Roland Courts Danger, and Challenges Vera to Object; A Flurry of Preparations at Pervyse

Cliffside Hotel, Lowestoft, 31 January 1915

We have at last got more or less settled down here. A large part of the work has fallen to me in my capacity of billeting officer, and since this time last week I have scarcely had a moment to myself.

It is a fault of mine that I am always selfish enough or conceited enough to believe that no one else in my department can do anything except myself, and in consequence I usually give myself more work to do than is really necessary. We have just been sent 1000 new rifles, and 400,000 rounds of ammunition, which looks as if a raid was expected. I was up nearly all last night supervising the unpacking of them; in fact I had in all only 3 1/2 hours sleep–though I ought not to tell you so, or you may be tempted to follow my deadly example. (Please don’t: though I cannot very well scold you, can I?)

…I am as usual discontented with the playing at soldiers that goes on here, and am off to Colchester tomorrow, if I can get the Colonel’s permission, to interview a major in the 4th Suffolks (Territorials). The 4th Service Battalion of the regiment has already been at the front some time and has now asked for three more officers to be sent out. I am trying to be one of them. It will probably mean my transferring first to the Reserve Battalion and then going out from there. I shall need to be very tactful, though, in persuading both my colonel here to let me go and the other one to accept me.

I am very comfortable here, of course: but a rolling stone does not like to be forced to gather moss. I would give anything to be allowed to go to France. Doesn’t Lyndall[1] say somewhere that you can get anything you want if you only want hard enough? I feel so ashamed of myself for still being one of the ‘gentlemen in England now abed’. I don’t think you mean it when you say that you prefer that I should not go.[2]

That’s a packed little paragraph. I’ve made plenty of those Henry V references, so no stone-throwing there–but the little blizzard of references, following right on the heels of the news that he is going quite far out of his way to get himself into combat sooner rather than later, betray the clever boy ducking behind a parapet of books to avoid point-blank discourse. He does squeeze off a challenge round there at the end, but still: Roland knows that he doesn’t quite know why it is so important to get himself into danger more quickly than the next fellow, and he doesn’t really want to talk about it.

There’s a lot on the line here. Vera will respond in only a few days’ time.

 

And a domestic flurry today, a century back, for the unconventional motorcycling medics of the Pervyse aid post: Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker learned today that the King of the Belgians himself would award them their medals–tomorrow. All of their clothes had been either lost in the withdrawal from the previous post or sent to Furnes to be laundered, so they spent the rest of the day sowing clean blouses from surplus donations for the soldiers and bathing, with shared bathwater of course…[3]

As it happens, the preparations for the royal investment interrupted Elsie Knocker’s diary entry mid-sentence–never to be resumed. It’s not immediately clear why she left off the diary at this point (no disaster looms tomorrow, for instance), but it is a fundamental source of Diane Atkinson’s account, and there’s not much else to go on, so I will soon be moving away from this intrepid pair. (Dorothie Feilding, by contrast, will not only keep writing, but will be joined at the front by her similarly epistolarily-productive father, so she will stay in focus.)

And only a few miles away, near Ypres, Mairi Chisholm’s younger brother, Herny Shapter, a young lieutenant fighting with the 2/Bedfordshires, was killed today. Chisholm will not learn of his death until several days after tomorrow’s ceremony.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A character in their touchstone novel, The Story of an African Farm.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 50-1.
  3. Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi go to War, 88-91.

The Nursing Sister Sketches a Gallery of Typical Tommies

All is relatively quiet on the Western Front right now, so we can live the dream of a nice, short, homey, single-writer post. The Nursing Sister has been working nearly constantly for four months, but she is a formidably consistent writer, and has become something of a team M.V.P or sixth man of the (first) year, here. Her diary is the closest thing we have to an omnibus: good for the strategic report, the operational account of a single (medical) mission, the detailed description of an operation, the sentimental tale, the terse drama of terrible fortitude amidst horror, the humorous anecdote, the testament to British phlegm, and the hospital-train-worthy joke…

Saturday, January 30th

We got up to Merville at one o’clock last night, and loaded up only forty-five, and are now just going to load up again at a place on the way back. We have been completely done out of the La Bassée business; haven’t been near it…

One of my badly woundeds says “the Major” (whose servant he has been for four years) asked him to make up the fire in his dug-out, while he went to the other end of the trench. While he was doing the fire a shell burst over the dug-out and a bit went through his left leg and touched his right. If the Major had been sitting in his chair where he was a minute before, his head would have been blown off. He said, “When the Major came back and found me, he drove everybody else away and stayed with me all day, and made me cocoa, and at night carried my stretcher himself and took me right to Headquarters.” His eyes shine when he talks of “the Major,” and he seems so proud he got it instead.

I asked a boy in the sitting-ups what was the matter with him. “Too small,” he said. Another said “Too young”; he was aged fifteen, in the Black Watch. A young monkey, badly wounded in hand and throat (lighting a cigarette–the shatter to his hand saved worse destruction to his throat, though bad enough as it is), after we’d settled him in, fixed his eye on me and said, “Are you going to be in here along of us all the way?” “Yes,” I said. “That’s a good job,” and he is taking good care to get his money’s worth, I can tell you.

Some of them are roaring at the man in ‘Punch’ who made a gallant attempt to do justice to all his Xmas presents at once.

There is a sergeant-major of the Royal Scots very indignant at having been made to go sick with bad feet. Any attempt to fuss over him is met with “I need no attention whatever, thank you, Sister. I feel more like apologising for being in here. Only five weeks of active service,” he growled.

The latest Franco-British idea is to Arras the Boches till they Argonne![1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.

Rupert Brooke Contemplates an Enjoyably Extended Convalescence; Strings Have Been Pulled in Pervyse; Max Plowman on Men, Women, and the True Consciousness of War

Rupert Brooke began a letter to Violet Asquith on January 25th, but broke it off in the middle of a thought. By today he had finished it:

Some days later

At that point I slept. And now—after days—and nights—of toil, I’ve deplorably got a cold again. I’m in bed with it, stupid beyond military crassness, irritable, depressed and uncomfortable. And, this time, no chance of you swooping down in a car on Saturday to ravish me away to champagne and sheets and Lady Wimborne and all things light and lovely. My only glimmer of a malingering and unpatriotic hope, is that if I develop (as I so feebly couldn’t, before, you remember?) a TEMPERATURE, I shall be packed off out of Camp promptly. They’ve discovered that no one ever gets better in these miasmic huts.

