Vera Brittain on the Beauties and Defects of Naples, While Geoffrey Thurlow Faces a Bayonet Charge; Dorothie Feilding on Pigsties and Defensive Lines

We can pass over the fact that gentle souls like J.R.R. Tolkien and Edmund Blunden are enduring the nastiness of trench life around Thiepval today, a century back, and amble southwards in order to recapture a sense of romance and adventure. Our provincial young lady is enjoying an abbreviated grand tour: the Britannic, bringing her to Malta by a roundabout route, has put in at Naples. This is Vera Brittain‘s first taste of Italy.

The transhipping rumour was a false alarm, and at midday on Friday we were all allowed on shore in small parties. Stella & I & some others were taken around by a Sister who lived in Venice before the War & knew Italian. We spent a long & happy time wandering round the streets; everything was a blaze of colour. In every little piazza there seemed to be an enclosed green space where various kinds of palms & cactus grew. & every available bit of grass was covered with crimson and scarlet salvia. Even the beggars, who of course crowded round, were dressed in faded gay colours; nearly all seemed to be in some way halt, maimed, blind or diseased, & to exhibit their defects almost with pride. Italy is a corrupt country, no doubt.”[1]

No doubt, no doubt. Ah, well. Anyway: Malta is a small island that is becoming an enormous hospital base, and the work there will be hardly more beautiful than it was in Camberwell. But this is the journey, and it is new and exciting…

In France, it takes more mental effort to find excitement or beauty. Blunden is writing poetry and dreaming of libraries, Tolkien is working–when he has time–on another world.

Geoffrey Thurlow, the best training-camp-friend of Vera’s brother Edward, came out earlier than either. He has been wounded, and–in Vera’s estimation, for she befriended Thurlow and spent much time with him in London–is struggling with the psychological aftereffects of what he has seen and endured. He has found, in his friend’s sister–the intellectual, the nurse, the would-be perfect-care-giver–a friend to rely on. These boys have grown up with a code of stoicism and reserve, and to find a young woman who is sympathetic, and safe, and serious, and pretty much as close as a young woman can be to the edge of the experiential gulf that divides them… well, it seems invaluable. If they don’t talk about loneliness and terror then at least, perhaps, they can leave silences around these things that she might understand. There is Edward Brittain himself, so close to his big sister; there is clumsy and sweet Victor Richardson, the third musketeer of school days with the martyred Roland, and now the nervous Geoffrey… three young officers who depend upon her.

Is there romance in this? Well, not as such. Vera still carries the torch for Roland, and she seems to think of Victor as a little dull and Geoffrey as skittish and damaged. But in any case I meant to discuss ro-MANCE, the adventure of travel and discovery, not RO-mance. Geoffrey Thurlow has little of that as he waits his turn in the Somme’s last effort. But he will try to entertain, at least:

France, 29 September 1916

Edward’s letter yesterday told me that you were sailing on the 24th so I expect you will have been in Malta some time before this note reaches you…

Tho’ we are some way behind the line sounds of a great battle can be distinctly heard. We are doing very intensive training…  And then up into the breach again…

This afternoon we were suddenly attacked on bayonet parade (Officers & NCO’s only) by 4 valiant little Frenchman ages from 4-6 each carrying a long stick with an apple attached to its end. When within 20 yds they opened fire by dropping the sticks behind their heads & then swishing them forward quickly & enroute the apple shot off but didn’t hit its mark! They were jolly little men but one was a lunatic I think. However we laughed at them till we wept!

…Some of our officers have seen the new ‘tanks’ but I haven’t yet. I hope I do so before we leave this place.[2]

 

For Dorothie Feilding, the romance of the war is somewhat attenuated after more than two years–but she, too, does her best. She is not in grave, daily danger now that Belgium has become a “quiet” section of the front, and her mother has loved ones in greater danger–a brother with the Guards, another brother killed at Jutland–not to mention a husband “dug out” into active service. But it should be clear by now both that Lady Dorothie’s effervescence cannot possibly be entirely feigned and that, nevertheless, she makes an effort to infuse even more bubbles into her letters.

The family has all gone to war, and lightly amusing stories make the best letters home:

29th Sept 16
Mother dear

I had a fat head today & feeling a bit grubby so took a day off at no 14.I am being lazy & having brekker in bed…

No 14 is now very beautiful. The Canadians offered to build me a fireplace in the sitting room, as we haven’t one in the whole house, only a dirty little stove. The trouble was how to get a barrel of cement, half a ton of bricks & several immense Canadians into the house without the old patron next door, who owns 14, bulling in & raising hell, as he always does if he even hears you driving a nail in the wall.

Of course he came in like a Jack in a box the moment they arrived, but Hélène informed him gravely we were making a ‘trou-de-cochon’ or pigsty in the back garden. He quite believed it & asked what we were going to feed
them on?

Thus the fireplace was well under way & a nice large hole knocked in his ceiling before he could interfere & we are the proud possessors of a nice open fireplace. The only trouble is that there is now hardly any room left to sit in, but you can’t have everything can you?

That Lady Dorothie is, by this point, a true veteran shows not only in her eagerness to scrounge and win basic winter comforts in advance but also in her smooth pivot to a serious and well-balanced appreciation of the news from the Somme:

…I hear our losses this last 10 days good advance have been wonderfully few considering, & far less than in the earlier stages. The artillery preparation seems to have been stupendous. I have seen several people these last days who have just left there. The French have only a little over a quarter of our losses from last July. I have this from the old boy you & Squeaker stayed with out here, partly due to their more efficient artillery preparation & to a great deal because the Germans have massed many more troops in front of the English; they would rather go back 10 miles in front of the French than in front of us as everyone knows. But everything seems going really well now & generally optimistic about Fritz being made to draw back in the S to his 2nd line before the winter. I’m afraid no earthly chance of that here. The coast is too precious to them, & they will have to be very beat indeed before they will let go of it.

Goodbye Mother mine & much love
DoDo[3]

This is all correct: the progress on the Somme is indeed is due to the scale of the British effort, improved artillery tactics, and the German willingness–having resisted stubbornly throughout the summer–to effect an operational withdrawal on the eve of winter. And, not least, the final implication: that the British “victory” to which the Germans have acquiesced has little strategic significance–the line has bent and bulged a little, but not moved in any crucial way…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 329-330.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 277.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 165-6.

John Ronald Tolkien in Action at Thiepval; Rowland Feilding Out of Hell and Into Summer-Time; Edward Thomas Writes to a Different Trumpeter

The prose of Rowland Feilding is thick with hell these days, even though he himself has been removed from its current terrestrial location (i.e. the Somme) to the balefully, ironically pleasant surroundings of the Ypres Salient. (Which is not due to be hell-on-earth again until next year).

Two days ago he described his new surroundings to his wife:

September 26, 1916. Locre.

To-day I have been to reconnoitre the trenches, or rather breastworks, which we are to take over. They cross the swampy ground below the Wytschaete Ridge, which, crowned by the ruins of the Hospice and a red pile of brick, or what looks like brick, frowns down upon them. Some 5 miles to the left stands up the skeleton of Ypres, where the ruined Cathedral can from our trenches be seen, towering into the sky.

All was very quiet.

The line will be wet and nasty in winter, but to-day the sun was shining, and the whole country seemed smiling. The silence was quite extraordinary. There was no shelling.

Moreover, trees are standing, and many of the buildings are only slightly damaged. The fields are green and coloured with wild flowers; and to-day I saw two cows grazing not so very far behind the firing line, while, as I
walked along the communication trench, two cackling cock-pheasants flew overhead.

After the Somme it seems like coming from Hell to the Thames Valley in summer-time…

Albeit one in which the sights upon which idlers may feast their eyes include an observation balloon coming untethered and being shot down, “burning like a huge candle from the upper end” as it floated away…

September 28, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

I have walked—I don’t know how many miles—to-day, through our new trenches, well made by Canadian troops, but still requiring an enormous amount of spadework before the winter. I have a big digging party out tonight. In three days we hand over to another battalion, and move back into support, when my headquarters will be at another farm (“Siege Farm”), some 300 yards behind this one.

The news seems good. As the German papers say: “in the orgy of destruction on the Somme our soldiers are standing in Hell.” So are ours, but they take that as part of the day’s work, and will continue to do so, with smiling faces.[1]

 

Meanwhile, on the edge of that hell, John Ronald Tolkien and his battalion watched the attack of the 18th Division on the Schwaben Redoubt. There is no detailed record of what Tolkien saw, but it seems safe to conclude that–probably by position, and almost certainly by temperament–this was no case of feeling the Epicurean pleasure of being on the edge of a battle. For one thing, Tolkien will not ever (unless memory betrays) imagine a virtuous character feeling any such pleasure, but he will write several scenes in which essentially peaceful people quail in terror as they look out at the gathering clouds (literal as well as figurative) of battle.

