There’s a lot to do today–including matching one of our writer’s accounts of a battle to the newspaper archive’s rather different version. But first, Reggie Trench: we have mentioned him here only once before, but his energetic letter writing will make him an invaluable source once he gets to the front. Today, a century back, he’s getting married, so here’s a picture: Wasn’t it nice of the Little Tramp to photobomb the same photograph two or three times?
Now then. Before we get to good letters from Edward Hulse and Morgan Crofton, it’s time for an update on Herbert Read. Read is a student whose passion for everything modern–in art, but also in literature–is in its early stages. Which is to say, of course, that he is soaking himself in Nietzsche.
Coincidentally, Read describes his early war experiences in much the same manner as our other modernist critic, T.E. Hulme, namely by stringing together long, descriptive letters. Read’s serial–which he refers to as his “War Diary”–is written, however, not to his family–his mother has recently died, his father is long dead–but to a young woman, an “almost casual acquaintance” whose epistolary friendship will come to provide “a relief to the otherwise intolerable loneliness of his new surroundings.”
But I shouldn’t get excited: the next entry in the published version of the “War Diary” isn’t until March, and then there is a very long hiatus. But it will be good, in the future, to look back on Read in his first days as a twenty-one-year-old lieutenant, at the very beginning of “the process of getting familiar with the idea of death and nothingness.”
28.i.15 Wareham, Dorset
I am in very uncongenial surroundings here,
I thought perhaps Karl Marx’s Materialist Interpretation of History developed in Das Kapital would also support the theory, but I have not had time to read Marx yet…
Yes, I think we can see how an army barracks in Dorset might be uncongenial to a young man with those tastes.
I am beginning to suspect that Nietzsche’s appeal to me is largely poetical. Nevertheless I think he is a fine stimulus…
This too is good news–since the only other options are an unending study of conflicting and impossible writings or a slide into badly read super-race madness. Not that Read is yet immune to those tendencies–he also writes that he is “trying to reconcile his idea of the Superman with Democracy.” So that could get ugly…
Mild spoilers: Read doesn’t end up a racist or a madman, and he does become a poet with a fairly obvious debt to Nietzsche. But he is no distracted philosopher or delicate aesthete: anarchism and other hard, ragged edges of modernism will remain part of his outlook even as he holds His Majesty’s commission and fights with notable effectiveness.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, and this would be a bad time to assess Read’s personal philosophy or his reading. He’s trying to impress a girl, remember, with these letters… so let’s move on to the army stuff:
…Nietzsche and all divine heretics seem like a dream. The only compensation this life offers is that it brings me into direct contact with a class of men I wanted to know. They are a rough lot–mostly miners from Durham and MIddlesbro’. And how different they are from the newspaper fiction. I don’t think one per cent. are here for spiritual motives. They are always grumbling about their food and pay and I must say I sympathize with them… Their food is disgusting… The huts they live in are filthy. If we get away before an epidemic breaks out I shall be surprised. The attitude of the average officer to them is overbearing and supercilious. My position as one of these little, homage-receiving gods is very quixotic…
This is excellent stuff. I am aware that this project involves oddly-spaced, piecemeal introductions to dozens of writers, some of whom I know fairly well but haven’t properly introduced. (But aware enough? Never!) I realize, too, that it is more or less impossible for a reader to keep them all straight, especially when we’ve hardly read anything yet… so perhaps it is more annoying than helpful for me to happily declare certain utterances to be “characteristic.”
