Everyone Wounded and Ill: George Coppard’s Sandwich-Bearing Angels; Henry Williamson’s Year of Anemia, and the Likely Fates of Vera Brittain’s Three Boys

First today, we follow the elated George Coppard–cleared of wrongdoing in the matter of his “blighty one”–from the war zone to Blighty itself.

On 23 October I was aboard the hospital ship Western Australia. The wooded banks of the Seine were in a blaze of autumn colour as we set out on the eight-hour journey down to Le Havre. Everything was so peaceful and quiet that it seemed to belong to another world. It was a happy trip, with sing-songs and good eating…

At Southampton, a crowd of uniformed angels hovered around with lashings of sandwiches, drinks, and cigarettes It is not easy to find the right words to describe my feelings then. I leave it to the reader to imagine.[1]


With Vera Brittain in Malta, where the mails take weeks, her correspondence with three young officers has taken on an even greater importance in her life. And with winter coming and the Somme entering its final throes, I will try to keep closer tabs on their doings. Geoffrey Thurlow, for instance, wrote to Edward Britain three days ago to let him know where his battalion was headed. The next day, Edward forwarded the news–or, more likely, similar news from a slightly older letter–without knowing himself that Thurlow evidently had just missed the nasty fighting between Thiepval and Courcelette–the attach that had killed several subalterns of Blunden‘s and Tolkien‘s acquaintance.

London, 21 October 1916

The arm is doing v. well though it is not quite right but I am quite fit for light duty. I applied for a board 10 days ago but as usual have heard nothing so far and the present leave is supposed to be up on Monday next… Geoffrey still seems to be existing but every time he writes he seems to expect the attack soon but if that goes on much longer the weather will soon make attacks impossible…

So Edward is nearly recovered from his wounds, but will be safe from actual combat duty for some time to come, while Thurlow’s fate is still day-to-day. And Victor Richardson?

Tah is in great form judging by a letter from him last Sunday; he thinks the 9th K.R.R., his brigade, and his division are the best of their kind that God ever made. Discipline and general management seem to please him greatly and, as he is apparently in a fairly quiet part ‘some miles North of where Roland was’–probably near Arras, he is doing well at present…

And Geoffrey, for his part, is working on a long letter to Vera:

France, 22—25 October 1916

Edward seems to ‘find life hard’ with most of the people out here he knows; I know the feeling well but I do hope he remains in England for a very long time tho’ the war doesn’t seem to be in its final stage yet by a long way, despite the opinions of some armchaired people at home.

Sensible, so far. But Vera loves Geoffrey in part because of his delicate nature, his sensibility. He, too, has been writing up the sunsets:

Our stunt was suddenly washed out at the 11th hour[2] and we are now settling a little farther South. Our present billet is in some charming scenery; a village in a valley surrounded by wooded hills with the many varied autumn tints on the trees and as the Sun has been brilliant yesterday & today the whole place is beautiful… But our time here is limited alas and we shall go on in motor buses, so soon we shall be in War again and shall be able to look back on our brief stay here with pleasure.

Yes, but where in the war? Vera will want to know, and yet the censors must be evaded. I think we can figure this one out:

And I think we may see again the town with the hanging figure from the Church which Edward knows so well.

So Thurlow expects to see the Somme again, and soon. And of what value is it to have a trusted friend, someone who know something of the pressures that young soldiers and young officers must bear, who can be a confidante outside the little circle of masculine reserve, the straight-jacket that pains them even as it helps them to bear up–for a little while longer–under the stress of battle.

All I hope is that I don’t fail — for I must confess I’m a bit of a coward to use a strong word; not so much for myself but for the men under me am I afraid. Still let’s hope for the best!

(Lunch is ready so must stop. Once again am I Mess President & can’t enthuse over it much!)

This is a startling letter, I think, coming from a straight-laced[3] young man. It speaks both to his need to confess his fears and to the depth of the intimacy that grew up between Vera and Geoffrey in a few short months last winter and spring.

And of course, as a letter from a serving soldier, it is fragmentary and odd, too. Thurlow returns to share this scene:


We had a cold interesting ride here… we set off and passed thro’ the most charming country I’ve seen here yet. It grew colder as the sun went in and during the halts at odd intervals the A.S.C. man told me all his life history which was both amusing and interesting — he came out in Aug 1914 & had some exciting times in a usually monotonous existence. As we were leaving a main road — it was dark — the road turned to the right at right angles and we saw red and other lights which looked like a hospital train but in “reality it was the front part of the Convoy & I looked back & saw more lights twinkling away to the rear for miles. It was a fairy like sight.[4]


And finally today, a century back, Henry Williamson, after fourth months’ convalescence from a bout with dysentery, faced a medical board, and was passed fit for… home service. He will rejoin a unit of the Machine Gun Corps and, incongruously–to us, that is–continue learning about the proper care of horses, donkeys, and mules.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103-4.
  2. And carried out by, among others, the 11th Royal Sussex and the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers...
  3. Yes, I'm growing aware of the persistence with which I come back to these metaphors; and I don't mean to be dropping heavy hints about the strong possibility that there is a repression of sexuality at play here as well... that is part of the story, perhaps. But it seems sometimes as if the proper, middle-class kids who should be in college now come from an older, stricter world than the likes of Asquith, Shaw-Stewart, et. al. Even though it's the same world, just with less London sophistication, I suppose...
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 280-2.
  5. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 80.

Tolkien and Blunden in the Front Line, and Relieved–A Brother Buried and a Lost Dog Lost; George Coppard is Spared; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Gets a Partridge

For Edmund Blunden‘s 11th Royal Sussex and Ronald Tolkien‘s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, today, a century back, was the day after.

The Lancashires sat tight in Regina Trench most of the day, doing what they could to shore up the defenses of their new positions. Tolkien must have spent the day trying to establish, protect, and repair lines from the new positions to the rear. In the late afternoon they were at last relieved and began the long march back, in time for soup at Ovillers once more, and then a last stage to a rest camp near Albert, well in the rear.[1]

Blunden, still some hundreds of yards behind the new front line in yesterday’s headquarters post, picks up the tale of the Royal Sussex. I broke in yesterday to give the cold facts of their losses, but Blunden writes with restraint. He has signaled who among his friends will die, but we aren’t supposed to come out of it so lightly scathed, so eased by literature. We must come along with him and see the wreckage, learning its cost as he did:

Another day arrived, and the men in Stuff Trench had to eat their “iron rations,” for we could not supply them. We had also lost touch with our battalion doctor, who was somewhere toward Thiepval, that slight protuberance on rising ground westward; and the bearers of the wounded had to find another way out; yet, we were in possession of Stuff Trench, and the Australians southward held its continuation, Regina. That evening, gloomy and vast, lit up with savage glares all around, a relieving battalion arrived, one disposed to quarrel with us as readily as with the Germans. “Take the companies over to Stuff Trench,” said Harrison to me, “and see them settled in there.” Cassels came with me. We were lucky, the night being black, to find our way through that unholy Schwaben Redoubt, but by this stage our polarity-sense was awakened and we knew how little to expect of local identifications. At last, after many doubts, we had passed (in the darkness) a fragment of road metalling which assured me that all was right; the grumbling relief followed our slow steps, which we could not hasten even though one of many shells crashing into our neighbourhood caught a section of the incomers and the moaning cries might have distracted more seasoned tacticians.

At last Blunden has reached the real front, the zone of the worst suffering. Which is not his:

It was Geoffrey Salter speaking out firmly in the darkness. Stuff Trench—this was Stuff Trench; three feet deep, corpses under foot, corpses on the parapet. He told us, while still shell after shell slipped in crescendo wailing into the vibrating ground, that his brother had been killed, and he had buried him; Doogan had been wounded, gone downstairs into one of the dugout shafts after hours of sweat, and a shell had come downstairs to finish him; “and,” says he, “you can get a marvellous view of Grandcourt from this trench. We’ve been looking at it all day. Where’s these men? Let me put ’em into the posts. No, I’ll see to it. That the sergeant major?”

