Kate Luard’s Near Miss; Edwin Vaughan in a Lousy Boche Trap; Siegfried Sassoon Can Almost See England; God Amidst the Shellfire for Edward Hermon; Geoffrey Thurlow Asks Vera Brittain About the Afterlife

Kate Luard, her hospital warned that their first convoy of wounded is only days away, took what she expects to be a last day of leisure for quite some time. She wants to see the sights–and now that the German withdrawal has put the old front line well in the rear, she can tour the Somme battlefield for the first time. So she does, and runs smack into the apparent paradox that so many of our writers confront or avoid, but necessarily both confirm and deny:

…we have been over No-Man’s Land an down into the deep German dug-outs on the scene of the tragedy last July at Gommécourt. It is all indescribable. Bairnsfather has drawn it, but no one can ever, in words, make anyone realise what it is like.

As Rabbi Tarfon says, it is not incumbent upon you to finish the job; but neither are you at liberty to completely avoid it….

The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch deep down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom…

I cast Kate Luard, often enough, in the role of The Wise Woman, our Old Campaigner among the medics. Which, like any such shoehorning, is not terribly fair. She features here so often because she is a keen observer and a good writer, not because she is infallibly wise. In her own sphere, we’ve come to except extreme competence and compassion… but off for an exciting tour of the forbidden zone, she succumbs to a common and foolish enthusiasm–the search for souvenirs.

I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me…

The village we and the Germans have been shelling for 2 years made you feel dazed. But the battlefield made you feel sick. We got some snowdrop roots with the flowers out, from under a boulder at Gommécourt.

Here you get to the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad?[1]

More snowdrops! A paragraph of further description intervenes before Luard comes to tell of their long walk back to the hospital, so perhaps the uplifting irony I see in the last sentences of the day is not actually intended. But after being compelled to condemn the madness of civilization, Sister Luard and her companions, returning, are invited to tea three times on their walk back by three different groups of British N.C.O.s and officers, and then have coffee pressed upon them by a Frenchwoman.

 

Edwin Vaughan is headed in the opposite direction. He had a harrowing march up through the devastated town of Péronne and toward his battalion’s new billets in what had until recently been the German rear–harrowing, at least, for him. Other writers might have treated a near-miss and a blighty for a fellow officer with less candor: “He wasn’t a scrap disturbed by his wounds, but they made me feel faint and I had to go out for some air.”

But then several men are killed by shells accurately dropped on a well, and the survivors are grateful to take shelter in their new digs–three German dugouts.

I lay for a while on my upper berth, smoking and reading a book on trench warfare. then I began to feel itchy, and the itchiness grew, and spread so much that I was unable to concentrate on my book. So I lay on my back looking at the timber roof a foot above me, and I wondered whether the saw-marks across the beams were the work of the Boche to ensure the roof falling in when a time-mine exploded. I was distracted from this thought, with its potential horrors, by the sight of moving insects. Raising the candle I found that the place was crawling with lice. During the night I felt them dropping onto my face, and in the morning I was infested with them.[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s letter home to his wife of tonight, a century back, is a bit of a surprise. Hermon is our conventional English family man, the non-intellectual squire and kindly C.O. He’s not a great writer, but this account of church amidst a bombardment is one of the more moving ones I’ve read. Of all things (all things!) it reminds me of a scene in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Tonight I went to church in one of the church Army Huts close here & we had such a nice little service, ending with a celebration[3] for which I stayed. All the time the service was going on the Hun was throwing some very heavy shells into the village about half a mile off & what with the church being lit up & it dark outside & the whistle & crash of the shells it made the whole thing very weird & also impressive & I’m afraid that my voice was not particularly strong as I sang the third verse of hymn 322…

Then the world re-intrudes, and we are back to clocks and bunks–and men of god in their human frailties.

Well dearie mine I’m busy these days and must to bed now especially as we started summer time last night & I lost an hour of sleep, not to mention the fact that the padre, who sleeps just under me, dreamt that he saw a man cutting the rope of one of the observation balloons & jumped up shouting at the top of his voice to stop him & nearly flung me out of bed in the process, & I felt rather as tho’ a mine had gone off underneath.[4]

 

Only a day after Victor Richardson wrote to Vera Brittain, Geoffrey Thurlow–her brother’s intimate friend from training camp, and now the third of the soldiers that she cares for and corresponds with–writes to her on the same subject. But then what are the chances that two nicely brought-up young men will write about certain things not to each other but to a young woman they admire?

France, 25 March 1917

Don’t you often speculate on what lies beyond the gate of Death? The after life must be particularly interesting. No chance of getting leave… Haven’t heard from Victor Richardson for a long long time–hope he is still going strong…

Tonight I walked home with Wilmot who is in a convalescent home near here. It has been a brilliant day with a fresh wind: we passed along between fields, some green and some with bright red earth recently plowed: and then came to a large forest. The wind made a delightful rustling in the trees & had it not have been for the distant continual bumping of guns War might not have existed…[5]

 

Lastly, today, Siegfried Sassoon evokes a mood of either wistful poetasting or listless carping, depending upon how you see it. But he is a dependable man for observing the landscape, after all.

After five weeks in France (and two with Second R.W.F.) I have not yet been within five miles of a German gun. Instead of getting nearer, the war has actually receded… Yesterday afternoon I got on to a lorry and went bumping
along the Corbie road for three or four miles…  Then I walked down the hill to Heilly on the Ancre, where we camped for four days early in July last year, and marched away to the line again on a hot dusty afternoon. The water still sings its deep tune by the bridge, and the narrow stream goes twinkling away past the bend, and past the garden where I used to walk when I came over from Morlancourt to the Field Cashier. About 5 o’clock I started off up the hill again with the sun setting low and red and the valley hazy and quiet, the wind blowing shrewd, and a plough-team working the ridge.

Another plow team on the ridge!  One begins to suspect a conspiracy between the English outdoor poets and the French peasantry… some sort of pay-to-plow scandal.

And is it a bit too hard on a poor diarist–who after all has a perfect right to record consecutive, incompatible moods–to take him to task for the reach toward a vision of peace, only to follow it with the bathos of one of modern life’s most hackneyed gripes?

I could imagine myself walking home to some friendly English village until the aerodromes loomed in the dusk, and I came to the main road with lines of lorries, and a brazier glowing red where the sentry stands at the cross-roads. And so down the hill to this abominable camp, and a foul dinner in the smoky hut and early to bed, too fed-up to read. And summer begins to-night—which means an hour less in bed, and absolutely nothing else.[6]

In defense of Hermon and Sassoon, the novelty of summer time (a.k.a. daylight savings time) was rather greater a century back…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 104-5.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 66-7.
  3. I.e. communion
  4. For Love and Courage, 344-5.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 325-6.
  6. Diaries, 144-5.

Wilfred Owen’s Sonnet on the Unknown Soldier; Edwin Vaughan Meets a Madman; Victor Richardson to Vera Brittain: a Boy No More; Edward Thomas’s Most Beautiful Letter

We have a frightening short scrap on shell shock, today, and three letters from soldiers. Each of the two longer letters, different in tone but oddly parallel, will find a space for unvoiced love and for the repurposing of poetry–both Victor Richardson and, even yet, Edward Thomas, write themselves into a new light. As does Wilfred Owen, with verse of his own.

Since Owen’s is a lighter sort of new light, let’s start with him.

Perhaps it’s the concussion; perhaps it’s the leisure time in bed, but Owen is once again writing to a sibling about his bucolic post-war dreams:

24 March, 13th Casualty Clearing Station

My dear Colin,

In my walk this afternoon, considering at leisure the sunshine and the appearance of peace (I don’t mean from the news) I determined what I should do after the war.

I determined to keep pigs.

It occurred to me that after five years development of one pig-stye in a careful & sanitary manner, a very considerable farm would establish itself.

I should like to take a cottage and orchard in Kent, Surrey or Sussex, and give my afternoons to the care of pigs. The hired labour would be very cheap, 2 boys could tend 50 pigs. And it would be the abruptest possible change from my morning’s work…

This, young Colin Owen must be thinking, is madness, a result of that knock on the head. After all, big brother Wilfred has been raised to be a young gentleman, and considers himself an aspiring highbrow poet-aesthete!

Perhaps you will think me clean mad and translated by my knock on the head. How shall I prove that my old form of madness has in no way changed? I will send you my last Sonnet, which I started yesterday. I think I will address it to you.

Adieu, mon petit. Je t’embrasse. W.E.O.

SONNET—with an Identity Disc

If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the Heart of London; unsurpassed
By Time forever; and the fugitive, Fame,
There taking a long sanctuary at last,
—I’ll better that! Yea, now, I think with shame
How once I wished it hidd’n from its defeats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That mourn around the quiet place of Keats.
Now rather let’s be thankful there’s no risk
Of gravers scoring it with hideous screed.
For let my gravestone be this body-disc
Which was my yoke. Inscribe no date, nor deed.
But let thy heart-beat kiss it night & day . . .
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

This is private.
I stickle that a sonnet must contain at least 3 clever turns to be good.
This has only two.[1]

That’s about right–the yoke, the deed/screed rhyme… but perhaps by the time we come to the lips wearing away the inscription on the identity disk the joke has been too fully-sprung. But it is clever, and a good sign–this is no renunciation of Keats, or of love poetry in the best Romantic mode. Despite the jokes and the self-deprecation this is a love sonnet which takes up an ironic condition of the front line soldier-poet–the desire for fame, the likelihood of an unknown grave–and makes a lovely-sounding thing out of hope and fear.

 

While Owen is making clever jokes in the leisure of his concussion, Edwin Vaughan is coming to know how prolonged, repeated, unbearable concussions can affect a man. A group of replacements has reached his battalion, including a man named Corbett.

He it appears was a splendid NCO until he was badly wounded on the Somme in 1916, after which he went quite silly. Whenever he goes into the line he goes mad, though he never shows fear. At one time he secured a dugout, and if any stranger or undesirable visitor entered it, he hammered the fuse of a dud 9.2″ shell with an entrenching tool, until he was again alone…[2]

 

We’ll close with another letter from Edward Thomas, but first, I want to spend a little time on one of the letters written to Vera Brittain. She is far away in Malta, but the three young soldiers she cares for are all once more heading toward battle. Her brother, Edward–wounded on the first day of the Somme–is the safest, still working on training courses and yet to rejoin a fighting battalion. Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson, however, are in infantry battalions in France, preparing for the offensive. Victor Richardson, the sturdy, smiling Third Musketeer of Uppingham Days, has been an officer in the trenches for quite some time now–and he doesn’t write, any longer, from a subordinate or suppliant position. This is the first letter to Vera, I think, in which he assumes intellectual equality and writes as if they were essentially the same age.

