Francis Grenfell Gets a Blighty One; Vera Brittain Bobs for Apples; Dorothie Feilding Sees a Battle and a King; Edward Thomas Writes About Poetry and Wilfred Owen Writes a Poem; Phillip Maddison Goes into Battle

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.[1]

 

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.[2]

 

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…[3]

 

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[4] 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.[5]

 

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.[6] 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…”[7]

 

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.”[8]

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 shan’t.

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.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Selected Letters, 100.
  2. 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.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 122.
  4. 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.
  5. Lady Under Fire, 22-26.
  6. 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.
  7. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 216-222.
  8. Hastings, Catastrophe, 483.
  9. How Dear Is Life, 248-72.

The Royal Welch Fix Bayonets; Henry Williamson Rides to Battle; Dorothie Feilding Objects to Bullets

About a couple of hours before dawn, word was passed along the trench for every man to get out and lay down five paces in front of the parapet and be prepared to meet the enemy with the bayonet. When everyone was out Buffalo Bill walked up and down the platoon and told us all that we would have to fight to the last man. He had his sword in one hand and his revolver in the other; officers carried their swords in action at this time.

So begins October 30th, 1914, for Frank Richards, after a long night of firing into waves of German attackers. It’s a little chilling to see Buffalo Bill (a.k.a Captain C.I. Stockwell) waving a sword just one day after John Lucy’s gaze fell upon a cart full of swords belonging to Royal Irish Rifles officers who will wave them no more. Buffalo Bill seems like the type to take some killing, however.[1]

We were all dead-beat, and if any man had slept two hours during the last seven days without being disturbed he had been a very lucky man. Smith said to me: “I expect this is our last time around, Dick, but I hope we take a few of them on the long journey with us.” I replied that I was going to do my level best in that way. The straw-rick had practically burned itself out, but it had now stopped raining and we could see more clearly in front of us. The enemy were about thirty yards away. They had halted and begun talking together. One of them fired a rocket; it was a very poor one, it spluttered into sparks and fell only a few paces in front of them.

There was no firing all along our front. The enemy were not firing either; perhaps their rifles were done up the same as our own. In spite of the danger I had great difficulty keeping my eyes open, and the man on the left of Smith had commenced to snore…  Sleep will beat any man and under any conditions.

It was passed along for us to get up on our feet to receive the charge. but no charge came. It was getting a little lighter, and just before dawn broke the enemy turned around and hurried back to their trench; we didn’t have a single good rifle to fire a round at them. We had two machine-guns in the Battalion at this time… but they were done up too, the same as our rifles.

We got back in our trench wet through to the skin (but we were getting used to that) and commenced to clean our rifles… Our rations that day, October 30th, were three biscuits, a tin of bully between four, a spoonful of jam and our rum ration. To hungry, half-starved men it was a flea-bite.

Richards’ account of the morning ends on a different note from Lucy’s recent tragedy of Sergeant Benson, with a courageous and not uncommon gesture of mercy:

One of the men in our left platoon threw his equipment off, jumped on the parapet with his hands above his head and then pointed to a wounded German who was trying to crawl to our lines. he then went forward, got hold of the wounded man and carried him in, the enemy clapping their hands and cheering until he had disappeared into our trench.[2]

Doctor Dunn’s history puts the desperate [q.v.] early-morning fighting in a battalion-to-brigade-sized perspective:

‘Sloper has 150 dead in front of him’–‘forty of them were within 10 yards of D’s front, not one had reached the parapet…’–‘Richardson, left platoon, got into mess a bit’–‘charged, got 6 German dead and 2 wounded’–‘As the whole of B Company went up to reinforce the front line there would have been no one to stop the Germans if they had pushed through’–Prisoners say that twelve regiments are opposite our front…’

These few terse phrases are all that five men who took part wrote at the time or have to say 15 years afterwards about the third, the climactic, day of the greatest of the German attacks on the Brigade front…[3]

 

And all this was well to the south of the Ypres Salient, where the fighting was now rising to an even higher pitch. The crack shooting, smart-marching, grimly effective battalions of the old Regular army were decimated–some, yes, literally reduced to less than one tenth of their initial strength–and the BEF was running out of replacements. The cavalry were dismounted, the Indian Corps had arrived and gone into the line, and now it was the turn of the Territorials. One of the first territorial regiments to be pulled from its “lines of communication” duties and sent north to Ypres was the London Scottish.

Over the next few days the London Scottish will have a brutal introduction to combat–but we won’t, quite, be following them. Instead, we’ll read Henry Williamson’s heavily autobiographical (but fictional) How Dear is Life (the fourth volume of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight). Williamson tells the story of Phillip Maddison, an alter-ego with a nearly identical life history–except that Williamson was in the London Rifles, while he puts Maddison in a different battalion of the same unusual territorial regiment. These he calls the “London Highlanders”–yet they are, for all practical purposes (which I suppose means “purposes of historical reference”), the London Scottish.

The London Highlanders/Scottish had already marched to Ypres and been billeted in the famous Cloth Hall. Today, in what is certainly the second best Eerily Displaced Ad Hoc Metropolitan Transport vignette of the war (after the Paris Taxis at the Marne), they were brought up to the front near Messines in London buses.

And here we will join Phillip Maddison’s consciousness:

With a sort of dream-incredulity he was sitting in the bus, seeing before him the old paneled advertisements on roof and wall–Steedman’s Teething Powder for Babies… Dr. Toogood’s Trusses and Surgical Appliances, Bird’s Custard Powder… a theatrical poster advertising The Girl in the Taxi.

“Good Lord!” he heard Baldwin saying. “I went to a Saturday-afternoon matinée with Mary, to see that!”

…He stared at this unreal relic of the past, seen many times on the hoardings outside London Bridge Station.

This last sentence is a good example of Williamson’s penchant for overkill–or, at least, for using quick consecutive stones on consecutive birds and sparing neither the breeding stock nor the ammunition supplies.

The focus throughout is on Phillip’s experience: the mature novelist returns to the mind of the terrified young man, examines it mercilessly, and writes for us what he could not–for lack of perspective, for lack of self-knowledge–have written then. But Williamson is also determined to be the novelist-as-historian-of-his-times, and so we are sure to get not just the well-remembered buses but a seatmate who can personally vouch for the great dislocation/ironic collapse of distance of riding into a battle while gazing upon advertisements with very home-like connotations.

The bus was drumming on his ears… Yes; it was the guns. He felt he was going to be sick…

Phillip then runs upstairs to get some air–these being, of course double-decker buses.

The air was fresh; he felt better; it would be too awful to be sick before the others.

Thus the boy on the eve of battle. And a good sense of the way Williamson blasts us with the strong, blunt signal of Maddison’s thoughts. Henry James he ain’t, but the rawness of the boy suits the rawness of the experience, and the directness of the narration the intensity of battle.

Maddison, though, is also extremely moody. As night falls and they see the flash of artillery and the glow of fires,

He stared around, losing himself in the romantic scene. All along the eastern horizon, far up to the north over his shoulder, was a sight that thrilled him. This was War! He imagined some mighty giant forging a horse-shoe upon some colossal anvil, hammer-blows resounding, sparks flying from the iron in a myriad curves, each to die in sullen splashes of fire upon the darkness. It was terrible. It was wonderful.

They soon reach an anonymous village, where they are assigned billets and told that a hot meal will arrive. It doesn’t, but Phillip finds his cousin Bertie, who is serving with the battalion’s transport–a job that means more time in the rear and little under fire. This allows Williamson to work in a real detail of the battle: the London Scottish transport (i.e. the carts and equipment, including mobile kitchens, used to supply and provision the battalion from the rail-head) had been left behind, but they were simply assigned the transport of the elite Coldstream Guards. The Coldstream had no need of it, since the fighting strength of that regiment had been almost completely destroyed.

It also gives Phillip a chance to lose his nerve: he asks Bertie right then–the night before the battalion is to go into battle–if there might be a place for him with the transport.

“Not now, at any rate, young Phil.”

Maddison soon falls asleep in a “moon-chinked loft.”[4]

 

And Lady Feilding wrote home today, a two-parter which includes precise observations on the nature of courage. First, though, the daily of business of finding good help–or, in this case, of working the transfer of a reliable chauffeur from family service to the Ambulance Corps.

Fumes Friday [30 October]

Mother darling – I wonder if Smee is coming out to be shot with me or not?

It struck me you wouldn’t be wanting him if things were being shut down & he could be taken on by the Red X & paid by them. It seemed an excellent solution & we would much rather have him than a shady man sent
out & of our men we have had to change – two couldn’t stand shells – it’s odd how the mere sound of one crumples men up.

