Vera Brittain Has a Wretched Day

Wednesday September 30th

This has been a wretched, unsettled kind of day. Edward started the feeling by his boredom & resdessness when he found the names of several ex-O.T.C. cadets gazetted in The Times & still not his own. I tried to make him understand a little more fully my position at home—how it not only brings out all my bad qualities but temporarily gives me others which I don’t possess by nature, & stifles all my good ones. However he did not take in much. Greatly though I long for someone to whom I could confide without having to explain every word, at present it seems that I must be completely self-contained–lonely as ever.[1]

It seems as if the good times are ending, at least for Vera Brittain. Not long before today, a century back, her essential happiness had been untouched by the war. Looking back, she would see that the impact of all of the horrifying news of the war that she has been so dutifully reporting in her diary was really quite superficial.

Although we had examined… some Press photographs of the damage done by the German bombardment of Rheims, we still talked as though our life-long security has not been annihilated and time would go on always for those whom we loved.[2]

And only days before this she and Edward had played golf and, on the walk home, “discovered a fairy ring; I stood in it, and quite suddenly found myself wishing that Roland and I might become lovers, and marry.”

Well. Tomorrow’s post will bring Roland‘s letter of yesterday, and lower spirits still–retrospective analysis about the end of the long nineteenth century has little to do with the drama of love, friendship, and the approaching departure of the would-be lovers for Oxford. Or war.

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 114.
  2. Testament of Youth, 103.

Fictional Bowmen Become Real Angels; Roland Leighton Eschews Scholastic Vegetation

Today, a century back, was a big day. A big day, that is, for a project that’s frequently concerned with the entangled influences of literature and history–or, to be more specific, the reciprocal influences of fact on fiction and of fantasy on the perception and arrangement of “fact.”

Here’s why: a short story called “The Bowmen” first appeared in the Evening News of September 29th, 1914. It’s a slight story, a patriotic fable by the journalist and fantasist Arthur Machen, and it’s easily recognizable as fantasy–especially, perhaps to us, in this prolific silver age of fantasy. But even then it was plainly a “tale”–“an openly fictional romantic story,” as Fussell called it–and not a report on month-old action. Read it for yourself–it’s quite short.

And yet to many of its readers it seemed all too real.

“The Bowmen” is set during the retreat from Mons at the end of August. We are among an embattled British unit about to be overwhelmed, and its stout Tommy regulars laugh and joke even as they slaughter the waves of advancing Germans and are themselves shattered by German artillery. Soon, “there was no hope at all,” and so they laugh and sing some more and prepare to die. We are told that these British troops are holding a crucial “salient” of the British left, and that their defeat will mean total German victory. But this is dramatic set-up: there is no pretense of realistic tactics here–no officers ordering a stand or contemplating a withdrawal.

As the last onslaught begins, one of our exhausted and nearly delirious Tommies –a man somewhat learned in Latin–calls upon the aid of St. George. He immediately feels “something between a shudder and an electric shock” and then hears strange voices all about him, shouting war cries in a sort of archaic Anglo-French. Next “he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them.” In another moment great flights of invisible arrows are slicing through the air, striking down the Germans in their hundreds and thousands, but leaving no visible wounds. The battered British remnant is thus saved by the ghostly archers, and the story concludes in proper fantasy/supernatural genre fashion by informing us confidentially that, although the learned soldier knows what he saw, the foolishly rationalist Germans concluded that the British must have used gas shells of an unknown nature.

A nice tale, and for anyone who knows their English history, a clever adaptation of the old Arthur myth to the circumstances of desperate battle in Northern France. Agincourt, site of Henry V’s victory over the French 499 years before, is a triply famous battle: for its tactically significant proof that massed longbowmen could indeed dominate armored knights, for its use by Shakespeare as the sight of the Mother of All Theatrical Battlefield Exhortations, and for John Keegan’s discipline-shifting reconstruction of it in The Face of Battle. True, Waterloo wasn’t far off either, as the ghostly charger gallops, and it would have been pretty cool to have the Duke of Wellington pound out of the mist upon Copenhagen and rally the Tommies into a square. But the Duke had died in 1852, and he and his nasty politics survived in living memory and therefore he had less of magic about him than the bowmen. Besides, Machen loved the Middle Ages, and obviously enjoyed the idea of summoning the once and future bowmen from their graves in a time of Britain’s (or Britons’) dire need.

So why the big fuss about the influence of fantasy on fact?

I’ll get there in just a bit–but first a brief trot down an interesting side track. “The Bowmen” is fiction, but it does have some roots in a military/supernatural legend. Machen later wrote, in an earnest explanation of his process, that four things contributed to the genesis of the story in his imagination: his shock at reading the newspaper accounts of the disastrous retreat; the mystical ambiance at a mass he attended thereafter, while story ideas percolated in his mind; a Kipling story that “got in my head;” and, finally, “the mediævalism that is always there.”

The Kipling story must be “The Lost Legion.” This, too, is fiction, and not in itself fantastic. The story is of a British Indian cavalry unit attempting to arrest some Afghan tribesmen and blundering their attempted ambush. They succeed, however, because they are taken for the ghosts of an Indian cavalry unit massacred by the same tribesman thirty years before. So in Kipling’s story it’s the Afghans who believe in ghosts and the “good guys” who profit by it–and yet Kipling based the story on rumors of an Afghan massacre of a fleeing Indian cavalry unit during the (very much historical) mutiny of 1857, and there is still the sense, in his story, that the not-actually-manifesting “ghosts” of these mutinous cavalrymen have paid their debt by rescuing these loyal troops a generation later.[1]

So legend begot fiction, which in turn begot another fiction upon the fertile mind of Arthur Machen. And today it was published in the Evening News.

And then it took wing: within weeks, stories began circulating about vast angels seen in the skies during the retreat, sheltering and shepherding the BEF. These stories were soon widely believed (with, surely, many different shadings to the sense of “belief”) and it became, as we have seen, difficult to tell any story of the retreat without alluding to the famous angels. Like the coded clotheslines, patterned plowings, and basement-dwelling, telephoning German spies, everybody had heard the stories, so they must be true.

But why angels, from bowmen? Fussell thought that “it was the shining that did it,” and surely angels are more appropriate to a collective delusion/hoax/big magical thought than ghostly bowmen. Instead of a hint of the occult or macabre we have unobjectionable and reassuring religion, and instead of specific plot problems (how did those arrows kill?) we have a vague but sturdy sense of reinforcement for one of the most important flat-footed convictions of wartime, namely that God was on our side.

Were there angels at Mons? “It became unpatriotic, almost treasonable, to doubt it.”[2]

Some enthusiastic angelologists traced the angels back to Machen, and congratulated him on being the first to write of the divine intervention on behalf of England’s cause. Machen was himself something of a mystic and spiritualist, but he was mortified to have his fiction mistaken for religious testimony or real reportage. To borrow one of the great Talmudic parsings of all time, Machen was not offended as a Christian or a mystic or a believer in the occult–he was offended as a fantasist.

Machen was easily persuaded, then, to write an introduction for a book version of the tale–rolled together with four other stories of his on similar themes–in late 1915. (So I suppose, technically, that I’m getting us ahead of ourselves, but this feels too central to be vague about for months on end.) The little volume was sold as The Bowmen, and Other Legends of the War, and this title, along with a very appropriate illustration, is all that appears on the cover. 138482Yet, tellingly, a pre-title page, and a superscription on the title page, and the title at the top of every left-hand page all shout “The Angels of Mons” (see here)=for a scan of the book, minus the cover).