Moving along as he spoke with quick emotion and a new power (for hitherto his force of character had not appeared in the less exacting sort of war), he began to order the newcomers into sentry groups…

I always say that Blunden is gentle, and he is. But just because he doesn’t rage doesn’t mean he isn’t tough. He doesn’t look away from Salter and his terrible loss.

And yet life and fate and this awful war seem always to take a fond pity on Blunden, our harmless hobbit-shepherd, amazed and sometimes downhearted, but never despairing, always stoutly safe in mind and body, even amidst the ruins. We might be left to face Salter, to see what will happen when the stress of battle relents and allows him to feel what has happened–but no. For Blunden, as for many youths in fairy tales, there is a dumb beast to care for.

…stooping down to find what it was snuffing at my boots I found it was a dog. He was seemingly trying to keep me from treading on a body. I caught sight of him by someone’s torch or a flare; he was black and white; and I spoke to him, and at the end of a few moments he allowed me to carry him off. Cassells and myself had finished, and returned by ourselves by the shortest way; now the strain told, our feet weighed like lead, and our hope was out of action. I put down the dog, who came limpingly round the shadowy shell holes, stopped, whined, came on again; what was the use? he perhaps thought: that way, too, there is this maniacal sport of high explosive, and the mud is evidently the same all over the world; I shall stay here. Much I wished to adopt this dog, but now I could scarcely stoop, and I reflected that the mud and shell zone extended a long way on; so there he stayed; feebly I passed along.

Ah, but care for him he cannot. The war supervenes. But still–the dog turned his face away from horror, for a few moments.

If I was weary, what of Salter and his men? Still I hear their slouching feet on the footbridge over the Ancre by Aveluy, where a sad guard of trees dripping with the dankness of autumn had nothing to say but sempiternal syllables, of which we had our own interpretation. The shadows on the water were so profound and unnavigable that one felt them as the environment of a grief of gods, silent and bowed, unvisitable by breeze or star; and then we were past, and soon asleep in the lee of Aveluy Wood.

The account should end there; but since Blunden steels himself to the responsibilities of writing a dutiful sort of war-book and musters a closing paragraph for the chapter, I’ll let it stand:

The action at Stuff Trench on October 21st and 22d had been the first in which our battalion had seized and held any of the German area, and the cost had been enormous; not intemperate pride glowed among the survivors, but that natural vanity was held in check by the fact that we were not yet off the battlefield. The evenings were shutting in early, the roads were greasy and clogging, and along the wooded river valley the leaves had turned red and now had a frost-bitten chillier tinge; the ridges looked lonelier under the sallow clouds; but in mud and gloom the guns went on, and by our camp of tents at evening we saw the tanks crawl round and round in preparation for something new, and not even rumours of our being sent to Lens or Egypt were heard. Winter clothing was served out, shirts, vests, white leather gloves with fleece lining and a tape to keep them together.[2]


With the chapter thus ended, I think we can turn briefly for updates on two other writers. First, and most pressingly, George Coppard. After three days held in the special ward for suspected SIWs (self-inflected wounds), Coppard was cleared of wrongdoing today, a century back, and sent to Rouen, a familiar hospital way-station for Blighty. He had been accidentally shot by his “best pal” in the presence of other witnesses, so he was unlikely to be blamed, but the very fact that he was investigated shows that more and more men were going to extreme lengths to escape the miseries of the Somme.[3]


And speaking of non-combat shooting, why not a bizarre letter from Patrick Shaw-Stewart, long-moldering liaison officer on the Salonika front:

Hirsova, October 22 , 1916

The weather has been delicious here lately. I have had several afternoons among the partridges. I had two days in Salonica last week, and extravagantly invested in a 200-drachma gun: but I am worse off than before, for a lying thief of a Greek sold me a hundred cartridges loaded with buckshot…

Meanwhile, I have shot a quail (my first) with one of the buckshot cartridges, probably a record, I should say. On the face of it, I look like being here till all’s blue: but something tells me that I might conceivably find myself in England (at any rate for a few days) before the Winter’s out. One never knows, you know.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 94.
  2. Undertones of War, 109-11.
  3. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 178.

Two Battalions on the Assault Near Courcelette: Edmund Blunden’s Sussex and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lancashires Attack Together

Today, a century back, two of our writers were in the same attack. Or, rather, their battalions–the 11th Royal Sussex and the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers–were.[1] Both Edmund Blunden and John Ronald Tolkien have been given headquarters jobs (Tolkien was Battalion Signals Officer, Blunden an odd-job man and assistant to the battalion C.O.) and were thus a few hundred yards behind the actual assault. So it is not a complete coincidence that both survived unscathed.

Today’s attack is of a piece with the September attacks, of which it is also a direct tactical continuation: British advance, measured success, and great casualties–especially among platoon officers.

Below is a heavily marked-up map of the Thiepval sector of the Somme front. Running down just left of the center is the British Front Line–the Old Front Line of July 1st. The thick red lines opposite are the German positions which were to have been taken that morning. Each numbered square is only a thousand yards to a side–a little over half a mile. Thiepval, in square 26, was a first day objective and was taken at the beginning of October.authille-ovillers-pozieres-courcelette

We will now zoom in to the upper-center-right portion of this map, on the reverse slope of little Thiepval Ridge–a crucial position because it overlooks the German lines further east and south. The amoeboid shape in the lower right quadrant of 19 and lower left of 20 is the notorious Schwaben Redoubt, the capture of which at the beginning of October marked the end of the battle of Thiepval–or would have, if it had not been repeatedly subjected to German counter-attacks. It was finally secured only a week ago, a century back.authille-ovillers-pozieres-courcelette-det

On this map the Old Front Line can just be seen at left, while newer German positions (or positions that were not fully known when this map was prepared in August) have been inked in blue. “Stuff Trench”–not marked–is officially located in square 20, leading away from the Schwaben Redoubt. But the “Stuff Trench” that was assaulted today is clearly a continuation somewhere near Stuff Redoubt in square 21, or even further to the east. Before reading on, it might be helpful, too, to find Zollern Trench, in 27, and note several further objectives of these assaults, including Regina Trench in 22-33, and Hessian Trench just to the south of it in 22.

So much for geography. Now for experience, beginning during the night, with Blunden’s memoir:

That night our attacking companies lay in a ditch with a few “baby-elephant” shelters in it, and much water, a little way behind their assembly positions. There was a white frost. Behind them a few field guns covered only with netting dressed up as withered foliage were waiting, too. I went to see them on the morning of the attack, and I remember chiefly the voice of F. Salter, stretching his stiff arms and trying to move his eyebrows like a man awake, cursing the frost; I remember the familiar song of my old companion Doogan, now for the last time, “Everybody’s doing the Charlie Chaplin walk.” He broke off, and without self-pity and almost casually he said: “It’s the third time. They’ve sent me over, this is the third time. They’ll get me this time.” Nor would it have availed to use in reply one’s familiar trench tags, nor to speak out the admiring friendship which never fully found words; Doogan seemed to know; and he was tired.

The clear autumn day was a mixed blessing for Harrison, who, in his determination to send over the companies to take Stuff Trench after as much “rest” as could be found in that Golgotha, had arranged that they should advance from the reserve trench direct to the assault. And by way of novelty the assault was to be made soon after noon; the men would therefore have to move forward in broad day and over a sufficiently long approach—liable to the air’s jealous eyes. Watches were synchronized and reconsigned to the officers, the watch hands slipped round as they do at a dance or a prize distribution; then all the anxiety came to a height and piercing extreme, and the companies moving in “artillery formation”—groups presenting a kind of diamond diagram—passed by Harrison’s headquarters in foul Zollern Trench. He stood on the mound roof of his dugout, a sturdy, simple, and martial figure, calling out to those as they went in terms of faith and love. Lapworth, who had just joined us, went by at the rear of his company, a youth with curling golden hair and drawing-room manners, sweetly swinging his most subalternish cane from its leather thong; and he was the last to go by.

