Charles Sorley Discourses on Thomas Hardy; Rupert Brooke is on the End of More Pulled Strings

Rupert Brooke, who had long been dissatisfied with the Nelson Battalion, has been trying to pull strings (his friend and de facto agent Eddie Marsh is Churchill’s private secretary) to follow several friends (including Oc Asquith) into a different battalion of the Royal Naval Division. He got his wish, and today arrived at the camp of the Hood Battalion, near Blandford, Dorset. The change will make Brooke marginally happier. But it is still cold and muddy, and tiresome to go on alert at  every unlikely rumor of a German raid of invasion.[1]


Charles Sorley wrote to his parents today from camp. Strangely, he is not interested in cajoling socks or chocolate (although these requests could have been edited out of his generally weighty letters–always a possibility). No: he is interested in discussing the latest work of Thomas Hardy.

Shorncliffe, 30 November 1914

Thanks very much indeed for the letter and Lit. Sups.[Times Literary Supplements], and especially for Satires of Circumstance. I had not got it or ordered it but had often been thinking of doing so. So it came most welcomely.

Needless to say, I do not agree with your criticisms of T. H.’s later work. The actual “Satires of Circumstance” which come in the middle of the book I thought bad poetry. But I think you are too hard on the rest. Hardy explains in the preface to one of his former books of poems that they are expressions of moods and are not to be taken as a whole reading of life, but “the road to a true philosophy of life seems to be in humbly recording divers aspects of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change.” And I don’t think he writes these poems [for the reason] you suggest, but with a view to helping people on that “road to a true philosophy of life.” Curiously enough, I think that “Men who march away” is the most arid poem in the book, besides being untrue of the sentiments of the ranksman going to war: “Victory crowns the just” is the worst line he ever wrote–filched from a leading article in The Morning Post, and unworthy of him who had always previously disdained to insult Justice by offering it a material crown like Victory.

To the Satires in a moment. This criticism of “Men Who March Away” is oft-cited (even here) and, indeed, very apt. It was a misstep by Hardy, a muddled and middling response to the appeal to the country’s most established writers to begin producing informal propaganda.

But the new volume of Hardy’s poetry shows that he can still write.

I think in looking through it you must have missed a verse like:

Yes, I companion him to places
    Only dreamers know,
Where the shy hares print long paces,
    Where the night rooks go;
Into old aisles where the past is all to him,
    Close as his shade can do,
Always lacking the power to call to him,
    Near as I reach thereto!

Well, yes: take that, Mom and Dad. Hardy may be older than you, and hardly infallible, but the Satires are proof that he is an uncompromising poet. Stanzas like this are why Hardy was a living bridge between the real ancient heart of England (as opposed to the idealized, pre-Raphaelite, proto-Hobbiton’d medieval England of the imagination) and the brutal modern world.[2] With just the daintiest of piers touching down in the High Victorian era itself, during which he was writing tragic and uncompromising novels.

The poem could be Victorian–it’s called “The Haunter,” and the speaker is a ghost. Or it could be 18th century: there is the hare, the rook, the stately idiom. But it’s modern, too, as modern as Woolf and Forster’s 1910, or Hardy’s 1913. Perhaps it’s even only a few war years’ worth of brutalization away from Jarrell’s more graphic haunting of 1945–the speaker is near, is close, is almost to the person he wants to reach. But (only) he can’t connect.

Thus the situational irony that Fussell found throughout Satires of Circumstance and has taught us to see as the poetic mise-en-scène for the writing of the actual war: we hear his words and, in the poem’s other stanzas, see the one the speaker haunts. We–the readers–are urged to make the connection that the dead and the living cannot:

What a good haunter I am, O tell him,
    Quickly make him know
If he but sigh since my loss befell him
    Straight to his side I go.
Tell him a faithful one is doing
    All that love can do
Still that his path may be worth pursuing,
    And to bring peace thereto.

Yes, but we can’t, can we? We’re only readers. It’s eery, it’s chilling, it’s impossible. So many poets have already set their pens to speak for the glorious dead, to put words in their mouthless skulls, and what has Hardy done? Unwittingly–or gripped, perhaps, by the persona of the poetic sage which others will soon begin to ascribe to him–he has already written a poem that shows the impossibility of this sort of wishful, blind memorializing.

The poem isn’t about the war–it was written well before it. So were the rest of the Satires of Circumstance. It’s certainly true that they are not Hardy’s greatest poetic work: they are relentlessly grim–which, as Sorley will point out, below, is to say they come from the heart–and relentlessly on message.

Paul Fussell makes much of a similar poem in which there is a speaker and a grave. It might be a conventional war poem until we realize that the unbridgeable gap is between a dog and its dead master. The master appreciates the fidelity, the remembrance–and the dog, vacantly, apologizes: it had forgotten the grave, and was merely looking for a buried bone. This establishes “a terrible irony as the appropriate interpretive means”–for the bitter struggle and constant, disastrous failure of communications which, Hardy believes, is the true nature of life.[3]

I’ll agree! You may not, but that’s not the point: we have embarked now on a bitter struggle characterized by constant, disastrous failures of communications, and to read about the war from a distance–of time as well as space–is to read ironically: we know, they don’t, and we can’t communicate.

And Charles Sorely, by the way, is a diligent and streaky reader. When he reads an author he reads both intensively and extensively, seeking mastery of the material. So on to the Dynasts, that huge verse drama of a century back’s century back, which, coincidentally, had just had its premiere as a stage piece.

I have been lately reading a great deal in The Dynasts, which I bought three weeks ago. His poetry there is at its very best, especially in the choruses and battle-songs, perhaps because the comprehensiveness of the task did not allow him to introduce himself and his own bitternesses, as he can in his lyrics. It has a realism and true ring which “Men who march away” lacks. I cannot help thinking that Hardy is the greatest artist of the English character since Shakespeare: and much of The Dynasts (except its historical fidelity) might be Shakespeare. But I value his lyrics as presenting himself (the self he does not obtrude into the comprehensiveness of his novels and The Dynasts) as truly, and with faults as well as strength visible in it, as any character in his novels. His lyrics have not the spontaneity of Shakespeare’s or Shelley’s: they are rough-hewn and jagged: but I like them, and they stick.[4].

Hardy was not always all gloom and doom, and I like to think that he would appreciate the gentler irony of a seventy-four-year-old literary giant receiving such high and well-aimed praise from a nineteen-year-old subaltern. Yes: Hardy worked with the real old building blocks of language. Rough-hewn indeed. They stick, and they’ll last.

References and Footnotes

  1. Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 473.
  2. To be clear, Thomas Hardy was not five hundred years old, and could not really speak for pre-modern England, let alone for a timeless English past that never existed per se. But he does remember--and write about--a time when the railroads didn't go everywhere, and one walked the long rural miles from town to town; he remembers the dialects of the little preterite nooks and hamlets of southwestern England; and he saw himself as speaking not just for the pre-Victorian past of the living memory of his youth but for the outlook and way of life of those untouched by industry or urbanization. Hardy had trained as a mason, repairing with hand-tools England's medieval churches, and he knew the ways of pre-mechanical husbandry and agriculture.
  3. The Great War and Modern Memory, 3-4.
  4. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 246-7

Vera Brittain Hears an Uplifiting–and yet Slightly Downtreading–Sermon; Donald Hankey is Cosily Situated

Vera Brittain is an uncharacteristic muddle about today’s sermon.

Sunday November 29th

Dorothy & I went this morning to the University Church where the Bishop of Oxford preached a most splendid & inspiring sermon. The chief thing I remember about it is that it was an address particularly to people like students here who are engaged in the intellectual & artistic side of life rather than the practical. He said the great danger for such people was that they often tended to become spectators & think themselves neutral & take neither of two alternatives. But, he said, no one is meant to take no side, & we are told in the Bible that we must either serve God or Mammon; the Bible in fact did not admit the neutral person & always describes a man not so much as what he is as what he is becoming.

