Siegfried Sassoon Pedals Away from His Past Life, Stephen Graham lolls in the Altai, Phillip Maddison Shivers in the City, and Peter Jackson Dominates at the Net

Stephen Graham, intrepid journalist and travel writer, will not officially qualify for inclusion in our great game for quite a while–he will not see France for more than three years. But he did see some unusual sights at the beginning of the war, and his rather syrupy writing should carry a day like today, as we teeter on the edge of the Last Summer’s Last Weekend–1914’s week is one day ahead of ours, today being, a century back, a Friday.

Thousands of miles from any of the rest of our correspondents, hanging around one of the outlying settlements of a tottering and backward empire, Graham was nevertheless a witness to the accelerating effects of technological progress. A century on, we tend to overemphasize the extent of our globalization and interconnectedness. Things move faster now, but the shrinking of the globe had, in the most fundamental ways, already occurred, a century back: even the Tsar had a telegraph system that moved his orders thousands of miles in a matter of hours.

I was staying in an Altai Cossack village on the frontier of Mongolia when the war broke out, 1,200 versts south of the Siberian railway, a most verdant resting-place, with majestic fir forests, snow-crowned mountains range behind range, green and purple valleys deep in larkspur and monkshood. All the young men and women of the village were out on the grassy hills with scythes; the children gathered currants in the wood each day, old folks sat at home and sewed furs together, the pitch-boilers and charcoal-burners worked at their black fires with barrels and scoops, and athwart it all came the message of war. At 4 A.M. on July 31st the first telegram came through, an order to mobilise and be prepared for active service. I was awakened that morning by an unusual commotion, and, going into the village street, saw the soldier population collected in groups, talking excitedly. My peasant hostess cried out to me, “Have you heard the news? There is war.”

A young man on a fine horse came galloping down the street, a great red flag hanging from his shoulders and flapping in the wind, and as he went he called out the news to each and every one, “War! War!” Horses out, uniforms, swords!

…The Tsar had called on the Cossacks; they gave up their work without a regret and burned to fight the enemy. Who was the enemy? Nobody knew.[1]

In his next book about his Russian and Asian travels, Graham gives us perhaps the most far-flung Englishman Abroad version of a Last Summer piece. He imagines England, now that it is

holiday time, the end of July, the Englishman’s great liberation moment when, even if he goes on working in office or factory, he ceases to work hard and lazes at his work. His wife and family have gone to the seaside. He will join them in a week or so. Meanwhile he is “camping out at home.” The young man is buying stout boots and greasing them for tramping, is scanning maps and guidebooks, and making absurd tables of mileage, prospective hotel bills and expenses.

And where is Graham?

Just outside the Cossack settlement it was late summer, and the glossy peony fruits were turning crimson from green, opening to show rows of black teeth – seeds. But as you climbed upward toward the snow the season changed, and it was possible to recover the lost spring…

It was comparatively easy to reach districts where it might be thought no foot of man had ever trod–primeval moss-grown forest…

Above this jungle was a stretch of steep mountain-side sparsely grown with young firs, and then grey, barren, slippery rock. Wonderful shelves and chasms, fissures, precipices, and ways up without ways down, boulder-strewn tracks and founts of bubbling water, milk-white streams, crystal streams.

Most days I spent by the side of a little mountain river, where I built a sort of causeway out of rocks, diverted the channel, made a deep bathing-pool–enthralling occupations. Here also I had a bonfire, made coffee, baked potatoes, cooked red currant jam. Strips of red currants hung like bunting on some of the bushes, and were so thick that you could pick a potful in a quarter of an hour. Here also I sorted out and re-read thirty or forty copies of The Times, saved up for me, with letters, at the post office of Semipalatinsk–all the details of the political quarrel over Ulster, the resignation of Sir John French (as he was then called), of Colonel Seely, the vigorous speeches of Mr. John Ward, the brilliant defences of Mr. Asquith. We seemed to be running forward silently and smoothly to an exciting rebellion or civil war in Ireland, and nobody seemed to deplore the prospect of strife. The Government, nominally in favour of peace at all costs, were incapable of preventing their opponents obtaining arms, and were, therefore, allowing their friends to arm. On the whole we seemed to be tired of the dull blessings of peace, out of patience with peace. Yet we were not ready for the strife that was coming, though certainly in a mood to take arms. It is astonishing that with our many international characters – those diplomatical journalists of ours – we did not know what was coming, or no one was at pains to undeceive us….

It is astonishing to look back now to those serene and happy weeks in the Altai and to feel the contrast of the innocence of Nature and the devilish conspiracy in the minds of men. If there are devils in the world, black spirits as opposed to white spirits, what triumph was theirs, what hidden ecstasy as at the coming triumph of negation. Behind the screen of this silence horns were blowing announcing the great feasts of death, the blasting of the temples wherein the spirit of man dwells, the orgy of ugliness and madness.[2]

Awfully purplish prose, even though Graham is looking back from a comparatively near future–it feels as if the spectres and trumpets, so blatantly super-imposed, shade the memories of July to a hew of technicolor wistfulness we can’t quite trust.

Still, like Vera’s daily diary summaries of The Times, a nice way (I hope) to sneak an ironic reminder of how much the gaze of the war’s future participants was, that summer, astray. They gazed at the pretty flowers, whether in the Altai or Kew Gardens, or they stared in consternation across the Irish Sea…


Back home in Kent, we pick up Siegfried Sassoon after his day of cricket and stormy pianoforting.

Next day, which was July 31st, it seemed that any form of movement would be preferable to the intolerable suspense of waiting for further bad news… A good long bike-ride, I decided–even if it didn’t stop me thinking–might perhaps enable me to think with a less benumbed brain.

Bicycling to Rye–a distance of thirty miles which I covered without dismounting–I felt very much as if I were pedalling away from my past life. My unseeing eyes were on the dusty road, and my brain was automatically revolving the same ideas over and over again. In the leisurely contentment of normal times I should have looked at the country and remembered how I had ridden over it with the Mid-Kent Stag Hounds. I should have stopped to note some place where I jumped a fence into the road or a stile out of it. That sort of thing had now been wiped off the map. Germany, France, and Russia were all rumoured to be mobilizing. As for me, I was merely resorting to restless exertion while disentangling my mind from its reluctance to face the fact that the only thing left or me to do was to mobilize myself into the Army… Having achieved this decision, which seemed embarrassingly heroic, I approached Rye feeling more relieved than elated…

I ate a big tea, lit my pipe, and stared seaward toward Winchelsea from the friendly terrace of an old inn on what had once been the city wall. Having renounced independence of action (joining the army meant that, I assumed) I now felt immune from any sense of responsibility… I should have been quite put out if someone had told me that there might not be a war after all, for the war had become so much my own affair that it was–temporarily and to the exclusion of all other considerations–merely me! It even occurred to me that–whatever else I might be in for–there was no more cause to worry about money. And I did not need to be reminded that–not many days ago–I had been faced by a deplorably unfertile future. I was clear of all that, anyhow.

And so our Siegfried, however much he usually dawdles, trailing the play of his more mentally agile acquaintances, is a good step and a half ahead of everyone else–it’s only Friday, with the Fateful Bank Holiday Weekend still in the future, and yet his mind his made up.

It’s curious: is this about patriotism (yes–or at least in the same basic sense that all “gentlemen” thought it incumbent upon them to volunteer if they were fit; Sassoon is just quiet about that) or about escaping debt and poetic dead ends (a little bit, but he could have continued to dawdle at home indefinitely)? It’s also the larger and more diffuse question of the meaning of life in late youth: as indolent as he was and as slow as he makes himself out to be, Sassoon was not a fool. Neither was he a cynic, nor a hedonist. He was wealthy, but he felt he needed to do something, and so the war, even with his lack of jingoism or bloodthirstiness, was welcome.

Still, bicycling home, he realizes that he has decided to involve himself in an enormous and terrible struggle–a better thing to be a pawn in than to contemplate from without. Back home, he dismounts with “a sinking sensation in my middle,” and the latter-day Sassoon suddenly throws this telescopic view of one fateful day into binary vision.

Observing that bicyclist from to-day, I find it difficult to imagine and share his emptiness and immaturity of mind, so clueless, so inconsequent, and so unforeseeing. Confronted by that supreme crisis, he rides to meet it in virtual ignorance of its origins and antecedents… Confused and uncomprehending, he has no precedent to guide and instruct him.[3]

This is a bit thick–another last crashing chord for the Last Summer theme of Perfect Innocence, albeit with the emphasis falling the blindness of foresight rather than the richness of hindsight–but it’s not unfair. Sure: we can wonder, here in the after, why there was so much complacency when politics had been so volatile for so many years (although there’s your answer right there…) and we might hope that a firmer understanding of history would head off such immaturity in the future (sure! Why not?), but the crucial note is a true one: there has been no big European war in more than a generation, and no British involvement in such a conflict in ninety-nine years. There is no one to instruct him.


