Brooke and Crofton Set Sail; Vera Brittain Writes of Spring, and Life, and Death


The Grantully Castle

The Grantully Castle sailed from Avonmouth docks early this morning, carrying two battalions of the Royal Naval Division. Among the crowd on the docks stood Violet Asquith, waving as her brother and her beloved Rupert departed.[1]

It would be tomorrow before the Grantully Castle felt the real channel swells. Less fortunate, then, was Sir Morgan Crofton, who began today his second post-leave anabasis toward the combat zone.

Sunday. February 28

Went to Victoria at 5.30 to catch 6 o’clock train. Station simply packed, not a place to be had in the first train. Succeeded, after much fighting, in getting a place in the 2nd class saloon with 21 others, in the second train.

Arrived Folkestone 8 o’clock. Went at once on steamer the Onward. Same crowd there. Over 1,140 officers and men were on board. A great struggle in the dining saloon. Succeeded at last in getting some dinner which did not profit me much.

Boat sailed at 9.15. Total darkness on ship, which was escorted by two French destroyers.

A most brilliant moonlight night, so could see as clearly as in the day. Very strong wind NW and the most awful swell. Too cold to stay on deck, so retired to the Ladies’ Saloon which was in total darkness. Everyone there being violently sick. I did my share. Felt like death, could not have moved an eyelid if we had been torpedoed ten times. However, after getting rid of my 3s 6d dinner I felt better, and fell asleep hugging my tin basin.

We arrived at Boulogne at 10.30 after a very fast trip. The lights being turned on revealed the awful condition of the Ladies’ Saloon. The horrors of war were indeed brought home.[2]

Sir Morgan is growing on me–it’s good to see (to sea!) that good old-fashioned vomit humor can transcend age and class, and leap the century unscathed.


Those able to raise their minds above the rim of their tin basins might well ponder the change of the weather. Vera Brittain, writing today to Roland Leighton, proves once again that she is no fool. Spring might be signified to all good Englishmen and women by the return of birds and flowers, but it also means drier, longer, easier days–the return of campaigning season.

Oxford, 28 February 1915

I think it is harder now the spring days are beginning to come to keep the thought of war before one’s mind–especially here, where there is always a kind of dreamy spell which makes one feel that nothing poignant & terrible can ever come near. Winter departs so early here, and during the calm & beautiful days we have had lately it seems so much more appropriate to imagine that you & Edward are actually here enjoying the spring than to think that before long you may be in the trenches fighting men you do not really hate.

Interesting. Thinking ahead from weather to war, Vera finds herself implicitly–now explicitly–leaning ever so slightly toward pacifism. Has Roland been writing about his lack of hatred for the Germans? Not really. Nor has Vera been reading disillusioned accounts of the fighting, which questions the slaughter of other men likewise condemned to fruitless sacrifice in miserable trenches, because such things are not yet being published. This is her own line of inquiry, and she should get full marks for it.

Or, perhaps, an alpha minus, since I suspect that part of her objection to the idea that spring should be welcomed for its chance to more effectively strafe the damned Hun is a reflexive contrarianism.

Oxford may be an intellectual bastion, but it is far from exempt from the strident jingoism that bestrides the nation–not to mention the religious props of this dubious colossus:

In the churches in Oxford, where so many of the congregation are soldiers, we are always having it impressed upon us that ‘the call of our country is the call of God’. Is it? I wish I could feel sure that it was. At this time of the year it seems that everything ought to be creative, not destructive, & that we should encourage things to live & not die.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 489.
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 162-3.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 56.

The Royal Naval Division Embarks; Siegfried Sassoon Sends Off Two Poems; Billy Congreve Buries His Friend


Brooke, standing at left, and fellow officers of the Hood Battalion. Photo probably taken today, a century back, aboard the Grantully Castle (King’s College Library)

Tonight, a century back, Rupert Brooke–along with Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Oc Asquith, and the other members of the Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division–boarded the converted liner Grantully Castle, bound for the East.

A last package arrived for Brooke from Eddie Marsh. It was an amulet, “from a very beautiful lady who wants you to come back safe–her name is not to be divulged. I have promised that you shall wear it–and I beseech you to make my word good. It’s a very potent charm…[1]


And like, er, ships passing in the night, a letter from Siegfried Sassoon was already tacking toward Eddie Marsh. It included two poems, the first products of a laid-up winter’s return to poetry must less dramatic (and much less well documented) than Edward Thomas‘s, but significant nonetheless.

Sassoon was in a mystical state of mind, and the two poems–Wisdom and “Storm and Rhapsody”–were still traditional, still quiet and gentle. And yet, even if they can be described as more or less Georgian, that still indicates a slight step forward from Sassoon’s more florid late-19th century style and toward the current (if rapidly dating) fashion.