France, 24 March 1917

My dear Vera,

Mrs Leighton has just sent me Rhymes of a Red Cross Man. They are indeed excellent, but their vivid realism is oppressive at least I find it so just now. With regard to ‘Pilgrims’ it is true in part. It is true that none of us would wish those we love to do other than ‘smile and be happy again’. But none of us wish to die… I venture to say that there is not one officer, warrant officer, N.C.O., or rifleman who looks on death as ‘The Splendid Release’. That is the phrase of ‘a Red Cross Man’ and not of a member of a fighting unit.

So Victor is no longer willing to accept uncritically the views that surround him. Vera has tended patronize him–he’s the fondly regarded lesser light, never as bright or as high-flying as Roland or her brother. But although she is by now “accustomed… to the sudden tragic maturities of trench life” she is surprised to see the sweet boy she remembers write now like tough-minded officer, too wise for easy answers. Victor, sounding more like Roland than he ever has, continues:

I often wonder why we are all here. Mainly I think, as far as I am concerned, to prevent the repetition in England of what happened in Belgium in August 1914. Still more perhaps because one’s friends are here. Perhaps too, ‘heroism in the abstract’ has a share in it all.

Victor Richardson believes, now, that “the attitude of 90% of the British Expeditionary Force” is one of cheerful resignation, as typified in “a marching song to the tune of Auld Lang Syne that the little old men have been heard to sing:

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here.”

And “here” is France, with the Spring Offensive growing ever nearer.

But not near enough for his taste:

The situation as far as we are concerned is at present only slightly changed, but I hope that on the day of the hunt it will alter considerably. You speak of being anxious about Geoffrey Thurlow. At the present moment I would gladly change places with him. He is probably well away and over the country by now, and open warfare has none of the terrors of breaking new ground…

Edward doesn’t seem to enjoy his Musketry Course. Just as I did he is taking it far too seriously. I can’t define exactly how he has changed since July 1st. In that one day I think he aged ten years. I wonder if I shall be the same: I don’t think so somehow or other, but it is quite impossible to say.

I can quite understand your desire to wander further. I am a restless spirit myself–in fact you yourself once accused me of being a rolling stone.

Well, Vera, I may not write again–one can never tell–and so, as Edward wrote to me, ‘it is time to take a long long adieu’.

Ever yours

ah[3]

This “valedictory resignation” will make Vera Brittain feel, when she reads this letter, that Malta and France–with more and more U-boats between them–are impossibly far apart. The old romantic idea that fierce feelings of closeness can stave off separation is getting harder to sustain.[4]

 

Finally, today, Edward Thomas wrote to his wife, Helen.

Arras
24 March 1917

Dearest,

I was in that ghastly village today. The Major and I went up at 7.30 to observe; through the village was the quickest way. I never thought it would be so bad. It is nothing but dunes of piled up brick and stone with here and there a jagged piece of wall, except that the little summerhouse placed under the trees that I told Baba about is more or less perfect. The only place one could recognize was the churchyard. Scores of tombstones were quite  undamaged.

Now is this Thomas’s writerly restraint, or the fact that he is unwilling to–or simply not interested in–frightening his wife with grim visions. If scores of tombstones were quite undamaged, others surely, were wrecked, and graves were damaged… and few of our writers avoid such horrific bounty as the irony and horror of ancient graves disturbed by modern war. Thomas would seem to prefer this–and yet, as his narrative moves on, he avoids neither destruction nor death.

All the trees were splintered and snapped and dead until you got to the outskirts… No Man’s Land below the village was simply churned up dead filthy ground with tangled rusty barbed wire over it… On the way we saw a Bosh fight two of our planes. He set one on fire and chased the other off. The one on fire had a great red tail of flame, yet the pilot kept it under control for a minute or more till I suppose he was on fire and then suddenly it reeled and dropped in a string of tawdry fragments.

Our new position—fancy—was an old chalk pit in which a young copse of birch, hazel etc. has established itself.

Fancy–why? This turns out to be a complicated question. Edward Thomas is something of a chalk-pit enthusiast, and he described and considered the symbolism of several chalk pits in his prose, and then in his poem “The Chalk-Pit.” This is a poetic dialogue (the form heavily influenced by Frost) in which two speakers discuss the resonances of an empty chalk pit–a man-made dell now overgrown with trees.

Then two more figures are invoked: a “man of forty” remembering coming there with “a girl of twenty with… hair brown as a thrush.” So it would seem as if Thomas is not just recalling any one of the chalk pits in the English countryside which they may have walked by in recent years, but the time of his long-ago courtship with Helen. The poem may also–although this would imply a strange sort of deceit–remember Thomas’s infatuation, some nine years before, with a teenage girl he met while away from home working on a book.[5]

But all that is rather too much, and it’s not certain that Thomas is even thinking of his poem. But a chalk pit is an evocative place, an old work of man that has been reclaimed by nature and thus “can be admired without misanthropy,” a most characteristic line. The chalk pit and its trees are Thomas’s ideal context:

…a silent place that once rang loud,
And trees and us–imperfect friends, we men
And trees since time began; and nevertheless
Between us we still breed a mystery.

And now–fancy–he will be living in one while he assists in bombarding the new German positions east of Arras.

Our dug out is already here, dug by the battery we are evicting. It is almost a beautiful spot still and I am sitting warm in the sun on a heap of chalk with my back to the wall of the pit which is large and shallow. Fancy, an old chalk pit with moss and even a rabbit left in spite of the paths trodden almost all over it. It is beautiful and sunny and warm though cold in the shade. The chalk is dazzling. The sallow catkins are soft dark white.

What quotidian concern could cast a pall over this lovely scene?

All I have to do is to see that the men prepare the gun platforms in the right way, and put two men on to digging a latrine.—I am always devilish particular about that.

This is a rambling letter to a wife, I know–it’s not a gripping account of modern war. But it’s all one song, as another sage once said, and it means something–something important–that Thomas writes so much, here, and so beautifully. Their marriage has been a troubled one, and if Helen is close to his heart theirs is not an intimate intellectual relationship; he rarely writes his poetry with or to her. But now he nearly is–this is as close to verse as he has gotten, since he came to France.

There are a few long large white clouds mostly low in the sky and several sausage balloons up and still some of our planes peppered all round with black Bosh smoke bursts. I ate some oatcakes for lunch just now. They were delicious, hard and sweet.

And it’s not just this sort of prose, and the chalk-pit and the trees–we have a thrush, too, and our sudden bloom of snowdrops to carry on. Am I overselling it? Probably. I’ll need an ellipsis for the paragraphs that keep track of parcels and acquaintances…

The writing pads were quite all right, though no longer so necessary after Oscar had sent me half a dozen…

…this particular place has never been shelled yet, so though I hear a big shell every now and then flop 200 or 300 yards away it feels entirely peaceful. But I can’t get over the fact that there is no thrush singing in it. There is only a robin. I don’t hear thrush ever. All the bright pale or ruddy stems in the copse and the moss underneath and the chalk showing through reminds me of Hampshire…

The wheat is very green in some of the fields a little behind us and they are ploughing near our orchard. I hope the old woman will get back to her cottage and apple trees and currant bushes and snowdrops and aconites and live happily ever after.

It is very idle of me to sit here writing, but the men are all at work and I can’t help them except by appearing at intervals and suggesting something obvious that ought to be done…

Now I have had tea and oatcakes and honey and also a cake from Burzard’s Mrs Freeman sent me. I am having an agreeably idle evening, but then I am up with the lark tomorrow for 24 hours at the O.P. No letters today and tomorrow I shan’t get them if there are any. Never mind. All is well.

I am all and always yours

Edwy

A timeless letter, a brave sally against loneliness, and the gulf, and misanthropy. A long moment of peace and love stolen from the war, and a record of coincidence between poetry and life… but with a post-script:

The latest is that perhaps we shan’t go in to the chalk pit. The general is always changing his mind.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 446.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 64.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 326-8.
  4. Testament of Youth, 334-6.
  5. Longley, Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 236-9.
  6. Selected Letters, 153-5.

Ivor Gurney Absolves Himself of Half the Blame; Edward Thomas Discourses to His Son, and Friend; Edward Hermon on War’s Delightful Uncertainties; A Saucy Note for Jack Martin; Alphabet Soup with Kate Luard

None of our writers yet know the exact date of the coming offensive–and they can assume that the terrible weather and the operational wrench tossed in the works by the German withdrawal will delay it at least a bit more–but there is a growing sense that they may be only days away from the end of a winter which, for all its miseries, has seen men killed only by the handfuls and dozens, for the most part, and not by the thousands.

Girding for battle, then, we have five writers to read today–two provide lengthy and rather weighty letters, but we also have some lighter fare along the way…

 

Ivor Gurney, wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back. Scott is at once his friend and benefactress; she has put his songs before an audience, published his music, lectured on his poetry, helped him at every stage, and now is in the last stages of preparing his first book of poems for the press. As the editor of those poems, she has become less and less like a patron or facilitator and more and more like a partner: Gurney’s moods are changeable, his spelling and punctuation are shaky, and his ability to focus on revising his poems while serving as an infantryman is, rather understandably, limited. He is fortunate that his friend is both skilled and willing to edit with sensitivity, cleaning up his verse without heavy-handedly blotting out his oddities–and he is wise enough (or, again, fortunate) to recognize this.

23 March 1917

My Dear Friend: Things are beginning to move, and no one knows when may come the next opportunity for writing. I have just received your letter of March 11th… Do not consult me about these things, but do as your far more experienced judgement may lead you…

A frequent topic in these letters is Scott’s ill-health. She has a number of ongoing medical problems and has been very sick two different times in recent months, and Gurney, though sympathetic, often struggles to find a way to express his sympathy. Today an obvious path is open: he can share her joy at resuming music:

And it is good news that you are able to play sonatas again, and with a sympathetic pianist. It gives me a feeling of sharing your good-fortune to read of it; may your strength increase and give you hours a day of it…

One parcel of yours I have received — not yet the other. All the letters have arrived and all given pleasure. O to return to England and my friends! Such joys are there as are dangerous to imagine at present; not all at once will my mind and body become sound, but it cannot be so very very long before Joy becomes “used to me”…

The new state of things entered upon by the German retreat may mean little letter writing. This is the reason why I hasten to reply, though never have I felt more acutely the inadequacy of words. Last night and this afternoon have been so beautiful that my mind has been filled with Blighty thoughts. But consider what a queer past I have to look back on! Either I am a great musician or a chronic neurastheniac!

