Siegfried Sassoon Wends His Way East; Rowland Feilding has a Rare Accident

Siegfried Sassoon is on a solitary and abbreviated Grand Tour, crossing France and Italy en route to Palestine, with nothing but a few new acquaintances, a head cold, and his bag full of books to help him pass the time. Yesterday he indulged in a book that was not on his carefully curated list–to his chagrin.

February 18

Through Novi and Vochera, where we halt for lunch 12-1. Glaring sunlight and cold wind—dried-up land. All afternoon we crawl through vinelands, with the low, blue, delicate-edged hills on the right—a few miles away, till the sun goes down and leaves an amethyst glow on that horizon, and at 7.30 we reach Bologna.

Reading Lewis Seymour and Some Women all day—an easy-flowing, unpleasant-flavoured book—great relief to turn to Pater’s Botticelli essay, and then to Hardy’s Woodlanders. Nasty old man, George Moore.

Jolly companionship of the journey, in spite of the animal squalor and so on. Harper rather hipped and fussy—bad campaigner, I fear. Howell-Jones sensible and philosophical. M. Robinson has my heart with his dear impetuous ways, kind and willing and cheery.

So not rally all that solitary, in fact. Today, with all quiet in London and France, we’ll continue to trundle along with Sassoon.

I do want to say one thing about his diary, which is now being regularly updated for the first time in months: it’s a travelogue, yes, but he’s not just marking time or recording the stages of his journey. He’s also making notes again, in the sense that he is once again thinking about writing about what he sees. This is important, I think: never mind “indoor” and “outdoor” Sassoon–that is an imperfect binary distinction imposed retrospectively. But whether or not he is experiencing the war as something he might write about is an important indicator of his mood. When he is despairing, he writes angrily, unproductively, for the moment at hand; when frustrated or indulging in “mindless” activities he only writes to record them.

So he is once again content, it would seem–and yet not mindlessly content, as he portrayed himself during the period of huntin’ and drillin’ in Ireland.

February 19

After a night-journey of freezing gloom, the train stopping occasionally in cavernous stations, we reached Faenza about 2.30 a.m. and slept in the train. Turned out at 8 to a sunlit morning and soon found ourselves washing and drinking coffee in a hotel, moderately comfortable. Clean, narrow tall streets, a market-place full of gossip and babble of cloaked, unshaven, middle-aged men, with a sprinkling of soldiers in grey with yellow collars. We stay here twelve hours. The fountain in the place was festooned with ice, like melted lead.[1]

 

And Rowland Feilding is traveling in an entirely different direction. We have seen the Master of Belhaven use the perquisites of a commander–free time and the influence to obtain leisure facilities–to persecute peripatetic partridges, but Feilding satisfies a desire not for bygone pastimes but novelty:

February 20, 1918. Vadenay.

Yesterday afternoon I at last satisfied my ambition, and flew in an aeroplane. It was a glorious day, and, piloted by a little French corporal, we mounted to something over 5,000 feet and cruised for three-quarters of an hour at that altitude. It is a wonderful feeling. We were so high above the captive balloons that they looked like peas, or
rather beans (which is their shape).

All was going well when, suddenly, a crack and a whizz: something was wrong in front. Bits of metal came flying back, missing the pilot, but making a hole in each of the wings. A piece 2 1/2 feet long caught up in the stays and fluttered there. The propeller made a hesitating turn or two, then stopped, and I—who was as ignorant as a babe of what was the matter, and knew only that we were 5,000 feet above the ground—began to wonder what would happen next.

I think I should have expected under the circumstances to feel frightened, but my pilot remained so self-possessed, and the aeroplane began to descend so steadily, that a feeling of almost complete confidence came over me, and I do not think my heart beat one pat the faster.

I repeat this as a study in sensations, and because I think the experience (having regard to the fact that it was my first time up) was interesting and peculiar.

The pilot steered the machine round and round in little spiral curves towards the earth, while I sat and watched the landscape getting closer and more defined, and as a precaution fixed the strap which is provided for the purpose around my waist. As we neared the tree-tops we got rather wobbly (my pilot was manouevring for position and was
keeping the aeroplane level), but finally we landed smoothly on the very aerodrome we had started from;—when I felt much relieved.