Crucially, for Sassoon, Eddie Marsh will think relatively highly of these poems and return the two manuscripts with suggested corrections. One of these was a title change, which Sassoon will immediately adopt–“Storm and Rhapsody” will become Storm and Sunlight. It remained a mild-mannered Georgian rhapsody, yet it was, in its own quiet way, a war poem: those “close huddling Men” must be troopers of the Sussex Yeomanry, taking shelter during a training exercise.

So Sassoon, his broken arm almost mended, is writing again. And if his verses are not yet harrowing or screaming with traumatic experience (how could they be?) they are nevertheless moving toward maturity… Sassoon’s confidence in his writing–at a low ebb when we first met him in the Spring–is rising again, and he is even how arranging for another privately printed collection, Discoveries, which will contain thirteen poems, most of which he will not later disavow.

Writing is underway, can war be far behind?[2]


Finally, Billy Congreve buried his friend Maurice Godolphin Osborne today.

I went down to Bailleul this morning and met Dads and Tom Grenville at the hospital. We buried Maurice in the cemetery… The coffin was carried in a motor ambulance and we walked behind. The funeral made little or no impression on me, which is either because I have lately learned to understand or else forgotten how to.[3]

This is the second consecutive note of hopelessness from Congreve. The lingering death of an old friend is a hard thing, but then again the experience of bereavement changes rapidly when experienced so very often. It remains to be seen if and how Congreve recovers.


References and Footnotes

  1. Jones, Rupert Brooke, 408.
  2. Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 185, 551-3.
  3. Armageddon Road, 104.

A Near Miss for Alan Seeger: “I see no end to the thing”

NB: I have updated the dramatis personae page, adding several of the writers upon whom I have been drawing most heavily these last few months, including  Henry Farnsworth, Morgan Crofton, and Alan Seeger. Seeger is today’s sole correspondent, having written a forthright letter to his father today, a century back:

February 26, 1915

We have been here for six days in the trenches, out beyond the ruined village of C_____ and half way up the hill to the enemy’s lines. It is quite the most advanced post we have held so far. We are not in fear of an attack here but the danger from patrols out looking for trouble has kept us on the alert these last nights. Guard all night, sleep all day–that has been the programme. The moon has made the strain much less than it would have been had the nights been dark. These advanced posts are really the least dangerous, for one is not exposed to the artillery fire, can sleep all day in peace, or, standing at the door of the dugout, watch the shells raising the mischief with the lines in the rear.

I was shot a few days ago coming in from sentinel duty. I exposed myself for about two seconds at a point where the communication ditch is not deep enough. One of the snipers who keep cracking away with their Mausers at any one who shows his head came within an ace of getting me. The ball just grazed my arm, tore the sleeve of my capote and raised a lump on the biceps which is still sore, but the skin was not broken and the wound was not serious enough to make me leave the ranks…

Rumors continue to circulate about our going to be relieved and sent to a third line position for a while for a rest. It is four months now that we have been on the firing line, four months with the noise of the cannon continually in our ears…  I see no end to the thing; it may go on for years…[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 71-3.

Rupert Looks Heroic; The Guards Turn a Prince Away and Solicit Julian Grenfell; A Hardy Snub for Thomas; Billy Congreve Doesn’t Care What Happens Now

Rupert Brooke breakfasted this morning, a century back, as he had so often done in the years before the war, with Eddie Marsh. Marsh had come to Blandford the night before, along with the Churchills, in preparation for today’s royal review of the outward-bound Royal Naval Division. An hour later, with the thousands of sailors paraded on the downs and the First Lord of the Admiralty awaiting the arrival of his Majesty the King, Violet Asquith–the Prime Minister’s daughter and one of Brooke’s several very special lady friends–“cantered among the lines of serried men” alongside Clemmie Churchill. Violet Asquith later wrote in her diary:

Rupert looked heroic… they all looked quite splendid sweeping past in battalion formation–& I had a great thrill when the Hood came on preceded by its silver band–& Quilter [Lt. Col. John Quilter, commander of the Hood Battalion] roared like a lion ‘Eyes Rrright’ & all their faces turning. I hadn’t realised what a different colour men of the same race can be–Patrick [Shaw-Stewart] was arsenic green–Oc [Asquith, her brother] primrose–Kelly slate-grey–Rupert carnation pink–Denis Browne the most lovely mellow Giorgione reddish-brown…

It somehow wasn’t quite the fun it ought to have been, I had a tightening of the heart throughout.[1]

And there, in one sentence, is much of our subject: the expectation that bidding young amateur soldiers off on a long-range amphibious assault mission should be nothing but great fun, and the nagging feeling that all these lovely multi-hued heroes will not be coming back unscathed, or whole, or at all. When Violet is finished waving, the endless waiting for letters–and the terrible negative expectation of telegrams with worse news–will begin.


In France with the Irish Guards, we get a good quick summary of the calculations involved in deploying the trappings of monarchy for maximal positive effect on morale–and minimal risk of  disaster.