In that case, instead of going through to Rugby, I think I should be wiser to turn Eddie’s into a R.N.D.M.C. depot and wheeze there, swathed, in the great chair before the fire. Would you come one afternoon and read Shakespeare to me? I’m sure London’s the cure for a bad cold—that they spring from the absence of anything one likes—except exercise—and that to be happy and amused is the remedy. Of course—as we’re to be here till May—one’ll get leave again. And there’s a good chance of my going to Hythe for a fortnight to learn machine-gunning. Isn’t that near Walmer?

My only solace here is in reading a book about the district… The Tower that had Two on it is not far away.[1] And at Tarrant Crawford a Queen is buried. And Badbury Rings—which we attack weekly—is the scene of one of Arthur’s greatest victories.

Trailing back from a night attack two days ago I made two verses of a rather good non-military poem on an empty room. That’s fun. There are some other sonnets in New Numbers. None as good one nearly as good—as the one I gave you. (I think you’re right about ‘gone proudly friended’: but—there it is.)

This, at last, would be a direct reference to the poems that will make Brooke truly famous. The line he mentions is from the fourth of his five sonnet sequence on the war, entitled “The Dead.” The third (“red/Sweet wine of youth”)and the fifth, “The Soldier,” (beginning “If I should die, think only this of me)” will soon become the most widely read and quoted English poems of the war.

I don’t want a hot water bottle, thanks. My feet are always feverish. But I do want a book, one which is as amusing as Sterne and Jacobs and France and strong as Dr Johnson and lovely as Marvell and the Anthology, and Shakesperian as Shakespere. Can you find it? It’s the only thing that could tempt me to interest enough to read it, this evening.

Forgive my immense stupidity—I’ll write when this present cloud lifts. Write to me of you and London.

RUPERT[2]

We’ll get back to the poems in due time, but Brooke’s immediate future is the worsening of this “cold” into something that sounds more flu-ish. And Miss Asquith did not, apparently, fail to pick up on the implicit request: she’s not at Walmer, but in London, whither Brooke will soon be invited to recuperate at the family’s current residence, 10 Downing Street.

 

Max Plowman, our pacifist volunteer in the Ambulance Corps, wrote another letter to Janet Upcott today, a century back, touching early upon a theme that will be picked up by many writers both at home and in the trenches.

…You know I think the greatest injury war inflicts comes through its power to deny women any place in it. It violates perhaps the greatest of Nature’s laws–mutual participation, & the death & physical suffering it entails are slight injuries compared with the spiritual divorce which war means to men & women. The surprising thing about war is that all the REAL consciousness of it falls upon woman. Directly a man joins the army he forfeits his self-consciousness & becomes a tiny piece of machinery–the more accurately mechanical the better… but suddenly all the women with any self-consciousness are made doubly self-conscious & they are burdened by a weight of thought & consciousness at the precise moment when war denies them–in many cases–even occupation.

This is a little trite–Plowman perhaps does not intend himself to become an unthinking cog. (An even if he does, he will think better of it before too long; he’ll write us a very conscious memoir before all is said and done.) He also risks preaching his woman-reader down off her Victorian pedestal and right into a much more modern vitrine of detached praiseworthiness.

But it’s also broadly true: men get sucked into a machine and deprived of a wide-range of choice and personal responsibility. Women are left to structure their own terror, alone.

For Vera Brittain, the bright shining challenge of the war arrived refracted by Oxford and by Roland. She has needed a few months to adjust to the gaining of the longed-for desire, to see Oxford as a town and a creakily bureaucratic school and not a promised land of intellectual maturity. And she’s gone from first serious flirtations to convention-defying assignations with Roland, the love of her life. So it’s not all that surprising that she is only halfway to realizing that, in terms a least of gender roles, the war has done much to restore the maddening stultification of provincial young-ladyhood which she had so recently escaped.

Most of the suffragettes have declared a truce, and there are few radicals among women academics… who, other than the nurses, volunteer ambulance drivers, and a few other serious convention flouters, have been liberated rather than constrained by the war? Plowman is onto something: Women, although galvanized “to twice their usual power & intensity of living” are now not only denied an outlet for this energy but forced to sit still and applaud their metamorphosed menfolk. Plowman’s rather brutal metaphor is the stocks:

I can become so dulled to the value of life in general & my own in particular that I can put my head into the cannon’s mouth or make mincemeat of a man in a different coloured uniform, &… I call upon you in the stocks suffering agonies of consciousness to applaud my bravery & heroism & to adore me as your natural protector & saviour…[3]

 

And now to several of those galvanized women who have rejected the idle agony of the stocks, thrust their heads much closer to the cannon’s mouth than British propriety ordinarily allows, and been applauded for their bravery and heroism.

Dorothie Feilding arrived in Pervyse today–in company, perhaps not coincidentally, with both of the unit’s (male) doctors. Two days after the announcement of Mairi Chisholm’s and Elsie Knocker’s decorations, “strings had been pulled” and it was made known that Lady Feilding will be honored by the king of the Belgians as well. Her own letters say nothing about all of this, but Elsie Knocker was not best pleased:

They made a great yarn about Dorothy and said that she had also been decorated and I cannot understand how anyone can have the audacity to say a thing which is not true… of course she may be some day but she is not now.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Hardy reference!
  2. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 658-9.
  3. Bridge into the Future, 31-2.
  4. Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi Go to War, 88.

Three Confirmed Kills, Misplaced Innocence, and An ABC Poem from Edward Hulse; Herbert Read Reads Marx, Nietzsche, and a Platoon of Durham Miners; Crofton on the Cavalry; Egos are Bruised in Pervyse

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:[1]Trench wedding 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.”[2]

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…[3]

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.[4]

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:

Billets,
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

Ted.