It was that way with Johnyson of Dunchurch – the moment there was a black maria [a close cousin to Jack Johnson] in sight he got in a sort of faint & utterly collapsed & one of the other chauffeurs the same way. We have got some rippers among our chauffeurs – one of old man Horlicks’ chaufteurs, Tom is a great sport & bears anything with a smile & a dirty cigarette end hanging out of one side of his mouth & uttering waggish remarks the while the Teutons take pots at him…

One hopes that Smee is the sort who would either fancy a jaunting drive about under fire or who would have the wherewithal to decline the position in the face of his employer’s request. Lady Dorothie soon shifts to two now-familiar tropes of the soldier’s letter–“what scares me the most” and “but don’t worry about it:”

Then if things are really too hot – we women have to look after the ambulances & the men go on the scout cars. They look after us very awfully & we need never go where we don’t want to so don’t worry at all.

As a matter of fact shells & shrapnel don’t alarm me half as much as a bullet. They make an unpleasant little flip & you feel they are steered your way. While with shells things are such a huge element of luck that they
won’t fall just where one is standing. At least they haven’t yet thanks to the kind way the Almighty looks after us.

We’ll pick up this letter–and the tribulations of young Phillip Maddison–tomorrow. Lady Feilding will, of course, immediately put paid to any notion of worrying about her safety by describing a journey straight into a battle. [5]

References and Footnotes

  1. It's a bit of a spoiler to note that Richards does not always use pseudonyms...
  2. Old Soldiers Never Die, 48-9.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 88-9.
  4. Williamson, How Dear is Life, 244-8.
  5. Lady Under Fire, 22-24.

Frank Richards and the Royal Welch Face a Night Assault; John Lucy and the Royal Irish Face Their Losses

The 29th October, 1914, was a miserable rainy day. one young soldier remarked that he did not believe anyone was in support or reserve to us. But Duffy said “What the hell does it matter about supports or reserves? We have plenty of small-arm ammunition, and as long as our rifles hold out we can stop any attack, especially if they make it during the day.”

Frank Richards knows his foreshadowing, at least at point-blank range. He tells us that, overnight, a party of engineers had set up a barbed wire obstacle in front of their trench: a single strand.

The Old Soldier of the platoon remarked that the British government must be terribly hard up, what with short rations, no rifle-oil, no shells, and now sending Engineers up to the front line to stretch one single bloody strand of barbed wire out, which he had no doubt was the only single bloody strand in the whole of France, and which a bloody giraffe could rise up and walk under. It was enough to make good soldiers weep tears of blood…

Well, it was still raining on the night of the 19th when heavy rifle-fire broke out on the extreme right of our front. At the same time out listening-post [men stationed at the end of a sap driven forward from the firing trench into no man’s land] sent back to say that the enemy was getting out of their trenches… and presently we could see dim forms in front of us. Then our right platoon opened out with rapid fire. We opened out with rapid fire too.

One of the most useful aspects of Richards’ narrative is that he gives us this staggered, staccato sense of combat–the experience of battle as it was waged on the platoon level. With Lucy at Neuve Chapelle we had the overwhelming immediacy of battle and the man-by-man, section-level narrative of fear and trembling in a single fire-bay. Richards enjoys his sang-froid, and, a proper old soldier himself, gives us instead unfolding small-unit tactics.

We were firing as fast as we could pull the trigger: no man can take a sight in the dark so we were firing directly in front of us. One of our eighteen-pounders fired a star shell which enabled us to see the enemy dropping down on their stomachs. Five or six ordinary shells were fired too, and one of them set fire to the straw-rick on our right front which was soon burning merrily. The enemy in front of us were held up for the time being, so we opened fire on our right front where we could see some more of them quite clearly by the light of the burning rick…

One of our chaps, in turning to get another bandolier of ammunition out of the box, noticed three men coming towards our trench from the back. “Halt! Hands up! Who are you?” he challenged. We turned around, We knew it was quite possible for some of the enemy to have got through the gap between us and our left platoon and come around the back of us. Instead of answering the challenge two of the men dropped on their stomachs and the other mumbled something which we did not understand. Two men opened fire on him and he dropped; then one of the men on the ground shouted: “You bloody fools! We’re artillery signallers and you’ve shot our officer.”

…He was the young officer who used to visit us: one bullet had gone through his jaw and the other through his right side. The two men carried him back and we all hoped that he would recover from his wounds; but we never heard any more news of him.[1]

The men of Richards’ company kept firing all night, as the German attackers continued to move on their front. One by one their rifles–over-heated, inadequately oiled, and now picking up mud and grit from where they were rested on the dirt parapet to aim and fire–jammed. Tomorrow’s dawn will bring a renewed attack…

 

Francis Grenfell, too, will soon be seeing serious action:

On the 29th the 9th Lancers were back at Neuve Eglise, behind the Messines position. That experience gave Francis his first notion of the real seriousness of the German attack. Before, he had been confident, and had credited every optimistic rumour ; now he saw that the enemy was indeed flinging the dice for victory, and that the scanty British forces were faced with preposterous odds. On 29th October, as we know, began the critical stage of the First Battle of Ypres. The chief danger points were at the apex of the salient around Gheluvelt and on its southern flank about Zillebeke. But there was also an attack at the southern re-entrant, and heavy fighting along the whole Messines Ridge.[2]

 

From two units about to be tested to one that has been tested and persevered–and nearly been destroyed in the process:

Our little party moved back to La Couture on 29th October, arriving there in twilight: La Couture where this grim battle of La Bassée has begun seventeen days ago, or was it seventeen years? The battalion transport and riderless chargers, large out of all proportion to our numbers, came behind us. We looked more like its escort than its established unit of one battalion.

On one cart a bundle of swords testified to our missing officers, and to the uselessness of a form of weapon already out of date.

John Lucy will struggle to rally a bit from this sombre state. Tonight there will mild comic tales of their billets behind the lines–smothering feather beds and cross-dressing with stolen civilian underclothing–and an effort to signal to his readers that, if the battalion could have gone on in the same manner as it always had, despite its losses, so too would his narrative. But, as he will report in a few days’ time, it can’t.

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 44-46.
  2. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 215.

Bombs, Disks, Helmets, Souvenirs, and Latrine Buckets; Rupert Brooke Waxes Militaristic

And now from one Royal Non-English British regiment to another. The Royal Irish Rifles, battered to pieces and held in emergency reserve, were replaced in the line by newly arrived units of the Indian Corps. (Which re-took, today, a century back, and then again lost, Neuve Chapelle.) Just to the north were the 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers in their trenches near Fromelles.  For the next few days our primary narrative of the greater First Battle of Ypres will follow them.

Today was a long day for the Royal Welsh. There was an extensive patrol during the early morning hours, conducted in order to collect identity disks from the German dead between the trenches–an area now commonly being referred to as “no man’s land.” Then there was a morning bombardment which killed an escaped farm chicken (“chicken for lunch”) and an afternoon of constant sniping, machine gun fire, and additional bombardment, which killed two men and wounded twenty.

Later, an artillery officer visited the trenches–he had become friendly with the infantry officers, not least because his good will could be of great service. Today he obliged the Welch by destroying a barn used by German snipers–and with the third of the three shells which were all his daily ration.

After nightfall, G.H. Davies was transferred from A Company to C, on the left of the battalion line, which had only two officers left. Delayed in picking his way south in the dark, he arrived just before 11:30 at night, at which point the Germans launched a major attack. Several were killed almost at the parapet and a few even got into the trench before the attack was broken off.[1]

It seems quite likely (from the evidence of surrounding dates) that the early morning patrol remembered in the history as being for the purpose of collecting identifying information from the German dead is the same one that Frank Richards recalls like this:

We crawled out the next night and went through their packs, taking anything they had of value from them. The spiked helmets we intended to keep as souvenirs, but we soon came to the conclusion that it was no good keeping souvenirs of that sort when any moment we may be dancing a two-step in another world. So we used them as latrine buckets…[2]

 

Writing to G. Lowes Dickinson (a Cambridge philosopher and political scientist who, in a faint bit of irony, was deeply distressed by the war and became one of the first to advocate for a post-war league of nations) Rupert Brooke discusses his role in–and views of–the war. Would it shock you to discover a mixture of self-important bravado and half-sheepishness?

Anson Battalion, Second Naval Brigade

Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham

28 October

Dear Goldie,

I never thought to find myself in Barracks. Camp is all right: there’s Romance in it: it’s rather like ‘camping-out’. But Barracks! (which is yet extraordinarily like College)…

I hope you don’t think me very reactionary and callous for taking up this function of England. There shouldn’t be war–but what’s to be done, but fight Prussia? I’ve seen the half million refugees in the night outside Antwerp: and I want, more than before, to go on, till Prussia’s destroyed. I wish everyone I know were fighting.[3]

 

Lady Feilding, her admirers will be happy to read, put her social connections to good use today and scored dinner and a hot bath–“it’s weeks since I had one”–out of a chance encounter with Prince Alexander of Teck. Prince Alexander was a minor English royal–a great-grandson of George III, as a matter of fact–who also possessed a German title. Which was awkward, especially as he was now a major, commanding the Life Guards (Eton! Sandhurst!), and about to go into action against German troops at Ypres. He would shortly shed the German title and acquire an earldom… but what matters today is that he had access to hot water.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 85-7.
  2. Old Soldiers Never Die, 43.
  3. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 627.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 23.