Orders had been admirably obeyed; the waves extended, the artillery gave tongue at the exact moment. The barrage was heavy, but its uproar was diffused in this open region. Harrison had nothing to do but wait, and I with him, for I was acting as his right-hand man in this operation. News of the attack always seems to take years in reaching headquarters, and it almost always gets worse as it is supplemented. At last some messages, wildly scribbled, as may be imagined, but with a clearness of expression that may not be so readily imagined, came to Zollern Trench. One was from Doogan; Stuff Trench was taken, there were few men left, and he had “established bombing blocks.” G. Salter had sent back some forty prisoners. A message was brought with some profanity by my old friend C. S. M. Lee, whose ripped shirt was bloody, and who could not frankly recommend Stuff Trench. The concrete emplacement halfway thither, looking so dangerous on the maps, had not been found dangerous, and the gunner’s preparation there had been adequate; but, he said, we were being blown out of Stuff Trench. Should we be able to hold it? We—ll, we was ‘olding it when I got THIS; and so departed Lee, tall, blasphemous, and brave.

Looking about in the now hazier October light, I saw some German prisoners drifting along, and I stopped them. One elderly gentleman had a jaw which seemed insecurely suspended; which I bound up with more will than skill, and obtained the deep reward of a look so fatherly and hopeful as seldom comes again; others, not wounded, sourly and hesitatingly observed my directions down the communication trench. As they went, heavy German shells were searching thoroughly there, and I do not think they ever got through. Their countrymen lay thick in these parts. Even the great shell hole which we hazardously used as a latrine was overlooked by the sprawling corpses of two of them, and others lay about it.

Our regimental sergeant major was by this time in disgrace. This man, so swift in spirit and intelligence, had lifted his water bottle too often in the business of getting the battalion into action; and he had not unreasonably filled the bottle with rum. In the horrid candlelight of the deep dugout he had endeavoured to keep going and with piteous resolution answered what he thought the substance of his colonel’s questions; but it would not do, and Sergeant Ashford, the bright and clever signaller, took his place. Again the night came on; and in the captured trench the remnant who had primed themselves with the spirituous hope of being relieved had to hear that no relief was yet forthcoming. Their experience was to be gauged from the fact that even the company held in support in our original front line, employed on incidental tasks, was reported to be exhausted, and its commander appealed to Harrison for relief in ultimatory terms.[2]

Blunden writes vividly from the rear of the battle, and with the calm care that retrospection affords. It may be that he holds himself back from delivering painful news, or it may be that no one at headquarters yet knew the true cost of the attack and that the battalion diary was fixed up afterwards when there was more time for clerical work. (The diary is neatly typed, and even its draft form was probably not kept up day-by-day when the battalion was attacking.)

But the cost was heavy, and the official record comes down like an axe on the short-arced tragedy that Blunden has prepared. Doogan, of course, was right, and F. H. Salter was no luckier.

This is the entirety of the battalion diary for today, a century back:

The Battn. capture German First line (STUFF TRENCH) “B” & “C” Coys assaulted “A” & “D” Coys reinforced them in the new line. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Enemy & many Prisoners taken. 2nd Lieuts. Ivens Salter & Doogan Killed, 2nd LIEUTE. V.H.B. D’Ivernoie & 2nd Lt. P.J. Hayes wounded–11 O.Rs killed 185 O.Rs wounded and 77 O.R missing.

Did Geoffrey Salter, sent back with the prisoners, know yet that his brother was dead?

To be clear, the 77 “missing” other ranks are surely almost all dead. Some may have fled or been wounded and misplaced–or even, conceivably, gone too far ahead and been captured. But most of the “missing,” in this war, are dead men whose bodies could not be carried back… it seems as if roughly a third of the battalion have become casualties.

It’s surprising, then, to realize that the beautiful young Lapworth has survived the battle…


While the Royal Sussex battled for the rest of Stuff Trench, Tolkien’s Lancashires were operating only a few hundred yards further east.[3] Marching up yesterday from Ovillers Post, their attacking companies were provided with weapons and other equipment and then assembled at Hessian Trench. Tolkien spent the night at Battalion headquarters, near ‘Lancs Trench’ (south of the detail above), trying to maintain communications between his battalion and the brigade.

Today, a century back, then, Tolkien was “in action” with his battalion, although like Blunden he would have been in the rear of the attacking companies. The 11th Lancashire Fusiliers attacked under the same just-after-noon barrage as the Royal Sussex, and had been “set the task of taking a five hundred-yard section of Regina Trench where it is at its closest to Hessian Trench.”

They seem to have had an easier time of it, coordinating well with the “walking” barrage and finding little resistance. The Lancashires took their objectives in a half hour and suffered “15 killed, 26 missing, and 117 wounded.” In these days this is a light toll.

Their signals officer–a 20th century man charged with maintaining electronic battlefield communications (if we may so dignify primitive telephone and telegraph lines)–also reported the success to Division by means of carrier pigeon…[4]

Tolkien noted the battle in his diary, but he will not choose to write much–if anything at all–about it.


References and Footnotes

  1. Despite the similar names, the two battalions were in different divisions, the 25th and the 39th. It is an organizational quirk that the two writers came into action so close to each other--if the proximity is noted elsewhere I don't know of it... but it's a pretty general coincidence.
  2. Undertones of War, 107-9.
  3. As far as I can tell--I should have consulted the relevant divisional histories for operational details of this closely-confined battle, which is too small and too undramatic to get much attention in full scale histories of the Somme, but I haven't had a chance to do so.
  4. Chronology, 93-4.

Edward Thomas Marshals His Verses; Vera Brittain and Her Soldiers Three: the Mails are Long in Reaching Malta

First, today, a letter from Edward Thomas to his wife Helen. He doesn’t often write to her,[1] so it is difficult to learn much about their often-fraught relationship from the few we have… here there are affectionate phrases in what is, essentially, a business letter, finishing up the work on his poetry that had been done during a short leave.


Here are the verses which should make up pretty well, with those I put in the oak chest, the set Ingpen has. If they don’t, put together, make up the same set…

Terse, explicit instructions follow, the idea being to make sure the right poems get into an anthology being corralled by Gordon Bottomley, while others are preserved for a more exciting possibility now grown probable. “Ingpen” is Roger Ingpen, the force behind the small publishing house of Selwyn and Blunt, who is now planning a small book of verses by “Edward Eastaway.” This would be a major breakthrough for Thomas, still so recently a poet. But, as the rest of the letter makes clear, however eager Thomas is for recognition (but pseudonymous recognition) and success (financially negligible success), there is only one Most Important Reader.

Whatever you do, Helen, dearest,

Don’t send to Frost before I tell you that the thing is settled...

Of course, this has as much to do with the hopes that Frost will get Thomas an American publisher as the fears that he should read other than the best version of the poems. But this is a letter from a soldier to his wife, so we cannot omit the more typical sorts of parcels:

I got a good haversack, so don’t you worry. If you get a pipe, get it at the Stores. One of the dark red French briars would be the best, and don’t think of paying more than 5 /- or 6/-…All is well—if only I have got through the exam.

Goodbye Edwy[2]


Vera Brittain is recovering from the infection which accompanied her to Malta, but she is as yet too sick to work. So she has had ample time to accustom herself to being abroad and away from her family. But the mere fact that she is the farthest from home–and that she has braved submarines and fevers–does not change the fundamental emotional calculus of the mail: she loves her brother Edward best, and she cares very much about his two best friends, and now they are suddenly very far away. All are likely to go from safety in England to peril in France more swiftly than their letters reporting the planned move will reach her. They might be killed before she has even learned that they are in danger.

In Malta the arrival of the mail… became the chief event of the week. We awaited the P. & O. liner that brought it with a perturbing mixture of pleasant anticipation and sick dread, for owing to casualties at the front, and air-raids and other troubles at home, neither life nor happiness nor peace of mind could be counted on for more than a few days at a time.

Victor Richardson was the third musketeer–along with Edward and Roland Leighton–at Uppingham School.And also, perhaps, the third wheel: he seems to have been well-loved, but his school nickname–Father Confessor–puts him rather behind his two more intellectually gifted friends. Victor’s military career has been dramatically slowed by a long, serious illness in 1914 and 1915, which put him further behind both Roland–dead, and revered by the Brittains as a fallen hero–and Edward, who won the Military Cross for his courage in the July 1st debacle.