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.[5]

 

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…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The photograph is found in Fletcher, Life, Death and Growing Up on the Western Front. Anthony Fletcher's interesting/promising book, which studies the war through a disparate group of letter-writing soldiers--some more or less unknown, some famous, and one, Reginald Trench, his own grandfather--is a source I hope to draw deeply on as the war continues.
  2. That is Read referring to himself, later on, in the third person. Although he vouches for the "occasional crudity" and "authenticity" of these letters, scholars have been skeptical. There must be others that he chose not to publish...
  3. Read, The Contrary Experience, 60-70,1.
  4. Massacre of the Innocents, 133-4.
  5. Letters Written from the English Front in France, 75-8.

The Royal Welch Hate on the Kaiser; Morgan Crofton Suspects a Strategy; Honors for the Women of Pervyse; T. E. Hulme is Utterly Depressed at the Boredom and Discomfort of It All

January 27th.–The Kaiser’s birthday. There was a sharp frost in the night. The Germans fired hardly a shot. Our artillery bombarded 100 yards of the German line for three-quarters of an hour… We followed with two bursts of rapid small-arms fire just before, and after, 2 o’clock. The German infantry replied, firing high, and their artillery fired on H.Q. We had 1 man killed and 2 wounded: our Gunners had 10 wounded.

Two good stories of the shoot came round to us after relief. While our guns were giving the Prussians opposite us hell, the Saxons opposite the Middlesex applauded the hits. Later they shouted across, “We are being relieved by Bavarians tonight. Give us time to get out and then shoot the —–s.”[1]

Ah, insufficiently homogenized nation states. The Welch and Scottish subjects of the British empire would never conspire with the enemy to get each other shot–they’ll just go to the mattresses over bedpans. And it’s good to read that only one member of 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers has paid with his life for this pointless expression of anti-Kaiserian disdain.

 

Sir Morgan Crofton, up the road a ways, reported the day’s action somewhat differently:

The whole Division stood to until after midday, when the few sporadic and abortive attempts made by the enemy to
provide their voracious War Lord with a suitable birthday present were beaten off and all troops returned to their billets.

The Kaiser’s birthday must have cost the Germans in one way and another 20,000 men. The essence of our system is to compel the Germans to attack us, instead of wasting our men in assailing the Germans in carefully prepared positions.[2]

Crofton, knowledgeable about military history and strategy, is inferring. Sadly, he has it–or will have had it, once the New Army is cranked up and the brass decide to loose it upon the enemy–exactly backwards. The Germans are close to deciding upon a western strategy of attrition, while the British will continue to promise their French allies a series of wasteful attacks against much superior and very carefully prepared positions…

 

T.E. Hulme’s series of trench life letters continues today, with a quietly eloquent demolishing of any assumption that “rest” periods are less miserable than time in the front line trenches themselves.

Jan. 27th

I have had a very uncomfortable time this week. As I told you last week after 4 days rest we go down to a place near the trenches. We marched off there last Wednesday, late in the day so as to get there after dark, or we might be shelled on our arrival. We never know whether we shall get a good or a bad billet when we arrive there, it’s always different. We were led into the chapel attached to a school and our section managed to get a corner by the altar. It looks very curious to see a lot of troops billeted in a place like this, rifles resting on the altar, and hanging over statues of the saints, men sleeping on the altar steps. (You had better leave this part out in sending it to Stanbrook).

This is quite an image–sleeping on the steps of the altar indeed. And it is very like Hulme–a critic, and one without the novelist’s inclinations–to leave it so simply drawn, rather than dramatizing the juxtaposition or fleshing out its ironies.

The parenthesis, by the way, reminds us that he is writing to all of his extended family. This is a diary-in-letters, intended to be passed on, sparing him the burden of maintaining a wide and polite correspondence. But this particular bit is to be left out when sent on to two of his aunts, who (as the editor Robert Ferguson explains in a note) are nuns at Stanbrook Abbey.

It was rather cold as all the windows were smashed and we have no blankets now. We lit a brazier, i.e. an old bucket with holes knocked in it, burning charcoal and coke. We had nothing to do the first night, as it was some other company’s turn in the trenches. Next morning one of the men went out and dug up some vegetables from a deserted garden and made a kind of stew without meat. We get no cooked meat in the 4 days. The next night we went up to a kind of circular reserve trench. You go up a long file, as I described in my last letter. We were challenged at the entrance and then entered a narrow passage going down to the level of the trenches.

I don’t think I’ve been so exasperated for years as I was in taking up my position in this trench. It wasn’t an ordinary one but was roofed over most of the way, leaving passage about 4 ft: absolutely impossible for me to walk through. I had to crawl along on my hands and knees, through the mud in pitch darkness and every now and then seemed to get stuck together. You feel shut in and hopeless. I wished I was about 4 ft. This war isn’t for tall men. I got in a part too narrow and too low to stand or sit and had to sit sideways on a sack of coke to keep out of the water. We had to stay there from about 7 p.m. till just before dawn next morning, a most miserable experience. You can’t sleep and you sit as it were at the bottom of a drain with nothing to look at but the top of the ditch slowly freezing. It’s unutterably boring.

The next night was better, because I carried up a box to sit on and a sack of coke to burn in a brazier. But one brazier in a narrow trench among 12 men only warms about 3. All through this night, we had to dig a new passage in shifts. That in a way did look picturesque at midnight–a very clear starry night. This mound all full of passages like a mole hill and 3 or 4 figures silhouetted on top of it using pick or shovel. The bullets kept whistling over it all the time, but as it’s just over the crest of a hill most of them are high, though every now and then one comes on your level and it is rather uncomfortable when you are taking your turn at sentry. The second night it froze hard, and it was much easier walking back over the mud.

In reality there is nothing picturesque about it. It’s the most miserable existence you can conceive of. I feel utterly depressed at the idea of having to do this for 48 hours every 4 days. It’s simply hopeless. The boredom and discomfort of it, exasperate you to the breaking point.