A ‘Where Are Our Writers?’ Round-Up; The End of the Royal Irish; The Madness of Julian Grenfell; Lady Feilding Objects

I want to begin what will be a very long entry with a bit of a round-up.

In Northern France, the fighting which had been a southerly complement to the First Battle of Ypres–often described as the Battle of La Bassée–is about to die down. A brutally apt turn of phrase, actually, since many of the battalions of II Corps had suffered so many casualties that they were no longer considered effective. One of these is the 2/Royal Irish Rifles, in which John Lucy now leads a section of only two men–they had begun with eight, a rate of casualties which approximates that of the battalion as a whole. Not far away, and holding trenches that had yet to face a concerted German attack, were Frank Richards and the 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers. We will see a last flurry of activity on their part of the line before it, too, grows quiet. The Irish Guards, however, as well as the BEF’s cavalry reserve–including both of our surviving Grenfells–will shortly be thrown into the fight around Ypres.

To the north,  Lady Feilding and the other intrepid souls of Dr. Monro’s Ambulance Corps have withdrawn closer to the coast, the last little sliver of unoccupied Belgium. But they will soon be safe, the crisis survived, if at great cost. The Belgians today chose what would now surely be irritatingly termed the “nuclear option”–better, though, the “natural” option. Sluice gates were opened and the sea was allowed to flow back over many miles of low-lying land around Dixmude–the location of the newspaper-celebrated ambulance sortie of the 21st. As the waters spread over the next few days, the land around the inundated areas became too sodden to support artillery or permit entrenchment, and the German advance… well, it bogged down.

As for our not-yet-combatants, Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company will shortly appear in France, as will Henry Williamson’s London Rifles. The “Terriers” are badly needed, now, to bolster the shattered Regulars. Kitchener’s army is still in training, and notable among its subalterns is our Charles Sorley, training in Suffolk with its eponymous regiment. I will find a way to work in a few of his November letters, especially when he begins reading Thomas Hardy’s new book. Rupert Brooke, back in training with the semiprofessional naval infantry after the Antwerp debacle, has begun working on the sonnet sequence that will win him undue fame and inaccurate reputation.

I regret to report that we’ll be getting nothing anytime soon from the rest of the Most Famous Poets Brigade:[1] Edmund Blunden is still in school, Robert Graves is languishing at the Royal Welch Depot, Siegfried Sassoon is mending a broken arm, Edward Thomas is still walking and writing, and Wilfred Owen is still teaching and dreamily scribbling in the south of France. There will be occasional letters from these last two over the next few weeks.

Then there is Oxford, where Tolkien and Brittain are settling in for their penultimate and inaugural terms. We will look in on Ronald occasionally–information is scarce–and on Vera with more frequency.

Finally, though, another word about Williamson. He is a fascinating case, and the combination of surviving letters and his extensive (and distantly post-war) fictionalizing of his entire life make him an inescapably central subject for this project… As I have mentioned before, though, he made an unusual choice: instead of fictionalizing his actual military exploits, he placed his alter ego in a different (Territorial) unit, and then carefully followed its historical experiences. So Williamson is in France, but still far from battle, while Philip Maddison will shortly experience the very worst of First Ypres.

And now for today’s action, a century back.

 

Driven out of Neuve Chapelle yesterday afternoon, the Royal Irish Rifles were back in possession by the wee hours of this morning, a century back. This was fortunate for corporal John Lucy, since he had been ordered by a newly-arrived officer to guide him and a hundred skittish, completely inexperienced men into the town and, fearing disorganization in the dark, he had simply marched them in a column down the road, risking disaster if they met German fire. The didn’t, having missed the night battle. But there was still plenty left to see and do in the ruined town.

Lucy’s writing is, as always, straightforward–which is good, given the places we are going. He gives us relatively unvarnished personal history, which today will be a good reminder that the insanity and horror of war are often seen as the necessary precursors to the more extreme madness-loving corners of 20th century art. Then again, even such a relatively bare account will, when written later on, reflect not only the author’s pure, independent memories but also many intervening literary influences. Lucy is no modernist, and modernism had not come as far as Vietnam. And yet the night scene in Neuve Chapelle is reminiscent nonetheless of something out of Apocalypse Now.

I saw a group of soldiers keeping well in to the wall of a house, with one man wandering about in the middle of the street. Burning houses fell down from time to time, and sent up brighter flames and sparks as they crashed….

‘That’s Corporal Ternaghan… He’s off his bloody nut. He just shot a German prisoner, and he’s wearing his cap.’ Ternaghan was wearing a soft field-grey cap, and there were tears in his eyes and a happy smile on his lips.

He had no difficulty in recognizing me, and said: ‘Hello chum. Only four of us left now. You and me, and Biganne, and Winters.’ He was referring to the four surviving corporals of the thirty-two who sailed with the battalion for France just over two months ago.

The mad corporal breaks into sobs, then “developed another mood” and forced Lucy to share an impromptu meal.

Lucy eventually broke away to look for his own company, which he found in the same unfinished communications trench behind their front line. Untraversed, the trench is a “shell-trap” and so they spend the night being trodden on by every runner who passes to and from the front line and fearing a resumption of the German bombardment.

When day breaks, Lucy and his men move up into the trenches they had held yesterday.

Bodies of British and German dead lay everywhere, and shattered rifles, blood-stained equipment, and other debris were scattered about. The smell of the unburied filled our nostrils, and mangled and soiled corpses presented unspeakable sights.

The Germans soon attack, and there are no longer enough riflemen to stop them. The company to the left gives way, and Lucy and his men see Germans moving on behind them. They are nearly cut off. Worse, the British artillery, assuming that the entire line has again been lost, begins an accurate fire on their trenches. Corporal Biganne is killed by a British shell, and the terrifying Sergeant Kelly is badly wounded. As German troops work toward them from the collapsed left flank, Kelly is bayoneted to death where he lies in the trench, telling his rosary.

When his company finally gets the order to withdraw, they find that the unfinished end of the communications trench is now covered by a German machine gun on the collapsed flank. Their only way to safety is to try to outwit the machine gunner by running in short and unpredictable bursts.

Lucy admits to us here that he now lost track of the few men he still commanded. Military structure erodes under this sort of stress, and the machine gun across their route of escape is not a tactical problem anyway. It is individual, sub-tactical: there can be no plan, but only foot-speed, and luck, and a personal fate.

Just before his own turn to dash for the rear, Lucy sees the body of Sergeant Benson, killed two days ago, still lying next to the German he had sought to save. The German, with his two bullet wounds, is still alive.

Lucy escapes, sprinting through the machine gun fire in short bursts until he reaches Neuve Chapelle. There he finds Corporal Ternaghan, recovered from his madness. Lucy’s section is now reduced to a single man, and the battalion is soon withdrawn.

They kept us on the battlefield, and we fell out on the side of the road for a rest, while waiting further orders.

During this rest the roll of the battalion was called over, and we found that only forty-six of us survived to answer our names. We still had two officers.

This was the end of the Royal Irish Rifles. The end, at least, of its effectiveness as a fighting unit for the current campaign, and of its identity as a proud unit of the old regular army.

Resisting elegy, Lucy ends his closely-narrated tale of a battalion (but really a company, and a section) with a bitter reference to the greater war: “It was rumoured that our generals were not satisfied, but thought that we might have done better.”[2]

 

From his position near Zandvoorde, a few miles southeast of Ypres, Julian Grenfell took up the letter he had begun writing to his mother three days previously.

Oct 27–We’ve been in the trenches for 2 days and nights since I started this; but no excitements, except a good dose of shrapnel 3 times a day, which does one no harm , and rather relieves the monotony…

The men are splendid, and as happy as schoolboys. We’ve got plenty of straw at the bottom of the trench, which is better than any feather-bed…

Our first day’s real close-up fighting was Monday 19th… We got into a village… Firing came from a farm in front of us, & then a man came out of it and waved a white flag. I yelled “200–white flag–rapid fire”; but Hardwick stopped me shooting. Then the squadron advanced across root fields towards the farm (dismounted, in open order)–and they opened a sharp fire on us from the farm and the next fields. We took 3 prisoners in the roots, and retired to the horses again. That was our first experience of them–the white flag dodge. We lost 2, and 1 wounded. Then I got leave to make a dash across a field for another farm, where they were sniping at us. I could only get half way. My sergeant was killed, & my corporal hit.

Grenfell and his squadron are pinned down for a half an hour and then manage to retreat. The dead sergeant must be J.H. Measures[3]–dead as a result of Grenfell’s initiative. But then that is how battles are–or used to be–won.