But Victor–“Tah”–has now gone to France, and has every possibility of catching them up–a fact that Vera is only now about to learn. He spent a great deal of time with Vera in 1916 and 1916, and has become very fond of her, while she accepted his attentions in a spirit of intimate friendship and a somewhat mothering worry.

More important to Vera, now, however, is Geoffrey Thurlow. Thurlow was a survivor not of a threesome, but rather of a sundered partnership–he and Edward Brittain had met in training camp and become fast friends, but were then separated when they went to the front. And Thurlow’s service was in many ways the more difficult–wounded in the body, he is also suffering from post-traumatic stress. Vera certainly believed him to be “shell-shocked,” and the need to care for the nervous young man was one catalyst in their relationship. It is unusual, certainly, for a single young woman to have grown close to a young man who is neither a suitor nor a friend of the family. But times are changing…

My worst fears now were for Geoffrey in France; he had grown into a very dear friend whose intelligent understanding never failed the most exacting demands, and my admiration for his determined endurance of a life that he detested was only enhanced by his shy self-depreciation and his frequent asseveration of cowardice. In letters it was possible to get behind the defences of this abrupt young man to a sensitive mind as responsive to beauty as it was considerate towards human pain and fatigue.[3]

We will read one of those asseverations shortly, and it is a surprising thing. And as it happens, Geoffrey was also writing today, a century back–to Edward. He has been spared another battle, and Vera, perhaps, has been spared one of those terrible letters.

France, 20 October 1916

Just a note: we are now scuttling down South again; I say South meaning further south than we were!

Life here is an enigma and when all was ready we were suddenly transported as the stunt was off & here we are in an old town the belfry of which was built in 1150 odd and there is a, quaint old castle…

I had a letter from Univ. last night which simply exuded Oxford and recalled many a pleasant evening two years ago about this time. Do you remember the delightful days in O.T.C. when you fell in with New Coll. & I with Univ. each totally oblivious of the other’s existence what!


There is nothing particularly revealing in this letter–some Oxford O.T.C. reminiscence, and the amusement of discovering that future fast friends were once alongside each other and all-unbeknownst… but many small clues in the correspondence suggest that Vera might be drawn to Geoffrey in part by the intensity of his relationship with her beloved brother. They are, Vera and Edward, almost too close, we might think: she has already become engaged to his first best friend, after all.

But this relationship–between Edward and Geoffrey, that is–seems to be something different. It seems likely that the two were romantically, or even sexually involved–and, if so, almost completely certain that Vera had no idea…

These are the three people that Vera has decided truly matter to her. And as she tries to gather this little fellowship more tightly in about her, she realizes that, though the ocean voyage and war-time illness has perhaps shortened the gulf between them in experiential terms, in practical terms the time-lag of letters has grown, and she is feeling more cut-off than ever she was in London.

Malta, 20 October 1916

Just received my 1st mail since arriving here . . . Oh! the glory of the mail! You who have never been further than France have no idea of it. I have just got 9 letters in all — ranging in dates from Sept. 28th (from Geoffrey in France before he knew I was coming here) to Oct. 9th (also from Geoffrey in France) You & he, by the way, are the only people who tell me anything coherently, so do write often, & don’t imagine that other people have told me everything, because they never have… Only you give me any idea of how Victor went to France — which I am very astonished about; I had no idea his affairs were thus trembling on the brink…

Promise me faithfully this one thing. If anything important (not necessarily only the most important thing of all, but just anything important) happens to either you, Geoffrey or Victor, will you cable to me at once? . . . For you have no idea what one feels out here when one realises it is Oct. 20th & the last one heard of anyone was Oct. 9th. . .

It gives me a queer feeling to read Geoffrey’s letter of Oct. 9th, & remembering that (quoting him) ‘out here we are here to-day & gone to-morrow’, to think that he has had time to die a thousand deaths between then & to-day.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. At least not in his Selected Letters... my research lags, here.
  2. Selected Letters, 133-4.
  3. Testament of Youth, 305.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 279-80.

Edmund Blunden’s Very Secret Envelope; C.E. Montague’s Rules for Tours; Dorothie Feilding Deflects Another; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XIII: ‘He Was a Rhetorician;’ David Jones is Pretty Sure It’s Worth It

The continued attrition of “our” writers by the violence of the Somme–some killed, others home on lengthy and poorly documented medical leaves–has meant fewer extraordinarily long posts of late. Or perhaps I have become weary… or, perhaps, sensitive to the preferences of the put-upon reader.

But not today… however many we have lost, we still get those days on which everybody seems to write something interesting…

First, and most important for the days that are to come, Edmund Blunden and his battalion have been having a pleasant time of it. No longer.

The next thing that befell us was sudden, and our smile would not obey orders. It came in an envelope, “Very Secret,” and stated that we should in two days capture and consolidate a place called Stuff Trench. The falling ancient sun shone on the wide and shallow Ancre by Aveluy, and the green fancy woodwork of the mill belonged to another century, as we crossed the long causeway leading from the pleasures of rest, and turned along the opposite hillside, with its chalky excavations, old trenches, and spaces of surviving meadow-like green. Then we found ourselves filing up a valley under the noses of howitzers standing black and burnished in the open, and loosing off with deadly clamour while the bare-chested gunners bawled and blasphemed — “Happy Valley” or “Blighty Valley,” which was it? Farther along stood Authuille Wood, and we went in along a tram line and a board walk whereon with sweating foreheads some Highland officers were numbering off some of the most exhausted men (just relieved) I had seen. Near here was the captured German work called Leipzig Redoubt, with its underworld comforts; the companies were accommodated there, while the battalion headquarters entered the greasy, damaged shanties of typical British sandbags and tinware in the Wood… and the night came on.


Next, an amusing juxtaposition tossed to us by the editor of the C.E. Montague memoir. First, an excerpt from a letter to his wife, explaining how he judges his job, which is to thrill but not terrify his V.I.P. guests:

Oct. 19, 1916

I always have several graduated degrees of exposure to which to treat guests according to what seem to be their desires or the needs of their souls for chastening, but of course I don’t let them show up in any place where they would individually be a mark for the enemy. I only let them see the conditions under which all the combatants are, the whole time, between the firing trench and the artillery lines.

Fair enough. The implication of giving the visitors only a quick view of what the actual soldiers endure “the whole time” is clear. Montague, with his experience–in the ranks, in the trenches, in journalism before the war–is surely an ideal guide; and yet it is interesting that with so many young lieutenants around, Intelligence chose a man pushing 60 for this tour guide job: most of his “guests” would be older than most soldiers, yet many must have been younger than him. He had been there, and they, with their fancy jobs, are quite safe…

And how close did today’s exalted guest get?

Oct. 19.—With Masefield to Longueval. Walk about Delville Wood. Most of the bodies cleared up, but the wood haggard and sinister.

Masefield, after all, is working on The Old Front Line, an authoritative poetic geography of the British position on July 1st.


Next, Dorothie Feilding must deal with yet another eruption of a chronic problem, a persistent irritation that is more or less unique here–although perhaps common among dashing, attractive, well-born women in nearly-all-male war zones.

19th Oct

Mother mine–I had rather an awful afternoon yesterday. Mr de Broqueville, the father, came up to see me at 14 & we had a long talk. It appears his son, Pierre, wants to marry me awfully, & spoke to his father about it many months ago, but was told to wait a little. I don’t think you ever met Pierre, he is the one in the 1st Guides Cavalire, the very tall, dark, good looking one, & was in the army before the war. He is an awfully nice boy but just a dear big baby. About 25 I think, but temperamentally a perfect child & I am afraid it could never be for that reason. I wouldn’t marry a foreigner unless I cared very very much. I think that is essential to the make up of the racial differences.

Pierre is a dear boy, but I really couldn’t ever marry him. There is not enough in him to satisfy me I’m afraid. But the Broquevilles have been such perfect dears to me, it is awful not being able to do it, as I am afraid the father was fearfully anxious for it to be & was thinking it would be ok. He wrote to his wife about it already in Brussels & got an answer saying if he was pleased she was too, & was apparently very nice about it, which makes it all worse. It was because he heard Father was coming out here that he came up to see me because he wanted to talk it over with him if I would. I told him that I was very fond of someone who had been killed…[1]

Ah, the old “implied killed fiancé” dodge…


This brings us to the “lengthy screed” portion of today’s program. For Edward Thomas, few things are more welcome than a letter from Robert Frost, his fast friend and the impetus behind his own turn to verse.