They tell me it was a rare accident. It was caused by a valve of the engine, which was of the rotary type, blowing loose, and cutting the steel housing of the motor, round the complete circle. It was some pieces of the housing that had come flying back, and the force required for the operation illustrates the immense power of these engines (250 horse-power).

The engine was of course wrecked; but I have had my fly, though I daresay I am not so keen to repeat it just at present, even if I get the opportunity.

It is wretched thinking of you all in London while these beastly raids are going on.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 214
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 252-3.

Bayoneting With Edward Heron-Allen; Wilfred Owen’s “Last Words”

First, today, another very entertaining entry from our great latecomer, Edward Heron-Allen. He is recently commissioned, still under training, and very much in England. But he has advanced, thematically, as far as the “Bull Ring.” Other than this not being in France–and the instructor not being notably Scottish–it fits the pattern well:

…I was detailed to watch advanced bayonet practice which was extremely interesting and real. The men start in a trench, go ‘over the top’ in waves, across a plateau of sand jumping obstacles, and over a ditch into a trench where they stab recumbent sand bags, painted to represent Huns. They form on the other side and rush a row of hanging Hun-bags, and then make a final charge on the last trench, which means a six foot jump landing with one’s bayonet well through another row of Hun-bags. A concealed instructor pulls wires which make Hun heads bob up on the way, and you have to jab those en passant. As the men yell furiously the whole time the scene is cataleptically exhilarating to watch, and the men evidently enjoy it vastly. I should not care to do it myself![1]

 

Wilfred Owen, though he could hardly top this, also has some exhilaration to share. In this rather strange letter to his mother, he describes how exploring the older parts of Scarborough with a Belgian painter led to an aesthetic euphoria.

Last night I took an artist johnny—called Claus…  (a fat old tub, with round spectacles, and a conical head) …to Scarborough, where there’s not a house built since 1780, not a street much wider than Claus, and miles of it, mind you, miles of glorious eighteenth century. It was twilight…

Not a soul in the alleys.

Not a lamp lit. A dim moon—and the Past.

And we got excited. What excited us, who shall say? We jumped about, we bumped about, We sang praises, we cursed Manchester; we looked in at half open doors and blessed the people inside. We saw Shakespere in a lantern, and the whole of Italy in a Balcony. A tall chimney became a Greek Column; and in the inscriptions on the walls we read romances and philosophies.

It was a strange way of getting drunk. I wonder if the people in the officers’ bar suspected that evening how much more cheaply a man can get fuddled on fresh air and old winding passages?

Very nice, and refreshingly un-1918: it’s a passage that throws us back to Baudelaire or ahead to Dylan, c. 1965.

But it’s still 1918, and euphoria is not all that Owen has been experiencing:

I am sorry you have disturbing and daylight-lingering dreams. It is possible to avoid them: by proper thinking before sleep. I confess I bring on what few war dreams I now have, entirely by willingly considering war of an evening. I do so because I have my duty to perform towards War.

Sudden seriousness. And, perhaps, another explanation for the metaphorical drunkenness. Owen seems to have exorcised another segment of his war experience in producing this poem draft, which he prefaces with a stern warning to his mother, whose Christian faith he risks offending:

There is a point where prayer is indistinguishable from blasphemy. There is also a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable, from prayer.

As in this first verse:

Last Words[2]

‘O Jesus Christ!’ one fellow sighed;
And kneeled, and bowed, tho’ not in prayer, and died.
And the Bullets sang—‘In vain’
Machine Guns chuckled ‘Vain’
Big Guns guffawed ‘In vain’

‘Father and Mother!’ one boy said.
Then smiled—at nothing like a small child; being dead.
And the Shrapnel Cloud
Slowly gestured ‘Vain!’
The falling Splinters muttered ‘Vain’.

‘My Love!’ another cried, ‘My love, my bud!’
Then, gently lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
And the Flares gesticulated, ‘Vain’
The Shells hooted, ‘In vain’
And the Gas hissed, ‘In vain’.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Journal, 165-6.
  2. This will be revised and re-titled "The Last Laugh."
  3. Collected Letters, 533-34.

