This will be one of those “three points of an obtuse triangle” sorts of days. There is a minor update, down at the end, on Charles Scott Moncrieff, and a heartfelt, revealing, but not very warlike letter from Vera Brittain to her brother Edward. And then there is the war, in the shape of Rowland Feilding‘s report to his wife on the fate of the raid conducted by his battalion (“his” in the double sense of affiliation and command) yesterday, a century back.
February 20, 1917. “Doctor’s House,” Kemmel.
I with my Headquarters officers reached Shamus Farm at about 4 o’clock yesterday morning, in a dense fog. The men of the raiding parties were already filing in and out of the ruins, loading up with Mills grenades and smokebombs and all the other paraphernalia necessary for the undertaking. The green oval patches were being stripped from their sleeves, and everything by which the battalion might be identified, such as letters, regimental numerals, and cap badges, were being collected and put away in sandbags. Each man, as he completed these preliminaries, passed silently into the communication trench leading to the firing line, where all was absolutely still—uncannily so.
…At seven o’clock I passed along the fire-trench, where the raiders were now waiting for the moment of Zero. Most were cheerfully tucking green miniature Irish flags into their caps or buttonholes, and all seemed full of confidence.
What follows is both a quick tactical sketch and a litany. It’s not that it’s inaccurate, or unclear: Feilding was there, just behind the attack, in command, and he’s clear-headed and a good writer. We could hardly have a better vantage point on a raid. And yet the sequence–a position on the line, a rush, a report of wounds and deaths; repeat–is something between black comedy and threnody. Why are all these men going forward, one after another, to be torn by bullets and shrapnel? Because that was the plan, and they stick to it.
At 7.15 the three parties, comprising 9 officers and 190 other ranks, without any preparatory bombardment, scaled the parapet, and made a wild dash across Noman’s Land. At the same moment our artillery opened, according to
programme, and put a box barrage round the selected section of the enemy trench.
The centre party reached the German wire, but found it uncut, having—perhaps owing to the fog—missed the gap. 2nd Lieut. Williamson, second in command of the party, was killed as he neared the wire, and 2nd Lieut. Kent, commanding, was wounded in the arm but continued firing with his revolver at the enemy, holding up his wounded arm with his free hand. When he had fired off his six rounds he lay down and reloaded. J. White—a private—then stood up and bombed the enemy in the trench. This party found a covering group lying out in front of the German wire, which however fell back into the trench as our men approached.
The right party had no casualties till it reached the wire. Then 2nd, Lieut. Bradshaw, second in command, was wounded, and a minute or two later was hit again and killed. 2nd Lieut. Cardwell, commanding the party, was also wounded severely by a stick bomb, which blew away the calf of his leg. His men then threw all the bombs they were carrying across the wire into the German trench, after which, seeing that the party on their left was retiring, and having lost both their officers, they fell back.
The first wave of the left party started off well under 2nd Lieut. Cummins, a very gallant young officer whom I had put in command in place of the original commander, who was the officer I have mentioned as being absent on a course. The Sergeant, Hackett, was almost immediately killed. The party met with heavy opposition, and some of the men behind them faltering. Captain Garvey, who was in charge of the assaulting parties, ran out across Noman’s Land to rally them.
He fell wounded, and Lieut. T. Hughes, commanding the left support, ran forward to help rally the waverers. Private John Collins did the same. This man acted with great dash, rushing recklessly towards the German trench, shouting “Come on the Connaughts”—a cry which some of the enemy took up. Sergeant Purcell and Privates Twohig and Elwin also did their best to encourage the others, the latter standing up and firing with his rifle at the Germans, who now began freely to expose themselves, till he fell, shot through the neck.
At last, prudence–or is it free will, or some sort of permission to abandon foolish and painful hopes and refuse further profligacy?–reasserts itself.
Hughes showed great gallantry, again and again exposing himself; then, recognizing that the raid had failed, he fell back, and with the aid of Cummins and two privates—King and Healy—carried Garvey back to the shelter of our trench.
In the meantime the enemy had been retaliating violently upon our front line and communication trench with high explosive and shrapnel, as was to be expected.