Towards the end of the month our men had finished their trench-cleanings and bricking-up, had buried all dead that could be got at, and word went round that, if the situation on the 25th February could be considered “healthy” the Prince of Wales would visit them. The Germans, perhaps on information received (for the back-areas were thronged with spies), chose that day to be very active with a small gun… For this reason the Prince was not taken quite up to the front line, at which “he was rather annoyed.” The precautions was reasonable enough, A few minutes after he had left a sector judged “comparatively safe” 2nd Lieutenant T. Allen was killed by a shell pitching on the parapet there. Three privates were also killed and 4 wounded by shell or bomb on that “healthy” day…[2]


Speaking of the Guards, Julian Grenfell has begun to contemplate a transfer.

Darling Mother

An order has come round the cavalry asking for volunteer officers for the Foot Guards (for the war only). This of course was a heaven-sent opportunity for me, You know I have never believed much in the possibility of any extensive cavalry work here–nothing more than a dash now and then. Perhaps I’m quite wrong. Anyhow, I would always have taken an infantry job, Territorials or anything. So now this does seem to be a golden opportunity, in every way. There must be the real pressing need there for officers; and if one is to go footslogging, who could one go to, better than the Guards…

It will be a great step for me, because I expect they will give me sooner or later a job of my own… It is obviously the “pushing” thing to do. And just think of the unthinkable glory of being a Guardee…

The Guards are the most exclusive regiments, their officers being generally the richest and lordliest, hailing from the most famous old military families. Amongst their peacetime perquisites are guarding the Royal Family–which means not only that they have light duties and the pick of equipment but also that they tend to be stationed in London, rather than in far-flung and sleepy garrison towns. And in war, they could still expect to be given the most difficult and/or glorious assignments–they hope to lead the Spring offensive.

It’s hard to get into the Guards (unless, like Osbert Sitwell, your father can pull the right aristocratic strings), but then again the Foot Guards may be elite, by they are not cavalry. So, in the traditional estimation of Army social hierarchy, the only way to transfer from a cavalry regiment without loss of caste would be to find some war-expanded loophole through which to enter one of the handful of Foot Guards regiments, thus becoming a temporary Guard and remaining a Cavalryman. Grenfell would have to tolerate being a begrudgingly accepted temporary officer–but then again his parents’ social prominence, his accomplishments (in riding, hunting, and athletics–not his writing), and his educational pedigree (Eton, Balliol) would give him an excellent chance of being accepted by the Guards officers. And he should be able to count on seeing more action–a golden opportunity indeed,

Another cavalryman and sometime poet, Colwyn Philipps, had heard this news three days ago, and reacted in much the same way:

A notice has just come round to ask if any captains or subalterns will give their names to be attached to the Foot Guards at the front. Of course I have sent in my name… if I am taken it will be splendid, as while remaining a Blue I shall fight with the flower of our army, and if there is one corps who does things it is the Foot Guards...[3]

And so back to Grenfell:

I long to know what you think. And I’d got some thrilling things to tell you. But I’m afraid I shan’t be able to now, because they’ve stopped all leave from March 1st…

This, for any war-starved readers, is the first definite harbinger of the Spring Offensive. It will begin in just a few weeks (quashing, incidentally, the hopes of these and other would-be Guards transfers) and be known to posterity as the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

Do send out some more of those good cakes, and some port…

Are you well, Mummy?

I wish I’d been a militiaman, and that I were at home now, It’s so dull here J.[4]

A strange ending, the little parody of a boy whingeing to mother, wishing for home just after expressing excitement at a chance for more action with the infantry. And yet consistent: he wants to see battle, any way there is, with the elites or with the amateurs.

And “seeing” battle is, for Grenfell, mere euphemism: he wants to fight, and to kill…   Other letters to a female friend this winter hit the same note–she has been hunting, and he is jealous. Trench maintenance and occasional sniping (remember, too, that the authorities have curtailed his self-starting patrols of no-man’s-land) are not as exciting as hunting through the fields on horseback, and being in at the kill… He wants danger, and more entries for the game book, whether man or beast.

Is this bizarre sadism-cum-indolence, or the true warrior’s (not to say the true soldier’s, or the responsible officer’s) outlook?

Grenfell is difficult to deal with–but March and April will provide ample opportunity to discuss his outlook through his writing. At the risk of jarring the senses, then, let us shift from the heroic (or classical, or psychotic) esteem of battle to other central concerns of this project: literature (however petty) and death.


Down in the trenches of literary work, where the great men can be glimpsed soaring high above on Taube-ish wings of rich royalties and national esteem, Edward Thomas is still struggling to put together the anthology that will become This England. He had written to his friend Walter de la Mare with some forthright flattery about making him one of only two living poets included. Thomas Hardy, alas, is out:

There were things I could, should have taken from Hardy. But I heard he was annoyed by my article in ‘Poetry & Drama.’ (I said he was a peasant) & I daren’t ask now.