For another, he had duties to attend to. Late in the afternoon today, a century back, three patrols of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers went forward to occupy overrun trenches. They captured twenty-one Germans and pushed down the “communication trenches leading to the enemy’s close-support line.” Tolkien must have been busy as his battalion felt forward, under sketchy orders, to consolidate the attack–one of his signallers will the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions tonight. It was a dangerous and confusing time, and Tolkien’s memories of it seem to have been fragmentary–he will recall speaking in German to one of the captured officers, offering him water. Later, while he is on the trench telephone, “a field-mouse runs across his fingers.”[2]

 

Edward Thomas is wending his professional way closer to France, but he remains very much in England, acclimating to life as an artillery officer in training. Today, a century back, he wrote to his friend Walter de la Mare with his usual mix of self-deprecation and quiet confidence. Thomas is not the sort to immediately begin sneering at his non-combatant friends (that would be Richard Aldington), but neither does he melodramatically clam up and turn in profile, chin lifted at the horizon… he’s going to war, and he will not entirely avoid that uncomfortable fact…

Royal Artillery School
Trowbridge
Thursday 28 September 1916

My dear de la Mare,

…After all, I did pass the exam. I came here a week ago & am now fairly settled, as far as it is possible to be, in tents. The work is very hard & by 7.30 when it ends I have not really mastered the work of the day. Levers & pulleys &c are not in my line, I find. But we had some lovely days & nights & things are not as unpleasant as we were told…

The latest rumour is that the men over 35 may be put on coast defence, which I hope is not true. I suppose the coast has to be defended, but I would rather not be shelved at this time of day…[3]

There’s a smile to be provoked by this absurd diffidence. “Rather not be shelved at this time of day” means “have chosen to enter an unprecedented zone of destruction in order to fire enormous weapons at other men while they attempt to kill me with similar weapons, and would not like to be gainsaid in this choice.”

In the meantime, a noisy little fact of life and ready symbol has provoked a poem. Thomas He had written to Eleanor Farjeon on the 25th about the prominence of the trumpet in his new barracks. “The trumpet blows for everything and I like that too, tho the trumpeter is not excellent.” Nevertheless, he will also report that the way this “cracked” trumpet blows reveillé “pleases me”–enough, evidently, to set him writing another poem which treats the war directly, yet with a subtle ambivalence.[4]

 

The Trumpet

Rise up, rise up,
And, as the trumpet blowing
Chases the dreams of men,
As the dawn glowing
The stars that left unlit
The land and water,
Rise up and scatter
The dew that covers
The print of last night’s lovers—
Scatter it, scatter it!

 

While you are listening
To the clear horn,
Forget, men, everything
On this earth newborn,
Except that it is lovelier
Than any mysteries.
Open your eyes to the air
That has washed the eyes of the stars
Through all the dewy night:
Up with the light,
To the old wars;
Arise, arise!

This sounds very much like the sort of rousing, respectably militarist sort of thing that comes at the beginning of anthologies and little books of war poetry.[5] And so may it be–among its antecedents are Housman’s Reveillé and Hardy‘s Men Who March Away. The poem is in harmony with the sentiments of the trumpet–or in submission, for the most part.

But not completely. What does it mean, exactly, to urge men on to the “old wars?” And, more definitively ambivalent, as it were, why would the poet use this martial music to remind us of something so little calculated to inculcate the bayonet-charge spirit than the loveliness of mornings on earth?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 122-4.
  2. Chronology, 91.
  3. Poet to Poet, 223.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 214.
  5. See, generally, Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 312-3.

Lady Feilding’s Papist Plot; Tolkien at Thiepval; Edmund Blunden on What He Would Read, and What He Will Not Write

Shaming famous women is easily done these days, but it was hardly much harder a century back–although calumny did spread only at the speed of print, which takes quite a few more clicks. So: a pamphlet in the post has assailed our most decorated ambulance volunteer and Catholic noblewoman. To some, apparently, her unusual combination of debutante/heroic voluntere celebrity and Catholicism is a sure-fire indication that she is some sort of secret-assistant-Whore of Babylon:

27th Sep
Mother dear–

I have received some priceless anti-popery pamphlets sent me for the good of my soul by the Protestant Tract Society of Ilford. One good one is headed ‘Rome – Rags & Rhum’.

Another is a very harmless plain press cutting about my old medal & pinned on to it a tract on which is written ‘shame’ very big in blue chalk & the following heavily underlined: ‘The Church of Rome always strives to remain in the public eye, regardless of the means employed.’

As far as I can gather my object in coming to Flanders was to be in the pay of the Pope to achieve his dastardly ends. You might mention to Snich the old boy hasn’t paid up for months & that my wages are long overdue so will he see about it. Unfortunately I don’t know who the devil is Pope just now or I’d write myself. I think it’s a Gregory V or Cascara XXXV but aren’t sure.

Do enlighten me.
Yr to a corpse & to ‘hell with the Pope’.
Yr ever Diddles

 

Another (generally more serious-minded) Catholic volunteer was making his way into harm’s way today, a century back. John Ronald Tolkien‘s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers are coming up into the battle for Thiepval Ridge, which had begun so well, yesterday. Relieving the 1/7th West Yorkshires, they made their way toward the village itself, and Tolkien spent the night in a dugout, recently German, and not far from the Schwaben Redoubt, the fortress still decidedly in German hands.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden is not far away, no more than a few miles to the north. But that can make all the difference–“on the edge” of an inferno is not anything like just behind it, and Blunden had time to write a letter home, todaym and mental space to muse about the psychological challenges of trench warfare.

I miss the companionship of books ever so and after the blessed war I shall be still more buried in the dust of old libraries and compassed about with leather quartos…

A lovely dream, but then there is the present:

Cold and wet and lack of sleep are enemies to the finest soldiers. There is also the added enemy of the presence of so many dead men. And after a while the dead become more than frightful to the mind. Some of the dugouts where some Germans were killed with bombs are indescribable–and, in any case, must not be described.[2]

Fortunately for us, Blunden will change his mind about this particular imperative.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 91.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 62-5.

Thiepval Falls: Tolkien, Graeme West, Blunden, and a Bunch of Dummies are On Hand; C.E. Montague Leads the Feckless, Kate Luard Takes a Long Walk

aerial_photograph_of_thiepval_bombardment_25-09-1916_iwm_q_63740

Aerial photograph of Thiepval under bombardment, 1916 (Imperial War Museum) The squiggles are German trenches, the pockmarks large-caliber shell holes

Yet another phase of the Somme began today, a century back, with the first assault of the British Reserve Army, a relatively new formation made up of several whole and rested divisions, including the First Canadian Division. Guns on Thiepval Ridge had killed hundreds on July 1st, and progress in that central section of the front had been measured in yards.

But today, in one long afternoon’s struggle, Mouquet Farm and the village of Thiepval finally fell. A few tanks aided the attack, but it was British artillery superiority and a more skillful use of the “walking barrage” and other hard-won infantry/artillery tactics that made the most difference. German resistance was fierce, but even the best-defended fortress can be taken if the artillery remains on it until the infantry arrive–and if there is insufficient footing for a quick counter-attack. British and French progress to the east and south had narrowed Thiepval to something like a salient and–not least because there were other less ruinous lines of defense long prepared and only a few miles to the east–the German commanders soon decided to cede the area and withdraw.

This vanished village, shelled for three months before it was finally taken (see the reconnaissance photo at right), will become the site, after the war, of Edwin Luytens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, one of the great masterpieces of memorial architecture (see below).

None of our writers were in this assault, but several were in direct support. John Ronald Tolkien‘s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers marched from rest billets yesterday as far as Forceville, and today, a century back, they reached Hedauville, a town with a melancholy association for us. Tolkien spent the night sharing a tent with another officer, with camp to be struck in the morning.[1]

 

thiepval_memorial_to_the_missing

The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

Also marching up into support–and much closer to the action–was Arthur Graeme West of the 6th Ox and Bucks.