Therefore I apologize. But that last sentence makes a perfect comparison to Charles Sorley, who recently described his first fortnight as an officer as “the first fine glow of seeing people twice your age and size obey and salute you.” Note the difference between Sorley’s Jeffries-like “fine glow” and Read’s Nietzschean “homage-receiving gods” and you will be able to match the rest of their writings–letter or verse–to the correct author nine times out of ten. If only I had time to put quizzes up on the blog…
Far from Dorset and class-conscious thoughts of the nature of officer-hood, Sir Morgan Crofton worries about the fate of his fine old cavalry unit, the 2/Life Guards:
THURSDAY JANUARY 28
Dull and very frosty but fine. A lot of chat goes on about our return to the trenches. I cannot help thinking that people depress themselves very much long before they go in by talking like this. It is like the discussion which invariably precedes a point-to-point or steeplechase. People reduce themselves to a state of nervous collapse by continuing to say how awful the jumps are. But when the race is being run no one notices the jumps, which before had appeared so ominous.
I trust that this will be our last appearance in the trenches, but now they have got us there again, the authorities are quite capable of keeping us there. I am sorry if they do, for trenches ruin the cavalry spirit, and should we be wanted later in the war to act as Cavalry, we shall have greatly deteriorated.
This, I must say, is like a sneaky preface to the work of Siegfried Sassoon, who will go to great autobiographical lengths to connect the emotions of the hunt and the point-to-point race with the emotions of the hate and the trench-to-trench fight.
Sir Edward Hulse updates his mother on trench life, truth, and fiction:
28. 1. 15.
My Dearest Mother,
Strange to say we have had six days without rain, and the change has been very welcome, and has enabled us to make ourselves a good deal more comfortable in the trenches. We have even reclaimed several bits which had been abandoned, and have got to work with the pumps again. Keen frost and little snow at night is all we have had, and as a result the men are cheery beyond words, and years younger. They marched out of the trenches last night with mouth organs, penny whistles, etc., playing “Highland Laddie,” as if they had only just landed in the country.
We have had one or two alarms during the last few days, but nothing came of it. The Kaiser’s birthday was not celebrated by the enemy in any way beyond a little singing.
I and my C.S.M. have made some pretty practice, working together with rifle and glasses, turn and turn about. We have accounted for three Germans for certain, and probably two others during the last four days, but it is no easy matter, as they will not show up now, and three hours hard work may result in a complete blank!
A nice little update: frost is better than mud; more evidence that that Kaiser’s birthday–like a small, inverted version of the Christmas Truce–was observed differently in different parts of the line; and shooting other men in the head is getting more challenging as everyone adjusts to the war of attrition.
But now an interesting bit. Hulse–one of our paradigms of the confident, aristocratic, fox-hunting manner–is suddenly an innocent, shocked at a fairly obvious aspect of war that seems not to have dawned on him in anything like good time. It turns out that there is propaganda… lies! That somehow even defeats are represented in the home press as victories!
…The poor old 1st Battalion took it in the neck again the other day. The enemy attacked five times, and R.F. and L.F. Coys., which were in the trenches at the time, had heavy casualties: more, I cannot say, except that we are all aghast and making large goggle-peeps at the official account, which appeared in the D.T. of 28th, or possibly 27th,
under heading “La Bassée.” I shall never accuse the German papers of talking again. I may be able to write more later on about it…
Well, hats off to the Daily Telegraph, which is doing its own century back project: follow this link and check out the rightmost column of page 8 to see the account of the victorious operations at La Bassée in yesterday’s paper. One German attack was “instantly stopped” and another was “stopped dead”–a sure sign of an exhausted propagandist’s imagination–with 300 German dead, and no mention of British casualties. This must be the official account that Hulse refers to, but if there is more in today’s “D.T.” I will update this post accordingly.
This is trench warfare, then: open warfare is always chaos, but there can be little confusion about casualties taken in local trench-to-trench attacks. Two companies of Hulse’s Scots Guards “took it in the neck” and the papers printed an official communique that reversed the result of the fight. Scales are falling from the eyes of even the non-cynical…
Hulse really is quite the correspondent: in addition to these frank accounts of his own killing prowess and his sudden discovery of (British) military prevarication, he closes the letter with a reference to my favorite quotidien military equipage, and includes documentary evidence of trench-generated humor for his mother’s amusement.