So far so good–or, at least, clear enough.

The contemplative life, he said, is not an alternative for us to choose. Only when we have struggled & suffered & striven may we dare to view things from without as spectators & no longer as actors.

It’s not quite clear though, now, who exactly the “we” is. It surely could be everyone, and the “struggle” then could be any sort of struggle in life. Unobjectionable theology. But the general context implies the war, and this becomes explicit in the next sentence.

He went on to say that for such as us, who could not take an active part in the war, our action was to keep up the standard of intellect & morals as high as possible, that those who fought & died for England might feel she was worth fighting & dying for. If our soldiers on battlefields abroad were fighting the enemy for the sake of ideals of honour & justice & freedom, it was our duty to see that at home we did not allow those ideals to slip.[1]

This seems to narrow the “we” from students in general–warned not to sit on the sidelines against the devil–to “we” the women. If this reading is right (the male Oxford students, after all, were more than welcome to “take an active part” in the war), than this sharp swerve in the sermon is, in Vera’s account, eerily like funeral oration of Pericles in Thucydides. At the end of this famous patriotic barn-burner, Pericles suddenly addresses the widows of the men who have died in the war’s first year… and warns them to shut the hell up.

The bishop seems to be saying something similar, if more oblique: we should all be proud of our country, the young men should ready themselves for trial and further glorious sacrifice… and the women need only to remain quiet and morally blameless. This sounds extremely Victorian–and haven’t we rebelled against the fusty idealizations of old-fashioned, provincial young ladyhood?

Vera Brittain evidently heard this differently, or hasn’t clearly represented what she appreciated about the speech. She’s a young idealist, and there is plenty here that can be heard as something other than run of the mill sexism (which she also must be accustomed to filtering out–it was a much noisier and more insistent background hum than we are now accustomed to). “Intellect” is still a magic word for her, and “ideals” are… well, a less suspect category than they will be a century hence. Or two or three years hence.

But still, what is she hearing? “Study hard and think morally elevated thoughts so that the allied cause may remain superior?” But that sounds hardly different from “let me use the occasion of a world war to remind you that any moral lapses–and that, ladies, of course means anything remotely sexual–will be harshly punished.”

Or am I off on a hysterical tangent, and is the message, simply: “since you can’t fight, you must find yourself an occupation worthy of the soldiers’ sacrifice?”


Donald Hankey, middle class sergeant and author of a book of religious essays, is not the sort to write a whiny letter from camp. But he doesn’t have to: he’s been billeted on the locals of Elstead, Surrey, and it sounds like a pleasant life, especially compared to that of some of the less fortunate members of Kitchener’s mob. Hankey wrote today to his cousin.

Dear Valerie,

I am writing to tell you that being billeted is very nice. My hostess is a very charming Irish lady of over seventy, and the house is a little new villa which looks as if it had no room in it, and really has quite a lot. Mrs. Coppin keeps to her room for the most part, and I have the run of the whole house. There are two riflemen here too. One is a Manchester man a railway stoker and the other a Londoner a man who instals and mends elevators. We all have meals together with the cook-housekeeper and the maid; but Mrs. Coppin is getting up a bridge four for my benefit to-morrow, and the doctor and his lady are invited to tea to-day for my benefit!

The country is lovely all woods and lakes and bracken and heather, and the village is a nice straggling old place…

Your aff. cousin,

Donald Hankey[2]

Hankey, remember, is from the higher reaches of the middle class, but he aspires–as a good (but unusual) Christian–to the fluid and imperturbable social agility of a true pastor. No wonder that the former-officer-turned-enlisted-man-promoted-NCO is happy in a situation where he dines with servants and will yet be entertained by the mistress among the quality. War does shake things up nicely…


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 128.
  2. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 253-4.

A Tolkien Intimate Goes for a Soldier; Charles Sorley Beautifully Quotes an Ugly Death

J.R.R. Tolkien had a sad and difficult childhood. Even after the death of both parents–his father in early childhood and his mother when he was twelve–he managed to flourish as a young man. This had much to do with the example and influence of his mother, with the Catholic church which she had embraced, and with the good fortune of finding his way to King Edward’s School. But Tolkien took a great deal of joy and sustenance, too, from his tight group of friends. They called themselves the TCBS, for Tea Club and Barrovian Society–an archly pompous name deriving from the store at which they met–and they had kept in close touch even after leaving Birmingham. They were clever and talented, and they took it as a matter of course that they would make their mark on the world.

Tolkien’s three best friends were the core of the TCBS, and while he and Geoffrey Wiseman (who was at Cambridge) had decided to finish their degrees, the other two–Geoffrey Bache Smith and Rob Gilson–had now spent months torn between school, safety, and all their previous plans, on the one hand, and the heavy social pressure to join Kitchener’s Army, on the other.

Gilson, a classics student and a promising artist, was at Cambridge. His father had instructed him to remain there for another term, but he was finding the example of so many of his fellow students difficult to resist. It wasn’t the enthusiasts who had joined in August or September–that wave was long past. But now, with hopes of a swift victory beginning to fade, even some of the most thoughtful and superficially unmilitary young men were seeking commissions, reasoning that their country’s need for their service was greater than their own preference for remaining in school.

Gilson worked a compromise, rushing ahead with his studies and sitting for the Classics Tripos Part I this term. He took a First Class degree, and today, a century back, he took a commission, too, in the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment, the “Cambridgeshire Battalion.”[1]


And Charles Sorley wrote today to the master of Marlborough, his old public school,

Shorncliffe, 28 November 1914

Many thanks for your letter. I have just returned from a game of Rugger with that familiar sensation of complete physical subjugation and mental content, formerly procurable any half-holiday at Marlborough, now only to be had on Saturday afternoons. We are leading such a funny life here, one would hardly think it was war-time. There is no longer any strangeness in wearing khaki and being saluted by one’s fellow men: there is work, it’s true, from 8.30 a.m. till 4, but one has come to regard it, as one regarded work at Marlborough, as a not at all acutely disagreeable necessity, which is sooner or later certain to be over and leave a large interval of freedom before it resumes. As at Marlborough, one goes through the former part passively and unsentiently, and it is only in the latter part that one lives. And as in the latter part one does not read military handbooks nor discuss tactical problems (shockingly enough), it may be said that the war abroad has hardly yet, beyond the loss of some acquaintances and an occasional anxiety for others, affected us here at all.

It is surprising how very little difference a total change of circumstances and prospects makes in the individual. The German (I know from the forty-eight hours of the war that I spent there) is radically changed, and until he is sent to the front, his one dream and thought will be how quickest to die for his country. He is able more clearly to see the tremendous issues, and changes accordingly. I don’t know whether it is because the English are more phlegmatic or more shortsighted or more egoistic or what, that makes them inwardly and outwardly so far less shaken by the war than at first seemed probable. The German, I am sure, during the period of training, “dies daily ” until he is allowed to die. We go there with our eyes shut. H. W. R.’s death was a shock. Still, since Achilles’s κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλος, ὅ περ σέο πολλὸνἀμείνων, which should be read at the grave of every corpse in addition to the burial service, no saner and splendider comment on death has been made, especially, as here, where it seemed a cruel waste.

This would be the death, following a German bombardment on the Aisne on September 20th, of 2nd Lieutenant H.W Roseveare, another classical scholar and former member of the Marlborough College OTC. He was one of the first of Sorley’s near-contemporary schoolmates to be killed.

Sorley is a seriously learned young man–remember, he finished school early and could have taken up an Oxford scholarship already were it not for the decision to spend a term in Germany in the spring–but perhaps he is showing off just a bit, here, for his old headmaster.

The line from the Iliad is a famous one, and can be rendered something like “And yet Patroclus died too, who was a far better man than thou.”