The Master of Belhaven Has Great Fun; Rudyard Kipling Tries Out a Jest; Isaac Rosenberg in the Gloomiest Depths

We have a jarring triple contrast for today, a century back–a diary entry and two letters, each in a very different mood and aspect.

We begin, wrong-footedly, with the comic relief. The Master of Belhaven is nothing if not a sportsman. But those Germans, on the other hand, they really do put up a poor show…

I walked over to Welch’s detached section with him in the afternoon. He lent me a gun and we put up quite a lot of partridges. The birds are very wild now, and we did not get any. However, it was great fun. The Hun, who is no sportsman, amused himself by putting out shrapnel not far off, but they were too high to be at all dangerous.[1]

 

Then it’s an abrupt and painful transition from a colonel with the leisure to shoot (at) partridges on a lark–and the good breeding to forgive the birds of the battle zone their wildness–to a private with very much less in the way of time and sport and fun. Isaac Rosenberg, is less interested in the birds of No Man’s Land than most of our poets are–but he’s a dab hand with the rats.

Dear Mr Bottomley

I do not know when I begin a letter whether to plunge right to the depths into the gloomiest of Byronic misanthropy (as indeed, my inclination pushes me to,) or be nice and placid & acquiescent about things. I know if I didn’t explain myself properly Id only appear weak & stupid, & as the situation does not give me the chance to explain myself, it must be left unexplained just yet, at least…

I have been transfered… my own Batt is broken up & what was left of them mixed with other Battalions… Poetry has gone right out of me I get no chance to even think of it. My ‘Unicorn’ is dead, & it will need a powerful Messiah to breathe life into its nostrils. I could more easily draw than write but the weather is too cold for that, if I did get the time… Thank you for what you say about my ‘Kolue’ speech. If the war does not damage me completely Ill beat that yet.

Yours sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[2]8.

These sorts of bulletins–“it’s miserable, but let us hold onto hope”–are the best Rosenberg has been able to manage, of late. But if poetry really has been driven right out of him then he is, at least, still holding on to the last fragments he was able to produce before his transfer… we shall see them soon.

 

Speaking of production, here’s a strange one. Rudyard Kipling and several cronies have recently decided to begin the distinctly sui generis (and extremely English) project of composing a sham fifth book of Horatian odes. In this letter to C. R. L. Fletcher, then, we might expect to find Kipling in his mode of master yarn-spinner–and we do. He is excited by the game, there is a burst of creativity couched in hale-fellow encouragements… but it’s not all fun and games.

Bateman’s, Burwash, Sussex

Feb. 17.1918.

Dear Fletcher

…I think highly of any good “fake” and the idea of the original M.S.–of a decent rich brown tinct–is very fine indeed. Thus are Immortal Works built up! ‘Only hope we’ll have some paper left after the war! Facsimiles cost like sin: but I foresee an edition de luxe in the years to come!

And I think too the notion of fresh hands in the game is fun. We oughtn’t to keep the fun to ourselves…

All good luck be with you.

Ever

RK.

This selection of the letter more or less captures the tone. He is writing, again, about the project of composing odes in the style of Horace and rendering them in Latin. And that’s not all. He is thinking, too, about that collection of short ancient verses known to classicists (and well-educated 19th century Englishmen more generally) as the Greek Anthology. The anthology is rich in epitaphs, and Kipling has been mulling these over. There is a post-script–and it doesn’t sound like a joke.

P.S. How does this go into Greek. It’s out of the sepulchral unchristian epigrams of the missing parts of the Anthology:

On an R. A. Subaltern

Death fell upon my Son from out of the skies while
he was laughing, they tell me, at some jest. Would
I had known what it was. It would serve me through
the years when I shall not laugh.

The grammar is mixed I think.[3]

The striking thing is that this epigram–which Kipling proposes, perhaps jokingly, to render into Greek–is not at all lighthearted. It’s a suitably stoic ancient-style epigram, one that would fit well, perhaps, with what the mourners on the hither side of the generational gulf might want their public sentiments about their “fallen” sons to sound like. Which is why this epigram, published later in revised form, is often presented as if it is written by Kipling about his boy Jack. And, of course, how could his only son be entirely absent from his mind? But there is no mention of Jack, here–instead it is the classical heritage, on the one hand, and the Royal Artillery (Jack Kipling was an infantry officer) on the other…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 457.
  2. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 117-
  3. Letters, IV, 483-4.