Your three pairs of socks arrived at a most opportune moment, when we were short, and three men wanted them badly…
There is very little news at present. I am enclosing two little items,one of which you have seen. Please send both on to Uncle Mi, who will appreciate the printed one, signed Little Tich Beerbohm. It is made out in regular form, like the information which is circulated from time to time. It really is a good joke, and I believe was composed by one of the “Artist Rifles” themselves. Ask him to return both papers to you.
Very best love to you and O.
Ever your loving
Alas: what appears to have been a parody on an official form letter is not included in the published version of Hulse’s letters. Damn you uncle Mi!
But here is the other item, both mildly amusing and a very good primer on the most typical features of trench life:
VERSES BY A SUBALTERN OF ” C ” COY., 2/R[oyal].D[ublin].F[usiliers].
A is our Army, which with impunity,
Bill said he’d smash at his first opportunity.
B is the Base, which is called St. Nazaire,
No longer the home of the gallant and fair.
C is the Charge of the Scottish of London—
From the papers you’d argue they only had done one.
D is De Wet, who thought it was wiser
To break his allegiance and follow the Kaiser.
E is the End of this horrible war—
It will probably last for a century more.
F are the Flares which never seem lacking,
Sent up by the Germans to see who’s attacking.
G are the Germans, a race much maligned.
A more peace-loving people you hardly can find.
H are the Huns, their nearest of kin,
A pastoral people they are said to have been.
I am the writer, a perfect nonentity—
That is the reason I hide my identity.
J is the joy on the faces of men,
When they’re told they must go down for rations at ten.
K is the Kaiser, who’s said to be balmy.—
We always feel safe when he’s leading his army.
L is the Lake that protects us from fire,
They call it a trench, when the weather is drier.
M stands for Mud, to describe which foul stuff
Violent blasphemy’s hardly enough.
N is the Noise which we generally hear
On the night when the Germans are issued with beer.
O is the Order—obeyed with a yawn—
Of “Stand to your arms—it’s an hour till dawn!”
P is the Post, which generally brings
Parcels of perfectly valueless things.
Q is the Question we all do abhor,
Concerning the probable end of the war.
R stands for Rum, and also for Russians,
Our two greatest allies when fighting the Prussians.
S as you know always stands for Supplies,
Whose excellent qualities no one denies.
T is Tobacco, that beautiful stuff,
And thanks be to heaven we’ve now got enough.
U stands for Uhlan, who’s gained notoriety,
Both through his kindness and wonderful piety.
V is the Voice of the turtle, which bird
Has been turned into stew, so it’s no longer heard.
W stands for Wine, Women, and War,
We’ll see to the first when the latter is o’er.
X is a perfectly horrible letter—
I’ll leave it alone, and I couldn’t do better.
Y stands for Ypres, which the Germans desire,
They shelled it as soon as they had to retire.
Z stands for Zeppelins, who long to raid
A Circus, a Square and a certain Arcade.
Finally, Lady Dorothie Feilding‘s uncle Everard visited Pervyse today–he was taken along for a tour by Doctor Munro, the titular head of the whole operation. For some reason Elsie and Mairi decided to be coy about yesterday’s news, and when Munro eventually figured out that neither he nor his famous, titled orderly/nurse/driver had been honored he was not best pleased. (Assessing how well decorations were earned is a mug’s game, but Chisolm and Knocker had spent much more time under fire than Munro or Feilding, although all accounts praise her coolness under fire and eagerness to enter the combat zone.) Elsie Knocker was amused by this:
“It was so funny that after all the huge advertisement that Dorothy and Father [Munro] have had and flinging titles about that little Mairi and I should have come on a long way first… that is what pleases me most.”
It’s nice to see that intrepid and self-sacrificing aid-workers/nurses can be as petty about decorations and the foolishness of their commanders as any of the intrepid and self-aggrandizing/self-sacrificing subalterns a few miles further east…