So goes marketing, in those times as in ours–the original tale is now repackaged and sold as the companion volume to the major motion picture, or, er, delusion. But Machen is at great pains, in the 1915 introduction, to set the record straight:

This affair of “The Bowmen” has been such an odd one from first to last, so many queer complications have entered into it, there have been so many and so divers currents and cross-currents of rumour and speculation concerning it, that I honestly do not know where to begin. I propose, then, to solve the difficulty by apologizing for beginning at all…

…though the story itself is nothing, it has yet had such odd and unforeseen consequences and adventures that the tale of them may possess some interest. And then, again, there are certain psychological morals to be drawn from the whole matter of the tale and its sequel of rumours and discussions that are not, I think, devoid of consequence.

Now it has been murmured and hinted and suggested and whispered in all sorts of quarters that before I wrote the tale I had heard something. The most decorative of these legends is also the most precise: “I know for a fact that the whole thing was given him in typescript by a lady-in-waiting.” This was not the case; and all vaguer reports to the effect that I had heard some rumours or hints of rumours are equally void of any trace of truth. Again I apologize for entering so pompously into the minutia of my bit of a story, as if it were the lost poems of Sappho…

Going back to the beginning, Machen explains that, only a few days hence, a century back, he received two inquiries from magazine editors. One of these was the editor of The Occult Review–a harbinger, this, of what will be a surging interest in the occult among former rationalists devastated by the war’s mounting losses–eager to hear more about the bowmen. Machen politely but firmly asserted the fictionality of his tale, and assumed the matter was settled.

But in only a few months the “rumours” will return, and with greater force–this time as semi-tragic farce instead of wry British comedy. Now it is the first of several parish priests who will write to ask about the sources for his true history of the bowmen/angels. Machen cordially gives leave to reprint his tale but reminds him that it is “pure invention.”

The priest wrote again, suggesting — to my amazement — that I must be mistaken, that the main “facts” of “The Bowmen” must be true, that my share in the matter must surely have been confined to the elaboration and decoration of a veridical history… it was then that it began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit… and the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to a monstrous size.

It was at about this period that variants of my tale began to be told as authentic histories…

Machen’s tone throughout this introduction is sincere and apologetic, but he does allow himself some bemusement when the tale is retold with actual arrow-shafts protruding from the German bodies, an idea he had considered

over-precipitous even for a mere fantasy. I was therefore entertained when I found that what I had refused as too fantastical for fantasy was accepted in certain occult circles as hard fact.

Machen then traces the appearance of the “angel” myths in late 1914 and early 1915 from out of the “bowmen” tale and, in a postscript to his little book of fantasy stories, refutes, with touching regret, a series of published demonstrations of the reality of the Angels of Mons. Alas, the arguments rest on no evidence whatsoever–much unsubstantiated hearsay is marshaled, but no names, no dates–and Machen concludes with a rueful “it may be so, but–“[3]


Roland Leighton wrote to Vera Brittain today with some significant news. He is persisting–despite his very poor eyesight–in trying to obtain a commission. So there may be no going up together to Oxford. Writing directly to Vera (Edward, Vera’s brother and Roland’s best friend, often serves as their intermediary) Roland pays Vera the compliment of trying to explain himself. Frankly. Man to… ah yes, right–woman. So there will be more than a little blundering bravado.

Lowestoft, 29 September 1914

October 9th is getting very near, but I can no longer say confidently that I am coming up to Oxford. I have been, you know, very envious of Edward and Ellinger and Richardson and all those who will have the opportunity of doing something of what now alone really counts; and I think that at last I too may have the same. I stand a good chance of a commission in the 4th Norfolks and shall know definitely in about a week’s time. Anyhow I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation. It would seem a somewhat cowardly shirking of my obvious duty. In fact if I do not get to Oxford at all, as seems possible, I shall not much regret it,–except perhaps in that I shall miss the incidental pleasure of seeing you there. Of course, all being well, I could go up after everything is over. I feel, however, that I am meant to take some active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing–something, if often horrible, yet very ennobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.[4]

The “incidental” must have hurt, but it was probably not meant to. The foolishness of Roland’s conviction that war must be “ennobling” and “beautiful” seems a little uncharacteristic, but then again being scholarly and serious does not necessarily exempt you from the reigning manias. He’s probably aware that he is admitting an illogical, emotional belief–a fascination–and backing it up with faulty logic, namely the idea that an “elemental reality” he knows nothing about is “beyond the reach” of “cold theorising.” Galling, indeed, since mutual “theorising” has been a significant part of their quickening relationship. Vera must know she is getting a weak excuse from a young man who is going to run off to war, if only he can… but then again her grounds for hoping he would avoid military service were pretty silly as well.

There will be a good deal more on Vera and Roland in the coming days…

References and Footnotes

  1. Shades of the Stone of Erech! For Kipling's story, see here.
  2. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 116.
  3. See Machen, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War.
  4. Letters from a Lost Generation, 30.

Alan Seeger is at One With Nature, and the Nursing Sister is Sold Out

Alan Seeger, legionnaire-in-training, wrote to his mother today, a century back. Seeger is a poet, and he waxes poetical-philosophical here as he describes a soldier’s life in the unspoilt countryside of southern France.

2me Régiment Etranger,

Bataillon C, Ire Cie., 3me Section,[1]

TOULOUSE, Sept. 28, 1914.

We are still held up here, though all preparations for departure have been made and every one expected to be off yesterday. We are entirely equipped down to our three days’ rations and 120 rounds of cartridges. The wagons are all laden and the horses requisitioned. The suspense is exciting, for no one has any idea where we shall be sent.

We have been putting in our time here at very hard drilling and are supposed to have learned in six weeks what the ordinary recruit in times of peace takes all his two years at. We rise at 5 and work stops in the afternoon at 5. A twelve hours day at one sou a day. I hope to earn higher wages than this in time to come but I never expect to work harder. The early rising hour is splendid, for it gives one the chance to see the most beautiful part of these beautiful autumn days in the South. We march up to a lovely open field on the end of the ridge behind the barracks, walking right into the rising sun. From this the panorama, spread about on three sides is incomparably fine,—yellow cornfields, vineyards, harvest-fields where the workers and their teams can be seen moving about in tiny figures,—poplars, little hamlets and church-towers, and far away to the south the blue line of the Pyrenees, the high peaks capped with snow. It makes one in love with life, it is all so peaceful and beautiful. But Nature to me is not only hills and blue skies and flowers, but the Universe, the totality of things, reality as it most obviously presents itself to us, and in this universe strife and sternness play as big a part as love and tenderness, and cannot be shirked by one whose will it is to rule his life in accordance with the cosmic forces he sees in play about him. I hope you see the thing as I do and think that I have done well, being without responsibilities and with no one to suffer materially by my decision, in taking upon my shoulders, too, the burden that so much of humanity is suffering under and, rather than stand ingloriously aside when the opportunity was given me, doing my share for the side that I think right…[2]


We turn now to the Nursing Sister, who is expecting to board a night train of wounded men when it reaches Le Mans and minister to them on their way to St. Nazaire. And so we discover an interesting gap in currency-of-knowledge between hospital staff and, well, divisional staff. Although Billy Congreve was able to tell us five days ago that the base of the BEF’s supply-and-evacuation lines was being shifted from St. Nazaire to Le Havre, the nurses have yet to be informed of this change, not to mention reorganized to more efficiently aid the evacuation of the wounded. We should imagine nurses, then, as having a social/informal rank roughly equivalent to a very junior officer in a line regiment. Nurses are–they must be–respectable women, and are therefore significantly higher than soldiers. And yet, even though they are well back from the front lines, they are as ignorant as any trench-dwelling subaltern of whatever plans the high and mighty are making.


Monday, September 28th.—There are hundreds of people in deep new black in this town ; what must it be in Berlin? The cemetery here is getting full of French and British soldiers’ graves. Those 1200 sailors from the three cruisers had fine clean quick deaths compared to what happens here.