Olaf Stapledon Has a Succession of Thrills

It’s Olaf Stapledon‘s turn to paint a picture of the cold calm of February–for us and for Agnes Miller, on the far side of the world. All is quiet, but he does his best to provide a few thrills:

16 February 1918

Frost again, almost as hard as ever. Too cold to work on one’s car without grim determination and much pausing for swinging the arms, too cold to read or write in comfort, and often too cold in bed. Of course it’s not really as bad as that. Probably if it were a real hardship one would not grouse about it; but as it is just bad enough to annoy, one makes a song. One spends all day putting one’s hands into one’s pockets or blowing one’s fingers. I am busy at present. First, two fairly busy duty days, ending with a bus caked in frozen mud, then two days of work on the car badly behind time, then duty again. For real joy I recommend the washing of a frozen car with water that, instead of taking off the mud, covers it with a layer of glass almost instanter. And a wind like a thousand little safety-razor blades shot at you; and the old car valenced everywhere with icicles that grow visibly as you swill the water on. Altogether it was not a very successful washing, in spite of the liberal use of a screw driver to chip off the ice and mud. My last duty day was a busy one compared with what we sometimes have. In the night we had a gas alarm—all the sirens echoed down the valley in a most eerie fashion and people began getting out of their blankets and  investigating things and even putting on their masks. The four Englishmen, being a thoroughly sluggardly lot, lay abed hoping for the best. Needless to say the gas never came our way, & where it did go it hurt no one,—so our confidence was justified. When it was my turn to leave the place I started with two men in the car. We jogged along a hundred yards—Bang! not a gun, oh no far worse, a burst tyre, the first I have had for months. So out we got, Romney [George Fox] & I, and jacked up the hind leg of the old beast and changed the tyre; an ancient ragged relic it was. And the two “types” inside prattled and wanted to help; and other types passing begged for a lift and were sternly refused. Soon we were on the road again, but were presently held up by a big tourer that was frantically trying to turn around in a very narrow place. So we sat & watched, and evilly hoped that he would back too far and go over the edge for our amusement; but he didn’t. When the road was clear we toiled up the screened hill, picked up two sick men on the top, two more further on, and kept on picking up patients until we were full. It was just like a bus, an omnibus! There was ever so much traffic on the road, & we were late, so it was exciting winding in & out, blowing a feeble horn, shouting “Eéééé là bas!” and “À droit là!” and “Attention mon vieux,” or when necessary other things more powerful. . . . And then as luck would have it we came across an exceptional number of uncivilised American horses. (War horses all come from S. America.) They were being led in pairs. A large number of them took fright at us and flung about all over the place as we passed, so there was a glorious muddle. The air was a seething mass of horses’ heels, as the journalists might say! Said Romney, “By Jove, I swear I’ve never had such a succession of thrills!”[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 281-2.

Siegfried Sassoon Heads East; Edmund Blunden Bangs Around in No Man’s Land

Siegfried Sassoon has broken out of the war’s pattern–and he hardly seems broken up about it. He has arrived back in France, but instead of an interminable and miserable slow train up the line, he cuts across the grain of the war, and across the unspoiled hinterland of France, bound–still slowly, but much more scenically–for the east.

February 15

Awoke in the railway carriage to find a bright, frosty morning—and the train in a station. We started about 9 and crawled to St Germain (fifteen kilometres from Lyons) Arriving there at 12:30. The morning journey was through fine country—fir-clad hills and pleasant little valleys threaded by brooks and shallow rivers.

Notes (oxen pulling a tree: boy standing among trees looking down-at the train). Yesterday was through level, brown, buff, sand-coloured places. To-day dark-green firs are the colour-note, and the sun shines gloriously on all, and warms my face as I crane from the window to see the unfolding prospects.

We stay at a rest-camp near the station—bath and lunch—in the afternoon go marketing. The blue Saone River flowing nobly along. We leave again to-night…[1]

Sassoon’s diary has taken on a different cast, reminiscent more of Edward Thomas‘s field notes of a soldier intending to return to his poetry than of his own recent modes of hunt diary or journal of self-discovery.

