, mother, Eleanor, Freeman, Mrs. Freeman, Guthrie, Vernon and Haines.[4]

 

And Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back. He lays the counter-Brookean sonnet sequence aside in order to address her requests for material for his first book of poetry, which she is preparing. The preface is rather fulsome, and shows one side of Gurney’s personality in full effect: he is effusive, generous, taking delight in being comically expansive.

15 February 1917 (P)

Preface

This book stands dedicated to one only of my friends, but there are many others to whom I would willingly dedicate singly and in state, if that did not mean the writing of 40 books of verse and dedications; a terrible thing for all concerned . . . So that under the single name and sign of homage and affection, I would desire such readers as come to me to add also—To my Father and Mother; F W Harvey, (also a Gloucestershire Lad;) Miss Marion Scott, whose criticism has been so useful, and she so kind; in spite of my continued refusal to alter a word of anything. The Vicar of Twigworth; H.N. Howells, (and this is not the last time you will hear of him;) Mr Hilaire Belloc, whose “Path to Rome” has been my trench companion, with the “Spirit of Man” ; Mr Wilfred Gibson, author of “Friends” , a great little book; many others also; including Shakespeare and Bach, both friends of mine; and last but not least — 5 Platoon, B Co, 2/5 Glosters; who so often have wondered whether I were crazy or not. Let them draw their own conclusions now, for the writing pf this book it was that so distracted me. . . . This is a long list, and even now does not include old Mrs Poyner that was so jolly and long-suffering; not my boat “Dorothy” now idle in the mud; though a poet sung of her full of glory at Framilode.

Even as I write the list becomes fuller, further extended, yet a soldier must face pain and so it remains shorter by far than might be. I fear that those who buy the book (or, even, borrow) to get information about the Second-Fifth will be disappointed. Most of the book is concerned with a person named Myself, and the rest with my county, Gloucester, that whether I die or live stays always with me; — being so beautiful in itself, so full of memories;  whose people are so good to be friends with, so easy-going and so frank.

Some of the aforementioned people I have never had good fortune enough to meet in the flesh, but that was not my fault. I hope they will forgive my using their names without permission. Ah, would they only retaliate in kind! That is however not likely, as I never was famous, and a Common Private makes but little show. All the verses were written in France, and in sound of the guns, save only two or three earlier pieces. May well be indulgent to one who thought of them so often, and whose images of beauty in the mind were always of Gloucester, county of Cotswold and Severn, and a plain rich blossomy and sweet of air — as the wise Romans knew, that made their homes in exile by the brown river, watching the further bank for signs of war.

And that’s not all, folks–Gurney has a ballad in him, today:

Compree. Ballad also
Ballad of the Three Spectres

As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee.
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.

The first said, “Heres a right brave soldier
That walks the darky unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher.
And laughing at a Nice Blighty.

The second, “Read his face, old comrade.
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow.
Then look his last on Picardie.

Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
“He’ll stay untouched till the War’s last dawning.
Then live one hour of agony.

Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one — two — three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.

Not so bad eh?

By Gum, what will All the Good People of Gloster think of the Ugly Duckling they have hatched? There will be Some Surprise, what with one thing and another if the Tome appears. Roll on that time as soon as possible. Good luck with the Flu:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[5]

It’s difficult with Gurney, moody (i.e. mentally unstable) as he is–sometimes his letters seem to lay bare his suffering, to be uncertain records of his uncertain emotional terrain. But it’s reductive to insist that everything is about his mental state. He is a very good writer, and that requires–of course–embodying multiplicity, even contradiction. Or, simply, complexity–there’s nothing impossible or contradictory about what he has written. He is excited at the prospect of his first book, and he has, lately, found a new way to speak for the common soldiers… and yet he lives always under the grim little open end of his spectral “ballad:” for every death he dodges, many more possible deaths await, every day of the war, all the way until that last day’s dawning–and then a few hours more.