We have got our baggage (kit-bags and holdalls) down to the station at the Red Cross Anglaise, and are sitting in our quarters waiting for the word to come that No. — train is in. Met Miss —— in her car in the town, and she said that it was just possible that the train might go down to Havre this journey, she wasn’t dead sure it was doing this route! If so we shall be nicely and completely sold, as I don’t know how we should ever join it. But I’m not going to believe in such bad luck as that would be till it happens.[3]

There are a couple of noteworthy aspects of this short entry.

Luard-if-it-is-she-indeed refers first to the sinking of three obsolete British cruisers by a single U-boat on September 22nd. This disaster was a major embarrassment for the Royal Navy–which had not bothered to take adequate precautions against submarines–and an indication of the seriousness of the U-boat threat. But were these deaths “fine clean quick” or is this rather a failure of imagination, an unconscious bias against familiar horrors? Deaths from gangrene and sepsis and the long agony of lung or abdominal wounds she has seen–but many of those sailors were scalded or burned to death, or were trapped within ships that capsized and sunk over the course of several long minutes. None of this is fine.

But then there is the attitude she expresses (in a published diary, sure, but why doubt?) about this possibility of the train not arriving. It’s as if an officer learns that his company will be left out of the attack–an extra day in billets instead, perhaps, a much-needed rest–while someone else catches it. And he is furious to be excluded. “Nicely and completely sold” are strong words for the Nursing Sister, but it is the “bad luck” which is more striking. Surely there will be competent nurses manning the other route as well? (Well, perhaps not–perhaps that is the worry). But she takes being left out of action as an insult. The parallel is not exact–she is missing out on exhausting and difficult work, but not on a much greater chance of (her own) death or injury. Still, this is zeal indeed in a difficult and unpleasant task. She would rather be on a train crowded with filthy and gangrenous men than in bed.


The Royal Irish were given a strange new assignment today, a century back:

On the 28th September (their day in billets) stakes were cut out of the woods behind Soupir, while the pioneers collected what wire they could lay hands on, as “the Battalion was ordered to construct wire entanglements in front of their trenches to-night.” The entanglements were made of two or three stands, at the most, of agricultural wire picked up where they could find it.[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. French abbreviation unpacking: 2nd Regiment of the Foreign Legion, C battalion, first company, 3rd section.
  2. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 1-3.
  3. Diary of a Nursing Sister, 54-5.
  4. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 47.

Billy Congreve Entertains a Certain Pistol-Packing Politician; The Nursing Sister Writes of Dreams and Horrors; We Meet Alan Seeger

At some point we will begin to notice one of the strangest new features of war on the Western Front, namely the jarring proximity of the front lines and the comforts of home, or of London. Soon ordinary officers will be able to spend the night with the rats and lice in a frozen trench, catch a leave train and a troopship, and reach London in time for dinner and a show. But as of now, a century back, only the highest of the high mucky-mucks get to make flying visits between the troops and the capital. It’s Winston Churchill again, and our Billy Congreve gets to be his minder:

This afternoon who should turn up at HQ but Winston Churchill. he wanted ‘to see things’, so HH[1] handed him over to my tender care with orders to take him up to the observations station above Chassemy. He was dressed as a Trinity Brother–blue coat, brass buttons, etc.[2] We went up in his car to just short of Chassemy. Captain Guest was driving. The car was a beauty, a 60-hp Rolls-Royce. Half-way there WC asked me, ‘Are you quite sure there are no parties of Germans inside our lines?’ — (there had been a few half-starved wretches found in the big woods). I said I was sure there were none. However, this did not satisfy him and I had to get his revolver out from his coat pocket, a very fierce looking weapon which he held ready for action on his knee. I was a bit scared of that revolver, as it was one of those patent beasts that you ‘pull the trigger and the gun does the rest’ sort of thing. However, it didn’t get going.

When I got the car behind the Brenelle ridge, I told them to wait while I went up to see if things were fairly quiet. Only a few shells were coming over, so I took him up to the observation station from where one gets an excellent view over the river. There wasn’t much to see, but a few of their shells came gurgling over, and I was glad when they were safely over and bursting well behind us, for I am by no means used to them yet myself. One sees a column of mud and smoke and then the crash of the explosion. We got away without any excitement, after he had grandiloquently exclaimed: ‘Now I have been under fire in five continents.’ I must say that he was very nice to me…[3]


The Nursing Sister–despite and because she has already seen much of the worst of war–is like any other near-combatant: eager to get closer to where the action is.

Sunday, September 27th.—My luck is in this time. Miss——- has just sent for me to tell me I am for permanent duty on No. — Ambulance Train (equipped) which goes up to the Front, to the nearest point on the rail to the fighting line. Did you ever know such luck? There are four of us, one Army Sister and me and two juniors; we live altogether on the train. The train will always be pushed up as near the Field Hospitals as the line gets to, whether we drive the Germans back to Berlin or they drive us into the sea. It is now going to Braisne, a little east of Soissons, just S. of
the Aisne, N.E. of Rheims. It is on its way up now, and we are to join it with our baggage when it stops here on the way to St Nazaire. We shall have two days and two nights with wounded, and two days and two nights to rest on the return empty. The work itself will be of the grimmest possible, as we shall have all the worst cases, being an equipped Hospital in a train. It was worth waiting five weeks to get this; every man or woman stuck at the Base
has dreams of getting to the Front, but only one in a hundred gets the dream fulfilled.

There is no doubt that “the horrors of War” have outdone themselves by this modern perfection of machinery killing, and the numbers involved, as they have never done before, and as it was known they would. The details are often unprintable. They have eight cases of tetanus at No. — Stationary, and five have died…

Went to the Voluntary Evening Service for the troops at the theatre at 5. The Padres and a Union Jack and the Allies’ Flags; and a piano on the stage; officers and sisters in the stalls; and the rest packed tight with men: they were very reverent, and nearly took the roof off in the Hymns, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer. Excellent sermon. We had the War Intercessions and a good prayer I didn’t know, ending with “Strengthen us in life, and comfort us in death.” The men looked what they were, British to the bone; no one could take them for any other nation a mile off. Clean, straight, thin, sunburnt, clear-eyed, all at their Active Service best, no pallid rolls of fat on their faces like the French. The man who preached must have liked talking to them in that pin-dropped silence and attention; he evidently knows his opportunities.[4]


This project has so far been focused almost exclusively on the British experience. There is some frank Anglophilia in this, along with some slight literary justifications–the national literature defines the experience! Also the Welsh!

But it really is a matter of English language, not a specifically English literature, and the experience of the war along English and non-English-held sections of the line will be fairly easy to compare with our core informants. So when the Americans join we must give them a look as well. For the most part this means waiting until late 1917. Yet some Americans would not wait for a national commitment to make a personal one: outrage over Belgium, anti-German feeling, adventurism, or a strong identification with Britain or France spurred many to enlist.

But how should one enlist when one is not a citizen of a combatant nation? British recruiting officers would probably be quite bemused (although the occasional American did talk himself in). Another route, however, had more than a whiff of romance and was highly practical–no passport necessary, swift and copious action nearly guaranteed: the French Foreign Legion.

Alan Seeger had graduated from Harvard in 1910 and bummed around–a geographically precocious literary bohemian–in Greenwich Village and the Left Bank. In August he joined the Foreign Legion; today he began keeping a diary.

