Kipling Records a Dream, and Writes a Poem

Last night, the exhausted 1/Irish Guards, many of them marching in a light sleep, “lay down by moonlight in a field” not far from Soissons and more than eighty miles SSW of Mons. In the early morning hours of August 31st, a century back, “an officer dreamed that the alarm had been given and that they must move on. In this nightmare he rose and woke up all platoon-officers and the C.O.; next, laboriously and methodically, his own Company, and last of all himself, whom he found shaking and swearing at a man equally drunk with fatigue.” A quiet day guarding the right flank of the retreat followed, then another withdrawal by night.[1]

Back home in England, Rudyard Kipling, who would become attached to the same regiment and later write its history, put the was finishing touches on his first Big War Poem.[2] The poem was published in the Times on September 2nd. It was the sort of call to action that was expected from England’s Biggest Poet: Kipling had, after all, spent much of the last decade as the part-time Cassandra of German Militarism, warning of England’s lack of preparedness for war. Kipling didn’t tend to do things by half measures; still, the poem is rather extreme:

 

For All We Have And Are

For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and meet the war.
The Hun is at the gate!
Our world has passed away
In wantonness o’erthrown.
There is nothing left to-day
But steel and fire and stone.

Though all we knew depart,
The old commandments stand:
“In courage keep your heart,
In strength lift up your hand.”

Once more we hear the word
That sickened earth of old:
“No law except the sword
Unsheathed and uncontrolled,”
Once more it knits mankind,
Once more the nations go
To meet and break and bind
A crazed and driven foe.

Comfort, content, delight —
The ages’ slow-bought gain —
They shrivelled in a night,
Only ourselves remain
To face the naked days
In silent fortitude,
Through perils and dismays
Renewed and re-renewed.

Though all we made depart,
The old commandments stand:
“In patience keep your heart,
In strength lift up your hand.”

No easy hopes or lies
Shall bring us to our goal,
But iron sacrifice
Of body, will, and soul.
There is but one task for all —
One life for each to give.
What stands if freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?

This is verse to conjure with, especially if one seeks to conjure up volunteers above and beyond even the several “hundred thousands” who had already signed up for “Kitchener’s Army.” Thousands more were signing up every day, now. Many who had hesitated in the early weeks of the war were moved to enlist after reading of Mons and the retreat, and more, perhaps, were moved by sentiments like these.

A rousing poem–but also, on more than a brief look, a terrifying one.

Yes, this was written, as yesterday’s headline’s makes clear, in a Dark Hour. Yes, the German advance into France seemed inexorable, and the invasion and occupation had been accompanied with brutality. Germany: less free than Britain. True enough. Pacifists were thin on the ground today, a century back, and there was no chance of a negotiated end to the war with Prussian Militarism at its high tide.

So if a master rhymer can be forgiven for writing situational, propagandist verse that doesn’t stand up to moral close-reading, perhaps we should forgive. Kipling had a weakness for thumping bombast even at the best of times, and this was not the best of times.

And yet. Should we really subsume our life in that of the nation, drown our faculties of discrimination in the pure waters of the crusade? Don’t “patience” and “iron sacrifice” and “silent fortitude” add up to something like “unquestioning obedience?” And if we treat the world as already destroyed, and the unsheathed sword of the “Hun” as entirely evil, and if we must sacrifice our very identities to its (seems more appropriate than “his,” no?) defeat, well… where do we stop? When can we stop? Do invasion and brutality really legitimate a counter-vernichtungskrieg? And even if they do, is that the right thing to do? The English thing? The Christian thing?

Sometimes Kipling brings out the bloody-minded and cheerfully heroic nine-year-old boy in all of us; and sometimes he should bring out the baleful derision of the sixteen-year-old small-town non-comformist. And it’s the latter who is closer to growing up. More to the point, it’s the teenager who is almost of an age to go for a soldier: Kipling’s sentiments are militaristic and totalizing, but he won’t be putting on a uniform and silently, obediently, sacrificing his life–his son’s generation will.

Kipling writes good stories–history-wise as well as adventurous–but thank God and England for Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and the rest.

References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 36.
  2. CarringtonRudyard Kipling, 499.

Roland is So Very Glad; The Farmers Host a Riotous Literary Dinner

Sunday August 30th

I found a letter from Roland waiting for me, & though all his have been a strange source of comfort to me through everything, I have never received one which impressed me with quite such a sense of joy as this.
He was of course writing about my exam., & begins “I am so glad – so very glad. You do not know how wretched I should have felt if you had failed. And now we shall be able all three to be at Oxford together–you
& Edward & I. For, come what may, I will go now. And I look forward to facing a hedge of chaperons & Principals with perfect equanimity, if I may be allowed to see something of you on the other side.”

Vera Brittain goes on to describe the emotional departure of a local clergyman, one of those who had sparked and supported her intellectual efforts, before closing, as she is wont, with the evening news.

During supper Daddy & Edward read us a very dismal article in the Sunday Times speaking of the tremendous losses in the British Army, & the apparent invincibleness of the Germans all round. The situation
seems very grave indeed. What with the terrible news from the front, & Mr Ward’s farewell to Fairfield, the day has been a sad one. The only bright spot is Roland Leighton’s letter – it seems a strange coincidence
that in spite of all the obstacles to my going to Oxford & all his attempts to join the army, our destinies have been shaped in such a way as to bring us, or so it seems now, to Oxford together. It is as though chords begin to sound faintly which have never even vibrated before.[1]

The article must be around in the ether somewhere; but what with The Retreat and all I am too fagged to contemplate newspaper pay walls. Here are the headlines:

GERMAN ‘TIDAL WAVE’ … BROKEN BRITISH REGIMENTS
BATTLING AGAINST ODDS … MORE MEN NEEDED

 

And is there still an England? Yes–still. Eleanor Farjeon, staying in Gloucestershire near the Thomases and the Frosts, and boarding with a quaint older couple. They are named, of course, the Farmers, and they address each other, of course, as ‘Mother’ and ‘Father.’

Farjeon has a story to tell of a dinner that probably took place today, a century back. Or, possibly, last Sunday.

It’s long and uneventful, and don’t worry, soon the BEF will stand and fight right here on this very blog. But today there are humorous descriptions of old people and drunken poets, with some semi-subtle Tolkien references for a prize at the end. Courage!

That August a covey of poets had gathered on the border of Gloucestershire. I was down at the Chandlers one evening when Lascelles Abercrombie came over from Ryton, where he had a cottage, and tumed the poets’ duet into a trio; I think the projected Welsh holiday was discussed between them, as well as the Cadence, and the exotic Oriental dressing-gown of purple silk in which Ezra Pound had welcomed Robert Frost to London, and which Robert described in great detail.  Nearer to Ledington than Ryton, Wilfrid Gibson had his home, to which the whole party of us were invited for a sumptuous picnic in the woods about it. I had not met either Gibson or Abercrombie before this holiday, and never saw either of them after it. My chief picture of the picnic is of the contrast between them, Abercrombie sprawling at ease and talking freely as he ate, and Gibson, shy and reserved, acting the host as circumspectly as if sitting at a damask tablecloth.

Literary fame was in the air, and the ebb and flow of poets suddenly went to Mrs. Farmer’s head. One morning she presented herself with a request. Did I think, she asked with great dignity, that it would be in order for her to invite Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and Mr. and Mrs. Frost to supper one evening?

I was sure they would be delighted. Then, would I undertake to ask them for next Sunday? I would, with pleasure. Did I think it would be the proper thing to ask Mr. Gibson and Mr. Abercrombie too? I undertook these invitations also. Still Mrs. Farmer lingered. ‘Would you. Miss Farjeon, object to lending me your dining-room for the supper?’

Well, hardly, as I was to partake of the feast myself. I perceived that Mrs. Farmer was labouring under a sense of responsibility, and assented in suitable terms. She withdrew; and I ran down to the Thomases and up to the Frosts to deliver the invitations and warn them to come in their best, as this was to be an Occasion. Gibson and Abercrombie were duly advised…

On Sunday afternoon I was excluded from the dining-room, in which much shifting seemed to be taking place. I spent the day among the children as usual, and returned to my bedroom in time to put on my nicest cotton frock. Shortiy before the guests were due I came downstairs, and found entrance to the dining-room barred by Mrs. Farmer, clad in her Best Black and an apron.

‘The Guests will be sitting in the parlour before supper, Miss Farjeon, and as I shall be busy in the kitchen will you be so kind as to entertain them for me?’

So saying, she opened the door into the closed room; the double doors between it and the dining-room were still sealed. The back room was almost too good to be true; it was the stage-producer’s dream of any middle-class Best Parlour in any Victorian play. It was crowded with more old-fashioned furniture than could be taken in by the late summer light which scarcely penetrated the shrubs against the windows, and the table-lamps which diffused yellow pools only on the objects that surrounded them on the plush covers. There was a scrollback sofa and arm-chairs to match, and some uncompromising chairs; the mantelpiece ornaments and the pictures on the walls could not have been other than tbey were. The room smelt musty, but it was not dusty; Mrs. Farmer’s massive arms had been at work. She indicated sundry books on tables
and what-nots.

‘The Guests may like to look at the photograph albums.’ It was complete.

I sat down on the edge of one of the smaller chairs, ready to spring to attention. In a few minutes I heard her greeting the Frosts and the Thomases in the hall, and they were ushered in. I rose, gravely greeted them also as she retired, and provided each of them with a Family Album. The Guests had arrived already somewhat under the influence of their best clothes, and Mrs. Farmer’s parlour overcame them. We tumed our pages of Cabinets and Cartes de Visites, conversing a little politely in hushed voices. Edward did not attempt to light his clay. Before long, Gibson and Abercombie joined us. Edward and Robert saw that they were provided with albums. I think we all felt bound by an unspoken conspiracy not to let our hosts down; there were moments when we dared not catch each other’s eyes. Last, Mr. Farmer came—or was driven—in, uncomfortable in a thick suit and a collar. He sat down and sweated, and said the missus would soon have supper ready…

And what a supper-table!  …I found myself seated at my Host’s right hand, some poet or other beside me. The table was loaded with huge shapes of food, a ham, a great joint of beef, a raised pie and birds, among dishes of butter and pickles and salads, and sauce-boats of dressing, and slabs of home-made bread. If ever a sideboard groaned that sideboard did, with fruit-tarts and trifles and cheesecakes, and at least two flagons of my favourite rough cider.