High Beech, nr Laughton, Essex.

My dear Robert,

This morning the postman brought your letter of September 28. I am at home helping to get things straight in our new cottage. It is right alone in the forest among beech trees & fern & deer, though it only costs 10d. to reach London. Luckily I had a week’s leave thrust on me just at the time when I could be of some use. We have had fine weather, too, luckily & have had some short walks, Helen, Bronwen & I—Mervyn being still in lodgings 6 miles off, & Baba with an aunt, waiting till the house is ready for them.

Since I wrote last I have been shifted to Trowbridge Artillery Barracks & have had 3 weeks hard work there. I am waiting for the result of my 2nd examination. If I pass, I shall be an officer in another month. My going out depends on whether they are in great need of men when I am ready, also on my passing the final medical test. If I go it seems likely it will be to a not very big gun, so that I shall be far enough up to see everything…

I have just written the 2nd thing since I left London a month ago.[2] If I can type the 2 you shall see them. I am wondering if any of these last few sets of verses have pleased you at all.—Haines liked some I showed him. I was there for 24 hours a fortnight ago & had a walk up Cooper’s Hill & picked blueberries. He was the same as ever, & relieved at his (apparently final) exemption. I think he was going to write to you then. He showed me ‘Hyla Brook’ & another piece of yours which I enjoyed very much. I like nearly everything of yours better at a 2nd reading & best after that. True.[3]

About my collection of verses, the publisher remains silent a month. I wrote off at once today to ask whether he could decide & if he will publish I will do my best to hunt up duplicates & send them out to you in good time for a possible American publisher. I shall be pleased if you succeed & not feel it a scrap if you don’t. As if I could refuse to give you a chance of doing me good!

We will hear more on this collection of verses anon. But before we look forward to a new poetic era, we should look back–fully a year and a half, now, to English poetry’s greatest Great War hour. Frost has asked, evidently, for Thomas’s appraisal of Rupert Brooke–a friend and associate before he was a celebrity and a martyr:

It would take me too long to be sure what I think of Rupert. I can tell you this—that I received £3 for his first ‘Poems’ the other day & £2 for ‘New Numbers’ (because of him). So I can’t think entirely ill of him. No, I don’t think ill of him. I think he succeeded in being youthful & yet intelligible & interesting (not only pathologically) more than most poets since Shelley. But thought gave him (and me) indigestion. He couldn’t mix his thought or the result of it with his feeling. He could only think about his feeling. Radically, I think he lacked power of expression. He was a rhetorician, dressing things up better than they needed.

This is right on the money, as an American reader might put it.

Thomas starts in with the slightly rude joke about Brooke’s fame benefiting those less fortunate writers he was connected with, but he backs off quickly. In fact, he pulls the nose of his mean-spirited assessment steadily up toward fairness: “succeeded in being youthful” is insulting, and apt. But soon we are back at Shelley–a reasonable point of comparison and, perhaps, a more-than-fair comparandum. We’re balanced, at least, or swinging up–so when he stoops once again upon his helpless target the killing stroke seems only fair: Brooke was a lightweight. He thought prettily and wrote well, but there wasn’t much there, there.

If this still seems unfair, well: I think Thomas is correct on this next point too:

And I suspect he knew too well both what he was after & what he achieves.

Yes–seduced as he was by the romance of war and the sudden spurt of fame that came upon him in his last weeks, Brooke knew, deep down, that his poetry was superficial. And his good-looking corpse lies a-moulderin’ in his grave.

Then Thomas turns a neat trick: in prose, in a letter, in which he has previously been generously modest, he pivots skillfully on a metaphor and lands in a rather poetic position.

I think perhaps a man ought to be capable of always being surprised on being confronted with what he really is—as I am nowadays when I confront a full size mirror in a good light instead of a cracked bit of one in a dark barrack room. Scores of men, by the way, shave outside the window, just looking at the glass with the dawn behind them. My disguises increase, what with spurs on my heels & hair on my upper lip.

Bronwen is at my elbow reading ‘A Girl of the Limberlost’. Garnett, whom I saw yesterday, for the first time since I enlisted, was praising ‘The Spoon River Anthology’. Can he be right? I only glanced at it once, & I concluded that it must be liked for the things written about in it, not for what it expressed. Isn’t it done too much on purpose?

…You would like one of our sergeant-major instructors who asked a man coiling a rope the wrong way—from right to left— ‘Were you a snake-charmer before you joined’. We have some ripe regular specimens at the barracks…

Now I will try to type those verses. Goodbye. Helen & Bronwen & I send you all our love…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[4]


Finally, today, we have an awkward first writing from David Jones. Wounded in the cautery of Mametz Wood, he has recovered, recuperated, and had leave at home in London. Jones–so very young (twenty) and unevenly educated, was not much of a writer at this stage of his life–he did not really even aspire to be one. He was an artist. But he sat down nonetheless to write an essay on the war, suitable for publication in The Christian Herald (which passed). But Jones’s father–a proud and political London Welshman–typed it up, edited it (there were many minor errors) and sent it, today, a century back, to David Lloyd George, political pride of Wales and one of Brittain’s most powerful politicians. This is “his earliest surviving writing and the only contemporary written record of his thoughts and feelings about his early combat experience…” so it’s one of those things that is of unusual interest despite its fairly pedestrian appearance…


A French Vision

(By a one-time Art Student, now in the R.W.F.)


How often this question comes with ever-increasing persistency to the intelligent fighting-man in France.

The Battalion is new to the line–just come from England; it is the first night of going into the trenches. At last, after months of training, face to face with the actualities of war. In single file, one finds oneself trudging along a desolate road–broken ruins stand grim and piteous against the dim light of the evening. One had seen numerous pictures–photos–ever since one was a child of the desolation caused by war–here at last was the actual thing. These grim ruins–these smashed, wrecked homesteads–were once, only a few months back, comfortable ‘homes’–contented and happy peasants loving every corner of them.


At this moment the man in front–your chum with whom you have shared company since enlistment–drops without a sound. One had never seen a man die before, perhaps. There is a momentary halt, and the Sergeant mutters, ‘Only a stray’. Again there comes the voice: ‘Is it worth it?

This is a dangerous thought–it suggests ‘giving up’, it suggests something ‘un-British’. But the trench is knee-deep in mud and slush–the wind is biting cold–overcoat, tunic, shirt, are soaked through–very little to eat. The man carrying the rum was shot in the communication trench, and that warming spirit has helped to strengthen, and perhaps in some measure to disinfect, the water of the trench drain. Hands are frozen; eyes are craving for rest, and weary with watching. There is sandbagging to be done, parapets to be built; enemy artillery is active and accurate. ‘Is it worth it?’

A young lieutenant passes, new from Woolwich Royal Academy. He looks cold and ‘fed up’, probably thinking of that charming little enchantress safely ensconced in a warm drawing-room in the suburbs. As he passes he mutters half audibly, ‘Damn this war! Why the____did I join the Army?’ ‘Is it worth while?’ Then down the trench comes E___ , of L____, of______ ‘Varsity fame: ‘Hallo, old fellow! Awful bore, this war; what! I was in the middle of a volume entitled ‘War is the necessary Forerunner of Peace and Civilization in All Ages’ by Professor _____, that talked a lot of drivel about the ‘Purifying Fire’ of war etc. I’ll know what to do with that wretched collection of piffle when I get back, providing the ‘Purifying Fire’ lets me!’

Evidently, one thinks, both these chaps think it is NOT worth while! It is an awful business, this wretched devastation, this wholesale butchery. If one had lived in the old days, war was so different then! And one mentally pictures a sunlit valley, massed squadrons of emblazoned chivalry with lances couched; and behind, bowmen armed ‘cap-a-pie’ with short sword and buckler. Suddenly the bowmen, with a fierce and mighty cry, charge madly to the valley, and the arrows fly thick and fast! The imagination carries one away, it is so fine. How grand to have lived then, to have heard the stirring fanfare of the heralds’ trumpets, to have seen the pennons dancing in the sunlight!