That’s a line worth remarking on. Many of our writers are in a similar position in that they sense the war will be the making or breaking of their literary ambitions, and yet few have struggled mentally and emotionally as much as Gurney has. The war is an intensifier–double or nothing, death or great beauty.

There is nothing outside it, for the visible world is hardly to be seen by me unless music hallows my spirit with  beauty and toughens it by the necessary work.

And yet Gurney is consistently grateful about another thing the war has done for him: throwing him among all sorts of men has cured him of much of his social awkwardness, at least among men. Suffering together has made a feeling of brotherhood possible.

You will be glad to hear however that as a personality I am rather popular in my company. It pleases me this, as so I know myself nearer Walt Whitmans perfect man; equal to shepherd and President; equal and familiar. O the joy to be able to go into a little Cotswold inn and drop into conversation with the nearest man! And that, compared with my tongue-tied shyness of 3 years ago. And if not here, then in the Shades I will be friends with men contemptuous of the fate to which some Power has doomed them, jovially drinking in some phantom pub over doubtful takes[1] and unprintable denunciation of the Infernal NCOs.

We’ve seen something like this before (not that I can currently place it, mind)–a soldier so pleased to belong that he humorously, but with real feeling, extends the dream of post-war camaraderie even to otherworldly environs. Gurney is then once again reminded that he is neglecting a different category of friend:

You patient correspondent, though you make no complaint, how should you not be tired of the continual self-analysis which makes up the bulk of my letters! And yet those letters are the safety-valves of my discomfort. It is a cheap amusement—grumbling—pleasing the writer and leaving the reader to read or not as she pleases. I
absolve myself therefore from half the blame, take the other half if you please.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

…Goodbye and many sonatas. Unless I write very soon, more verse-books off:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s latest letter to his wife Ethel picks up in the middle of a joint reminiscence about old holidays, but it is nevertheless overshadowed by the coming offensive.

…I fear those old days are gone for ever now… Let’s hope our next trip will be one here to see the result of the war with the Chugs.

Of course, by now you know more about the German retirement than I do, really, as you have had one more Times than I have…

According to the papers he is retiring there so that, if any preparations have been made by us for the much-talked-about spring offensive, we may have to start again… & in the meantime his submarines will sink all our ships. However the best-laid plans often go wrong…

War is one of those delightful uncertainties that a very small thing may completely upset. It is all most awfully interesting & I hope I shall see the end. I often long for the time when one will be able to read the history of the early phases & know why he didn’t do some of the many things that he ought to have done.

I got three delightful letters from the Chugs too, today. I wish I had time to answer them. Thank dear little Mary for her nice message & her letter too. I am so pleased to hear she sat on her pony so well when it fell down!

Goodnight my darling.[3]

 

Before we get to two letters from Edward Thomas–I know I have been including a great deal of his writing, but these show a different aspect of his personality–let’s do two brief bits of comic relief, one intentional and one rather by-the-way.

We haven’t heard from Jack Martin much–his diary has been sparse, as he seems to be in low spirits. I don’t know him well enough to suspect any particular mood (or mood disorder), but he seems to be suffering from the general malaise common to men who are excited to reach the front and then find not the thrill and terror of battle but the long slog of living and working in miserable winter conditions. His diary only springs to life when he can report letters from home or another test of wills with his commanding officer and sparring partner Lieutenant Buchanan. But today a bit of light comedy flutters out from an unsolicited parcel, in a moment much more redolent of 1915 and the heyday of Kitchener’s army than this tense muddy month, a century back:

23.3.17

Arrived at Dickebusch safely. Had a parcel from Lil containing a body belt folded up just as she had bought it. When I unfolded it a piece of paper dropped out–I picked it up and read this:

Miss Dulcie Bennett

111 Mansfield Road

Nottingham

Wishes the boy who receives this belt the best of luck and a safe return to Blighty. XXXX for luck

Oh, Dulcinea, I am no Don Quixote so I vulgarly displayed your missive to other eyes and there was quite a competition between several fellows as to who should have it and write to you…[4]

 

And I can’t resist the beginning of Kate Luard‘s diary for today, a century back. If we often look for “found poetry” hidden in the prose of our writers, today this old campaigner provides us a found nonsense-alphabet-jingle:

The three C.O.’s of the three C.C.S’s here were summoned to 3rd Army H.Q. to-day to a Conference with the D.M.S…[5]

 

Lastly, Edward Thomas, thrice. I absolve all readers not lavishly endowed with free time or particularly interested in a writer’s fine-grained choices from reading any further. It’s too much!

Or not… Well, we’ll begin with an excerpt from his diary, and then proceed to excerpts from two different letters.

Frosty clear. Ploughs going up over crest towards Beaurains. Rubin back from F. O. P. believes in God and tackles me about atheism–thinks marvellous escapes are ordained. But I say so are the marvellous escapes of certain telegraph posts, houses, etc.[6]

Next, a letter to his old friend Gordon Bottomley which does something rather odd: Thomas reviews the salient experiences and most striking sights of recent days (many of which we’ve read about) but he does so in a hurried, unliterary fashion. Usually the letters are more considered, more elaborate than the diary, but not here.

23 March
My dear Gordon,

I will write again while I can a little. Things are moving now & we move too. I have not long come back from 24 hours in our new front line. It was dirty wet & cold & I could only stand & mark the flashes of enemy guns at night, which was my business. Afterwards I slept 16 hours for the first time in my life. It taught me several things that others knew before. It made me cease to be alarmed by shells that could not harm me, for example, though they came over 20 or 30 a minute all night. They were flying home to a village that we used to fire at till this last move, a fascinating ghostly village of stark trees & ruins which I shall probably soon be sleeping in. It was beautiful coming down to the city in sunshine & seeing the old ruined Town Hall like a thick white smoke just beginning to curl. Crossing the old No Man’s Land crowded like a race course after a race, I couldn’t take seriously the few small shells thrown at the working parties. Oh, I did eat & rest & sleep…

Yesterday it was sunny & mild. Today it is cold & snows at times…

Is this sort of rote reporting motivated only by a sense of duty to an old friend? But Thomas does work around to some more intimate issues of the sort that once sustained his letters to Bottomley.

…Fear too, I have discovered—to that point where the worst moment is when you find you have survived & that all your fear was useless. You screw yourself up for a second to bear anything & nothing comes—except a curious disappointment which I suppose is also relief. Sometimes at night I have been in this state a hundred times, but partly through inexperience, not knowing what might mean harm. Still, I shall never like the shell that flaps as it falls, or the one that suddenly bounces into hearing & in a second is bursting far off—no sooner does it open the gate than it is right in the door, or even the small one that complains & whimpers & is called a ‘pipsqueak’ or a ‘whizzbang’, & flies into that ghastly village all night long like flights of humming birds.

Ah–and he is working on refining his descriptions of the shells. Through music, next, and friendship, the letter finally turns to his poetry–only to dodge, at the end, from success back toward despair.

…I conclude I don’t quite want friends here. I should be too introspective or too happy to meet the circumstance. And yet all sorts of things do make me happy—villages, the city in ruins, the larks in the bloody dirty dawn, the partridges, the magpies floating about among shellfire & once a bat, & a hundred different houses, in city, suburb, & village.

I hear now that America wants my verses & Poetry has taken some. Frost wants me to surrender my pseudonymity but I am not doing so. Of course I can’t think of writing here & only keep the briefest of diaries…

I haven’t met anybody out here yet who connected me with home. I don’t think of home. I never did have pictures on the wall since I was 1.

Goodbye. My love to Emily. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[7]

 

Last, today, Thomas’s letter to his son, Merfyn, now a teenager but working full time as an apprentice at a bus works. Is it his age that accounts for the formality of the letter, or the gaps in his relationship with his father, so often depressed or working away. And yes, he misspells his son’s name, sort of–the name is Welsh, so the “f” sounds as a “v,” anyway:

244 Siege Battery, 23 March 1917

My dear Mervyn,

I brought back a letter from you in the mail bags today and also a new battery for my torch. Thank you very much… It is most useful in crossing this dark street when crowded with lorries or columns of horses and limbers and on all sorts of occasions.

I was so glad to hear from you and how much you were earning for Mother as well as yourself. At the same time I am more anxious for you to learn than to earn at present and I hope you will soon be moved to a new shop.

But Merfyn will soon be eighteen, and in England, a century back, work is no longer the thing that most defines a man’s estate.

You haven’t found an O.T.C. yet, have you? I wish you could, though I hope you will not have to go further than that for a long time. I don’t think war would trouble you. I see lots of infantrymen no bigger or older than you. There was one machine gunner doing duty over the parapet the other night when I was in the very very front trench. He had to stand up there behind his gun watching for an hour. Then he was relieved and made some tea for me and himself and turned into his comic little shanty and slept till the next relief. He looked ever so much older as well as dirtier when morning came. He was a very nice bright Scotch boy. Well, I expect you could do just the same. His officer was the same age and very much like him so that I think he had to look unduly severe to show the distinction…

These, of course, are new thoughts, different thoughts, experiences filtered–and this is very rare, in what we read of Thomas–through the lens of fatherhood. But very strangely, Thomas segues from this paternal mode into a comparison of himself and his son. He had recently faced the task of climbing an enormous chimney for observation purposes, and backed down. Now he wonders if his boy could have done better.

I wonder could you climb that chimney? There were iron rings all the way up and I knew one was loose, but I didn’t know which. One bad feature was that you were always hanging out a bit, because the chimney tapered. It has been hit three times but only with small stuff. Now I suppose it is likely to survive as the enemy is farther off.

Even more strangely, he takes what might seem an offhand (to anyone not risking shellfire on a daily basis) approach to a completely fundamental question:

The crossroads round it became known as Windy Comer because everybody ‘got the wind up’ as he came near it. Thousands had to go that way and yet very few were injured and only about two killed. Isn’t it wonderful how some men get hit and some don’t. But it is the same with trees and houses, so that I don’t see why it makes some people ‘believe in God’. It is a good thing to believe. I think brave people all believe something and I daresay they are not so likely to be killed as those who don’t believe and are not so brave…

But then the formality–a certain awkwardness, at least–creeps back in, and Thomas begins to deluge his son with questions:

…It is going to be Spring soon. Are you glad? Are you often happy and usually contented, and if not contented, not often in despair? Try never to let despair at any rate make you idle or careless; But be as idle and careless as you can when you are happy and the chance comes. If you are troubled, remember that you can do what perhaps nobody else will be able to do for Mother and Bronwen and Baba: only don’t let that make you anxious either. All will come well if you keep honest and kind.Upon my word, this sounds like a sermon and I do hate sermons, of which it is not true to say that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is more easy to give a sermon than to receive.