Cheeky. De la Mare, not surprisingly, asked for clarification:

Steep 25 February 1915

My dear de la Mare,

I am sorry you are troubling about the book. It doesn’t matter a bit. I have just done without it, & as I have to
avoid most copyright work it is just as well…

It was Garnett told me about Hardy. He had it from Scott-James who had been visiting Hardy. It is a pity because I have a very great admiration for Hardy’s poetry & some rustic parts of his novels.

Yours ever


Finally, Billy Congreve faces today the inevitable outcome of his friend’s grievous head wound.

This morning we woke up to find the snow thick on the ground. Maurice a good deal worse…. Even my optimism is at an end. It seems so cruelly hard that he should die.

…Later–I have just got back. The padre tells me that Maurice died quite peacefully at 12.30. I knew this before I saw him. I feel I don’t much care what happens now.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Quoted in Jones, Rupert Brooke, 407.
  2. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 84.
  3. Colwyn Erasmus Arnold Philipps, 111.
  4. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 263-4.
  5. Poet to Poet: Edward Thomas’s Letters to Walter de la Mare, 199-200.
  6. Armageddon Road, 103-4.

“Billets at Dawn;” Patrick Shaw-Stewart is Bound for Romance; Edward Thomas is Hunted by an Owl; Thomas Hardy Goes Bust

Lieutenant Claude Penrose, a Regular officer in the artillery, wrote a poem today, a century back. Don’t quote me on this, but I think it’s a variation on the “pantoum” form.


Billets at Dawn

The grey dawn wakes a wilderness;

No song of birds salutes the morn.

Seeing the land, a man could guess

The pain and sorrow it has borne.


No song of birds salutes the morn;

The rain-drops blur the window-pane.

Long time the bare brown fields have worn

The sullen glint of winter’s rain.


Seeing the land, a man could guess

That it was sore oppressed with war,

And one can hear the pitiless

Guns’ boom come through the open door.


The pain and sorrow it has borne,

Seeing the land, a man could guess.

No song of birds salutes the morn;

The grey dawn wakes a wilderness.[1]

The weather is not good. Nor the poetry–but the rounding repetition of the form is a nice fit for the sensation of late-winter doldrums.


If “Billets at Dawn” can stand as a rather pedestrian war poem–formal, traditional, light on specifics and literally booming–then Edward Thomas‘s effort of today, The Owl, is a good indication of the promise of more subtle approaches.

This is a poem in which a solitary walker describes nature–nothing more poetic, nothing more Edward Thomas–and yet the owl’s cry becomes something more:

No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
To feel a thrill of animal fear outside at night is not what it once was. This, I think, would be enough to qualify “The Owl” as a war poem–but the last stanza makes it very explicit. Unusually explicit, for Thomas at this stage:
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
It needs no great insight to guess that Thomas will be driven by the owl’s voice to share the fear and un-rejoicing that he has so far chosen to escape…


Patrick Shaw-Stewart, best known to us so far in his capacity as friend-and-comrade-of-Rupert, is perhaps a third poetic type: traditional, but aspiring to the heroic rather than the pastoral mode; a Public School boy and intellectual steeped in the classics, and therefore unable not to see war as Romantic. His poetry in due time… but he wrote a letter today, a century back, expressing his hopes for their expedition:

It is the Dardanelles, the real plum of this war: all the glory of a European campaign (and greater glory than any since Napoleon’s, if we take Constantinople and avenge the Byzantine Empire), without the wet, mud, misery, and certain death of Flanders. Really I think we are very lucky…  our base is Lemnos–a fortnight’s sea voyage, the most delicious thing in the world…  the luckiest thing and the most romantic.Think of fighting in the Chersonese (hope you got the allusion from the Isles of.Greece about Miltiades), or alternatively, if it’s the Asiatic side they want us on, on the plains of Troy itself! I am going to take my Herodotus as a guide-book.[2]


In lighter literary news, Thomas Hardy, Presiding Spirit of Poetic Wisdom, agreed today to sit for a portrait bust, to be done by his friend Hamo Thornycroft, Siegfried Sassoon‘s uncle.

Max Gate, Dorchester

24 Feb 1915

My dear Thornycroft:

It would give me the greatest pleasure to have my name associated with yours in the way you propose, & to feel that, whatever the short-comings of the sitter, the sculptor’s art will be sufficient to hand on his name to posterity, (I have, as you may know, always been an admirer of your virile style of presentation)…

We go to London at indefinite dates, & I think the best way would be for you to propose a time that is convenient.

When the war is over you will have your hands full enough of military & naval heroes, so I must slip in before that time comes!

Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Reprinted in Powell, A Deep Cry, 384.
  2. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 112.
  3. Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 82.

It’s Deep February: The Master of Belhaven is Fed Up, Edward Thomas Pens Another Poem of Loss, Even Donald Hankey is Down; Charles Carrington Wins a Commission

After failing to immediately land a commission in August–he was young, and a New Zealander–Charles Carrington had spent a rather dispiriting autumn as a private in the Birmingham Battalion, a.k.a. 14th Royal Warwickshires. As the high number suggests, this was not one of the fast-track units of Kitchener’s army: they received uniforms in November (surplus postmen’s uniforms of an unmilitary blue) and rifles (of an obsolescent type) in December. Over New Year’s, Carrington had leave in London, where he ran into a number of young men of good education who had joined up in the August rush and later parlayed their enlistments into commissions.