Hulme has a good eye, and a steady pen. The syntax is that of any ordinary letter: he writes with better control than a rambler like Henry Williamson, but still, he is plainly not carefully composing or drafting and re-drafting these letters. And yet he packs in a number of observations which will become commonplaces of the trench experience: boredom as a serious threat to morale, discomfort as something more taxing in its steady sapping of strength and patience than sudden and serious danger.

And now he will meditate on what the trenches of the war’s first freeze might look like later on. In a few years the mementos of 1914 violence–frozen and buried only to be thawed and disturbed by the war’s later violence–will become favorite topics of the war writers.

It’s curious to think of the ground between the trenches, a bank which is practically never seen by anyone in the daylight, as it is only safe to move through it at dark. It’s full of dead things, dead animals here and there, dead unburied animals, skeletons of horses destroyed by shell fire. It’s curious to think of it later on in the war, when it will again be seen in daylight.

Some trenches will indeed become daylight sights for those curious about the macabre. Others will still be inhabited several years on, and give up their grim relics under bombardment or further excavation.

We had to do this for every night for 12 hours. Next week we shall be in the firing line, in two periods of 24 hours each. On our way down we generally meet someone being brought up wounded or killed to cheer us up.[3]

There are few things in this war more miserable than the life of an infantryman in winter.

 

 

On a cheerier note, big news today for Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, the “Angels of Pervyse” now working from a slightly less forwardly-positioned aid post: King Albert of the Belgians has appointed them Chevaliers de l’Ordre de Léopold. The news was brought by a high-ranking Belgian general who arrived, saluted, and made them a pretty speech. Each of the ostentatiously practical women affected to be bemused by the award. Elsie wrote that “I never felt so foolish in my life.”

Perhaps–but decorations rarely leave the recipients entirely unchanged…  Lady Feilding, until now the most recognizable–and recognized–member of Munro’s ambulance corps, has returned to Belgium after a stay in England, and is working at the hospital at Furnes (Veurne), a few miles further back than the aid post. The friends of Lady Feilding will not stand idly by![4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 113.
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 133.
  3. Ferguson, ed., The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 194-5.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 46-7; Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi, 86.

The Nursing Sister Debates for England; Henry Williamson Returns to Her Shores; Rupert Brooke Plans the Entertainment for a Worsening Cold; Vera Pulls Out of Her Funk

We haven’t heard from the Nursing Sister in a while. Although she did manage to scrape together a short leave (in France–she seems not to have been able to get a long enough leave to make going to England worthwhile) she has generally been the most consistent writer, cheerful even amidst her too consistent existence. For months now it’s been back and forth, bringing the shredded and feverish bodies of the soldiers down to the coastal hospitals and then back up for a new load. And the consistency can be… a little depressing.

But today she reports on an unusual meeting. After, of course, the requisite church tour.

Tuesday, 26th January.

A dazzling blue spring day. As we were not going in to load at Rouen till 3 P.M., we went for the most glorious walk in this country. We crossed the ferry over the Seine to the foot of the steep high line of hills which eventually overlooks Rouen, and climbed up to the top by a lovely winding woody path in the sun… “Who said War?” said P. while we were waiting on the shingle for the boat; it did seem very remote. At the top we got to the Church of Le Bon Secours, which is in a very fine position with a marvellous view. We had some lovely cider in a very clean pub with a garden, and then took the tram down a very steep track into Rouen… the view… was dazzling, with the spires and the river and the bridges…

9.30 P.M.–On way to Havre. I was just going to say that from the Seine to Le Havre there is nothing to report, when I came across a young educated German in my wards with his left leg off from the hip, and his right from below the knee, and a bad shell wound in his arm, all healed now, done at Ypres on 24th October. And I had an hour’s most thrilling and heated conversation with him in German. He was very down on the English Sisters in hospital, because he says they hated him and didn’t treat him like the rest. I said that was because they couldn’t forget what his regiment (Bavarians) had done to the Belgian women and children and old men, and the French. And he said he couldn’t forget how the Belgian women had put out the eyes of the German wounded at Liège and thrown boiling water on them. I said they were driven to it. I asked him a lot of straight questions about Germany and the War, and he answered equally straight. He said they had food in Germany for ten years, and that they had ten million men, and that all the present students would be in the Army later on, and that practically the supply could never stop. And I said that however long they could go on, in the end there would be no more Germany because she was up against five nations. He said no man has any fear of a Russian soldier, and that though they were slow over it they would get Paris, but not London except by Zeppelins; he admitted that it would be sehr schwer (very hard) to land troops in England, and that our Navy was the best, but we had so few soldiers, they hardly counted! He got very excited over the Zeppelins. I asked why the Germans hated the English, and he said, “In Berlin we do not speak of the English at all(!!!); it is the French and the Russians we hate.”

These last two points have the most truth to them: Germany will not be able to invade England, and early in the war German feeling towards England was a mixture of indignation (that a fellow Germanic, enlightened, mostly Protestant nation would side with its old French foes and the savage Russians) and indifference–the British army was indeed very small. As for the rest, well: both disputants are influenced by propaganda, but all cheating is not equal–Belgian civilians did not torture and maim German soldiers at Liege.

He said the Turks were no good zu helfen (to help), and Austria not much better. He was very down on Belgium for resisting in the first place! and said the Schuld (fault) was with France and Russia. They were very much astonished when England didn’t remain neutral! He had the cheek to say that three German soldiers were as good as twenty English, so I assured him that five English could do for fifty Germans, and went on explaining carefully to him how there could be no more Germany in the end because the right must win! and he said, “So you say in England, but we know otherwise in Deutschland, and I am a German.” So as I am an English we had to agree to differ. His faith in his Vaterland nearly made him cry and must have given him a temperature. I felt quite used up afterwards. He is fast asleep now.[1]

 

Rupert Brooke wrote to Eddie Marsh today, a century back, and he seems to be repenting of his urge to “come and die” so immediately, at least not without the best sort of people around him:

I rather agree it’d be nicer to go out with a clash in April or May, than to slink out to the mud now. Though I do share the impatience. The only doing is, the longer we stay, the more our officers seem to fade away…  I hope the
authorities’ll (1) block any good officers going off to other things, Naval or Army, (2) get decent people for the new officers. I’m sure if they got hold of the Artists or the Inns of Court or a University, they could get a good lot of young officers, & decent people. We get a very chance lot as it is: some good & some rotten, scratched up anyhow…

Is it true Winston’s coming next Tuesday? We–A Company–are going to a village 17 miles away to billet for the week-end: returning Monday. I don’t yet know if I shall go. I’ve a bloody cold in my head. If it lasts, or if my temperature goes up, I shall be sent out of camp. We’ve found that bad colds take ages to get better in camp. Shall I go to Rugby or London?