Less expected is the sequel:
After some two hours the firing on both sides died away, and by 9.30 all was quiet. An incident then took place which I think was as remarkable as any that this most unchivalrous of wars can have yet produced.
Our dead and many of the wounded still lay out in Noman’s Land, when the fog lifted and the German trench became clearly visible. As I stood in the middle of the fire-trench a man came running to me and reported that the enemy had allowed what he called “an armistice,” for the purpose of collecting the wounded who were lying in front of the right extremity of the section.
I hurried along the trench and found that this was literally true. Already parties of men were out dressing the wounded and carrying them back to our line. One of my officers and a German were bending together over a wounded man alongside the enemy wire. The Germans, in considerable numbers, were lolling over and even sitting upon their parapet, watching the proceedings. My own men were doing the same. As the stretcher-bearers started to move the dead the enemy called out to “leave the dead alone,” but no notice was taken of this.
I asked how this extraordinary state of affairs had originated. I was told that the Germans had called out in English, “Send out your stretchermen,” and that a number of volunteers—stretcher-bearers, real and self-constituted (the latter of course stretcher-less)—had immediately climbed over the parapet.
I noticed Private Collins. He is one of the “wild men” of the battalion. He was sauntering about with a pipe in his mouth, wearing a bomber’s waistcoat, the pockets bulging with bombs. This was obviously out of order under
the circumstances, and was only asking for trouble;—in fact the Germans, I had been told, when they issued their invitation to the stretcher-bearers had stipulated (rather naturally) that the latter should come unarmed.
I told Collins to put down his bombs, which he did rather sheepishly, as though he had suddenly remembered for the first time that he had them on. Then, after a parting warning, I moved off towards the left section of the trench, to see how things were faring there.
The “armistice” had spread, and the scene, if possible, was more remarkable than that which I had left. The distance between the enemy’s trench and ours is considerably less here than on the right, being not more than 40
yards at the narrowest point.
I found numerous Germans—almost shoulder to shoulder—leaning over their parapet, exposed from the waist up:
on our side it was the same. All were interestedly watching the stretcher-bearers at work in Noman’s Land. A German officer was walking excitedly up and down along the top of his parapet, shouting in perfect English to my men to “get their heads” down or he would open fire, at the same time gesticulating vigorously with his arm.
The whole proceeding was of course highly irregular, and the last of our wounded and dead having by this time been recovered, I ordered, the men below the parapet, and a second or two later every head on both sides had disappeared: both the German trench and ours had become normal, and the war had re-started.
Thought I to myself, “These people cannot always be so bad as they are painted”: then I proceeded to take stock.
But the enemy had exacted payment for his generosity. The officer I had seen near the German wire was missing,
as were one or two others.
There may be something to be said in the case of the officer. He had foolishly neglected to remove his revolver (or rather revolvers, since he had two) before going out, and having looked into the enemy’s trench was perhaps fair game.
At the same time, by what subterfuge he and the others were inveigled into becoming prisoners, I do not know, and shall not know till the war is over; if then.
This letter has read largely like an official report–Feilding must describe the truce to someone, just not those in a position to disapprove of so unwarlike an action. The next letter reads very differently, and shows the strain that he has been under: he is, after all, both the commander of a battalion that he couldn’t protect and a subordinate to generals who will punish this breach of murderous decorum. And although he had no volition in the matter of the “raid,” he cannot feel that he doesn’t have responsibility for the losses.
February 20 (Night).
I fly to you when I am in trouble, and I am feeling very sick at heart, to-night. Ivan Garvey—the ideal Company
Commander—the bravest, the cheeriest, the most loyal and perfect of men, was reported a few hours ago to be dead of his wounds. How readily he undertook the work when I first proposed it to him!
As I passed the Aid Post yesterday, on my way back from the line, I went in, and found him asleep under morphia, so did not get a chance to speak to him. Nobody thought he would die then. Priestman, the Brigade Major, who had been by my side during the affair of the morning, had seen him earlier before I was able to get away from the fire-trench. He told me he was semi-conscious then, and that he had thought he (Priestman) was me. I like to think that he asked for me.