 

Finally, today, our foremost Fusilier is going back to the front. After an unhappy few months in camp near Liverpool and a whirlwind last few days of leave in London, Siegfried Sassoon began the freighted journey once more. Today, a century back, he left London for a base depot in France–and he described the experience, we will not be surprised to learn, more than once:

On February 15th I was at Waterloo for the noontide leave train (or, to be exact, the leave train the wrong way round). My mother was there to see the last of me, and Robbie had shepherded me to the station. My one desire was to have no feelings about anything. As we paced the platform I remarked to Robbie that the train was quite an old friend as this was the fourth time I had travelled by it. When it at length began to move, their faces kept up the usual forlorn pretence of looking bright. With the egotism of youth I couldn’t help wondering what they said to one another about me after they had turned away from the vanishing train…[6]

Ah but that is all retrospect. Here is the day’s diary, and a poem–with all thoughts forward and not a mention of mother or mentor bereft on the platform:

15 February

Left Waterloo 12 noon. Irish Hussar in carriage. Sunshine at Southampton…

Left London feeling nervous and rattled; but the worried feeling wears off once aboard the Archangel.

And as it does, Sassoon settles from the personal into the observational.

People seem to become happy in a bovine way as soon as they are relieved of all responsibility for the future. Soldiers going to the War are beasts of burden, probably condemned to death. They are not their own masters in any way except in their unconquerable souls.

Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear ‘they begin to ‘buck’ themselves up’. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way out of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles—nay, rewards them for their acquiescence with actual money and medals. But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market.[7] Hence their happiness. They have no worries because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight–of the enemy. They are not ‘going out’ to do things, but to have things done to them.

Not to make too much of one line, but this is the essence of Sassoon’s change of heart about the war, and it will be reflected in the change in the poetry as well. War, and poetry, once celebrated deeds. Now, in a latter-day phrase, men don’t do deeds, they are drafted into the galleys, shipped out like cabbages to become the subjects of passive suffering…

Finally, there is a poem of today’s journey which takes a step down the angry road that Sassoon has just sketched out:

Life-Belts (Southampton to Havre)

The Boat begins to throb; the Docks slide past;
And soldiers stop their chattering; mute and grave;
Doomed to the Push, they think ‘We’re off at last!’
Then, like the wash and welter of a wave,
Comfortless War breaks into each blind brain.
Swamping the hopes they’ve hugged to carry abroad;
And half-recovering, they must grope again
For some girl-face, or guess what pay they’ll hoard
To start a home with, while they’re out in France.
For, after all, each lad has got his chance
Of seeing the end. Like life-belts in a wreck,
They clutch at gentle plans—pathetic schemes
For peace next year. Meanwhile I pace the deck
And curse the Fate that lours above their dreams.[8]

Sassoon is speaking against “comfortless war,” now, and emphasizing the helplessness of these soldiers to influence the chances of their own survival.

A step toward protest, perhaps, but one expressed in a fairly traditional idiom. Any soldier–any human being–from any era may curse fate and still feel themselves to possess a fairly free hand for heroic self-fashioning. If this sort of poem is going to shock its readers out of the assumption that this war is, if not Great, at least generally noble and worthwhile, that hand of fate–in the person of British staff plans and German bombardments–will have to do more than merely lour

References and Footnotes

  1. Another indication that this "diary" is (re-)written after the fact.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 30-34.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 150.
  4. War Letters (Childhood), 162.
  5. War Letters, 133-5.
  6. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  7. A phrase he took up in the memoir, moving it backwards a few days into a conversation with Lady Ottoline Morrell.
  8. Diaries, 131-2.

J.R. Ackerley Bids His Brother Farewell; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XVI: Ivor Gurney and the Protest of the Physical Against the Exalted Spiritual; Charles Scott Moncrieff in Amiens; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Line

It’s another one of those unexpectedly bountiful days in which a central writer is busily writing important poems while other diarists insist upon having the sort of experiences we can’t leave unrecorded…

 

Briefly then, through our first two. We find Charles Scott Moncrieff ill and in Amiens… and distinctly unimpressed. Perhaps it is the mark of the true Francophile (or, at least, the self-consciously discerning tourist) to be breezy about attractions like the great cathedral:

No. 1 N.Z. Stationary Hospital,
B.E.F., Amiens,
14th February, 1917.

. . . I went out to-day and saw the Cathedral, which certainly is very perfect and harmonious, walked the streets for a couple of hours and bought some books…[1]

 

And my own desire to forgo lengthy typing and move on to two important sonnets and a stark first-hand tale of loss and death will contribute, now, to Edwin Vaughan‘s persistent experience of anti-climax. Tonight, a century, back, he will reach the front line trenches at last, and I’ll cut down his diary by more than half…

It as a long and winding trench, which rather bewildered me, for the scattered sentry posts seemed to face in all directions… We hit the front-line trench at right angles, and almost opposite was another cellar into which Hatwell had disappeared in a moment.