Tuesday, Sept. 26th, 1916

Moved at 8.30 towards the Front. Everybody rather fed up and tired. Reached a shell-torn ridge just near G….. about noon… then moved up to occupy trenches near M….. A quiet enough night, but not much sleep.[2]

These would be–I think–either Guillemont or Gunchy and Morval, the desolate places taken between the beginning of the month and yesterday (largely by the battered Guards Division) that lie south of Thiepval and east of the horror-woods of July and August.

In the quieter section of the line north of the Thiepval ridge, Edmund Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex had a curious part to play in the assault.

Their battalion diary preserves–as an appendix to the month’s doings–several details of the carefully-typed battalion orders. “Appendix B” details the activities of our sweet young poetical subaltern–harmless enough, today, for a man on the edge of Thiepval’s hell. (If only there were a more literary word we might use as a variation for this tired metaphor!)

  1. No smoke will be discharged unless the wind is between South and West. 2/Lt Blunden will be held responsible for this.
  2. 2/Lt. Blunden and 2 N.C.O.’s will assist the Brigade Bombing Officer who will be in charge of the smoke arrangements.

And assist them he did. It is characteristic of his memoir that Blunden modestly fulfills a strange martial task while another man–more rural, more practically skilled–does something altogether more interesting. Smoke screens… and straw-men.

Also, yes, Blunden will deliver that more resonant word for hell…

Recollection paints these autumn weeks in the Beaumont Hamel sector as a tranquil time. Naturally, there on the edge of the Thiepval inferno, there were ungentle interludes….

Other lacerations fell on the battalion in connection with the attacks on Thiepval south of the river. This name Thiepval began to have as familiar and ugly a ring as any place ever mentioned by man; and as yet we knew it by report only. Our present business was to divert some of the enemy’s heavy artillery from it when another forlorn hope was clutching the air before it: we made ostentatious “smoke attacks,” which gave me a change of employment. These attacks deluded some German machine gunners, and drew some shellfire, perhaps intended rather as a snub to impudence than as a genuine display of anxiety. The regimental sergeant-major, talented and gentlemanly Daniels, was ordered, about four one afternoon, to provide several hundred men of straw, which were to be raised above the parapet amid a heavy smoke cloud next morning. There was no straw. But with sandbags and grass and whatever trench theatricalities we could gather, with the aid of the regimental police, the ingenious man produced some dummies before midnight. And, I think, scarcely a dummy was lifted up next morning without becoming a casualty to the machine-guns. A good joke: but with this subaudible meaning, that the operators might have been playing the part of these marionettes, and no doubt would be yet.[3]

The Battalion Diary reports that this subterfuge “had the desired effect of distracting the Enemy & he shrapnelled our Front line & Supports, he also put a shrapnel barage across NO-MANS-LAND. No Casualties resulted.

 

Two brief bits, now, to close a curiously lighthearted day of dancing around the main violence. C. E. Montague is still playing pedagogue (if we might revert to the older sense of the word, in which a man of lower status and greater knowledge leads children to their lessons). He describes his day for his wife, and at least gives us what may be a tongue-in-cheek Rodin reference to sooth our hell-tired eyes:

I picked up my two charges and motored them over to an approach to an interesting part of the front… there was just enough shelling to give our guests thrills and finally decide them to come back, without really endangering them. They got another little thrill afterwards, as the Boche, in his wayward way, suddenly took to shelling the road about half a mile in front of the car–not thickly, but just here and there… you should have seen the way the excitable American chauffeur took the car over the mauvais pas, talking loudly all the time, and sending us flying up from the seats wherever the bumpy road was particularly bumpy. Nothing fell near us, but the guileless civilians imagined they had been in a real hot place, and were talking about having been in the gates of hell, etc., for a long time after… One feels ashamed to be going about with visitors who excite themselves if for two minutes in one day of their lives they run the quite small risk which every man in the trenches is running–and thinking nothing of–all the time. It is as if you and I were to escort the high-heeled tourist across the Mer de Glace.[4]

 

Finally, Kate Luard, whose “diary” for today reminds us that it is, in fact, a series of letters for her family members back in England. Although she has many times deplored the awfulness of violence and always treated German wounded with the utmost compassion, she is still cheered by a familiar English victory:

Great news of two Zepps brought down in Essex… I wonder did you see any of it? Proud moment for the Special Constable who took the 22 Germans prisoner in the middle of the night!

Also, after a harrowing summer, she has found an unexpected pause today in the constant duties of a head nurse. Having packed off three survivors of gangrene who “did their best to die” under her care, Kate Luard and a friend took a long walk–a favorite pastime long months in abeyance–and returned to have their rest immediately disturbed by a gas alarm: siren, then church bell, then village dogs.

It was a false alarm, and so back to bed, “after tea with the Night Sisters.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 91.
  2. Diary..., 132.
  3. Undertones of War, 96-7.
  4. C.E. Montague, 144-5.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 90-1.

Carroll Carstairs Beneath the Virgin’s Gaze; The Guards Advance and C. E. Montague Mulls a Postwar Career

Carroll Carstairs, American Grenadier Guard, continues to approach the line. He has been out before as an enlisted man, but this will be his introduction to the Somme, and to being an active officer of the Guards:

The train left Le Havre in the evening… we reached Rouen in the morning. Some eight to ten hours to complete a journey that once took an hour.

We had hoped to make a decent stop there, but soon we were on out way again, bound for Amiens. We detrained near Albert where I saw for the first time the statue of the Virgin Mary hanging at an angle of over fifty degrees from the church steeple. The common superstition was that its fall would signalise the end of the war…

The Guards Division had attacked that morning, September 25th, and we were told had captured all its objectives. The 3rd Battalion was in reserve. I joined it while the men were having their suppers, preparatory to moving off.

Carstairs, then, has replaced Raymond Asquith, going up to the same battalion of the Grenadier Guards.

That night we bivouacked in Trônes Wood. It remained a wood only in name. It had been swept with shell-fire until there was not a tree that had not been stripped of leaf and branch. Trees uprooted stretched across one’s path. Everywhere was the litter and débris of battle. An overturned six-inch German howitzer, an unexploded twelve-inch British shell, gun limbers, wheels, helmets, cartridges, big dugouts caved in by direct hits, bits of dead men and scattered clothing ripped from bodies by the back blast of big shells, and a few hurried shallow graves. Near the wood a village once existed. It had so literally vanished that not the dust of a single brick could be detected.

So crowded with troops was the valley below that the campfires and lights gave the illusion of a big city… I passed the night in a shell hole, and the naked trees of Trônes Wood could not screen the stars overhead from my. wakeful eyes. The guns were restless after the battle and the bark of the 18-pounders and the boom of the heavies continued throughout the night.[1]

For once the good news is fairly accurate. The Master of Belhaven was there, coordinating artillery fire from Guillemont quarry:

The day has been more successful than the most sanguine had dared to hope. We gained our first objective with hardly a casualty… Morval and Les Boeufs were taken an hour later with little more trouble. It is really quite extraordinary, as the places were very strong… we have taken hundreds of prisoners.[2]

The German resistance on this part of the Somme is beginning to crumble–albeit with a strategic surprise in store for the advancing allies. But the right flank of the British advance has been successful, the concentrated artillery battering the German defenders into madness or submission, and lifting only when the first waves of attackers are all but in their trenches. All the objectives of the September 15th attack have now been taken, and with Morval and Lesboeufs falling, the German position on Thiepval ridge–high ground to the north that the British have been trying to reach since July 1st–is now pressured on the flank. But it is not entirely cut off…

 

More battle looms, but that will hardly keep the tourists away. C.E. Montague is a calm, likeable fellow, a journalist comfortable in different social situations, and, now, as an intelligence officer, a not-unwilling semi-propagandist. He is also a former sergeant (who finally proved to be too old or infirm for the trenches) and therefore carries the authority of real experience. This “skill set,” as we would say, is too valuable not be used: the haphazard, romantic, amateur war that once featured gallant middle-aged men dying their hair and serving in the ranks has aged into a military-industrial operation that is increasingly able to put men where they will best serve the needs of the ever-expanding military bureaucracy. Montague, therefore, has become an intelligence officer with the special assignment of giving useful notables a thrilling and reasonably safe view of the front line.

But he must do the job very well indeed. I knew there was a reason I have always felt so safe in his hands:

Sept. 25, 1916

As I am almost the only one of our party who has had experience of front trenches, I have the good fortune to get most of the work escorting the most active visitors, who want to get well up to the centre of things, so that my little journeys are nearly always interesting. I do believe I shall be one of the best-equipped guides to the battlefield in existence after the war, and could make quite a decent subsistence by taking millionaire Americans round it for the rest of our lives.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. A Generation Missing, 62-4.
  2. War Diary, 260-1.
  3. C.E. Montague, 144.