The willingness to ironize, to complicate the past and retell pristine experience as a protest against what will come,is very familiar now–a staple of war writing. But it wasn’t then. A more typical approach is that of Gilbert Frankau, a popular middlebrow novelist of the war. Here is the knowledgeable and skilful Peter Jackson, on holiday in Berkshire:

Peter, playing brilliantly at the net, and Patricia, backing him up accurately from the base-line, defeated their opponents in three straight setts [sic]. Followed [sic again, it’s an affectation] tea, a languid paddle towards Shiplake, the dressing-gong, stiff shirts and low frocks, auction bridge…

July the thirty-first, Nineteen Hundred and fourteen ! Already the Beasts in Gray–murder, rape, and plunder in their swinish eyes–were abroad. Already the Crime, so long premeditated, had been committed. Even as these four sat at their game, less than fifty miles away from them, up in London, amiable old gentlemen of Westminster were scuttling hither and thither, incredulous, anxious to compromise, fearful.

“Two no trumps,” said our Mr. Jackson.[4]

Follows snark. The style is clunky, and after Sassoon’s Sassoon, it is jarring to read of a protagonist whose mental processes are so thinly drawn, whose thoughts chime in Capital Letters along with the fussy and bombastic narratorial voice…


Less sensitive, if perhaps even less subtle, is Henry Williamson’s rendering of his alter ego’s last Friday in the office.

It was Friday, the last day of July. Desmond was home from school… Willie was arriving that afternoon at Waterloo; Monday was August Bank Holiday. Then, very soon, camp at Eastbourne! Life was tremendous fun, really. [Williamson’s emphasis.]

And yet–and yet–somehow, under everything, a feeling of coldness, of longing, of dread, was growing; and the feeling became entered on the talk of war, which, stealthily, and in secret, was a thing to be desired. War–everyone spoke about it… Secretly, awefully, fearfully, one part of him desired the excitement that was war to become more and more; while another part of him quailed before a vast, fathomless darkness.

When the news comes in that the Lutine bell has been rung, the older men of the office suddenly drop their eminently British assurances that business will proceed as usual–all the Mr. Darlings suddenly wonder what the long weekend will bring, whether business will indeed proceed on Tuesday.

Young Phillip, yet to figure out that his larkish enlistment in the Territorial Army will now mean something very different than a second-holiday-ish camp at Eastbourne, nevertheless accepts the verdict of his current superiors: war is all but inevitable. Williamson makes quite sure we know the confusion this wreaks in the soul of a simple British boy:

Phillip felt a cold shiver pass through him, and then the fearful longing for war, like a dark spectre.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Graham, Russia and the World, 1-2.
  2. Graham, Through Russian Central Asia, 248-52.
  3. The Weald of Youth, 270-73.
  4. Peter Jackson, 47.
  5. How Dear is Life, 116-19.

Wilfred Owen in the Mountains, Siegfried Sassoon’s Cricket Match Interrupted, a Plain, a Weekend Party, an Imagist Dinner, and a Dead Goat

So, readers, we near the end of the beginning: the Great Powers are mobilizing, and even Siegfried knows that war is coming. For the next week, then, this blog is going to be a busy mess–a mobilization less rigidly planned–as I try to give crucial updates on our “main characters,” introduce the soldiers who will first take us into combat, and fail to resist a plethora of interesting writerly tidbits. Bear with the madness, and in a week or so things will have settled down into regular daily posts of assimilable size.

Early in the morning of July 30th, 1914, Wilfred Owen left Bordeaux behind, taking a train south toward the little Pyrénéen town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and the villa rented by the Léger family, whose daughter he was now to begin tutoring. By mid-morning, then, “for the first time in his life Wilfred saw real mountains.” By mid-afternoon he had also experienced an uphill ride in a donkey cart. As M. Léger was too old for service and there was no son to worry about, the rampant talk of war and mobilization seems hardly to have affected the isolated ménage.[1]


Meanwhile, in merrie olde England, Reggie Trench, no Orlando, but a rather sharp young accountant with a commission in the Territorial Army and an “ear to the ground,” wrote a letter to Clare Howard, his fiancée, as he prepared for the annual camp on Salisbury plain. Many other young Territorials and the even younger men and boys of the OTC had looked forward to these camps for weeks or months–they were good fun. But Trench was reading the papers, which had begun to acknowledge the gravity of the European crisis, and saw that the camp was likely to have a more serious air than usual, or even be rudely interrupted.

Of Germany, he wrote “If they come in we do inevitably I think, and one must remember that we would not then be fighting for any abstract “Serbian” reason but rather to prevent France being overwhelmed and to protect the neutrality of Belgium and Holland…” Already commissioned, Trench was ahead of the game (given his prophetic surname, he would be) in working out exactly why he should fight.[2]


That same afternoon, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, was reflecting on the success of his new cigarette company while motoring out through the suburbs of London behind the wheel of his shiny new cabriolet. Sales were climbing and, since “nothing could stop their automatic increase,” the future was rosy and his gambled capital would soon pay off. It was a good time–Thursday afternoon of the August Bank Holiday weekend–to take off early and get away to the house in the country.

Arriving in Wargrave (oh come ON!), Berkshire, at around tea-time, Jackson was met by his wife Patricia and his cousin Francis. The two cousins, fast friends since school days, had each inherited ownership in the family cigar business when their parents died young, but Francis was artsy and intellectual and lived a life of leisure while Peter, a tireless striver, had expanded the cigar business and gambled now on the new concern, Nirvana Cigarettes.

Bad news, upon arrival, however: Patricia’s brother, one Jack Baynet, had wired to say that he couldn’t make the weekend after all. Jack being an army officer, our hero assumes that his brother-in-law is being deployed to ever-restive Ireland.  But never mind: the cancellation is rather a beastly wrench in the works, given how much Peter had been looking forward to doubles tennis and bridge. The fact that a smarmy advertising fellow and his wife are coming instead is hardly a fair exchange. Well, a less than ideal situation–but even a rocky marriage and a half-spoilt weekend will hardly wreck the equilibrium of a conquering capitalist, cigar firmly between his teeth.

Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, is too good to be true. Which makes sense, because he isn’t. Alas, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant is also too trite to be tolerable–but I got this far and noted the dates, so we’ll give him his head and see how he plays. The novel, by Gilbert Frankau, is a bit dull and very self-serious–but it was a successful novel in its day and its protagonist shares so much in the way of personal experience with its author that it may prove to be a valuable addition to the project, in the category of “what certain of our war experiences look like when we freely fictionalize them.” Frankau was, like Peter Jackson, from a wealthy middle class merchant background (Peter had an easier time than his creator in moving his Jewish ancestry firmly into his personal past) and went straight from public school (Eton) into business. He had also over-extended himself with a risky expansion in 1914…  we’ll learn more about Frankau as we follow Jackson into the army, but for now let two facts stand: first, Wargave (no etymological relation!) really exists and is quite a reasonable place for a successful London bourgeois to take a summer cottage; second, I severely doubt that Frankau noticed the homophone or intended any irony. It’s not the subtle-perceptive sort of novel…


At about seven in the evening at Bovington Camp in Dorset a bugle sounded “Company sergeant-majors, at the double.” CSM Boreham duly doubled back to the Orderly Room, where he learned that the orders he had just received–concerning the movement 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers to Salisbury Plain for maneuvers–were entirely countermanded.

This time the Orders were very brief: “Pack up, we march back to Portland to-night.” Then the thought flashed through my mind–War. The men were jubilant, as is usual in such circumstances. I’m not afraid to place it on record that I was not ; the South African [i.e. Boer] War had taught me that there was nothing at all to get jubilant about. It is strange what thoughts pass through one’s mind in times of crisis. The very first thing that came to mine was the recollection of being verminous in South Africa, and the horror of being so again…

CSM Boreham is the first voice in a chorus-within-a-chorus: the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch (yes, that’s [their] preferred spelling) is, from our particular point of view, the most remarkable unit of the war. Several of the most interesting war poets–our central characters–passed through the battalion, and several other major poets and memoirists served in other battalions of the same parent regiment.

A brief word on regiments and battalions (skip ahead a bit, ye initiates): most British regiments at this time had two service battalions, called the 1st and 2nd–so we’re here with the 2/RWF–plus a “depot” formation and a number of territorial and/or special reserve battalions. The battalion was the very-roughly-a-thousand-strong basic operational unit, and battalions of various regiments were combined (moving up the scale of formation size) into brigades, divisions, corps, and armies. These were building blocks; but Britain being Britain, and old armies being old armies, each block was stamped with the special mark of the regiment that produced it. The army will soon expand, and battalion numbers will fly up into the twenties–but all battalions of the Royal Welch, be they ever so amateur and not so very Welsh, will get a little bit of regimental history and tradition, a little bit of esprit de corps, a little bit of a sense that, before they get to killing Germans, they might consider a fist-fight with a member of some inferior regiment, just to show who’s really part of the best old regiment in the army.