We fell to. To pick at the food would have been to insult Mrs. Farmer, presiding with complacent ceremony at the for end, pressing us to this and that, passing down platefuls that could not, in mere courtesy, be ignored, rising from time to time, an outsize Hebe, to replenish our tankards from yet another Jeroboam of cider. At first the clatter of knives and forks took the place of conversation; but tankard by tankard the talk flowed with the drink. It was a very hot night. As tongues wagged and self-consciousness waned, Mr. Farmer took off his collar.

‘Father!’ from his scandalized Better Half.

‘Can’t help it. Mother; I’m sweaty!’ he beamed; and took off his coat.

For the rest of the meal he sat at ease in his shirt-sleeves, his tongue loosed with the best. Mrs. Farmer disapproved, but her party was being a success. All her poets were laughing and chattering about her. Meats were removed, trifles and tarts demolished in quarts of cream, tankards refilled again and yet again…

At last she rose majestically, and from the sideboard produced an enormous Stilton in an advanced stage of ripeness. It was offered to the poets sitting beside her, and travelled down the board till it reached out end. I helped myself modestly, and presented it to Mr. Farmer, now chuckling fruitily and showing his black teeth. He winked at me as he dug in his knife.

‘I likes it,’ he said, ‘when they looks out o’ their little winders, and wags their tails, but I don’t like it when they squeals between my teeth..

‘Father!’

What did it matter? Everyone was wiping his eyes with laughter, and we finished the meal with the cheese. Mrs. Farmer rose. I rose, and Helen rose, and Elinor Frost. Mr. Farmer rose. The Poets attempted to rise, relapsed on to their seats, and regarded each other with comical consternation. They were perfectly sober, though exceedingly gay; but the gallons of strong cider, against which I had been inoculated, had gone to their legs, and not one of them could stand without support. I saw Edward and Robert stagger to their feet,
clutch each other, and go down; they rose again with great caution, clinging together. On the other side of the table Gibson and Abercrombie were behaving similarly. Two brace of poets staggered out into the moonlight and went hilariously homeward like two sets of Siamese Twins. I have boasted ever since of the night when I drank all the poets in Gloucestershire under the table. [2]

It’s a nice story, no?  A little long, a little silly–but nice. And, of course, these sorts of stories are not everyday stories–they are under-the-war’s-overhang stories.

This is less a last look at The Last Summer than a last glimpse of the 19th century, of Victorian solidity and the eternal, idealized good-fellowship of Old England, when even Really Disgusting Stories With Black Teeth and Insect-Ridden Cheese are hilarious.

Warm, cidery, happy memories are always good memories, but they must wait in the wings of memory (or in the escrow parlors of the memory banks?) for a while before committing themselves to print. It’s lovely to look through Eleanor’s loving eyes at this brace of Bracegirdle-like figures hosting the good fellowship of Dymok poets. But before we figure out what this homey, tavernish scene means we must know how the fellowship will break.

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 99-101.
  2. Farjeon, The Last Four Years, 90-94.

Henry Williamson Has (Nearly) Enough Socks; Riversdale Grenfell has Lost Everything

P Company, London Rifle Brigade, Bisley, Surrey

Dear Mother,

Thanks very much for the things you sent me. The cap is very nice at night. There is a big YMCA Marquee erected here, and writing materials and tables etc where one can write letters and sit for free. I have got my kit bag tonight, and I now have four pairs of socks, so don’t trouble to send me a lot, except one thick pair made by yourself, which I shall treasure highly. The LRB has volunteered as a Battalion for foreign service.

So much for the brief panic of eleven days ago, when young Henry Williamson and his fictional alter-ego worried over the surprising fact that, after an episcopal exhortation, he had volunteered for danger and found that most –but not all–of his battalion had done so as well. But times have changed: Mons, and The Retreat, and the near collapse of the allies in Belgium and northern France. The Territorial Army must get ready for combat, and the rules will change under the feet of ready volunteers and those-who-will-have-been-deemed-to-have-volunteered alike.

We are having hard training tonight, but I am quite fit…  We are all to be vaccinated soon, a nasty and unhealthy business. An airship sailed over the camp last night and lighted it up with a searchlight. Great excitement, and we nearly shelled it, but an officer rushed up in time and pointed out that it was an english type…

This is a common tale, an archetype of early war jitters. It’s like a combination of the real friendly fire incident involving the Royal Welch and the 19th Hussars and Francis Grenfell’s anecdote of the same day, in which gendarmes in the rear fire wildly at a distant German airplane. Williamson, who seem to fill his letters quickly and artlessly with whatever is on his mind, will shortly shift subjects.

A narrow escape for the ship, as we were loading and an aeroplane gun was finding the range. Please don’t join the Ladies Rifle Club, as the kick and recoil would hurt you. It is possible for you to get a pass to see me one day, but I expect I shall have leave soon, so don’t bother to come…

And here’s where it gets very strange.

You must not mind my going abroad. It is not probable that we shall relieve regulars at Malta etc, because the colonel said we should, if needed (when trained) go to Belgium to guard the lines of communication etc. It is probable that if the LRB does go (and we shall be needed against those never ending masses) abroad, that about one fifth will return alive. The others will join their comrades in the deep, deep sleep. Still, I must not alarm you: I have volunteered because I know you want me to help the allies in my best manner… It is very hard to leave home and friends and have only the memory of them left. I wonder if I shall ever see Holwood Park again, and play tennis on the Hill? And tame jackdaws and owls? I wonder, but it is in Higher Hands than mine. I must close now, with great love to yourself and all the others.

Your loving son. Harry.

It’s difficult to tell what is meant by all this. Is Williamson just letting his thoughts run away with him? Is he safely releasing some of his terror at the thought of battle by pretending to reassure his mother? Or is he a boy scrawling various Deep Thoughts in incongruous proximity to each other because someone else wants to use the Red Cross writing station? But why in the world would you pass on bizarre and terrible rumors of 80% fatalities to your mother? She’s not there to comfort you, lad, and it would be hard to imagine that this confidence relieves as much on your end as it will hang heavy on hers.

We’ll read a few more of Williamson’s letters from camp, and watch as he borrows from them to create Phillip Maddison’s letters home. It’s hard to resist the feeling that by fleshing out his own letters (and changing important details–he will give Maddison a somewhat different trajectory of combat experience) he is working through his own experience in the same way as Sassoon, and producing not a rumination in two time signatures but something like the work of an unscrupulous archaeologist: he excavates his younger self and sits there, regarding the innocent article–no masterpiece, really, however authentic–before taking up brush and chisel to restore and, well, aesthetically-speaking, let’s say, to improve.

As literature this is all well and good and highly traditional, but as history it’s pretty sketchy. We step away from pure fact, but we remain within a mind that underwent that experience and seeks to understand it. The fictionalized letters shed more light on the young soldier’s experience of the early war, not least because the novelist can also, as we will shortly see, describe the reception of Phillip’s letters at home.

 

Rivy Grenfell remained in very active active service with his new regiment. Although he had transferred to the lancers in order to be with his brother Francis, and Francis was now gloriously wounded and headed to England. Rivy’s conduct while serving as “galloper” on the 24th had been, if not as ostentatiously heroic, more than steady and capable enough to win him the respect of  his brother’s regular brothers-in-arms. And he seems to have been enjoying himself. Although he presumably had his hands rather full during the retreat, the officers and men of the  BEF had already learned that best way to obtain things was simply to write to England.

On 29th August there was a short note to Francis telling him that both had lost all their belongings and begging him to bring out a new outfit. “An infernal trooper has bagged my horse with all my kit on it, and has got lost himself.”[1]

References and Footnotes

  1. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 204.

A Nursing Sister Waits for Patients; Wilfred Owen is Received Like a Lover; Thomas Hardy Sits Still in Apathy

We’ve had some little discussion of Wilfred Owen and his unusual relationship with his mother. There are a great many letters, but they were heavily expurgated before modern scholars got their hands on them, so we blunder about in the half-light. Much of the familial recension seems to have been aimed at obscuring Owen’s homosexuality, but subjects that touch on this aspect of Owen’s life–homoerotic sentiments in poetic discourse, or the attraction felt by other men for Owen–are not censored, and so give a sketchy sense of what might have been adjacent.

Here Wilfred is in France, working as a live-in tutor to the respectable Légers’ respectable young daughter. And yet striking up a relationship with an old (only sixty, but aged and in poor health–the drugs and absinthe, you understand) poet with an anarchist background and quite a bit of erotic and satiric verse to his name. His interest in the young Englishman was ostensibly, and partially, poetic–but it was also sexual (Tailhade had been married twice, but was clearly gay, or perhaps bisexual).

This is France and not Edwardian, Post-Wilde England, so perhaps we shouldn’t be amazed that Madame Léger, during yesterday’s lunch, invited the poet to come stay with them. Was this for the sake of Wilfred and his interest in poetry? And did she really see no problem with the presence of a lecherous older man, the young tutor, and her daughter in the same house?

Wilfred met Tailhade at his hotel today, a century back, and later the same day described the encounter in a letter to his mother.

He received me like a lover… To use an expression of the Rev. H. Wigan’s, he quite slobbered over me. I know not how many times he squeezed my hand; and, sitting me down on a sofa, pressed my head against his shoulder.

At this point, two lines of the letter have been “crossed out very thoroughly.” In a fragment of another surviving letter Wilfred writes a handful of lines that can be read either as coy or thunderously oblivious:

The poet Tailhade calls my eyes “so very lovely!!!” etc and my neck “The neck of a statue!!!” etc”–because he is a poet, and unconsciously appreciates in me, not the appearance of beauty but the Spirit and temperament of beauty, Tailhade says he is going to write a Sonnet on me.

So there are interesting things enough to hold Wilfred in his little Pyrenéen town while the war rages away to the north. Learning experiences, indeed, for a young Englishman abroad. He is an aspiring poet being flattered by a successful poet, and there is nothing quite completely wrong with the situation. But he can’t remain oblivious to Tailhade’s sexual interest in him for long. What will he do?[1]

 

We haven’t had much to say yet about Thomas Hardy, the Victorian novelist and contemporary master poet of bitter ironies. Soon,the older literary lights will be summoned by the government, but as of now they are on their own. Hardy preferred to stay at home, in Max Gate, the house he built for himself in Dorchester, buffered by the Dorest countryside from which he had always drawn inspiration. Here he will eventually will grow into a sort of sage figure for the younger poets. But he can’t help being a public figure, and even in two chatty letters, today, he seems aware that he will have to produce something–some sort of pronouncement on the war.