I hardly noticed the troops melting away into different directions, but suddenly found myself quite alone outside the cellar. For a quarter of an hour I sat up against the side of the trench, soaking in the atmosphere. It was quite dark and damp, around my feet the mud was six inches deep, and above me I could see only the faint outline of the parapet all jagged and broken with bricks and stumps and over it the dim silhouette of loose wire. Occasionally a huge rat would scamper past, or a couple of men would stagger by, swearing gently at their load of sandbags or stakes. All was deathly quiet except for the low voices in the dugout or the faint click of a bayonet against a steel hat.[2]

Vaughan later tours the positions on the line, finding a number of men quietly and efficiently doing their work, the sentries watching the Germans intently, all business. Returning to the dugout, Vaughan reconsiders his attitude:

 When we had been out of the line, I had despised these officers and NCOs and criticized the men, but now I realized that I was the most useless object in the Company… still confused, wondering and fearful.

I drank several whiskies and dozed for an hour or two…[3]

 

Now for poetry. Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back, continuing his new project of a counter-Brookean sonnet sequence.

14 February 1917

My Dear Miss Scott:

…The fates have been kind to me, and still leave me as canteen attendant; which means that though freezing one has time to oneself, and are off those confounded cleaning parades, which so gnaw at my life.

How are you and your influenza now? There can be little gadding about for you anyway, yet who knows what February may bring — that sometimes is so kind and smiles like Spring. Well, good luck to both of us, as I fancy cold is little good to either. And your book, tient-il? If you can sit up and refound musical literature, things will not be so bad; it would be like a Nice Blighty, which I do most heartily desire the Lord to send myself. Anyway do not get too ill to write…

This, I’ll wager, is Gurney being charmingly/winkingly, rather than obnoxiously/obliviously, self-centered.

There is more literature in this letter, but not yet. The literal translation of the pretty name of this place is The Star, and there are Earthworks all round, remains of 1870. Soon we go up again to the trouble; soon Fritz will be hurling high explosive compliments at us with gusto, and we close to the parapets. Well, tres bien, if there is no soft job, the hard one must do, but the first is better.

The title of the book I would prefer to be “Songs from Exile, or Songs from the Second Fifth” as subtitle. That is the real title, and besides, the second needs writing up to which I am unwilling to do.

This would be the first book of poems, which Scott is preparing for him. Now, then, for nos. 2 and 3 of the counter-attack on Rupert Brooke:

Home-sickness

When we go wandering the wide air’s blue spaces,
Bare, unhappy, exiled souls of men;
How will our thoughts over and over again
Return to Earth’s familiar lovely places.
Where light with shadow ever interlaces
No blanks of blue, nor ways beyond man’s ken —
Where birds are, and flowers; as violet, and wren,
Blackbird, bluebell, hedgesparrow, tiny daisies,
O tiny things, but very stuff of soul
To us . . . so frail. . . Remember what we are;
Set us not on some strange outlandish star.
But one love-responsive. Give us a Home.
There we may wait while the long ages roll
Content, unfrightened by vast Time-to-come.

The direct appeal to the reader here is striking, but perhaps not to every taste. We might dismiss it as almost maudlin, and hardly much of an improvement upon Brooke–a romanticizing of soldierly estrangement and suffering in exchange for a romanticizing of soldierly sacrifice.

So leave aside the ending, if it doesn’t suit; it’s the stuff of the appeal that matters. Until recently, Gurney has been dreamily, gauzily idealizing the countryside of his native Gloucestershire whenever he picks up his poet’s pen. Which is all very nice, but far from the war, no? But now he is bringing that loyalty to bear, mobilizing the stored energy produced by all that beauty, those lightly lovely birds and flowers, to say something about the war. We might miss it, if we didn’t have the Brookean intertext (apologies!): this isn’t about death and the harm-obscuring vision of a foreign-field-that-might-be, neatly adorned with English birds and flowers. It’s about drawing connections from a trench-that-is–a real trench, in a real corner of an actual French field–a trench that shelters living, frightened Englishmen all the way back to the memories of Home that might sustain them… These are day-dreaming, homesick men, looking for solace. They are not ghosts, yet, and they don’t seem enamored of the idea of their death, beautiful and meaningful or otherwise. Gurney is sacrificing his present comfort, his strength, his health; he’s not willing to dwell prettily on the likelihood that he will be dead soon, and call that a sacrifice as well…

If this sonnet re-connects to England in a different way, the next one–taking the sharply divided Petrarchan form–works around that new connection until it’s an unyielding grapple that forces us to confront the dreary misery of real soldiering…  before releasing us, suddenly, to remind us what the homesick man relies upon most: not thoughts of England, but other Englishmen.