Toulouse, Sunday, September 27, 1914

Fifth Sunday since enlistment. The arbor of a little inn on the highroad running east from Toulouse. Beautiful sunny afternoon. Peace. The stir of the leaves; noise of poultry in the yards near by; distant church bells, warm southern sunlight flooding the wide corn-fields and vineyards. Everything is ready for departure today. We shall leave tomorrow or next day for an unknown destination. Some say Antwerp, some Chalons.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Major-General Hubert Hamilton, commander of the 3rd Division, whom Congreve now serves as Aide-de-Camp.
  2. This is Churchill following in the grand tradition of grand personages finding excuses to wear a uniform among soldiers. As First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill is the civilian head of the navy, but he liked to go about in the uniform of an Elder Brother of Trinity House, a then-merely-four-century-old organization responsible for aspects of marine safety and inshore navigation. The revolver is, of course, grandstanding politician cowboy bullshit.
  3. Armageddon Road, 37-9.
  4. Diary of a Nursing Sister, 52-4.
  5. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 1.

We Meet Lady Feilding, Off on an Expedish to Belgium

Lady Dorothie Fielding, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of the Earl of Denbigh, came from a family that clearly did not hesitate at the question of national service. All three of her brothers were in uniform, and two of her six sisters would serve as well. Lady Dorothie had immediately signed up for a crash course in nursing and now, only a few weeks later, found herself approaching the Western Front. Bureaucracy did not stand in the way of aristocrats–and, in an odd quirk of genteel British gender inequity–wealthy and unqualified women, especially those who had an earl for a father and had been presented to the king and queen as a debutante, had an easier time getting to France than their male counterparts. Rupert Brooke, despite his many influential contacts, spent over a month finding a job and is only now beginning to seriously train. And less-well-connected women–even skilled professionals, like the Nursing Sister–took the job they were given (much though she wanted to be closer to the action, the Nursing Sister, despite her Boer War experience, was kept on the evacuation trains). Dorothie Feilding trained for a few weeks–at Rugby hospital, no less–and though no more a nurse or medic than Brooke is a trained soldier, she is already driving an ambulance through Belgium. No problem.

Except for the fact that Lady Feilding was not only rich and well-born but very lucky–she had stumbled into a nearly perfect situation. There were other women–experienced female doctors, nurses, and even the administrators of fully-equipped medical units–who offered their services, but the British authorities refused all-female organizations permission to serve the BEF. This despite the fact that the medical services of the small professional army were already overwhelmed. (Many of the volunteer nurses were welcomed by the French or Belgians.)

It’s tempting to think of the British as relatively enlightened with regards to women’s rights: they are gentlemanly, after all, and can be so courtly, and a handful of women wield great social influence. There are even a few rare birds who, like Roland Leighton, even identified themselves as feminists. Yet the clashes of the radical suffragettes with the authorities had been one of the persistent news items of the years leading up to the war. Britain has been distracted by hunger-strikes and civil disobedience, and there was scant support for women’s suffrage–and much derisive snickering–among the government, and still less in conservative army circles. Like international socialism and Irish nationalism–other suddenly-less-threatening threats to crown and country–feminism was riven by the war, with many leaders opting to pit the cause on hold for the time being, and a vocal minority trying to stay the course.

But back to the medical situation. The most problematic gap in medical services was between the immediate rear of the battle–the support lines where troops rested and where dressing stations received wounded men brought back by stretcher-bearers–and the nearest railhead, often miles back, over country torn up by artillery and entrenchments. Into this gap rode–among other units–Dr. Munro’s Ambulance Corps. Dr. Munro, with the help of wealthy friends, promised to provide a number of ambulances, along with skilled mechanics, nurses, and drivers. His offer was accepted, and he promptly put together a largely female Corps.

Munro “was an eccentric Scottish specialist, one of whose primary objects seemed to be leadership of a feminist crusade, for he was far keener on women’s rights than most of the women he recruited.”[1] These included not just inexperienced young aristocrats like Dorothie Feilding (and other, even less likely volunteers) but remarkable women like Mairi Chisholm, the “strong buxom colonial wench” (below!) who was “discovered” while whipping her motorcycle around London, and Elsie Knocker, who brought not only nursing skills but the ability to drive, repair the ambulances, and speak French and German.

We’ll be hearing quite a bit from the volunteer nurse/drivers of this unit–for us it’s something like the Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a unit disproportionately peopled with engaging writers. In addition to Feilding, the “brainy” “ass” Miss Sinclair–a prolific novelist and a sponsor of the Corps–and the “A1” “Mrs. Knocker,” both mentioned below, also wrote accounts of their experiences.

More on all this later. Let’s get to a first sampling of Lady Dorothie’s inimitably chatty prose style. Warning: she certainly sounds like a feckless socialite (Then again, she is writing to her mother, and trying to reassure her) as well as a bit of a mean girl (Miss Sinclair is an older woman, an earnest and uncool spinster who wants very much to fit in, you see). Ah, but don’t judge a volunteer’s commitment by his or her prose style. Or by her signatory nickname.

Sat morn [26 September]

Mother darling – We got here about 7pm all right & put up in the hotel for the night as you can’t motor after dark. Great flutter in Ostend because a Zeppelin had dropped 5 bombs the night before & they were all convinced they were going to be blown up. Miss Sinclair (who may be brainy but is a perfect ass on this kind of an expedish) was in a panic & said it wasn’t safe, & the Germans would come again & being in the station hotel & they trying for the station etc etc etc. But we had a very peaceful night.

All sorts of trouble today because unable [to] get petrol without endless formalities thro’ the militaries which delays our start. Hope to get of soon though & muddle through in the true British way & once in Ghent we will be quite all right.

The Red X [Red Cross] president from Ghent came to meet us here & is making the arrangements. We are all being put up free in Ghent too, & boarded and lodged. We have two vast motor ambulances. Old pattern Daimler & Fiat & two chauffeurs & a light Ford to follow us today. Saw some Red X people tho’ from Antwerp today who say they have 11,000 beds prepared & no wounded & nothing on earth for Mrs Stobart’s people to do. So I’m jolly glad we didn’t go with them and ore much more likely to be useful. Our party is a dozen: Mrs Knocker A1 thank God, Miss Chisholm a strong buxom colonial wench pal of hers & capable, an American lady hanger on & quite useless tho’ most obliging. Miss Sinclair ditto & Mr Wakefield ditto, two young doctors – sports & good souls & will get a move on, a Mr Gurney an engineer & car mechanic – not a gentleman but a good soul & knows his job. Then a boy scout parson about 35 (not a child) a well meaning ass.

I will be able to tell you more on arriving at Ghent.

Everything here most peaceful & not a bit war-like. The sea full of submarines yesterday. Looked chilly work – poor beggars. Anchored just on watch like that.

Don’t worry about me. No kind of danger. These Red X men we met here have been doing our work for 6 weeks & told us a lot about it – you aren’t allowed any where near the actual fighting line & there are no Germans at Ghent tho’ they can come if they want It’s not under German control as I imagined which is splendid.

Goodbye vile pen.

Bless you all – yr loving Diddles[2]

References and Footnotes

  1. This being the judgment of another volunteer, Elsie Knocker; quoted here.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 4-5.

The Nursing Sister Ministers to an Angel, Blesses the Innocent, and Shepherds at a Cathedral; Rupert Brooke Lunches Well

Friday, September 25th.—In train back to Le Mans, 9 P.M. We landed our tired, stiff, painful convoy at St Nazaire at 8.45 yesterday evening. The M[edical].O[fficer].’s there told us our lot made 1800 that had come down since early morning; one load of bad cases took eight hours to unload. The officers all seemed depressed and overworked…

The R.T.O. found us an empty 1st class carriage in the station to sleep in, and the sergeant found us a candle and matches and put us to bed, after a sketchy wash provided by the buffet lady.