So now we see where this is going. Jones’s burlesque of front-line states of mind lacks both the sharpness and the gentleness of his mature work, the densely allusive yet strangely immediate prose-poetry of In Parenthesis. And this essay approaches historical allusion from a very different angle–these illusions do not disillusion, but are meant to inspire.

And now the vision passes. Night falls, and another, and far different scene presents itself. The same valley lit by the pale moon; the groans of the wounded and dying break the silence.

‘Was it worth while for these men’,

five centuries, maybe, ago. By their fierce conflict, and their outpoured blood, they freed the land from the tyrant’s yoke!

Jones will never completely deny this connection–allusion, in his poetry, is not cleverness, but rather a search for roots and for common lifeblood. Here, Agincourt, the local battlefield of English national renown, is neither an inert ancient thing nor a soldier’s link to the continuous present of war, but more simply a point of patriotic appeal:

Worth while? Perchance Europe in thraldom still would be, but for that battle on that sunlit day. And but for the holding of that trench–but for the blood spilt–the ruined homes–the stricken hearts of thousands–but that one stood in that muddy trench in cold and misery–but that the young lieutenant, ‘so bored’, had left the vision in the drawing-room to cry her eyes out, perhaps–but that the ‘Varsity man had left his books–Europe to-day might lie prostrate ‘neath the iron heel of the Teuton terror. Yes, it was worth while, after all. One wakes from the dream with the sudden command of a cockney Sergeant: ‘Now then, you! relieve that man on sentry-go. Ye’re late orlready!’ And one goes to his post to watch for marauding Huns–goes with the smile of contentment. The trench is still cold and wet; eyes still ache, and hands freeze. But it’s worth it!’

I’ll let Jones’s biographer Thomas Dilworth get in the last comment:

Earnest, immature, lacking historical sophistication and political  perspective, he writes as though trying to convince himself… he was young for his age and… believed ‘the old lie.’ But Private Jones is doing what soldiers have always done in time of war, anesthetising himself through euphemism, limited vocabulary, and comforting cliche…[5]

Yes, but the young artist has decided to wield pen as well as pencil and brush, and that it itself will be a major step on the road to maturity. For now the prose is still heated and damp, and the eyes freeze in reading it… but for those enamored of history and the effort to write modern war, it’s worth it…


References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 173.
  2. Editor's note:" Probably “The Child in the Orchard.” The other poem, after leaving London, may have been “The Trumpet.”
  3. Selected Letters has "truce" rather than "true;" I assume the former to be a misprint.
  4. Elected Friends, 152-4.
  5. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 126-9.

George Coppard Wounded and Under Suspicion; Max Plowman, Bayonet Instructor: Pacifist Principles, Grand Intentions, and an Unfinished Sonnet

The morning after being accidentally shot in the foot, George Coppard awoke in a casualty clearing station:

…I discovered that there was something queer about the place, which filled me with misgivings. None of the nursing staff appeared friendly, and the matron looked, and was, a positive battle-axe. I made anxious enquiries, and quickly learned that I was classed as a suspected self-inflicted-wound case. Unknown to me, the letters SIW with a query mark added had been written on the label attached to my chest. Here was a fine kettle of fish, and I was in a state of near-panic. The place was full of SIW cases, or suspected cases, and normal standards of kindness were not allowed to nurture there. Many cases of wounding, even blindness, had been caused by foolish curiosity of needless tampering with detonators, fuses, rusted-up bombs and other weapons away from the trenches. That alone cast dark suspicion on the unlucky victim, who, by carelessness, as opposed to a genuine accident, fell into the fearful SIW category. Whenever it was possible for a patient to do any kind of chore, he was set to work. If he had lost a foot, he could brood over his misfortune while peeling spuds, or any other task that he was able to do without the aid of two feet.

This is harsh–unless it is lenient. It’s what the British army, like many large and hidebound institutions, does: split the difference in suspicious cases and do not worry unduly about individual justice.

But Coppard’s tale of today, a century back, shows that I was off-base yesterday with my attempt to make a neat division between accidental bullet and grenade wounds.

One man told me that he had been tampering with what he thought was a dud bomb, and had lost his right hand. Of course, there were patients who had deliberately injured themselves in order to avoid further fighting. They were the blackest among those black sheep. The poor devils must have been in a dreadful state of mind to savage themselves, but I doubt whether severe mental stress was taken into account when pleading for mercy at the court martial which awaited them all.

In every unit there were always one or two men who were below standard, unable to control or hide their fears in times of danger. To be blunt, they ought not to have been soldiers at all, yet they volunteered for service. Events, however, proved too much for them, and they were to be pitied.

Three most anxious days passed…[1]

Coppard’s compassion is retrospective, but it also seems typical of the “Tommy” view at the time. Men who shirked were unacceptable; bounders and the sorts of cowards who sneakily cut corners to save themselves and endanger or burden their comrades were detested. But men who struggled every day to shore up the slipping, sliding, pounded walls of their will to resist generally had sympathy with the men who simply couldn’t do it. To condemn a man whose only fault was–as they recognized, and as their officers generally recognized, but couldn’t condone–to have a smaller stock of courage than his comrades was cruel and unfair.

So there is decency here, and empathy, but also a less exalted psycho-social phenomenon: the sight of men failing to master themselves probably gave heart to many others who felt themselves slipping but were not yet in circumstances so dire. Esprit de Corps improves when there is a demonstration of what disqualifies from membership in the group and, therefore, of what ensures it. So this is but “there but for the grace of God go I” and “I may be slipping, but thank God I haven’t slipped like that, yet.”


George Coppard is in hot water, but he intends to soldier on, and the fact that several men witnessed the accidental shooting–it was not his own gun–should save him from permanent ostracism and court martial. His sympathies have been roused, but he was young, and not a political man.

Max Plowman, by contrast, was a committed prewar pacifist who had joined the ambulance corps and then carefully and deliberately changed his mind: there were no half-measures in great wars of nations, and to take part in war without taking a hand in its violence began to seem an unacceptable half-measure. But Plowman, now a Subaltern on the Somme, will explain it better himself, in a letter of today, a century back, to the journalist and budding novelist Hugh de Selincourt:

…If I live Calidore[2] I mean to write my apologianot to contend with yours, not even to justify myself, but to see whether it will really hold water, to discover completely whether my evolution was a real one–to put on record, for my own satisfaction, the reason why I took courses that may otherwise seem–looking back casually—inexplicable. Perhaps it will all seem unimportant then–(it isn’t now),–perhaps I shall find much better things to do…

I want to exploit the fear of War. Do you think that degenerate or a sign if how far from grace I have already fallen? …After the war millions of men in every country will have one dominant conviction–that was is a loathsome inanity to be avoided at any cost. But they’ll be inarticulate in their knowledge. I want to start an International League of individuals sworn never to take up arms. It seems to me that only by such means can pressure be brought to bear on Governments who will then never know their armed strength. The working man never wants to fight. Can’t someone start an International League to give that one & only negative tenet a voice? I know it’s a million of miles from the Kingdom of God, but I feel like Shaw, that we’ve got to start right at the bottom…

Plowman has seen much of the trenches, but nothing of the very worst, yet, and his unit has long been at rest. So why this renewed commitment to pacifism now? What only-in-the-Great-War irony might enliven this Pacifist’s Letter of Intention?

A pretty theory coming from an Instructor in Bayonet Fighting, isn’t it? That’s what I am now, Calidore. The cheese rind of the logical conclusion isn’t it? Not by choice I add in mitigation. I was just “detailed.” They didn’t ask my preferences. And you know another gruesome irony is that “Physical Training & Bayonet Fighting” are one course. An epitome of War.

An epitome of war, and an excellent writer of letter and memoir. But the poetry isn’t quite there…

I never told you about the sonnet I wrote in the trenches did I? It’s very bad and not even finished. It’s over a month ago since I tried it so I can tell you just where I wrote it. In a “dug-out” after spending the morning in the front line at Hébuterne, about 10 miles north of Thiepval. It’s another one to that old Goddess of War. Here it is:

So thou art proven at last, thou Queen of Whores!
The last shred of seduction torn away,
As naked to the piercing eye of day
Thou standest, wholly garmented with sores.
O fruit of loveless passion, mindless deed,
What shall avail thee now, when thy fierce lust
Makes of the brave and skilled a nameless dust
And gives to the coward devilry the meed?