Phillip Maddison Follows a Coffin; Vera Brittain’s Adventure Abroad Begins; Bimbo Tennant’s Grave; Arthur Graeme West Against the War

London was waking up this morning to the aftermath one of the worst zeppelin raids of the war. Henry Williamson, omnivorous novelist of the war’s notable actions, made use of this event to secure an awkward rapprochement between Phillip Maddison and his father–and to kill off Lily Cornford, the girl who was not good enough for him (socially) and too good for him (morally).

This morning, a century back, Phillip saw the twenty-two coffins of the German air crew, accompanied by an RFC honor guard, and fell in behind, reflecting on what has become a touchstone text of the novel.

Last of all walked Phillip, feeling lost, wondering if the spirits of the dead men were lingering in the autumn air, looking down, faintly curious, at the poor little bodies below. Was Lily there, too? He felt that the dead would not be angry, nor would they know any more fear. If only he could write poetry in which his feelings, and the scenes he had known, would live forever, like Julian Grenfell’s poem.[1]

But he can’t, and, inasmuch as Williamson’s hard-driven and haphazardly-elaborated themes can be summarized, the death of Lily and Phillip’s segue away from a period of Grenfell-idealizing (in which, not coincidentally, he performs bravely under fire on the Somme after several early instances of experiencing panic under fire) into a more introspective mode. We’ll pick up Phillip’s story in the next volume, when he is in France once more.

 

In a truer but somewhat attenuated incidence of historical irony, the raid qualified as something like a near miss for Vera Brittain. Yesterday she had bid farewell to her mother and brother in Camberwell before setting off for her eponymous liner. As her brother Edward will write, bombs fell on the site of their goodbyes not twenty-four hours after she had left to brave the threat of German submarines for hazardous service abroad: “The windows of the White Horse were smashed–just where Mother and I passed that morning after saying good-bye to you.”

We have come as far as air raids and U-boats: Julian Grenfell and the heroic tradition be damned, there is no need to go “Into Battle–” modern war will come to you.

And yet, if War brings movement and new opportunity–combined with manageable levels of danger and deprivation–it is not going to shake entirely free of its long conceptual partnership with Romance. Today is also the beginning of an adventure for a young woman who, for all the misery of hospital service and the death of her beloved, has been sheltered from both the terrors and the freedoms that 20th century war can bring… Malta is very far from Buxton.

Sunday September 24th Britannic

First thing in the morning Gower & I wandered over the ship, exploring the lower wards. A hospital ship is a very wonderful thing, but when I saw the swinging iron cots & realised the stuffiness of the lower decks even when empty, I was thankful that fate had not ordered me to serve on a hospital ship. We heard during the morning that our voyage was going to be much longer than we had hitherto supposed, for the Britannic, being too large to put in at Malta, would go straight to Mudros…

I felt no especial pang when I saw England disappear; it was all part of the hard path which I have assigned to myself to tread. So that my chief sentiments were much those of Roland’s verse written from my point of view (how truly prophetic He did not know) & which came into my mind as I stood on the boat deck–

I walk alone, although the way is long,
And with gaunt briars & nettles overgrown;
Though little feet are frail, in purpose strong
I walk alone.

And again I had that very strong feeling that in spite of the long distance that there was to be between me & all the people I loved, I was not really going very far away, and that no separation, so long as those who were separated were still on earth, could be so very great.[2]

Ah, but she is being brave. Looking back, Brittain will admit to terror.

Now that the perils of the sea were really at hand, the terror that had hung over me since I volunteered for foreign service and for one grim second had gripped me by the throat when Betty told me that we were going to Malta, somehow seemed less imminent. The expensive equipment of our cabins was illogically reassuring; those polished tables and bevelled mirrors looked so inappropriate for the bottom of the sea… it was difficult on so warm and calm an evening to convince one’s self that at any moment might come a loud explosion, followed by a cold, choky death in the smooth black water…[3]

 

This is a young imagination, only–although the threat of submarines is all too real. But young Bim Tennant, as polished and bevelled a young man as any mother could wish for, is really dead.

Today, a century back, his hasty grave was consolidated by the survivors of his battalion. His commanding officer’s letter to the family is the first of many letters of condolence which Lady Glenconner will receive and later excerpt in her memoir:

… We all loved him, and his loss is terrible. Please accept my deepest sympathy. His Company was holding a sap occupied by Germans and ourselves, a block separated the two. Bim was sniping when he was killed absolutely instantaneously by a German sniper. His body is buried in a cemetery near Guillemont. The grave is close to that of Raymond Asquith, and we are placing a Cross upon it and railing it round to-day. Forgive this scribble, we are still in action, and attack again to-morrow morning. Bim was such a gallant boy.

Yours very sincerely,

Henry Seymour,

Lt.-Col., 4th Batt. Grenadier Guards.[4]

 

Perhaps, with Bimbo Tennant dead and buried and the Somme not yet behind us, this is a good time to turn to an officer-writer I’ve been neglecting. Arthur Graeme West is as near to the temperamental opposite of Bim as we are likely to find. A gentle, quiet, middle-class Public Schoolboy, West had gone to Balliol and taken an interest in modern philosophy and radical politics. After some soul-searching he had tried for a commission in 1914, but was turned down, like so many others, due to poor eyesight. But the Public Schools Battalion accepted him, and he saw the trenches in 1915, including hard fighting over the winter of 1915-16. Not much of his writing from this period, however, is available, and so we met him only briefly in the spring.

It was then that West was commissioned and trained as an officer, despite his increasingly strong feeling that the war was inexcusable murder. And so, ironically, he missed the slaughter of his old unit on the Somme. He arrived in France earlier this month, an unwilling subaltern of the 6th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and we will now begin to have somewhat regular reports on his feelings and doings.

West is hard to get a handle on–in part because of the vexed nature of the publication of his writing–but by now he is certainly firm in his central conviction: that war is wrong, its evils mitigated neither by heroism nor by the stoic virtues of sacrifice and endurance.

How can a man with such views lead other men? It’s hard to tell; for the time being he works through his problem as if it were his problem alone.

Sunday, Sept. 24th 1916. A Tent.

I am very unhappy. I wish to make clear to myself why, and to thrash out what my desires really tend to.

I am unhappier than I ever was last year, and this not only because I have been separated from my friends or because I am simply more tired of the war.

It is because my whole outlook towards the thing has altered. I endured what I did endure last year patiently, believing I was doing a right and reasonable thing. I had not thought out the position of the pacifist and the conscientious objector, I was always sympathetic to these people, but never considered whether my place ought not been rather among them than where I actually was. Then I came back to England feeling rather like the noble crusader or explorer who has given up much for his friend but who is not going to be sentimental or overbearing about it, though he regards himself as somehow different from and above those who have not endured as he has done…

“This war is trivial, for all its vastness,” says B. Russell, and so I feel. I am being pained, bored, and maddened—and to what end? It is the uselessness of it that annoys me. I had once regarded it as inevitable; now I don’t believe it was, and had I been in full possession of my reasoning powers when the war began, I would never have joined the Army. To have taken a stand against the whole thing, against the very conception of force, even when employed against force, would have really been my happier and truer course.

The war so filled up my perspective at first that I could not see anything close because of it: most people are still like that…

Most men fight, if not happily, at any rate patiently, sure of the necessity and usefulness of their work. So did I
once! Now it all looks to me so absurd and brutal that I can only force myself to continue in a kind of dream-state;
I hypnotise myself to undergo it…

Even granting it was necessary to resist Germany by arms at the beginning—and this I have yet most carefully to examine—why go on?

Can no peace be concluded?

Is it not known to both armies that each is utterly weary and heartsick?

Of course it is. Then why, in God’s name, go on?

…The argument drawn from the sufferings of the men in the trenches, from the almost universal sacrifices to duty, are not valid against this. Endurance is hard, but not meritorious simply because it is endurance. We are confronted with two sets of martyrs here–those of the trenches, and those of the tribunal and the civil prison, and not by any means are the former necessarily in the right.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 446.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 328-9.
  3. Testament of Youth, 295-6.
  4. Memoir, 238.
  5. Diary..., 109-11.