Julian is sober about all this, at first:

I longed to be able to say that I liked it, after all one has heard of being under fire the first time. But it’s bloody. I pretended to myself for a bit that I liked it; but it was no good; it only made one careless and unwatchful and self-absorbed. But when one acknowledged to oneself that it was bloody, one became alright again, and cool.

A strong German advance then saw the Royal Dragoons pushed back once, and again. We hear again of the poor quality of German shooting, and no further casualties were taken–twenty horses were hit, however.

Since then we have been doing infantry work in the trenches… Someone described this war as “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror”. It is sad that it is such an impossible place for cavalry… It is horrible having to leave one’s horses; it feels like leaving half oneself behind, and one feels the dual responsibility all the time…

And a few lines later, another swerve in direction. Oh, but this is a famous bit:

I adore War. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I have never been so well or so happy. Nobody grumbles at one for being dirty. I have only had my boots off once in the last 10 days, and only washed twice. We are up and standing to our rifles by 5 a.m. when doing this infantry work, and saddled up by 4.30 a.m. when with our horses. Our poor horses do not get their saddles off when we are in the trenches.

The wretched inhabitants here have got practically no food left. It is miserable to see them leaving their houses, and tracking away, with great bundles and children in their hands. And the dogs and cats left in the deserted villages are piteous.[4]

First thing: it’s unlikely that he’s kidding. If it weren’t for the horses (horses are no laughing matter for an Englishman of this class), we might suspect that the juxtaposition of “war is fun because no one makes me wash behind my ears” and “the refugees are starving” is tongue in cheek. It’s not just that his other letters–not to mention the verses that are percolating–confirm his love for war, it’s that the whole of this letter is immediate and direct: he means what he says as he says it, and, only a moment/line later, his thoughts/pen are headed somewhere else.

Battle is bloody; war is boring and terrifying (the familiar phrase he quotes above was a new apercu in 1914); war is fun and purposeful, but also piteous. None of these things are false, in the moment of writing. It’s not paradox, then, but only agonized complexity artificially stratified by the fact that letter writing takes time.

Anyway. There it is: Julian Grenfell is not an idiot, but he thinks war is fun. Somehow he is able to forget the fear that he feels in battle and the pity that he feels for war’s victims (both bipedal and quadrupedal) and, taking stock of the rest, finds himself well pleased. “Objectlessness” is interesting: this is a man who disdained social life for its own sake and had long ago declared a precocious hatred for pretense. Too much of his privileged life has been objectless. Like many of his peers he enjoys outdoor sport–“picnic” is only a bit of a joke–and so he is happy (at least now, barely a few weeks into his war) to stay out, without having to wash up and dress for dinner.

We can, again, take his words at face value: he doesn’t adore war because it is a righteous cause that’s like a picnic outing; he adores it because it’s good fun, subsumed into some larger plan and therefore without that curdling threat of ennui.

 

And now to the very north of the battle, where French marines and the haggard remnants of the Belgian army are being pushed back toward the Belgian coast and on to Calais–and British ambulance drivers are hard pressed by eager journalists eager to turn them into eye-catching copy.

Tuesday, Oct 27 1914

Mother darling,

I am simply crying with rage — Beavis & Munro will take tame correspondents about with them — at present Ashmead Bartlett & Philip Gibbs are glued onto us & I have just been making the hell of a row as having got the old Chronicle with Gibbs’ account of Dixmude & dragging me into it all. I think Gibbs was more of a gentleman than to make a fool of me like that, & it makes the whole thing so sordid to look as if we had pet reporters to advertise us. Robert [de Broqueville] & I have been so mad. This morning we have just stuck our toes in & say we leave the damn show as soon as a reporter comes near us, & in fact have kicked up such a stink since this Chronicle slush this morning that I think that will now will be a thing of the past.

It is such a shame using me as a lever in this disgusting way…

Lady Feilding doth protest about the right amount, I suppose. Having said her piece, she then moves on to a discussion of new equipment and drivers that her mother might arrange to be sent over–a far cry, this, from the sock-and-cigarette mongering of the soldiers’ letters. But she returns to her betrayal at the end of the letter:

Oh Mother I am sick over this reporter business — I do hate it so — it’s so cheap & undoes all the nice feeling one has inside of being able to do something.[5]

One sympathizes with Feilding, of course: she is being head-patted by chauvinists who are selling papers with her exploits. It’s nice, too, that she is indifferent to the idea that her exploits can be… exploited… for the good of the cause. Won’t a dashing young Lady spur imitators, donations, even–acting as a tacit flourish of the white feather–further enlistment from young men who see an implicit challenge to their honor in all these danger-flaunting acts of sacrifice on the part of a (well-born) young woman? When she let a reporter ride shotgun couldn’t she imagine that “daughter of an earl” might end up above the fold?

And should we not suspect that Feilding doesn’t really merit the plaudits she is receiving? We’ll eventually get to Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker–other young women of the corps, and rather more firmly committed to being dashing–who were not yet getting their due and were annoyed by Feilding’s celebrity. But even without the looks-askance of other notably heroic young women it is tempting to suspect that the young aristocrat’s courage and competence are being exaggerated.

Yet they weren’t. It’s a good thing we have Sarah Macnaughtan, who not only declared Lady Feilding the de facto leader of the ambulance corps (not the impression that one gets from reading Gibbs, and even Feilding gives a great deal of credit to de Broqueville) but admired the courage of all of the younger women. A few days ago she wrote:

Most of the women who go [on missions to rescue the wounded] are very good chauffeurs themselves, so they are chosen before a person who can’t drive. They are splendid creatures, and funk nothing, and they are there to do a little dressing if it is needed…

This, too:

I am rather surprised to find how little the quite young girls seem to mind the sight of wounds and suffering. They are bright and witty about amputations, and do not shudder at anything. I am feeling rather out-of-date amongst them.[6]

 

Finally, a check-in with one of the most important war writers, C.E. Montague. He, too, is feeling rather out of date. And yet, though not a young man any longer, writing today to his father he sounds like one. Tongue in cheek? Yes. But between gritted teeth, between which he has also taken the bit, just above his firm jaw and below his stiff upper lip. He’s going to go, you know:

At the office we begin to hear of colleagues who departed as second lieutenants in August now blossoming into captains and what not. One of our dramatic critics has got to the war as an interpreter, another man is driving a motor ambulance, several have enlisted, and all the rest want to be war correspondents. My own slender chance of ever seeing any of the fun depends on the remote possibility of Kitchener’s accepting a battalion of 1000 fit and hardy old cocks of 45 or more, of whom I am one, who have been picked, for their winds and limb, out of 3000 vessels of mature ardour, and are now awaiting his pleasure. Probably he will say he will be blowed if he spends time in drilling us old crocks as long as the striplings of 38 continue to come in.[7]

Oh but the war is young.

References and Footnotes

  1. This is not a real brigade... I thought I should clear that up, given that we will follow members of the Artists Rifles.
  2. There's a Devil in the Drum, 245-54.
  3. Judging from this site.
  4. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 228-30.
  5. Lady Under Fire, 18-19.
  6. Macnaughtan's account can be found here.
  7. Elton, C.E. Montague, A Memoir, 104.

Lady Feilding Hits the Headlines; The Nursing Sister Sees the Sights

Today, a century back, a rather breathless article by Philip Gibbs ran in the Daily Chronicle and was picked up by several other papers, including the New York Times. An apparent forefather of the gonzo journalists of later years, Gibbs described his own participation in the Monro Ambulance Corps’ adventurous sortie to Dixmude on the 21st. He–as well as whoever was responsible for the headlines–also gave near-top billing to the corps’ resident aristocrat:

SEEKING WOUNDED ON BATTLE FRONT

Correspondent’s Day with the Stretcher-Bearers in the Fighting in Belgium.

IN A HAIL OF SHRAPNEL

Village Ablaze and Houses Crumbling upon the Refuges of the Wounded.

AN EARL’S BRAVE DAUGHTER

Lady Dorothie Feilding Won Praise by Her Gallant Bearing in Danger

The article goes into extensive detail about the dashing drive, the rescue of wounded under fire, and the bravery of the corps–especially its fetching lady-orderly. And there is plenty of space left for the correspondent/stretcher-bearer’s first-day-in-the-wars observations and Deep Thoughts.

Lady Dorothie will read it and write home tomorrow. She will not be best pleased.[1]

Since I’ve speculated irresponsibly on what Vera Brittain might think of Dorothie Feilding’s exploits if she had known of them, it’s amusing to find this in her diary of today:

I do not see the papers so much as I used to or perhaps I should still feel I have no right to be happy at all; still, such war news as there is seems to be favourable…[2]

It’s almost enough to suspect that she saw a certain article in the Chronicle, but doesn’t wish to see such glaring evidence of an alternative path to the one that has only recently deposited her at Oxford. There had been talk of sacrifice for the war effort, of doing something real like the boys in uniform, rather than vegetating at Oxford

 

The Nursing Sister’s dedication to seeing the sights–meaning the local Gothic masterpieces–in her scant time between trainloads of horribly wounded men is becoming either heroic, ridiculous, ridiculous-heroic, or significant in its heroic ridiculousness. Today she is in Ypres, the very center of the developing battle.