Which is why, perhaps, he decides to close by giving something not every father can give–this sort of evocative, quietly emotional writing:

Do you have time to read now? I only read for ten minutes in bed, Shakespeare’s sonnets, with a pipe which I smoke about a quarter through and then put out the light and forget the flash of guns across the street and the rattle of the windows, everything except the thud of a shell in the marsh behind, but that seems to have stopped now. Goodnight.

Ever your loving

Daddy[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. As printed, but surely "tales" is intended?
  2. War Letters, 144-5.
  3. For Love and Courage, 342-3.
  4. Sapper Martin, 53-4.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 103.
  6. War Diary (Childhood), 172.
  7. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 278-280.
  8. Selected Letters, 151-3.

Henry Williamson Approves German Strategy; Wilfred Owen Imagines a Retreat; Edward Thomas Writes, but Not Through His Hat; Edwin Vaughan Clowns Through His

A day of family letters once again. Henry Williamson seems to have dodged immediate trouble due to his either his drinking or his incompetence (actual and perceived) in managing men, maps, and mules; he hasn’t lost his job, and his Machine Gun Company is now following the German withdrawal. A letter of yesterday, a century back, used his dotted-letters code to indicate that they were in Bapaume. He also reported himself in good spirits, in receipt of no parcels from home, and determined to show that the fighting men knew the German withdrawal for what is was:

The newspapers amuse us here immensely–we read of the Ger being driven back by our chaos–in reality he is walking away of his own free will, as slowly and as fast as he likes to… this burning and ruining & poisoning is not for spite–that’s all rot–its only to hinder us (e.g. no water, therefore greatly increased transport difficulties) as much as possible.

This is true as far as it goes. But it is also a case of young Williamson preferring the contrarian point of view. It is hardly the worst excess of British propaganda to cry up the purposeful devastation of the abandoned areas as cruel. It is cruel. But war is cruel, and this is this war’s first organized retreat, and thus a reintroduction to a particular catalogue of cruelties as old as the Thirty Years War or the Chevauchées which were once a popular English pastime in the region.

But Williamson omits one detail which, although it fits the older models of long-term devastation, can’t be reduced to his argument of purely strategic concerns–i.e. slowing down the British advance in the present days and weeks. As several of our writers have remarked, the Germans have, in at least one area, deliberately destroyed the apple trees, not in order to deny their pursuers firewood or the sight of apple-blossoms, but so as to wreck the cider crop for years to come.

All this is forgotten, in any event, as Williamson’s letter of today, a century back, cheerfully focuses on two positives of the strange new situation. First, the post has at last caught up. Second, it must now fall behind again: the German withdrawal has been so well-managed that they must now be several days on the road in catching up and establishing new positions.

Dear Mother,

I think I received all your letters to date. Last night I received a parcel with some sox, match box, and butter scotch, for which many many thanks.

I have practically nothing to tell you except that I am not in the danger zone–the reason being that the old fellow has hooked it too quickly…

At times I get awfully fed up with this game, when I’m cold & wet, and moving to unknown billets with no accommodation, owing to our friend having struck a few matches to paraffin blocks & hey presto, no village: then its absolutely awful… the rain comes on about 3 times a week & puts everything in about 15 inches of mud.

Well cheero, don’t forget to write a bit, & don’t always write the same letter, your letters are always the same!!! Love to all, Harry.[1]

 

At the opposite end of the scale of subaltern maturity is Edward Thomas, also writing to his middle aged, middle class London/suburban parents.

244 Siege Battery
22 March 1917

Dear Father and Mother,

As things have been happening here lately I had better let you know all is well. I have been out for 24 hours in our new front line trenches—an Artillery officer always has to be there now—observing the ground and reporting flashes of hostile guns at night. It was a very interesting and very tiring experience as I had no shelter and had not been prepared for a night at all. It taught me a good deal about cold and dirt and mud and how the infantry live and also how to tell the sound of shells that are not going to harm you, which saves you from much useless anxiety. To be relieved at breakfast time was a pleasure that overcame everything and to see the town in the sun as I came down into it was most beautiful. I slept 16 hours after a wash and a meal and now I am on duty again. The one thing I could have had and did not was my map case to protect my map from rain and mud . . .

We do not know enough yet about the recent movements to be elated… I am sure you are Hopeful, Father, and I can only say I am willing to believe the best when I hear it.

Interestingly, the ever-open question of what, exactly, one can believe of what one reads in wartime newspapers now takes a personal turn as Edward Thomas picks up on what must have been a mention in a letter to him of the war correspondent William Beach Thomas. Beach Thomas, arrested in 1914 by the British Army for reporting from the war zone without permission, was briefly something of a hero of the free press. But lately he is a writer–with official access, controlled by the Army–popular on the home front but much mocked among the troops for his purple prose and lack of real knowledge of front line conditions.

Our Thomas comments:

I have been reading Beach Thomas on the ruins of Peronne, etc. I am very glad it is not my job and at the same time sure I could do it infinitely better. Julian is probably right in saying that he gets his stuff supplied to him and writes through his hat. It is a pleasure not to have to write through one’s hat.

This is a dry remark, yes, but it is also a quiet reaffirmation–just after his first real day under fire in trenches, no less–of the decisions that have brought Thomas to where he is. He could easily have been a war journalist, but then he would not have really experienced the war. More precisely, he would not have shared its experience–the danger not least but then again not all. But his refusal to ever consider looking for work in that line is also motivated from the opposite direction in terms of his personal history (the past rather than the future): he has written hack work, thousands of words, hundreds of times, and quickly, to the specifications of others. He sought to leave that behind when he began to write poetry, and the resulting need for cash was not least in his motivations for joining the army. He might have wanted the mud and rain and danger anyway, the feeling of fellowship on behalf of English earth, in French earth–but at the very least being a fighting soldier saved him from the irony of returning to paying writing work on such terms.

Instead, he can see for himself, and write of it as he chooses. So this phrase is worth more than a thick binder of Beach Thomas-style paeans to Tommy:

The infantry in the trenches were very amusing company and the way they settle down and make the best of an impossible situation is just as wonderful as I have always heard…

Good bye and my love to all.

Ever your loving son

Edwy[2]

 

Thomas also wrote to Eleanor Farjeon, today, a century back. The letter covers much of the same ground, as it were, but then again the differences in emphasis are telling:

March 22

My dear Eleanor,

…It was most interesting and amusing as well as infinitely tiring—I had to stand up in mud, wet and cold all night watching hostile flashes and listening to shells which I have learnt not to worry about when they are going over and not coming to me or near. The time hasn’t come for field postcards yet. We are still at the edge of the town and have no definite news when or where we move. So I am still in the orchard. The old Frenchwoman probably left it to live in a safe cellar at the edge of the town. This place hasn’t a safe cellar. Also I suppose a battery coming here made it unfit for her to stay. You have heard now that I collared that F and M parcel. I did not get any stomach-ache from it. The muscatels and almonds are just the things for my 24 hours in an observation post…

You know that village I told you about, the ghastly place, well it is just near there that I observe. I shall be sleeping in it soon, I expect. The Hun fires into it all night. When I was in the front trench, all night long his shell came whistling over to roost in — like flights of birds.

You have often heard of the mud out here, haven’t you? Well, I have been in it. It is what you have heard. You nearly pull your leg off, and often your boot off, at each step in the worst places—the stiff soft clay sucks round the boot at each step. The telephone wires are deep in this and have to be repaired in the dark. Imagine it. Now I have to go. Goodbye.

Yours ever,
Edward Thomas[3]

 

Wilfred Owen, still recovering from a fall and subsequent concussion, has rather more time on his hands. Writing to his sister Mary, he is in a pleasantly discursive mood–and he admits to an interestingly fanciful hobby.

Wednesday Mng. 22 March
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mary,

I am now really quite well, but am not getting up yet, as it is snowing and I couldn’t go out if I did dress. But we sit round the stove in Kimonos, padded with cotton, very pleasant wear. We are now about ten in the ward. One is an old Artist Rifle, but I never knew him, nor ever want to. They are none of them interesting, from any point of view
whatever.

I amuse myself with drawing plans for Country Houses and Bungalows, especially Bungalows. I worked my wits all day on one, and, within the prescribed limits, it is about perfect, for the intended occupant—solitary me.

Yesterday we saw that Owen was concerned to go back to his own battalion and not face the social dislocation of consignment to a replacement depot. Which is all very practical–yet he is still a loner at heart, at least in poetic fantasy.

You see I am thinking of sitting down under my own vine and living for use, some day, and a concrete presentment of the Vine should be incentive.

This passage rather winded me, yea wounded me. Mistress Browning:

Many fervent souls
Strike rhyme on rhyme, who would strike steel on steel.
If steel had offered, in a restless heat
Of doing something. Many tender hearts
Have strung their losses on a rhyming thread.
As children, cowslips. The more pains they take.
The work more withers. Young men, ay and maids.
Too often sow their wild oats in tame verse.
Before they sit down under their own vine.
And live for use.

Alas, near all the birds.
Will sing at dawn, and yet we do not take
The chaffering swallow for the holy lark.

Or words to that effect.
Adieu, sweet sister.

Your ever loving W.E.O.[4]

Even when these guys quote bits of poetry–this is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh–they find their way to a lark. But it’s fascinating to see Wilfred Owen, as yet a lonely soul, planning a poetic retreat for àpres-la-guerre–even if he can’t exactly afford it, and must occupy it alone. Hardship and deprivation have a way of focusing the future-fantastic urge…

 

We’ll close today with two unaccustomed things, at least as far as Edwin Vaughan‘s diary goes: camaraderie and frivolity.

We were all sent along to QM stores to draw a new kind of gas helmet. A rubber face piece with a tube leading to a canister of chemicals; the whole installed in a square satchel to be carried on the chest. The troops are quite annoyed at having ‘another bleedin’ present for the Christmas tree’. We of HQ have also been dished out with new tin hats fitted with a rail and hanging chain mesh to protect the eyes. We spent the afternoon putting on the gas-masks to make animal noises at each other, and saluting to make the helmets clank.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 101-3.
  2. Selected Letters, 150-1.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 256-7.
  4. Collected Letters, 445.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 63.

Edward Hermon’s Cozy Hut; Siegfried Sassoon’s Brain Grows Sluggish; Wilfred Owen is Like a Starving Jaguar; Edward Thomas on the Beauty of Ruins; Vera Brittain Doubts the Papers

Today will feature a profusion of short letters, but we’ll start with our uxorious battalion commander Robert (Edward) Hermon, writing his nearly daily letter to his wife. At least four of our regular contributors make ironic reference to the weather on this first day of spring, but Hermon gets the gig, as only he includes a charming sketch of a Nissen hut–another reminder that 1917 might look to some of us more like 1944 than 1915.