So it’s classical, and learned, and respectful, and humble. But the immediate literary context, which Sorley should have known (although one should never put it past clever public school boys of this generation to be able to produce a Latin or Greek tag without much sense of its context) is rather more chilling.

Book twenty-one of the Iliad is the long-delayed aristeia of Achilles, the day when that paramount warrior finally puts aside his brooding resentment and goes into battle to revenge his friend Patroclus. Achilles, battle-mad and crazed with guilty grief, not only slaughters Trojan after Trojan but taunts and dishonors them. The quoted line is his justification to one of his victims, a man already defeated, disarmed, and begging for mercy. Achilles, at this point, has become practically a personification of war, of violent death as an unthwartable fate. Is it an ironic, bitter response to the plea that a defeated man’s life might be spared–no, because I am avenging a better man–or is it an almost helplessly cruel fatalistic decree: we all die, and you will do so now, on the point of my spear?

Is Sorley perceptive and precocious in seeing the harsh, true war poetry of the Greeks as being about something other than glory?[2] Or is he deftly deploying a general and fairly unexceptionable sentiment–this war, never mind the justice of our cause and the fact that we are honor bound to fight and win, is sad, because it is destroying the best of us?

This is a question we’ll come back to–as Sorley will come back to this verse of the Iliad.

It’s worth noting, to bolster the presumption that Sorley is using the line more as a tag (i.e. as a good bit of fancy Greek sentiment, suitable for the funeral of a promising youth) then as a meditation on violent death, that Sorley also tosses a needless Latin tag into the letter’s last paragraph. So he’s showing off… but this is not proof positive that he doesn’t see a monstrous, looming allegory in Achilles’ pitiless murder of a defenseless infantryman.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 57.
  2. Which it is certainly about. Glory is the creed that Achilles lives and dies by. But it's not anything like Christian, or morally-imbued, or nationalistic glory, and Greek war poetry never averts its eyes from the ugliness and pain and misery of war.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 243-5.

Edward Hulse Leads a Patrol; Tolkien Reads a Voyage; Vera Brittain Runs Down the Family; a Birthday Dinner for Crofton

First off, best wishes to Captain Crofton on the anniversary of his birth, 1.35 centuries back. The trenches may be awful, but every front line unit will now have regular periods of rest behind the lines. These can be brutal, too–our friends the Royal Welch were famous for spending “rest” periods conducting punishment marches for any infractions of disciplined committed while in trenches–but they could also be enjoyable, if you have fine weather and a disposition like Crofton’s. Being an officer helps, especially if you have a horse, freedom of movement, and private resources more than sufficient for dining out.


My 35th Birthday! Woke at 730 feeling much better, Glorious sunny day. The Lady of the house gave me some nice hot coffee well laced with Brandy! Went off at 8.15 to Breakfast at a Hotel called ‘La Clef d’Or’ [The Golden Key], filthy hole. The key may have been golden but it was more than the Breakfast was.

Rode out at 9 with Humphreys. Warm and bright, altogether a delightful ride. Made our Reconnaissance and returned to Haverskerque for lunch at 1.30 – usual Omelette and Coffee! Country looked well. Saw 2 Magpies. Lucky! Started for Eecke at 2.30… A Birthday dinner with the Boys.[1]


Edward Hulse, too, writes with the boyish high spirits of an Englishman on holiday–despite the fact that he is in the trenches. He follows Julian Grenfell in regaling his mother with all the gory details of his actions in no man’s land.

We’ll get to the disturbing stuff soon, but first the simple reminder that one’s position in life–in billets in the rear, in the front line, in front of it–changes everything, even the weather–at least in its practical application. One man’s sunny glory is another man’s melting misery.


My Dearest Mother,

Back in same trenches three nights ago, and stay here till relieved again for a rest. Thaw and rain and damp has followed the hard weather and makes the trenches extremely unpleasant, but we are at it all day, improving and cleaning them up, and have very strict sanitation, which is needed, every bit of it.

And now to the heart of the matter: an early morning raid, which Crofton describes in two letters and an enclosed copy of his official report (which indicates a rather liberal interpretation of the responsibility to honorably self-censor.

Last night I had an exciting bit of work…

We started at 1.30 a.m., pitch dark and raining…  We managed to do the business, polished off four or five, and then ran like hares.

The tone here makes this sound like a game, an account of a thrilling little raid on the other boys’ cabins. Which it isn’t, quite. Again, knowledge of the enemy’s disposition has significant tactical value, even if risking nine or ten men to “shoot a few” of the enemy makes little sense. The army will eventually get over the idea that killing a few of the enemy is a worthwhile objective, but raids for intelligence purposes and actions to “control” or “dominate” no man’s land will remain a constant feature of the operational landscape.

It’s not a lark, because people get killed. But it’s the larking  tone that gives a mild shock to the peace-loving reader–or, perhaps, to the more discerning sort of patriot who would like to imagine that there is some obvious tactical difference between the good work of defending little Belgium from tyranny and the bad business of invasion for imperial aggrandizement. Which is, of course, naive.

But the tone! “Polishing off” other human beings after surprising them in their trenches is just so boyishly brutal–and he’s writing to his mother…

Part of the explanation is surely in the timing. Hulse is writing within hours of the raid, still adrenalized, still in the grip of the emotions of killing, nearly being killed, fighting and flying, still running high. And then he rewrote his account, two days later. This gives us s a good, tightly focused example of how much “historical” retrospect–even two days’ worth–can change the account of a military action:

29th November, 1914

My Dearest Mother,

I enclose my duplicate copy of report I sent in to Head-quarters ; you must make allowances for moderate editing as written at 5 a.m. by candle-light in a funk-hole and also in a hurry…

The enemies’ trenches in front of us had been extraordinarily quiet for several days, especially at night, and we had ascertained that they were only occupied by snipers and digging parties by day, and they retired at night into their second line of trenches (main position), leaving just a few sentries and snipers. It was thought desirable that something should be done to find out, and they detailed a raiding party of 1 officer, 1 N.C.O.
and eight men to carry this out. I got an N.C.O. and eight men to volunteer with great ease…

The CO and Adjutant came down to see us off, and give us instructions, namely, to get right up to the trenches, peep over if not spotted, select our marks, fire two rounds rapid, and kill all we could, and then each man for himself.

So the language of adventure is still present, but the careful terms of military description have replaced the giddy idiom. Much to his credit, killing appears as “killing” and not “polishing off.”

On an ordinary night we could probably have done this, as their trenches were lightly held and sentries apt to be sleepy ; but when we had got half way some firing opened away on the right…  This put the enemy on the alert, and by then I had satisfied myself that there were just as many of the enemy in their trenches, as of us in our trenches, an unpleasant conclusion to arrive at, when we were supposed to be raiding a lightly held trench! A little further on I made certain of this, as I saw five fires, or rather the reflections of them (as they were in dug-outs and bomb-proofs and one could just see the reflection on bits of smoke which penetrated through) within a space of 50 or 60 yards!

These were charcoal fires with a bit of wood burning probably. The fire I was making for was a proper wood fire,shewing a lot of smoke, and it was there that I hoped to be able to peep over and find a little group of men to polish off. Progress was very slow indeed, as it was all crawling on hands and knees over turnips, and only four or five yards at a time, and then “lie doggo” and listen.

This bit features both a regression to affectation–“polish off” is back, but at least “lie doggo” gets scare quotes–and excellent descriptive prose. Hulse gives a very clear, very vivid description of what this sort of action was like. Rarely, for example, are accounts of night actions so good about demonstrating the way in which light conceals and reveals.

Their sentries to our front were firing every now and then at our trenches, but all bullets passed over us, and we could locate them by the flash of the rifle.