It does seem to be a bad cold, but then Brooke is both a bit of a hypochondriac and has legitimate immune system issues, so it’s tough to tell. Worse than Roland Leighton‘s “incipient flu?” Not as bad as Henry Williamson/Phillip Maddison’s “enteritis?”

It’s amusing–but not surprising–to discover how much easier it is for an officer in England to go and recover in pleasant circumstances than for an enlisted man in France. Where shall it be? London? Eddie’s Place?

I don’t know if Raymond Buildings’ld be a good place to lie up in (I shouldn’t be infectious). I’d get more amusing visitors there than at Rugby…[2]

He’ll end up in London, but not chez Eddie.

 

And speaking of sickly enlisted men, Henry Williamson has reached blighty. Although his gastrointestinal and podiatric issues are not extremely serious, they were bad enough to merit–in this time of relatively few actual combat wounds to trump mere sick cases–evacuation to England. Thin and weak, Henry will placed on a train for Birmingham today, but end up in Manchester instead. After a short stay at a hospital there he will spend almost a month at a rest home nearby, and then be granted three weeks’ leave before re-assignment.[3]

The slowness of the process by which soldiers were returned to the front was another reason that wounds–or illness–just bad enough for evacuation were considered to be a very happy place for Fortune’s wheel to alight…

In any event, no writing from the time of his convalescence survives, so we will next check in with Henry in March, when he receives leave to visit home before reassignment.

 

Things are looking up for Vera Brittain:

Tuesday January 26th

This morning, for no reason whatever, I felt happy for the first time since coming back here. The early exuberance evaporated a little during the day; still I have proved that in spite of the war, & of many uncongenial people, & not quite suitable surroundings, the feeling is possible–& the infrequent moments worth living for…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  2. Letters of Rupert Brooke, 656-7.
  3. A. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 56.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 150.

Charles Sorley is in a Brown Study; Rupert Brooke Breaks Off a Letter; Henry Farnsworth has Yarns for Mama and Uppishness for Father

Charles Sorley–evidently too bored and/or busy at training camp to produce more than a trickle of letters (come on, Chuck!)–wrote one today, a century back, to his friend A.E. Hutchinson. Hutchinson is now either in his last term at Marlborough College or, as the letter seems to suggest, recently commissioned.

Shorncliffe, 25 January 1915

How are you getting on? I can imagine it is not quite heaven. But neither is this. Heaven will have to wait until the war’s over. It is the most asphyxiating work after the first fine glow of seeing people twice your age and size obey and salute you has passed off, as it does after a fortnight. The only thing is that the pay is good. The rest, as you are probably finding already, is complete stagnation among a mass of straps and sleeping-bags and water-bottles.

So far Sorley need be nothing more than smart and sardonic to produce such a blasé condemnation of military life. But in previous letters he usually lightens his more negative insights with a self-deprecating joke. Here, one might think, he would be sensitive, at least, to the morale of his friend. But no.

This sounds either like depression or precocious judgment curdling into a precious disillusionment. Like Rupert Brooke (though they are otherwise most unlike), Sorley has been too long training in camp, with little to think or talk about with his fellow officers and therefore too much to think about what they are training for.

War in England only means putting all the men of “military age” in England into a state of routinal coma, preparatory to getting them killed. You are being given six months to become conventional: your peace thus made with God, you will be sent out and killed.

Harsh. How will we pace ourselves through four years (or, for our historical informants, an indefinite period) if we are already so sure that the older men–for who else is acting upon the men of military age?–have co-opted religion and nationalism to get their young men killed? But this is Sorley railing against war itself, or the plight of the youth of England, or the army?

At least, if you aren’t killed, you’ll come back so unfitted for any other job that you’ll have to stay in the Army. I should like so much to kill whoever was primarily responsible for the war. The alarming sameness with which day passes day until this unnatural state of affairs is over is worse than any so-called atrocities; for people enjoy grief, the only unbearable thing is dullness.

This sounds bad–a dark mood rather than a considered bitterness. It’s also callow. Sorley is writing on an off day here, and probably his what-I-suppose-we-might-call-emotional-intelligence is not nearly as advanced as his critical intelligence. People seem to enjoy grief, but they don’t. Not real grief. And dullness sucks, yes–but some people seem to enjoy hyperbolic complaining about it…

I have started to read again, having read nothing all the closing months of last year. I have discovered a man called D. H. Lawrence who knows the way to write, and I still stick to Hardy: to whom I never managed to convert you.

Alright then, there’s that critical intelligence. Considering the multitude of authors well regarded a century back and now despised or forgotten, this is considerably more testimony to Sorley’s acumen. Things are looking up. And yet this change of subject feels forced, as if a man in a dead float is forcing his head up for a breath.

We talk of going out in March. I am positively looking forward to that event, not in the brave British drummer-boy spirit, of course, but as a relief from this boredom…

We don’t seem to be winning, do we? It looks like an affair of years. If so, pray God for a nice little bullet wound (tidy and clean) in the shoulder. That’s the place.

Sorry I haven’t more to write–nor had Lot’s wife when she was half through being turned into salt; nor will you in three months’ time.[1]

This last bit is the most unsettling. It’s not so shocking that Sorley should be in the know about “blighty ones”–there is enough communication between Kitchener’s Army units still in Britain and the Regulars on the line for even the unblooded volunteers to hear the scuttlebutt from the trenches. Although the idea of a “good wound” being the only escape is at this time hardly common cultural currency, and besides, a nice clean bullet wound in the shoulder is unlikely to spare a soldier more than a few months in the line.