Had a very interesting morning. Got leave to go into the town and see the Cathedral of St Martin. None of the others would budge from the train, so I went alone; town chock-full of French and Belgian troops, and unending streams of columns, also Belgian refugees, cars full of staff officers. The Cathedral is thirteenth century, glorious as usual. There are hundreds of German prisoners in the town in the Cloth Hall. It was a very warrish feeling saying one’s prayers in the Cathedral to the sound of the guns of one of the greatest battles in the world.[3]

Glorious as usual–and a good redemptive thumb in the margins of the horror story. This combination of indefatigable bourgeois tourism (is it possible that the anonymous nursing sister is really Margaret Schlegel, escaped from fiction to bring good sense and formidable submissiveness to the care of the wounded? No–the Schlegels are too impractical, too culturally advanced… also, they are fictional) and dogged religious faith is an early answer to the “how did they bear it?” question.

And also a step toward answering the incredulous follow-up: “but why?

 

And a respite today for John Lucy:

The two forward companies were taken out of the line on the morning of 26th October for a belated rest…  We were silly from lack of sleep and stumbled about like drunken men. We washed, devoured the food produced for us, and dropped down to sleep anywhere…

A brief respite.

That very afternoon, as they slept some two and a half miles behind Neuve Chapelle, the survivors were joined by 100 reinforcements “fresh from Ireland.” Hours later they learned that the battalion command post had been hit and the other two companies routed. They were issued with fresh ammunition, and, fixing bayonets, prepared for a night assault to retake the lost town.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I've copied the style of the New York Times' headlines, which I believe are only available to subscribers, here.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 120.
  3. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 239-43.

John Lucy Counts the Dead in his Trench; Robert Graves Rewrites his Reasons; The Nursing Sister Struggles with Agony; Frank Richards Can’t Miss

An apolobrag: there is too much going on over the next week. There is crisis and controversy among our Ambulance Corps, the First Battle of Ypres is raging, and there are developments to mention in the lives of those still in England–the entries here will be long and ungainly. Pace yourselves? Don’t quit? Read only your favorite subjects?

The next week sets up a transition: we will have the climax of Lucy’s account and the end of the initial heroic phase of the defense of Belgium, and we will arrive at winter’s doorstep. This will mean a long lull during which the British army reorganizes and the diary entries of the nurses, soldiers, and even entire battalions become shorter and less interesting. Which is why I don’t want to stop discussing Vera Brittain or other important writers still abed, a-school, or a-training–their stories will take us through a winter of shorter and sparser posts.

Before we get to several reports on the growing violence of First Ypres, an Graves, 10-25cupdate on young Robert Graves. Still stuck at the depot in Wales, he wrote a letter to a school friend in which he explained his reasons–much decayed from the initial surge of chivalrous feeling for the rape of Belgium–for his continued desire to get to the continent and fight.

I can’t imagine why I joined: not for sentiment or patriotism certainly & I am violating all my most cherished anti-war principles but as D. N[evill]. B[arbour]. says ‘France is the only place for a gentleman now,’ principles or no principles. The only grumble I have is that (seeing that the chance against returning whole-skinned if we go out now is about 2-1 & I have consequently resigned myself) I am renouncing far more than the majority of my fellow subalterns here who have never been at Ch[arterh]ouse, or understood the meaning of any art higher than that of–well let us say Peter Paul Rubens for old friendship’s sake.[1]

This minor-masterpiece of adolescent offense-giving concludes with a telling hope: that he will be able to join his fellows in the “shady paths of academia” before long. A few months as an unpopular dogsbody subaltern and Graves is renouncing all his original reasons for joining–“sentiments” such as honor and the defense of the wronged as well as the desire to put off Oxford. The blunt elitism is reminiscent of Vera’s thoughts about Roland, but it also explains why the literary and ungainly public school boy was not popular in the art-less old boy’s network of the Royal Welch depot. And yet: there is no shaking this “gentleman” business. His preferences, as he sees it, don’t enter into it: however much he loathes most men who proclaim this identity, he doesn’t imagine forswearing it. He’s a gentleman, so he must go to France.

 

The Nursing Sister has a long and harrowing entry today as her train struggles to cope with the casualties of First Ypres–I’ve pared it down to the first thoughts and a few striking bits:

Sunday, October 25th.–Couldn’t write last night: the only thing was to try and forget it all. It has been an absolute hell of a journey–there is no other word for it. First, you must understand that this big battle from Ostend to Lille is perhaps the most desperate of all, though that is said of each in turn–Mons, the Aisne, and this; but the men and officers who have been through all say this is the worst. The Germans are desperate, and stick at nothing, and the Allies are the same; and in determination to drive them back, each man personally seems to be the same. Consequently the “carnage” is being appalling, and we have been practically in it, as far as horrors go…

I suppose it’s time to begin “tagging” the trope of “desperation…” “!”

They were bleeding faster than we could cope with it; and the agony of getting them off the stretchers on to the top bunks is a thing to forget…

This, coming after a long paragraph describing specific agonies, is, in a literary sense, rewarding. There is only so much manipulation of broken bodies that prose can do before it too becomes a thing to forget. But we’ve been with the Nursing Sister enough on the swaying, trundling trains full of wounded men for the imagination to supply more agony than a few rote sentences of description could.

And then, in a vivid anecdote, it gets better–and, in another way, worse.

In the middle of the worst of it in the night I became conscious of a Belgian Boy Scout of fourteen in the corridor, with a glass and a pail of drinking water; that boy worked for hours with his glass and pail on his own, or wherever you sent him. We took him back to Calais. He had come up into the firing line on his cycle fitted with a rifle, with tobacco for the troops, and lived with the British whom he loved, sharing their rations…

 

Finally, another time-warp and fiction-intrusion moment: this is the second time that the Nursing Sister has prefigured Yossarian’s central trauma in Catch-22:

I think if one knew beforehand what all this was going to be like one would hardly want to face it, but somehow you’re glad to be there. We were tackling a bad wound in the head, and when it was finished and the man was being got comfortable, he flinched and remarked, “That leg is a beast.” We found a compound-fractured femur put up with a rifle for a splint! He had blankets on, and had never mentioned that his thigh was broken. It too had to be packed, and all he said was, “That leg is a beast,” and “That leg is a Beast.”[2]

 

Near Fromelles, Frank Richards and the 2/Royal Welch were under attack, and suffering from artillery and sniping. Like the Royal Irish, however, they found that the enemy bombardment was not enough to ruin their musketry, and they easily drove off each German assault. Richards is admirably vague on dates, but it seems to have been about today’s assault that he observed the following:

I don’t think any one of them ran twenty yards before he was dropped. To good, trained, pre-War soldiers who kept their nerve, ten men holding a trench could easily stop fifty who were trying to take it… with the parapet as a rest for our rifles it was impossible to miss.[3]

 

In front of Neuve Chapelle today, a century back, John Lucy was awakened from an exhausted slumber in the bottom of the trench into which he had slumped after helping beat off an overnight attack.

Sergeant Kelly stood above me, blue-jawed like a pirate, with blasphemy on his lips. ‘Get up and fight,’ he said. ‘The bloody Germans are all around us, and remove that man. Is he dead?’

…Young Shea and I lifted O’Brien and propped him in the corner of the trench. The body canted, gave way and fell down sideways, the lifeless limbs slowly adjusting themselves to the accidents of the bottom of the trench. I gazed at it stupidly with heavy eyes, wondering if I should sit him up again. It seemed important that he should sit.

‘Will you fight?’ said Sergeant Kelly bitterly.

Lucy is confused, but he soon sees what the the alert sergeant has noticed: a small number of Germans, caught in the open among the dead and dying of the night assault and exposed by daylight.

…we put our bullets into the heads of the lying enemy. Two or three of them rose stiffly to their knees to escape, but the bullets caught them and they flopped down again. One man actually managed to rise to his feet and I shot him through the chest…

I felt disgusted. We had slaughtered too many already. I was miserable until the German line was still and I prayed for them as I killed them.

It gets worse.

When a wounded German right in front of their trench tries to limp away, Sergeant Kelly shoots him at point blank range.

We could not look at Sergeant Kelly, nor at each other for the shame of it.

Another NCO, the “kind-hearted” Sergeant Benson who just yesterday had cheered Lucy with his ribbing over Kipling, now comes into their section of trench. Seeing the twice-wounded German so close and in agony, he calls out to him to save himself by surrendering.

As the German soldier crawls to their trench, Benson, standing up to receive him, is killed by “a bullet through his pitying mouth.” The back of his skull is destroyed by the bullet’s exit. The Irish lay out Benson’s body next to the wounded, rescued German in the bottom of the trench.