 

Servitude

It it were not for England, who would bear
This heavy servitude one moment more?
To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor
Of filthiest hovels were noble to compare
With this brass-cleaning life. Now here, now there
Harried in foolishness, scanned curiously o’er
By fools made brazen by conceit, and store
Of antique witticisms thin and bare.

Only the love of comrades sweetens all.
Whose laughing spirit will not be outdone.
As night-watching men wait for the sun
To hearten them, so wait I on such boys
As neither brass nor Bosches may appall.
Nor guns, nor sergeant-major’s bluster and noise.

 

This is something new indeed. The old sonnet (Gurney’s spelling is… unusual) refurbished rather than merely dusted off. Only the love of comrades–and the brutal opposition of all things red-tabbed and unfeeling, explosive and chickenshit–could breathe new life into the form. But I should hush and let the poet explain:

These Sonnetts. For England. Pain. Homesickness. Servitude, and one other; are intended to be a sort of counterblast against “Sonnetts 1914”, which were written before the grind of the war and by an officer (or one who would have been an officer).

Thus far, Gurney’s claims are both radical and traditional. Down with the officer class and the privileged poet? Perhaps, but, so far, only on the strength of a claim to an alternate source of authority: these are the poems of a veteran, and of a soldier–one who bears the grind, and grinds no one in return.

Better, even:

They are the protest of the physical against the exalted spiritual; of the cumulative weight of small facts against the one large. Of informed opinion against uninformed (to put it coarsely and unfairly) and fill a place. Old ladies wont like them, but soldiers may, and these things are written either for soldiers or civilians as well informed as the French what “a young fresh war” means. (Or was it “frische (joyful) Krieg”. I cant remember, but something like it was written by the tame Germans in 1914.) I know perfectly well how my attitude will appear, but — They will be called “Sonnetts 1917.”

A counter-blast indeed, although a fairly restrained one, given what poetry will come. The civilians themselves are not attacked, and the sensitive among them are invited to join the side of virtue, of solidarity.

Is this, then, a “political” gesture? Not really–certainly not primarily. I don’t think these sonnets would have arrived just because Brooke’s themes–the beauty of sacrifice, the moral cleanliness of heading off to war–now feel outdated. There’s a poetic axe to grind, too.

Gurney had initially admired Brooke’s sonnets, after crossing paths with them in Edward Thomas’s review, but he had later turned rather decisively against them, writing one of his own first sonnets in a mood of resistance that both presaged this “counter-blast” and invoked Hardy.[4] As Thomas realized, as Sorley damningly pointed out, Brooke was “far too obsessed with his own sacrifice.” Gurney has come to write not of the soldier’s (i.e. the officer’s) inner beliefs but of the men who are two and a half years into shouldering a painful, nasty burden–and of his love for them.

But that’s not all, folks. Unless he misdated one or another of his letters (not unthinkable at all), Gurney received a letter from Scott and then sat down to write her another:

14 February 1917

My Dear Friend:

Thank you so much for your letter of the 5th of Feb…

…Most of the spare time till now has been in cleaning, always cleaning equipment. For anyone with more sensibility than the yokel it is a life infinitely full of pain. Whether the wind blows gales of icy needles with the temperature below zero; always the same. And no fires now, in most billets: From this, you will gather that “Rest” is merely a technical term. If you will take the trouble to copy out all those things one by one, please do so, and thank you — but dont write shorter letters because of it.

I shall be content if you attend to all matters of punctuation and merely ask my opinion on doubtful points. The name, as I have said is

Songs in Exile

or Songs from the Second-Fifth

The first poem will be To Certain Comrades; the last poems, the five sonnetts. (Perhaps an Envoi also.) Any poem you think needs correction, send on, and fear nothing…

So the sonnets are to close his first volume.