Phillip Maddison, a Girl, and a Zeppelin; Horror and Pathos from Kate Luard; Vera Brittain Aboard the Britannic; Donald Hankey on What We Shall Be Writing Twenty Years Hence

Kate Luard‘s diary does many things. One of the best–one of the most terrible–is to place side by side a medical professional’s view of dreadful wounds with a writer’s record–a woman’s record and a nurse’s record–of the ways in which the social instincts of these shattered men lead them toward the comprehension of the new realities of their lives.

Saturday, September 23rd. There is a man in with both eyes and the top of his nose scooped out by a bit of shell. When I was cleaning him up he told me he was 49, but he’d given his age in as 38 to join the Army. Then he said, without any sort of comment, ‘I think I’ve lost my eyesight,’ as if it had been his rifle or his boots.[1]

 

I know of no extensive writing from anyone so horribly wounded in this war.[2] So we move on… to a significant letter from Donald Hankey to his sister Hilda. Hankey has been spared the worst of the Somme, in terms of danger and casualty, at least. But can a serious man–a man who has seen terribly wounded soldiers in the hours before they reached places like Kate Luard’s hospital–really hope for “action” and its greater destruction as an alternative to the grim slog of trench duty? Yes.

1st R. W[arwickshire] R[egiment]. Sept. 23, 1916

Dear Hilda,

I enclose one or two more cuttings. Melrose tells me that 3,000 copies of A Student in Arms have been sold…

We are still at peace; though I am hoping that we may get a scrap before the winter. It would be very horrible to slide squalidly into the winter without any excitement at all.

From all accounts things are going very well now in spite of the Hun having collected all the guns, etc., that he can on the threatened part of the Front.

Hankey may be writing wryly in either of the two previous paragraphs–more likely the earlier. But then again he may be serious. It’s war, even if his battalion is miserably “at peace” in the deepening mud, and it should be fought–there is morale to think of, as well as death. But then he begins, once again, to think of what all this might mean, going forward. It’s not like Hankey not to pause to consider things, and so he does.

How they do hate us! Every day in French and English papers alike you see the signs of it. It is difficult to believe that the war will heal the nations. I should not be surprised if, when we are old, we see a repetition of this war. I have little doubt that it will take most of our lifetime (if we survive the war) for the belligerent nations to recover their strength. But I have little doubt that if, as seems likely, we beat the Hun pretty badly, he will start the moment peace is signed to prepare for his revenge. A depressing thought, isn’t it?

It is–and it was, even without the double-tap of ironic pain that we experience, knowing how right he will turn out to be. And it’s not that Hankey was a pessimist: he feels himself duty-bound, I think, as a servant of God, to be realistic about man’s feeble, fallen state. Nor is his assessment based only on his observations of man’s hatefulness, or even of the foolishness of short memories: it’s also rooted in what he–the successful but carefully humble war-writer–sees as the inherent limitations of war writing.

Also, I doubt if we shall have such a horror of war as lots of people seem to think. The rising generation won’t know what we know, and we shall forget much that is bad. When a soldier can write that the brotherhood of the trench will be “a wistful radiant memory” now, what shall we be writing twenty years hence![3]

What indeed.

 

Today, a century back, was a momentous day for Vera Brittain. “Excited and apprehensive,” she embarked for Malta, to work at a military hospital there. Her mother and brother came out to Camberwell to see her, but she made them say “a last au revoir” on the street “as I did not want to watch them walk away.” Then it was a bus from the hospital–with her friend Betty–to Waterloo Station, a train to Southampton, and then a tender, out to where the mighty liner Britannic was lying at anchor off Cowes.

Remembering today, Brittain will write that “For a moment a sick dread had seized me when I learnt that she had been built as sister ship to the Titanic…” But, much like Donald Hankey, perhaps, she is rooting for a scrap:

In spite of the depressing effect of the ‘bus and Waterloo it was a great relief to me to leave Camberwell… So much had I grown to hate it that I felt that any change, to however much worse physical conditions, would be a welcome relief…[4]

Relief, perhaps. But as soon as she was safely aboard the Britannic, Brittain wrote home, to her brother Edward:

HM Hospital Ship Britannic, 23 September 1916

We left Waterloo (where by the way I felt very wretched as there were so many instructions & such a crowd & so much to do & such a general air of departure) at 12.30, arriving at Southampton at 2.10… We sailed down the Solent just as the sun was setting; it was a glorious evening with a smooth blue sea & the sun making a golden track which seemed to stretch from us to the fast disappearing mainland… Ships with searchlights are all about us in the dim distance–10.15 now. There is a large life-belt–a new kind, of waistcoat shape, attached to each bed.[5]

 

Finally, today, we have fictional cause to remember a historical event of tonight and tomorrow–and one that fits very well with Hankey’s gloomy and accurate prediction of the future of war. There have been several notable Zeppelin raids on England, and tonight another began. These ponderous airships are staples of steampunk, now–retro-glamorous alternatives to a noisier, speedier history of air travel–but they were looming, cutting-edge terrors then. They can do nothing but dump bombs indiscriminately on urban areas–but this of course is what makes them so modern. They float over the experiential gulf, and bring the terror of war to the home front.

Nine zeppelins reached England late tonight, making for London and–very memorable–two were brought down. One came to earth at Snail’s Hall Farm in Great Burstead, another bombed Bromley-by-Bow and crash-landed in slow motion, its crew captured by a patrolling constable.

Henry Williamson has been preparing his ponderous fiction for this moment for quite some time: Phillip Maddison is home from the Somme, and recuperating; his father, Richard–with whom Phillip has a fraught, silently nasty relationship–has been lording it as a self-important special constable enforcing blackout rules in their suburb; and Phillip and his friend Desmond have quarreled over a girl, the limpid and saintly formerly-fallen Lily Cornford.

Late tonight, Phillip and Desmond lie out on “The Hill,” while Williamson presents–through the half-crazed Desmond–their wartime experiences as explanations for their behavior. Desmond, who is nearly hysterical and suffering from shell shock, knew Lily first, and loves her, and perceives her devotion to Phillip (an inexplicable thing, really, even if it is supposed to be inexplicable to Phillip himself) as evidence of his diabolic dishonesty. Combat has unhinged Desmond, rendering him violent and paranoid, but he has heard the more or less true stories of Phillip’s cowardice in 1914 (based more closely on Williamson’s own experiences than the present scenes) and introduces them as evidence of Phillip’s habit of treachery to friends. It’s about war, and it’s about what came before, and it’s about a girl. Phillip is not completely convinced that he is wrong.

Then the friends separate, and Desmond calms down, and the story falls back onto its original line of Freudian entrenchments–Desmond returns and tells Phillip that he is himself the son of a “fallen woman,” and the two friends begin to patch things up…

But you, reader, are losing patience with the plodding pace of this (plodding summary of this) plodding novel. For once, Williamson realizes this too, and it is just now that the zeppelin comes into view, tonight, a century back. The two young soldiers on leave watch as nearby anti-aircraft machine guns open up.

Williamson takes another liberty, now, and conflates the shooting-down of this zeppelin with another raid that will take place on October 19/20–a raid in which bombs killed fifteen people, including several members of the same family asleep in bed. But by October Phillip will be elsewhere, and the historically fictional war waits for no man…

You know where this is going. Tonight is the melodramatic climax of The Golden Virgin, the sixth novel in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, and it clears away a good chunk of Phillip’s past. The two young men are too late: when they come to the site of the bombing, where five houses have collapsed, Special-Sergeant Richard Maddison has already been borne off to the hospital, slightly wounded and in shock–and the bodies of Lily and her mother have been dragged from the rubble.

Phillip meets his father at the hospital, and the old man’s reserve is, for once, gone.

“It was awful, Phillip!”

“Yes, Father, I quite understand…”

“No, oh no. Of course this is all new to me. I suppose… you have many times experienced the effects of bursting shells? Well this one was an eye-opener to me, I can assure you!”[6]

But Lily is dead, transfigured from a not-quite-believable saintly young woman to a saintly ideal for Phillip to ponder as we he returns to the war…

 

Finally, today–if my math is correct and if we can tolerate a “spoiler” that is very broad indeed–we can mark an occasion that none of our century-back writers were aware of: Britain’s war is half over.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 90.
  2. Although Dalton Trumbo did a terrifyingly effective job of imagining something even worse.
  3. Letters of Donald Hankey, 353-4.
  4. Testament of Youth, 292-4.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 276.
  6. The Golden Virgin, 430-42.

Bimbo Tennant’s Shoot-Out in Gas Alley

gas-alleycrop

The scrap of nowhere, northeast of Delville Wood, where Bim Tennant died. “Gas Alley” is the trench that runs across the center of the map, from southwest (where the transition from blue to red marks the ownership of the trench as of a few days ago) to the northeast.