A lot to learn, here, but there are only two really important bits: first, “regimental” loyalty represents the old, traditional, conservative elements of military life–many of the things that soldiers value and have always valued–while the constant expansion and reshuffling of battalions represents the work of foolish or hard-hearted generals and governments producing and expending so much cannon fodder; second, in the opening months and years of the war, the first and second battalions of any regiment were the “regulars”–career officers and men who were hardened to military life and usefully trained, particularly in “musketry.”[3]

Now back to the 2/Royal Welch: not only did they host a number of poets (reasonably good poets among the actual professional army, as opposed to wartime volunteers, were much more limited in number–that number being approximately Julian Grenfell, himself a Royal Dragoon) but they also eventurally acquired a remarkable doctor, J.C. Dunn, who later engineered a collective history of the unit, a sort of human and polyvocal version of the usually staid and unprotesting battalion war diary.[4] So we will be seeing a lot of this battalion, and paying more than usual attention even to the other battalions of the RWF, which share traditions and, often enough, personnel with the second battalion.

And about those traditions: we will learn about the “flash” and St. David’s Day and Albuera in good time. For today, I only want to note that the Royal Welch, as a matter of ancient (some decades, to be sure) tradition, had a regimental goat. Not a pet mind you, but a Regimental Goat, born on the official strength of (at least the 2nd) battalion.

Today, a century back, the regimental goat died. “He must have known something.”[5]


At around the same time, at the Berkeley hotel in London, Amy Lowell was making some important connections over dinner.[6] The influential American poet and critic is only two days removed from hating on/heckling poor young Rupert Brooke, but tonight she dines with her own people. These are the “imagists,” self-declared vanguard of the Modernist movement, roaring poetic engines primed to race screaming down the highway of the literary future, hauling the twentieth century willy nilly into their slipstream and leaving the Georgian poets wandering dazedly amid the roadside wildflowers, coughing dazedly in the dust. We have yet to meet Richard Aldington, whose acid Death of a Hero is one of the most important (and least Roman-a-Clef-y) angry novels of the war, but we mention him today because he and his wife–the probably-more-significant modernist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)–were introduced, at this dinner, to the much-more-significant-indeed novelist D.H. Lawrence.

Lawrence owed his first break to none other than Ford Hermann Hueffer (a.k.a Ford Madox Ford) and was influenced by T.E. Hulme (the Modernist poet and philosopher we keep mentioning, but have yet to really meet) will exercise a huge influence on Aldington. He would never completely throw in his lot with the angry/radical Modernists or Vorticists (recall Blast) and was published in both Lowell’s Imagist anthologies and Eddie Marsh’s Georgian anthologies. But Lawrence never served–he was a committed anti-militarist and spent the war being harassed by the English authorities for his supposed pro-Germanism. So, despite his eminence, he is for us a great crumping blast from a big gun–but an “over,” a near-miss behind and away somewhere else. The Vorticist Wyndham Lewis, and the angry modernists Aldington and Ford, will reach the trenches, and we will see more of them…  Ah, I remember when I reassured myself that, even if the project seemed to be getting out of hand, at least I wouldn’t bother dealing with the Modernists… never such innocence…


Finally, in a lovely old house in rural Kent, after an afternoon on the cricket pitch, doing “quite a decent bit of defensive batting” for the Blue Mantles, a future subaltern of the 2/RWF struggled–awkwardly as ever–with a new complex of feelings. The cricket match had broken up as several players with military affiliations learned that they had been recalled to their stations. “That evening I played Prince Igor with more expressiveness than ever, while Mrs. Anely sat on the sofa by the window, appreciative of my performance, but unable to conceal her opinion that God alone knew what we should all be doing in a month’s time. My mother, whose courage was unshakeable, did her best to ‘change the subject’; but she couldn’t change the look in her own face.”[7]


And really finally, for today, Sometime earlier, in both absolute and solar-relative time, also at about tea-time–although presumably and despite his fondness for cousin George, he was not thinking of it as such–Tsar Nicholas signed Russia’s mobilization order. This was to take effect the next morning, although some troops in Moscow began immediately entraining for the West. A general war is now (even more) inevitable.

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 126-7.
  2. Reggie Trench's letters are drawn upon by his grandson Anthony Fletcher in Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western Front, a book with much the same approach to telling the story of the war as I've taken up here. I'm reading along with Fletcher now, and will be checking in on Reggie Trench regularly--I would urge any fanatical readers to get the book, which is an admirable hybrid of social history and personal history/group biography, although of course you would then find out what happens to Trench and the other subjects of the book before the century progresses in its due time. You'd find out much, in fact, from the cover. The quotation above is found on page 9.
  3. Change came slow enough to weapons, but even slower to words: musketry is shooting with a bolt-action rifle.
  4. Dunn's The War the Infantry Knew is the best--or possibly the only--book of its kind, and, although it's necessarily patchy and dependent on the memories of survivors, it's the only really compelling contemporary unit history. I would recommend it unreservedly were it not for the fact that I plan to steal and post all of the best parts.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 1-2.
  6. See Kinkead-Weekes, D.H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 136.
  7. The Weald of Youth, 270.

Rupert Brooke Reads and Robert Graves Comes Down

And now, at long last, we meet Robert Graves, last (for us) of the canonical war poets, and the author of by far the most amusing Great War memoir.

More on that misleadingly faint-sounding praise in a moment. Today, July 28th, 1914, a century back, Graves put his tempestuous school days firmly behind him, striding down the hill from Charterhouse and heading for London.

Graves provides an unusually dissonant variation on the public schoolboy theme–a distinctive voice, to put it mildly, and we should hear it now, and leave the conventional introduction to a major new character until later. Here is Graves slaying, dishonoring, despoiling, defaming, and degrading the Public School dragon:

Let me begin my account of Charterhouse School by recalling the day that I left, a week before the outbreak of war. I discussed my feelings with Nevill Barbour, then Head of the School. First, we agreed that there were perhaps even more typical public schools than Charterhouse in existence, but that we preferred not to believe it. Next, that no possible remedy could be found, because tradition was so strong that, to break it, one would have to dismiss the whole school and staff, and start all over again. However, even this would not be enough, the school buildings being so impregnated with what passed as the public school spirit, but what we felt as fundamental evil, that they would have to be demolished and the school rebuilt elsewhere under a different name. Finally, that our only regret at leaving the place was that for the last year we had been in a position, as members of the sixth form, to do more or less what we pleased. Now we were both going on to St. John’s College, Oxford, which promised to be merely a more boisterous repetition of Charterhouse.

We should be freshmen there, but would naturally refuse to be hearty and public-schoolish, and therefore be faced with the stupidity of having our rooms raided, and being forced to lose our temper and hurt somebody and get hurt ourselves. There would be no peace probably until we reached our third year, when we should be back again in the same sort of position as now, and in the same sort of position as in our last year at our preparatory school.

‘In 1917,’ said Nevill, ‘the official seal will be put on all this dreariness, We’ll get our degrees, and then have to start as new boys again in some dreadful profession.’

‘Correct,’ I told him.

‘My god,’ he said, turning to me suddenly, ‘I can’t stand the prospect. Something has to be put in between me and Oxford…”

It’s hard to know which facts to toss into the beginning of a potted Graves bio, for the pot is always roiling, stirred from within. But here’s a good biographical non-fallacy: Young Robert was subjected to a great deal of bullying, even by Public School standards.

Graves was a natural target for bullies, who pounded him, stole his notebooks, trashed his study, etc.

He was big–eventually six foot two or three–but not the right kind of big. He was lanky, ungainly, and badly dressed.[1]He was unusual, smart, sharp-tongued, and not much good at games. He was too smart, but not in the stolid and lordly manner of Roland Leighton or with any of Charles Sorley’s light-hearted precocity. Most damning of all, Graves was enormously stubborn and self-righteous.

Things only got better when he learned how to box, and shortly earned a reputation as an eager, reckless, flailing fighter. He writes that way too, but with sneaky skill as well as manic aggression.

Graves is writing in retrospect, and confesses as much–but tread carefully, lest easy confessions screen the gravity of the crime. Yes, it’s a fairish-if-exagerrated takedown of the public school ethos, but…

This must not be construed as an attack on my old school; it is merely a record of my mood at the time. No doubt, I was unappreciative of the hard knocks and character-training that public schools are advertised as providing. And a typical Old Carthusian remarked to me recently: “The moral tone of the school has improved out of all recognition since those days.’ But so it always will have…

From my first moment at Charterhouse I suffered an oppression of spirit that I hesitate to recall in its full intensity… The school consisted of about six hundred boys, whose chief interests were games and romantic friendships. Everyone despised school-work… Unless good at games, and able to pretend that they hated work even more than the non-scholars, and ready whenever called on to help these with their work, they [the “scholars,” i.e. boys working toward a scholarship to an Oxford or Cambridge college–the rest of the school was exempt from pretending that they valued learning] always had a bad time.

