Before we begin the main business of the day–Francis Grenfell in the defense of Messines and Phillip Maddison’s harrowing first day of combat just a few miles to the north–let’s go fairly quickly through a few of our other regulars. We have some unfinished business, a poem, a letter, and a report from an English Hallowe’en.
Edward Thomas wrote to Robert Frost today, praising North of Boston and hoping that they would soon spend time together. He cannot conceal, even with his usual gentle wit, the increasing pressure he is feeling to make the decision. But first he soothes his brilliant and downcast friend:
I imagine that few writers so early become assured of the understanding and admiration of such a variety of readers. But also I don’t imagine that because a man has reasonable ground for some contentment at times, therefore he ought to be content at times, though he probably will be.
I didn’t suspect all this wisdom when I began to write or I would have waited…
I have just made myself almost ill with thinking hard for an hour,—going up to my study and sitting there,—that I ought to enlist next week in town. Now I am so weak I wouldn’t show anything but my ear to any doctor. I am just going to do that. I go on writing, unlike all the patriots, or rather as the patriots feel they oughtn’t to.
Another poet just beginning to think he might really be drawn to enlist is Wilfred Owen. But not quite yet, lord. Today, in fact, a century back, he wrote a poem. It’s not a good poem–a melodramatic pastiche of the French “Decadent” poetry he had been imbibing with Tailhade–but I would be remiss in not mentioning a dated composition by a major-war-poet-to-be. So today came “Long Ages Past,” which contains a cliched image–the “pallor” of a “brow”–that will sound better, in the future, when transferred from a “mad slave in a Persian palace” to the long-suffering Tommy.
And Vera Brittain had a merry dinner party this evening, a century back. Actually, I am cherry-picking: she also reveals that the intimidating Miss Lorimer has just led a sharp and precise seminar, the morning after learning of her brother’s death. So the war’s tentacles do indeed reach Oxford. But hardly, yet:
We… were extremely noisy & merry. As we were all freshers no one was shy & everyone actually ate as much as they could possibly want. We had an apple on a string, which they bit at till Miss Bedford finally won the competition with the largest bite, & then after everyone had more or less finished eating we put out the lights, sat in front of the fire & roasted chestnuts. We were far too merry to be in the mood for ghost stories…
…[Later] we all decided to have a wish & to make an incantation of it, throwing three ash leaves into the fire as we did it, which is a Hallow E’en rite. We chose for our wish “May the Lorie [Miss Lorimer] love us all”, which had a particularly harmonious sound &: was very appropriate for so many Classical people. We continued these stories & chestnuts & incantations till long past 11:00, thereby distinctly contravening the College rules. Finally Miss Hayes Robinson entered in a red dressing-gown & curling-pins, & told us we were keeping the whole college awake & that incidentally we were above her room. She did not however seem at all angry…
From Vera Brittain’s Somerville College Diary to Dorothie Feilding‘s letter, begun yesterday but continued today, from Furnes, Belgium. A different sort of evening indeed:
Last night we turned in at 11pm & tumed out at 11.10pm! Some wounded out Nieuport way in a village called Ramscapelle which was burning & the Germans & Belgians & Spahis & black men were having a house to house fight. The Germans eventually driven back. The wounded were carried back to a little farm & kept pouring in. The military doctor was a fool & Munro & I had to dress several very bad fractures by the light of one candle as no big light was allowed & we had to bring ambulances up in the dark as we always do at night for the last 5 miles or so. It was an extraordinary sight in there in the half light, black men & white men & tired out soldiers all lying about on the straw poor devils. They are all so plucky…
And then a vivid reminder of the “real time” aspect of letter-writing:
We got back about 2am. It is now Saturday & I am writing this sitting on an anvil in a forge while they are soldering a spare part onto my car… I can’t think what the roads will be like in another month also when the real bad weather sets in – oo-er! A real hot bit of horseshoe just flown off the other anvil & missed by mebby an inch. I shall move further.
Damn – this box is covered in nails & most uncomfortable to the sit upon.
Looking back at this time, she elaborates on her first impressions of Ramscapelle under fire:
Of what was once a prosperous little country village there remain roofless homesteads & desolate gardens, with personal treasures & children’s toys trampled under foot. Artillery fire had set the village alight. It was dark & the flames were shooting up into the night, licking & fondling the crumbling ruins…
So far we should be glad that Lady Feilding’s letters survived: this is a pretty good example of how to transmute authentic experience into cliche. (Where have I read about or seen the local newspaper reporter who carried charred dolls around to plant and photograph at the scene of house-fires?) And what’s with the eroticized fire? Vergil this ain’t. The cliches continue on into our discomfiture:
The village was lit up almost like day, each roof detached against the glare. I could see the whole thing imprinted on my mind as vividly as if I had been a silent witness of the attack. The medley of shouting men, or rather savages, with their fezs & blue tunics, charging like wild beasts, their bayonets running with blood & glinting in the flame light…
This is a good counterpoint, actually, to our coming use of Henry Williamson’s fictional First Ypres: if Feilding can, writing not all that long after the events, describe something she actually saw in such a melodramatic and inaccurate manner, well–then all we’d need is convincing, value-added depictions of fictionalized battle to call into doubt (or problematize, if you’re that sort) our assumptions about the historical priority of eye-witness account.