Why should I not try again? …Some letters passed and I found myself, in my blue uniform with my buttons notably polished, in the officers’ mess at Barossa Barracks trying to make a good impression at an interview. There was no further test and in one day, 23rd February 1915, toughened and six months older, and knowing my drill, I jumped from private soldier to second lieutenant. I was a better bargain for the York and Lancasters than I would have been for the Rifle Brigade the previous August, but still an innocent child.[1]

We’ll see much more of Carrington later in the year, and he will become one of our inner cadre of especially useful writers, Those Who Wrote the War More Than Once. In the other memoir he is more frank:

Some men deserted to enlist again in regiments which they fancied might sooner go abroad. For my part, I got my uncle to pull some strings and was given an officer’s commission in another regiment. If it was fun to be a Tommy, it was ten times more fun to be a subaltern in Kitchener’s Army.”[2]

I would be in violation of my rule against looking forward from our century-back now to identify when either memoir was written, but the tone of the two is so strikingly different that it’s really impossible not to notice that one is a youthful (and pseudonymous) account, the other that of an older man looking back. So Siegfried will have company in his binocular visions, although these two will rarely otherwise see eye to eye (to eye to eye).


Donald Hankey remains cheerful–or, at least, able to write with a cheerful aspect, even amidst the February camp-life doldrums. Lousy while still in England is not a good omen…  This one is to his cousin Dorothy.

Borden, Feb. 23, 1915

Dear Dorothy,

…This is the abomination of desolation mentioned by Daniel the prophet–overcrowded huts, mud, cold, no coal, lousy (literally) blankets, guards, and all manner of minor abominations. No town–simply miles and miles of huts full of soldiers and mud and lice. However, it is always nice to be thoroughly discontented, because any change is welcome. Elstead was so delightful that one feared a change; which is unpleasant. I hate fear.

I am sorry to say that Longmans’ report of the sales of the book is disappointing–so far rather under four hundred. But I hope it will make its way…

Entre nous, I think we shall be going out yonder not very long after we leave here. We begin our final musketry course to-morrow, and after that I don’t think that there is much more to be done in England. As I say, any change from Borden will be welcome! We shall probably get four or six days’ leave of absence before we start.

I think I will stop now, as there doesn’t seem anything else to say.

Your aff. cousin,


Biblical and slightly breezy, but, adjusting for Hankey’s normally sunny demeanor, thoroughgoing Christian optimism, and probable habitual brave-face-putting, well–he seems pretty down in the dumps. The book isn’t selling, the camp is awful…

But aha! Here is one of the perverse, half-intended charms of military training: the camps are all miserable enough that combat becomes something to look forward to, even for the least blood-thirsty. It’s worth noting, too, since I’ve been giving our bad boys a hard time about confidences in letters, that even Hankey does the “entre nous here is some classified info” bit. Except that his is rumor, not information; and his letters are subject to censoring (he is not currently an on-his-honor gentleman, since he only holds the rank of sergeant); and this is so vague that it could not provide any useful information to any theoretical enemy postal malfeasant…


Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, often left behind to watch the horse-watchers, notes today that his unit–the 2/Life Guards–is now being asked to look after the horses of the 9th Lancers–Julian Grenfell‘s regiment–while they are in trenches, in addition to their own.

23rd February

…I do not think I shall be able to stand the dullness of this life much longer. I always did dislike watching horses being groomed for hours on end, even in India. It requires absolutely no intelligence or initiative. So far as I can see there is no chance of cavalry being used as such for months, if at all.

“Even in India” here stands as an amusingly languorous synechdoche for the botheration of colonial soldiering, as experienced by the aristocratic cavalry officer.

We know the Germans have prepared line after line of trenches back to the Rhine,

–A slight exaggeration, but point taken–

and when we do force them back out of their present position, they will only fall back on another one. I really think I shall have to try and get a staff job, or something a little more interesting.[4]


And Edward Thomas is back at his desk. Yesterday he drafted The Barn; today, a businesslike letter to Eleanor Farjeon discussing how to manage his pseudonymous submissions correspondence, and Home–the first of three poems that would bear this weighty monosyllable as title.

This “Home” is tough to read (for definitive sense, that is), but it seems to be a continuation of (or at least in dialogue with) “Parting.” The poet dreams of home–not a place, but a sensation, and not one that securely exists. What it might be is hardly suggested, but perhaps we’re supposed to think of Romantic flights thwarted (“Kubla Khan,” when the fever dreams have subsided into shudders). The poet might have his dreams, but his doubts are more prominent: depressed, he suspects that the longing for a poetic home is nothing more than fruitless desire for the past. Which, as we learned in “Parting,” is gone indeed.