 

Although Edmund Blunden doesn’t describe his brief stint as battalion adjutant, it’s likely that this passage of the memoir refers to tonight, a century back. According to the battalion diary–the 11th Royal Sussex are now near Gouzeaucourt, on the old Cambrai battlefield–“Companies [were] employed at night on working parties, cable burying, & improvement of defenses.” The fact that there were no casualties (unlike on several other nearby nights) makes the dating more likely, if far from airtight. It is yet another study of the ominous quiet on the German side of the line.

The silence and inertia in the German trenches were a puzzle, and the old remark about “holding the line with a man and a boy” was passed round among us. One might sit, as I did, upon our parapet, and spend several minutes looking at the opposite line and the ruins and expensive cemetery of Villers Guislain, without any disaster. One night, the whole battalion was ordered to put out wire in No Man’s Land, and although such an order created the usual terrible imaginings, the reality was almost like a practical joke. Conversation went on among the men, the wire was uncoiled with all possible noise, the jangling tin crosses on the ends of the reels were allowed full voice, company commanders bawled for sergeant-majors — No Man’s Land became (to speak comparatively) a parade. Worley was the specialist in charge, and he ran about with his favourite gloves on, putting mistakes right here, and fancy touches on there — and telling me loudly the work was going on well — “is the old General about, d’you know sir?” At last a machine gun was turned on, but the wire was in place, and no harm was done. [2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diary, 213,
  2. Undertones of War, 206.

Isaac Rosenberg is Blunted; Edmund Blunden Hits the Books

Another quiet February day… Isaac Rosenberg has now joined the first battalion of his regiment–a completely new unit for him, as far as friendship and emotional support are concerned. He does not seem to be in good spirits.

We had a rough time in the trenches with the mud, but now we’re out for a bit of a rest, and I will try and write longer letters. You must know by now what a rest behind the line means. I can call the evenings—that is, from tea to lights out—my own; but there is no chance whatever for seclusion or any hope of writing poetry now. Sometimes I give way and am appalled at the devastation this life seems to have made in my nature. It seems to have blunted me. I seem to be powerless to compel my will to any direction, and all I do is without energy and interest.[1]

 

And although he will say nothing about this in his memoir, it would appear that Edmund Blunden–the harmless shepherd, the good-natured innocent–was temporarily appointed battalion adjutant today, a century back. Or so says the battalion diary. It also notes that that the C.O. was sent away on a course, which would have meant that the adjutant was temporarily in command, hence the vacancy. Still, it is an ample indication of the state of things in 1918 that a twenty-one-year-old amateur, not yet three years removed from his post as Senior Grecian at Christ’s Hospital, is now running the day-to-day affairs of a several-hundred-man unit, judging expenses, dispensing justice, etc…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 378.

Edward Heron-Allen Bids the Boys Farewell; Ralph Hamilton Makes Ready for the Tanks

Edward Heron-Allen came under fire today, a century back, for the very first time.

When the firing begins the mud flies in all directions, and spatters back all over the marking shelters–sometimes a bullet comes skidding back, and men get hurt. We watched it for some time, and then had a mild experience of what it was to be ‘under fire.’

Yes, Heron-Allen is on the practice musketry course at Tunbridge Wells. Still, there is some intent behind this apparently merely blustering insistence that new officers expose themselves to slight chances of ricochet hits–they will have to begin to learn the deportment that will be expected of them.

We had been told to telephone back to the firing point when we were wanting to come back, but the range officer said this was ridiculous as the path was well to one side of the line of fire, and it wasn’t worth while to paralyse the British Army whilst we re-joined them. The only possible danger was a ricochet. “Did it often happen?’ ‘Well–only now and then…’

We made for the path quick, before we heard any more comforting reflections. We wouldn’t have hurried for the world!

 

Coincidentally, the only bit of action from one of our writers at the front today also concerns range-marking. Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, continues to prepare his position for the possibility of a German advance, and he is worried about tanks. Anti-tank shooting is the newest discipline of the artillery, and his men are uncertain how to proceed, or even how to judge such short ranges. Hamilton’s solution is to paint symbols on large boards and place them out between the lines.