The Somme battle was in a lull between major attacks today, a century back. The 4th Grenadiers had been sent up yesterday to help prepare the way for the next stab at the third German line. North of Ginchy, between Longueval toward Flers, there was a tangle of trenches where an earlier push had entered the German lines and then been halted.

The Grenadiers did not go “over the top” yesterday as Bimbo Tennant had expected, but found more painstaking work before them. They had to fight sideways through a trench system, up communications trenches that had been blocked by the German defenders, who then withdrew and lay in ambush.

This was work for Grenadiers indeed. But when Tennant’s friend and company commander Captain Spencer-Churchill[1] went over to try to connect “Gas Alley” with the next bit of trench, he was hit by snipers and wounded.

Tennant, cropped

Edward Wyndham Tennant, by John Singer Sargent, 1915

 

Bim Tennant was less fortunate. Left behind in Gas Alley, he took it upon himself to respond to the short-range Germans sniping, and “occupied his time in shooting at the enemy. Apparently, there was some movement by the Germans which led him to shoot with his revolver, and a moment later he fell dead, shot through the head by one of the enemy’s snipers.”[2]

 

Lady Glenconner (née Pamela Wyndham), was a much-beloved mother. We have so many of Bim’s letters to her, with her loving commentary, and the two seem to have been the best of friends. If there was ever a cross word, it was not preserved.

It seems cruel, in any case, to speculate: Lady Glenconner is a mother of dead children. In the spring she lost an infant far too young to speak, and in the beginning of Autumn, now, she has lost her eldest, all of nineteen years old, the boy who always wrote so sweetly of his love for her.

She will publish his poems and his letters, a continuation of their joint effort, in life. And more: the Sargent drawing Bim had wanted for the frontispiece of a little volume of poems will now be the frontispiece of his mother’s Memoir of his brief life. Productive in grief, Lady Glenconner will also publish many of Bim’s earliest poems and letters to her–overpoweringly sentimental and desperately sad proof of a little boy’s love for his beautiful, loving mother.

I have written before about the difficulty of integrating the writing of grief-stricken parents into this polyphonic project–grief-stricken mothers, for the most part. Lady Glenconner, however, writes sparingly in her own voice, and says much of what she would say in quotation–of young Bim above all. She means to show not only his love of her, but his love of life–both not to be doubted–and also, with some of the poems, his claim to poetic talent.

I’m not sure what to do but include some of what she preserved, here and over the coming days. It’s heartbreaking and, I hope, raw. I’ll close with something of hers, of his (if that makes sense).

But first, one mourner to begin the condoling: Osbert Sitwell, a friend and comrade who had made himself a family friend, is perhaps best positioned to call across the unfathomable gulf that now separates Bim and his mother,

I, though I only have known Bim for two years, feel a gap which can never be filled; I shall always feel the gratitude for his friendship. I am sure he faced death with the marvellous vitality, courage, and love of beautiful ideas and things that always actuated him. His only sorrow in death would be your sorrow, and that of those who loved him. You were always his one thought, and he would never even smoke, because he had promised you, once, not to. He was convinced of a future life. I am sure that a vitality such as his can never be wasted.

It was this same note–Christian, gentle, uplifting–that Lady Glenconner used when it came time for the abrupt transition from the letters of the living boy to the memorials of the dead officer.

The posthumous chapter begins with this epigraph:

“‘Out on thee, Death,’ Justice and Pity said,
‘Why take the young, and let the old go free?’
‘Religion is the worship of the dead,’
Death answered, ‘know ye not? more foolish ye.
How could Below look upward to Above
Did not these die, whom Gods and Mothers love?'”

F. W. Bain

Then there is a brief quotation from Tennyson–“That death whose truer nature is Onward. . . “–and Lady Glenconner’s brief confirmation of what every reader must already know:

On the 22nd September, 1916, Bim went on.[3]

But what could be as sad as this?bimbo-tennants-dedication-to-moth

References and Footnotes

  1. Edward George, I believe, a cousin at some distance to Winston.
  2. The Grenadier Guards in the Great War, II, 137.
  3. Memoir, 237-9.

Two Fusiliers in the English Country Clover: A Final Chapter From John Bernard Adams, Siegfried Sassoon on the Hunt

We return with two Royal Welch Fusiliers to their home hunting grounds, today: one at ease thinking diligently of war and the other riding hard and strenuously avoiding all thought. But first, our second mention of the American Guardsman Carroll Carstairs, whose movement toward the front lines is simple physics: he goes to fill the vacuum left by the lacerations of September 15th.

We left Waterloo Station on the 21st of September, eight of us, embarked at Southampton and reaching Le Havre the next morning proceeded to the Guards Divisional Base Depot at Harfleur. Harfleur! Five hundred years ago Henry V had taken it from the French. We still seemed to have it! Here we were billeted in huts, two officers per hut. Paths with trim herbaceous borders gave to the camp, for its transient inhabitants, a final touch of home before the train that took one up to the front had jerked slowly out of the station at Le Havre.

Around the table in the officers’ mess one pondered over the lists of casualties that, occurring on the 15th, had begun to appear in the “Roll of Honour.” But not for long. We were needed to fill the gaps and remained at Harfleur scarcely more than a day or two before we received orders to join the Division…[1]

 

Has Siegfried Sassoon been beating a path toward protest, toward poetic efflorescence, toward an outing of the indoor man? Is the sensitive poet ready to fling barely metaphorical bombs at the profiteers and jingoists on his own side? Perhaps. He has, after all, just spent time in Wales with Robert Graves and at Garsington Manor with the “sophisticated hospitalities” of Lady Ottoline Morell.

But he has also, during this strange prolongation of sick leave (he is healthy, and the army is shorter and shorter on officers, yet several medical boards will renew his leave), beaten a certain path of retreat into “that pre-war personality.” Today, a century back, was his first day in quite some time as a fox hunting man. Cub-hunting, rather–five times in the coming week. Cub hunting, it seems, is a way of training dogs and horses for the proper hunting season while killing off young foxes who are full-grown but not yet sexually mature. If Sassoon sees the irony in training the young to cull the weaker young this fall, he doesn’t mention it.

September 21st. Met at Orton Waterville, 6.30. Fine morning after slight frost. Found in the Long Covert and hunted one over the road and railway, through the osiers and along by the railway bridge; then back by the river and lost him beyond the ferry… they afterwards killed a brace. Scent fair. Home 11.30. Rode Westmorland.[2]

 

Not every officer on medical leave was using the fine Summer weather to escape the war, however.

 

Chapter XVII
Conclusion

It was a slumbrous afternoon in September. My wound had healed up a month ago, and I was lazily convalescent at my aunt’s house in one of the most beautiful parts of Kent. The six soldiers who were also convalescent there were down in the hop-garden. For hop-picking was in full swing. I was sitting in a deck-chair with Don Quixote on my knees; but I was not reading…

I was listening to the incessant murmur that came from far away across the Medway, across the garden of England, and across the Channel and the flats of Flanders. That sound came from Picardy. All day the insistent throb had been in the air; sometimes faint bimips were clearly distinguishable, at other times it was nothing but one steady vibration. But always it was there, that distant growl, that insistent mutter. Even in this perfect peace, I could not escape the War.

So begins the end of John Bernard Adams‘ memoir, Nothing of Importance. Wounded in June, Adams has missed the Somme battle which claimed the lives of so many of his Regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. But he came back to this moment to put a coda to his book–I am fudging here, for he does not give a precise date for his “slumbrous afternoon” when news of a bloody attack is in the papers, but this one fits the bill fairly well–and I wanted to observe it with him.

Like his comrade Siegfried Sassoon–another Kentish officer of the Welch–Adams finds the contrast of perfect English peace with the chaotic hell of trenches almost too much to bear. But unlike Sassoon, Adams finds himself–or writes himself–sure of his subsequent direction. Out of dissonance and irony, conviction. I will excerpt at length:

To-day I felt completely well; the lassitude and inertness of convalescence were gone — at any rate, for the moment. My mind was very clear, and I could think surely and rapidly…

I tried to imagine trenches running across the lawn, with communication trenches running back to a support line through the meadow; a few feet of brick wall would be all that would be left of the house, and this would conceal my snipers; the mulberry tree would long ago have been razed to the ground, and every scrap of it used as firewood in our dug-outs; this desk chair of mine might possibly be in use in Company Headquarters in one of the cellars. No, it was not easy to imagine war without seeing it.