Spring commences, so I see in my diary. Result, biting wind & snow showers punctuated, however, by bright sun…

The old Hun still retreats south of Arras but remains where he was to the north of the town… He is an old beast as I hear he has gone so far as to hack down even the fruit trees in the gardens in Péronne & leave them lying on the ground. Pure wanton destruction. Didn’t even want them for firewood.

Our huts are called ‘Nissen…'[1]

 

 

Hermon’s gentle irony and firm disapproval of the war meld in Siegfried Sassoon‘s mood into a petulant sarcasm. He is not yet happy in the Second Battalion, and evidently taking advantage of their turn in reserve to escape as often as possible.

Eight days passed in this place, without event except changes of weather… This afternoon I’m off to Amiens for a night…

News of ‘Fall’ of Péronne and other places seems to ‘fall’ rather flat. My brain is steadily getting more sluggish as my body grows healthier with air and exercise. Life is reduced to a series of efforts to keep clean, warm, well-nourished and dry.[2]

 

Which, one might point out, is easier at the Hôtel de la Poste than in a trench–or even a Casualty Clearing Station. Wilfred Owen, who has yet to have Sassoon’s chance at forming firm wartime friendships (and then elevating the most intense of those relationships to high Romantic companionship), is wisely concerned to recover from his concussion before he is sent further back, and thus eventually into the general pool of replacement officers liable for reassignment to a new battalion. But he is not so low that he doesn’t worry about his essential supplies…

21 March, 13th Casualty Clearing Station

My dearest Mother,

I am getting up today, and perhaps by the time you receive this I shall be starting back to overtake my Battalion, if it is not chasing along too fast…

I am not moving down to a Base—fortunately, perhaps, because anyone going further back than here becomes detached from his battalion, and is returned somewhere else.

There is no proper village here, and I am miserably in want of Books, not to say Letters. It is not worth writing to the Battalion, which for all I know may be openly warfaring, or perhaps is now already clean wiped out.

One of the sisters brought me some novels, about as palatable as warm water to a starving jaguar…

A good line. Serious readers, these boys. But I break in also to call attention to an odd, oblique sort of crossing of paths.

I suppose you did not see Bernard Shaw’s accounts of his visit to the front, appearing in the Glasgow Herald. He says he put black things like collar-studs into his ears. So very like collar-studs that I have been using mine as such for some time!

Shaw is writing (in the Glasgow Herald of March 5th, 1917) about the tour upon which he was conducted by C.E. Montague, the privately disenchanted fire-eater of the press-minding corps….

In my next parcel I should like some Harrison’s Pomade & some more Paraffin.

Fondest Love, Wilfred x[3]

 

Meanwhile Edward Thomas, erstwhile (unknown) fellow Artists’ Rifles cadet of Owen’s, is moving backward rather than forward: his battery has completed its first regular tour in what for them counts as the front line. In the artillery, remember, only the forward observers share the discomfort and regular danger of the front line troops, while the guns are thousands of yards behind. But any battery that is close enough to engage the enemy is close enough to be engaged in return, and counter-battery bombardments can happen at any time, so the strain of being in the firing line is considerable.

This, however, Thomas does not dwell on. Instead, as so often, his diary moves quickly from notes on his movement and state of mind to what seem to be notes for possible future elaboration. The sights of No Man’s Land, the irresistible larks, and the strange beauty of destruction… Thomas professes in some of his letters to have no plans to write about all this, yet he can’t help but note what he sees. And is not the reversal of ordinary word order a sure sign of a poetic frame of mind?

At last 260 relieved us. Great pleasure to be going back to sleep and rest. No Man’s Land like Goodwood Racecourse with engineers swarming over it and making a road between shell holes full of blood-stained water and beer bottles among barbed wire. Larks singing as they did when we went up in dark and were shelled. Now I hardly felt as if a shell could hurt… Beautiful was Arras… coming down from Beaurains and seeing Town Hall ruin white in sun like a thick smoke beginning to curl…[4]

 

Finally, we go far away to Malta, where Vera Brittain writes to her brother Edward. She is gaining experience, and has reached an amusing (ah, the obnoxiousness of historical irony) middle ground: she has not yet learned to distrust the newspapers completely, but she is too clever by half not to notice what is missing from their accounts of a sudden surge forward on the Western Front…

Malta, 21 March 1917

I am not any longer in the surgical block I told you about as I have been put on night duty for a month, & have gone to the eye & malaria block where I first started life at this hospital….. I have to go round every four hours doing eyes, which keeps me quite wakeful. At first I felt horribly responsible at being in sole charge of so many people, but now I have got used to it, especially as none of them are really very ill.The first night I was on there was terrific wind & thunder & lightning all night. It was most eerie going round in a blustering darkness with a hurricane lamp which occasionally blew out, with thunder crashing around. . .

We have just heard of the taking of Bapaume & Peronne–surely a great triumph. . . . From all accounts there don’t seem many casualties, or even to have been much of a fight. One can hardly believe it possible after the sanguinary struggles for a few yards; it almost seems as if there must be some ruse at the back of it on the part of the enemy…

One hesitates, after so often having seen our national optimism weighed in the balance & found wanting, to accept the favourable interpretations of these events which one finds expressed in some of the papers. What is the meaning of it all, do you think?[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 340.
  2. Diaries, 144.
  3. Collected Letters, 444-5.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 171.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 325-6.

Edward Thomas in the Forward Trenches; Robert Graves in the Groves of Academe; Kate Luard Prepares for the Battle

Edward Thomas began his day at 4 AM–a day to be spent as a forward observer during the dangerous business of reestablishing a British line during the German withdrawal. It is his most difficult day of combat so far, by a long shot:

Stiff deep mud all the way up and shelled as we started. Telegraph Hill as quiet as if only rabbits lived there. I took revolver and left this diary behind in case. For it is very exposed and only a few Cornwalls and M.G.C. about. But Hun shelled chiefly over our heads into Beaurains all night–like starlings returning 20 or 30 a minute. Horrible flap of 5.9 a little along the trench. Rain and mud… Had not brought warm clothes or enough food and no shelter, nor had telephonists. Shelled all night But the M.G.C. boy gave me tea. I’ve no bed. I leant against the wall of trench. I got up and looked over. I stamped up and down. I tried to see patrol out. Very light–the only sign of Hun on Telegraph Hill, though 2 appeared and were sniped at. A terribly long night and cold…[1]

Henry Williamson is quite a few miles to the south, otherwise it would be pleasant to imagine that the Machine Gun Company officer who gave Thomas tea was the very same callow–but bird-watching–youth… More important is what Thomas reports and does not report in his diary. He has observed, to his quiet satisfaction, that he is brave under fire, and this significant fact no longer merits mentioning. Still, the German 5.9 makes a “horrible” noise, and the description of a bombardment as “like starlings” means much coming from someone so precise in his descriptions of nature.

But in terms of Thomas’s experience the thing that stands out is his unfamiliarity with the sheer unpleasantness of front-line life. Cold in a house is one thing, but cold in a trench is another entirely, and he will not be the first brave man to discover that he hates the miserable discomfort more than the constant possibility of being killed or wounded. And what good his observation might have been without a telephone–he doesn’t mention any other form of communication with the battery–is hard to tell; but there is no complaint about the pointlessness of his task, either…

 

Robert Graves had only been back out on the front lines a few weeks when he once again went sick. He had the good fortune to be shipped directly from the front line to Oxford, where he recovered from bronchitis in Somerville College–once Vera Brittain‘s promised land, now a hospital. There he, too, spent time with Siegfried Sassoon‘s pacifist pal Lady Ottoline Morrell, and was encouraged by the reception of his recent poems, Goliath and David. There were lots of literary folk, and he fit in rather better than he ever will in the army; Oxford, was nicer than war.

Mood swings have always been a part of Graves’s makeup, but after the various traumas of last summer they will now be a much more pronounced part–he seems to have given his family a hard time during this short sojourn near London. But today, a century back, he was “rather low in spirits,” and for good reason: he is cured of his bronchitis but, with his perforated lungs, unlikely to be sent back to the trenches. Instead, Graves was ordered to proceed to Liverpool and Litherland Camp, headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers. He took the train, arriving this afternoon to discover that the C.O. of the depot had planned for him to stay there and edit the battalion newspaper. Graves, despite his nearly unblemished record of driving his superiors to distraction was, somehow, able to convince the C.O. to reassign him to cadet training at Oxford. He hopped right back on the train, already planning his convalescent leave in Wales.[2]

 

So Graves will miss the spring offensive, but tens of thousands of others are for it. Kate Luard is an old hand, and worried about what the preparations portend…

Tuesday, March 20th. Orders came this morning to be ready to take in large numbers of wounded at short notice, and guns are busy again… 1000’s of lbs. of dressings are stocked, but they soon run out…

Our official strength is 7 Sisters–far too few for any battle, but that will become obvious.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 171.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 102-3.

Will Harvey’s Great Escape Postponed; Henry Williamson Moves on Up; Henry Vaughan’s Witness to Vandalism… and Gothic Imagination; C.E. Montague Reflects Before a Fire

Back on August 17th, Will Harvey decided it would be a good idea to go out and patrol no man’s land alone. He stumbled into a German post, was captured and eventually taken to Gütersloh Camp, in Westphalia. By the time he got there the tunneling had already begun, and his first book of poems–A Gloucestershire Lad–had been published. (His best friend, Ivor Gurney, mourned him, then rejoiced to hear that he was alive, and in any case continued to write about Harvey often.)

For months now, Harvey has been taking his turns in the tunnel and on lookout duty above, using coded whistles or songs to warn when German guards are about. The months dragged by… until yesterday, a century back, when the British contingent in the multi-national P.O.W. camp learned that they were about to be transferred. A night and day of feverish digging brought the tunnel out under the wire–and right beneath the beat of the German sentry. In a hurried meeting it was decided that, rather than making a dash out of the still-too-short tunnel and hoping for the best, it should be left concealed in place, in the hopes that the barracks’ next inmates–Russian P.O.W.s, in all probability–could continue the work. Today, a century back, Will Harvey, his captivity stretching into a ninth month and his book into its 4th printing, was transferred to Crefeld Camp.[1]

 

Meanwhile, Henry Williamson continues to advance into what was recently the German rear–and to keep his mother well informed of his whereabouts.

Dear mother Cherie,

This awkward phrasing is actually one of his more graceful turns of code-phrase. The letters “ACHIET” are marked out, four of them occurring in sequence in “cherie.”

We have not heard from anyone for about a week–heavens knows where the post goes to nowadays. I have had only about 5 letters from you to date–I wish you would date your letters.