By most people’s standards this would be a dark poem, written in a sad and worrisome mood. But this is Thomas in a middle state, enduring. The last stanza is fell and stoic and wise, the poet sharpening his quills for a last stand:

No: I cannot go back,
And would not if I could.
Until blindness come, I must wait
And blink at what is not good.


References and Footnotes

  1. Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning, 55-6.
  2. Edmonds, "A Subaltern's War, 18.
  3. Letters of Donald Hankey, 276-7.
  4. The War Diary of the Master of Belhaven, 47-8.

Tolkien in Solemn Ceremonial, Ivor Gurney Greeted with Cries of Welcome; Dead Secrets from Rupert Brooke; The Sister on Beauty and Destruction; Crofton Journeys Home Again, and Lieutenant X for the Last Time

Ivor Gurney‘s correspondence is quite sparse at this point in the war, but a letter written to his good friend–and fellow poet–F. W. Harvey probably dates from today, a century back:

Pte. I. B. Gurney, B Company, 2nd 5th Gloucesters, Northampton

Dear Willy:

Well, here I am; hard worked and apparently able to stand about 7 hours a day drill, praise be to God. I think it will be all right. If so, May should see me considerably better and much happier.

Today was a sailing day, and I thought of the day when I should first sight the Plate or Spain or even Ireland from the bow of a three master.

And of that further day, when, all difficulties being removed, health and technique and inspiration restored, I should get art appointment on shore. And last, when I should be acknowledged great in Art by those whose judgement I value. Let em all come!

The Army biscuits suit me. Of course they are too hard for my poor teeth, but hot tea and patience helps one past all.

A charming letter, really. How often do we see awful army food introduced with tongue-in-cheek appreciation? This sub-genre–playfully poetic epistles between friends–is one I love, but it has been sadly thin on the ground so far. This is romanticism in a minor key (and Gurney’s a composer! what humor!), wherein the details–the facts of camp life–are dealt with gently but realistically, and exist alongside with (rather than being infused within) the beautiful dreams.

Which allows, then, the poet to report poetically on the better parts of camp life. In particular, the new fellowship of volunteer soldiers:

It was an experience worth the writing about, when we recruits stood at ease in the dusk while the 5th Gloucesters crowded around us with cries of welcome and recognition and peered into our faces to make sure of friends. It gave me a thrill such as I have had not for long enough.

This is a lovely glimpse of the New Armies–Kitchener’s Army, the Pals battalions–in their early days. There will be a downside–a terrible reckoning–to allowing friends and men of the same very local area to serve together, but this strong communal feeling was an invaluable aid to morale, especially in the tedious days of under-supply and halting training.

I have already changed billet, and the chaps here are very nice indeed. Good men, which is a great point. But in this new democracy almost everyone is jolly, or tries to be. Kiplings little 6d book on the new Armies is very good.[1] Hast seen it?

Good bye and best luck and health and willing endurance of all.

Yours ever,


Two brief bits before we get to Crofton’s and the Nursing Sister’s diaries and a Brooke letter. Best wishes for the Master of Belhaven and an escapade from Tolkien:

22nd February

My birthday–what a cheerful place to spend it in! We had a long scheme this morning; supposed to seize a bridge and hold it till infantry came up…[3]


The Stapeldon Society–an Exeter College, Oxford debating society–met tonight, a century back. Ronald Tolkien led his fellow members in enacting a waggishly grandiose ceremonial surrounding “a seven-foot length of tram rail” that the town of Oxford had presented to the society. The minutes run, in part:

On the motion of Mr Tolkien it was carried (a) that it should be present at the last meeting in every term (b) that it should be carried in procession to the new President’s rooms by the first year [members] (c) that every President’s name should be engraved upon it. The House then adjourned to the quad and a procession was formed, headed by the officers, who were followed by the tram line supported by selected members of the first year followed by the rest of the house in order of precedence, slowly and steadfastly round the quad, the first year stentoriously breathing, the rest all singing a mournful dirge, alternating with Tipperary… [4]

This compares rather nicely, actually, with Gurney’s fond and slightly silly letter. Gurney is from a background similar to Tolkien’s–provincial and religious (but a bit lower, as social status was then measured, despite the Tolkiens’ poverty)–but he did not make the leap to Oxford. Privilege has its privileges, and this is very harmless stuff compared to the brawling and drunken carousing that some of our other writers got up to.[5]

Young men, being silly… and yet never any longer, now, out of the shadow of the war.

We know what Tipperary signifies: it’s either the song you sing as you march to war, or the song those who have not yet gone to war think you sing as you march to war.

This little ceremonial is about passing on the club traditions from the older to the younger students. And many of those last-year students know, as Tolkien does, that the time to be playing at marches and honors and speeches with the rest of the boys is short. Come summertime they will be doing all that in earnest…


Rupert Brooke, who spilled the beans about the upcoming assault on the Dardanelles yesterday, now lets mom in on the secret:

Dear Mother,

My address will be, from Friday,

Sub. lieut. R. B.—

Hood Battalion

2nd Naval Brigade

Royal Naval Expeditionary force

c/o The Admiralty

Whitehall, S.W.

rather long, isn’t it?