The men were so stupid about where to put the boards that I galloped about placing them myself. It was quite safe, as there was too much fog for the Hun to see me…[1]

“Quite safe–” yet probably more dangerous than the butts at Tunbridge Wells.

 

But back now to Heron-Allen, who described another scene, today, that once again shows the belatedness of his introduction to the emotional stresses of the long war. In the evening, he wanders down to the train station where a number of recent trainees are departing for the front–it’s a scene right out of 1915.

The scene on the platform beggars description. There were about 50 of them, and good God! how young they were. Some older men going out perhaps for the second time, but the average was nineteen. There were about 20 officers, and the band grouped at the end of the platform and played gay tunes. The boys… shouted, they sang, some danced, one or two, the youngest, were slightly drunk. The officers among them were talking and chaffing, and helping them with tips about the equipment. Our padre was there of course, and was charming with them, especially the few who stood still with an expression in their eyes which I never saw before and hope never to see again…

…when one boy whom I have drilled and lectured to went up and kissed the glass against which his girl’s face was pressed white, I frankly had to go away and pull myself together…

The guards got fussy, the band played ‘Auld Lang Syne’–it was a moment in which one lives at treble speed. On the last note the train moved –the officers all at the saluted (morituros vos salutamur) and the band struck up the regimental march as this cargo of glorious creatures disappeared into the night. We officers stood rigidly to attention till the march was over, and then dispersed into the dark. Many of us were glad it was dark. I met the delicate and educated Brothers, and said with a sickly attempt at conversation ‘Very interesting.’ He replied ‘Very terrible, look at my hands’. He was shaking like a man with ague…

Back to the inn at 10.45pm, and to bed a sadder and wiser man.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 455.
  2. Journal, 156-60.

A Petty Victory for Wilfred Owen, and a Harsh Defeat for the Royal Welsh

Despite the constant false alarms along the Western Front, we are now entering another quiet period on the line. So we’ll catch up with Wilfred Owen, writing today both to his mother and to his hapless rhymester cousin. To his mother, Owen makes a sweetly grandiose gesture, using the fruits of his labor to fan the flames warming the heart of his greatest supporter…

Tues. Morning.

…The £ 1 : 1 : 0., my first proud earnings, must be used on superb coal-fires in your room. It is only poetic justice. Stoke up!

I have ‘written’ profusely last week, but nothing of a topical nature…

But Owen has another correspondent with whom he’d like to discusses his earnings. He sends an amusing postcard to Leslie Gunston, who has been offended by Owen’s experiments with pararhyme (and also, perhaps, by Owen’s manifest success and rather cool response to his own effortful verses). Owen sought to amuse (or annoy) Gunston by altering a popular comic postcard to read as follows:

A Little Health, A Little Wealth, A Little
House, and Freedom—and at The End,
I’d Like a Friend, And Every Cause to Need Him.

The internet being bountiful, I located what seems to be another copy of the original post-card, as written on by a different (but also ironic/scornful) card-sender, here. Owen’s message is straight to the point: I am confident in my methods, thank you very much.

Quite as delighted to have your blunt criticism as your first postcard. I suppose I am doing in poetry what the advanced composers are doing in music. I am not satisfied with either. Still I am satisfied with the Two
Guineas that half-hour’s work brought me. Got the Cheque this m’ng!

Your W.E.O.[1]

Now hold on a second: one guinea (£ 1/1/0, i.e. one pound and one shilling, so 1/20th more valuable than a pound, and much more than 1/20th more prestigious) or two? Is he shortchanging mother dearest, or bragging to cousin-left-behind?

 

In an even lighter vein, we’ll close with the entirety of today’s entry in Doctor Dunn’s chronicle of the 2nd Royal Welsh. It is a grim harbinger of the dour struggles that will loom large in the ruck and scrum of modern times:

February 12th: The Welsh Division played disappointing Rugby against New Zealand, and was beaten by 14 points to 3.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 531.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 445.