Well I suppose all you in England at the time are rejoicing over the ‘fall’ of Bapaume–but it’s rather a funny business after all. I believe personally that the Bosche has done a very clever and good thing for himself–he is falling back…

So Williamson is back to considering the withdrawal a strategic benefit for Germany rather than a boon to the British, but only a few lines after pointing out that the news of cavalry in action is nothing but the false dawn of open warfare, merely a temporary screen as the British reestablish contact with their foe, he switches course again, implying that it may be a breakthrough after all: “only WAIT a bit and see.”

On the matter of parcels Williamson is more steadfast:

What I should like would be toffee, nice chocolates… a pair of pyjamas, and a cake or so…[2]

 

Edwin Vaughan has what we might call an active imagination, a knack both for finding terror in the quiet corners of trench life and for telling a tale the brings across the shivering horror he experienced. His account of yesterday, a century back–when his battalion advanced into the vacated German rear and took up residence among the booby-trapped dugouts near Péronne–is many pages long, and well worth dipping into.

It was a bright clear morning, and the country looked beautiful as I set off across the open fields…

The gently undulating fields were very little shelled, and the fresh grass was only spoiled here and there by a circular mud-rimmed hole. But each field was liberally besprinkled with graves, in which we took morbid interest. Not one of them had been dug to any depth, and in each case some portion of the corpse protruded–from one a bleached and polished skull, from another a rotted puttee and boot, from another the ammunition pouches. In several cases they had only been covered with a few inches of wet earth which now was caked and hard, giving the appearance of mummies, except where the burrowing rats had broken away the mud and displayed a patch of blue tunic.

There were a few unburied bodies about and I had much difficulty in getting Sissman past them–he wanted to stop and examine each for wounds and souvenirs… I’m afraid we progressed very slowly…

The afternoon becomes a different sort of macabre when Vaughan and a small party, now led by his company commander, Billy Kentish, stumbled up along a muddy canal road looking for their new billets. When Kentish, who foolishly brought his horse (a famous perquisite of company commanders, even in the infantry) on the journey, disappears after repeatedly foundering in difficult places. When he reappears without the muddy, stumbling beast, Vaughan suspects the worst. Eventually they arrive in Halle, where another company of their battalion is now in residence. On the walls of the house taken as HQ,

the playful Hun had left many sketches and ironic messages. Two that we saw were ‘Great British Advance. Many villages taken’ and ‘Haig takes Halle, 4,000 Germans captured–official.’

But their march continues until they reach Péronne, in which a major fire is burning–this was a day after Charles Carrington had entered the town–much of the historical center, including the old library and church, have been consumed.

During all this march I was very nervous. I had heard so many stories of booby-traps and delayed mines that I was terrified by the sight of any old oil drum or coil of wire, and at every cross-roads expected to find myself sailing up into the black sky. Nothing of the sort happened, however…

Instead, Vaughan and his fellow company officers take up residence in a partitioned cellar, and one by one fell asleep, while he listens to the drip of rain and smelled “a filthy smell of decaying vegetable matter.” Before long, Vaughan begins to hear “the tick-tock of a fuse.”

Here–although I suspect that this part of the diary was extensively rewritten after the fact–Vaughan is charmingly open about his failures of courage:

This grew louder and louder until I could stand it no longer, and by coughing loudly and banging the bed, I woke Kentish.

He sat up grumpily, rubbing his eyes. ‘What was that blasted row?’

‘Which one?’ I said guiltily. ‘There’s lots going on.’

He listened for a moment and then lay down again growling. But I didn’t intend to let him sleep. ‘Did you hear about the booby-traps in the Boche lines?’

‘Um!’

‘You know Sullivan found several in Halle?’–no answer.

‘How long do they usually delay before exploding?’–silence. I paused a bit and then asked timorously, ‘I say, Billy, can you hear a curious ticking?’

He pulled the coat from off his head and said ‘You bloody fool,’ and snuggled down again.

I was hurt by that, for I felt that nobody cared if I was blown up, so I resolved myself to die like a martyr and then when we met in the afterworld I could say to Kentish ‘I told you so!’ The consideration of this possibility rather cheered me, and casting aside my fears I fell asleep.

This brings us, more or less, into today, a century back.

I do not know how long I slept, but it must have been a couple of hours. I dreamt that I was lying there asleep, all being horribly quiet except for the drop of water and the wind. Suddenly through the rain and darkness appeared a huge figure stealing across the courtyard to the grating above me. he was muffled up in a great grey coat and spiked helmet. I struggled to wake Kentish and to shout, but I was powerless. I saw him take a bomb from under his coat, a smoking bomb, and slip it into the chimney. With a frantic struggle I overcame my paralysis and sat up shouting as a metallic sliding sound came from the chimney. Waiting for the explosion, I sat staring into the darkness with that apathy that comes when fear has passed its bounds.

But nothing more happened. Kentish slumbered on…

The night continues in a proto-Lovecraftian vein, and, appropriately enough, perhaps, in the morning we get our second sight of one of the weird masterpieces of nihilistic German humor:

Near the centre of the square, an iron paling surrounded a stone pedestal, from which the statue had been removed. I walked over to it, wondering what statue had been there, then I stopped–sickened by the sight of a body impaled on the iron spike. In a Frenchman’s blue uniform, gaily bedecked with ribbons, he hung with arms extended along the railing, his head hanging down on to his bright-buttoned chest, and his legs dangling.

Sick with horror but impelled by curiosity I went nearer, and saw some straw sticking out at the knee. Then I peered into the face–a black grinning mask–and saw that it was a realistic dummy. Nevertheless, in the eerie half-light, with the flicker of flames on that scene of devastation, it was a gruesome spectacle…

The German notice board on the ruins of the Peronne town hall

There is, as a matter of fact, direct photographic evidence of this particular act of desecration, available here.

And the next bit–already familiar to us from Carrington’s account, can be seen at the right:

Reapproaching the town hall I saw, fastened to its side wall, an enormous blue notice board–‘Nicht ärgern nur wundern!’–‘Do not be angry, only be surprised’. This in letters a foot deep.

 

Is it surprising, then, to find that Vaughan will not be sleeping well tonight, either? They are bedding down, now, in a quarry in what, for the moment, is the British reserve line.

…I was keen to know what cover we should take in case of shelling. He [Billy Kentish] answered abruptly, ‘There isn’t any cover,’ and blew his candle out…

‘Was that ours or theirs?’ I asked.

‘Ours now!’ And there was an impatient turn and snuggle.

Another thud! ‘How far away was that?’ No answer. It made me worse to think that he was going to sleep to leave me to face the danger alone. So I asked him: ‘I say, if a shell got us, would it hit the top of the quarry first, or drop straight in?’

At that he sat up in bed. ‘You are a windy young b—– Vaughan! You’ve got to chance it wherever you are, so for God’s sake shut up and go to sleep.’

I did shut up, but though thoroughly ashamed, I was still windy… At last, however, the lack of sleep on the previous night did its work and I slept peacefully…[3]

 

C.E. Montague may be the temperamental opposite of Edwin Vaughan: Montague is a fearless, practical, politic, hard-driving, modest rationalist… which does not mean he is not subject to melancholy. He had wanted–despite his age, his obvious fitness for an officer’s job, and his journalistic skills–to be an ordinary soldier in the trenches. But his age and his health–he turned 50 on New Year’s Day, and had proved too susceptible to infection–led to his being kicked upstairs to the dubious duty of greasing the wheels of the propaganda machine from a chateau well behind the lines.

That he’s an officer now, and can, at least, scare the daylights our of his touring V.I.P.s by bringing them too close to the line, sometimes seems like small consolation. A rare excerpt from his diary of today gives us some insight into how a reflective soul and a sharp mind near both the sinews of the army’s power and the engine of its self-misrepresentation feels about the German withdrawal:

Chateau de Rollencourt, 10.15 p .m., March 19, 1917

A year ago to-day I marched away from the front with my battalion, soon to leave it.

To-night I sit in an oil-lamp-lit room in a chateau, of 1770 perhaps. A log fire burns brightly in a big open, fenderless hearth, with little noises of hissing and crackling in the damp wood and the dry.

Outside an equinoctial gale is pressing on the house and whining and sniffing.

From the line E. of Arras-Nesle comes news at short intervals of further German retirements, of villages blazing in the Eastern sky at night, of cavalry entering empty villages, of aeroplanes bringing back word of the cavalry’s progress.

The big room is dark outside the zones of fire-light and lamp-light.

Five minutes ago the motor-cyclist despatch-rider came from G.H.Q. with our letters and to-day’s London papers. In a few minutes he will go into the night silence again, with my letter to M. and the other letters. Now and then a train can be heard on the railway to Arras, 300 yards off, doubled this winter for our advance, which the German retreat must be intended to baffle.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, Soldier, Poet, 125-59.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 99-100.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 53-62.
  4. Elton, C.E. Montague, 156-7.

Edward Thomas: To Imagine England is… Impossible; A Birthday Headache for Wilfred Owen; Why, There Goes Kate Luard, Out for a Promenade!

Edward Thomas‘s letter to his wife Helen picks up today after fading out last night, a century back.

Now I am back (Sunday the 18th) from the O.P., dirty and tired… But here’s your letter and Eleanor’s parcel. Alas! the letter you wrote at Hatch never came. So I have lost at least one in this blank week.

Well, it has been a pleasant 24 hours. One of the pretty things was to drive over an old green track running straight across No Man’s Land and of course ending altogether in the trenches.

Another pretty thing is the blue silent clear water of parts of the citadel moat, fed from chalk streams, but full of skeletons of small trees–some parts of the moat are osier and ‘palm’ (sallow) and there the water is stagnant and muddy. You walk alongside under enormous old ramparts of earth faced with stone and brick. There are trees, 70 or 80 years old, growing in the moat and just reaching the top. Well, what if there are? My dearest, if it weren’t for these things I shouldn’t be really alive. Actually now I hear a lark singing above the street as well as slops splashing out. And you must not convince yourself you are merely waiting, you know. You must have often been content or happy at Ivy’s if you can think of it, and however well life goes in war or peace, one doesn’t get more than that, when you come to think of it, though of course I know you want more, and so do I…

I wonder when Easter is. I thought of Easter when yesterday was so warm…

Goodbye. Harry’s idiotic remarks were about leave; where as I told you there is no leave at all in this Army except sick leave. I don’t want leave. I would rather stay out till they don’t want me any more. I couldn’t bear to come home and return here.

Goodbye. I hope all goes well.