All went well up to about 15 yards, when I extended from single file, to the right towards this fire. We did another 5 yards and I had given instructions that directly I loosed off my rifle, we should double forward, select marks, do all damage possible, and make off. I had seen where the sentry in front of me was, and told the scout to fire at the top of the parapet, in case he had his head over, and that I would fire at the place
where the flash of the rifle appeared. We could only just make out the line of the top of the parapet at ten yards’ distance.

We were just advancing again when the swine called out in King’s English, quite well pronounced, “Halt, who goes there,” and fired straight between the scout and myself ; he immediately fired where I had told him, and I fired at the point of the flash of the rifle, and there was a high-pitched groan ; at the same time we all doubled up to the foot of the parapet, saw dim figures down in the trenches, bustling about, standing to arms, and my N.C.O. fired the trench bomb[2] right into the little party by the fire. The other fellows all loosed off their two rounds rapid ; there were various groans audible in the general hubbub, and we then ran like hares. The minute the alarm was given they threw something on the fire which made it flare up, and the machine gun, which we knew nothing about, opened just to my left. I had time to see that it was in a little shelter, with a light inside, visible through the slit (for traversing) and they had evidently just lighted up to set the gun going. They had already stood to arms by the time we had turned tail, and they and the machine gun opened a very hot fire on us. I ran about 30 yards, and then took a “heavy” into the mud and slush of the ploughed field and lay still for a minute to find out where the machine-gun bullets were going… Then another run, and a heavy fall bang into our barbed wire, which was quite invisible, and which I thought was further off. These short sprints were no easy matter, as one carried about an acre of wet clay and mud on each foot. I had to lie flat and disentangle myself, and at that moment their machine gun swerved round and plastered away directly over my head not more than 2 or 3 feet. I waited again till it changed, and then ran like the devil for our trenches. I had lost direction a bit, and came on them sooner than I expected, and took a flying leap right over the parapet down about 9 or 10 feet into the trench. We had gone out on our extreme right, up the above-mentioned ditch, and I found that I came in about 50 yards to the right into the Borderers’ trenches (they had relieved the Grenadiers).

He’s lucky, in other words, that he didn’t lead his men into the “friendly” fire of the British battalion on their right.

Barring my rifle hitting me a good thump on the head as I fell into our trenches, and a bullet hole through the skirt of my coat, I was sound and whole, although extremely out of breath, and with a completely dry and salt taste in my mouth (the latter chiefly attributable to the intense anxiety to avoid the machine-gun fire). I had appointed a place of meeting for my men, and unfortunately only six turned up with the N.C.O. They had come in at every conceivable point ; one who lost his direction had come in 400 yards down the line ; I am sure that the two missing had tripped up over the foot of the enemy’s parapet, and fallen into their trenches, having misjudged the distance ; I myself very nearly did it, and was just able to stop only. From what I could see in the pitch darkness the trench curved out towards us on the right, and whereas I had to run 8 yards or so, the men on the right had only four or five yards to do ; hence their probable error of judgment, and probable headlong fall into the trench in front. The men behaved admirably…

Still, this would raise eyebrows in later phases of the war. It smacks of bad form to lead a patrol, “unfortunately” lose two men, and then discuss their own “error of judgment” rather than his own. But Hulse does not appear to feel as if he has done anything wrong: this was supposed to be both a stealth intelligence patrol and a raid, and its chaotic ending was inevitable.

Two men are dead, and a few Germans may be wounded or killed as well. And the intelligence gleaned?

The great thing was that we found that the enemy had brought up machine guns, tripled their numbers in the trenches, and were very much awake and could stand to arms at a moment’s notice ; all of which was very different from reports about them from our scouts on previous nights.

And is such information worth the lives of two men?

The CO and Adjutant frankly told me that they did not expect many to get back, and it was by lying flat that we avoided more casualties…

…best love to all—send me all news possible.

Ever your loving,



Vera Brittain reports on the family news:

Friday November 27th

A somewhat gloomy letter came from Mother about Edward, who evidently is not finding being gazetted altogether a joy. Apparently he arrived at Frensham minus most of the camp equipment he ought to have had, as he was never told what to get, and had to go straight back to London to buy the things, & stay the night there. Altogether he seems to be spending a good deal of money but apparently Father is still  undisturbed over it. The 11th Battalion Sherwood Foresters is by no means a new battalion; it was formed some time ago, and started when everyone was sleeping under canvas. It is still sleeping under canvas therefore, & this is not exactly a good time of the year for Edward to begin. Also the battalion seems to be rather overcrowded with subalterns; there are 20 instead of the usual 16. The most important thing he says however is that as the battalion is not newly formed it is in fairly good working order so that he will probably go to the front much sooner than he expected – possibly about February. Naturally this information disturbs Mother very much, & indeed it seems terribly close. It is very difficult here to write about the war, as there is so much work to do that I never have time to read the papers.[4]

So–and don’t think for a moment that this is written guilelessly–Vera is too busy to be concerned; Father would ordinarily worry about money but, having reluctantly agreed to his son-and-heir’s taking a commission, is now willing to spend what it takes; Edward, like any new boy, is worried about efficiency and fitting in and having the right sort of gear; and Mother is disturbed about the prospect of her son being a few months from potential slaughter. And don’t worry, Vera, we all know what it’s like to be too busy to keep up with the news on long, shapeless wars…


Lastly, and likewise bustling busily about the streets of Oxford today, a century back, was Ronald Tolkien. It was work all morning, drill all afternoon (he had joined the Oxford OTC at the beginning of term), then an early evening lecture and off to the Exeter College Essay Club.

It was a sparse meeting of the club, “an informal kind of last gasp” as normal college extra-curricular life dwindled away. The group was open to other kinds of compositions than formal essays, and tonight Tolkien read a strange one, a mythological poem of his own devising, sprung from his reading of the Old English poem Crist. It was entitled “The Voyage of Éarendel” and told of the wanderings of a star-associated hero, who, albeit in greatly elaborated and altered form, would one day take a key role in the long history of the elves and men of Middle Earth.

Tolkien described the reading in a matter-of-fact letter to his fiancée, Edith Bratt–apparently the poem “was well criticised”–but it must have been a big moment for him. Not that Tolkien ever lacked for quiet confidence in his own imaginative powers, but still: today was the first time he had presented his own creative writing to anyone other than very close friends.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Massacre of the Innocents, 46.
  2. This would be a primitive sort of rifle grenade, which, as Hulse notes elsewhere, was a brand-new and entirely unfamiliar weapon.
  3. Letters Written from the English Front, 37-42.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 127.
  5. Letters 2; See also Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 52.

A Showdown in a Wood for Edward Thomas and Robert Frost; The Nursing Sister is at it Again

I need to bend the rules just a bit today. Edward Thomas, he of the long walks and the poetic friendships, took a long walk with a poet friend… just about a century back, give or take a day. It seems as if his visit with Robert Frost began on the 25th, and he wrote about the incident on the 27th… so today, a century back, seems much the most likely date.[1]

Naturally, I wouldn’t go off-mission for an insignificant affair, but this was a matter of some moment to one of our poets. The walk became a run-in with an armed man, and although Robert Frost went from fulminating to laughing it off, “for Edward Thomas, the encounter would leave him haunted.”[2]

The incident was recorded by Thomas in a thoughtful, probing notebook entry, but his wife and daughter also wrote about its future effect on him, and Frost wrote about it both in letters just after the fact, and in post-war retrospect.[3] The facts of the matter can be retailed fairly simply.

Frost was renting a cottage from Lascelles Abercrombie, who had formal permission from Lord Beauchamp to stroll about in his woodlands. Frost assumed–incorrectly–that this permission extended to him as well. Off the two poets strolled, and who should they meet but a Lord Beauchamp’s surly gamekeeper Bott, brandishing his trusty 12-gauge. The keeper threatened the poets and ordered them to clear off, then followed them onto the road (and thus out of his keeperly jurisdiction) and threatened them some more. He was, by all accounts, an unpleasant man. Shades of every dazzling urbanite’s deep fear of the less-traveled road wrongly taken, into the arms of the predatory hillbilly.