What follows is a dead secret (as is our day of starting). We are going to be part of a landing force to help the fleet break through the Hellespont and the Bosphorus and take Constantinople, and open up the Black Sea. It’s going to be one of the important things of the war, if it comes off. We take 14-16 days to get there. We shall be fighting for anything from 2 to 6 weeks. And back (they reckon) in May. We may just lie with the Fleet off there and do nothing. Or we may get a lot of fighting. At any rate, it will be much more glorious and less dangerous than France. It is said—but this I don’t know—that some Australians and New Zealanders and Regulars are coming with us. We are only taking 15 days’ provisions (beyond what we have on the boats); so we obviously aren’t expected to have a long campaign! I’m afraid we may be Reserves to Marines. We fight from the boats—i.e. we can always get taken off if we have to retreat, so we’re pretty safe!

Please don’t breathe a word of this to anyone…

With love

While I doubt that Mrs. Brooke is an Ottoman spy, it is a little ridiculous that the operational specifics are being shared between naval sub-lieutenants and their mothers… who would like to wager on whether the Ottoman forces are surprised? Nor is Brooke at his most subtle here: allowance must be made for “Letters Meant to Reassure Mothers As to Their Sons’ Utter Safety,” but Brooke is, I think, completely carried away. He genuinely believes that there is nothing out there–not geography, not the young Turkish army–that will slow down the Royal Navy…


It’s been a long entry already, but before we get to the Nursing Sister–up to her old tricks but also pausing to consider the course of the war–I want to draw on Sir Morgan Crofton’s diary. For two reasons: an update on the Lieutenant X story, and because he does another version of one of our type-stories, the going-on-leave or reverse-approach-to-the-trenches journey. It started yesterday, and most unpromisingly:

…As my tram was due to leave Hazebrouck for Boulogne at 5 pm, I left Staple about 4.15 in the motor. Archie Sinclair, Keith Menzies and Walker came in to see me off… The train stopped at every station, and the journey was most tedious. We arrived at Boulogne at 11 o’clock. 5 hours to go 30 miles. We were told on arrival there that we were not to go on board until 1.30 am…


A beautiful fine night. Went on board the lugger about 1 o’clock. Went at once to the Ladies’ Saloon where I spread myself on the divan, as a novel would say, and slept. They tell me the boat sailed at 4.30, but I only recovered consciousness as the boat was entering Folkestone Harbour at 6.30.

It was a fine crisp morning and the red flush of the dawn looked very prettyover the sea. We were escorted over by French destroyers.The train waiting for us was very soon crowded, and no place was to be had in it for love or money.So I decided not to rush and fight, but to wait half an hour for the next train, inw hich I soon got a very good seat in a Pullman and had an excellent breakfast…

We reached Victoria at 9.30. I walked with my kit bag to 36 Buckingham Gate, and as I was totally unexpected created some surprise. Reading The Times on the way to London, my eye was caught by an announcement
(foreshadowed) of the awful fate of Lieut. X.

Requiescat in Pace
Lieutenant X begs to thank the 3,677 Correspondents who have so
kindly written to him and regrets that owing to a nervous breakdown he
will be unable to answer all of them.

Got home about 9.45 and found the house still under the aegis of the housemaid.

Another breakfast at 10.15
Haircut and Bath 11.00
Manicure 12.00
Lunched at home and took Tiger Tim out to Cinema. Household Brigade Lodge at 6.[7]


And the Nursing Sister got into Rouen last night, a century back.  Any guesses as to what she does in Normandy’s great Cathedral town?

Monday, February 22nd.—We got a short walk yesterday evening after unloading at Rouen. There was a glorious sunset over the bridge, and the lights just lighting up, and Rouen looked its beautifulest. We slept at Sotteville, and this morning [i.e. tomorrow, a century back], Sister and I walked down the line into Rouen and saw the Paymaster and the Cathedral, and did some shopping, and had a boiled egg and real butter and tea for lunch, and came back in the tram…

I implied, once–and rightly, I suppose–that such inveterate cathedral-going is a reflex of bourgeois, middle-brow travel. Snobbery–but not mine exactly, as you may be able to judge from the constant attention here to all things Gothic. Yet for the Nursing Sister, the majesty of the buildings and the implication of so many thousands of townspeople working together for generations to achieve something of beauty–not to mention their status as actual, active houses of God–is more than just culture, or human achievement. This isn’t simple tourism–it’s spiritual R-and-R. But it makes you think, doesn’t it?

She doesn’t make the connection explicit, but it must be there. And if God is not to be enlisted as a war god, certain questions must come to the fore.