Lucy’s writing here is surprisingly powerful in its paucity. Without being explicit or fussily novelistic he conveys the sheer moral exhaustion of soldiers too long under fire. Although machine guns are firing over their heads they seem interested only in making the German comfortable, surely because they can do nothing for Benson, O’Brien, or the other dead men. Were it not for the “terrible energy” of the murderous Sergeant Kelly, it seems as if they would have simply sat in the trench until the firing stopped or until a German assault took the trench. Instead, Kelly forces them to clean and repair both their trench and their rifles, which are beginning to be fouled with mud.

He was a great man in a way, and a good war leader; a product of the slums of Dublin, and a stout asset to the British army, though a nasty piece of work from our point of view, just then.

Just as he doesn’t quite confess their failure to keep up the defense of the trench, Lucy doesn’t declare their recovery. They hear that a member of their section away working as a runner has heroically captured a small group of German infiltrators (presumably from the night assault) and this seems to restore their own confidence. The implacable Kelly moves off to another bay, and Lucy and the three remaining men of his section defend their own during two further attacks in the afternoon and overnight.[4]

 

Finally, Alan Seeger is still behind the lines, far to the south of the battle raging around Ypres. But we are keeping tabs on cathedral sightings, so:

Verzenay, October 25, 1914.

On guard from four to six this morning… Our company assembled this afternoon and we took a fine walk through the woods on the heights above Verzenay. From the open crests there were wonderful views across the valley. Reims was plainly visible in the middle distance, to the northwest. Could see the cathedral clearly… Aeroplanes circled continually overhead on reconnaissance and were bombarded with shrapnel from the lines below, without any apparent damage.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. The photo of the letter can be found in the DNB volume on Graves.
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  3. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 36-7; Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 82-3.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 231-8.
  5. The Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 12-13.

John Lucy Forswears Kipling; Julian Grenfell is Interrupted

John Lucy continues the tale of the Royal Irish in their trenches before Neuve Chapelle.

The next day, 24th October, we suffered another severe bombardment, worse if anything than that of the day before. The shelling began early in the morning and we crouched miserably under it all day long. It was so intense…

And so, in recounting his second day of trench warfare, John Lucy is already bumping up against the limitations of the form. When to spend the word hoard in description? How to move the reader without so much repetition that she is deadened into insensibility? His solution, going forward, will be to begin omitting the rationale for his own actions. This is either cunning or accidental, a sort of after-image of shell shock in the mind of the reflecting writer.

Machine guns were now sited on the Irish position, and the enemy artillery had become more accurate. Two days ago they had taken over trenches which had not been entirely linked up. Now,

In the undug gap between us and the left company corpses of dead runners and stretcher-bearers lay piled on each other.

To relieve the tedium, and to confess his own failing nerve to a sympathetic sergeant, Lucy moves around the traverse into a neighboring bay. Two senior non-coms–the sergeant and an old corporal who has been telling humorous stories to distract his men–chide Lucy about his old habit of reciting Kipling.

Unpacking Kipling–the man, the “poet,” the writer, the public figure, the father, the bard, the symbol, the official voice of the Empire–will be the work of many posts. Kipling can be simplistic, but he’s never simple. When he sings the praises of the old regular soldier–not the newborn Tommy, cheerful and beloved defender of Belgium, but rather the despised old sweat of a hundred dusty and brutal colonial campaigns–he tends to skip homegrown patriotic sentiment and identify directly with the lonely lot of the out-caste soldier. But in the trenches of a new war, is this sort of verse enough?

Benson poked me in the ribs, and asked me laughingly: ‘How about the young British soldier?’ Biganne said: ‘Yes, how about him?’ I had been fond of reciting the ballad. It certainly seemed stupid now. Who wanted to die, die, die like a soldier? ‘To blazes with the young British soldier,’ I said, and we all laughed.

Cries of alarm brought us to our feet, and scattered us back to our various commands. The Germans had sprung a surprise…

Lucy’s company fired left, where the Germans had mounted a local attack. They had, according to rumor, rushed a British trench, bayoneted several men and taken several others prisoner. These men escaped when British shells distracted their captors, and order was soon restored.

But the Royal Irish, already depleted, stood to in anticipation of a night attack.[1]

 

A few miles to the north of what was rapidly becoming the Ypres Salient, the Royal Dragoons were resting after several days of fighting and moving. Julian Grenfell began a letter home. It will be one of the most-quoted letters of the war, but not here, and not today.

But only because he had hardly begun when he put it aside for three days…[2]

 

Lastly, two significant events in other lives.

Francis Ledwidge, a scant five days after his last-meeting-and-pondering-pedaling, enlisted today, a century back, in the 5th (New/Kitchener’s Army) Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Ireland remained first in his heart and mind, but now that he fought for the entire empire, supporters of the pro-war National Volunteers could never more accuse him of idle sentiment or cowardice. Here’s how he put it himself:

Some of the people who know me least imagine that I joined the Army because I knew men were struggling for higher ideals and great emprises, and I could not sit idle to watch them make for me a more beautiful world. They are mistaken. I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.[3]

More happily, Eleanor Farjeon’s brother Bertie, who had enlisted and then been invalided out of the army with severe varicose veins, got married today, to Joan Thornycroft. Yes! That Joan Thornycroft: daughter of the sculptor Sir Hamo Thornycroft, first cousin of Siegfried Sassoon, and attendee at the surely-soon-to-be-famous Ballet of the War Poets Trismegisti.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There's a Devil in the Drum, 226-30.
  2. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 228.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 83.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 102.

Furnes is Overrun with Ambulance-Riding Writers; John Lucy Endures a Terrifying Day, and Exacts Revenge

First, today, Sarah Macnaughtan‘s diary:

23 October

The guns are nearer today or more distant, the battle sways backwards and forwards, and there is no such thing as a real ‘base’ for a hospital. We must just stay as long as we can and fly when we must.

About 10 am the ambulances that have been out all night begin to come in, the wounded on their pitiful shelves. All day the stretchers are brought in and the work goes on. It is about five o’clock that the weird tired hour begins when the dim lamps are lighted, and people fall over things, and nearly everything is mislaid, and the wounded cry out, and one steps over forms on the floor. From then till one goes to bed it is difficult to be just what one ought to be, the tragedy of it is too pitiful.

Blood-stained mattresses and pillows are carried out into the courtyard. Two ladies help to move the corpses. There is always a pile of bandages and rags being burnt, and a youth stirs the horrible pile with a stick. A queer smell permeates everything, and the guns never cease.The wounded are coming in at the rate of 100 a day.

The Queen of the Belgians called to see the hospital today. Poor little Queen, coming to see the remnants of an army and the remnants of a kingdom! She was kind to each wounded man, and we were glad of her visit, if for no other reason than that some sort of cleaning and tidying was done in her honour. Tonight Mr. Nevinson arrived, and we went round the wards together after supper…[1]

Now, the letter to her sisters:

DR. HECTOR MUNRO’S AMBULANCE,

FURNES, BELGIUM,

23 October.

My Dear People,

I think I may get this posted by a war correspondent who is going home, but I never know whether my letters reach you or not, for yours, if you write them, never reach me. I can’t begin to tell you all that is happening, and it is really beyond what one is able to describe. The tragedy of pain is the thing that is most evident, and there is the roar and the racket of it and the everlasting sound of guns. The war seems to me now to mean nothing but torn limbs and stretchers…

The tone is more precise, her emotions somewhat more controlled than in her diary. And she spares her sisters the really grimy details, such as the “horrible pile” of used bandages. But the message, except for a final “don’t worry about me” bit, is similarly unsparing:

I don’t think anyone can realise what it is to be just behind the line of battle, and I fear there would not be much recruiting if people at home could see our wards. One can only be thankful for a hospital like this in the thick of things, for we are saving lives, and not only so, but saving the lives of men who perhaps have lain three days in a trench or a turnip-field undiscovered and forgotten. As soon as a wounded man has been attended to and is able to be put on a stretcher again he is sent to Calais. We have to keep emptying the wards for other patients to come in, and besides, if the fighting comes this way, we shall have to fall back a little further.

We have a river between us and the Germans, so we shall always know when they are coming and get a start and be all right.

 

As Macnaughtan noted in her diary, the liberal journalist and writer H. W. Nevinson (father of C.R.W. Nevinson, who will become the one indispensable English painter/engraver of the war) joined our merry scribbling band of nurses, drivers, and orderlies, today, and

was at once set to work on an ambulance that wandered through roads and level fields deeply pitted with shell-holes right up to the gates of Dixmude, which was flaming in several places, the bombardment being very severe (October 23). All the windows were broken, and the streets covered with shattered glass that crunched under our feet as we walked to the centre of the blazing town. Only dogs and goats were to be seen, searching in vain for their human friends. But Belgians still held the place, firing from the windows of the houses till the flames or shells drove them out. At the entrance of the town, near the bridge over the Yser, a private house had been converted into a dressing-station, and there the wounded were dragged in for the stanching of blood and the simple amputations, rapidly executed by two doctors, while two priests attended the dying.