The din was continuous all night, so one didn’t sleep much, but had a decent rest (and a flea). The sergeant called us at 6.30, and we had another sketchy wash, and coffee and rolls and jam at the buffet. Then we found our way to the hospital ship Carisbrook Castle. The Army Sister in charge was most awfully kind, showed us over, made the steward turn on hot baths for us, provided notepaper, kept us to lunch — the nicest meal we’ve seen for weeks! The ship had 500 cases on board, and was taking 200 more — many wounded officers.

A captain of the ______ told me all his adventures from the moment he was hit till now. His regiment had nine officers killed and twenty-seven wounded. He said they knew things weren’t going well in that retreat, but they never knew how critical it was at the time.

After lunch, we took our grateful leave and went to the A[ssistant].D[irector].M[edical].S[services].’s office for our return warrants for the R[egimental].T[ransport].O[fficer]. (I have just had to sign it for fourteen, as senior officer of our two selves and twelve A[rmy].S[ervice].C[orps]. men taking two trucks of stores, who have no officer with them!) There we heard that ten of our No. — Sisters were ordered to Nantes for duty by the 4.28, so we hied back to the station to meet them…

While we were getting some coffee in the only patisserie in the dirty little town, seven burly officer boys of the Black Watch came in to buy cakes for the train, they said, to-night. They were nearly all second lieutenants, one captain, and were so excited at going up to the Front they couldn’t keep still. They asked us eagerly if we’d had many of “our regiment” wounded, and how many casualties were there, and how was the fighting going, and how long would the journey take. (The nearer you get to the Front the longer it takes, as trains are always having to shunt and go round loops to make room for supply trains.) They didn’t seem to have the dimmest idea what they’re in for, bless them. They are on this train in the next carriage…

We are now going to turn out the light, and hope for the best till they come to look at the warrant or turn us out to change.

I wonder if the Nursing Sister‘s blizzard of acronyms is intentional. After a few weeks of this, she is an Old Soldier, devoted to cause and comrades, and knowledegable in the opaque and frustrating ways of the higher-ups. But the boys of the Black Watch are: boys (innocent of experience), burly (innocent of hardship and hunger), restless (poorly suited for the newly static war that awaits them), hungry for information (unaware of how little rumor will avail them), and identified only by their ancient rank-names and their iconic regimental (think blue and green plaid kilts) and not by any of the numerals or abbreviations which will soon cling to them, as implacable and ubiquitous as the lice.

That was last night, a century back. This morning:

6 a.m.–At Sablé at 4 a.m. we were turned out for two hours; a wee open station. Mr.—- and our Civil Surgeon were most awfully decent to us: turned a sleepy official out of a room for us, and at 5 came and dug us out to have coffee and brioches with them. Then we went for a sunrise walk round the village, and were finally dragged into their carriage, as they thought it was more comfortable than ours. Just passed a big French ambulance train full from Compiègne.

At Le Mans the train broke up again, and everybody got out. We motor-ambulanced up to the Hospital with the three night Sisters coming off station duty. Matron wanted us to go to bed for the day; but we asked to come on after lunch, as they were busy and we weren’t overtired. I’m realising to-night that I have been on the train four nights out of six, and bed is bliss at this moment.

I was sent to No. — Stationary at the Jesuits’ College to take over the officers at one o’clock.

One was an angelic gunner boy with a septic leg and an undaunted smile, except when I dressed his leg and he said “Oh, damn!” The other bad one was wounded in the shoulder. They kept me busy till Sister came back, and then I went to my beloved Cathedral (and vergered[1] some Highland Tommies round it,—they had fits of awe and joy over it, and grieved over “Reems”). It is awfully hard to make these sick officers comfortable, with no sheets or pillowcases, no air ring-cushions, pricky shirts, thick cups without saucers, &c…

The heading in ‘ Le Matin’ to-night is;—


If it redoubles de violence much longer who will be left ?[2]


Rupert Brooke, meanwhile, was still living the strange in-between life of a uniformed man not yet called to full-time duty. He worked for the Navy during much of the day, and as soon as this coming Sunday (our Saturday) he will be off to camp. But today he had a leisurely lunch with Eddie Marsh and Robert Bridges, the still-relatively-newly-minted and generally underwhelming poet laureate.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Served as a lay assistant, i.e. acted as a guide.
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, 48-52.
  3. Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 463.

Rupert Brooke is Ready to Go; Ronald Tolkien Decides to Stay Put, But His Mind Goes Wandering Far

Today, a century back, in Nottinghamshire, Ronald Tolkien turned his back on the present and sought solace in medieval England. And from there he took a very small step over into somewhere else.

Tolkien was visiting his aunt, Jane Suffield, at the pleasingly mythological Phoenix Farm. Aunt Jane was, for the orphaned Ronald, an important connection to the deeply-felt Englishness–a specifically Midlands sort of Englishness–that came to him through his mother’s family. Although there is no detailed record of his life over the past few months, Tolkien was surely doing what all of his friends were doing, namely mulling over whether to remain on the pre-August 4th course of his life–and return to Oxford for a third year, with marriage to Edith as soon as it could be arranged–or to join the army. He had recently made up his mind, and during this stay he told his aunt that he would finish his studies at Oxford and then seek a commission in the summer of 1915. (This was not an uncommon decision: focused on the war as this project is, we naturally see a preponderance of early-enlisters, but many students chose to finish their schooling before joining up.)

Tolkien was doing a little light reading, too, today–in Old English, naturally. Specifically the poetic homily Christ, one of four works attributed to the probably-ninth-century poet Cynewulf. The opening lines of the poem struck Tolkien’s fancy, sparking a poem of his own… and lo, this spark shall catch and smoulder and in time blaze into an entire world.

Cynewulf’s poem begins “Éala Éarendel engla beorhtast/ofer middangeard monnum sended,” or “Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, sent over Middle-Earth to men.” The name seized Tolkien’s imagination–he was sensitive to the sounds of language the way a precocious composer is sensitive to pitch and rhythm–and, putting his hand upon it, he pocketed it. He gave the euphonious “angel” a new setting, and new life. I think we can fairly use two stanzas here, and hope that the lords of Tolkien’s estate, seated ever-watchful upon Oiolossë, their lawyers cock-eared beside them, desist from legal action:

Éarendel sprang up from the Ocean’s cup
In the gloom of the mid-world’s rim;
From the door of Night as a ray of light
Leapt over the twilight brim,
And launching his bark like a silver spark
From the golden-fading sand
Down the sunlit breath of Day’s fiery Death
He sped from Westerland.
He threaded his path o’er the aftermath
Of the glory of the Sun,
Went wandering far past many a star
In his gleaming galleon.
On the gathering tide of darkness ride
The argosies of the sky,
And spangle the night with their sails of light
As the evening star goes by.
So Tolkien has taken from the original poem angelic figure–John the Baptist as harbinger of Christ in Cynewulf’s allegory–and re-written him as the hero of a sort of astronomical myth, associating Earendel with the morning star (i.e. Venus). But he’s not actually star, as it soon becomes clear, but a man of some sort–a hero of romance whose vessel produces the radiance of a star.[1] Earendel, one of a number of old Germanic names which Tolkien moved unchanged into his invented world and its highly detailed languages, will eventually take his place in a fully-developed mythology.
So it’s pretty much fair to say that today, a century back, marked the very beginning of the whole story of Éa, Tolkien’s invented world. As with the name “Earendel,” the northern Medieval idea of “Middle Earth” was eventually “translated” into something new. Tolkien often spoke of “discovering” his imaginative inventions, and liked to think of his English poems as translations from the Elvish languages he was to spend decades developing. The process began here, as far as we can tell, with the transmutation of this little snatch of Old English into a fragment of myth. The first fragment, around and into which so many later stories will be woven.