Gurney seems to wander, now, in his thoughts, but he was also discussing books in the previous letter, and it would seem now as if Scott has inquired after his reading. And who am I to delete a reference that suits my notions of Honesty and Influence in Great War Literature? After that, Gurney trails off into his post-war hopes–he is a composer too, we must remember.

“Under the Greenwood Tree” is perfectly charming, and very Shakespearean in feeling I think. Hardy is a marvel…

With these beautiful days it becomes more of a loss to feel music and books so far away, and my county. And the days slipping past so quickly in which I ought to acquire technique and get rhythm into my mind. Once I get back, for a while I will simply reek songs; mere exudations; while I study hard Wagner and Rachmaninoff and the Russians; also the 3 B’s and Folk Song for pleasure; and Chopin for piano technique. But, Time, you are so slow, and hold the secrets of doubtful things not yet disclosed…

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[5]

 

Last and certainly not least, it’s a terrible day in the life or a writer whose great reputation rests far from his war writing. When we last heard from J.R. Ackerley, he was recounting his wounding during the disaster of the First Day on the Somme (he also later wrote verse about that morning). There are few dates in his memoir, and little in his written record that can fix him here, a century back. But today, well, there is.

In the meantime, Ackerley has recovered from the Somme–in body, at least–and learned to live awkwardly as an undeserving hero. And he has been promoted.

Yet so strange are we in our inconsistencies that I was not happy in Blighty and, in a few months’ time, got myself sent back to France.

So he has been enduring this brutal winter, but not alone: nearly two months ago, his brother Peter–older, but behind in his military progress due to an injury–joined him in the 8th East Surreys. So elder saluted younger, “gladly and conscientiously.” As our J.R. Ackerley–younger brother Joe–notes with cold irony, the only reason that he has obtained the rank of captain and Company Commander is because everyone else was killed on July 1st.

And then we come to today, a century back, and a very local attack to be mounted on a German position near Miraumont.

In front of my trenches, some four or five hundred yards away and slightly to the left, there was a bulge or salient in the German lines known as Point 85. It was a tiresome object, for it commanded a dangerous enfilading position down the trenches of the battalion next door.

Just the sort of thing for a quick surprise rush attack, needing only a platoon, and a likely subaltern to lead it.

We know what will happen, and Ackerley’s tone and voice erase any doubt…

…my brother got the job. Did he actually volunteer for it? It is one of the many things I am not clear about, but I fancy that he did. At any rate it is the sort of thing he would have done–and the very thing he wanted… he must have been longing to prove himself, and here was a situation which would have appealed to the actor in him, drama indeed, the lime-lit moment, himself in the leading role, all eyes on him. At all events, the result was that I had to make arrangements for him and his platoon to take off from my front line…

The stage was therefore fatefully set, and my brother bungled his entrance.

The newcomer is unaware that the jumping-off point, his brother’s dugout in Boom Ravine, is–much like the deep dugout not far away which recently sheltered Wilfred Owen–under the thumb of the German artillery. It is a German dugout, and thus deep and safe, but with its location is precisely known. So the shells never miss by much. What’s worse,

Unknown to him, the poor boy’s watch had stopped… his troops could be heard chatting, coughing, grousing, and clattering their equipment in the ravine above, all the welcome he got was a rough ticking off from Major Wightman who sent him flying back upstairs to deploy and silence his men.

I remember my brother when he returned standing before me in the candlelight, bunched up in his Burberry and equipment, loaded with hand-grenades and stuck about with a revolver, wire-cutters and Very pistol, his cap set jauntily at an angle. His visit, now that he was late, was of the briefest…

I offered him a quick drink, I remember; he said, “No thanks, I’ll take my rum with the men,” Then, could we swap watches, his own being unreliable. He would return mine afterwards, he said.  A heroic remark, and as I helped him strap on my watch, probably we both saw it unbuckled from his dead wrist. But then it was impossible to speak the most commonplace word or makes the most ordinary gesture without its at once acquiring the heavy over-emphasis of melodrama…

Then my brother’s hand thrust out to shake my own, his twisty smile, my “Good luck,” his jocular salute. “Don’t worry, sir,” said he to the Major as he left. It was his only piece of self-indulgence. His thin putteed legs retreated up the dugout steps and the sack curtain swung to behind him. I never saw him again.[6]

Ackerley doesn’t so much mask his grief as shrug his shoulders at it. What can be done?[7]

Peter Ackerley was shot during an attempt to take point 85, a tiny preliminary to a larger assault a few days hence. The battalion war diary notes that the attack began at 5:45.