In my second term the trouble began…[2]

It’s not a nice story, and there’s no reason to get into the details. You should read it yourself, since he does the mock-heroic (or mock-tragic?) tale of schoolboy woe very well. After all, I’m introducing Graves now because he left Charterhouse today…

But if the child is father to the man, then the schoolboy is cadet to the officer (apologies), and so we really must explain the boy a bit better. Family and class first; then the school daze.

Graves came from a distinguished middle class family that boasted doctors and writers and bishops, as well as Irish roots and a fondness for Wales. In a further challenge to his precarious Englishness, his mother was German, from a family of doctors and scholars, and many of Graves’s happy early memories are of holidays in Germany or Wales. Historiography fans everywhere will be pleased to know that Graves’s soon-to-be-awkward middle name–von Ranke–is indeed that von Ranke. With the First Real Modern Historian for a great (great) uncle and an inspector of schools for a father, much could perhaps have been expected of Graves in his own school career, and yet he changed schools six times before landing at Charterhouse, and seems never to have been happy. Perhaps, though, the seriousness and sincerity of his family should have led us to expect rebelliousness, contrary attitudes, and joy in fudging the truth of the past.

Writing ran in the family, too. Robert’s father, Albert Perceval Graves, wrote poetry and songs in his spare time, and their home in Wimbledon hosted a Shakespeare society and housed thousands of books. Graves makes a little fun of his family’s austere Protestantism and proper Upper Middle Class attitudes–his mother made him sign a temperance pledge at the age of seven, and the family was appalled when he came back from a youthful hospital stay (lung trouble will recur) speaking with the “vulgar” accent of the other boys on his ward–but on the whole it seems like a big (Robert had four full and five older half siblings) and happy family. Certainly there was an opportunity to take in literature and culture that would have thrilled most of our other young strivers.

Yes–Mr. and Mrs. Graves end up seeming like decent old sticks, hindrances rather than enemies. Although they are quickly dealt with in their son’s “autobiography,” they do make one more appearance as blissfully innocent abettors of his tormentors.[3] Early in Robert’s Charterhouse career, completely miserable, he had unburdened himself in a letter home, describing at least some of the bullying. He claims that it never even occurred to him that they would act on their son’s confidential tale of physical abuse,[4] but of course they came to the school and complained. When the school mounted a half-hearted crackdown on bullying right after an unscheduled parental visit, all the bullies could figure out exactly whom to bully more.

This sort of behavior–the righteous proclamations rather than the amorousness–Graves surely inherited from his parents, whether he realizes this fact or not. Thus he suffered even when his actions were in line with school norms: when the bullies among the house monitors and football “bloods” homed in on his intense-yet-chaste friendship (ah, but what cruel blows the future will deal) with a significantly younger boy (whom Graves calls “Dick”)[5] Graves stands up to them, even acknowledging, when cross-examined by a master, his authorship of poems to his young muse. There was nothing wrong with it! And yet Graves later gets another master fired after acting on an apparently false rumor that this master had been seen kissing Dick…

If Graves can be believed (he can’t, at least not fully, but more on his “autobiographical” tactics in subsequent posts), two expediencies enabled him to escape being beaten into a breakdown. The first was feigning insanity–which, he jokes, was best demonstrated not by the “formal straws in my hair” but by writing poetry–and the second was taking up boxing. Both of these new interests had much to do with his friendship with Raymond Rodakowski, another boy with a funny foreign name, an interest in poetry and ideas, and the willingness to hold his ground against the horrifying masses of brute boyish conformity. Graves throughout his life evinces a strong pattern of singular behavior that is not so much singular as abetted by one other person, and Raymond seems to have been one of the first to help him in this way.

There is self-dramatization here–the straws in the hair–as well as real suffering. Graves in later years was painfully half-aware that his manners and appearance put others off, and he was right of course, to protest that such superficiality in other boys and men was contemptible and wicked… but what does that avail?

In any event, both skills–the poetry and the boxing–would prove useful. More prosaically, in his later years at Charterhouse his unhappiness was slightly relieved by his academic promise and by the friendship of a young master, none other than George Mallory, then only twenty-six or so. Since the school taught little other than the Classics and since Graves’s home library derived from his extremely middle Victorian father, Mallory became a lifeline to modern literature. In what seems suspiciously like an anecdote stolen from Sassoon, Graves writes that he met Eddie Marsh in Mallory’s rooms, and that Marsh told him that his poetry, while promising, was written in an obsolete diction and would benefit from exposure to modern verse.

The friendship with Mallory was clearly crucial: any boy who goes on climbing and book-discussing trips with a young teacher over school holidays is not entirely miserable. Graves also founded a literary magazine (of course), made several friends more or less his own age (notably Nevill Barbour and Raymond Radakowski, although neither would prove as significant as either Mallory or “Dick”), and earned an exhibition to Oxford. It could have been worse.

In fact, given his habitual bitterness and dramatic flair, we might doubt if this proud scholar’s schooldays were really much worse than those of Leighton and Sorley. They sound worse because he was neither happy alone nor did he find a group of friends. Compare him to Leighton, for instance, or Tolkien: each was serious and thoughtful, and each found a group of friends (the Three Musketeers of Uppingham seem much like the TCBS of King Edward’s School) and was also able to treat the female object of his affections with rare seriousness and respect. Or to Sorley, who had friends and took school leadership positions, but, like Williamson, he was happiest alone in nature and his best sport was the solitary test of cross country running.

But Graves was by nature a fighter, never a joiner, and ill-suited at eighteen or nineteen to begin a serious romance. It is boxing, again–“the dual play, the reciprocity, the pain not felt as pain”–that best represents his personality: almost monomaniac, were it not for the serial monogamy. This began with the boy-crushes and intense one-on-one friendships which saved him from misery at school and continued into adulthood as a series of obsessive relationships with (female) lovers. The boxing, like the friendships, he pursued with doggedness, ferocity, and a lack of subtlety.[6]

If you’re throwing up your hands in despair at ever keeping all of these fierce young soldiers-to-be straight, here’s another tack: Graves is the anti-Brooke. Where Brooke can’t help charming people and is universally praised for his grace and physical beauty, Graves seems to instinctively put people off, even to repel them, and is always remembered as slovenly and awkward. Brooke moved seamlessly between groups of friends, from his Cambridge/Bloomsbury crowd to the Dymock poets and other Georgians and on to the best in titled London society. Graves seems rarely to have found a group at all, but fought for and with his friends. And as for love, Graves was a serial monogamist who moved from a non-sexual crush on a boy to intense affairs with women while Brooke carried on numerous overlapping affairs, some sexual, some chaste, some frustrated, some with men, and some with women.

But the most memorable way–considering how this post began–to position Brooke and Graves as antipodes would be to quote Brooke on his feelings about his public school days:

I had been happier at Rugby than I can find words to say. As I looked back at those five years I seemed to see almost every hour as golden and radiant and always increasing in beauty as I grew more conscious; and I could not and cannot hope for or even imagine such happiness elsewhere.[7]

And yet there are similarities, too: Brooke may have been an arrogant golden boy, but he half-realized this and made deft jokes to deflate the pressure of his own ego; Graves may have been a misanthrope and misfit punk, but he half-realized it as well, and fashioned from his failings a rollicking, flailing comedic voice. Brooke is good for a chuckle now and then; Graves has guffaws, at his own expense and others, and his autobiography not only displays a first-class (i.e. disreputable) raconteur’s wit but pioneers some of the black comedy that is usually more closely associated with the literature of the next war.
Oh, and: we’re overrating the “beauty” thing. Brooke was certainly pretty and Graves was not–nor was he soulful in his awkwardness like so many other poets–but he was physically striking and projected a rough sort of charm. Tolkien thought he looked like Siegfried (the Germanic hero, not the Sassoon), but I have always been struck by how much he eventually came to look like–apologies, but I’ve been waiting to use this description for months–a cross between Bob Dylan and Frank Lloyd Wright, with just about the amount of sly nastiness and visionary bomb-throwing in his gaze as that comparison would imply (and not all that much less talent). But now I have gotten us waaaay ahead of the century back, and made it almost impossible to resist googling for images. This was not my intent. Read words only.


And speaking of Rupert Brooke, while Graves was tramping down the hill Brooke was clearing his throat in the back of Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop, the epicenter of youthful, poetic London, reading some of his own work to sixty-five listeners–a big crowd in a small room. He was apparently very nervous, and very quiet. Despite reportedly looking angelic, the Young Apollo was also heckled by an old lady with an ear-trumpet and panned by the American critic Amy Lowell, who

in an atmosphere of overwhelming sentimentality, listened to Mr. Rupert Brooke whispering his poems. To himself, it seemed, as nobody else could hear him. It was all artificial and precious. One longed to shout, to chuck up one’s hat in the street when one got outside.[8]

This is not the first time–Rupert Brooke as shy and sad and angelic and misunderstood and ready to start shouting or do something rash–that I’ve suspected that Pete Townsend wrote “Behind Blue Eyes” about Brooke–but wikipedia tells me that the song was intended as the theme for a chap named Jumbo, so I may be barking up the wrong mulberry bush again, alas.