It would be years before the story of the Elves was fleshed out, and more than two decades before any holes in the ground were peopled by hobbits. Nor would Earendel ever play a large role in Tolkien’s best known writings. Yet he remained central to the mythos, the figure whose actions unite the epic First Age of the world with the heroic/romantic later times in which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set. So this was the trickling spring at the source, the beginning of surely the fullest and most popular invented sheltering-place from the cruelty and difficulty of the twentieth century. And it stayed in the story: in one of the darkest moments of the history of Middle Earth, when Frodo is about to be slain by the demon-spider Shelob, he saves himself with the light of Earendil’s star, crying out an Elvish translation of that first line of Cynewulf’s: Aiya Earendil Elenion Ancalima!

The only difference is that here the engla, angel, has become elen, a star–which is interesting; something to come back to and weave into messy much-peopled stories of our own. There will be opportunities, and soon, to return to the idea of angels, of stars, and of stress-salving fantasies.

As for the verse itself, well–it is of less than enormous interest. The “gleaming gall-e-on” but is pretty dreadful. Still, it’s worth noting that this “light” verse–the galloping anapests, the quick and simple rhymes–are less mannered than much of Tolkien’s later poetry, which even many of his most convinced admirers think little of. He will choose more “appropriate” poetic forms for serious subject matter, later on, with some success. But these more grave productions have in many ways less felicity than the better bits of this spontaneous, only-weighty-in-retrospect juvenalia.

The images that the young Tolkien chooses–“the Haven of the Sun,/Whose white gates gleam in the coming beam/Of the mighty silver one,”and the sub-Tennysonian pseudo medieval diction that takes over later in the six-stanza poem–the “shimmering oars” and “blazing shores” of the “argent-orbéd bark”–do fit this scampering, musical, dreamy doggerel well. They will remain, in large part, amidst the more formal cadences of much of his later verse, which, er, can become them ill.

But we’re getting far, far ahead of ourselves. Here’s the last stanza of the poem, as it was written today, a century back:
Then he glimmering passed to the starless vast
As an isléd lamp at sea,
And beyond the ken of mortal men
Set his lonely errantry,
Tracking the Sun in his galleon
And voyaging the skies
Till his splendour was shorn by the birth of morn
And he died with the dawn in his eyes.[2]

Tolkien tinkered with the poem later, and rewrote much of the first stanza. Middle Earth will remain a place where good is good and evil is evil, where the “Translations From the Elvish” that we read as The Lord of the Rings retain a stately and archaic prose style and evince much the same moral code of any Victorianized Medieval Romance (if, in the end, a gentler and more-sincerely-Christian-than-most one).

And yet conspicuous among the changes the post-1914 Tolkien made to this poem was the abandonment of one of the most conspicuously heroic/romantic terms: “glory,” in the second line of the second stanza, became the more specifically-radiant “splendour.” What are we to make of this?

Well, not much, and not yet. One canceled “glory” would be a hideously (and hilariously) precarious foothold for a critical assault on Tolkien’s verse–the telling changes wrought to his sensibility by the war, etc. Young Ronald will be going up to Oxford in a week or so, and not coming down until summer. And after that, of course, further down–all the way down into the flooded trenches of the Somme. By then we’ll have more to look at, and to think about.

Courage for our friends in the trenches, reader. But be forewarned: not all of them will feel driven to write about their war experiences. Directly about their war experiences, that is.


It’s jarring to leave a backward-looking, college-bound, God-fearing Oxford introvert for a dashing, modern, self-dramatizing, doubting, self-loathing Cambridge exhibitionist–but then the seeking out of such mildly thrilling jars is prerequisitional, here. Juxtaposition!

Rupert Brooke wrote to his good friend Jacques Raverat today, a century back, catching him up on his own path to war. Raverat was a Frenchman, and so Brooke has cause to explain things clearly, without much of the coy cleverness or aggressive self-deprecation that clog his letters to Englishwomen and Englishmen, respectively.

I haven’t precisely joined the Army: but I’ve joined the Navy–a more English thing to do, I think…

It seemed it was going to be a serious and long business: and I felt that if we were going to turn into a military nation, and all the young men go in, I should be among them. Also I had curiosity. So I put my name down fro a commission through Cambridge and as a second avenue, joined an O.T.C. here called the Inns of Court: composed of lawyers. I drilled a time with them. Then Winston offered me a commission with the Naval Division. So here I am, a Sub-lieutenant R.N.V.R., if you please–for land service…

We’re promised to serve by January: but as a matter of fact–though this is a secret–we may go abroad any minute…

For (this is a deadly secret) if there’s an attempt to raid Dunkirk, Calais, Havre, etc., we–the R.N.D.–will be thrown across to hold it, at any moment. So Winston says.[3]

“Winston,” of course, is Winston Churchill. Brooke has access to Churchill through Eddie Marsh, Brooke’s friend and de facto literary agent and Churchill’s private secretary. These are tip-top rumors, here, and quite accurate. As an officer and a gentleman, Brooke should know better than to send such information across the channel… but then again spy paranoia should be beneath a high-flying intellectual…

There is, here, some poetic (political?) justice in Brooke riding Churchill’s coattails. I’ll take up this point in October, but quickly, here: it’s striking to see the dashing, self-advertising, talented, loved-by-many-loathed-by-many-as-well poet begin his military dabbling in a naval/land force that Churchill, the dashing, self-advertising, talented, loved-by-many-loathed-by-many-as-well politician dabbling in military strategy, hopes to “throw across” the channel at any minute. Doubtless to glory–how splendid!

References and Footnotes

  1. He will later become "greatest of mariners" rather than an angel, and his marriage to Elwing--like Earendel a descendent of both elves and men, but also of Melian the Maia, a "power" or semi-god/angelic being--will place them at the genealogical crossroads of the mythology of Middle Earth. Their children are Elros and Elrond, who lead men and elves into the later ages of the world... And the "radiance" of Earendel's ship will turn out to be the last of the three Silmarils, unearthly jewels the lust for which tears apart the early generations of the elves and pits them against Morgoth, fallen angel and enemy of good... But here we stray a little from the quest before us...
  2. Book of Lost Tales II, 265-9. See also Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 45-7.
  3. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 618-20.

Wilfred Owen is Strikingly Healthy, The Nursing Sister Sees Stars, and Billy Congeve Sees His Way to the Staff

Owen, 9-23-14aWilfred Owen wrote a long letter to his brother Harold, today, a century back. It begins with a chatty update about the Léger family and proceeds to describe Owen’s new situation in Bordeaux. While looking for teaching work, Owen seems to have found a great deal of time to wander about and observe the bustling life of the French pseudo-capital.

His letters really do sound like this, an affected account of the bustling life in the south at odds with our stolid accounts of hustling death in the north.

And the war would still appear to be far from his mind were it not for Owen’s strange decision to visit a temporary and disastrously under-equipped hospital and observe there a number of quite horrifying operations. He’s an English teacher and an aspiring poet, not a medical student–why would he do this?

Well, he seems to believe that witnessing the gore and pain of the operating theater would be a useful sort of test. He wrote frankly that “I was not much upset by the morning at the hospital; and this is a striking proof of my health.” Which is a tellingly blunt way to assert one’s good health to one’s little brother.

A little strange, a little morbid (it will get morbid-er–stay tuned for illustrated letters), and yet broadly of a piece with what so many of his peers were worrying about. More honest, even, than most: he isn’t writing about honor or duty, but thinking about bullets and flesh and bone. There is perhaps one veil here, rather than two. Owen is preoccupied with the question of how he would hold up should he come face to face with the horrors of war.[1]


We’ll discuss the seamiest sides of army nepotism in greater detail at some other point, but Billy Congreve, although a thoroughly traditional-pattern young regular officer and the son of a serving general, was unquestionably brave and, judging from his diary, neither a deep thinker nor a dim bulb. A promising officer. So we don’t have to look extremely askance at the fact that two days ago, only a few weeks into his first war, he was plucked from the front lines to serve as ADC to a divisional general.