The first letter is to Edward Clodd, anthropologist and champion of Darwin:

My dear Clodd,

Trifling incidents here bring home to us the condition of affairs not far off—as I daresay they do to you still more—sentries with gleaming bayonets at unexpected places as we motor along, the steady flow of soldiers through to Weymouth & their disappearance across the Channel in the silence of night, & the 1000 prisoners whom we get glimpses of through chinks, mark these fine days. The prisoners, they say, have already mustered enough broken English to say “Shoot Kaiser!” & oblige us by playing “God Save the King” on their concertinas & fiddles. Whether this is “meant sarcastic”, as Artemus Ward used to say, I cannot tell….

P.S. Yes: Everybody seems to be reading “The Dynasts” just now…

It is a bit surprising that so many prisoners have made it to Dorset already, since relatively few were taken before the retreat began–these may be interned German nationals who remained in Britain at the declaration of war. But anyway: it’s the reference to The Dynasts which begs explication.

This was an epic verse narrative, completed several years before, in which the history of the Napoleonic wars was told in a grand, more or less unstageable High Symbolic Epic Dramatic style (this is not actually a “style”–I’m trying to give a sense of its weird mix of spiritual/philosophical pronouncement, semi-realistic drama, and historical intensity).

Hardy’s novels and his poetry will continue to be read for a long time without seeming too strangely ancient. The Dynasts, on the other hand, is very strange even now, and little read–there are speaking parts for The Ancient Spirit of the Years as well as generals Buxhovden and Prschebiszewsky and scores of other persons Historical and Symbolic. Yet it is one of the only successful attempts to treat the massive story of the last great European cataclysm, of another century back, now (Tolstoy, of course, gets pride of place). It was natural, then, that Hardy was looked to not simply as one of the greatest living English writers, but as a man who had taken on the theme of a Great War and emerged victorious.

Still, it would be a shame to rush into the new fray with ill-considered, early war verse, no? Everyone wants to hear from Hardy, but he has a new book of coming out,[2] there is an attempt in the works to stage a scaled-down version of The Dynasts, and… would it be wise to compose a thumping patriotic poem right now? Hardy had opposed the Boer war and was deeply suspicious of militarism. He was on the side of the common man against the brutal mechanics of fate, and it only takes one calm breath to make a good guess how that contest will go once the war carries both along in its millrace. What sentiments would Hardy muster? And would these meet with approval?

Another letter, today, was to Sydney Cockerell, the art historian and curator of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.

My dear Cockerell,

…The newspapers want verses or any other effusions from me, but The Times verse so far is not encouraging. My wife says that in receiving the shock of the war news she did not reckon on the additional infliction of the newspaper poets & prophets.

As for myself, the recognition that we are living in a more brutal age than that, say, of Elizabeth, or of the chivalry which could cry: “Gentlemen of the Guard, fire first!” (far more brutal, indeed: no chivalry now!) does not inspire one to write hopeful poetry, or even conjectural prose, but simply make one sit still in an apathy, & watch the clock spinning backwards, with a mild wonder if, when it gets back to the Dark Ages, & the sack of Rome, it will ever more forward again to a new Renascence, & a new literature. But people would call this pessimistic so I will stop—having inflicted on you a much longer letter than I intended…

Always sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy[3]

Pessimistic, and prophetic, no? That was the general appreciation of Hardy, a century back. He will be prodded into production soon.

 

And in France, an update from the Nursing Sister, still back at the base of the lines of communication in Le Havre, still overburdened with rumor, still waiting for their first wounded:

Friday, August 28th

Hot and brilliant. Eleven fugitive Sisters of No.– have come back to-day from Amiens, and the others are either hung up somewhere or on the way. The story is that Uhlans were arriving in the town, and that it wasn’t safe for women… Another rumour to-day says that No.– Field Ambulance [publishing during the war, the Nursing Sister omits all unit specifics] has been wiped out by a bomb from an aeroplane. Another rumour says that one regiment has five men left, and another one man–but most of these stories turn out myths in time…

…The camp is getting on well. All the Hospital tents are pitched, and all the quarters except the Sisters and the big store tents for the Administration block are ready. The operating theatre tent is to have a concrete floor and is not ready. The ground is the worst part. It is a very boggy hay-field, and in wet weather like Wednesday and Tuesday they say it is a swamp. We are all to have our skirts and aprons very short and to be well provided with gum-boots. We shall be two in a bell-tent, or dozens in a big store tent, uncertain yet which, and we are to have a bath tent. I am to be surgical. While waiting for the tram on the way back, on a hot, white road, we made friends with a French soldier, who stopped a little motor-lorry, already crammed with men and some sort of casks, and made them take us on. I sat on the floor, with my feet on the step, and we whizzed back into Havre in great style. There is no speed limit, and it was a lovely joy-ride! We are seeing the ‘Times’ a few days late and fairly regularly…

We are getting quite used to a life shorn of most of its trappings, except for the two hotel meals a day. My mattress, on the floor along the very low large window, with two rugs and cushions, and a holdall for a bolster, is as comfortable as any bed, and you don’t miss sheets after a day or two. There is one bathroom for 120 or more people, but I get a cold bath every morning early. S—- gets our early morning tea, and M. sweeps our room, and I wash up and roll up the beds. We are still away from our boxes, and have a change of some clothes and not others. I have to wash my vest overnight when I want a clean one and put it on in the morning. We have slung a clothes-line across our room. The view is absolutely glorious.[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. I'm relying heavily here on Dominic Hibberd, for the expurgated and lost letters themselves as well as their interpretation. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 134.
  2. Satires of Circumstance, which Paul Fussell has anointed as the official harbinger of the war's dominant poetic mode.
  3. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Vol. 5.
  4. Diary of a Nursing Sister, 16-18.

Vera Brittain Gets A Thick Envelope; George Coppard Gets In As Well; Wilfred Owen has Lunch

Thursday August 27th

This morning to my unutterable joy & relief came a certificate from Oxford stating I had reached the “required standard” in the Oxford Senior in Latin, French, Arithmetic & Algebra.

And so Vera Brittain, at long last, is in. She has qualified to take up her Exhibition at Somerville College, Oxford and escape provincial young-ladyhood. But can she really pull away?

At first my delight, which I expected to be intense, was quite spoilt by Daddy, who instead of giving me a little of the praise which I had at least some reason to expect, burst out that it was no use my thinking of going to Oxford with this war on, that I wanted to turn out my parents when they were getting on in life, that we were all robbing him etc. etc. It was a hard reward for the success of a year’s steady work, & whether tactful or untactful in resenting the fact, there are some things that flesh and blood cannot stand. I rounded on him saying that if I had failed & wasted the money he spent on coaching me (which I think he must have hoped I should do) he could not reproach me more. Daddy’s utter unconsciousness of my part in preparing for the exam. & of the labour & steady application worth far more than his £50, which he never missed, really roused me. He has no idea of the difficulties which I had to face, which, always considerable, become acute in such a place as Buxton, where no first-rate teaching is obtainable & one is liable to constant interruption. Of course I am not so ignorant that I do not realise financial affairs at the works, in spite of their apparent prosperity, must be difficult to cope with, & worrying in general. It is not in the least that I resented the suggestion that there might be difficulty in sending me to Oxford–though I don’t believe, & Edward agrees with me, that there is any that cannot quite easily be solved. I should not have minded being told that in the least, but what I did look for was some slight feeling of pride in my having done what I said I would do, some slight word of praise or gratification. Mother for once stood up for me warmly, & said afterwards it was abominable of Father to behave so, & that he was utterly unreasonable & did not mean what he said.

But whatever the outward acceptance of my success, I could not remain dismal long. The inward joy was too strong to be repressed. The exam., though difficult to me, is nothing to take very great credit for, but it means much to me to have passed it, because it proves that I have intelligence enough to adapt & apply myself in a short time to subjects which I have little natural aptitude for (this refers to Mathematics & the grammar of the languages) & use them to serve my ends. I thought of the endless coaching lessons, the unctuous facetiousness of poor Mr Lace, the utter indifference & aggravatingness of Old Cheese, & the feeling of repulsion with which he inspired me, of “grinding at grammar” on bright sunny afternoons, when any other occupation would have been pleasanter, of struggles & despair trying to make my mathematical difficulties understood, & I felt that these were some of the things of which the chief joy was the triumph of looking back upon them & feeling they were over…

See kids, look what hard work can do!

Interestingly, though, Vera turns immediately to social anxieties stemming from what she perceived to be a rocky reception during her visit to Somerville the year before.

There was a keener delight in dwelling on my little interview with Miss Penrose during the Summer Meeting last year, her obvious disapproval of my gay attire, & disbelief in my intellect, her advice to me not to attempt the scholarship exam. & her dismissal (mental, which I perceived) of me as an unlikely candidate. It was very pleasant to think of my three Exhibition days at Somerville, of Miss Penrose’s indifference to me at the first interview, & her slight eagerness in the second, of the people I met there, & of little Miss Lloyd, who I hope has managed to get in there too. At least before me is the prospect of enthusiastic, & no longer lonely, work, & though the absence of small luxuries at Somerville, & the oppressiveness (to me) of a lot of women together, & the certain uncongeniality of some of them – I shall count these things all as jam when they are a part of the intellectual work I love, & the companionship of one or two at least with whom I can share my thoughts without dread of misunderstanding.

I wrote to Miss Penrose & told her I would endeavour “loyally to observe” the rules & customs upon which she laid stress; my main object was of course to inform her about the exam., & I also asked her advice about Greek, which I shall have to study hard.

And, last but not least:

I wrote to Roland too & returned his French books. I told him that he might see something of me at Oxford if he could face the prospect of having tea with me under the eagle eye of a chaperon, or of coming to the Principal’s Saturday afternoon “At Homes”. I am so very glad, I do not know how I should have endured to see Edward, & still more Roland, go off to Oxford in October while I was cut off for at least a year from both it & them.

Actually, that was the penultimate, but not least, section of Vera Brittain’s diary entry for today. She also kept her habit of recording and commenting on the war news.

Very little definite news came from the battlefield to-day. A continuous battle seems to be going on in different parts of the line, but no decisive action is reported, & no casualty list has come. It seems a crime to be at all happy when such events are happening, but it is difficult to merge the personal entirely in the general, when one feels that the personal good may turn out to be for the general good one day.[1]

A chronicle of youth indeed. The inability to suppress personal joy amid general disaster is only human. Yet this idea–first expressed in her hope that Roland’s fine mind would be spared military service–that one’s great promise to effect some future general good justifies celebrating amid the sorrow of others is extremely callow. Should ordinary minds be sent into battle, and ordinary people piously suppress their own feelings, since they have no personal gifts to set against the general loss?