5 minutes later a counter barrage opened up… Phone lines were cut immediately and runners were sent to HQ. The situation was very obscure and 2/Lt Ackerley was wounded and about 6 of his men were seen to have reached point 85.

When exactly he died is not clear… but his brother, Joe, our observer in the trench, our writer, seems certain that his brother has been killed

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 124.
  2. This is one of the many details that I find strange... are these fixed bayonets? If so, why, in the middle of the night? Or are both worn loose on a man's webbing? This section of the diary reads like stage directions for an atmospheric trench play... but then again there is all that stuff about "The Theater of War..."
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 27-30.
  4. But Gurney's opinion of Hardy wavered over time as well. These dramatic shifts in critical allegiance could--but needn't--be connected to general mental instability. It's more just, I think, to represent Gurney as a man of passionate moods, broadly construed.
  5. War Letters, 128-2.
  6. My Father and Myself, 80-4.
  7. A spoiler, for those not familiar with Ackerley: the memoir, written long after, is regarded as a masterpiece, but the war figures only for its most horrible, salient days. Immediately after the story of Peter's raid Ackerley launches into a long disquisition on the nature of history and literature. He reads his 30-year old manuscript describing today and wonders what could have been "true" then, what is "true" now, and what remains in his memory... an excellent contribution to the discussion of "binary vision," not less valuable for being brief and agnostic. I'll have more on this tomorrow; I have also edited the original post so as to do less damage to... history while still following the effect of Ackerley's literary choices.

Edward Thomas is at Home in France, but One Does Not Stroll Here

The February doldrums have arrived at last. Not to worry–Siegfried Sassoon is bound for France, several of our rare-and-unusual writers are about to appear, and the Germans themselves are up to something. But today, a century back, there is almost nothing to share from our writers save these two letters from Edward Thomas.

Edward Thomas, who pretty much always repays close reading. So, first, to his parents–with a frank opening as to why exactly they are so fortunate as to receive another letter after only a few days’ interval.

Dainville, 13 February 1917
Dear Father and Mother,

This is only a note written partly because I have nothing to do this morning—so far as I know yet—and I have a slight chill (everyone else has already had it) and do not feel inclined to go out. It is very fine though. The thaw has begun without the rain which would have infallibly come with it in England. I suppose we may see something green soon besides the artificial overhead covering for the guns which they have made green even in winter for some reason or other.

Since I told you I had been out on a trench reconnaissance we have had little to do except superintend the digging which prepares for taking up our new position. But the Captain has just said we may be going to shoot this afternoon and certainly tomorrow.

This does not mean we are in our position but that we have temporarily taken over from another battery just behind our billets and are going to work their guns till further notice. Our own guns and stores, as a matter of fact, have not come on to us yet, and apparently they are not going to be ours any longer but to go to the battery we replace, the worst of it is that half my own private kit is with the stores and it may be a very long time before we receive it. So could you also send me a little mending wool for my socks? My servant washes for me and can mend too and I can therefore do with less underclothing than I anticipated.

An excellent servant–but I think we can safely classify this as a variation on the request-for-socks letter, certainly the most forlorn and frugal (from an officer, at least) that we have yet received. But there is much to see.

…I like this country, open and rolling, with villages up on the slopes above the streams—like the one behind us with its church spire smashed but otherwise not badly damaged. The villages closer up to the trenches of course are all battered about and only a few old natives hang on in their homes.

My hands are all burning and chapped, I suspect through wearing gloves, which I never used to do. If you could send me something to rub on them it would be a boon.

Next comes the sketch of accommodations, another common feature of these early letters, and a boon to anyone who likes fine writing–or lists:

I sleep and live in a biggish room with whitewashed walls, tiled floor and a window looking on the road, and a stove and a mirror opposite the door. Four of us sleep here and all eat here—the other two sleep in a dug-out just over the road. We have a dirty kitchen adjoining where our cook prepares good but monotonous meals. The walls are hung with our field-glasses, helmets, waterbottles, towels, sticks, and coats when we are indoors; and round the walls stand our boots, suit-cases, washing things and some stores, also two bombs left behind by a trench mortar battery. The mirror and stove are quite genteel. Otherwise things are a bit grimy. Over the door remains a  photographed group of old French people in their best clothes—the family occupies the rest of the house but is almost invisible…

At this moment—nearly 11 a.m.—the crumbs from breakfast remain mixed with a spoon and fork. One other officer is writing like me, the rest are out. Now the servant has come in to clear the crumbs. I suppose my thinking about them set him moving towards them…

Last, a familiar reminder, from a writer with limited time to write, and evident hopes of returning to (re)write his war:

I wonder if you would mind keeping my letters, so that I might some day, if I wished, use them as a supplement to my diary?