It’s The Staff for young Billy, an excellent opportunity for an ambitious officer (who could not, of course, share the later, New Army perception of the Staff as an out-of-touch and out-of-harm’s-way clutch of hapless or maleficent butchers).

“It was horrid my leaving them all, just as the battalion was off to the trenches, but the offer was too good to lose.” (This is, by the way, a fairly early reference-as-such to “the trenches.”) As an Aide-de-Camp Congreve’s job “isn’t very complicated,” comprising administrative responsibilities for the hundred or so “servants, grooms, clerks, etc.” attached to Divisional HQ , as well as serving as a mess officer.

23rd September

The War goes well, or rather the battle all along our lines. We hold the Germans in spite of desperate attacks on their part. Generally these take place in the evening, and their shell fire is more or less continuous and is marvellously accurate and deadly. Each evening brings its attack on a different part of the line. These attacks are always beaten off with huge losses and are never made in great force…

Congreve then passes on his general’s complaints about coordinating with the French, who are portrayed as constantly asking for support and then failing to meet their own promises of engagement. He is surely unaware of how slowly and unwillingly Sir John French had aided his eponymous allies in the dark days of late August (this only became completely clear after the war) but there is some incurious chauvinism here in his confident assertion that the French effort has been insufficient.

Another unfortunate element of today’s entry is his report on the rounding up of spies: “Altogether in the last ten days we have caught and shot sixty spies, most of them bribed peasants.”

The widespread assumption that the French countryside was rife with spies seems to have been in part an irrational assumption drawn from the superior accuracy of German artillery, a witch hunt deriving from the “uncanny [German] knowledge of what goes on this side of the river” which “certainly must be largely due to spies.” This is bad logic; but it is also something approaching necromantic thinking, in which malevolent explanations are sought for events that should be viewed as coincidence or aberration, and the witches are swiftly burnt.[2]

There probably were a few spies, but there were surely many innocent people executed for each real spy apprehended. Those whose houses or livestock had escaped destruction were suspected, and if they were found to have large amounts of money they were believed to be guilty. This sounds more like Stalinism in action (which, come to think of it, is a cold-blooded, routinized, irreligious, and updated version of the witch trials to which I have just bewitchingly alluded) than military justice.

To match the frightening number of sixty (is the “we?” the BEF or only the 3rd division?) there is only one very unlikely and second-hand anecdote about a man suspected because of his surviving livestock and then found to have a German-mit-telephone secreted in his basement. Congreve can be seen as reflecting the common views of this moment of the war, and we will find even more noticeably curious and officially disillusioned officers willing to pass on spooky anecdotes of disappearing visitors or suspicious civilian activities believed to constitute signaling to Germans.

This is the ugly side of the magical thinking of wartime. Heroes believe they cannot be hit, every man cuts deals with his deity during a bombardment… and when accurate shelling takes a constant toll it must have a sinister explanation, so peasants become the slaughtered scapegoats of the exhausted soldiers.[3]

There was a lot to answer for, after all, and no time, yet, for history to explain how the effects of mass armies, modern artillery, outdated tactics, and foolish strategic doctrine lead to so many good men being done to death by shells falling from the clear and uncaused sky.

Since 13th September, 4,500 wounded men have passed through here alone, of whom about 1,600 are of the 3rd Division. All but the life and death cases are sent straight by train to base–changed again now from St. Nazaire to Le Havre.[4]


Working to succor and save those thousands, accompanying them on the train from Le Mans to the port of St. Nazaire (which, according to Billy Congreve but unbeknownst to her, will no longer be the main British base), the Nursing Sister is keeping unusual hours. She takes advantage of this to set the daily misery of war into a somewhat ominously eternal frame.

Wednesday, September 23rd.—Have been helping in the wards at No. — to-day. The Sisters and orderlies there have all about twice what they can get through—the big dressings are so appalling and new cases have been coming in—all stretcher cases. As soon as they begin to recover at all they are sent down to the base to make room for worse ones off the trains. Tomorrow I am on station duty again—possibly for another train. There is a rumour that three British cruisers have been sunk by a submarine–it can’t be true.

I don’t see why this battle along the French frontier should ever come to an end, at any rate till both armies are exhausted, and decide to go to bed. The men say we can’t spot their guns—they are too well hidden in these concrete entrenchments.

The weather is absolutely glorious all day, and the stars all night. Orion, with his shining bodyguard, from Sirius to Capella, is blazing every morning at 4.[5]

The rumor about the cruisers is indeed true, the battle won’t (indeed) come to an end until the armies are exhausted, and, strangely, the stars still shine.

References and Footnotes

  1. The letter is held at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin; the facsimile is from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Documentary Series, Vol 18, 208.
  2. The ur-text, as with so many subjects of this blog, is Fussell, in this case the first section of the Myth, Ritual, and Romance chapter. There Fussell collects a number of examples of the "folk espionage" that seeks to explain accurate German fire, including secret codes in plowing patterns, hitching patterns, laundry, robotic windmills, and, as in Congreve's story below, concealed telephonists. But Fussell doesn't seem to have read Congreve, so bully for me. See The Great War and Modern Memory, 114-25.
  3. Yes: magical thinking, witch hysteria, Stalinism, and the theology of atonement--but definitely not any metaphorical overdrive.
  4. Armageddon Road, 32-35.
  5. Diary of a Nursing Sister, 45-6.

Exhaustion and Relief for John Lucy and the Nursing Sister

John Lucy and the 2/Royal Irish Rifles

were relieved, and what a relief, on the 22nd of September, and we went back into billets out of range of the enemy guns. On the way we crossed over the main bridge out of Vailly, which had been recently rebuilt… we hurried over in small parties between the intervals of the explosions made by large regularly arriving shells, our nostrils offended by the sickly, sweet smell of the bodies of rotting horses, which were strewn all about the place, and happily we marched from the sounds and sights of warfare, southwards into fair country.

A dull rattling sound in the distance behind us, exactly like the sound of a slow-moving country cart on a rough road, told us that the rapid fire of British musketry had broken out again on the heights we had left. We wished the boys luck and forgot them.

Those of us who still live will remember our first halt on the roadside clear of the battle; how depleted company looked at depleted company; how eased and grateful we all felt at the relief from our first hard experience of modern war… our ghost-like faces dirty white with the shell-pulverized chalk of the Aisne heights; our stiffness of limb, and our lousiness; yet in spite of it all, and though we had suffered heavy losses and felt a bit battered, our old spirit lived…[1]



The Nursing Sister has a similar story today, a century back, of hard work, suffering, and blissful rest:

Tuesday, September 22nd—Got back to Le Mans at 2 A.M.—motor-ambulanced up to the hospital, where an orderly made lovely beds for us on stretchers, with brown blankets and pillows, in the theatre, and labelled the door “Operation,” in case any one should disturb us. At 6 we went to our respective diggings for a wash and breakfast, and reported to Matron at 8. We have been two days and two nights in our clothes: food where, when, and what one could get; one wash only on a station platform at a tap which a sergeant kindly pressed for me while I washed! one cleaning of teeth in the dark on the line between trucks. They have no water on trains or at stations, except on the engine, which makes tea in cans for you for the men when it stops.

We are to rest to-day, to be ready for another train to-night if necessary. The line from the front to Rouen — where there are two General Hospitals — is cut; hence this appalling overcrowding at our base. When we got back this morning, nine of those we took off the trains on Sunday afternoon had died here, and one before he reached the hospital—three of tetanus. I haven’t heard how many at the other hospital at the Jesuit school—tetanus there too. Some of the amputations die of septic absorption and shock, and you wouldn’t wonder if you saw them. I went to the 9 o’clock Choral High Mass this morning at that glorious and beautiful Cathedral—all gorgeous old glass and white and grey stone, slender Gothic and fat Norman. It was very fine and comforting.