Filling our ambulance cart with the due number of “cases,” Lady Dorothy Feilding and I drove them back to Furnes, and in the long ward there, as we passed from one appalling sight of anguish to another, a nurse of some literary reputation said to me, “Would rulers make war if they saw this? ” And I could only reply, ” Yes, they would.”[2]

The nurse–although I don’t believe she is actually a trained nurse–is of course Macnaughtan, who had published several novels.

It’s fun to contrast enfilading (as it were) accounts like this, and it’s worth noting, in a counter-riposte to Nevinson’s dismissive reply, that Macnaughtan’s letter shows her to be thinking on slightly different lines.

It’s tempting to suppose that Nevinson’s memory is off by a letter–would the rulers? Sure. But could they, if, as Macnaughtan suggests in the letter to her sisters, potential recruits knew what awaited so many of them in an overtaxed hospital ward?

Either way, of course, the “nurse of some literary reputation” is wrong and the wise old liberal lion is right: the pity of war, even with the eventual publication/publicizing of its horrors, has not led to its abolition.

And yet one of the big questions that sits athwart this project’s line of advance is whether the new literary reputations that will be forged, especially for those who dredge poetry out of the pity (and the horror), will affect the calculations of rulers–or, at the least, democratic rulers. Will the horrors of this war make it harder to begin the next one, harder to recruit a mass army? Yes, to some degree. But that is only to shift the burden… so it’s hard to declare in advance any sort of political victory for poetry.

 

When we left John Lucy yesterday, the Royal Irish were working to complete their new defensive positions.

The following morning the Germans came at us.

It was the beginning of the end for us, for we had now arrived at the place of our destruction, and our fine battalion, still about seven hundred strong, perished here, almost completely, in the following five days.

Lucy is coming to the climax of his story, and at this point–rather belatedly, if one has been reading his book straight through–he introduces the men of his section, providing pseudonyms and swift characterizations. These are a bit rote and suffer from being introduced already under the shadow of doom. But never mind: there isn’t space here to take in what becomes a classic squad/section war story, and we’ll read instead close to Lucy’s account of his personal experiences.

The night was spent rather comfortably in the firing trench, as a few old campaigners had snuck off to find straw pallets–when they should have been working to deepen the trenches or extend the communications trenches which did not yet “communicate” to the rear.

In the morning Lucy’s section dug for a while, then rested. If we are to suspect the novelization, we would do so here. Lucy writes that he was cleaning his fingernails when the first shell came over:

A tearing sound, increasing in force, caused us to raise our eyebrows, and petrified us all into watchful stillness. Our minds were fixed on the rumbling noise of an approaching shell, an uncommonly loud gasping kind of noise, as if the projectile was making efforts of its own accord. It was the loudest shell we had heard in transit to date… There was a terrific thump which shook the ground, and quite a pause, then a rending crash, so shatteringly loud that each of us believed it to be in his own section of trench… The monster shell had burst well behind us in amongst the houses of the village. A huge black cloud rose slowly up and bits of brick and hot metal kept clattering to the earth, even as far as the trenches, for about half a minute. The tiles flew off a whole row of houses leaving a gaunt skeleton of rafters against the sky, and then, when we thought that was all, one house caved in on itself and slowly collapsed…

All that long day the heavy shells came slowly down with thud and crash, their concussion alone shaking landslides from the back and front of our trenches…

Thus is vivid stuff. The cliches–raised eyebrows, petrification–are minor impediments, and the attribution of monstrous intent to the inert falling projectile is more original than it might seem–a bit of magical realism in an unlikely place. And the slow fall of the house is nothing so much as a proleptic vision of a late 20th century cinematic cliche.

The shell was from an enormous siege gun–firing shells with a diameter of 12 or perhaps 15 inches–and more came, generally aimed at the village of Neuve Chapelle. More dangerous to the Royal Irish themselves were the ordinary field artillery which now begin accurately firing into the trench.

A ‘whizzbang’ [a much smaller gun of 77 millimeters, named by the British for the sound of its high-speed approach] came into our trench and stuck unexploded in the back wall; another blew in the bay on my right, and yet another scattered the sandbags from the top of the traverse on my left, under which I was crouching. I willed myself smaller and smaller, and prayed like the devil.

The bombardment went on and on with no infantry attack, and the men of Lucy’s section began to crack. One man began “seeing signs and portents” in the clouds, another loudly “began to bemoan his fate.” Lucy is frank about his own state:

My limbs were trembling. I cursed them… my throbbing head was being jerked by every painful heart-pump. My senses were strained to the breaking-point concentrating on the special shell that was to kill or maim me, or trying not to concentrate on it.

One of his men is wounded by a fragment, sent back for treatment, bandaged, and returned to the line. Others fall asleep, their bodies shutting down under the stress of the bombardment.

“Toward evening,” the Germans attack. Here’s a good early war irony: because the tactics of close artillery support of an infantry attack have yet to be worked out, the attack brings great relief to the beleaguered Irish. The German guns stop–and the defenders finally have something to do.

The relief was unspeakable. We… [were] men once more and no longer cannon fodder.

The Germans, either mistaken about the location of the British trenches or relying on the effectiveness of their bombardment, are advancing still in dense “‘columns of lumps.” They present an easy target to the trained riflemen of the Regular Army.

We let them have it. We blasted and blew them to death. They fell in scores, in hundreds… The groups melted way, and no man was able to stand in our sight within five minutes. The few survivors panicked, and tried to keep their feet in retreat. We shot them down through the back. A red five minutes…

We had cancelled out our shell-tortured day with a vengeance.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There's a mistake in the Women in the War Zone excerpt here, which, alas, led me a merry chase. The editor glosses "Mr. Nevinson" as "[the war artist]." It's actually the future-and-futurist war artist's father, whom I will introduce in a moment. The full (published) diary and the letter cited below can be found here.
  2. Nevinson, Fire of Life, 299.
  3. There's a Devil in the Drum, 217-225.

Lady Feilding Describes a Heavy Bombardment While Her Unit Absorbs Another Writer; Frank Richards and John Lucy Each Dig a Section of Their New Home Trench

Oct 22nd        Dunkerque

Mother dear –

Just back in Dunkerque for one night & so will send this off by English bearer if one’s going home for a day.

It’s 1 am & I am very sleepy having slept in my clothes all last night & not washed more than half my neck for a day or two. Just had a bath. Thank God for our good soap.

We are quartered at Fumes for the moment as very heavy work round there.

Ghastly bombardment of Dixmude by quick German guns yesterday & our people (me not there absolutely) had the hell of a time getting wounded out. Shrapnel on ambulances & all around. Robert de Broqueville got left behind by mistake & we didn’t know till 10pm he was safe, after having become convinced he was killed. It was awful. It’s much worse being frightened for someone else than being in it yourself. I was in a car just outside & couldn’t get in.

The whole town was blazing & looked horrible in the night. The road up to it had been shelled all day – you never saw such holes as those big shells made in the boggy ground each side – when they land a column of mud as high as a house goes up. One fell on ammunitions wagon yesterday & reduced horses men & all to jam and powder. It was almost incredible–poor devils…

Goodbye dears. War is an utterly incomprehensible horror & how we should want to bring it on ourselves I can’t conceive. But it’s worse far from a distance, than actually near it. Somehow it doesn’t frighten me so much when you understand it a bit–I was far more miserable over people in it when I was at home.

Much love,

Diddles[1]

 

Thus Lady Feilding describing yesterday, a century back. Today was nearly as difficult–and we’ll get to another account of it in a moment–but the events of the 21st will shortly become a bone of contention. This was due to Philip Gibbs, an intrepid reporter who had taken advantage of the slow organization of official censorship to fling himself into the battle in Belgium. Gibbs had fallen in with Feilding’s unit on the 20th–we are nearing the end of the war’s purely improvisational/dashing-British-amateur phase, but it was still possible for a war reporter to hitchhike to a battle and join an ambulance unit, free from any official obstruction.

Gibbs described the situation–including yesterday’s misplacing of Lt. de Broqueville–in rather different language. I’ll draw on a later book for the account below, but it is largely recycled, as Gibbs admits, from material originally published in the Daily Mail, in particular an article that will be coming out in four days, a century back.

Here are Gibbs’s first impressions of Dr. Munro’s corps:

Many of them were in the siege of Antwerp, where they stayed until the wounded had to be taken away in a hurry; and others, even more daring, had retreated from town to town, a few kilometres in advance of the hostile troops. I had met some of the party in Malo-les-Bains, where they had reassembled before coming to Fumes, and I had been puzzled by them.