Give my love to my brothers and everyone.

Ever your loving son

Edwy

 

And once again–slightly more intimate and much more impish–he follows a letter to his parents with a letter to Elanor Farjeon:

Dainville,13 February 1917
My dear Eleanor,

This is my idlest morning. It is sunny and mild, but I have got the chill that everyone has had in turn and I shall not go out till I must, which will probably be this afternoon, for we have a shoot on then. My servant is a gem. He is a carpenter from Oxford named Taylor, rather slow but extraordinarily good-humoured and thoughtful and ingenious. He washes and darns for me and pillages wood[1] to keep our stove going and in between he keeps up a slow stream of nice rustic remarks. He won’t lose anything if he can help it. He is the most devoted thing I have met since we lost our dog. He mutters ‘They put upon good nature, don’t they. Sir’ but though I tell him not to listen to anyone but me he goes on being put upon without complaint.

Condescending, yes; but Thomas, at least, has a long record of seeking to understand working men as they are. Next he truly enters his element, describing the countryside for Farjeon’s eye. Note the rhythm of presence and absence.

This is a fine hilly country with trees only on the roads and in a few woods. The villages lie along the slopes above the streams, with tiled roofs and mud in brick walls, and churches with towers and short spires something like Sussex, but often shell-bitten. There are hardly any hedges. You see nothing yet but snow and field telephone posts and barbed wire entanglements. No cattle out, no sheep. Then the straight main road lined with young trees leads past our window to the town and the cathedral. There we are to be in an orchard on the outskirts. Looking out of the window we see our dug-outs just across the road, beyond that a short slope of snow and posts and the trees lining a road on another hill a mile off. It is a somewhat dangerous position, but all the shells fall fairly well behind us, being aimed at a battery some hundreds of yards away. They had one of their guns hit yesterday, but the men were all in cover and no one was hurt. You could bury several horses in the shell holes. It is not what is called a healthy spot, but as these buildings are isolated they are hardly worth making a target of and only an accident will demolish them.

Here I will rather spoil the effect by inserting a paragraph of pace-changing commentary so that the reader may recruit him or her herself before carrying on instead of stumbling blindly through to the end of the paragraph. I am told that these days such interruptions are a necessary cosmetic surgery, a painless insertion of tiny artificial balloons into our sagging, internet-depleted attention spans. So let’s see–the cathedral he can see nearby is Arras, but the way.

It is nice to have sun without rain, but it would not matter which the weather was if I had no chill and my boots were a good old pair that didn’t make me feel as if my feet were artificial wood. There is not much traffic on the road, but small parties do use it and despatch riders and a farm cart or two go along. I haven’t had the curiosity to go into town yet and have only seen the cathedral with fieldglasses. Partly it is the lack of perfectly comfortable boots. Partly, of course, one does not stroll here, but only moves with an object.

Oh but that is not whimsy–that is the thought of a man pleasantly surprised to find himself happy in a cage, but nevertheless insistent on acknowledging the existence of the cage. Another agonizingly true jest follows:

Do you know I have not had a letter—nor has anyone—since leaving England, so that I am more egotistic than usual, as I am the only person that I really know exists, apart from these strangers round me.

As a teenager would put it, he is utterly alone.

We are strangers who just talk insincerely and humorously when we are not talking shop. But we have come to a modus vivendi. T[horbum] and I get on when it is pure talk between us two, but he is intolerable to live with, being dismal, timid and clumsy.

I should like to know you were well and what you were doing. I suppose letters will begin some day. And how are your nieces, and do you ever see Maitland?