And, of course, a royal vision:
Next morning, as I was coming home, having slipped out to mass early, I saw the Grande Place, here at Fumes packed with people & the King of the Belgians passing in review the remains of the blue tuniced Algerians who had so gallantly stormed Ramscapelle the night before… They stood there in the dull grey morning light, so spick & span & still while the King walked down the lines. Every face was so grave & quiet it made the night’s work seem very far away now & I passed on my way, wondering.
So. Two of our young men are in the fighting around Messines. First, the real one, beginning with John Buchan‘s commentary:
Saturday, 31st October, was the crisis of the battle. It saw the menace to the Salient itself repelled by one of the most heroic exploits in our record, but it also saw the end of Messines. The events of that day are best told in an extract from Francis‘s diary.
“After an anxious night, in which I did not sleep at all, we stood to arms, and were ready for the attack which came in due course at daybreak. At about five a.m., quite close to us, I heard horns blowing and German words of command and cheering, and I knew that the Germans had attacked the Indians on our right…
“Suddenly, about twenty yards to our rear at daybreak there was a rush of men from some houses. To my utter astonishment they appeared to be Germans. Apparently the enemy had done what we thought he would do during the night : he had got round my extreme left, and unfortunately, instead of attacking me he had attacked the troops on my left, who had given way. The Germans were therefore round us at a distance of 100 yards. They took a house, ran up to the top storeys and fired straight into my trench. Poor Payne-Gallwey, who had only joined two nights before and was in action for the first time, was shot in the head from behind and killed. Reynolds was shot through the head, and several more were wounded… heavy fire was directed on our trench, not only from the rear but also from the left flank, where the Germans had brought up a machine gun. Luckily the bullets went a bit high. I ordered the men to retire from the right and crawl out of the trench to the houses that were on their right in the brickfield…
“I now waited in a ruined house in the rear of the first barricade, and am bound to say I felt in a quandary as to what to do. I felt very guilty at leaving my trench, but at the same time I felt it was useless to hold it… Suddenly I heard a machine gun still firing at the extreme end of our old trench. It had been left behind, so I left the squadron at the house and went back along the trench until I reached the gun, where I found Corporal Seaton with another man in action, the Germans being from 20 to 40 yards off. I told him I thought he had better retire, and that I would help him out with his gun ; but he said that as the man with him was wounded, and something had gone wrong with the gun, he thought it best to leave it behind and completely disable it. He retired along the trench. I remained there awhile, firing at Germans with my revolver. My firing was not very steady, and although I could see Germans lying down quite close I could not take careful aim, as I was being shot at from front, flank, and rear. I picked up one or two rifles to fire with, but they jammed. I then realized that this was no place for the squadron leader, so crawled along the trench and rejoined my squadron near the ruined house.
“Here I received orders to hang on, and was told that ‘ C ‘ Squadron, under Major Abadie, had been ordered to attack the house in our rear with the bayonet. I was again in a dilemma what to do, but pulled myself together, hoping I should be inspired to do the right thing. The only inspiration I got was a sort of feeling within me to go back and hold my trench, so I assembled the squadron and told Mather Jackson and Frank Crossley that I proposed to reoccupy the trench. They thought this might be difficult, as the Germans seemed to have got into the end of it. However, feeling that it was the right thing to do, and confident that we should get from traverse to traverse as quickly as the Germans, and that I could fire in front quicker with my revolver than they could with their rifles, we went back to the trench and reached the extreme end of it. After being there a few moments the officers reported that we were being shot at from front and rear. I ordered them to tell the odd numbers to fire to the front and the even numbers to fire to the rear and to hang on…
This long, shapeless point-by-point narrative may be very boring to the tactically disinclined, and for that I apologize. I have two reasons for including it. First, it does give a relatively good sense of how things happened, on the tactical level: slowly, and uncertainly. It’s very close to the ideal “chronicle” form of pre-processed, unemplotted history.
As a story it’s badly shaped, but it does let the fight unfold. Later in the war attacks will have to succeed or fail much more quickly, because the response of artillery will make the open ground–or, indeed, houses and most other sorts of above-ground cover–impossible to occupy or traverse. But for now, a junior officer faced with superior forces must both send slow, foot-speed messages back to his commander and guess as to the best course of action. The bias, clearly, is always toward the dangerous, the courageous, and the staying-put. To retreat without good reason or explicit orders would be dangerous to one’s reputation–a leaning which got a lot of people killed but also prevented some enemy advances.