In the “flying column,” as they called their convoy of ambulances, were several ladies very practically dressed in khaki coats and breeches, and very girlish in appearance and manners. They did not seem to me at first sight the type of woman to be useful on a battlefield or in a field-hospital. I should have expected them to faint at the sight of blood, and to swoon at the bursting of a shell. Some of them at least were too pretty, I thought, to play about in fields of war among men and horses smashed to pulp. It was only later that I saw their usefulness and marvelled at the spiritual courage of these young women, who seemed not only careless of shell-fire but almost unconscious of its menace, and who, with more nervous strength than that of many men, gave first-aid to the wounded without shuddering at sights of agony which might turn a strong man sick.

Reflexive chauvinism makes such a useful backdrop upon which to announce one’s enlightenment.

Gibbs is only passing through, more or less, and yet he seizes the opportunity for self-centered melodrama:

That courtyard in the convent at Furnes will always haunt my mind as the scene of a grim drama. Sometimes, standing there alone, in the darkness, by the side of an ambulance, I used to look up at the stars and wonder what God might think of all this work if there were any truth in old faiths. A pretty mess we mortals made of life! I might almost have laughed at the irony of it all, except that my laughter would have choked in my throat and turned me sick. They were beasts, and worse than beasts, to maim and mutilate each other like this, having no real hatred in their hearts for each other, but only a stupid perplexity that they should be hurled in masses against each other’s ranks, to slash and shoot and burn in obedience to orders by people who were their greatest enemies–Ministers of State, with cold and calculating brains, high inhuman officers who studied battlefields as greater chessboards. So I–a little black ant in a shadow on the earth under the eternal sky–used to think like this, and to stop thinking these silly irritating thoughts turned to the job in hand, which generally was to take up one end of a stretcher laden with a bloody man, or to give my shoulder to a tall soldier who leaned upon it and stumbled forward to an open door which led to the operating-table and an empty bed, where he might die if his luck were out.

A little much. Then again, perhaps the visitor can present horrors with an immediacy that those hardened to them would have to struggle to excavate. And he does praise the doctors and nurses in the same fulsome terms that he uses in his more general lament:

My spirit bowed before them as I watched them at work. I was proud if I could carry soup to any of them when they came into the refectory for a hurried meal, or if I could wash a plate clean so that they might fill it with a piece of meat from the kitchen stew. I would have cleaned their boots for them if it had been worth while cleaning boots to tramp the filthy yard.

Once more into the charnel house:

Silence again. Then a voice speaking quietly across the yard:

“Anyone to lend a hand? There’s a body to be carried out.”

I helped to carry out the body, as every one helped to do any small work if he had his hands free at the moment. It was the saving of one’s sanity and self-respect. Yet to me, more sensitive perhaps than it is good to be, it was a moral test almost greater than my strength of will to enter that large room where the wounded lay, and to approach a dead man through a lane of dying. (So many of them died after a night in our guest-house. Not all the skill of surgeons could patch up some of those bodies, torn open with ghastly wounds from German shells.) The smell of wet and muddy clothes, coagulated blood and gangrened limbs, of iodine and chloroform, sickness and sweat of agony, made a stench which struck one’s senses with a foul blow. I used to try and close my nostrils to it, holding my breath lest I should vomit. I used to try to keep my eyes upon the ground, to avoid the sight of those smashed faces, and blinded eyes, and tattered bodies, lying each side of me in the hospital cots, or in the stretchers set upon the floor between them. I tried to shut my eyes to the sounds in this room, the hideous snuffle of men drawing their last breaths, the long- drawn moans of men in devilish pain, the ravings of fever-stricken men crying like little children–“Maman! O Maman!”[2]

 

About forty miles south of Furnes, just within the French border, Frank Richards and the 2/Royal Welch reached the village of Fromelles and were ordered to dig in. (Embattled Ypres is about half-way between the two–the British sector is settling into a mostly north-south line, with Ypres to present a significant bulge.)

Their “race to the sea” was over. Richards gives us the hindsighted view:

Little did we think when we were digging those trenches that we were digging our future homes; but they were the beginnings of the long stretch that soon went all the way from the North Sea to Switzerland and they were our homes for the next four years.

This is a common exaggeration–the trenches were rarely seamlessly interconnected for more than a few miles at a time–but a forgivable one.  There was now a continuously manned military position stretching all the way across France and Belgium, from mountains to shining sea.

This is as good a day as any, then, to mark the beginning of Trench Warfare with a bit of a look at the trenches themselves.

Standardization will come later, as Richards makes very clear:

Each platoon dug in on its own… We dug those trenches simply for fighting; they were breast-high with the front parapet on ground level and in each bay we stood shoulder to shoulder. We were so squeezed for room that whenever an officer passed along the trench one man would get behind the traverse if the officer wanted to stay awhile in that bay.

ch1_trenches_topHere is a first piece of essential vocabulary: trenches were dug in a zig-zag or (more properly) toothed shape, looking from above like the crenelations of a castle wall. (See this simple diagram [or doctored photo?] from PBS. Like virtually every trench illustration it shows the elaborate systems that were developed toward the end of the year, but the four principal types of trench–firing, support, reserve, and the communications trenches between them, which were usually not fully traversed, were already part of the established practice and terminology at the beginning of the war.) A bay, then, is a section that faced the enemy, while the traverse is either the short section running roughly perpendicular to the enemy or the entire section of two perpendicular lengths and the parallel-to-the-line bay behind.

Traversed trenches took longer to dig and move along, but they were necessary for two reasons. First, if the enemy outflanked a straight trench (the technical term for being able to fire into a position from the side is “enfilade”) he could fire along its length, targeting long lines of men at once instead of isolated individuals. Second, if an explosive dropped into the trench its effect would be contained to a single bay. At this stage of the war, a shell bursting within a trench would be a remarkable bit of good/ill fortune, but in subsequent years the proliferation of grenades and mortars meant that it was much more common.

Later trenches were deeper and included dugouts and a raised fire step, so men could at the very least get out of the way of trench traffic. But not yet:. Back to Frank Richards for a moment:

When our Company Commander passed along the trench we had to squeeze our bodies into the front parapet to allow him to pass. If a man did not move smart enough, out would come his revolver and he would threaten to blow the man’s ruddy brains out. During this time he had a perfect mania for pulling his gun and threatening us one and all for the least trifling thing we done. Our platoon officer followed his example, but he used to pull his gun in a half ashamed manner. The platoon nicknamed them Buffalo Bill and Deadwood Dick…[3]

“Buffalo Bill,” we have learned, was Captain C. I. Stockwell, who seems to have caused problems for his superiors as well as his men. It was only A Company that dug by platoons, while all the others dug by company–and Stockwell also entrenched in a different place than ordered.

It seems that the officers of the Royal Welch agreed that some moron on the staff had picked the location of their new lines: the position was both overlooked by the future German lines and too close to good sniper positions. But only Stockwell simply ignored the orders and dug his lines in a different place.

When the Commanding Officer came by Stockwell “heard a good deal about it,” but by then his company had put facts eighteen inches into the ground, and so A Company’s unauthorized lines were continued, and D company was forced to re-angle their section of trench to connect with A. The “cold” language of Dunn’s semi-official report seems to cover both admiration and disdain for this bull-headed bully–the same view, more or less, as Richards. But here’s where the issue ends, for now:

In the time to come the front companies were to be troubled by snipers… C was also in inescapable enfilade… A was to suffer least from snipers, shell-fire, and infantry assaults.[4]

Just as Richards introduced “Buffalo Bill” as the rare bully who was a good fighting soldier, it seems that the officers of the regiment accept that the insubordinate and obnoxious individualist has saved the lives of his men. But at what cost, and to whom?

 

Only a few miles further south and west, John Lucy and the Royal Irish Rifles were also settling in to new defensive positions. These would be their “new homes” as well. The Royal Irish

were taken out of reserve on 22nd October and ordered still farther back–to straighten out the line, they said. We did not like it… Three of our companies occupied these trenches. The regiments operating in front retired, and came back through our line, making us the forward fighting troops in a new defensive position.

Our trenches, engineer-planned, were good, and clean cut in straight bays and traverses, some of which had been revetted with sandbags. We mentally thanked the sappers for their work…

This is fortunate–Richards wrote of the same time that sandbags were as yet “unheard of,” and here the Royal Irish have had the help of real engineers. But the trenches were not finished–they were neither deep enough nor entirely interconnected.

All looked bright and cheery. A small man could fire standing in the trenches. Given time, even one whole day, any regular battalion could make the place an earthen fortress.

A runner from headquarters reported the existence of a series of four very deep reserve trenches only three hundred yards away to the left rear of our company. All to the good…

All we wanted now was a little time for final improvements to finish off the good work of the sappers, and we would smash anything that came at us… but we got no time. The following morning the Germans came at us.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. From Lady Under Fire, 16-17.
  2. Gibbs, The Soul of War, VII, sections 11-2, available here.
  3. Old Soldiers Never Die, 34-6.
  4. The War the Infantry Knew, 77-8.
  5. There's a Devil in the Drum, 209-210.