But never mind. What unsettles is the combination of contempt–for the British army, for himself as a part of it, for the human race, perhaps–and downheartedness, and the all-too-accurate assessment of what a long war will mean for the young men who have to try to win it.

 

Rupert Brooke began a letter to Violet Asquith today, sounding some of the same notes as Sorley. But then again not: he is also writing to flirt with the Prime Minister’s daughter, and he fails to finish the letter.

Hood Battalion, 2nd Naval Brigade
Blandford, Dorset
Sunday, 25 January
[Postmark: 29 January 1915]

My dear Violet,

Your letter was a great pleasure. The days have flowed by since: and though I’ve occasionally had the time, I’ve never had the mental life to write to you…  The only chance of possessing the last muddy drilled-upon comer of one’s soul, and entertaining the remotest thin ghost of an idea, is to withdraw to one’s cabin, roll up in the brown sleeping-bag, forget that one’s Officer of the Day tomorrow, and—write to you—[2]

And then he doesn’t write for “some days.” Alas! He was going to talk–finally–about his writing, too; I can just tell!

We’ll pick this up on the 29th, with the accompanying envelope’s post mark.

 

Henry Farnsworth has a pair of letters today, with a rather typical contrast in subject matter and tone: a chatty letter to Mama and a proud, challenging missive to Father.[3]

Paris, January 25, 1915

Dear Mamma:

We have at last definite marching orders, and twenty of us leave Thursday for Péronne, the general headquarters of the Legion. It is about fifteen miles from the German lines, and we are to make ourselves useful there and complete our training, get used to the atmosphere, and take our place in the trenches as soon as possible.

All is bustle and excitement…

Farnsworth now shows that he is rising to the challenge–in terms of martial anecdote production, at least–of serving in the Foreign Legion:

Last Friday we shot, all three companies together, at four hundred meters. I regret to say that the night before, instead of coming back at 8:30 as the regulations rule, I returned at 1:30 a.m. and unfortunately ran into a Brazilian lieutenant of the 13th Company, whom I had always detested. He said nothing about it at the time, but at the Butts, as I went up to shoot, he stood behind me and made sarcastic remarks about my handling of the rifle. We shoot lying down at that range. Fortunately the French rifle agrees with me and I put four shots in the bull’s-eye. The Lieutenant, contrary to regulations, gave me four more and told me to shoot again. At that range it is a great strain, at least for me, to shoot with the necessary care. I perspired freely, but got four more bulls. It ended by my making a perfect score with twenty rounds…

After a sarcastic admission of defeat, the officer turns to Farnsworth and says,

with a man to man, instead of officer to private, accent, “I was going to give you four days in jail on bread and water. Instead, you are now a sharpshooter. But please don’t let it happen again, and I advise you to resign as soon as the war is over. You may be of service at the front, but in my opinion you are not the type that is wanted in the ranks.” After that he gave me a drink from his canteen, talked about Mexico, and ended by telling me to ride his horse back to barracks, as he was going elsewhere. It was owing to this affair that I am on the list to leave.

After some casual anti-Semitism, Farnsworth returns to his favorite subject among his comrades,

Old father Uhlin, the old legionary, who, by the way, always does exactly as he likes, has arranged to ride on the wagons and fight on foot. He is a most remarkable man, and though he cannot read or write, the more I know him, the more I believe he is one of the wisest men I ever met. His common sense is astounding… I have material for a book worth reading.

So to mother. Writing to his father, the men of the Legion are assessed along different lines:

As for the class of people, De Hath, Brokeman, Campbell, Engler, and Sukuna are all gentlemen whom I would not hesitate to invite to dine at home, though Engler is very bourgeois (the virtues compris). As for the rest of them, you would detest them, and I say frankly that I like them, for the most part, and so does the Captain, who is more of an aristocrat than any of us. They are rough, drink when they have money, and when they have not, do not try to bum drinks. They will all go to considerable trouble to do a comrade a favor. I am not the one to rave about “good red blood,” but I feel a personal pride in the 15th Company and will stand up for it. The way the men will march on horribly blistered feet, and say nothing about it to the officers, is splendid, and the drill is no joke. We march 24 kilometers a day, manoeuvre two hours at Vincennes, and two hours’ section drill in the Parade ground. That in full campaign outfit. On shooting days we do no drill, only march from the Reuilly barracks to Auteuil, shoot at the butts, and march home, from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. I assume you will think me young and hence wrong, but I would rather go into action with my company than with any English regiment, or most that would be raised in Boston.

I hope you won’t think me uppish, because I am at bottom both affectionate and respectful.

H. W. F.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 254-5.
  2. Letters of Rupert Brooke, 658-9.
  3. The letter to his father is written "about" today, a century back, and it may very well have been written a few days earlier or later--in any event, there is no significant overlap in subject matter.
  4. The Letters of Henry Weston Farnsworth, 108-15.

Edward Thomas Pauses for Breath; Vera Thinks of the Worst

Edward Thomas wrote a rather forlorn letter to Eleanor Farjeon today. Although proud to be able to send her another batch of poems to read and critique (and, presumably, type up for him), his deference shades quickly into mopery:

Just look at all these verses, mostly written since my ankle went wrong 3 weeks ago. This will prejudice you against them. A man can’t do all that and be any good. Still here they are…

But other things are going on: it is now certain that the Frosts will return to America, and take Thomas’s son Mervyn with them. While the desire to get the boy, now fifteen, away from wartime England makes some sense, the plan to have the Frosts bring him to relatives in New Hampshire was not all that well thought through–they still haven’t figured out American immigration rules, for one thing. The pending departure is depressing Thomas, who recognizes that he has been an… uneven father.