For flashing sword, the creep of poisoned air;
Instead of drums, the earthquake of crash and shell;
While men, like vermin, thread the bowels of earth
And crave the certainty of ancient Hell…

perhaps I shall finish it some day.

Perhaps I was unkind–the last four lines are pretty good. This one goes into our burgeoning basket of uncertain new work–hesitant starts to a new vocabulary of thoroughly-felt combat poetry. Such a poem must acknowledge the tradition it is rejecting, but if we are to feel the plight of the soldiers as we feel the singers of traditional lyric, we can’t just replace the heroic tone with caustic wit or bitter despair…

Plowman soon returns to his discussion of the proper course for pacifism. As fed up as he is, as devoted to the idea of a “League” against war, he recognizes both that the present German occupation of France and Belgium makes it too late to be a complete pacifist in this war (“I do not believe that when an armed man enters your neighbour’s house he will be moved to tears by your assurance that nothing would induce you to interfere”) and that he bears a duty to stand with his nation.

That’s blind idealism. And so I’m here in mud & blood & all the damned insanity of war & I wouldn’t be out of it, things being as they are, for I can see no alternative things being as they were. –I know that gradually the individual ideal must permeate the nation, but till then how can I, after benefiting by all the nation’s virtues, disclaim all personal responsibility for its sins?

…I’ve never really doubted that the war would only end with general exhaustion. But we shalln’t be as we were. Fools can only learn through suffering… and that suffering, by the way, includes, I believe, the misery of murder.

Wouldn’t I love to believe that the war was just a huge beast let loose upon us by a few crafty self-seeking devils of hell! …Wouldn’t I like to be able to say sincerely–To Hell with Belgium… I don’t know, Cally…. What would Doistoievsky… what would Meredith have done?–Yet I’ve only to imagine what would have happened if England hadn’t joined the Devils Dance to know I’m glad I’m here…

My love always…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103.
  2. The nickname is an allusion, I think, to Keats, one of Plowman's best-loved poets.
  3. Bridge Into the Future, 55-8.

George Coppard’s Friendly Fire Incident; Dorothie Feilding Loses a Peacock; J.R.R. Tolkien Gets a Map

After ten days in the front lines, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers are finally relieved, today, dropping back company by company to support trenches near Mouquet Farm, and then on back to Ovillers. Battalion Signals Officer Tolkien spent the night in a dugout there, a century back, and probably learned then the reason for their withdrawal: a new attack is being planned. (But we guessed that.) The map issued to Tolkien for the intended assault on Regina Trench apparently exists, with his notes, but I have not so far laid eyes upon it…[1]


We have an update, too, from Lady Dorothie Feilding. She is in daily danger, and works very hard–driving primitive ambulances over the roads of a mud-infested war zone is no joke–but she remains our most reliable letter-writing genre-painter. Whatever her troubles may be, Lady Feilding and her fellows in the Munro Ambulance Corps always seem to be having a gay old time:

17 Oct
Mother honey–

We have been pretty busy these last weeks somehow. My own Fido Fiat has transported 56 people alone since the 1st Oct. One of our new men just come out is as blind as a bat, & we will have to return him on account of his eyesight which is a bore. If you hear of a good driver to suit us let me know…

I dined with the sailors last night. The 1st time for a long long while & we had a pleasant peaceful evening all sat round with our feet in the fire & ate chocolates & were nice & truly at peace with the world & nearly forgot there was a war on. Burbidge has added a tame fox to his menagerie–it gets skittish at night & tears round the mess rolling over & over with the dogs…

Caractacus the peacock has been stolen, frightful sorrow but no sign of him, I fear he was boiled in some Frenchman’s stock pot, Burbidge swears he has gone over to the enemy lines & was a spy all the time!!

…I haven’t yet heard what GHQ told Teck about Da coming out, but fear the odds are against — all hope not dead yet we must just hope for the best.

Yr very loving


Such is life in the war zone–one night may be merry, but one never knows what accident might lurk around the next corner. Today, a century back George Coppard was the victim of painful, fortunate, suspicious happenstance, at the hands of a comrade:

And now I come to a totally unexpected turning-point in my story, one of those things you could bank on never happening but which do. It was nearly 2 pm on 17 October and we were about to parade for revolver inspection before returning to the line at Gueudecourt. A whistle blew, and as ‘A’ Section moved out of the hut for parade I was shot through the left foot by a .45 bullet from Snowy’s revolver. The bullet tore between two bones in front of the ankle, went out through the instep of my boot and buried itself in the ground. With his revolver pointing downwards, and not realising that it was loaded, Snowy had casually pulled the trigger and Wham!

It will take Coppard–an earnest lad, it would seem–some time to realize that such an accident doesn’t look good.

It occurs to me (rather belatedly) that the suspicion that falls upon the victims of accidental wounds may be another reason why grenade accidents so often produce gruesome, intensely courageous acts of self-sacrifice. With grenades there can be little question that the accident was the act of a broken or cowardly man seeking to avoid further combat–the injuries are too gruesome, the blast too hard to predict. Any man who falls on a British grenade has sacrificed himself to save his fellows… But a bullet wound in an extremity, sustained in the rear, (and in the foot) and close to medical attention? Such may be a man’s attempt to save himself from his fellows’ coming ordeal…

There was pandemonium for a few moments as I hobbled about in pain, and then I found myself on the back of a comrade named Grigg, who carried me to a field dressing station close by. Poor Snowy was put under arrest pending an enquiry… After many months of shot and shell from the enemy, with every missile carrying possible death or mutilation, it was shattering to find myself hors de combat through the unwitting agency of my best pal.

Coppard begins his journey back along with several other wounded men.

The further I went, the more my spirits rose, as it gradually dawned on me that I was surely the luckiest Tommy in the whole of France. My hopes soared at the prospect of getting to Blighty, and I felt immense relief as I moved from the danger zone.

I was puzzled, on being transferred to an ambulance car, to find myself the only casualty in it. Finally I arrived at the 39th Casualty Clearing Station.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 92-3. It is reproduced in the Bodleian's Tollkien: Life and Legend,
  2. Lady Under Fire, 171-2.
  3. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 102-3.

A Phone Rings in Whitehall; Max Plowman on Sonnets, Duration, and Women’s Wartime Work; Tolkien in Zollern Redoubt

Max Plowman had time today, a century back, for a leisurely letter to his younger sister Gladys.

My Dear Gladys,

…You seem to be having a pretty dull time of it. Not that you say so or suggest it but I know what the Bank of England till 9 o’clock every night must be. Didn’t I serve in a shop not so far away, not so long ago? Well never mind… get all the consolation you can out of knowing that you are doing war work quite as indispensable as mine… plenty of men over here are doing less important work in my opinion than the average woman in England. Not every one who comes out here knows the feeling of “No Man’s Land” & plenty of the wonderful things you see in uniform know more about feather beds than they do about Front Line Trenches. Which is only a roundabout way of saying “& things are not what they seem”. And to point that moral in my own case: it’s exactly a month by the calendar since I heard a shell burst at anything like close quarters.

See, if I were prepared, I could have dated a section of his memoir from that very line… alas. It seems as if Plowman may want in on the betting pool action of a few days’ ago. Or perhaps it’s just that everyone has–must have–a fixed expectation of the war’s ending…

We are having a rare rest… I’m not in any particular hurry! It seems certain as anything can be that the war won’t be over this year… I should think next August will see the end of the war…. Some time before that I hope I shall have the chance of doing some really useful work, other than hanging about in trenches which are shelled from time to time & then of getting enough lead inside me to see me safely back till it’s all over…

First duration, now disenchantment. Barring the war’s end, there’s nothing for it: it’s the infantry’s lot to get shelled, and hope for a blighty. And how to sustain flagging hopes (or distract from them, at the least)? Poetry.