The second thing to take away from this narrative is Grenfell’s artlessness. I’ve written that Francis, like his brother Rivy, is neither a great brain or a prose stylist of any note. If he were, he might conceal the matter of his own dumb courage. But he doesn’t: again and again he proposes to go back into an area that standard tactics would see as untenable, and to lead from the front. Strategy is complicated, tactics usually isn’t, and Grenfell here is doing a good job in a, yes, desperate situation.
He goes forward to save a man–check. He continues firing, but realizes that popping off a pistol at men under cover is doing no good, and that a squadron commander should not be alone in the front–check. He wonders again and again how to adapt his basic instructions to the changing nature of combat… perhaps a more reflective man would be paralyzed by indecision, by the fact that lives depend upon a choice he must make with very imperfect information. Going confidently with your gut is in matters of strategy is a great way to blunder and lose wars, yes–but it’s useful here.
Were an artful novelist to suddenly throw up a sporting analogy before mortal disaster struck we might suspect insidious craft. But Grenfell is just writing down his remembered experiences:
We were now being very heavily shelled by coal-boxes, and it really seemed as hot as any one could wish for. There seemed to be nothing in the air but shells, and the bursting of the coal-boxes made a most terrific noise. Personally, I had the feeling which I have had before, the same as one gets at the start of a steeplechase, when the starter says “Off!” At this moment a shell pitched right into the middle of my squadron and blew it to the winds. Several of the men were very badly wounded especially Corporal Newman, to whom I gave some morphia. I myself was hit through the leg, and felt I could not move. Luckily for me Mather Jackson and another man took hold of me and carried me back…
“We were taken to a convent [in Bailleul], and my stretcher was put down, curiously enough, alongside Basil Blackwood and Jack Wodehouse. Basil Blackwood and I, I have since heard, were the only two to escape that day from Messines.
This second wound was a deep cut in his thigh, and Francis was evacuated to England and then sent to Dublin to recuperate. He would later report that “The nurses are quite splendid. The surgeon has done our dressings much better than anything before and made us all comfortable. In addition to this every one in Ireland has been to see us. Our room is so thick with flowers it is hard to breathe…”
From Messines we must now go north to Wytschaete to continue a day that was “one of the bloodiest and–for the British–most dangerous of the battle.”
After turning out around midnight and the being sent back to sleep, the London Highlanders assembled in the streets of St. Eloi. They filled their water bottles and were issued a new type of rifle ammunition, in five-bullet clips. The coming ordeal occupies about thirty pages of Williamson’s book, and it represents, in a way, the moment of discovery that the sequence of novels–and we’re around a thousand pages in, at this point–has been leading to.
Phillip is immature, prone to unthinking escapades and embarrassing mistakes; he is earnest and desperate for approval, but he will quickly ruin relationships with panicked social errors. He is fearful, and he blames his weaknesses on his distant and disapproving father (as his model and creator, Williamson, did on his). He is too inward, too sensitive, and too foolish to see how he needs to tone down his personality and attend to pseudo-stoic male norms if he is to fit in with his fellow soldiers. His months in camp since the beginning of the war have been difficult–but all that will hardly matter once he and his comrades have had their baptism of fire. Right?!?
Of all of our protagonists, fictional and historical, Phillip Maddison is perhaps the most worried about his own courage, and thus his early exposure to the full destructiveness of war (only a handful of Territorial or New Army battalions were introduced like this, directly into a major battle) is a thing for the identifying reader to worry about. But it’s also appropriate–surely the matching of such immaturity with such a hard beginning is among the reasons that Williamson chose to put his alter-ego into a unit that saw action at Ypres, during which he himself was only just embarking for France.
The battalion first marches to a place “called Whitesheet,”where they must stand in formation, awaiting orders, while German artillery lands nearby. Although an experienced soldier would recognize that they are not under direct fire, the new men find it very difficult indeed.
“Norman, I don’t think I can stand much more,” said Phillip, his tongue clucking in the dry roof of his mouth. He thought whitely that he never was any good at things like fighting, football, or boxing. His throat had always dried up at the school sports, so that he could never run properly.
Williamson is, as usual, being hard on him”self.” While his letters–as regular readers here know–show a strangely insecure, blatantly manipulative, fickle young man, he was also at least modestly successful at school sports. At school he was “captain of harriers,(i.e. the cross-country team) and shot with the rifle team. Phillip has it worse than Henry.
And another perhaps-too-obvious point: this is fiction. It’s made up, it didn’t happen, and, if you are a stickler for the factuality of history, it is inadmissible as military history. But any writer looking back on their own combat experience will necessarily draw on literary technique to help render their memory–we’ve seen how Dorothie Feilding ruins her gripping and entertaining letter-writing style when writing later “reflections.” Even with the best will-to-pure-history, these memories will in any case be shaped–we might say “distorted” if we hewed to the idea that any memory can contain a perfect or objective representation of the past–by the intense emotions that combat produces.