My God! if the people at home could actually see with their eyes this massacring of the cream of our race, what a terrible shock it would be to them! But we must see it through. All are agreed upon that.
Nine of my best officers went over yesterday. Three of these are left to-day. And, in addition, one more of my Company Commanders (Fitzgerald) is gone, as the result of this enterprise. He was wounded while cutting the gaps through our own wire, preparatory to the raid, so severely that he too may die.
But all this is not unusual. It is the toll to be expected from a raid when it is unsuccessful, and indeed often when it is successful; and the success or failure of a raid is largely a matter of chance.
I was present at the burial of some of the killed this afternoon, including that of two of my most promising young officers. That is the tragedy of the war. The best are taken. The second best are often left in the safe places.
General Pereira came and saw me this morning, and stayed some time. He was more kind and consoling than
I can say. Private Elwin, too, has died.
I have been unable–in a cursory search–to find out anything more about the officer who strayed too close to the German wire. The story is so strange, and yet not unlikely. Was the German truce a ruse? Spontaneous mercy followed by spontaneous opportunism? Most likely, perhaps, is that the truce was a spontaneous act of mercy, and the later capture of the British officer was due to the action of German officers who, like Feilding, happened upon a truce in progress–and thought better of it.
Feilding tells the story of his small disaster as straight as it can be told, it would seem. And yet his dismay at the pointlessness of it, the bloodiness of the poor plan, poorly enacted, is so palpable that it feels worse than it was: I don’t know about the officer and the “one or two” other prisoners, nor do I know how many men were wounded. But, according to the CWGC, “only” ten men were killed: the three officers and the sergeant, Private Elwin, and five other men with one stripe between them.
Will there be any calling to account for the failure of the raid? Or, rather, for the “armistice” which followed? Or even for the failure of the armistice and the apparent capture of an officer wandering No Man’s Land in broad daylight? It will take a few days to find out.
From combat, then, to war as catalyst and background to young people’s self-discovery. Vera Brittain’s correspondence with her brother has been slowed by her posting to Malta, but the intensity of the exchange has only deepened. Today, a century back, Vera’s lofty mind dwells on the problem of sex…
Malta, 20 February 1917
You & I are not only aesthetic but ascetic — at any rate in regard to sex. Or perhaps, since ‘ascetic’ implies rather a lack of emotion, it would be more correct to say exclusive–Geoffrey is very much this, and Victor, & Roland was. What I mean by this is, that so many people are attracted by the opposite sex simply because it is the opposite sex–the average officer & the average ‘nice girl’ demand, I am sure, little else but this. But where you & I are concerned, sex by itself doesn’t interest us unless it is united with brains & personality; in fact we rather think of the latter first, & the person’s sex afterwards. This is quite enough to put you off the average ‘nice girl’, who would neither give you what you want nor make the effort herself to try & understand you when other men, who can give her what she wants, are so much easier to understand. . . .
That is Vera’s ellipsis and it gives me a chance to cough meaningfully and swoop in before all this gets out of hand. She is both quite perceptive, here, and very, very dim. She would be a modern woman, engaging the boys on her own terms, and yet she is still very much a provincial young lady, blind to the complexities of real life.
Once again I preface this analysis with the warning that late 20th century categories (I don’t quite flatter myself that I am more up to date than that) can only clumsily be applied to the sexual identities of Edwardian and Georgian England. Pigeonholes are much nicer than closets, but still constraining.
Yet oversimplification is an expedient wickedness here–let sexual complexity suffer so that I am not guilty of leaving strategy to wither, unbefriended and oversimplified, all alone! It’s more or less accurate to say, simply, that the reason Edward Brittain is disinterested in nice girls is that he is gay. Or leave identity out of it, and stick to interest: he is probably far from being able or willing to acknowledge this even in a private way, but he is interested in… nice boys. Moreover, it seems very likely that Geoffrey is too–and quite possible that they have been interested in each other.
Asceticism? Perhaps, but that’s not really the question when it comes to Edward and the sexual appeal of young women. And as for Vera, there were many obstacles between Vera and Roland’s kiss or two and what should have followed–a formidable mother, all the ignorance and fear of their upbringing, a German machine gun. But Vera, although she subordinates the whole crew–herself and the three boys–to Roland, is still blinkered. She and he were “ascetic,” when it came to sex, but Edward is not necessarily the same way–he is necessarily secretive, and so we cannot know.