I picked up the paper that had fallen at my side. There had been more terrible fighting on the Somme, and it had seemed very marvellous to a journalist as he lay on a hill some two miles back, and watched through his field-glasses: it was wonderful that the men advancing (if indeed he could really see them at all in the smoke of a heavy artillery barrage) still went on, although their comrades dropped all round them. Yet I wondered what else anyone could do but go on? Run back, with just as much likelihood of being shot in doing so? Or, even if he did get back, to certain death as a deserter? Everyone knows the safest place is in a trench; and it is a trench you are making for. Lower down on the page came a description of the wounded; he had talked to so many of them, and they were all smiling, all so cheerful; smoking cigarettes and laughing. They shook their fists, and shouted that the only thing they wanted to do was to get back into it! Pah! I threw the paper down in disgust. Surely no one wants to read such stuff, I thought. Of course the men who were not silent, in a dull stupefied agony, were smiling: what need to say that a man with a slight wound was laughing at his luck, just as I had smiled that early morning when the trolley took me down from Maple Redoubt? And who does not volunteer for an unpleasant task, when he knows he cannot possibly get it? Want to get back into it, indeed! Ask Tommy ten years hence whether he wants to be back in the middle of it again!

I wondered why people endured such cheap journalism…Are not our people able to bear the truth, that war is utterly hellish, that we do not enjoy it, that we hate it, hate it, hate it all? And then it struck me how ignorant people still were; how uncertainly they spoke, these people at home: it was as though they dared not think things out, lest what they held most dear should be an image shattered by another point of view…

Well then, let’s get shatterin’. But he has been, carefully and methodically, for a few hundred pages now. He thinks of horrible wounds on one side of the experiential gulf, of smug pro-war convictions on the other.

Oh! you men and women who did not know before the capabilities of human nature, I thought, please take note of it now; and after the war do not underestimate the quality of mankind. Did it need a war to tell you that a man can be heroic, resolute, courageous, cheerful, and capable of sacrifice?

There were those who could have told you that before this war. There was a lull in the vibration. I turned in my chair, and listened. Then it began again.

“People are afraid to think it out,” I said. “I have not seen the Somme fighting, but I know what war is. Its quality is not altered by multiplication or intensity. The colour of life-blood is a constant red. Let us look into this business; let us face all the facts. Let us not flinch from any aspect of the truth.” And my thoughts ran somewhat as follows:

First of all, War is evil—utterly evil. Let us be sure of that first. It is an evil instrument, even if it be used for motives that are good. I, who have been through war and know it, say that it is evil. I knew it before the war; instinct, reason, religion told me that war was evil; now experience has told me also.

I break in now really only for the rhythm of the thing. It should be clear by now that Adams is closing his book with what we might call a programmatic statement. And that he has our interests at heart: the knowledge that experience confers, and the ethical, historical, and literary challenges that it poses.

He is angry, but he pauses and, Hankey-like (yet pushed to a more radical position) forces himself to weigh things carefully.

It is a strange synthesis, this war: it is a synthesis of adventure, dullness, good spirits, and tragedy; but none of these things are new to human experience… I have seen and felt the adventure of war, its deadly fascination and excitement: it is the greatest game on earth: that is its terrible power : there is such a wild temptation to paint np its interest and glamour : it gives such scope to daring, to physical courage, to high spirits: it makes so many prove themselves heroic, that were it not for the fall of the arrow, men would call the drawing of the bow good. I have seen the dullness, the endless monotony, the dogged labour, the sheer power of will conquering the body and “carrying on”: there is good in that, too. In the jollity, the humour, the good-fellowship is nothing but good also. There is good in all these things; for these are qualities of human nature triumphing in spite of war. These things are not war; they are the good in man prostituted to a vile thing.

For I have seen the real face of war: I have seen men killed, mutilated, blown to little pieces; I have seen men crippled for life; I have looked in the face of madness, and I know that many have gone mad under its grip. I have seen fine natures break and crumble under the strain. I have seen men grow brutalized, and coarsened in this war. (God will judge justly in the end ; meanwhile, there are thousands among us—yes, and among our enemy too—brutalized through no fault of theirs). I have lost friends killed (and shall lose more yet), friends with whom I have lived and suffered so long.

Who is for war now! Its adventure, its heroism! Bah!

Adams goes on–at some length–about the horrors of war. But he soon arrives at his second point: the duties of a Christian in this time of murder are not the same as those of a writer from the trenches–they are, in fact, in no way predicated on experience:

I knew that war was vile, before I went into if. I have seen it: I do not alter my opinion. I went into this war prepared to sacrifice my life to prove that right is stronger than wrong; I have stood again and again with a traverse between me and death; I have faced the possibility of madness. I foresaw all this before I went into this war. What difference does it make that I have experienced it? It makes no difference. Let no one fear that our sacrifice has been in vain. We have already won what we are fighting for. The will for war, that aggressive power, with all the cards on its side prepared, striking at its own moment, has already failed against a spirit, weaker, unprepared, taken unawares. And so I am clear on my second point. We are fighting from just motives, and we have already baulked injustice. Aggressive force, the power that took up the cruel weapon of war, has failed. No one can ever say that his countrymen have laid down their lives in vain.

And yet experience has played an important role. It hasn’t changed reality, but it has catalyzed perception:

I got up from the chair, and started walking about the garden. Everything was so clear. Before going out to the war I had thought these things; but the thoughts were fluid, they ran about in mazy patterns, they were elusive, and always I was frightened of meeting unanswerable contradictions to my theorising from men who had actually seen war. Now my conclusions seemed crystallised by irrefutable experience into solid truth.

After a while I sat down again and resumed my train of thought:

War is evil. Justice is stronger than Force. Yet, was there need of all this bloodshed to prove this? For this war is not as past wars; this is every man’s war, a war of civilians, a war of men who hate war, of men who fight for a cause, who are compelled to kill and hate it. That is another thing that people will not face. Men whisper that Tommy does not hate Fritz. Again I say, away with this whispering. Let us speak it out plain and bold. Private Davies, my orderly, formerly a shepherd of Blaenau Festiniog, has no quarrel with one Fritz Schneider of Hamburg who is sitting in the trench opposite the Matterhorn sap; yet he will bayonet him certainly if he comes over the top, or if we go over into the German trenches; ay, he will perform this action with a certain amount of brutality too, for I have watched him jabbing at rats with a bayonet through the wires of a rat trap, and I know that he has in him a savage vein of cruelty. But when peace is declared, he and Fritz will light a bonfire of trench stores in No Man’s Land, and there will be the end of their quarrel…

It is hard to trace ultimate causes. It is hard to fix absolute responsibility. There were many seeds sown, scattered, and secretly fostered before they produced this harvest of blood. The seeds of cruelty, selfishness, ambition, avarice, and indifference, are always liable to swell, grow, and bud, and blossom suddenly into the red flower of war…

And it is because they know that we, too, are not free from them, that certain men have stood out from the arena as a protest against war. These men are real heroes, who for their conscience’s sake are enduring taunts, ignominy, misunderstanding, and worse. Most men and women in the arena are cursing them, and, as they struggle in agony and anguish they beat their hands at them and cry ”You do not care.” I, too, have cursed them, when I was mad with pain. But I know them, and I know that they are true men. I would not have one less. They are witnesses against war. And I, too, am fighting war. Men do not understand them now, but one day they will.

I know that there are among us, too, the seeds of war: no cause has yet been perfect. But I look at the facts. We did not start, we did not want this war… It was the seeds of war in Germany that were responsible. And so history will judge.

But what of the future?

Adams ends his book on this September afternoon, a century back (give or take a few days), with a return to fundamentals. There is no way out of modern war, he argues, except for a way that was there from the beginning. Experience has sent him back to the central Christian story. John Bernard Adams will be neither the first nor the last to see the sufferings of the infantry prefigured in the Passion:

…I walked up and down the lawn, my eyes glowing, my brain working hard. Here around me was all the beauty of an old garden, its long borders full of phloxes, delphiniums, stocks, and all the old familiar flowers; the apples glowed red in the trees; the swallows were skimming across the lawn. In the distance I could hear the rumble of the wagon bringing up the afternoon load of hop-pokes to the oasthouse. Yet what I had seen of war was as true, had as really happened, as all this. It would be so easy to forget, after the war. And yet to forget might mean a seed of war. I must never forget Lance-Corporal Allan.