Thomas does have some time on his hands, doesn’t he! The letter swerves back into complaint against his intolerable fellow-officer, and ends by literally marking time…

I have to admit I have joined the majority against T—. He is the most unpleasant presence imaginable in our midst. He was born with the most dismal face and voice ever was, and no doubt he is not happy in this frivolous coarse crowd… He hurts us and we hurt him—only his hurting us is no satisfaction to him as our hurting him is to us. I used to think I was dismal till now.—And perhaps I sound like it still, so I will be off. In fact I have just found it is 12 and not 11, I have to take a party along at 12.30.

Yours ever | Edward Thomas[2]

It’s her birthday, too. But he forgot…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Thomas, new to France, does not know "scrounge!"
  2. Selected Letters, 138-141.

John Ronald Tolkien’s Lost Play; Wilfred Owen’s Equipoise is Tested

John Ronald Tolkien is being drawn back into the war’s orbit, but not without quiet mental resistance of a fairly unusual sort. He is, of course, writing “fairy stories,” which is to say he is working in another world. Recovered from “trench fever” and with the end of his convalescent leave looming, Tolkien wrote, today, to the War Office to report the expiration of his leave (in ten days’ time) and give his current address. Also today–across the table, at the same time, one likes to imagine–his wife Edith dated the school exercise book in which she had made a painstaking fair copy of the first version of her husband’s poem “The Cottage of Lost Play.”[1]

It’s a nice poem, and, confined as we are in our unknowing of all developments more recent than a century back, we might classify it securely as whimsical escapism, evidence that many literary young officers in 1915 and 1916 were not moving together in a loose skirmish line toward the undiscovered country of realism and disillusionment, but rather retrenching along their sentimental flanks. But it’s never quite that simple. There are ideas hidden in plain sight in this poem which some readers might recognize, and the road and the cottage–which seem at first to be provided by Cliched Victorian Location Scouting Ltd.–hint at other shores entirely…

 

The only other correspondence we have today is Wilfred Owen, still in fine fettle, to his mother.

Monday [12] February 1917

My own dear Mother,

I thought to write yesterday, but we were working all day; sick animals in the morning, and riding in the afternoon. In spite of the hard ground we went out into the country. I had a horse with a reputation of ‘warming up’. Sure enough, he would not let me remount after a halt. When at last I swung over, and before I could get the reins properly gathered, he bolted. It was not so much a gallop, as a terrific series of ricochets off the ground, as if we had been fired from a Naval Gun. But the worst part was the sudden checks. Once I found myself with my hands in the brute’s mouth; but I was still on top of him somewhere, and never actually touched ground. I was only thoroughly shaken.

Your 3 parcels came within 2 days of each other, 2 actually together. It is so unlucky that they did not reach me up the line, where everything has a tenfold value. Still nothing can take from the preciousness of the presents you send me…

So Wilfred is still safe and content on his transport course. In fact, he’s better than content, since it must be a pleasure to write to his mother (long obsessed with what she believes is her family’s decline from true gentility) about all this horsey business, however comical. There is a thriving sub-genre of “riding school” vignettes, in which an officer of either the lower middle or the urban middle classes confronts the ultimate living, breathing, quadrupedal embodiment of the traditional squirearchy. Generally, said officer struggles–and generally the horse is cast as something like a vengeful footman who knows how to put the jumped-up interloper in his place, “downstairs” be damned.

But we have an even stronger indication of Owen’s equestrian privilege and far-from-the-trenches good fortune:

The socks have almost exceeded my need. Withhold Socks for another month or more.

Unprecedented. With sore feet exchanged for a sore seat, Wilfred is now galloping full-tilt toward some Georgian Poetical version of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Kingdom of Sweets.

Gingerbreads arrived in fine condition—both lots. They are the most homelike bits in all the parcel.

You made a very cunning choice of Biscuits. You overwhelm me with Chocolate. I am keeping it, like most of the sweet-stuff, for going up the Line…

I am settling down to a little verse once more…

Alas, practicality on Owen’s part–and historiographical dutifulness on mine–ends the tasty cadenza back with a return to a more earthly note.

I have lost a bundle of my MSS, together with all the photographs I brought out. They were left out of packing. That’s the sort of servant I’ve got. Please send some photographs. Also would you mind getting an Army Book Animal Management pub. by Gale & Polden, Aldershot.

Please thank Mary specially for her dear letters which I read constantly.

As for yours, I live by them.

Ever your loving W.E.O. x[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 99.
  2. Collected Letters, 433-4.