But, other than this strange solipsism, what we have here is the crux of the problem of the personal-narrative-amid-history. How could today be about anything other than her pride in her hard-earned success, her relief at the prospect of Oxford, and her frustration at her father’s petulant reaction? She is going to be a scholar, a writer, a doer of great and worthy deeds. But there’s a war on, and it would be callow, too, to omit her habitual note its progress just because such good personal news had come… how to weigh the good news of Oxford, against the war?

 

George Coppard returned to the Mitcham Road Barracks today, attesting to an age of nineteen. He was sixteen years and seven months old, but his inflated age was accepted. With a wink, the sergeant gave him the symbolic King’s Shilling, “plus one shilling and ninepence ration money for that day.” Thus Coppard, a matter-of-fact man whose memoir begins with the phrase “Glossing over my childhood,” became “a common private of the uneducated classes.”

The Battle of Mons had just been fought, and what was left of the Old Contemptibles was now engaged in the famous retreat. I knew nothing about all this. Like a log flung into a giant river, I had only just started to move. Later on I was to be pushed from behind, relentlessly, without any chance of escape.[2]

Coppard caught a train that afternoon for Guildford and the headquarters of the Royal West Surrey Regiment.

 

Far to the South in the Pyrenees, Wilfred Owen’s employers, the Légers, invited the aging radical and satiric poet Laurent Tailhade–a sort of local celebrity, and a new admirer of their young English tutor, to lunch today. But Wilfred will go into more detail in tomorrow’s letter…

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 97-8.
  2. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 1.

The Duchess of Sutherland is in German Hands; Vera Bandages Badly in Buxton; John Lucy Bandages Hastily at Le Cateau; Frank Richards Fires Two Friendly Rounds; We Meet George Coppard

In German-occupied Namur, the Duchess of Sutherland negotiates her status.

The Padre came in at last and said that the flames would not reach us. In the afternoon we ventured into the smoky street. It was like walking through a dense fog. All the buildings were smouldering… A German officer told me that the town was burnt because some of the civilian inhabitants had been shooting at the soldiers from dark windows.

The Germans has arrived in Belgium primed to treat any resistance to their occupation by anything other than a formal military unit as serious crime. Perhaps there were a number of Belgian civilians who took pot shots at Germans, or scattered members of overrun Belgian army units who fought on, but the German army tended to treat any rear-area firing as evidence of an “illegal” guerrilla resistance, and respond with brutal punitive violence.

The Doctor and I thought we had better visit the Commander, General von Bülow…

General von Bülow said he was sure he had met me at Hamburg, and that he would arrange with one of the diplomats to get a telegram through to Berlin, which he trusted would be copied in the London papers, announcing the safety of our Ambulance.

‘Accept my admiration for your work. Duchess,’ he said. He spoke perfect English. To accept the favours of my country’s foe was a bad moment for me, but the Germans were in possession of Namur and I had to consider my hospital from every point of view. Also those who are of the Red Cross and who care for suffering humanity and for the relief of pain and sickness should strive to remember nothing but the heartache of the world and the pity of it.[1]

General von Bülow ‘did me the honour’ to call the next morning at our Ambulance. He was accompanied by Baron Kessler, his aide-de-camp, who composed the scenario of La Legende de Josephe. He had been much connected with Russian opera in London during the past season. It was exceedingly odd to meet him under such circumstances.after having so often discussed ‘art’ with him in London.[2]

It’s the forgettable ballet that keeps being remembered. Harry Graf Kessler, one of the last of the great Europeans, was culturally and linguistically fluent in French, German, and English; he was diplomat and a soldier, yes–and latterly famous for his diaries–but he was primarily an artist and patron of art. He had written the book for La Légende de Josephe, a collaboration with Strauss and the Ballets Russes, and he had recently been in England to oversee the first London production, which was seen, on the same night, by Siegfried Sasson, Edward Thomas, and Osbert Sitwell, all unbeknownst to each other.

That was back on June 23rd. In July–on the 19th, in fact–Kessler had dined with the Duchess of Sutherland at Lady Ripon’s. Now the society lady and art world insider faced each other again as staff officer and civilian volunteer nurse. A small world, and still, here, just barely a civilized one–a polite conversation among friends who happened to be enemies.

Like the good international gentlemen they were, the count and the general would make sure that the Duchess got home safely. Were they aware that she had sought them out only after seeing apparent evidence of punitive arson by the occupiers?

Namur was far from the worst of the arson. As they chatted politely, forty miles away in Louvain the University Library was a still-smoking ruin. Tends of thousands of rare and unique manuscripts were gone. The library had been fired late the night before as another act of nihilistic reprisal after unexplained shots were blamed on non-uniformed snipers, or “francs tireurs,”and German troops had prevented Belgian fire fighters from saving the medieval buildings and their treasures.

Nor was arson the worst of it. More than 200 civilians died in Louvain, and, elsewhere in Belgium, German officers were responding to similar incidents of “illegal resistance,” real or imagined, by ordering the execution of dozens or even hundreds of innocent civilians, with few apparent qualms about the massive disparity in scale between the casualties they may have suffered and the retribution they took or the morality of collective punishment.[3]

So not such a civilized world, after all. And we begin today to see the horrors of battle, too.

 

John Lucy began the 26th of August, a century back, “sleeping soundly on the stone floor” of a kitchen in the town of Caudry. The 2/Royal Irish Rifles had marched about 75 miles in five days, during which they had fought the Battle of Mons and interrupted their retreat several times to deploy against German cavalry (which never did charge–“they feared our rifle fire”). Lucy was again detached from his battalion, and so it was that when German shells began to crash into the town he and his section of eight men were part of a scratch force of several units that fell out to mount a defense. This was the beginning of the battle of Le Cateau (a town a few miles south and east of Caudry), a real 20th century battle: no cavalry charges, little close-in action, and a great deal of accurate artillery fire.

Then we got it… A heavy shell exploded just over our heads, and we were all knocked flat on the pavement, where bricks and pieces of mortar rained on us. I rose slowly and waited for the others to get up. I was dazed slightly. A sergeant went off at the double, leading those who were not injured. All my section except two went with him. He beckoned to me. I thought a moment and looked hard at the scattered khaki forms, dead and dying, from which little streams of blood flowed across the pavement into the gutter, and I turned away too.

I had only gone a few yards when a voice dried in anguish: ‘For God’s sake, Corporal!’

One of his men was dead, but another was alive, and, once Lucy had inexpertly bound his numerous shrapnel wounds, able to walk. Lucy was stumbling through the town with the wounded man on his arm when he came upon a number of corpses in the street–other men of his regiment.

The sight of the badges and buttons of those dead men if my own corps had a queer effect on me. I became angry with the Germans for the fist time. Then my anger turned to anxiety, Was my brother among the slain?

After leading the wounded man to a hospital, Lucy “fled” Caudry and was able to find the body of his battalion, reforming to the south. His brother was there, unhurt.[4]

 

The Royal Welch had reached Le Cateau yesterday afternoon. They had yet to fire a shot in anger or suffer any casualties, other than a single slight wound from a spent bullet. As Frank Richards told us yesterday, confusion abounded, yet it was clear that a general retreat was in progress, and that it was wearing down the men.

As they assembled, before dawn, several officers (including Major Geiger, commander of Richards’ A company) decided to order their men to leave their packs behind, pretending that they would be picked up later. This fooled no one, but it was deemed better to stack packs and march off than to permit the men to discard them, and allow a retreat to become a rout.

After several wrong turns, after which “one humourist started singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary'”–solid exceptional-rule-proving evidence that this regular battalion, unlike the Royal Irish Rifles, was too cool to sing the song except for satirical effect–the battalion marched south and west out of town, moving through several villages without seeing any Germans. Artillery fire was accurate, and one officer spent several hours galloping up and down a nearby Roman Road under shell fire trying to obtain clear orders from the tangled command structure. The battalion was eventually told to form a rear-guard for the rest of the infantry.

It was now twilight. Deploying into two lines, the battalion eventually saw a body of cavalry passing across their front at extreme rifle range, and, when a cavalry officer rode up and demanded that they fire, the order “was given.” Firing independently, the marksmen of the Royal Welch emptied a few saddles. These shortly proved to belong to their countrymen, a troop of the 19th Hussars. This small disaster passes with comment in Dunn’s unofficial unit history.[5]

Frank Richards goes into a little more detail about this incident:

I was the extreme left-hand man of the Battalion, Billy and Stephens being on my right. Our Colonel was speaking to our Company Commander just behind us when… a staff-officer came along and informed our Colonel that all our cavalry patrols were in and that any cavalry or troops who now appeared on our front would be the enemy. He had hardly finished speaking when over a ridge in front of us appeared a body of horsemen galloping toward us. We… opened out with rapid fire at six hundred yards. I had only fired two rounds when a bugle blew the cease-fire. This I may say, was the only time during the whole of the War… [with one future exception] that I head a bugle in action. The light was very bad, and the majority of the bullets had been falling short because we couldn’t clearly see the sights of our rifles, but several horses fell. The horsemen stopped and waved their arms. We had been firing on our own cavalry who, I was told later, belonged to the 19th Hussars: I never heard whether any of them had been killed.

I don’t know whether Dunn’s account of emptied saddles or Richards’ account of fallen horses best describes the friendly-fire casualties of the 19th Hussars–perhaps both horses and men were hit.

Soon after, the 2/Royal Welch were again marching south, so exhausted that some of Richards’ buddies were dreaming (or hallucinating) as they marched–a fact which will have some considerable relevance once certain fantastic stories of the retreat from Mons begin to be told.[6]

 

Earlier in the day, Francis Grenfell had left Le Cateau

in a cattle truck with five other wounded. A very amusing thing happened in the railway station. About 500 refugees were there, all in a great state of distress and alarm, and a few gendarmes and soldiers. Suddenly a German aeroplane came over. You would have roared with laughter as all the refugees started yelling and rushing about the station. Every gendarme or stray soldier who possessed any sort of firearm loosed it off into the air, which made the women yell all the more. A very fat officer seized a rifle and rushed forward to shoot the aeroplane, which was about five miles away. The bolt jammed, so he put it on the ground, gave it a kick, and it went off through the roof.[7]

 

Francis would eventually reach England, and receive a hero’s welcome. Vera Brittain, however, is still stuck in Buxton, sweating out her Oxford exam results. What better way to pass the time waiting for test results than to take more tests?