I shall be glad for him but sorry for myself because it means the end of any chance of being anything to the boy. But I only hope I haven’t been nothing to him for too long now.[1]

This project is dominated by memoirs which are in turn dominated by the war. But were this a century on, this combination of a brilliant, depressive father, a long-suffering mother, their many literary friends, including Eleanor-who-loves-father… let’s just say that the children would have little problem finding literary representation…

We will have more, soon, on the Thomases and the Frosts. Eleanor Farjeon, too, will continue to be an invaluable first critic and amanuensis as Thomas pushes on with his poetry. But for a few days at least, the writers all lay down their pens.

 

Vera Brittain now receives the strangely-postmarked letter from Roland Leighton, and the sight of it–before the letter itself can be read–does indeed give her a turn.

This is our first instance–save perhaps Phillip Maddison’s (fictional) mother–of the years’ long series of terrible moments for the women at home who love men or boys in the war’s grip. For hundreds of thousands of such women there will come, as often as several times a day, a sudden, agonizing compression of all their anxiety into one moment of suspense as they reach for the mail or–much worse–see the telegraph delivery boy coming up the lane. And the tension, of course, dissipates, once the news inside can be read. Almost every time.

Vera’s diary serves again today as a rough draft for a short return letter to Roland.

Sunday January 24th

I had another–a very short–letter from Roland this morning to inform me that his regiment has been ordered to Lowestoft at once. It must be very strange for him to be stationed in his own town. I suppose it is because coast raids are anticipated there. I also had a letter from Daddy. The only thing of importance he told me was that Thomson, the boy who was head of the Lodge when Edward first went there, had been killed in action. I remember Edward was very fond of him. This war takes them all, “the eloquent, the young, the beautiful & brave”, & I don’t feel as if there can be any justification for that.[2]

 

And the letter:

Oxford, 24 January 1915

I certainly was rather surprised to see that the postmark on your letter was ‘Lowestoft’. I was quite alarmed lest you should have obtained your desired transference to some other regiment, & been sent home on leave pending your immediate departure for the front…

This pregnant ellipsis is, for once, not mine. Vera knows well enough what a woman in her situation need fear. The letter continues:

Do you know that the boy who was head of the Lodge–I think his name was Thomson,—when you & Edward first went to Uppingham, has been killed in action. I remember Edward was very fond of him. Sometimes I feel as though this war was claiming them all,‘the eloquent, the young, the beautiful & brave’, just as the French Revolution did, but even more pitilessly & more universally. Can anything justify that?[3]

Oh, sister, this war is just getting started. But good question…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 114.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 150.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 50.

Donald Hankey on a Christianity and Violence; Edward Thomas on the Failures of Poetic Ambition

Donald Hankey bears the burden here, just now, of representing all those who are serious about religion. It’s not that no one else is–there are several devout Catholics among our writers, and several others who default to a more-than-passive Anglicanism–but rather that there is no one else (that I know of) who writes simultaneously on his religious beliefs and on his experience in the ranks. Hankey fits the bill superficially–he comes across as serious and a little square–but on a deeper level as well. He intends to enter the ministry after the war, and he has studied theology and published a book of religious inquiry. So he’s got a job to do: just as our poet types must seriously discuss poetry in their letters, he has taken up the task–in his own correspondence and then again in my manner of sampling it–of addressing the war from a theological angle.

Today, a century back, he writes back to an American friend who has written with praise–and questions–about Hankey’s book, The Lord of all Good Life. Hankey will apologize for boring us (and I’ve trimmed the letter, as I do most). But, really, if you’ve stuck with this project through endless reports on liquid mud and post-adolescent romance, then a little serious thought on how a Christian can volunteer to go kill other Christians is surely worthwhile.

Jan. 23, 1915

Dear Thorburn,

I am really very grateful to you for your letter about my book and especially for your remark that my “presentation of Christianity is not repellent to the scientific mind.” I am not in any degree whatever a scientific person, and the bent of my mind has always led me in other and probably less arduous directions of thought, but I have had a good many friends who have been keen in a more or less amateurish way on scientific questions, and I have tried to understand what were their peculiar difficulties as regards religion. In fact I think I might describe my own mental history by saying that whereas I am naturally of a lazily orthodox frame of mind, I have been continually spurred into wider channels of thought by my friends…

With regard to your criticisms, I am not inclined to argue. You say you are an agnostic on certain ultimate issues, and that you doubt the possibility of a regeneration of the church. I don’t know that I am very much more certain than you are. I don’t think that at present, at any rate, absolute knowledge is humanly possible with regard to ultimate issues. It appears to me that we are still in a stage where, like children, in order to get on and live the best sort of life, we must be content with picture language, and that such picture language is often nearer the truth than formulae of a more ambitious character.

For instance, I do not suggest that “Our Father which art in heaven” is an adequate or comprehensive definition of God. But I fancy that it is probably truer for us ordinary men who have got to get on and make the best out of life than a philosophic definition would be. I would probably go much further in this direction than you would…

With regard to war, you have undoubtedly touched the sore spot. When one enlists one thinks of dying for one’s country, and before long one feels that one’s business is to live and kill for it. Yet I am not at all sure that you are right. Suppose the Good Samaritan had come up while his neighbour was being kicked about by the robbers, his position would have been very unpleasant if, with every good instinct urging him to go to the rescue, his religion had compelled him to stand by and be knocked about himself! And if the robbers had chosen to ignore his presence, he would have felt an awful worm…

Incidentally when I had a confirmation class of boys I told them, on this subject of violence, that I thought that though there were occasions when it was right to turn the other cheek, I thought that there were also occasions when it was a duty to kick the other fellow. I think that such occasions are not very common; but they exist. And as long as one is quite sure that one is doing it because one honestly thinks it will do him good, it is a legitimate course of action even to a Christian…

Sorry to be so long, and again thank you. Yours ever,

Donald[1]

This avoids the whole problem of how the other fellow–he whom you would kick–is wearing a belt-buckle reading Gott Mitt Uns–and feeling rather the same about his Christian duty to kick you. If he is a religious man, and sincere in his belief that his own military violence will “do good” by correcting the soldiers of your wayward nation… If a whole bunch of Christians hold these ideas and have gone to war with each other, well then someone has blundered…

 

Edward Thomas wrote Ambition today, a pseudo-Romantic paean to the poet’s muse-o-manic view of the world. Spring, nature, morning, a bevy of different birds, a train in the distance–all these suggest creative possibility, and each urges the omnipotent poet/sorcerer to get a-conjuring. The poem ends, however, in ironic failure, the deep-breathing poet having accomplished nothing (except, of course, this poem). Wait–what was I ambitious to write, again?[2]

Thomas has been cranking out poetry throughout the month, but now–with the departure of Robert Frost (and Thomas’s son Mervyn) looming, his ankle beginning to mend, and the National Service League pamphlet still on his desk–his pen will take a brief, well-earned rest. Tomorrow, a letter–but no new verses until February…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 270-4.
  2. See Longley, Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 190-1.