The sick officers are frightfully pleased to see ‘The Times,’ no matter how old; so are we. I’ve asked M. to collect their 1/2 d.[half-pence, or ha’penny] picture daily papers once a week for the men.[2]

References and Footnotes

  1. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 196-7.
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, 44-5.

Vera Brittain and Robert Graves Report on German Vandalism; The Nursing Sister Works Alongside Phillip Maddison

Monday September 21st, Byfleet

I arrived down to hear the tragic news that Rheims Cathedral has been shelled and burnt by the Germans – an act of Vandalism more terrible than any they have yet committed in the War. The French, hoping thereby to ensure its safety, turned it into a hospital for wounded Germans, and flew above it the Red Cross flag, but even this act of mercy towards their own countrymen could not deter these modern Huns from their fever of destruction. The whole of Europe mourns this wanton devastation of its treasure, and the feeling roused by it strengthens the repulsion felt in neutral countries towards German methods of warfare. In Italy the desire for war against her former allies is daily growing more intense…[1]

Notre-Dame de Rheims was indeed shelled on the nineteenth:Shell_Explosion_Cathedral_at_Rheims

The shells ignited scaffolding and the fire spread to the roof, much of which collapsed. Although the damage was not as bad as it was made out to be (the cathedral would be damaged further later in the war), the war had perhaps its most visible casualty so far, a boon for propagandists, including ambitious protophotoshopping colorists:_000_Rs_Cathedrale_pendant_l_incendie_CL_800

Never mind the shooting of civilians, the allegations of abuse of the white flag, the torching of the library of Louvain, or the coming innovations in chemical warfare–the brutes have shelled a cathedral. Vera Brittain is echoing the sentiments of her source texts–a handful of daily papers that have become something close to unofficial publishing arms of the government–but then again she is a confirmed elitist.

Haven’t the Germans (and the French) destroyed thousands of ordinary homes? Even assuming that compensation is pending (pending compensation is, believe it or not, a successfully-pulled-off Big Theme of Ralph Mottram’s Spanish Farm Trilogy, on which more in a few years), isn’t the material and moral suffering of the homeless and displaced a greater loss than damage to an architectural treasure? But weren’t all those entrenched farmyards and loop-holed or shattered houses necessary sacrifices to the battle at hand?

I don’t mean to make light of the destruction of great art–Rheims is one of the handful of masterpieces of high Gothic architecture, and at other times efforts were made, even in this war, to protect the common cultural patrimony. But Rheims was hard by the fighting, and cathedrals are tall buildings. Robert Graves has a (tall?) story that shows the act in a somewhat different light:

 Perhaps my family’s most outstanding military feat was a German uncle’s… “One day… my divisional general called for me. ‘Gunner-Lieutenant von Ranke, I understand you are a Lutheran, not a Roman Catholic?’ I admitted this was so. Then he said: ‘I have a very disagreeable service for you to perform, Lieutenant. Those misbegotten French are using the cathedral for an observation post. They think they can get away with it because it’s Rheims Cathedral, but they have our trenches taped from there. I call upon you to dislodge them.’ I fired only two rounds, and down came the pinnacle and the Frenchmen with it. A very neat bit of shooting. I felt proud to have limited the damage like that. Really, you must take a look at it.”[2]

This may not have happened, and it may have happened later–but it’s rather tempting to associate it with the photo above.


And now to the Nursing Sister:

Monday, September 21st—In train on way back to Le Mans from St Nazaire. We did the journey in twelve hours, and arrived at 9 this morning, which was very good, considering the congestion on the line. In the middle of the night we pulled up alongside an immense troop train, taking a whole Brigade of [the] D[uke] of Cornwall’s L[ight] I[nfantry] up to the front, such a contrast to our load coming away from the front. Our lot will be a long time getting to bed; the Medical Officers at St N. told us there were already two trains in, and no beds left on hospitals or ships, and 1300 more expected to-day; four died in one of the trains: ours were pretty well, after the indescribable filth and fug of the train all night; it was not an ambulance train, but trucks and ordinary carriages. The men say there are hardly any officers left in many regiments. There has never been this kind of rush to be coped with anywhere, but the Germans must be having worse. We had thirteen German prisoners tacked on to us with a guard of the London Scottish, the first Territorials to come out, bursting with health and pride and keenness. They are not in the fighting line yet, but are used as escorts for the G.P. among other jobs.

So here’s a neat thing: if we are willing to take so broad a view of the Great War that personal history and fictionalized history (which, let’s be clear, is fiction and not history, however history-flavored: the facts have been removed, mixed and re-emplotted) can, rather than passing like trains in the night, connect neatly at some ficto-historical union station, then we may have had a sighting, today, of the almost-Henry-Williamson-but-fictional Phillip Maddison by the anonymous-but-real Nursing Sister.

Most of the writers who fictionalize or novelize their experiences either put their alter egos in their own battalion and change the names or–most often–go with the quaint 19th-century convention of putting in blanks instead of names and numbers (the Nursing Sister, published during wartime, presumably does this in compliance with military censorship, but post-war memoirs were not restricted in this way). Or they make up a plausible, or risibly faux-plausible, place name and derive a false unit name from it. (I’m very much looking forward, actually, to eventually dazzling the world with my erudition in this matter–I will someday post a master-list of all of the made-up battalion names across dozens of books… it will be epoch-making.)

Williamson, for reasons of his own, chose to put the boy-so-much-like-himself into a different unit. It’s still fictionalized–he calls the London Scottish the “London Highlanders”–but in transposing his own subjective experience Williamson followed the official records of the battalion, and thus had to invent new experiences to suit his character. So Phillips is not guarding prisoners, in this case, but doing one of those “other jobs:”

At the end of the week, just as they were getting into the way of handling shells, they were sent to another siding, to unload French wounded who had come down from the Aisne, and carry them on stretchers to horse ambulances. They lay on straw in the familiar grey trucks, some groaning, others deathly still. The stench was sickening; the straw was wet with urine and faeces; flies crawled on open wounds which ran with pus, or were slippery with twisting maggots.[3]

Realistic fiction. But we should get back to reality, and the Nursing Sister’s descriptions of the wounded. She is more knowledgeable but far more decorous, her craft and position imparting a literary disadvantage, if we crave realism and its (presumed) accompanying historical value–but then again she is an experienced nurse, and can and must take the terrible wounds in stride. Phillip is an inexperienced and sensitive boy.

I realize that it may be disorienting to rock back and forth from fiction to diary to memoir, especially when dealing with something as horrifying as these wounded men–but the thickening of the description should be rewarding. Sister Luard (if it is indeed she) reports a thing that happened, this very day, a century back, yet she also prefigures the horror at the secret heart of another war’s angry masterpiece: Snowden’s wounding in Catch-22.

One of the men on our train had had his shoulder laid open for six inches by a shell, where he couldn’t see the wound. He asked me if it was a bullet wound! He himself thought it was too large for that, and might be shrapnel! He hadn’t mentioned it all night.

We had some dressings to be done again this morning, and then left them in charge of the M.O. and two orderlies, and went to report ourselves to the A.D.M.S. and get a warrant for the return journey. We shall get in to Le Mans somewhere about midnight. I’m not a bit tired, strange to say; we got a few rests in the night, but couldn’t sleep.[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 110-11.
  2. Graves, Good-Bye to All That, 68-9.
  3. Williamson, How Dear is Life, 218-9.
  4. Diary of a Nursing Sister, 42-44.