Alone, Edward Thomas, a landless Englishman of the middle class, would surely have turned and walked away. He was also a sensible, non-confrontational type, and there was a shotgun pointed at him.

But alongside him was a truculent American, of late a hardscrabble farmer from the stone-strewn libertarian breeding grounds of northern New England.

Incensed, Frost was on the verge of accosting the man, but hesitated when he saw Thomas back off. Heated words continued to be had, with the adversaries goading then finally parting and the poets talking heatedly of the incident as they walked. Thomas said that the keeper’s aggression was unacceptable and that something should be done. Frost’s ire peaked as he listened to Thomas: something would indeed be done right now…

So the poets about-face, and Frost takes the argument to the keeper’s cottage, where he makes a nice display of door-banging and threatening.

What happened next would be a defining moment in the friendship of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas, and would plague Thomas to his dying days.

The keeper, recovering his wits, reached above the door for his twelve-bore shotgun and came outside, this time heading straight for Thomas, who until then had not been the keeper’s target. The gun was raised again; instinctively, Thomas backed off, and the gamekeeper saw the men from his property…[4]

What was this strange encounter?

Nothing more or less than silly macho bullshit. Universal, dopey, not-even-species-specific male territorial head-banging, retribution-promising, and status flourishing. Begun, sure, by a surly gamekeeper, a nasty piece of work overfond of his little power of chivvying trespassers, happy to sneer and, for a moment, lord it over men of a better class. But continued by educated, middle class men (however poetic and impoverished).

Men of that large and ill-defined gentle class which holds in its stiff embrace virtually all of our several-score writers. But never mind class. Don’t real men walk away from a pointless pissing contest with any sort of inferior?[5] The shotgun is bad form–which is why it shouldn’t enter into a gentleman’s considerations of his actions.

So. No harm was done, and after the poisonous rage and adrenaline filtered out the adversaries systems, both of the principle combatants could profit from the encounter by bragging about successfully facing down (i.e. pointlessly threatening and railing it) a belligerent idiot. It became a nice little story for Frost to trot out, all about half-mad, half-Medieval England, about English lords and the cretinous, violent, forest-dwelling yokels in their employ.

For the locals, apparently, it was lumped in with the silliness of the moment, that generalized spy paranoia that entertained fools, worried all but the most discerning of the citizenry, and brought terrible trouble to a few unfortunate strangers and aliens. Bott, the irascible keeper, had run off a strange-speaking foreign cottager, and good riddance. Might have been a German!

For the gentlemen (i.e. Abercrombie, and his and Thomas’s and Frost’s mutual friend Wilfrid Gibson) who were stuck between the friend they must loyally back and the local powers they had good reason not to annoy, it was an awkward blunder caused by an uncomprehending American and a troublesome retainer.[6] And, again, no one really suffered and Frost and Bott could both preen about the silly affair.

But all this doesn’t cover Edward Thomas. He had backed off from the first confrontation, then, as was his wont, questioned his own actions, which precipitated the second act. Then he had retreated, leaving the keeper and his shotgun in possession of the field.

As assiduous readers must realize, I am deeply impressed with Edward Thomas. With his prose and his verse and most of all his wisdom, his steadfast refusal–despite the claims on his time, the difficulties of his life, and the specter of crippling depression–to let life, and least of all his own decisions, pass by unexamined. He knew full well that the confrontation had not been about anything significant, that it should have dwindled quickly to anecdotal status. But some things aren’t that simple.

Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that Thomas was a very good writer recently aware of his ambition to write verse, and his friend Frost, though really only one big step ahead–North of Boston, published just that summer, was his first mature collection–was clearly a major poet in the making. (And he would, of course, make his most famous poem in the image of his indecisive, wood-walking English friend.)

But no–it’s not even that complicated. Thomas was abashed, maybe even appalled at how much the incident bothered him, but it did. And what bothered him was not the idiot gamekeeper or Frost’s belligerence, what bothered him was that he had backed down while his friend stood up to a bully. Maybe it was a stupid test, but it was still a test. Maybe he was a highly intelligent critic and writer, but he was still a man. His “mettle had… been tested in the presence of his friend.” He was gun shy; he had flinched.

Worse, Thomas had many memories of running from gamekeepers in the woods of his youth, and of being punished when caught trespassing. But that had been boyish fun, and now, it seemed, “something that had amused him as a child now frightened him.” He couldn’t shake the sense that he had proved himself to be a coward before the eyes of a friend, a man whose good opinion he valued. This despite the fact that “Frost made no such suggestion; even had he believed it to be the case he would not have needed to express it. He knew that Thomas’s profound self-examination would make that unnecessary.”

So. I think this is comprehensible. Regrettable–how much does one’s response in this one sort of situation really matter?–but comprehensible. Sometimes in life you have to stand up to a bully, and in those situations it is better to be bold and brave than hesitant and retreating. Thomas thought that his friend thought he was a coward, and this was intolerable.

Courage is not an absolute good, but it never shades so grey that it can be confused with pusillanimity–it is never less good than its opposite. Discretion is never a complete good, but only a holding action, a better part of a better whole that will include more timely courage, and just retribution.

So the slope got slippery. Thomas was not interested in grabbing shotguns from obnoxious gamekeepers or in starting fist fights with bullies, but he wanted very much to see himself as a courageous man. Not, again, because courage is a monolithic thing, a quality utterly incompatible with a moment of weakness or disinclination to conflict. It’s not. There’s no reason why the same man can’t be possessed of phenomenal moral courage and yet flinch from the upraised fist or shotgun. More, the courage it takes to survive prolonged artillery fire with nerves intact is very different from the courage it takes to antagonize an armed man, or to charge thousands of them.

And oh yes–there it is. This matters more than it would have in the spring, or in the late autumn woods of 1913. Thomas has been writing and thinking about the war, constantly and consistently. It’s not beginning to slip from his mind as it is, perhaps, from the minds of other men who have decided to stay in school, or to hunker down and hope more volunteers won’t be called for. War is a test of character that he has been staring down, a test he knows there are many good reasons to postpone sitting for. But now he had been blindsided, and a chance encounter appears to prove that he is too fearful to fight. Thomas could not let the thing go; he brooded over his actions for weeks, for months.

Wisdom–still less cleverness or facility with language–do not make a whole man. Frost had been flooded with the same emotions as Thomas–saturated with the same internal poisons, if you like–but he had wrung himself out that day and after, and moved on. Purged, for the moment. Thomas was flooded too, but never drained. When the emotions left him they left him warped and wrinkled, a brave new volume of poetry, blank and yet corrugated, stained, marred. Intellect is not enough. He knew that the affair should mean nothing, but he knew he could not reason his feelings away. Does any person–or here, perhaps, the gendering is forgivable, even almost correct–does any man ever forget the sour taste of fear, especially with the unbearably bitter admixture of submission to the physical dominance of another?

Frost later opined that the incident was why Edward Thomas would soon choose to go to war. Matthew Hollis believes that it is what finally made him a poet.[7]

Well, perhaps. But certainly a double catalyst, an event that shook Thomas and hurried on his slow and searching self-examination. It’s almost as if Edward Thomas has strayed into a Thomas Hardy narrative poem, a rough-hewn country house built on the lines of Greek tragedy: sudden violence in the English countryside, the heavy hand of fate lurking behind a chance meeting on a rural road, lives suddenly altered, and not for the better.


And we wouldn’t want to miss one of the Nursing Sister‘s cathedral visits: by my count she has toured at least eight Gothic churches (she may be indiscriminate with the term “cathedral,” which properly applies only to a bishop’s home church), including those of St. Nazaire, Ypres, Le Mans, and the great cathedrals of Rheims and Rouen.