Wednesday August 26th

To-day took place the dreadful First Aid Exam., on account of which I was not at all nervous, but at which I nevertheless did not acquit myself magnificently. The doctor was a tall fine man, with a kind manner, but plenty of sarcasm and disdainful criticism at his command. He asked me what I should do for a fish hook embedded in the skin. I answered promptly & I think correctly, but he gave me no indication, & told me to bandage Mrs Gibbons for a broken forearm. I received a small criticism for turning my back on the patient, but remembered how to do the arm, improvising with handkerchiefs as I had not sufficient bandages. Then he told me to treat another woman for a cut throat, at which I made three bad mistakes, by not finding the artery at once, forgetting to make the patient sit down, & saying a tourniquet should be put on above & below when I really knew perfectly well that no tourniquet could be applied. However he seemed better pleased when I said I would send for an assistant at once to relieve me in digital pressure.

I thought I did not care whether I passed or not, but I do very much now I have been in for the exam., not because I think I shall ever go in much for that type of study, but because of the general principle such an exam, as this involves. One of my greatest aspirations is to succeed in whatever I undertake, So to undertake nothing unless I do it well. I seem of late to be falling below this personal ideal, since I do not imagine for a moment I shall be passed in this one, & am expecting every post to hear that I have failed badly in the Oxford Senior, that therefore my Exhibition is rendered void, & my chance of Oxford postponed. I must again arise, & set up my inexhaustible fount of enthusiasm, energy, & will once more.[8]

 

In Gloucestershire, Edward Thomas took a long walk with Robert Frost, so long that it ended by moonlight. The moon led his thoughts in a direction that he had hitherto resisted:

“a 1/3 moon bright and almost orange low down clear of cloud and I thought of men east-ward seeing it at the same moment. It seems foolish to have loved England up to now without knowing it could perhaps be ravaged and I could and perhaps would do nothing to prevent it.”[9]

 

In Croydon, “an ordinary boy of elementary education and slender prospects” named George Coppard tried to enlist at Mitcham Road Barracks. Upon confessing that he was just sixteen years old, the recruiting sergeant replied “Clear off son. Come back tomorrow and see if you’re nineteen, eh?” He would.[10]

 

And one more note from the home front, a fait divers on the sorrows of a minor writer. Arthur Conan Doyle might get his unit of bustling and self-serious middle-aged volunteers recognized, but not every such effort would find favor. Victorian polymath and scholar/translator Edward Heron-Allen organized today a meeting in the very same county with the very same purpose, but either he was too little or it was too late: in short order “a letter from the military authorities told them that this was not desirable.”[11]

References and Footnotes

  1. Pity is a common word and a broad concept--there's neither influence nor anticipation here. Yet it's striking how close this formulation is to a future poetic statement of purpose, namely Owen's "my subject is... the pity of war."
  2. From Women in the War Zone, 40-1.
  3. Easton, ed., Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918, 648; Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 191.
  4. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 128-140.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 24-9.
  6. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 18-19.
  7. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 199.
  8. Chronicle of Youth, 96-7.
  9. Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 157.
  10. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 1.
  11. See his entry on the Fantastic Writers and the Great War site.

Scenes from The Retreat

The 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers had retreated as far as the town of Landrecies. While the Coldstream Guards fought off a probing German assault to the North, the Royal Irish were ordered to turn out that evening and barricade the entrances to the town, which they did with “stones, tables, chairs, carts, and pianos.”[1]The retreat was getting ragged.

 

The Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers were at Le Cateau, which would be the scene of the British Army’s next battle. Frank Richards, who, like the other out-of-shape and soft-footed reservists, was suffering acutely from the long days of marching, describes the scene.

We arrived in Le Cateau about midnight, dead-beat to the world. I don’t believe any one of us at this time realized that we were retiring, though it was clear that we were not going in the direction of Germany. Of course the officers knew, but they were telling us that we were drawing the enemy into a trap.

This reliable attention to the view of the Other Ranks is one of the great attractions of Richards’ memoir. Its his own point of view, naturally, but one often gets the sense that Richards plays it up, as if conscious that most memoirs are written from the point of view of the subalterns tasked with concealing operational intelligence from their own men in order to tell such morale-enhancing fibs. He goes on in a similar vein:

Le Cateau that night presented a strange sight. Everyone was in a panic, packing up their stuff on carts and barrows to get away south in time. The Royal Welch camped on the square in the centre of the town. We were told to get as much rest as we could. The majority sank down where they were and fell straight asleep. Although dead-beat, Billy, Stevens, and I went on the scrounge for food and drink. We entered a café, where there were a lot of officers of other battalions, besides a couple of staff-officers, mixed up with ordinary troops, all buying food and drink. For three days officers and men had been on short rations. This was the only time during the whole of the War that I saw officers and men buying food and drink in the same café.

This is a testament to the confusion of the retreat and the breadth of the divide between officers and men–but also to the efficiency of future British logistics, which rarely failed to provide food and tea throughout the coming years of trench warfare. Although it is easier when everyone stays in one place…

I slept the sleep of the just that night, for about three hours. I could have done with forty-three, but we were roused up at 4 a.m. and ordered to leave our packs and greatcoats on the square.[2]

But that would be tomorrow morning, a century back.

 

In South Africa, Julian Grenfell and the rest of the Royal Dragoons took ship for England.

 

In London, the popular humorous/satirical writer H.H. Munro (pen-name Saki–his best stories are a bit like a slightly naughtier Wodehouse) was accepted into the 2nd/King Edward’s Horse, a new mounted regiment whose exact place in the spectrum of professional/volunteer forces is too complicated to get into right now. Munro had chosen to enlist–rather than try for a commission–despite being forty-three years old and in less than excellent physical shape.

Why? Could a witty and worldly-wise man of a certain age (he had to “forget” four years of his age to qualify) still be drawn by the “romance” and “adventure” of war? Perhaps–his sister thought so, and cheered his enlistment.

But Munro was drawn both to war and to the ranks by something broader:  a desire for a clean break with the artful life. This is sounds much like the Oxford-dodging wishes of many of our rising subalterns, or even a little like the “now we shall all be purified of our decadence!” clap-trap spouted by many of their fathers, but I think it’s fair to allow for a strain of considered–and highly personal–yearning for a more absolute experience.

Munro saw, maybe, a rare chance for a tired ironist, a jaded satirist, to throw off a lifestyle that was, after all, rather like the sort he lampooned in his stories, and to surrender to something difficult and “real.” His biographer, A.J. Langguth, argues that Munro took the war seriously from the very first. It was a matter for the sincere Englishman beneath the ironic writerly mask, for the “moralist hidden within the satirist.”

So Hector Munro made a new start, fudging his age, escaping his literary identity, and subsuming his class status. He went for a soldier: not to write about fighting, but to fight, for king and country. And to look after the poor horses.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 34.
  2. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 16-17.
  3. Langguth, Saki, 249-52.

The Retreat Begins: John Lucy Loses his Pack, Francis Grenfell Finds his Way, Rupert Brooke Unpacks a Scented Store

After an uncanny afternoon of battle–his battalion fired all of their ammunition into German masses that never reached their trench, yet suffered only “three or four” men killed by inaccurate German artillery–John Lucy again spent the night bringing ammunition carts up to the battalion. But as day dawned, a century back, the operational situation was much clearer: with the French armies on their flank already in retreat and a great number of Germans in front and ready to fill that gap, the BEF must retreat as well or face being outflanked and annihilated.

So goes strategy. As for the human experience, Lucy remembers that the order to leave their packs behind and march light was the thing that truly disconcerted: “the men of the regiment hated the idea of abandoning their packs and greatcoats” both because of the loss–worse when one forgot to retrieve one’s tobacco–and because they knew what it would mean to the German troops who stumbled upon the discarded gear.

Yesterday they had driven off the German assault, mauling the enemy with little loss. This sudden retreat seemed nonsensical: “What was happening anyway? And why did we not finish the business by assaulting the broken Germans?”

But the 2/Royal Irish Rifles recovered their spirit, and began what would come be to known as “The Retreat” or “The Retirement” singing, as marching soldiers always used to do. And yes, they sung “Tipperary,” among other favorites–with apparent sincerity, although we will shortly see a parallel claim for Tipperarian ironic disdain.[1]

 

Now, the only way to withdraw in the face of the enemy–packs or no packs–is to do so under of some sort of skirmishing rear-guard. Traditionally, the main force of an army would withdraw behind a screen of cavalry, and this day, a century back, tradition would carry.

The cavalry, despite their high visibility and extreme vulnerability to rifle and machine-gun fire, were still the only mobile force available, and they were needed to engage and delay the enemy pursuit.

John Buchan describes the experiences of the brothers Grenfell.

Monday the 24th saw the beginning of the retreat from Mons. This is not the place to repeat an oft-told tale. Our concern is only with one cavalry unit engaged in acting as a rear guard. At four o’clock that morning Francis, who had retired from Thulin at 10.30 the night before, was ordered to reconnoitre the town at dawn. He had gone only a little way through its streets when he came under heavy fire at short range, and in withdrawing had his horse “Ginger” shot down. Presently from his position at the railway station he saw a mass of German troops advancing. A sharp fight ensued of which he records, “Rivy and I found ourselves for the first time standing together under fire, and not much disconcerted…”

At first the 9th Lancers fought dismounted, firing at the Germans moving up through yesterday’s British infantry positions. But soon they will mount up, and Buchan begins to stir, mixing heroic/romantic battle piece clichés and historical allusions with that modern battle-writing style in which jargon is deployed to lend a (mostly false) sense of precise movement.

…Presently the retiring 5th Division, which had now been in action for some twenty-four hours, was threatened with an enemy envelopment, and Sir Charles Fergusson asked for protection from the cavalry for his western flank. De Lisle decided to charge the flank of the advancing masses, the 4th Dragoon Guards on the left and the 9th Lancers on the right. That charge was as futile and as gallant as any other like attempt in history on unbroken infantry and guns in position. But it proved to the world that the spirit which inspired the Light Brigade at Balaclava and von Bredow’s Todtenritt at Mars-la-Tour was still alive in the cavalry of to-day.

…Francis formed his squadron in line of troops column[2] and they galloped into a tornado of rifle and machine-gun fire and the artillery fire of at least three batteries.

No objective could be discerned, for the Germans at once took cover among the corn stooks. The ground had not been reconnoitred, and long before they came near the enemy the Lancers found themselves brought up by double lines of wire. In that nightmare place Francis’s first job was to get his squadron in hand. He could not find his trumpeter, so he blew his whistle and cursed with vehemence anybody he found out of place.

Note please the presence of wire–in this case not yet the thicket of tangled barbed wire that characterized later Great War battlefields, but simple fencing. Still, it is the bane of the cavalry officer, whether in action or, on his day off (there were several months of these, before the war), riding to hounds.