Robert Graves Fawns over Rupert Brooke; Vera and Roland Receive and Write; Edward Thomas Dreams of the Romany

Robert Graves wrote a short letter to Eddie Marsh today, a century back, with perhaps a more-than-minimal amount of follow-up letter awkwardness:

22 January 1915

Dear Eddie

After forty-eight hours’ leave in London I am suffering crushing boredom here as a reaction to the mental debauch of meeting you and others of my intelligent and humane friends.

If you have lost the verses I lent you, your overworkedness is ample excuse, but should you still have them I would like to have them returned and to know briefly how they strike you: be as cruel as you like as I wrote them all here where lack of criticism leaves me in doubt of their worth.

Common themes, these. Army camp stultification is a handicap to poetic development! Might you help? Ah, but how can I demonstrate that I am eager to be a good acolyte?

Aha! Praise for the shining star among your current proteges should do it:

I have bought Rupert Brooke‘s Poems of which I had only seen a very few before: I think he is really good. What a torture his sensitiveness must always be for him, poor fellow!

Yours very sincerely                                                                                                                          Robert Graves[1]

There must be a positive assessment, of course, but it’s hard not to giggle a little at Graves’s po-faced sympathy for Brooke. Surely he is jealous of the older poet’s success? Surely he imagines himself to be just as sensitive and, perhaps, less liable to be so… ostentatiously sensitive?

I don’t know. It’s an amusingly accurate reading of Brooke: he’s talented, but all this indulgent suffering is a little… but let’s stop at that. Brooke’s most famous poems are still in the works, and there will be more incisive commentary on these from another young poet soldier, so there’s no point in trying to assess Brooke from a short letter that is not trying to read him critically but only to curry favor with Marsh.

And yet: doesn’t it seem as if Graves’s compliments tend toward the minimal, considering the fact that he is writing to Brooke’s friend and patron? Isn’t there a palpable suggestion that a hardier soul could, perhaps, develop into a superior poet?

Graves, in any event, is dealing with another serious disappointment. It had become clear upon his return to the Welch depot that he was still not considered acceptable officer material. Another draft of replacements to the two combat battalions is sent out without him… given that sergeants are being commissioned in France, Graves’s off-putting personality, poor tailoring, and general oddity must be serious matters indeed in the eyes of the Regiment…

 

Vera Brittain is relieved by the arrival of a letter from Roland today:

Friday January 22nd

I had a letter from Roland at last. As soon as I received it I put it in my jersey pocket & carried it about with me all the time for company. He apologised for not writing before, but after the journey to Oxford his cold got so much worse that he had to stay in bed 3 days. I thought something of the sort might happen. He does not take nearly enough care of himself. I suppose I ought never to have let him come with me; there were so many things that day that I ought never to have allowed.[2]

A very proprietary sort of concern… but I’m glad we have the letter itself, so that we can know what about it is so talisman-appropriate. It’s odd, though, that Vera has nothing else to say: she’s dwelling on the forbidden romance of their day together, but one shouldn’t read too much into this melodramatic regret–nothing more outrageous than hand-kissing happened. (And the usual possibilities of epistolary reticence are reduced almost to nothing, since Brittain reviewed these events in a memoir and adds omitted details in many places, but not here.)

And as Vera cherishes this most recent missive, Roland begins the next. He has been unexpectedly sent to the very town in which his family has its non-London residence, and so he writes to Vera with the change of address.

Royal Norfolk & Suffolk Yacht Club,

Lowestoft, 22 January 1915

You will be surprised to see that I am here. So am I.

This morning we had a sudden order from the War Office for the regiment to move down to Lowestoft at once. I and another officer have been sent on in advance to make preparations, & arrived here about six o’clock this evening. I have not had time to go home yet & probably shall not have for some time. We have to arrange billets for 1000 men before they all arrive at 12 o’clock tomorrow morning, as well as billets for the officers and suitable parade grounds etc…

It seems so strange to be back here again.[3]

 

And Edward Thomas wrote The Gypsy today, another poem drawn from earlier notebook jottings. The subject this time is a rural fair, specifically two Romany he met there: woman with a young child and a young man with a mouth organ, playing “Over the Hills and Far Away.” Thomas is entranced by the Romany, and sympathetic to the difficulty of their lives. He writes with the intent to appreciate their distinctiveness and difference, but still he patronizes. (Elsewhere he makes the cringe-making suggestion that they–as well as [other] native English rural types–should be preserved by the Zoological society. This is not as racist or horrible as it now seems, but it’s still problematic, an indulgence in careless and heavy-handed romanticizing of the Other, the placing his own sentiments above the actual lives of others.)

Thomas sentimentalizes, but he certainly does not mean to dehumanize: he appropriates the Romany just as he appropriates a gaggle of rural figures from the Anglo-Saxon foreground of the curio shelf–just as, in a broader sense, he-like-most-writers appropriates whoever he runs across–as part of a broader project to depict Ye Olde England of his wanderings and his imagination. “The Gypsy” stands for an England prior to–and resisting–the march of modernity and the folklore-quelling aspects of Christianity. Like the badger, then, we may be meant to see a natural and timeless figure, someone whose roots and way of life predate England’s conversions–if not to Christianity itself then, at least, to Capitalism and Protestantism…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 29-30.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 149-50.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 49-50.