There are few more difficult (or more intrusive) tasks for the literary commentator than trying to see inside of a marriage–a relationship millions of words deep–through a few tired words committed to paper in one moment. But if his stark preference against leave–surely in part a forceful puncturing of any unrealistic hope that he might get leave before the coming battle–seems cruel, there is gentleness and love again in the signature. It feels more than pro forma to write

All and always yours

Edwy[1]

And to Eleanor Farjeon:

March 18

My dear Eleanor, Your parcel has come and the Hun has retired. Those are the latest things. The stupid F and M directed the parcel to me as R.F.A. so of course the Army wouldn’t hear of it, but apparently G for F did the trick.

That would be Fortnum and Mason, Royal Field Artillery, and Royal Garrison Artillery…

And it brought a letter too, which of course was what I liked best, even tho I had one the day before yesterday. Oh, and I found the one I thought I had lost. The Hun has gone back though, which of course is not really good or bad news, but pleases me because we shan’t fight the battle in a city. I dreaded that. And now I shall be in a dug-out near that ghastly village over there that I told you of

But as I say it’s a lovely day—I have at last got my old artist boots and am perfectly comfortable for the first time out here—and I have done 2 shoots and am due for a few idle hours. Now the larks shall have No Man’s Land and the pairs of magpies no longer run any risk—they didn’t know they did before. And the bat can go to sleep again in his shed till it is settled spring.

I am so glad about your cottage and garden. They sound just the perfection of what I am keeping entirely out of my mind now. It is easier to imagine our orchard restored to its orchardliness; for we shall certainly leave it and go up closer. To imagine England is as impossible as to eat your parcel on March 3…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[2]

These are, on the whole, upbeat letters; brave faces. And I will only undermine them the slightest bit with this quotation from his diary for today, a century back:

I could hear a lark till the Archies drowned it. Fired 600 rounds and got tired eyes and ears.[3]

 

Our second of three dispatches, today, a century back, is Wilfred Owen‘s tale of his tumble. Or, rather, the tale of its concussive aftermath:

My dearest Mother,

I am in a hospital bed, (for the first time in life…)

After falling into that hole (which I believe was a shell-hole in a floor, laying open a deep cellar) I felt nothing more than a headache, for 3 days; and went up to the front in the usual way—or nearly the usual way, for I felt too weak to wrestle with the mud, and sneaked along the top, snapping my fingers at a clumsy sniper. When I got back I developed a high fever, vomited strenuously, and long, and was seized with muscular pains. The night before last I was sent to a shanty a bit further back, & yesterday motored on to this Field Hospital, called Casualty Clearing Station  It is nowhere in particular that I know…

It is in the hamlet of Le Quesnoy-en-Santerre, as a footnote informs us.

…but I may be evacuated to Amiens, if my case lasts long enough. For I began to get right again immediately after getting into these sheets ‘that soon smooth away trouble.’ The physician handed me over to the surgeon. But my head is not broken or even cut in any way. My temperature etc. may not have had any relation to the knock, and the first doctor said he only hoped it had. Anyhow it was normal yesterday…

And then a snide comment about the nurses:

Sometimes a Sister blows in to this ward, and flutes a bit on a high voice, or pegs around on a high heel, but we are really attended by orderlies, who are fresh & clean, and much preferable, being not only serener and sensibler, but also private soldiers with no airs of authority about ’em. Rather the other way.

All my kit and belongings have come down with me, including 55 francs, much mud, and Pte. Heath.

Alas! I’ve had no letter for about 5 days…

…ever, Wilfred x[4]

Further evidence of Owen’s concussion is that he couldn’t remember the date–which was, in fact, his twenty-fourth birthday… I’m worried about whether the chocolates he specifically didn’t ask for may be lost now that he is away from his battalion…

 

And finally, today, a welcome calm before the storm. Kate Luard, has been very busy preparing her new CCS for the coming battle. But she is always one for a ramble–she likes the walks, the fresh air, the flowers, the interactions with the French peasants, and the semblance of grand-touristical normality–especially when that can be stretched to include her curiosity about mighty examples of ordnance. And Sister Luard is not entirely without vanity–it is good to be recognized as one of the few women skilled, persistent, and courageous enough to brave all the barriers that are meant to keep the fairer sex far from the fighting men.

Sunday, March 18th, We worked all the morning and all knocked off at lunch to-day as it was a dazzling day… It seemed a good chance to do some exploring if we’re going to be busy, so G. and R. and I armed ourselves with our identity discs and gas-helmets, and my field glasses and a map and some chocolate and biscuits (as S. and I used to do at Barlin), and set off East. We went through three villages, all packed with men doing the four days in and four days out of the trenches, and at the third village, we asked a woman if she could give us some coffee. She did, with zeal, and refused to be paid, and then came a stroke of luck I’ve been looking for all through this War. I asked her if there were any ‘Grandmothers’ about. ‘Yes,’ said little Louise of 13 eagerly, ‘there is one,’ and she took us to it. There was the painted monster with a team of R.M.A.[5] and a R.M.A. officer, who was most kind and introduced us to his little pet, with the enormous shells in a row alongside.

He told us the Germans had gone back 5 miles in the night… [and] said the cavalry were out now.

The village had been shelled until up to yesterday. We were in the region where you hear the men say after you’ve passed, ‘Why, they’re English!'[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters to Helen, 84-7. ivy is Ivy Ransome, a friend of the family (and wife of the writer Arthur Ransome) who seems to have been invaluable as Helen struggled with Edward's absence.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas...255-6.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 171.
  4. Collected Letters, 443.
  5. Royal Marine Artillery, to complete today's set.
  6. Unknown Warriors, 101.

Edward Thomas Can’t Stay to Tea; Kate Luard Plates her Moss; Bob Hermon Admires the New Knights; Covering the Retreat with Rudyard Kipling and Charles Carrington; St. Patrick’s Day in France and Revolution in England

The bad nights are spreading, a century back. From the Somme north to Arras, where Edward Thomas is roiled by nightmares.

A horrible night of bombardment, and the only time I slept I dreamt I was at home and couldn’t stay to tea… Then the most glorious bright high clear morning… A beautiful day, sunny with pale cloudless sky and W. wind, but cold in O.P. Clear nightfall with curled, cinerous cloud and then a cloudless night with pale stains in sky over where Bosh is burning a village or something…[1]

 

No, that’s not right–nightmares aren’t the real story. Most of our hardy souls are doing what they can to treat late winter as if it might be early spring. Kate Luard likes nothing better than wildflowers (especially if she can take a long walk and gather them herself), but an experienced Nursing Sister makes do.

Saturday, March 17th, and no sign of any buds out anywhere in these parts. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin…[2]

 

No, no, that’s not quite right either. Actually, many of our writers who are not yet engaged in combat are able to appreciate all that is traditional and right with the war. No need for winter or spring when chivalry abides! Any guesses whom Bob Hermon has just laid eyes on?

There’s been some wonderful air fights here today. There is a Hun who flies a bright scarlet machine & is real hot stuff. He seems to be a sort of star flyer & does most of the fighting. He is a real gallant fellow & we all admire him.[3]

The Red Baron himself.

 

But there is, of course, a ground war on. One of the reasons that Richtofen has been released to roam is that the German aircraft are getting their first crack at what will become a crucial task of tactical air power: covering the movement of infantry. Let’s step back two days (and south to the Somme) to see how the Guards are getting on with following up the German withdrawal:

Captain Alexander took our two forward companies… the German shelling was intense. They used 5.9’s and larger, as they were firing from a long way back. The trouble for the 2nd Irish Guards companies developed almost at once on their left, where their patrol was fired at by machine-guns from a German trench on the edge of the wood. Their own 1st Battalion, trying to push out of Sailly-Saillisel, was hung up, too — they heard and saw it — for the same reason. The Division could have driven through at the cost of fairly heavy casualties, but nothing was to be gained by wasting men in rushes on hidden machine-guns that can lay out thirty good lives in two minutes. The Scots Guards got on into the wood without much trouble at first, till they, too, ran on snipers between tree-stumps and up and down the defaced trenches, or opened some single machine-gun slinking from cover to cover. It was all slow “feeling,” with alternating advances at walking pace, and long checks — “something like drawing a gorse for wolves instead of foxes…”

As they worked their way more into St. Pierre Vaast Wood came the sensation, which there was no mistaking, that they were being played with by the Hun, and losing touch as he intended them to do. Certain vital trenches would be controlled by a few snipers and machine-guns; a sunk road offering shelter would be plastered with heavies, and a full company would be held in it, digging for more cover, by dead accurate long-range fire; while far and far behind the orderly German withdrawal of the main body continued in peace.

On the 17th March, for example, “we were never really in touch with the enemy’s rear-guard during the day except for one or two snipers…”

Which brings this narrative-of-a-period to today. But a little analysis of the general effectiveness of the German withdrawal is worth our while, too:

Here is the comment of the time and the place on our advance: “The German retreat was conducted very skilfully. One cannot say that we caused them to leave one position an hour before they intended. They inflicted upon us a considerable number of casualties (twenty in this battalion, while on our left the 1st Battalion lost considerably more). On the other hand, we saw no evidence that in the actual retirement we had even damaged one German. They left little or nothing behind.”

And the professional judgment is equally fair. “But of course it must be remembered that the task of the (German) regimental officers was an easy one, however difficult it may have been for the Staff. Given time, there is no difficulty in withdrawing battalions from trenches by night, for a few snipers and machine-gunners, knowing the ground, and retreating from trench to trench, can hang up an advance indefinitely unless the troops advancing have strong reserves and are prepared for heavy losses.”

This last was not our situation… things had to be done as cheaply as possible…

We are generally in sure hands when Rudyard Kipling takes up the military narrative–this is a work of memorial devotion, remember, and he suppresses his polemical opinions unless he feels that they are an echo of the those of the officer corps he is writing about. But we are in excellent hands when the worst of the war must be invoked on the scale of the battalion history–neither pointillistically subordinated to a grand narrative nor awash in the subjectivities of the personal.

The advance of the Second Irish Guards

…led them into a stale hell which had once been soil of France but was now beyond grace, hope, or redemption. Most of the larger trees in St. Pierre Vaast were cut down, and the smaller ones split by shell or tooth-brushed by machine-gun fire. The ground was bog, studded with a few island-like formations of fire-trench, unrevetted, unboarded, with little dug-outs ten or twelve feet deep, all wet and filthy. There were no regular latrines. Numberless steel helmets and heaps of stick-bombs lay about under foot. The garrisons must have been deadly uncomfortable, and there was good evidence that the enemy had economised men beyond anything that we dared. The ground had been cut to bits by our fire, and in one place yawned what had been a battery position wiped out, unseeing and unseen, weeks ago, as the dead teams round it testified. Very few booby-traps were left behind. The Battalion lost only five men in all through this cause.[4]

 

After several nights in No Man’s Land as patrols pushed into the old German lines, Charles Carrington too learned, today, how successful the German withdrawal had been:

This time, the morning of the 17th March, they really had gone. My captain went forward for orders and presently sent me back word to bring the company over the top, by daylight… to the German front line.