And as for the great men now holding the fate of Britain in their hands, we will soon make the acquaintance of Raymond Asquith, who occupied a position in the “Coterie”–the hyper-fashionable and cynically amused social circle of his generation–that was almost as dominating as Ettie Grenfell/Desborough’s leadership of the “Souls.” Raymond Asquith was friendly with both Grenfell brothers (Julian and Billy, not the twins Grenfell)…. anyway to Raymond in due time. But today, his father, H.H. Asquith, who, by the way, was the Prime Minister of Great Britain, wrote a chatty letter about national affairs to the 26-year-old woman with whom he was obsessively in love. Referring to the employer of Rupert Brooke’s patron and current First Lord of the Admiralty, Asquith noted that “at this moment things don’t look well, & Winston’s spirits are probably rising.”[9]


A special note here, for you most relentless of down-scrollers: not much happens tomorrow, that I know of, in the lives of our various writers–so it will be a rest day, blogless and desolate. But the end of July and the beginning of August have a flurry of activity, as England belatedly lurches toward war.

Tomorrow, then, if all goes as planned (and what doesn’t go as planned in multi-year military campaigns?) will be the last rest day. From then on, daily posts until victory…

References and Footnotes

  1. It's hard to tell to what extent he was simply sloppy and disinterested in bourgeois niceties of dress (his own view) or so slovenly and rude as to elicit a sort of social/instinctive revulsion in proper members of the upper middle classes (the picture painted by many contemporaries). Would we now diagnose some sort of mild autism spectrum disorder?
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 36-8.
  3. The feeling of non-innocence is very strong because Graves' great memoir--Good-Bye to All That--set out epater pretty much everyone. It's almost the opposite of Sassoon's stance, in which past events are massaged to emphasize the memoir-protagonist's innocence. With Graves, he is determined to intrude on the narrative to show just how cynical the world was, even if his then-self must have missed much of it...
  4. But not the sexual abuse also going on in the school--that Graves left out, of course, since they would certainly, in their innocence and righteousness, have acted then... young Robert needs plausible deniability.
  5. No, the name did not then have that connotation.
  6. This, actually, is not unlike Julian Grenfell, although Grenfell was otherwise a loner. I wonder if any busy bee has yet compared Grenell's letter about the boxing competition in South Africa with Graves's account of his epic stand at a Charterhouse tournament.
  7. Quoted in Parker, The Old Lie, 92-3.
  8. I've taken the quote from Hollis, Now All Roads, 144, who notes that Amy Lowell may herself have been the heckler.
  9. Quoted in Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 72.

Rupert Brooke: I Know the Heart of England; Charles Sorley: The Haystack has Caught Fire


26 July 1914[1]

The haystack has caught fire. The drunken Verbindungen [those students belonging to fraternal organizations, e.g. the students corps that Sorley has been complaining about] are parading the streets shouting “Down with the Serbs.” Every half-hour, even in secluded Jena, comes a fresh edition of the papers, each time with wilder rumours : so that one can almost hear the firing at Belgrade. But perhaps this is only a German sabbatical liveliness. At any rate, it seems that Russia must to-night settle the question of a continental war, or no… Curious that an Austrian-Servian war, the one ideal of the late Austrian Crown-prince’s[2] life should be attained first by his death. It puts him on a level with the heroes:

Erst, wenn er sterben muss an diesem Stern,
Sehen wir dass er an diesem Stern gelebt–[3]

as Rilke says of Christ. The Euckens send greetings of all sorts. The Schückings, who asked me to supper last Saturday, also send greetings. They are nice people.[4]


So Charles Sorley, to his parents. As for Rupert Brooke, he decided to write a letter late tonight–suggestively headed “in bed”–to his new acquaintance Lady Eileen Wellesley.[5] It’s flirtatious fluff, but literate, light-hearted flirtatious fluff. Plus, like any English poet worth his salty earth, Rupert is flirting with (i.e. by means of) the English countryside:

I’ve always wanted to see the forest of Arden… Hampden-in-Arden. What a name to dream about! Perhaps one shouldn’t have gone there. Arden–it’s ten miles north of Stratford–is a little tamed nowadays. No holly & horns & shepherds & dukes. We caught one glimpse of a hart weeping large-eyed on the brink of the Stratford-Birmingham canal. Neither Rosalind nor Audrey. And Orlando’s in an O.T.C. on Salisbury Plain. Everyone else was Jaques: I a shadowy Touchstone.

Good stuff, here, with a string of little jokes playing on As You Like It, which Shakespeare sets in the “Forest of Arden.” Yet–and here’s another ironic twist, this probably “means”–or is meant to be–the legendary/magical “Forest of Arden” which is really the Ardennes forest of Northern France and Belgium. Which will be a far more gruesomely un-pastoral place in both World Wars. The best joke, from Rupert’s point of view (the weeping stag is de trop, no?) and certainly from ours, is the one about Orlando, the noble young lover.

Yes, perfect: like several of our writers (and Roland Leighton most of all) he is a proper young man of good family, in love with a fleet-minded girl… yet he is preparing to go off to the annual Officers’ Training Corps camp. Will this be decently pastoral–a boy scout’s holiday enlivened by a hint of real military adventure? Or will it be another long shadow across the sun-dappled Forest of Arden?

Brooke goes on, though:

But it is lovely. It’s the sort of country I adore. I’m a Warwickshire man… I know the heart of England. It has a hedgy, warm bountiful dimpled air. Baby fields run up & down the little hills, & all the roads wriggle with pleasure. There’s a spirit of rare homeliness about the houses & the countryside, earthy, uneccentric yet elusive, fresh, meadowy, gaily gentle. It is perpetually June in Warwickshire, and always six o’clock of a warm afternoon…  Here the flowers smell of heaven ; there are no such larks as ours, & no such nightingales; the men pay more than they owe; & the women have very great & wonderful virtue, & that, mind you, by no means through the mere absence of trial. In Warwickshire there are butterflies all the year round & a full moon every night, & every man can sing ‘John Peel’. Shakespeare & I are Warwickshire yokels. What a county!

This is nonsense… Eileen, there’s something solid & real & wonderful about you, in a world of shadows. Do you know how real you are? The time with you is the only waking hours in a life of dreams. All that’s another way of saying I adore you.



Ah, to see England through Rupert’s eyes, to love it lightheartedly and sing it so trippingly! And oh! To spend the Last Summer in bed with Rupert!

And speaking of future-historical contamination, it’s not Rupert’s fault that I hear Groucho Marx’s voice wooing in that last paragraph… or not completely


Meanwhile, today in London, Sir Edward Grey proposed to the German ambassador–Prince Lichnowski, the very same ambassador that I am pretty darn, reasonably, not entirely sure went to the ballet in June together with Sitwell, Sassoon, and Thomas–that a four-power conference be convened to mediate Austria’s dispute with Serbia. The suggestion was immediately rejected, and Lichnowski forwarded to Berlin some confident and incorrect assumptions about Britain’s unwillingness, should a larger war break out, to stand up to Germany and figh…

On holiday in Norfolk, Winston Churchill was prodded into action by a telegram from the Daily Mail which promised, essentially, to accuse him of ordering demobilisation if a fleet exercise broke up as usual. Churchill, eager for war, seized the day, and the fleet was sent toward its war station at Scapa Flow.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. To his parents.
  2. A slight mistake, but Sorley means that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
  3. A slight misquotation, but, I think, a pretty broad misunderstanding of Franz-Ferdinand's Slavic policy. Not appreciating the Archduke's stance on Slavic autonomy while he was still with us is not a whole lot like missing out on Christ's teaching during his life, as the Rilke quote implies... an example of Sorley's eagerness to be smart and show off his German poetic chops outpacing his taste as a cultural-historical critic... then again it's just a letter to mum and dad.
  4. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 211-12.
  5. Well, it's probably tonight--the letter is dated only "Sunday night," and it may be the previous Sunday night instead, if Rupert was working his charms with extreme alacrity. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 599.
  6. Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 65-71.

Vera Brittain: We All Discussed Various Things, Chiefly Tennis

Saturday, July 25th

In spite of the showeryness of the day, we managed to have our match against Fallowfield. We just caught the 7.25 back; it was the usual old train that takes over an hour & a half, but the time went very quickly, as we all discussed various things, chiefly tennis, very animatedly. We touched cursorily on the question of religion & the Book of Daniel, but chiefly the European crisis, which has suddenly come nearer owing to Austria issuing what is practically an ultimatum to Servia.[1]

The ultimatum of the 24th expired today at 6 pm, a century back. A few minutes beforehand, the Serbian Prime Minister approached the Austrian minister in Belgrade, Baron Giesl, and explained that Serbia would except all aspects of the ultimatum except those that directly violated Serbian sovereignty, knowing full well that these demands were intended to provoke such refusal, and war. So that takes care of the Hapsburgs and little Serbia–ultimata will follow, to and fro among the Thrones and Powers, in due sequence

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 82.