Thursday, November 26th

We loaded up to-day at Bailleul, where we have been before–headquarters of 3rd and 4th Divisions. We had some time to wait there before loading up, so went into the town and saw the Cathedral–beautiful old tower, hideously restored inside, but very big and well kept. The town was very interesting. Sentries up the streets every hundred yards or so; the usual square packed with transport, and the usual jostle of Tommies and staff officers and motor-cars and lorries. We saw General French go through…

We have a lot of cases of frost-bite on the train. One is as bad as in Scott’s Expedition; may have to have his foot amputated. I’d never seen it before. They are nearly all slight medical cases; very few wounded, which makes a very light load from the point of view of work… One of us is doing all the train half the night, and another all the train the other half… We’ve never had a light enough load for one to do the whole train before. The men say things are very quiet at the Front just now…[8]

References and Footnotes

  1. Although without access to his notebooks, I can't be sure--Hollis's account in Now All Roads Lead to France, 174-82, which I'm relying on here (again!)--doesn't date the walk precisely, but at certain points it seems as if the notebook entry from the 27th is going over the same day's events... so it might be tomorrow.
  2. Hollis, 181.
  3. A local boy also apparently witnessed the exchange, but his testimony, gathered much later, does not seem to be of much use.
  4. Hollis, 175-6.
  5. Half-hearted apologies for the ugly class-ism here, but a) these were the facts as England then understood them, and b) class aside, Thomas and Frost clearly thought themselves worthier men than a quarrelsome gamekeeper.
  6. They did act to make sure that the keeper was chastised, despite the fact that Frost had chosen to exacerbate the situation. Frost, of course, was dissatisfied with the reported reprimand, offended that more dramatic retribution could not legally be visited upon the knave.
  7. Hollis, 180-2.
  8. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.

Bad News for Francis Ledwidge; Ford Skewers a Squire; Thomas Hardy is Only a Century Out of Date

Bad news today for Private Francis Ledwidge of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. As long ago as the spring his girl Ellie Vaughey had thrown him over for John O’Neill, but Ledwidge still had hopes. Until today, when Vaughey and O’Neill were married. All of Ledwidge’s home affairs had now gone awry. First the political; and now the personal–it might have felt as if there was little reason, now, to ever go home to county Meath. What was left?

Well, poetry. And the grim winter barracks life and future uncertainty of the army.[1]


From a fledgling poet to a master. Thomas Hardy has been awkwardly navigating the shoal waters of jingoism and propaganda since August: a few questionable close calls, but no total disaster yet. If he continues to survive without writing something truly terrible, he may yet metamorphose from hoary Victorian Legend to the supreme ironist among poets, a sage worthy of the suffering soldier poets. (Spoiler: he sure will! We’ll hear from Charles Sorley in a few days on Hardy’s great merits.)

In any event, Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance have come out, and will, at least in Paul Fussell‘s opinion, prove the true harbinger of the war’s literary art. But today another pre-war project long in the works now bore fruit–ironic and bitter fruit, of course. The Dynasts, Hardy’s massive, masterful, strange, and difficult verse drama of the Napoleonic wars was mounted for the first time tonight as an actual theatrical production.[2] The great man himself had a cold, and did not attend. Reviews were cordial.


And another curious literary debut in today’s issue of The BystanderFord Hueffer‘s “The Scaremonger” is a charming but faintly bizarre combination of mild “never fear!” propaganda, mean-spirited caricature, and whimsy.

It’s a pleasant, very English little tale, something like Wodehouse covering Wells: there is a meddlesome “squire” in an east coast town, a retired money-man who has devoted his leisure to recondite research in the classics (the Latinist as extravagantly detached luftmensch was a familiar type) and annoying the locals. But now the squire is seized by war fever, and his philological battles against a Prussian professor give birth to paranoia: he has become convinced that a German submarine will make a secret landing on his part of the coast, unleashing “Huns” to rape and pillage the defenseless English countryside.

This is rather irritating to the officers of the local New Army unit that is responsible for coastal defense. The squire is not only frightening the young ladies of the village but there is also the concern that his flamboyant cowardice, no matter how ridiculous, might spread.

So a demonstration is arranged, a dummy raid by one section of the local army battalion against those standing guard, complete with blank cartridges and instructions to any of the soldiers who can manage a bit of German to use it, the better to fool the garrison.

The story is light-hearted, so far, but it addresses a real enough situation. German ships have attacked British shipping in the Channel and bombarded the coast, and a serious raid with civilian casualties will actually take place in a few weeks’ time. Even though an actual invasion is a very far-fetched idea, rumors abounded (Rupert Brooke has written several letters about being mobilized to meet invasion scares, and suggested nastily that a real raid would do the English scaremongers good) and fear ran as rampant as cliche.

So a tale that played up the competence and pluck of the half-trained members of Kitchener’s Army would qualify as useful pro-war-effort writing.

The end of this little tale I don’t mind spoiling: sure enough, as the brave men of the 57th West Kents assemble on the beach to mount their war-game invasion, they run smack into another group of armed men muttering in German. It’s a fearful mix-up, since the West Kents are only carrying blanks and the other German-speaking fellows are quite rude, but no matter: eventually, with the help of one regular sergeant and a boy scout they capture a hundred Prussian commandos and their state-of-the-art submarine.

The terrified squire, meanwhile, charges the beach brandishing several pistols, shooting several English soldiers before turning the gun on himself. Which is a dark turn for a silly story. The moral?

The moral, apparently, is that Ford Madox Hueffer is the sort to pick any fight, no matter how silly and unrewarding. The suicidal hysteric is a thinly disguised burlesque of Edward Heron Allen, English eccentric, Sussex squire, distinguished scholar of Persian, and, according to Violet Hunt, who was then living with Hueffer, despite his marriage, her rejected suitor.

The (historical) story gets weirder: Heron Allen recognized the caricature and railed against the perfidy of a man who came to dinner at your house with his scandalous mistress, then made fun of you, and was a German to boot. He appears to have been able to use that squire-ly influence as well: Hueffer, whose father had indeed been German, will shortly be ordered by the local constabulary to leave West Sussex. Suspicious chap, you know. German name. Strange habits.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 90.
  2. Or, rather, a few selected scenes were staged. The thing is massive.
  3. Ford, War Prose, 140-8.

Charles Montague Writes of Rules and Exceptions

C. E. Montague wrote to his boss, today, a century back. This would be C.P. Scott, Montague’s longtime friend and employer as the owner and editor of the Manchester Guardian.

Nov. 24, 1914

I have felt for some time, and especially since I have been writing leaders urging people to enlist, a strong wish to do the same myself. I wrote last week to the War Office to ask if there was any chance of getting over the difficulty of my few years over the limit of age, and I was told that although the W[ar]. O[ffice]. could not directly break the rule itself, it did not veto exceptions made by those responsible for the raising of new battalions locally.[1]

Well, folks, he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t eventually find his way into uniform. This seems like a casual note, but it is also a formal warning to his employer that Montague–an important, productive editor and writer–may go for a soldier after all, despite being forty-seven years old. All he will have to do his find his way into a unit that, for whatever reason, is willing to ignore the very biblical matter of seven additional years.

We will get to know Montague better soon–his writing will come to be the essential body of work by a participant-critic–but even in this brief note there are clear and accurate insights into his character.

The understatement, for instance. The idea that he “might wish” to enlist himself is blandly and diffidently expressed–and yet it communicates, essentially, that a man who professionally exhorts others to answer the call/serve king and country/put themselves in harm’s way might feel himself to be just a bit of a hypocritical ass if he were unwilling to put his money where his mouth was.