Paul Fussell will make much of Sassoon and others making much of wire’s translation from a wicked practical/commercial imposition on the open countryside of Olde England to the rusting thickets of no man’s land, a simple but nasty industrial wickedness, suitable for prolonging tactical stalemate. But back to Buchan on the charge of the 9th Lancers:

The charge had swung somewhat to the right… Meantime Francis found a certain amount of cover behind a house. “We had simply galloped about like rabbits in front of a line of guns,” he wrote, ” men and horses falling in all directions. Most of one’s time was spent in dodging the horses.”

Very soon the house was blown to pieces, so the squadron moved off to the shelter of a railway embankment. Francis remembered that on one occasion the regiment had been ordered to trot in South Africa under a heavy fire, and he now adopted this method of keeping his men together. Under the embankment he collected the remnant. He found a number of odd 9th Lancers besides his own squadron, and as senior officer he took command and attempted to sort the troops out.

South of the embankment was the 119th Battery, R[oyal].F[ield].A[rtillery]… It was under a desperate fire from three of the enemy’s batteries, one of which completely enfiladed it, and most of its gunners had been killed. Seeing the position, Francis offered his services. At that moment he was hit by shrapnel.

‘It felt as if a whip had hit me in the leg and hand. I think an artery was affected, as the blood spurted out, and my observer, Steadman, and young Whitehead very kindly bound me up. We also had to put on a tourniquet, and referred to the Field Service Regulations to find out how it had to be put on. This would have amused you. Of course, we found out how to stop blood in every other part of one’s body except one’s hand, but eventually came upon this useful information. Things began to go round and round, and I luckily remembered that in the wallets of the horse I had borrowed I had noticed a flask. This proved to contain a bottle of the best old brandy, and my observer and I at once drank the lot. I now felt like Jack Johnson, instead of an old cripple.”

Jack Johnson, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world and the greatest boxer of his day, would, in a typically mild effusion British racism (the mild kind, that is, that they reserved for the racial minorities oppressed by other nations or empires), soon have his named borrowed for a common type of German artillery–heavy, with an explosion marked by thick black smoke. As of now, however, he is apparently a byword for violent virility.

Major Alexander asked Francis to find if there was an exit for his guns. The diary continues the story. ‘It was not a very nice job, I am bound to say, and I was relieved when it was finished. It meant leaving my regiment under the embankment and riding out alone through the guns, which were now out of action and being heavily shelled all the time, to some distance behind, where I found myself out of range of the shells. It was necessary to go back through the inferno as slowly as possible, so as to pretend to the men that there was no danger and that the shells were more noisy than effective. I reported to the Battery Commander that there was an exit ; he then told me that the only way to save his guns was to man-handle them out to some cover. My experience a few minutes before filled me with confidence, so I ordered the regiment to dismount in front of their horses, and then called for volunteers.

This is Buchan’s account of Francis’s account of a speech he made under fire, so one must take it with many grains of salt. And yet what’s to doubt? There will be no suspiciously well-rounded phrases, and where we might expect dramatic speech making we have instead the direct appeal to regimental tradition, to pride and loyalty.

‘I reminded them that the 9th Lancers had saved the guns at Maiwand, and had gained the eternal friendship of the gunners by always standing by the guns in South Africa; and that we had great traditions to live up to, as the Colonel had reminded us before we started. Every single man and officer declared they were ready to go to what looked like certain destruction. We ran forward and started pushing the guns out. Providence intervened, for although this was carried out under a very heavy fire and the guns had to be slowly turned round before we could guide them, we accomplished our task. We pushed out one over dead gunners. I do not think we lost more than three or four men,[3] though it required more than one journey to get everything out. It is on occasions like this that good discipline tells. The men were so wonderful and so steady that words fail me to say what I think of them, and how much is due to my Colonel for the high standard to which he had raised this magnificent regiment.’

The trope of “every single” man volunteering may seem like a stretch, but, then again, in a proud regular unit, with men who have been serving together for a long time, it’s not too hard to imagine that any frightened or disinclined men would go along with a vocal majority. And, as Francis reminds them, this was a chance to do something paradigmatically heroic. Leading do or die assaults was the most ancient way to be recognized for extraordinary valor, but in the modern era attacks were usually supposed to be conducted by order and with due discipline–berserkers were not rewarded. In fact, it would soon be the case–by the time of the Second World War, and most emphatically in Vietnam–that the majority of the highest medals for valor will be won for acts of self-sacrifice. We’re now in a sort of middle ground, between charging the enemy host on your own volition and falling on the grenade to save your buddies: volunteering to help the artillery save the guns fits in very well–a very early modern (i.e. 18th and 19th century) way to be heroic.

I’ve made a little fun of the Grenfell twins before–their unexceptional intelligence and boyish dutifulness stick out a bit here, amidst the crowd of precious and precocious writers. But Francis had been an officer for a long time now, and he knew his business. He knew how to make the same sort of simple appeal that Lucy, a young lance-corporal, liked. He led well, made good decisions under fire, volunteered for a dangerous task he could have avoided with his honor intact, and accomplished it.

The old cliché would be to assert that all this was “in his blood.” A silly notion–but it was in his upbringing, his training, and his personality. And, come to think of it, “his” blood had been spilled in similar ways. Many of our subjects are too young to remember the 19th century, but Francis Grenfell was already eighteen when he learned of the death of his older brother Robert during a cavalry charge in the Battle of Omdurman. No amount of preparation, aspiration, or yearning to meet a self-imposed standard of courage can guarantee that a man will find himself brave in his first battle–but if it could, it would have done so for Francis. And what if he had no doubts that it could, wouldn’t that have made it easily to go about his business so handily, despite the danger?

Overcome by his wounds that evening, Grenfell’s men bid him a temporary goodbye.

…’The N.C.O.’s and the men came and shook me by the hand and gave me water from their water-bottles. I cannot tell you how much this day has increased the feeling of confidence and comradeship between me and my squadron. My fingers were nastily gashed, but the bone was not damaged ; a bit of shrapnel had taken a piece out of my thigh ; I had a bullet through my boot and another through my sleeve, and had been knocked down by a shell ; my horse had also been shot, so no one can say I had an idle day.’

Room could not be found in any ambulance, so he was left by the roadside. Luckily a French Staff officer came by in a motor car and took him to Bavai. There he fell in with the Duke of Westminster, who took charge of him ; and he also found Rivy, who had been doing galloper [serving as an aide/message bearer] to De Lisle.

Francis Grenfell has, by the way, just earned the Victoria Cross, “the first man in the campaign to win the highest honour which can fall to a subject of the King.” It takes time for such decorations to be decided upon and rewarded–we’ll note the occasion come November–but let this be an early warning: what he has described with perfect well-bred diffidence (which is different in some slight way–usually–from the false modesty of ostentatiously quiet bravado) the army considered to be one of the great feats of its first major battle in ninety-nine years. Or, to take a more cynical view, the army would get around to rewarding a dashing young officer with a famous name, highlighting a brave action that might distract from the memory of the day’s dismal results.

And at the end of it all, Francis blithely runs into his brother and then “falls in” with the Duke of Westminister, called “Bend Or,”  because the family coat of arms was once–before it became a bit more elaborate–“azure, a bend d’or.” (Yes, he really does have a heraldry-based aristocratic nickname; and yes, I would imagine that they are secretly giggling about the homophonic/homophobic double entendre there).

“They took me to a French convent, which was under the Red Cross and was full of wounded. A civilian doctor and six nurses attended me, each lady trying to outdo the others in kindness, which was rather alarming. There was a chorus of ‘Pauvre garcon! Comme il est brave! Comme il est beau!’

The difficulty arose as to how my leg should be treated. I suggested my breeches should be taken off, but the senior Red Cross lady said that that was impossible ‘Car il y a trop de jeunes filles.’ [‘Because there are so many women around!’]

So my breeches were cut down the leg. The doctor took me to his house and put me to bed. I am bound to say I felt rather done. I got into bed at ten o’clock. At midnight Rivy told me to get up, as the town was to be evacuated. The doctor gave me some raw eggs and coffee, and I left Bavai at 1.15 a.m. in Bend Or’s motor. I cannot say how nice it was to find such a friend at such a time. It is wonderful what Bend Or has done for Rivy and me. He took me to Le Cateau, which we reached about four in the morning, where I slept that day heavily in his bed.[4]

Swap out “motor” for “carriage” and we have a Belgian cavalry escapade fit for any Napoleonic officer, perhaps even the Brigadier Gerard. This effect come not just from the bravado and understatedness–it’s also the fact that it’s hard to communicate the range and deadliness of these weapons.

And neither Grenfell or Buchan really try. These aren’t cannon that, at more than a few hundred yards, can do little more than skip a dodge-able cannonball at you; they’re not facing infantry with muzzle-loading weapons who have to form square and hope their bayonets hold off the charging horse-flesh.

Grenfell’s men had, at least at the start of the day, NINE FOOT LONG WOODEN LANCES (although, unlike the hapless French lancers, they also carried real rifles, and could fight effectively as mounted infantry). He rode out into shrapnel bursts fired from guns as much as a few miles away, and any German infantry with line of sight out to at least a quarter mile had a fair chance to bring him down.

So it was very heroic; and the German marksmanship unimpressive. The artillery fired high, apparently–but they would learn.

 

We have today, too, a near crossing of paths. The second battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers had been ordered to act in support of the cavalry rearguard. Major Geiger recalls watching a cavalry charge about a half-mile from his position:

Some of them, the 9th Lancers I suppose, trotted forward in two lines about 150 yards apart, and eventually broke into a charge. No enemy was visible to us, but as soon as the cavalry began to gallop gun-fire was opened on them, and one could see through glasses a few empty saddles and horses down. After charging about half a mile the cavalry wheeled and returned, and when I lost sight of them they were re-forming.

A very matter-of-fact account of such a glorious charge. But then Geiger of the Royal Welch must be a rather phlegmatic infantry officer. Here’s how he describes yesterday’s sinister Taube: “It was here that we saw the first German aeroplane ; it flew quite low.”[5]

 

So the retreat from Mons begins. But here’s one last “meanwhile:” Rupert Brooke wrote several letters today, updating friends on his still-fruitless search for military employment. He complains to Kathleen Nesbitt of the “insupportable stress of this time” and “a sort of neuralgic earache” caused by all this personal military uncertainty. News of the actual fighting by the actual soldiers has not yet reached England, of course…

Anyway, Brooke than segues into his usual mode of flirtatious self-loathing, and, on a busy day in Belgium, I would have let him slide. But today, a century back, Rupert also sent, to Eddie Marsh, a “rough” version of a new poem. (It was in fact complete, except for the title, and would later be published as “The Treasure,” one of the 1914 sonnets.)