Williamson wasn’t there, but he was in a unit very much like this one,and will soon be under fire very much like this fire, in a place very much like this place. He’s “qualified,” then. And he gives us what only a novelist can can, the “real time” (i.e. fictional, and therefore immediate–no one can write, or even speak, fast enough to record their feelings as the shells fall, and they are usually not at their leisure to scribble or dictate) mental experience of a soldier under his first bombardment.
What I’m saying is: it’s worth reading, and while it should not by dint of its length and density be automatically privileged over real stories recorded shortly after the battle (Williamson is writing much later), it still adds to our understanding of the experience of the war.
Still, it’s Phillip’s experience: minutes later he is suddenly puffed up with pride to be at the front, with the artillery of the Regular army firing all around: “me, Phillip Maddison!… He longed to fire his rifle at the Germans… He felt he had had his baptism of fire. I shall be all right now, he told himself.”
He soon learns that the ammunition they have been given is not a match with their rifles: the clips don’t work. (This, too, is a well-known detail of the battle that may have attracted Williamson’s eye.) Nevertheless, the Highlanders advance uphill, toward a wood. On their right, Germans in Messines–from whence they have just driven Francis Grenfell–may begin enfilade fire at any moment.
Moments later they are ordered to fix bayonets and advance–the officers draw their swords. Phillip complains desperately that his rifle is broken, and we realize that he has been deaf to the instructions issued by the non-coms who have already realized the problem: the clips won’t work, but the rifle can still be loaded singly, bullet-by-bullet.
I realize that I can’t go on much longer, blow by blow, through an entire battle, so I will merely recommend that readers interested in the fictional elaboration of the war experience read How Dear is Life.
But one more quote to illustrate how one writer’s fierce concentration on the mental processes of his younger self is in a way more immediate than, for instance, Francis Grenfell’s blow by blow account, above, of his actual participation in this very same battle:
With shaking fingers he took a clip of five cartridges from a pouch and wrenched off one. Where to put the other four? For a few moments it was an imponderable problem. Then he thought of his right-hand lower tunic pocket. But it was already full–Civic, matches, pouch, bundle of letters from Mother. With a sob he tore at the contents of the pocket, trying to wrench away a fistful. he threw all away as though his life depended on it–[tobacco]… matches, pipe, talismanic letters. He shrieked at himself in his head as he freed other cartridges of their clips and dropped them in his pocket. Mother! Mother!
Soon the Highlanders advance, as the London Scottish actually did. They charge, in fact–a very brave act–and are ripped up by German artillery and long-range machine gun fire, without coming to grips with the Germans.
Phillip advances with his battalion, at first, but then takes advantage of the confusion to hang back. He finds himself in the shelter of a haystack, with a few other men and a colonel, badly wounded. From there he watches the disastrous final phase of the day’s attack, as the men going forward are all (apparently) killed or wounded.
Our hero spends the rest of daylight protected by a ditch and a pile of hay from German fire, listening to men die. Having given us the image of kilted officers waving swords as they charged, Williamson shows us, through Phillip’s eyes, the body of one of these same men lying on the road ahead, legs torn open by a shell, testicles awkwardly crushed between them.
The next man to call for his mother is the wounded middle-aged colonel, who does so as he slowly dies, a shell splinter having torn open his skull.
A group of officers show up at dusk and imply that the enlisted men now sheltering behind the hay-stack should have done more to rescue the wounded men in front. Soon the huddled group are sent up to join members of the 6th Dragoon Guards in their trenches, the Territorials to be scattered among the more steady Regulars.
Williamson cuts to Phillip’s father watching the moon, nearly-full, rise over the Thames. Under the same bright moon in Flanders, as Hallowe’en turns imperceptibly into All Hallows, Phillip and the mixed Highlanders/Dragoon Guards stand to to repel a German night attack.
References and Footnotes
- Selected Letters, 100. ↩
- Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 146. The poem went unpublished for many years, so it is not in the public domain, so I will not link to it; but it's easy enough to find. ↩
- Chronicle of Youth, 122. ↩
- These would be Senegalese troops. Feilding praises them here, but she is casually-and-not-atypically racist in other letters, relating how frightening it is to come upon black men at night, etc. ↩
- Lady Under Fire, 22-26. ↩
- Sassoon would have liked this contrast, even if these cavalrymen are out of his social league: both lords, Blackwood was a lawyer and illustrator; Woodhouse, like Francis, was an international polo-player. ↩
- Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 216-222. ↩
- Hastings, Catastrophe, 483. ↩
- How Dear Is Life, 248-72. ↩