Siegfried Sassoon Ships Out; The Master of Belhaven on Anticipation and Artillery

Siegfried Sassoon left London on a noon train, accompanied to the station not by his mother and aunt but rather by Robbie Ross and Roderick Meiklejohn. He dined at Southampton and boarded a ship for France–but not for France. This time France is only a way station to the east…[1]

 

 

We should catch up with Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven. On the 7th, he spent “six solid hours… on the type-writer” devising a plan to withdraw his batteries in the event of a successful German advance.

it was a most complicated business, but with all the “wind” there is blowing, we cannot afford to leave anything to chance…

Indeed not. So even as the army is drawing down its infantry manpower it is devising plans of retreat in the face of the expected German offensive…

The next day brought rumors among the battery officers of all leave being stopped, while the 9th saw Hamilton comparing his headquarters with those of a neighboring artillery brigade and deciding that he much preferred his own, despite its discomfort–it was cramped, yes, but that was because it was tucked away in a quarry, safe from all but the most unfortunate of high-angle direct hits.

Then, yesterday, a sudden bombardment opened up, the infantry sent up the S.O.S. signal by flare, and Hamilton’s batteries all responded at their top rate of fire. But nothing happened–this was not the German attack, which must wait for weather both warmer and drier if it is to break through.

Once again, Hamilton investigates the source of the costly error…

Templeux, 11th February, 1918

I have been trying to find out what really happened last night. It seems that the Germans began by bombarding our frontline trenches, and then sent up ______ and ______ rockets, which happens also to be our S.O.S. signal… we wasted over seventeen hundred shells, and the Hun now knows where our barrage comes down.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 211; Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 441.
  2. War Diary, 450-4.

Edward Heron-Allen Analyzes a Word of Command; Wilfred Owen Has Made an Influential Friend; Vera Brittain’s Poetic Ambitions, and What Comes Out in the Wash

We can sketch Siegfried Sassoon‘s leave in London only in appointment-book fashion. Yesterday it was friends and music; today, family. Sassoon spent the day at an aunt’s house, his mother having come up from Kent for the day.[1]

 

Meanwhile, back in Kent, Edward Heron-Allen, still learning the ropes of infantry drill, has a quite surprisingly funny rendition of the strange contortions of drill-ground commands. These are choreographic orders that began as simple English words but have been altered by years of shouting at men who already know the stereotyped commands into what seems like a foreign language. Heron-Allen is, after all, a splendid linguist…

…The colonel appeared and marched us off. His word of command is astonishing when you don’t know it. First an extraordinary gurgle, which I afterwards learned to mean ‘4th Queen’s Own’, and then, with great lucidity ‘mootwryicolleroo’ which the intelligent military interpreted as ‘move to the right in a column of route’, and so we marched off…[2]

 

And Wilfred Owen, back in Scarborough, is belatedly realizing the social heights to which his friendship with Sassoon has delivered him, as he will describe in tomorrow’s letter to his mother.

Yesterday, I had tea in the Club in Scarborough, and taking up Who’s Who was amazed to find that Roderick Meiklejohn who invited me to dinner at the Reform was Mr. Asquith’s private secretary while Mr. Asquith was in office…

Meiklejohn, as it happens, will spend tomorrow morning with Sassoon…[3]

 

We also learn, today, that Vera Brittain has been rather busier than she has led us to believe. Not only has she written enough poetry for a small book, but she has sent them off–bereft of influential literary friends though she is–to a publisher, received a favorable reply, and already written to her brother about it. Verses of a V.A.D. is on it’s way, and Lieutenant Brittain sounds just a bit jealous…

Italy, 10 February 1918

Very glad to hear that Erskine Macdonald was so favourable in his criticism; it is certainly rather unusual–I should think–for him to half-finance a first volume of any sort…

I am extremely busy again with all sorts of work–chiefly range practices and difficulties connected with washing men and clothes. The most excellent system of giving a man clean underclothes every time he went to the baths which we had in France cannot apparently be done here. The present system is to have a Corps laundry; all kinds of units send clothing when asked to do so: the result is that the company has to have (say) 50 shirts, 45 pants, 55 socks, and 30 undervests collected. This of course leaves a lot of men without a change of certain garments; then at some time or other they will carefully return to you washed 35 shirts, 50 pants, 40 socks, and 20 undervests. At present we are doing some of the washing ourselves. A few people come over and drop bombs when the moon is favourable — otherwise there is not much war going on.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 211; Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 441.
  2. Journal, 153.
  3. Collected Letters, 530.
  4. Letters from a Lost Generation, 389.