When colour goes home into the eyes,
And lights that shine are shut again,
With dancing girls and sweet bird’s cries
Behind the gateways of the brain;
And that no-place which gave them birth, shall close
The rainbow and the rose;

Still may Time hold some golden space
Where I’ll unpack that scented store
Of song and flower and sky and face,
And count, and touch, and turn them o’er,

Musing upon them; as a mother, who
Has watched her children all the rich day through,
Sits, quiet-handed, in the fading light,
When children sleep, ere night.

References and Footnotes

  1. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum,116-122.
  2. There's the jargon. I believe this means that "his" squadron placed its four troops in a line parallel to the enemy, but with each troop arrayed in a fairly narrow and deep formation. (Four troops to a squadron, three squadrons to a regiment, with a cavalry regiment being, in infantry terms, both like a regiment and a battalion. So the 9th Lancers preserved its regimental identity and traditions, like the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but, like the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welch (which didn't usually fight in the same Division as other battalions of the same regiment), it was one more self-contained medium-sized unit of its arm type. I didn't think, by the way, that Francis was a squadron commander at this point--he was only a captain. Buchan may be forgetting that fact, or eliding it, or I may be mistaken.) This "line of troops column," then, was a formation for attack.
  3. Strangely, the exact same rough count of losses used by John Lucy to describe yesterday's battle.
  4. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 193-200.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 20-21.

Battle: John Lucy is in the Thick of It, the Grenfell Twins are Confused, and Conan Doyle Overdoes It; The Duchess of Sutherland Endures a Heavier Bombardment

Today, a century back, being the British Army’s first day of real combat,[1] we should have a brief word about military history, specifically that breed of military history known as the “Battle Piece.”

Actually, a very brief word: I am not going to try to write the battles from a strategic or grand tactical perspective, or to give the generals’ point of view and assess their actions in detail. There is plenty of that, by good writers and careful writers and traditionalists and revisionists… and in such a big battle nothing on that scale is terribly relevant to the experience of the men on the ground.

The Battle of Mons was not atypical, either, in that the British, French, and German commanders were all gravely mistaken about the numbers and intent of their enemy, that each was pursuing strategies ranging from poor to suicidally disastrous, and that the side that made the worst decisions (the Allies) probably came out of it best. So please do read up elsewhere on the Schlieffen Plan and Von Kluck’s mistake and Lanrezac’s run for the rear and the impeccable incompetence of Sir John French (commander, confusingly, of the British Expeditionary Force–but don’t worry, the Germans also had a General von François).

Here we need only the broadest picture: some twenty miles of East-West frontage for the BEF, along the Mons-Condé canal, with an unlovely view into the industrial towns and mining district away north, where German armies were massing, their spotter planes droning overhead.[2]

Now, how to describe an aircraft overhead, in the first fledgling weeks of motorized military air-power? J.F. Lucy, in yesterday’s post, was matter-of-fact–a tiny bit poetical, but, really, a plane was little more than a novelty. Aircraft, in this war, rarely posed a significant threat to men on the ground. Primitive bombers and effective strafing lay in the future.

A lone Taube was a scout, a spotter, a lone horseman who might summon the enemy hosts or, worse, call down the long-range guns–or trundle slowly on, its purposes inscrutable. So, hey–a plane!

Here’s another way to do it:

High in the van a Taube aeroplane, like an embodiment of that black eagle which is the fitting emblem of a warlike and rapacious race, pointed the path for the German hordes.

Or:

But now an ill-omened bird flew over the British lines. Far aloft across the deep blue sky skimmed the dark Taube, curved, turned, and sail northwards again. It had marked the shells bursting beyond the trenches. In an instant, by some devilish cantrip of signal or wireless, it had set the range right. A rain of shells roared and crashed along the lines of the shallow trenches. The injuries were not yet numerous, but they were inexpressibly ghastly…[3]

These small purple apocalypses have spilled from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, once a writer of admirable precision. He spent much of the war working on installments of an easy-bake history, based on many conversations with participants and wide reading of the utterly unreliable newspaper reports and produced rather too quickly. Ah, there’s was a writer’s market in those days, there was!

I thought I would drop Conan Doyle in here not just to give a vivid example of the “older guy who hasn’t seen battle renders it more dramatically than no-nonsense serving soldier” truism but also to sound an early warning on the genesis of the most dramatic/least accurate of “battle pieces.” They come from this sort of writing, where stray facts–especially highly visible ones–take on massive payloads of strategic and symbolic meaning before they are located in any tactical matrix or pinpointed in any chain of causation.

And also because I can’t help but have some sympathy with the quick-response popular writer willing to triple-load his metaphorical riffs. Is the plane a bird of ill-omened Prussian expansionism, or a reminder of the evil magic (“devilish cantrip”) that seems, to soldiers, to work the Death Unseen that so often strikes them down. Or is it a spotter plane that makes effective use of nascent technology to direct artillery fire supporting the German advance? Sure!

 

But back to business. J.F. Lucy was in one of those shallow trenches. He had had a long night, awakened at midnight to escort an ammunition resupply. He and his men remained on their feet through the morning, when they moved forward into a village that had just been raided by German cavalry. By the early afternoon they had moved forward another mile and dug a shallow “kneeling trench” as a temporary firing position, the idea being to attack once the enemy was located. Now they awaited contact.

Lucy was unaware that his battalion was now holding part of a suspected “weak point,” just behind where the canal’s course changed as it reached Mons. Tacticians always like to go after angles. He and the rest of the 2/Royal Irish realized that they were involved in a real battle only when the German shells began to fall.

Lucy’s account, written years later by a man who experienced much of the worst of trench warfare, notices several age-old elements of the experience of battle that will soon become obsolete and strange. They realize that the German infantry are attacking when they hear the “conch-like sounds” of their bugles, and they meet the densely-packed advancing troops with rifle volleys directed by officers’ whistles. Massed advances met by drill-quickened rifle fire resulted in terrible casualties.

Our rapid fire was appalling even to us, and the worst marksman could not miss, as he had only to fire into the ‘brown’ of the masses of the unfortunate enemy, who on the fronts of two of our companies were continually and uselessly reinforced at the short range of three hundred yards. Such tactics amazed us…[4]

 

Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, were, with the rest of the 9th Lancers, behind the center of the British line, near the village of Thulin. Alas, the prospect of battle in one of Northern Europe’s most industrial districts was a bit of a disappointment:

Francis and Rivy were much perplexed by this strange kind of battlefield. As cavalrymen they had hoped for the wide rolling downs which had been predicted as the terrain of any continental war. Instead they found themselves in a land full of little smoky villages, coal mines, railway embankments, endless wire, and a population that seemed as dense as that of a London suburb. They were puzzled to know how cavalry could operate, and they were still more puzzled to understand what was the plan of campaign an uncertainty they shared with a million or so other soldiers. On that hot Sunday morning firing began early to the north-east and grew heavier as the day advanced. In the afternoon the Colonel sent for the squadron leaders and told them that six German cavalry and three infantry divisions were advancing, and that their business was to retire slowly, fighting a rearguard action. The rest of the day was spent in deep mystification, with no knowledge of the fall of Namur, or of Lanrezac’s defeat at Charleroi, or the other calamities which were to compel Sir John French to retreat. But at 11.30 came definite orders. They were instructed to entrench at the railway station south of Thulin for an attack at dawn. Spades were procured with difficulty, and they were about to begin when another order came not to entrench but to barricade, and to hold Thulin station and the road to the south of it. This was done, and the position was occupied during the darkness, while the wretched inhabitants straggled down the south road, and the guns in the north grew steadily nearer.[5]

So no death or glory charges today, although, with more than a few rolling downs and wide-open fields behind them, there would be a chance, upon retirement. John Buchan, author of the above paragraph, is surely trying to give us a strong sense of just how confusing it is to be behind a battle which even its participants and presiding officers have failed to understand.

And yet: there are more than a few ways, amidst all of the very bright young things and precocious writers we will be studying, to indicate that these particular brave boys are dim bulbs. “Perplexed… puzzled… still more puzzled… deep mystification:” all fair in war, but there does seem to be a literary running of the colors here, between the fog of war and the unrealistic expectations and stolidity of two young officers.

In any event, confusion. And withdrawal. This was a good-sized battle, and although the excellent musketry of the British regulars (and their excellent rifles) caused thousands of German casualties, several British battalions were hard hit as well. It is notoriously difficult to withdraw in the face of an undefeated enemy, and, as this is is next on the menu for the BEF, the Grenfells will soon see more action.

 

The Duchess of Sutherland, however, was fifty miles further east in besieged and overrun Namur:

Sunday 23 August.

There is a dreadful bombardment going on. Some of our wounded who can walk wrap themselves in blankets and go to the cellars. Luckily we are in a new fire-proof building, and I must stay with my sick men who cannot move.The shells sing over the convent from the deep booming German guns–a long singing scream and then an explosion which seems only a stone’s throw away. The man who received extreme unction the night before is mad with terror. I do not believe that he is after all so badly wounded. He has a bullet in his shoulder, and it is not serious. He has lost all power of speech, but I believe that he is an example of what I have read of and what I had never seen–a man dying of sheer fright.

Two things, here. Yes, this sounds like our first case of shell-shock, brutal neanderthal ancestor of modern PTSD. It would be recognized later in the war and, famously, treated with widely varying understanding, and with methods both brutal and humane.

Second, there is another looming rabbit hole for any comparative study of war prose, namely the danger of trying to re-translate language into some sort of objective measure of suffering (or other emotional response).

Descriptions of enduring bombardment are a primary example of this. Many soldiers (and nurses) will write of how terrible a first bombardment seemed, and how laughable that terror seemed in retrospect, once they had acclimated to the constant presence of artillery and learned what the big guns did.

The big point here is that we have to read each experience for what it tells us of the author’s state of mind, not to ascertain the “actual” (i.e. historical) weight and effectiveness of that bombardment. That said, the guns at the Battle of Mons were probably all field guns or medium howitzers; Namur was being shelled by some of the largest guns ever built, crane-loaded monstrosities whose thousand-pound shells brought down entire buildings at a time, and pounded the new forts into rubble. The cellar would not have been much safer, if these guns reached their part of the town.