Charles Sorley: Sweet Peas for Perjurers, Literary Justice for Wilde, and the Pleasures of Being Dead; Siegfried Sassoon Hears of Serbia


Many thanks for your letter. I’m awfully sorry to have taken such a time in answering, but Justice has been engaging my attention. You see my landlady keeps a partly tame squirrel : a charming animal whose only fault is a habit of mistaking my bed for its own. Now the landlord of the whole house has accused the landlady of this particular flat that it pestifies the whole house. So it does. But I have spent the last week giving evidence before forty German Beamten [officials] that the squirrel in question has the manners of a lamb and smells like eau de Cologne. By the steady honesty of my appearance (for I do look honest, don’t I?) I have largely succeeded in getting my landlady off. The reason for my perjury (the first time I have committed perjury indeed, the first time they’ve given me a chance to) was this : I should love to have had that squirrel killed and my landlady imprisoned. But I feared. I knew that if I gave evidence against her, she would poison my morning coffee and hide my brushes in my bed. My course has been quite justified, because my landlady has given me a handsome present in the shape of a bunch of sweet-peas. Sweet-peas for Perjurers! Aha!

Sorley, in some contrast to the more recently school-leaving Roland Leighton, then goes on to gently mock what was evidently a request by Hutchinson that he, Sorley, come down from Oxford to Marlborough for the traditional homecoming festivities. ‘Ware sentimentality, boy!

…But I cannot possibly come down on O. M. Sunday to take you for a walk, (1) I am too poor. (2) It is a peculiarly moth-eaten type of Old Marlburian that leaves the wardrobe on Old Marlburian Day and fills up the back-row of Chapel on Sunday, whimpering over the hymns, and I wouldn’t be identified with this type even for all the gold in Araby and the prospect of having to stand you a meal (or possibly two) in the poverty-stricken pubs round Aldbourne. No. I shall come down quietly towards the end of the term, shall take you by the arm, “Now, my boy, you’re leaving in a few weeks’ time. Well, I left too, ye know. It’s a nasty wrench, but there’s always work for a soldier of Christ to do,” and generally edify you. You’ll need edification. I am sure the law is bound to make anyone who adopts it as a profession a hide-bound cynic in a month. So you’d better not to come to Germany. Cynicism is a vice that doesn’t exist here. That’s why one’s driven into it oneself for pure need of vinegar with the salad. In England there is so much vinegar that it is difficult to find the cucumber at all…

Next up is a defense of a very good principle indeed: judging authors without, er, reference to their biography.

…England is seen at its worst when it has to deal with men like Wilde. In Germany Wilde and Byron are appreciated as authors : in England they still go pecking about their love-affairs. Anyone who calls a book “immoral” or “moral” should be caned. A book by itself can be neither. It is only a question of the morality or immorality of the reader. But the English approach all questions of vice with such a curious mixture of curiosity and fear that it’s impossible to deal with them.

Then–you know I wouldn’t omit it–the necessary historical irony of circumstance:

I’m leaving this place on Tuesday and am at present perfectly miserable at the thought of the imminence of the necessity of packing. On Tuesday I go to Marburg and pick up Hopper who is swimming about in some extraordinary Trippers’ Course there : and we are going for a walking tour till one of us dies of heat apoplexy. Supposing I am the survivor, I propose to go to Berlin and then Schwerin. A yearning motherland will receive me again on the 6th of August…

And finally, a lighthearted–or is it frighteningly ominous?–lark about the prospect of death.

If the Lord God were to come down from heaven and offer me any gift I liked in reward for the service I had done to him, I should choose to be a Widow. It must be simply grand. Haven’t you often prayed I have that people you like may die, in order that you may have the luxury of mourning and being wept with and pitied ? The dead are after all the supreme aristocrats. And widowhood or any other state involving a close connection with or dependence on Death gives one a magnificent standing. The lady you mention reminds me always of that child in Laurence Housman poem which ends :

But in another week they said
That friendly pink-faced man was dead.

‘How sad…’ they said, ‘the best of men…’
So I said too, ‘How sad’; but then
Deep in my heart I thought, with pride,
‘I know a person who has died’.[2]

Sorley closes with one of his many trenchant observations–few young men were positioned to actually see these things, although many would act on ill-informed assumptions–on the differences between Germans and Britons:

I can depart from Germany with a clear conscience, because I have finished Faust at last ! I think it’s about the best thing ever written… And Germany on the whole is a very good place to get together a kind of amateur Weltanschauung [personal philosophy, or “worldview”] as they call it. The average German does think for himself. He doesn’t simply live in the moment like the average Briton (which makes the average Briton pleasanter than the average German, but still!). And he does try to develop his own personality without reference to other people, that is, without making it either absolutely the same or absolutely different from his surroundings, as the Briton always does. They’re really quite an admirable lot and, when they try to be funny, they’re like squeaking Teddy Bears… [3]


Meanwhile, in a quiet corner of Kent, Mab Anley is visiting with her old friend Theresa Sassoon, née Thornycroft. Siegfried, home in a funk of debt and unrealized poetic potential, learns today from Mrs. Anley–the mother of two colonels–that war was very likely. Thus our lassitudinous poet “began–earlier than I might otherwise have done–to perturb myself about my own patriotic responsibilities. I offer this explanation because it has always seemed rather odd that I should been so unwontedly quick off the mark…” Indeed.[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. This letter, like two others of our early first Sorley entries, was written to his good friend and schoolmate A. E. Hutchinson.
  2. There is a particularly horrible spoiler here, in a moment, and with a bizarre twist of the ironic knife. Sorley mis-remembers: the poem is by Frances Cornford. Laurence Housman, brother of the more famous poet will... don't read on!...  one day publish Sorley in an anthology.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 208-211.
  4. The Weald of Youth, 268-9.

Phillip Maddison: A Tentative Holiday Postcard

Phillip Maddison, I hasten to note, here at the outset, is a fictional character. This is, I believe, the first time a work of fiction (they can be so unwilling to cough up actual dates) is carrying a daily post, and although I’ve nailed my colors to the mast on this subject, a brief explanation is in order here.

The most sincere intellectual goals of this project involve ruminating on the ways in which experiences are transmuted into story–not just into responsible, loyal-to-the-facts history, but into any sense-making-of-it-all form, whether poetic or novelized. The project will work–if it does–because so many writers wrote at great length about their wartime experiences, usually in letters or diaries that became memoirs. But a few writers decided to use their experiences as the basis for novels. Some of these are more or less straightforward romans à clef–lightly fictionalized accounts of real events. Others are looser: blurring the lines between memoir and novel, as Sassoon does, or building a major novel, otherwise driven by a traditional big-time novelist’s concerns with the nature of his or art and the spirit of his or her times, around a few of the writer’s own traumatic experiences (Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy may be the best example of this).

Henry Williamson‘s project is the sort of thing that might just make a four-and-a-half-year blog worthwhile: he wrote a fifteen-volume novel–A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight–that seeks to present his world through the eyes of a protagonist strikingly similar to himself. Life is short, and fifteen volume novels are not. This one has its moments (I hasten to add that I will be reading the wartime volumes, not the entire thing) but the quality of the writing is not such that I can recommend blocking out a Proust-sized chunk of your reading life for it. But, read alongside the real-life experiences of its author (preserved in contemporary letters) and in concert with the experiences and the writings of so many others, it gives us a chance to monitor the novelization process, to see the harmonies and dissonances between a lived experience and a written one as they occur.

So, more on Henry Williamson in due time–he had a brief introduction here in May–while today we focus on Phillip Maddison. Philip, just like his creator, is a young man just out of school, from the semi-suburban middle class. He has been working, for something like a year now, as an entry-level clerk in a bank in the City, London’s financial district. And, also just like his creator, he joined the territorial army (a recently regularized militia, its rough modern equivalent being perhaps the American National Guard) on something little more than a whim: he wanted to join the club (literally, as well as figuratively, since this regiment’s drill hall did function as a middle class equivalent of a gentleman’s club) and he wanted to buy a new suit with the enlistment bonus paid by his employer.

Phillip is an innocent, of course. He loves nature–birds in particular–and gets teased at work about this– “Phillip is after birds” Ha!–and, while he is in love with a girl from the neighborhood, he loves chastely, nervously, and from a distance.