And then there is the pairing of “rule” and “exceptions.” He doesn’t quite say that he is about to get up to no good–breaking rules would be frowned upon, no?–but he does seem to hint at the proverbial phrase and its notable exception. There were certainly other over-age men who tried and even succeeded in joining the army, but most of these were old soldiers desperate to get back into the Regulars. The adjutants of Kitchener’s army had been fairly consistent in turning away older men in favor of their hardier younger brethren, and their sons. As we have seen, it takes some serious effort for even a likely young public school man of twenty to get a commission. So a middle-aged newspaper man may have to go to some lengths…


References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C.E. Montague, 104-5.

Charles Sorley Recalls Agamemnon Striding a Railway Platform; Billy Congreve on the Comforts of Home

Charles Sorley wrote to his parents today from his training camp in Kent, recalling his train journey out of Germany as the war began.

Shorncliffe, 23 November 1914

By the way I liked the Armenian article in The Cambridge Magazine. It brought back to me that little crooked old fellow that Hopkinson and I met at the fag-end of our hot day’s walk as we swung into Neumagen. His little face was lit with a wild uncertain excitement he had not known since 1870, and he advanced towards us waving his stick and yelling at us ” Der Krieg ist los, Junge,” [“War is here, boys”] just as we might be running to watch a football match and he was come to tell us we must hurry up for the game had begun.

Not your every day war-as-football metaphor.

And then the next night on the platform at Trier, train after train passing crowded with soldiers bound for Metz–varied once or twice by a truck-load of “swarthier alien crews,”[1] thin old women like wineskins, with beautiful and piercing faces, and big heavy men and tiny aged-looking children–Italian colonists exiled to their country again…

…and we watched the signal on the southward side of Trier, till the lights should give a jump and the finger drop and let in the train which was to carry us out of that highly-strung and thrilling land.

At Cologne I saw a herd of some thirty American school-marms whom I had assisted to entertain at Eucken’s just a fortnight before. I shouted out to them, but they were far too upset to take any notice, but went bobbing into one compartment and out again and into another like people in a cinematograph. Their haste, anxiety and topsyturviness were caused by thoughts of their own safety and escape, and though perfectly natural contrasted so strangely with all the many other signs of haste, perturbation and distress that I had seen, which were much quieter and stronger and more full-bodied than that of those Americans, because it was the Vaterland and not the individual that was darting about and looking for the way and was in need : and the silent submissive unquestioning faces of the dark uprooted Italians peering from the squeaking trucks formed a fitting background Cassandra from the backmost car looking steadily down on Agamemnon as he stepped from his triumphal purple chariot and Clytemnestra offered him her hand.[2]

Sorley has given us a mickle mixture here: his bobbing cinematograph figures are a then-modish but still quite comprehensible metaphor: it’sexactly what we would think of as speeded-up, frenetic “silent movie” figures, their actions played choppily back with the low frame rate abbreviating their every action…

And then Aeschylus. As long as there has been Western humanism dropping Greek Tragedy has been the Queen move, and Sorley doesn’t eschew the main chance. I’m not sure exactly what he means here, but it’s a powerful image. The Fatherland is Agamemnon–that much is clear. He is domineering and skillful but over-proud warlord , a man who has already made his devil’s bargain with the gods. He has booty and crimes a-plenty, and we watch him knowing that his downfall will be swift and awful..

The Italians, then, are cast as the voiceless victims looking on. I am not sure why Italians should have a notable particular claim to victimhood (the Italian wars are more distant than France and Germany’s last war), so it is surely the more abject plight of migrant laborers, regardless of nationality, that qualifies them…[3]And then the American school-marms are complicating the allegory rather unforgivably… Why are the queen, wronged and murderous? But anyway: he is recalling his impressions–his learned impressions–of a thoroughly dramatic Scene One. Yes; the young soldier is already looking back on the beginning and knowing full well that he has a small part to play in a most traditional tragic drama.

And if you have read that heavyweight opening scene of the Agamemnon you may just see it: the corporate pride of the nation at war, the kaiser considering himself an unjustly crossed paramount king; and sad unheeded faces adorning the steam-train-for-palace backdrop. And murder ahead. Never mind the miscasting or non-casting of the most important character, Clytemnestra (is she, simply, Discord? Eris, Erichto, Amata-post-Allecto? But that does no justice to her character, her crime and crimes). This is some good classical-modern riffing. He should write some more serious poetry!


And on a very different note, another jaunty report from Billy Congreve. There is a change in the status of the 3rd Division, which is now under the command of General Haldane, who has retained Congreve’s services as ADC. The lull, even in frozen trenches, has its advantages:

23rd November

Very quiet days these. We ride or motor off in the morning to see our war-worn warriors, presenting various medals to those who are left to get them. Various generals turn up and tell them how splendid the are, including Sir John French [commander of the BEF], who came out today and waded round in the mud. The men look better already. Shaving and washing and plenty of sleep work wonders. Heaps of ‘comfort’ are now arriving from home and cigarettes galore. In fact, I think they only lack beer! We are now getting in drafts fast, so by the 27th we should be quite a useful unit again.[4]

Yes, Billy, but you’re not sleeping the trenches, are you? And your servant presumably has an easier time scrounging firewood to heat your shaving water…


References and Footnotes

  1. From Tennyson's The Revenge, my pretties.
  2. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 242-3.
  3. Although this is hardly on the same tragic scale as Cassandra's plight. She had already been raped and taken by force from her home, after seeing it destroyed and her family massacred. Cassandra is too much for modernity--better to think of the Italians as the chorus.
  4. Armageddon Road, 86-7.

Tolkien Praises the Kalevala; Hankey Responds Sheepishly to Praise

Today marks the centennial of the destruction of the Cloth Hall in Ypres, second-most-famous architectural victim of German shelling.[1]

Invited by his school friend Geoffrey Bache Smith, Ronald Tolkien addressed the Sundial Society of Corpus Christi College tonight. The talk was on the Kalevala, the collection of traditional Finnish oral poetry collected and edited by the 19th century folklorist Elias Lönnrot. The stories–old and weird and violent and magical, a tempting northern variation on the over-familiar classical myths–strongly attracted him, as did the sound of the Finnish language itself. The paper, an enthusiast’s appreciation rather than precocious scholarship, was nevertheless a clear statement of Tolkien’s strong feelings:

These mythological ballads are full of that very primitive undergrowth that the literature of Europe has on the whole been steadily cutting an reducing for many centuries… I would that we had more of it left–something of the same sort that belonged to the English.[2]

Tolkien imagines himself, then, as a scholarly gardener wise in the local ecology, looking ahead to the work of pruning back all those worthless ornamentals, invasives, and insipid orchids to rediscover the primitive, charming, aboriginal undergrowth.

Well, England has Beowulf and a few lesser works, but a great old tree and a few interesting weeds hardly an undergrowth make. There’s not much left… so a gardener may need to transplant, to cross-breed, even to retreat to the laboratory and conjure up plant flowers of his own artifice…


Donald Hankey, you may recall, had the odd timing to have completed a book of theological essays–The Lord of All Good Life–just before the outbreak of war. Now the ex-officer and Oxford student is a sergeant in the Rifle Brigade, and today he answers an admiring letter about the book, from a distant cousin, and finds himself awkwardly aware of the savvy decision he had made to identify himself, on the title page, as a non-commissioned officer of an unusually erudite sort.

Nov. 22, 1914

Dear Sir,

I am very grateful to you for letting me know that you like my book. I suppose it was my name that attracted you; for I can’t imagine any other reason why you should have read it ; but far from resenting a parson “having the audacity” to read it, I am delighted!

I am afraid I am rather a humbug to put “Sergeant Rifle Bde.” on it. I have only been a sergeant since the war broke out. I did it mainly to make it clear that I really was an ordinary layman.

It may interest you if I tell you that on leaving Oxford I very nearly became a parson; but at the last moment I funked it, and the head of my Clergy School rather funked me, so it didn’t come off, and I became a rolling stone studying in various places and among very various people to try and write this book. But people have been so lenient to the heresies in my book that I am almost hoping to be ordained after all if I get through the war all right.