I cannot explain the consternation caused by this order. For two years no one had raised a hand over the parapet by daylight unless in the stress of battle and covered by an artillery barrage. Tired as we were… we were exhilarated. Open fighting had come…

It had not, of course, but Carrington remembers the high mood of the next few days as they pursued the Germans east toward the new line of defenses–which the British officers all knew of, of course, even if they could not realize its strength. There was the thrill of moving and of seeing cavalry units trotting about over open country. But this was not a victory:

The main German forces had gone when we moved forward, having burnt every house, blown up every church, public building and ancient monument, broken every bridge and culvert, mined every crossroads, polluted every well. They had carried away all the able-bodied men and women into captivity, leaving the old and feeble concentrated in one or two villages; and–which seemed to distress the French most–they had even found time to ring-bark the apple-trees in the cider orchards. The country was dead, laid waste with a destructive fervour worse than anything in the Thirty Years War… When we marched into Peronne… we saw a huge notice erected on the town hall: ‘NICHT ARGERN NUR WUNDERN’, ‘Don’t be angry, only wonder!’ Indeed it puzzled us a good deal. We were not angry but delighted that so large a region of France should be liberated and if we had any astonishment left it was at the ingenuities of German barbarity. What they had not destroyed they had defiled…

The sequel is not prettier, and it is a good deal bloodier than Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards:

On the first day we lost two officers from my mess, one shot by a German sniper when leading the advance guard, the other caught by a booby trap. In a German dugout he had sat down in a chair and had drawn it up to the table, thus igniting the fuse of a concealed bomb…[5]

 

So it goes. In the strangeness of this advance, many things are forgotten. What was missing from Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards today? (Other than deadly booby traps, which surely varied by location).

It says something about the English perspective of the officers that St. Patrick’s Day went unmentioned in the history of an Irish unit. Not so with the First Inniskillings, out of the line resting near Corbie after several days of following the German withdrawal, and counting among their number the poet Francis Ledwidge:

In the morning there was an issue of shamrock to all the Irishmen. The Australians, who happened to be going into action that day, also asked for shamrock and wore it in their caps. Most of the forenoon was taken-up with a church
parade…  In the afternoon, the Inniskilling fife and drum band played in the village to the great delight of the French children, who crowded around them. The men got up a concert for themselves in the afternoon. The officers went into Corbie, that night for dinner. The rations were greatly stepped up in honour of the feast and there was a good dinner too, in the mess, after which most of the men also went into town to sample the estaminets. These kept
open very late, as they did on Christmas Day. Despite the army concessions, however, commemorating their patron saint in such a setting inevitably made the Irishmen melancholy.[6]

 

And here’s a good example of why I hardly mention (or don’t cover at all, really) grand strategy and international affairs, despite their enormous influence on the war: their immediate effects are almost never felt by fighting soldiers. But here’s a strange example, in a tale told by the officer currently narrating in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. He began a long-awaited leave today, a century back, taking a train to the coast and then a boat for England:

We had a fine crossing–to what? On debarking we were ordered to report at once to our local police, and be in readiness for any emergency.

Uniquely, the officers on leave found themselves marshaled to deal with expected unrest, as the government feared a rising in sympathy with the early stages of the Russian Revolution. There is sympathy, at first, in the officer’s voice–“the political air was sharpened” by privation and the wealth of war profiteers, by “the slaughter of the Somme.” And then much less sympathy: the conclusion, looking back from a later point in time, is that a wicked alliance of convenience has formed between armchair theorist liberals and trade unionists that will pressure the government into foolish concessions “to the serious hurt of the Army.”[7]

 

That is surely enough for today–unless you would prefer to close the day with Edward Thomas, in a quiet mood, writing a long letter to his wife Helen, and reflecting in relative tranquility on last night’s anxieties.

17 March 1917 Arras

Dearest

This has been quite a good day at the O.P. [Observation Post] and after a bad night of heavy shelling. The morning was bright and clear and all day long the sun shone and the sky has been pale and without a cloud. I have been drawing little panoramas.

Those I had done last time are more interesting now because the Old Hun has been destroying many of the buildings on the skyline. Tonight he is burning something away in that direction. The sky is lit up with two big glows beyond the crest. It hasn’t been tedious at all, and now we are installed in our dug out which hardly anything could penetrate. It is so small that if one moves the other five have to.

I am wondering if a letter has come for me at last. I think in any case I will keep this till I do hear, though Bronwen’s letter implied that there was nothing abnormal.

To cram this little room still more the men insisted on dragging in one of the box spring mattresses from the other place. They had to cut it to fit it in at all, and now three of us are sitting on it; we have a door up, a fire going, one candle alight and can only hear the rustle of a Daily Mail.

Now it is 11 p.m. I have to be awake till 12. Then I sleep until 6 unless I am wanted which I shall be unless the night is quite quiet. So far there has only been a distant roll now and then as I sat reading ‘Julius Ceasar’, warm in front because of the fire, cold behind because of a door leading up into the street.

I dreamt (almost for the first time since I left home) last night — a very feeble dream, that I was at home but did not stay to tea.

I don’t know who was there. I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea. I think Baba asked if I wouldn’t stay to tea.

Every hour the telephonist tests the line to see if it is O.K. He has just done it and there is another hour to go before I begin to lie on those very bouncy springs…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 101.
  3. For Love and Courage, 338.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 120-1.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 138-42. Carrington, writing later, is careful--I think that's an appropriate qualification--to represent the innocence/confidence that still obtained, in his experience, in 1917, and only a few paragraphs after the booby traps he is making claims once again for the effectiveness (and gloriousness) of cavalry...
  6. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 173-4.
  7. The War the Infantry Knew, 304-5.
  8. Letters to Helen, 84-7.

Edwin Vaughan Conjures a Village; Edward Thomas Hears his First French Thrush

Edwin Vaughan came out of the line in the early morning, two days ago, after a terrible tour in which he buried four mangled corpses and was visited by the shade of another. Or so it had seemed, anyway. After the exhilaration of relief, nearly twenty-four hours of sleep, and an idle day yesterday, his narrative picks up once again. He is out of the front line, but he has not escaped the malign mental world of the front line shambles–or, rather, he has stumbled into an allied but antithetical illusion.

Did no work during the day, but at dusk moved up to Herbécourt to mend roads. I suffered from an extraordinary delusion on this occasion. Before we left, Kentish, who was to command the working party, showed me the map and pointed out the place where we were to work–the road from Herbécourt to Flaucourt. It was bitterly cold, and I was not pleased at the thought of standing about in the darkness for hours. But then the picture of Flaucourt came into my mind. I imagined our arrival there after working along the cold wet road. The warm glow of the windows, the smell of the coffee shops and épiceries, and the rosy, warmly-clad villagers who would greet us. The picture made me quite cheery although in my sane mind I knew that the village is razed to the earth, being only just behind the line. Still, all the way up the Herbécourt road the image remained with me and kept me cheerful…

In the early morning hours, Vaughan reaches Herbécourt:

I found myself standing on top of a trench system, which ran around the foundations and ruins of some houses. Not a single wall was standing–all was a jumbled mass of broken brick and twisted iron. This was my village and I could have wept with disappointment…

Instead, Vaughan is met by a soldier who tells him that his friend Harcourt has died after having had both legs blown off by a booby trap left behind in a German dugout. Vaughan then returns to his men, who are still working on the road, in order to inform them that the Germans have withdrawn and left their trench system in British hands:

…with only a mild interest they enquired ‘Plenty of souvenirs?’ What to me was the glorious rout of the enemy and retreat of the Imperial Army meant to them ‘more blank marching!'[1]

They are right, of course, except for the perils now literally hard-wired to those potential souvenirs…

 

The withdrawal is proceeding at a slower pace up in Arras, at least from the point of view of the artillery–or a peripatetic poet. Edward Thomas‘s diary today shows little emotion–it generally doesn’t unless it reveals ominous signs of depression–but it does record an important addition to his spring birdsong count.

Larks and great tits. Ploughing field next to orchard in mist–horses and man go right up to crest in view of Hun at Beaurains…  Fired 100 rounds from 12-1.30. Sun shining but misty still. Letter from Bronwen.  The first thrush I have heard in France sang as I returned to Mess at 6 p.m.[2]

Notice how a hundred rounds of artillery fire slip by as a passing note, a matter of an hour and a half borrowed from correspondence, and from the birds. And yet each one of those rounds is enough to kill several Germans if it lands just right, while all the hundred are too few to guarantee anything more than the shifting of rumble. Which is quite a lot of uncertainty about the nature and effect of his work, but not a subject that Thomas wishes to take up.

Instead, this short diary jotting recalls or suggest a host of poems–larks are poetry’s favorite bird, and the man at his plow is the subject of one one of Thomas’s most moving poems. But let’s dwell on that first thrush. His first poetic resonance is of course Thomas Hardy‘s Darkling Thrush. But the thrush is not a seasonal bird–Edward Thomas heard one on New Year’s day–and so it is in no way freighted with a necessary message of hope, of nature returning to a forsaken landscape. This bird can mean many things, and Thomas himself has written the thrush, several times. In his work, “the thrush is the bird that Thomas most often aligns with… the poet.”[3]

Thomas’s most important thrush poem, a change-of-seasons meditation that is worth rereading now, is trenchantly intellectual–especially for a bird poem, as it were. While it recalls Keats and answers Hardy, Thomas’s “The Thrush” (written in November 1915) is not about inspiration or the swelling of emotion. Rather–and this is Thomas to the core–it features the poet and the natural singer apart and mutually regarding: emotional responses are raised, but they are to be checked and guided by the poet’s reasoning mind.

 

When Winter’s ahead,
What can you read in November
That you read in April
When Winter’s dead?

 

I hear the thrush, and I see
Him alone at the end of the lane
Near the bare poplar’s tip,
Singing continuously.

 

Is it more that you know
Than that, even as in April,
So in November,
Winter is gone that must go?

 

Or is all your lore
Not to call November November,
And April April,
And Winter Winter—no more?

 

But I know the months all,
And their sweet names, April,
May and June and October,
As you call and call

 

I must remember
What died into April
And consider what will be born
Of a fair November;

 

And April I love for what
It was born of, and November
For what it will die in,
What they are and what they are not,

 

While you love what is kind,
What you can sing in
And love and forget in
All that’s ahead and behind.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 50-2.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  3. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 260-1.