Phillip gets a vacation, which he takes in July–rather unlikely, that, since the two week annual camp of the Territorial Army was coming up in August–living with a suffragette aunt and tramping around Devon and Somerset, fishing and birding. This is exactly what Henry Williamson had done with his first vacation, in May. The fictionalizing move to July must be, then, a clear and present example of chronological shuffling for literary effect: now the idyll in nature occurs right before the shadow of war falls. Williamson’s holiday we know mostly from a diary recording birds seen and eggs taken, but it seems unlikely that he witnessed then what his fictional alter-ego does: a pack of hounds and hunters pursuing an otter right past Phillip, where he watches with his aunt and her friend, and downstream to the Severn Sea.

“Shameful,” said Sylvia. “So many against one small animal.”

“It will get away,” said Aunt Dora. “They won’t turn an otter in this water. It will get down to the sea, if I know anything about the beastie.”

Phillip, excited by the chase, wants to see the wild thing–but does he want it to escape, or be caught? Can the hunt excite you without your taking a share in the bloodlust?

They witness the hunt because Phillip has come down to the village to send a clutch of post-cards back to London. Too timid to send a post-card to the object of his affections, he has sent one instead to the young woman’s mother:

This is a delightful watering place, the country of the Doones and Lorna, with every good wish from Yours sincerely Phillip

22 July 1914

Phillip does catch a glimpse of the Otter, swimming to the sea and freedom; the hunters head to lunch.

Osbert Sitwell Takes Up Civilian Life; Vera Brittain Takes the Big Exam; Ford Madox Ford Takes Stock

20 July, 1914

(Apologies for the triple-header–please feel free to, you know, go about your business between sections. When the calendar giveth, I must pass along its bounty…)

When we last left Osbert Sitwell, he was living the high life in London, a dashing young officer in the Grenadier Guards besotted with avant-garde art and wangling his way into the most fashionable parties. He was also running up debt, and although his father was rich and extravagant when it came to his own interests, Sir George Sitwell was committed to the principle that thrift was a great virtue and should be demonstrated by his children. He was entirely irrational about money and had become convinced that, since Osbert seemed to be enjoying army life, he needed to work his way up in some other field instead. This is certainly a manifestation of something pretty far along the eccentric-to-insane continuum, but then again Osbert Sitwell often seems to deploy an impressionistic style as a smoke screen, avoiding explaining, for instance, how exactly a father is able to order his adult son around so imperiously, and how that adult son could be without volition both in the taking of a commission and in suddenly leaving the army during a time of growing international tension. Clearly the main lever is debt, yet Osbert seems neither to want to admit to the foolishness of his own extravagance (it just sort of happens, alas) nor to the appropriateness of a father who covers his son’s debts deciding to refuse to allow him to continue in the lifestyle that caused them…

Consequently, after many months of freedom, it was with a feeling of the most profound depression that I accepted an ultimatum from my father, and left London for Renishaw about the twentieth of July, 1914, to take up civilian life. He had made up his mind by now. I must enter the Town Clerk’s Office at Scarborough… Better still, before I entered the Office, I must go right back to the beginning, and learn a good commercial copperplate… Accordingly, before my apprenticeship at Scarborough began, I was to reside at Renishaw for a month or two, and under his restrictive eye learn from the starting point the whole art of calligraphy, as well as how to read double-entry accounts…

I hated these plans, but, though even now I did not realize that war was so near, I fell in with them with a definite and curious sense of fatalism. I knew, with utmost inner conviction, that they were futile… I was very tired when I left London, tired from pleasure and not from work. The whole of London had still seethed with a feeling of summer and gaiety. The children of the rich feasted, and from the ballrooms, wreathed in roses, where they waltzed to the deep-hearted rhythm of the “Rosenkavalier Waltz,” the sons could not see the ruins, the broken arches and cut and twisted trees which were all their future… No one mentioned the possibility of war: no one whispered it, least of all in the Regiment.[1]

And so Sitwell’s glittering Last Summer comes to a weird screeching halt, two weeks early. As the rest of Europe slides toward war, Osbert goes home to sit at a kitchen table placed on the lawn of his ancestral estate and practice making “pothooks” as a first step to reforming his wayward handwriting. His father, magnificently out of touch, continues to plan the never-ending reformation of the gardens and grounds. We’ll pick them up there in early August, when the news begins to reach even the ears of antiquarian baronets and their semi-chastised prodigal sons…

Vera Brittain made no entry in her diary today, but it was a big day. She had, many long months ago, won a place at Somerville College, Oxford–one of the very few places that a woman in England could receive higher education in the classics and humanities. But she could not take her place without passing the general admission exam, which featured a formidable amount of Latin and Mathematics–especially considering the thin sort of formal education a provincial young lady ordinarily received. These she had been assiduously cramming on her own, as well as receiving some dubious tuition from a local school master. On July 20th, as she wrote later, “I went to Leek to take my Oxford Senior.”

I had been obliged to ascertain for myself the various regulations and the localities at which the papers could be taken, and had chosen Leek because my father, who motored every day from Buxton into Staffordshire, could put me down there on his way to the mills.

After two years of having been (so to speak) “grown-up,” it felt strange and a little humiliating to be examined in the airless atmosphere of Leek Technical School, surrounded by rough-looking and distinctly odiferous sixteen-year-olds of both sexes. It was not a heroic setting for the final stage of my prolonged battle with persons and circumstances, and I left Leek with a depressed sense that I had certainly failed.[2]

Well, we’ll see. If she failed the exam then there will be no Oxford this year, and more parents to live with and suffocating local marriage proposals to fight off. There will be no seeing Roland, either.


So for Osbert Sitwell July 20th was the end of his beginning as an officer and a figure on the London arts scene. For Vera Brittain it was the end of the beginning of her struggle to escape provincial young-ladyhood–or would be, if she passed. For Ford Madox Hueffer,[3]July 20th is the date that he chose to signify “the frame of mind of the average Englishman” of that Last Summer.

Ford, as we will call him, was forty years old, a prolific writer and literary journalist and a staunch Tory. He was not only older and more experience than most of our writers, but much more aware of what would come to be seen as the cutting edge of literature–Paris, Modernism, and all that jazz. His modernist masterpieces are still in the future, but he was well known for his many novels on historical themes, including several published jointly with Joseph Conrad and containing what we now label as “speculative fiction.” More on Ford in due time, when I finish the slog through his four volume masterpiece and skim a biography, thus completing the final stage of my prolonged battle with Ford’s novels and circumstances.

He may have chosen July 20th as his metonymic Last Summer morning later on, perhaps simply because–and here oh here would I sympathize with him greatly–he happened to have a record of his movements that day.[4] He was traveling north, on political business–ironically, he noted, to try to unseat the liberal member of parliament and foreign minister Sir Edward Grey, who was then at the very center of England’s tense decision-making as the European crisis continued to intensify–and looking forward to a weekend of golf and cards and “slacking.”

On the morning of July 20th, 1914, I stood upon the platform of Berwick-on-Tweed station reading the London papers… [the liberal papers] reminded the world, the sovereign, or what it is convenient to call the Court Party, that the day for the intervention of monarchs in public affairs was past; that an immense and passionate democracy, international in its functions and one-minded in its aspirations, had taken control of the world, and that the past, with its absolutism, its oligarchisms, its so very limited monarchies, its dictatorships, and its wars was over and done with.

Well, sure: it’s easy to look back from the war, as a Tory very much obsessed with history, and snark about the failure of the Christian democratic or international socialist dream. A more balanced perspective would point out that very many not-easily-deluded people had real hope, then, that moderate socialism would work to slow down the competitive instincts of capitalism and old-fashioned aristocratic military grandiosity/imperialism and enable a lasting peace. This was the grandest of all the innocences of the Last Summer, of the whole Edwardian period, the stately procession of decades without a truly major European war that proceeded the historical now…  So Ford is right, if a bit gloat-y, in his assessment of the assumptions of the left on July 20th, 1914. But the snark shades into bad history: do not let him snooker you into believing that liberal internationalism had to fail, that meddling kings and military oligarchs had to push their countries into disastrous war–yes, that’s the way it played out, but it had yet to play. No one then knew how quickly nationalism would override all the other political passions.[5]

On the actual possibility of war, it suits Ford to be wide-eyed rather than knowing. Watch where his “Last Summer Idyll” piece goes:

We had had a very tiring London season; I seem to recapture still very well the feelings of lassitude which made me dislike having to turn my mind again to excited political matters. By the middle of July in a properly constituted world the Eton and Harrow match and the Universities’ match at Lord’s have brought the interests of the world to an end…

I had got myself into a frame of mind for occupying my thoughts with past things [for, presumably his historical fiction] –polished armour, shining swords, fortresses, conflagrations, the driving off of cattle, the burning of inhabitants within their dwellings–all those impossible things of the past which assuredly would never come again. For, on July 20th, 1914, it was impossible to think of war, though it might be desirable to eject Sir Edward Grey from the parliamentary representation of the town of Berwick-on-Tweed.