Yours sincerely,

Donald Hankey[3]


Here, then, are two unusual young men. So many of our soldier-writers seem to brandish the hope that the war will be good for their art (as the saying goes). That the splendor and violence of war will awaken the muse and provide experiences that will transform them into better writers. They have many illusions…

But Tolkien is throwing himself deep into the past and keeping his mind off the war, even though it awaits him in the summer. Hankey, having written his book, hopes to get through the war and into a different kind of service–he is embarrassed, being an upstanding sort, about the correct-but-misleading declaration that he is a theologically inclined sergeant–the sergeant on the title page will help sell books, but not change what’s written within. Hankey is going to war to study not God but rather to learn the ways of his fellow men. High among his hopes is that his experience as a sergeant among the common men–and perhaps also the personal experience of confronting the hardship and fear of war–will make him a better pastor.


References and Footnotes

  1. After Nôtre de Dame de Rheims; each was repaired/rebuilt after the war.
  2. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 52.
  3. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 252-3.

Rupert Brooke Ponders the Century; Vera Brittain Has News; Lady Feilding Reaches Pervyse; Henry Farnsworth is Swindled and Adrift; Billy Congreve Leaves the Salient; Edward Hulse Would Like Some Plum Pudding, Please

Rupert Brooke is at the letter-writing desk again today, a century back. It’s a silly one, flirting with Eileen Wellesley and gossiping about the hardships of living on stand-by, since there are fears of a German invasion or coastal raid. But I can’t pass this up:

A hundred years hence they’ll say ‘What an age that must have been!’ What’ll we care? Fools![1]


When we last left Henry Farnsworth he was praising his polo skills in justification of some steep chivalric expenses, and pinning his hopes on the British War Office accepting the services of a colorful aristocrat named Bles and an ad hoc, semi-trained cavalry unit. It sounds a bit like Hemingway and a bit like the lead in to a long-form article on an absurdly elaborate Dirty Rotten Scoundrel-style fraud, in which an innocent American has his money taken by charming European pseudo-aristocrats.

And actually, that’s exactly what happens.

Those wacky “the War Office will take us!” plans hit a snag, so Farnsworth decided to head off to Spain with another officer of this shady private army, “Christobal Bernaldo de Quyros by name, a son of the Marquis de St. Yago.” So, first to Madrid, then Barcelona, whence he wrote to his sister today, a century back.

Cafe de Paris, Barcelona

November 21, 1914

Dear Ellen: There is a howling gale outside and quantities of fine rain, and yet warm, and smelling like the first of our spring storms at home. I have been waiting here a week, and this morning received a wire from Bles saying that he hoped to fix matters with the Belgians in two weeks’ time. I suppose that means he has failed in London. It all makes me feel criminal, sitting here…

This is followed by some very broad complaints about the city, which has evidently not yet learned how to attract wealthy post-collegiate Americans. Then, more romance:

This town is surrounded with wild miniature mountains, and Varrichotti, the Italian, and myself took horses and spent a day among them. Coming home we stopped at a peasant’s house and drank some wine in a room all dark, except for a huge fire. It was so fascinating that we stayed until it was pitch dark. The trails down to the city are very rough and Varrichotti was terrified. This for some reason elated me and I took the lead at a jog-trot, slipping and stumbling and sending stones rolling over the edge into the dark. I got one fall, but fortunately on a broad place, and the horse was not marked. Varrichotti was so far behind that he did not catch on. I was in a mood when I would have gone over the edge without a quiver. That night I saw Velasquez’s “Crucifixion” in a dream, and ever since have been wanting to start a novel.

Ha! Wait for the war, at least, young man. My, what high spirits. They get higher:

I could think of countless things to say, and even a beginning, but no plot. I have decided to take a leaf from the “Idiot” and to go ahead and write what is in me, and not try to force things or to consider what the public wants. I feel so dishonest waiting here, when the Da sent me to the war, so much so that I don’t dare write home.

And now, of course, the high spirits lead to the fall. Does Farnsworth realize that this planned first novel is shaping up to be less Dostoyevsky than a classic Bildungsroman?

Add to that that I have lost, or did, rather, in one sitting…  De Quyros of Madrid gave me a letter to a swine here who put me up at this Club… and he proposed joining the game. After dining me very nicely, he, being very simple in his manners, as are most chic Spaniards according to my experience, tried to get me away from the table, but after a few losses, I am always like the proverbial fool. I have not been into the baccarat room since and shall not go again, but that does not palliate in the least. I shall write to the Da and tell him, because it is only honest, and yet I know that it will give him pain…

Alas for the innocent abroad! But he’s living a novel, alright.

I have decided to go to Palma de Mallorca and wait there for two weeks, then, if I hear nothing from Bles, I shall make a stab at the Red Cross, and if that fails, join the Legion. That will, at any rate, stop expenses.

Love, Henry[2]


Dorothie Feilding, meanwhile, has reached the Belgian town which will become most closely associated with British female heroism.

Sat morning (Nov 21st?)

Mother darling – My time for writing is short as I am now camped in a cellar at Pervyse where we make soup for the soldiers in the trenches there.

It’s so cold these days for the poor devils. Ice & snow everywhere & as there are no ‘blessés’ these days we thought we might as well do something… there is not one house in the village without a side out. It’s not luxury. But there is a very fine cellar intact where me, Mrs Knocker, Mrs Gleason, a chauffeur & 2 soldiers all sleep in [a] row on some straw as snug as bugs. We make huge cauldrons of Irish stew stuff all day. It cooks all night & we take it to the trench men as soon as it’s light. There’s very little doing there now only they are obliged to stay in the trenches all the same.

I’ve come into Fumes for provisions & am writing this scrawl as hear someone going to England will take it. Also don’t be surprised if I don’t write much these days – no time – but it’s quite safe out there you know

Much love dearest[3]


News from the Brittain family:

Saturday November 21st

Edward was gazetted to-day; the announcement was in The Times this morning but no details were announced either of battalion or regiment.[4]

So Vera’s brother Edward is now in the army too. Her diary moves immediately from this bare sentence to a lengthy complaint about the difficulty of winning one’s instructors’ affections… but is this Oxfordian solipsism, or a lack of detailed news about her brother, or an unwillingness to face this particular fact? It’s hard to tell–perhaps some of each.


And here’s another bare-but-significant diary entry. Billy Congreve records what seems to be a major re-alignment of allied forces. Now that all the major assaults have ground to a halt, it is at last possible to reorganize the armies into a more efficient collective defense.

21st November

We managed to get the reliefs finished last night. I had been out all day taking French officers around to arrange the taking over. They struck me as being wonderfully quick and sure of themselves. I had lunch at a regiment’s headquarters near Poperinghe–a very good lunch it was too. The little colonel was most charming. Her said he thought I was very young to be doing the work I was, which rather offended me. All the taking over went off without a hitch; and we were mighty glad to turn our backs on the Ypres salient, never, I hope, to see it again.[5]

That, unfortunately, is very unlikely. “The Salient” will soon be back in British hands, with Belgian lands on three sides in the hands of the Germans. And if I were a staff officer who looked like a giant ten-year-old, I would cut the French general some slack.


And here, as a post-script to a tiring post, is Edward Hulse‘s post-script, dated today, to his trench-life missive of yesterday:

21. 11. 14.

P.S.—I have a German’s diary, which I will send you when possible. E. H.

Remember to enclose paper and envelopes whenever you write. Send nothing except cigarettes and chocolate at present.

A small plum pudding in a tin would be most acceptable, as supplied by Fortnum and Mason, Piccadilly. E. H.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 635.
  2. Letters of Henry Weston Farnsworth, 70-73.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 33.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 126.
  5. Armageddon Road, 85.
  6. Hulse, Letters Written from the English Front, 36. Available here.