One might hope that she is wrong about his asceticism as well. There was certainly repression and dissimulation, but perhaps there was connection, too. Perhaps, in that brief, intense, training-camp friendship, there was pleasure given and taken between Edward and Geoffrey.
As for Victor, he fairly obviously has feelings for Vera, and I can’t recall him expressing much enthusiasm for intellectual rigor and sensual restraint. But he is bring roped in to the group–last, as usual, the dullest of the group. How, if it were the case that he felt physical passion for Vera, would he broach that subject? His please would fall on ascetic ears… But never mind; Victor is in France, and overlooked, and Vera is in Malta, disinterested in the possibly lustful glances of her fallen fiancé’s–and beloved brother’s–less brilliant friend.
I shouldn’t be too hard on Vera; it’s sad that the most important relationship she has in her life must have this silence near the center of it. I hope that Edward smiled tolerantly when he read her fond hopes for his future sexual happiness:
I think very probably that older women will appeal to you much more than younger ones, as they do to me. This means that you will probably have to wait a good many years before you find anyone you could wish to marry, but I don’t think this need worry you, for there is plenty of time, & very often people who wait get something well worth waiting for.
. . . I think the old saw about young women being so much older than young men for their age has always been very untrue & since the War is more so than ever… in the things that really count it is the boy who is grown-up; he has had responsibilities which under the present benighted system of educating women she has never had the fringe of — especially if he is at a Public School. The boy of eighteen or nineteen has probably — and since the War certainly, had to cope with questions of morality & immorality whose seriousness would astound her if she understood it, and deal with subjects of whose very existence she is probably ignorant…
Exceptional as I was, I don’t think the I of the days before I had loved & lost Roland would satisfy the You of to-day.
Does she stray closer to the mark, at the end? Perhaps, but only to miss it and continue on…
I don’t think it’s a question of upbringing at all… of course it may be true that Father’s very Early Victorian attitude towards women may unconsciously have influenced & even reproduced itself in you a little–I have noticed occasionally a slight suspicion of patronage in your dealings with women; I don’t really think this is because you think their sex inferior so much as you realise their inferiority (as it probably is) to you in personality & brain. I, conversely, feel the same with many men! But it is necessary to be rather more careful in dealing with women, as if a man patronises a woman she always thinks it is because of her sex, whereas if a woman patronises a man, he (if he is acute enough to notice it, which he generally isn’t) never puts it down to his!
. . . It is such a wild stormy night & the sea is beating the rocks like anything. On this island, the land seems to shrink as one knows it better, & the miles & miles of sea between here & home to get longer & longer — though I can still write to you across them! But one begins to understand a little the significance of the Revelation — ‘And there was no more sea.’ For here sea is the very symbol of separation.
Finally, today, Charles Scott Moncrieff‘s time as a sick man in Amiens is over–but it has proved to be personally fruitful. He will find a desk job with his unit and begin busily essay-ing and reviewing…
B.E.F., Shrove Tuesday, February, 1917.
I got back to the Regiment last night. I am Second in Command again for the present as the Colonel is taking the Brigade while the Brigadier is having measles… I saw various friends at Amiens, including Vyvyan Holland, whom I had not seen for years, also the Sheepshanks who was in College with me, and Gibson of Lister House, who was 2nd in Command at Cimiez last year. I am living on the road that Herries and I galloped madly down on the morning of the Battle of Loos—on my 26th birthday. . .
Vyvyan “Why? Why?” Holland is, since his brother Cyril was killed by a sniper in 1915, the sole surviving son of Oscar Wilde. Now an officer in the artillery, Holland is a committed Catholic and a writer and close with Robbie Ross, his father’s lover, friend and executor.
This puts Moncrieff in the outer orbit of another one of our central literary circles–and, with the friendship with Holland revived, he will come in closer. Given the discussion of Vera’s letter and our general level of prurience, it seems prudent to make the usually unremarkable remark that Holland, as it happens, was straight…