The nurses and one or two of the nuns are most courageous and refuse to take shelter in the cellars, which are full of novices and schoolchildren. The electric and gas supplies have been cut off. The only lights we have to use are a few hand lanterns and night-lights…

There is some rapid fusilading through the streets and two frightened old Belgian officers ran into the Convent to ask for Red Cross bands, throwing down their arms and maps. In a few minutes, however, they regained self control and went out in the streets without the Red Cross bands.

Now the German troops are fairly marching in. I hear them singing as they march. It seems almost cowardly to write this, but for a few minutes there was relief to see them coming and to feel that this awful firing would soon cease. On they march! Fine well-set-up men with grey uniforms.They have stopped shooting now… I see them streaming into the market-place. A lot of stampeding artillery horses gallop by with Belgian guns. On one of the limbers still lay all that was left of a man. It is too terrible.

What can these brave little people do against this mighty force? Some of the Germans have fallen out and are talking to the people in the streets. These are so utterly relieved at the cessation of the bombardment that in their fear they are actually welcoming the Germans. I saw some women press forward and wave their handkerchiefs.

Suddenly upon this scene the most fearful shelling begins again…We rush back into the convent, and there are fifteen minutes of intense and fearful excitement while the shells are crashing into the market-place. We see German soldiers running for dear life … Women half fainting, and wounded, old men and boys are struggling in.Their screams are dreadful. They had all gone into the Grande Place to watch the German soldiers marching, and were caught in this sudden firing. A civilian wounded by a shell in the stomach was brought into the Ambulance. He died in 20 minutes. We can only gather incoherent accounts from these people as to what had happened.The Germans sounded the retreat and the shelling seemed to stop. At last it leaks out that the German troops on the other side of the town did not know that their own troops had crossed the Meuse on the opposite side…  It seems a horrible story, but absolutely true.

Now it is quiet again, save for the sighs of the suffering. All night long we hear the tramp, cramp, tramp of German infantry in the streets, their words of command, their perpetual deep-throated songs.They are full of swagger, and they are very anxious to make an impression upon the Belgians…

Where are the English and the big French troops? That is what I am wondering.[6]

 

This has been a long post, and so I will postpone an uncertainty: One Sunday in late August–either today, a century back, or a week hence, The Dymock poets, and Edward Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon, dined together in the farmhouse of a rustic, nineteenth century couple. It was a merry, literary occasion, with little or no mention of the war–could it possibly have been the same day as Mons? I don’t know, and two letters that might mention it and fix it on the 23rd I can’t get my hands on just now–so let’s say it was on the 30th, and wait a week for the end of August 1914, and a final bit of Last Summer literary pastoralism…

References and Footnotes

  1. There were two skirmishes between cavalry patrols the day before, and scout aircraft had been in action.
  2. Douglas Haig, then commanding I Corps, was on the right, in and beyond Mons, and thus more aware of the crucial strategic problem: that the French armies on the British right, east of Mons, were withdrawing, so that further heroic holding actions would only result in the British being cut off and destroyed,
  3. Conan Doyle, A History of the Great War, Vol. I, 65-66.
  4. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 103-115.
  5. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 191-2.
  6. From Women in the War Zone, 38-39.

The Eve of Battle

John Lucy and the 2/Royal Irish Rifles had, by today, a century back, marched as far as a village only a few miles south of Mons, Belgium. The German army was believed (correctly) to be only a few miles away, and soon a single Taube biplane was seen. “It looked sinister as it passed slowly over us at a good height, and more like a hawk than a dove.” This is Lucy’s style: far from elaborate, yet attentive to the infantryman’s emotional response–and a curt nod toward metaphor. As we will see tomorrow, there is more than one way to feather such a bird.

Lucy’s Platoon then received an exceptionally diffident harangue from their Lieutenant:

‘I rather think it is, ahem, incumbent on me. Yes, that is to say, a duty, to inform you fellahs that an action with the enemy is imminent. Yes, rather. Rapidly approaching, I mean to sat, and naturally, yes, let me see, quite naturally, you will be expected to conduct yourselves with valour, by gad, I mean to say courage.

‘I might add that you are bound to be successful, but do not forget that when blooding your bayonets, yes rather, blooding your bayonets, do not on any account bury then too deeply. Damn nuisance, you know, endeavouring to withdraw an unnecessarily deep bayonet…

‘I think that’s about all. No. No, by Jove, you might also know that our cavalry is already in touch with the Boche. Yes rather, quite in touch, and we are all to be prepared to move at short notice, any moment I mean to say…’

Lucy and his men appreciated this friendly sort of address, but the mood was spoiled when another officer summoned the non-commissioned officers in order to remind them that malingerers would be punished, a nearly explicit expression of doubt in their ability to do their jobs well. This fit of terrible leadership–the light mood weighted down, thoughts of heroic nonchalance submerged as the fear of cowardice or a failure of nerve is dredged up–may well have been just what Lucy presents it to be, namely one officer’s failure to contain his own fear or low opinion of his men.

Or just maybe it was a nice trick, a flourish of the rhetorical stick that addressed the potential problem of fearful men even as the popular captain’s halting exhortation helped to calm and inspire the more confident. They went away angry at the officer who doubted them, but they resolved to turn that anger upon the Boche…

When the battalion went to its billets, a company was posted in advanced outposts to the north. This was “the first warlike act of the battalion, and from now on until the armistice there was no peace for those of use who survived.”[1]

 

Back down the lines of communication at the crucial port of Le Havre, the anonymous nursing sister (believed to be Kathleen Luard) is frustrated that her hospital unit will be remaining so far from the fray.

Saturday, August 22nd

The news from the Front looks bad to-day. Namur under heavy fire, and the Germans pressing on Antwerp, and the French chased out of Lorraine.

Everybody is hoping it doesn’t mean staying here permanently, but you never know your luck. It all depends what happens farther up, and of course one might have the luck to be added to a hospital farther up to fill up casualties among Sisters or if more were wanted.

The base hospitals, of course, are always filling up from up country with men who may be able to return to duty, and acute or hopeless cases who have to be got well enough for a hospital ship for home.

There is to be a Requiem Mass to-morrow at Notre Dame for those who have been killed in the war, and the whole nave and choir is reserved for officials and Red Cross people. It is a most beautiful church, now hung all over with the four flags of the Allies. An old woman in the church this morning asked us if we were going to the Blessés [wounded] and clasped our hands and blessed us and wept. She must have had some sons in the army.

We are simply longing to get to work, whether here or anywhere else; it is 100 per cent better in this interesting old town doing for ourselves in the Convent than waiting in the stuffy hotel at Dublin. There is any amount to see — miles of our Transport going through the town with burly old shaggy English farm-horses, taken straight from the harvest, pulling the carts; French Artillery Reservists being taught to work the guns; French soldiers passing through; and our R.E. Motor-cyclists scudding about…[2]

The nursing sister is more practical than most of our writers, but it’s nice to see her going in for just a hint of the pastoral. Those drafted draught horses–straight from the harvest–are a nice image. We’re teetering on the brink here: in one sense, it’s the very last day of the Last Summer, and if the horses still pleasantly “burly”  and “shaggy” are no longer in the fields we know, then at least they have not yet become symbols of helpless dumb suffering under indiscriminate bombardment…

 

Already under the guns, today, and among the wounded was Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, with her small private ambulance unit in Namur:

Never shall I forget the afternoon of 22 August. The shelling of the past hours having suddenly ceased, I went to my dormitory. I had had practically no rest for two nights, and after the emotions of the morning I was falling asleep when Sister Kirby rushed into my room, calling out,’Sister Millicent! The wounded!’I rushed down the stone stairs. Six motor cars and as many wagons were at the door, and they were carrying in those unhappy fellows. Some were on stretchers, others were supported by willing Red Cross men. One or two of the stragglers fell up the steps from fatigue and lay there. Many of these men had been for three days without food or sleep in the trenches.

In less than 20 minutes we had 45 wounded on our hands. A number had been wounded by shrapnel, a few by bullet wounds, but luckily some were only wounded by pieces of shell. These inflict awful gashes, but if they are taken in time the wounds rarely prove mortal.

The wounded were all Belgian — Flemish and Walloon — or French. Many were Reservists. Our young surgeon, Mr Morgan, was perfectly cool and so were our nurses. What I thought would be for me an impossible task became absolutely natural: to wash wounds, to drag off rags and clothing soaked in blood, to hold basins equally full of blood, to soothe a soldier’s groans, to raise a wounded man while he was receiving extreme unction, hemmed in by nuns and a priest, so near he seemed to death; these actions seemed suddenly to become an insistent duty, perfectly easy to carry out.

All the evening the wounded and the worn out were being rushed in. If they had come in tens one would not have minded, but the pressure of cases to attend to was exhausting. One could not refuse to take them, for they said there were 700 in the military hospital already, while all the smaller Red Cross ambulances were full.

So many of the men were in a state of prostration bordering almost on dementia, that I seemed instantly enveloped in the blight of war. I felt stunned — as if I were passing through an endless nightmare. Cut off as we were from all communication with the outer world, I realised what a blessing our ambulance was to Namur. I do not know what the nuns would have done without our nurses at such a moment. No one, until these awful things happen, can conceive the untold value of fully-trained and disciplined British nurses.The nuns were of great use to us, for they helped in every possible tender way, and provided food for the patients.The men had been lying in the trenches outside the forts. Hundreds of wounded were still waiting to be brought in, and owing to the German cannonading it was impossible to get near them. I kept on thinking and hoping that the allied armies must be coming to rescue Namur.

The guns never cease…[3]

 

So we are about to not-taste the full measure of the obsession with the British experience, as tomorrow begins the battle of Mons, a not-terribly-glorious action which kicks off  the legendary/pseudo-historiographical tale of the plucky little BEF. So a brief note to connect all that to the rest of the war.

Fifty-two battalions of British troops were now deployed near the battlefields of Belgium and France, to 120 for the Belgians… and over 1,000 battalions for both Germany and France.

Today, on 22 August 1914, in the debatable lands to the East, the French suffered the worst casualties of any single day in the war. At least 27,000 men were killed, and tens of thousands more wounded, as they advanced across open ground against massed German armies further to the East. For all the slaughter of the trench assaults to come, nothing was as profligate of lives as open warfare in the Napoleonic tradition, fought with 20th century weapons.[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 98-102.
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, 9-12.
  3. Powell, Women in the War Zone, 36-8. The Duchess also made her own century back acknowledgment today: "One of the strangest parts of all was the fact that we were nursing in the Convent of Les Soeurs de Notre Dame de Namur. Exactly 100 years ago the Venerable Foundress, Mother Julie Bilhart, who called herself Sister Ignatius, wrote her experiences of the Napoleonic War in the same Convent.
  4. Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 181, 201.