You talk about The Golden Book of Sonnets… I’m very glad you like it. Very few people (comparatively) like poetry at all. I’ve only met one fellow out here who reads any at all & he reads very, little, but poetry is the essence of literature & literature is… simply the best thought & feeling expressed in words… when you write again tell me what you like & why you like it…

A sad corrective to the sort of assumption this project encourages us to slip into: there are millions of men in uniform, so even several thousands of working and aspiring poets and memoir-writers are spread thin on the ground. Most battalions–the First and Second Royal Welch aside–might sport hardly a poet, and no more than a brace or two readers of poetry…

When the war’s over I think we’d better make another (& rather longer) tour on your way back to Switzerland… We might wander out from Amiens & end up at the “Café Cavour” & I’d show you the house & cellars & dugouts & trenches I’ve lived in when you wanted a thrill. Meantime my love to you & all at home…

Your affectionate brother


Tell them I am perfectly well.[1]


Ronald Tolkien, writer of poetry (but not, I don’t think a particularly devoted reader of it), is rather more busy at the moment. For ten straight days his battalion of Lancashire Fusiliers have been at the front lines near Thiepval. As battalion Communications Officer–working now out of the battalion headquarters in Zollern Redoubt–Tolkien has been kept busy establishing and maintaining telephone communications in the battered warren of the recent German positions and back over no man’s land to the higher echelon British formations. Busy, rather than idle–and so probably not writing much, be it letters or the private mythos that is now underway.[2]


Segues are one of many features of historical commentary that muffle our effort to connect empathetically to lived experience–especially the experience of a sudden shock.

The phone rang today, a century back, in the office of Lt. Col. Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence.

Hankey answered it himself. He listened impassively to the voice at the other end; then, as he replaced the receiver, he merely remarked, ‘Donald‘s gone.’ After only a brief pause Maurice Hankey turned again to his stenographer. ‘Where was I, Owen?’ were his only words.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 52-55.
  2. Chronology, 92.
  3. Kissane, Without Parade, 262. Kissane relies on his brother biographer, namely Roskill, Hankey, Man of Secrets, I, 308.

Tragedy and Pride from Rowland Feilding; Vera Brittain on the Mediterranean Sun: Shining Copper, Deepest Purple, and an Easily Mitigated Disadvantage

Vera Brittain is still convalescent after a serious fever and has hard nursing work ahead of her. But she is also a young woman on a Great Adventure…

Sunday October 15th

This really is a most fascinating place; I have not had much to do with it yet, but the more one sees of it, the more attractive it becomes… The unbuilt-over part of the Island would be one vast tract of this brown grass were it not that all the land is divided up into plots the size of fields by low white stone walls. Someone told me yesterday that this place is supposed to be just like the Holy Land–even to the stone wall divisions. Before I heard this it had struck me as being just like pictures I had seen of Palestine, & several times this evening I passed a barren-looking but slightly cultivated field with some little mosque or shrine in the background which reminded me exactly of illustrations I have seen in children’s books of the Parable of the Sower…

The sun here seems to set not only in the West but all over the sky, so that sometimes it is quite difficult to tell where the West is. This evening I felt infinitely little & unimportant, landing on along white road beneath an
immense dome of shining copper & deepest purple.[1]

Ah, but we always are our best (or best-written) selves when luxuriating in our diaries. Could this letter to her brother Edward really be from the same day? How fickle are our moods, how powerful an impediment to the transmission of pure historically-situated feeling is the tightly-gripped pen!

Malta, 15 October 1916

The chief disadvantages of Malta, as I can see already–though I like it ever so much better than I expected to–are 1. Flies 2. Lack of water 3. Glare of the sun. The third disadvantage of course can easily be mitigated, as, as soon as I leave here, I shall go into Valetta, where one can buy almost everything, & not expensively, and get a pair of green glasses!. And if this is not enough I can always buy a solar topee…[2]


There are highs and lows from Rowland Feilding today as well. I omitted an interesting letter on the 12th because even as Feilding was touring Ypres, Donald Hankey was leading his last advance. We return to it now, and find that this letter’s sense of “tragedy” seems to foreshadow the loss of a friend and comrade.

October 12, 1916. La Clytte.

To-day I took my mare—the best I have ridden since I came to France, inherited from poor Lenox-Conyngham—the late Colonel of this battalion, and rode into Ypres. I have long yearned to see the city. But what a scene of desolation!—truly, a city of the dead; a ghostly solitude. Not a sound unless that of a gun or bursting shell: not a soul to be seen in the long streets of ruins, except rarely, here and there, an English sentry, or a party of English soldiers, with rifle, pick, and shovel, marching to or from the trenches:—not a man, woman, or child of the nation
that built and owns the city. It is indeed a tragic sight.

October 15, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

During my rounds this afternoon I met poor Parke (who till a few days ago was acting as my second in command) being carried along the communication trench known as Watling Street, on a stretcher.

He had just been killed by a direct hit from a chance shell. He was forty-seven years old, and I was just trying to get him a rest behind the line;—which, added to the fact that he was only recently married and had just returned from spending a short leave with his wife, makes it all the sadder. He was brother to the Parke who was with Stanley in “Darkest Africa.” He was a cheery fellow, and I shall miss him very much.

I hear to-day that the Divisional Commander has recommended me for the permanent command of this battalion, and that the recommendation has been approved, with effect from September 6—the date I took over on the  Somme.

It is now the strongest and the show battalion of the Division.

This, from a devoted and detailed writer, is an almost offensively passing reference–as passing as the death itself and his chance meeting with the corpse. But Feilding had to move on to career news–he is busy and wanted to close the letter, surely. Yet… well… but what is this other than one of our many little death-and-fortune vignettes? The chance shell, the stray bullet with only one man’s name on it…

And it’s another sort of story, too, when told from Feilding’s passing perspective: it’s the near-miss that didn’t miss. Captain Parke, a newlywed, surely intended to write home tonight as well…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 332-3.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 279.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 127.

Moonlit Nights Near Thiepval Please Edmund Blunden, The Maltese Dusk Grows on Vera Brittain

All quiet on the Western Front today, at least as far as our regular writing company goes. The Somme churns on, but for now, Edmund Blunden and the rest of the 11th Royal Sussex are holding a nice quiet sector of the line. The battalion diary notes, as if it were some sort of rather mean school field day, that each man in the front line fired a grenade toward the German lines, to “slight retaliation by the enemy.”

And how was this ten-day stretch in the front line more generally? No one does “nice and quiet” like Blunden:

Fine days… and moonlit nights; temperate nights with their irresistible poetry creating a silver world under the eye of Thiepval’s lunatical wood, a yellow harvest on the downs toward Mesnil the mortuary. It was possible for me with my odd jobs “to go for walks” in these hours of illusion, and seldom were they spoiled by direct opposition…

Poetic feelings by nights, long walks by day, and play-pretend rural laboring in-between. It’s a trench pastoralist’s dream:

My trench maintenance parties with hammers and choppers, saws and nails, were lodged in Hamel village; they made themselves comfortable in cellars, and went to and fro in the exact and ordinary manner of the British workingman. One, by turns, stayed at home to cook; the others kept the line tidy, and left no staircase, recess, nor buttress unbeautified. They enjoyed this form of active service with pathetic delight…

But Blunden does not shirk his responsibilities:

and what men were they? Willing, shy, mostly rather like invalids, thinking of their families… [but] they were all doomed.[1]

Another attack is coming.


Vera Brittain, meanwhile, is settling in nicely in Malta. Who needs trench pastoral when we can have lyrical, romantic, Mediterranean reveries?

Saturday October 14th

At first I thought I should hate Malta, as, when I came in feeling so ill, I thought I had never in the world heard so many bells clanging (afterwards it turned out to be a special feast day) or seen such a glare. But its attraction grows, especially at sunset & sunrise, when the domes & towers are violet-grey & softened with mist, & the skies more wonderful than anything I have ever seen. The tiring glare all day is due to the extreme whiteness of the soil, of roads & cliffs. There are of course no trees here to provide shade–only clumps of tropical shrubs such as
cactus, prickly pear, palms and eucalyptus. As soon as the swift night has fallen, this wonderful place seems to hold all the mystery & glamour of the East, though really it is only the fringe of it.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Undertones of War, 102-3.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 332.