There is only one sure way, I said at last. And again a clear conviction filled me… There is only one Man whose eyes have never glittered. Look at the palms of your hands, you, who have had a bullet through the middle of it! Did they not give you morphia to ease the pain? And did you not often cry out alone in the darkness in the terrible agony, that you did not care who won the war if only the pain would cease? Yet one Man there was who held out His hand upon the wood, while they knocked, knocked, knocked in the nail, every knock bringing a jarring, excruciating pain, every bit as bad as yours…

Do you want to put an end to the arena? Here is a Man to follow. In hoc signo vinces.

Now as I stood on the lawn, I heard the long continuous vibration of the guns upon the Somme.

“You are War,” I said aloud. “This is your hour, the power of darkness. But the time will come when we shall follow the Man who has conquered your last weapon, death: and then your walls of steel will waver, cringe, and fall, melted away before the fire of LOVE.”[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 61-2.
  2. Siegfried's Journey, 24-5.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 313-29.

The Prime Minister Grieves; Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas Get On With Their Writing; Richard Aldington Goes for a Noncom; Bimbo Tennant’s Heart of Triple Bronze

A brief flurry of four letters, today, and several impending movements–some routine, others ominous.

First, the poets.

Isaac Rosenberg has been on the Somme front for much of the year. His battalion has not been in any of the attacks, but has seen a good deal of the war of attrition. In and out of trenches, working in salvage, Rosenberg has, by now, as great a claim to be a “poet of the trenches” as anyone. He has written much, but he has written well. And the tenuous connection to mainstream (i.e. Anglican, and wealthy or well-connected) poetry that Eddie Marsh has provided him is beginning to take hold. Gordon Bottomley has written to Rosenberg several times, now, with praise and advice, and reciprocal gifts are promised. In a letter postmarked today, a century back, Rosenberg thanks Bottomley and allows himself the luxury of dreaming for the future.

22311 A Coy 3 Platoon
11th KORL BEF

Dear Mr Bottomley

I have not had the chance till now of thanking you for your beautiful thought of me in your letter & book. It has been wet and mucky in the trenches for some time & the cold weather helping, we are teased by the elements as well as by the German fireworks, I don’t think Ive been dry yet these last few days… It gave me fine pleasure that you liked my drawing. I have not yet written home about that Adam & Eve drawing as I don’t remember where it is but I want you to have it when I get back if I am lucky…

I am most eager to read your early book but it would be far from safe to send it here, beside the little time there is for reading.

Yours Sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

 

Back in London, Gordon Bottomley’s old friend Edward Thomas wrote once again to Eleanor Farjeon.[2] As artillery training and a commission approach, his poetic pen is once more drying up. But he did write several poems recently which we, dragged once more into death on the Somme, did not read here. Today he sends them–possibly “That Girl’s Clear Eyes” and “What Will They Do” (a poem we will return to)–to Farjeon, whom he recognizes as his best first reader. She’s the person he would prefer to send his draft verses to–rather, that is, than the powerful and distant Frost. It doesn’t hurt that she types them for him…

Wednesday

My dear Eleanor, I don’t know yet whether I am going. The exam was easy but I expect others found it so too. Of course if I don’t go to Trowbridge I shall see you before long. In case I don’t could you send me a copy of those last verses—the Blenheim Oranges—of mine? I can’t find one or the original. You will see I have written some more too—if you can see the faint type. Perhaps one of them is better than the others…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[3]

 

And one more fairly dull London literary note: Richard Aldington, high-minded modernist and alternately strutting soldier and lamenting conscript, has been selected for training as a non-commissioned officer. This meant six days’ leave, and he and his wife, the poet H.D.–who had moved away to be near him in camp and was miserable there–“went straight to London to resume something resembling their former literary life.”

Aldington, H.D., F.S. Flint and several friends “dined together in Soho. Flint wrote to [Amy] Lowell that it was a ‘comprehensive gathering of the clan . . . the absent ones being yourself on the bay where the tea was spoiled and Lawrence on some little bay in Cornwall.’”[4] It’s worth noting that Aldington had not wanted to fight, waited nearly two years to be drafted, and then turned proud army man, writing sneeringly of people like Flint who were too physically infirm to be desirable to the draft boards. Meanwhile Flint seems to be casting aspersions on D.H. Lawrence, who has chosen a sort of internal exile on his “little bay,” in the hopes of weathering the storms of social backlash meted out to confirmed pacifists. Which is a difficult and uncompromised position…

 

Others, of course, who had no desire to go to war had promptly gone nonetheless. It seemed to many men to be, even in August 1914, an inevitable duty–which is to say that serving in the armed forces was both necessary and socially unavoidable, and therefore there was nothing to do but make the best of it.

Which is what Raymond Asquith did, preserving himself as a loving husband and father and a sharp-penned society wit, while also becoming a capable and widely-admired Guards officer. And he survived more than two years of war…

Today, a century back, a first letter from his father, the beleaguered prime minister, H.H. Asquith, reacting to his son’s death.

I can honestly say that in my own life he was the thing of which I was truly proud, and in him and his future I had invested all my stock of hope. That is all gone, and for the moment I feel bankrupt…

I drove from here yesterday to Mells, nearly 80 miles, to see Katherine who wanted me… I have never seen anyone so stunned and shattered: all she wants is to die. Only yesterday morning she had received a letter from him, written last Thursday:[5] she showed it to me–a delightful little love letter.[6]

Two things, at least, are needless to say: that a letter from beyond the grave, as it were, seems like a most sharp and perfect manifestation of the grim ironies of proximity; and that such a letter could hardly increase the real suffering of a bereaved wife. There’s little to be felt from a knife twisted in a such a gaping wound–but it hurts.

 

Asquith’s younger friend and fellow guardsman Bim Tennant (his polite acquaintance, really–the two were related by marriage and moved in the same circles, but they were not close, separated as they were by more than eighteen years and almost diametrically opposite temperaments) has avoided grieving for the many losses of September fifteenth. He has other matters to attend to: it will be his turn to go forward on the attack, soon.

20th September, 1916

“… To-night we go up to the last trenches we were in, and to-morrow we go over the top. Our Brigade has suffered less than either of the other two Brigades in Friday’s biff, so we shall be in the forefront of the battle. I am full of hope and trust, and pray that I may be worthy of my fighting ancestors. The one I know best is Sir Henry Wyndham, whose bust is in the hall at 44 Belgrave Square, and there is a picture of him on the stairs at 34 Queen Anne’s Gate. We shall probably attack over about 1200 yards, but we shall have such artillery support as will properly smash the Boche line we are going for. And even (which is unlikely) if the artillery doesn’t come up to our hopes the spirit of the Brigade of Guards will carry all resistance before it. The pride of being in such a great regiment! The thought that all the old men, ‘late Grenadier Guards,’who sit in the London Clubs, are thinking and hoping about what we are doing here! I have never been prouder of anything, except your love for me, than I am of being a Grenadier. To-day is a great day for me. That line of Harry’s rings through my mind, ‘High heart, high speech, high deeds, ‘mid honouring eyes[7] I went to a service on the side of a hill this morning, and took the Holy Communion afterwards, which always seems to help one along, doesn’t it? I slept like a top last night, and dreamed that someone I know very well (but I can’t remember who it was) came to me and told me how much I had grown. Three or four of my brother officers read my poems yesterday, and they all liked them very much which pleased me enormously. I feel rather like saying ‘If it be possible let this cup pass from me,’ but the triumphant finish ‘nevertheless not what I will but what Thou wiliest,’ steels my heart and sends me into this battle with a heart of triple bronze.[8]

I always carry four photies of you when we go into action, one is in my pocket-book, two in that little leather book, and one round my neck, and I have kept my little medal of the Blessed Virgin. Your love for me and my love for you, have made my whole life one of the happiest there has ever been; Brutus’ farewell to Cassius sounds in my heart: ‘If not farewell; and if we meet again, we shall smile.’ Now all my blessings go with you, and with all we love. God bless you, and give you Peace.

Eternal Love,

from BIM.”[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, e.d, Poetry Out of My Head, 83-4.
  2. The letter is postmarked "21 September 1916," a Thursday.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 213.
  4. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, 137.
  5. This is either a truly "last" letter written on the 14th along with the last letter to Diana Manning that wasn't printed in the Life and Letters, or this one, written last Tuesday, the 12th.
  6. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 230.
  7. "Harry" Cust's Non Nobis.
  8. Congratulate me for recognizing this as Homeric--but Bimbo is probably taking it via Horace.
  9. Memoir, 234-5.