And from there his thoughts wander back–we can see, although I am quoting a piece of war-time propaganda, the modernist style developing–to the possible amusements of the weekend to come. But for Ford this essay into recapturing his own moderately stream-y consciousness on that summer morning is, in fact, history:

I am attempting, therefore, to provide as exact an historical document as if I were reporting the procès verbal of the trial of Joan of Arc or the speeches and votes during a sitting of Parliament. I am presenting, perfectly accurately, the workings of a comparatively normal English mind on an occasion which, for personal reasons, remains singularly clearly with me.[6]

This, Ford argues, is a way to escape partisan history: his historical thoughts are real and representative, and better than any “story” of England in the Last Summer as a bastion of idiotic indifference, or a decadent society on tottering last legs, or a sun-drenched idyll, or a muscular nation of heroic amateur soldiers just itching to roll up their sleeves and take on the dastardly Hun. True! Generalizations are bad! We must not see the future reflected in our look back at the past!

But, reader, should we trust him?


Meanwhile, in the outside world, as the president and prime minister of France arrive in Russia for a state visit, their ambassador overhears the Tsar complaining of his headstrong cousin, the Kaiser: “If you knew him as I do…  how much theatricality [there is] in his posing!… Unless Germany has gone out of her mind altogether she will never attack…” but soon the ambassador, the fantastically-named Maurice Paléologue, is waxing rhapsodic about the state banquet, “the dazzling display of jewels on the women’s shoulders… a fantastic shower of diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires, emeralds…”[7]

References and Footnotes

  1. Great Morning!, 310-14.
  2. Testament of Youth, 92.
  3. Although, people being people and war being war, having a German surname caused some difficulties during the war, he did not change it until later on--but as he became a famous writer (a prolific journalist and novelist, he was popular then and seems to be enjoying renewed popularity now, not least because it's convenient to rediscover a pretty-hard-to-read but still comprehensible modernist once all of the modernist writers of the first ranks have been analyzed to death and beyond) and is discoverable today under the name Ford Madox Ford, we will use this name throughout, dreadful anachronism though it is. On the plus side, my illogical commitment to "first name last name only" categories allows the gnomic "Ford Ford" to appear.
  4. Although he also refers to "personal reasons" for remembering the date.
  5. I've cited him several times already, but Max Hastings has written a very readable book (Catastrophe 1914)on the march to war, with the political and military details fleshed out with some reference to ordinary lives--he tells that story well, as does Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August.
  6. From Between St. Denis and St. George, collected in War Prose, 25-9.
  7. Quoted in Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 49.

Vera Brittain: Brief, but Decisive in Every Sentence; Edward Thomas Asks for War Poems

Friday July 17th [1914]

This morning came a letter from Roland, enclosing what he calls the “deservedly prizeless Prize poem” about “The Crescent & the Cross.” The poem has undoubted felicity of expression – it is a blank verse fragment — but as Uncle Will pointed out, in ideas it is derivative & the personal element is somewhat lacking. This of course he put down to the writer’s youth and inexperience; he is going through the imitative stage through which we all have to pass. I think the lack of personal expression is due to the strong element of reserve in his nature; he hides his deep feelings so well that certain of his friends scarcely believe he has any. In a letter I wrote him to-night I asked if he need extend that reticence to poetry.

Indeed she did, adding “But here I am criticising unasked as usual.” Roland is certainly reserved, and there’s no diary of this to draw on, only the letters, but it’s a good bet that this direct line of flirtation–“no one criticises you, you big lunk, so I watch closely as, instead of pulling my punches, I theatrically over-swing”–appeals to Roland, the quiet achiever called “The Lord” by his schoolmates, with the intimidating mother who didn’t even make it to Speech Day to see her son collect his prizes because she was finishing writing a book.

Although Roland’s mother is not much discussed in her diary, she looms large in Vera’s letters to Roland. Today’s letter continues: “I wish I could have met Mrs. Leighton; I should like to run the gauntlet of her criticism, even though it were unflattering…” But this confidence fades into a self-doubt that is both unlike the confident Vera of the diary and also a little too heavy-handed to appear to be, like the poetry criticism, a flirtation technique. She won’t come with Edward to visit Roland (her parents would not have approved, anyway) because she doesn’t want to inflict both Brittains on Mrs. Leighton: “there is no guarantee that she would like me; she might detest me; I know one or two women who do.”[1]

Worse, Vera closes by assuring Roland that they won’t be seeing each other in Oxford in October because she will surely fail the upcoming exam… An open-hearted sharing of self-doubt between two outwardly-super-confident kindred spirits? Or perhaps a flirtatious soliciting of a response along the lines of “No, she’ll love you! You must come! You will succeed!?” That would be asking a lot of The Lord, I think. But back to today’s diary:

His letter to me was brief but decisive in every sentence. He says he cannot tell me how much he enjoyed the two days I was at Uppingham, & that they stand out like an oasis in an otherwise commonplace & uninteresting term. He feels he cares still less about leaving Uppingham and its people. Edward somewhat perturbed him by saying that talking to me seemed to make him more isolated & exclusive than ever – thus, as Roland suggests, implying that the more he became friends with me the more he would drift apart from Edward. But I cannot think that E. really feels that; it must be part of his general depressed mood. He & I, though of such diverse natures, have always been great friends, & I don’t think there can be a bigger difference between him & Roland than there is between him & me.[2]

There is something touchingly fierce and silly about noting your uncle’s help in critiquing your pseudo-boyfriend’s poetry, not to mention telling your diary that the boy surely does care for you, and that this budding relationship will absolutely in no way affect your relationship with his best friend, your brother. No way! And if Vera can pass the Oxford Senior, they will both be at Oxford in the fall, unless something untoward were to happen…



[***Correction, August 11, 2014: Big screw-up here–I plead scanner error, but it’s fairly inexcusable, given how obviously August-y the below letter is; in any event, the card and letter referred to below were written on August 17th, not July 17th.]

Eleanor Farjeon was by now quite obviously in love with Edward Thomas. For his part, Thomas was unhappy in his marriage and seems to have been fond of Eleanor–he certainly made use of her freely-given aid–but he did not return her more ardent feelings. His wife Helen recognized all of this, and saw Eleanor more as a friend and fellow sufferer-in-unrequited-love of Edward than as a rival. So Eleanor had become a friend of the family–and sometime babysitter and unpaid editor.. She was due to visit with them in Herefordshire, where Thomas was racing to complete yet another anthology, and on the 17th Edward Thomas wrote to her twice. First, an early morning card asking if “you could lend me (bring with you) Coleridge’s ‘Biographia Literaria’ or his Letters or a good life of him” and giving confusing directions to their lodgings in Ledington. Later in the day he sat down to write her a longer letter:

17 vii
My dear Eleanor,

I am sorry I sent off that horrid card written in double darkness. Helen will do better…
…Could you bring with you a folding unmounted Ordnance Map, Sheet 81 (Hereford) in the large series? I have all other necessary maps. When you take your room at Ledbury don’t arrange for more than one night in case we find you a place near us here…

…Baba liked her farmhouse which was set up at once, but has since concentrated on a doll’s cradle. She now has spectacles, did you know? But she is recognisable.

If you have saved any war poems would you bring them with you?
….Yours ever
Edward Thomas[3]

So Eleanor, bearing more toys for the children and more books for their father, was off to stay near the Thomases–and the Frosts. Better lodging was soon found, a room in the farmhouse of the formidable and aptly-named Farmers. Eleanor, a writer’s writer, describes them as  “an elderly countryman with bad teeth and easy chuckling manners” and “a bulky dominant woman who…  had stepped out of a chapter by George Eliot, her husband out of another by Thomas Hardy, and they had joined forces midway.”

This book-ish couple will soon host one of the more pleasant literary gatherings of the summer, while Edward will have to put the war poems to a different use.

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters from a Lost Generation, 19-20.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 81-82.
  3. Farjeon, The Last Four Years, 84-5.

Charles Sorley: Bureaucracy and Gender Indeterminacy

I’ve been told that I need to hook the internet by dangling clever titles.

And short paragraphs!

So, having been hooked by the promise of sexual complexities, you will now be enraged to read that Charles Sorley is suffering no crises of identity. In fact, he has for us nothing more interesting than a humourous anecdote about Official Germany. This, too, is simple reportage by the author transmogrified by historical irony, a monstrous foreshadowing of his dealings with German officials a few weeks hence..

16 July 1914[1]

Nothing has been happening here, except that policemen have been worrying me. On the memorable date of my entrance in Jena I had to write two biographies of myself, one for the university and one for the town. The university thought that Charles was a masculine, the town that it was a feminine, name. So when they drew up their statistics, they didn’t tally. So they called on me to-day and put the whole matter in my hands. I had also filled up minor details, such as “faith-confession” and “since when educated” differently in both. So that they rather suspected that there were really two of me and I was keeping one of them beneath the washstand : one of them being a Church of England lady who had been educated since September 1908, the other an evangelical gentleman who had begun his education as early as May 1895. But they were soon satisfied.[2]

References and Footnotes

  1. The letter is to Sorley's parents.
  2. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 206-7.