The lengthening days and better weather are making a real difference to the gloom of things, and though there is a universal undercurrent of feeling that enormous sacrifices will have to be made, it seems to be shaping for a step farther on, and an ultimate return to sanity and peace. It is such a vast upheaval when you are in the middle of it, that you sometimes actually wonder if every one has gone mad, or who has gone mad, that all should be grimly working, toiling, slaving, from the firing line to the base, for more Destruction, and for more highly-finished and uninterrupted Destruction, in order to get Peace. And the men who pay the cost in intimate personal and individual suffering and in death are not the men who made the war.[8]


References and Footnotes

  1. This would be The New Army in Training, a booklet collection of articles published in the Daily Telegraph in December, and available here. It is interesting--no, not just interesting, but rather weighty, in fact--to be reminded that a new private of Kitchener's Army has arrived at training camp after having swotted up on what to expect in the writings of England's semi-official military cheerleader. The literary image of his army life lays the groundwork for the actual experience, not (always) vice versa.
  2. Ivor Gurney, War Letters, 25-6.
  3. The War Diary of the Master of Belhaven, 47.
  4. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology, 60.
  5. At some point we'll look into How T.E. Hulme Got Himself Kicked Out of Cambridge, Twice.
  6. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 661-2.
  7. Good footnote here from the editors of the diary: "Freemasonry. At the time he was Worshipful Deputy Master." The most exclusive regiment's secret fraternal society! Massacre of the Innocents, 160-1.
  8. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.

Rupert Brooke Plots a Byzantine Revenge: It’s Off to Constantinople!; Edward Hulse on Night Wiring; Billy Congreve Visits a Hospital

Rupert Brooke has news at last. Which he will immediately[1] dish, contrary to regulations, in a letter to his friend Dudley Ward:

It’s too wonderful. We’re going in four days. And the best expedition of the war. Figure me celebrating the first Holy Mass in St Sophia since 1453. (But this is to your censorial ear.) Reviewed by the King on Wednesday. Off on Thursday. I may want some things. I’ll wire if I do… It should be a mildish affair. But one might get shot.

One of the most overwhelming–and most simple–commonplaces of Great War History is to view the war as the dawn of a new modern age, the first act of a two-act European disaster, the innocent and idiotic stumbling entry into our most violent century, etc. Like all strong historical readings these are sweeping generalizations which do violence to some of the facts and tend to treat the contours of individual experience the way a snow-blower treats all those goddamn putatively unique snowflakes. But, as such, they’re perfectly reasonable interpretations.

But 1914 (o.k., 1915) is as much an end as beginning–and endings are so much more vivid to people living in the present, knowing as they do the story that came before and not their fate. So the war also comes at the end of a previous history: it’s sunset as well as dawn and Brooke is not wrong (it’s an easy guess) to position the Ottoman “sick man of Europe” as the place where old arcs of history will be resolved. The Ottomans conquered Constantinople/Byzantium in 1453, and they will soon lose their grip on it, although not quite in the way that Brooke hopes.

Still, this is the early 20th century too: a time when an expedition to the East can, if it begins with a lung-straining inhalation of Romance, contemplate the restoration of a 15th century defeat (a defeat of the Eastern Christian empire which succeeded Rome, and so very Romantic indeed, if not really terribly British).

But it will not be “a mildish affair.”

As always with correspondence, the romance doesn’t last, and concern for the acquisition of impedimenta follows hard on any news.

I want… A waterproof sheet so slight that it folds up and goes into your pocket and weighs a pound—but is not tearable…   A tiny medicine ‘chest’ for the pocket. Including morphia, or some such thing, if possible

I enclose a cheque for 3 pounds. I don’t know what I owe you. Get the money for these latter purchases from my executors. What bloody fun!



Also today, an interesting glimpse, via one of Edward Hulse‘s letters to his mother, into the inter-regimental and intra-battalion politics of the front.

It seems that the 2/Scots Guards were ordered to extend their line to the left, to take over a section that had been held in rotation by two other regiments.[3] Hulse seems to have expected to be ordered to take over the new trenches–perhaps he was the best  company officer in the 2/Scots Guards–“but by the direct intervention of Providence and a few forcibly put remarks by myself, I did not have to take over the new bit.”

The job falls to another company whose transfer will be less disruptive, but it’s a bad job–“There was absolutely no cover at all, and the above-mentioned Regiments must have simply sat still for two months and watched their parapets and defences fall in without doing one stitch of work”–and Hulse makes a deal with his friend “Pip,”[4] whose company is stuck with it:

I agreed to do all the “wiring” I could in front of him, and kept my part of the bargain.

For eight nights, ending tonight, a century back, Hulse “wired” from 7 p.m. to 1 or 2 a.m., and thus “perpetrated
such an entanglement as you never saw.”

It is always a ticklish job wiring in front, with occasional sniping, but I have got some good N.C.O.s who are absolutely expert on the job, and don’t panic when shots come near in the middle of the night, as many do!

In the last four nights alone, his team “put up entanglements, including 43 coils of wire (1/4 mile long each) and 870
posts and pegs!

Hard work, but it won Hulse a general’s congratulations, and his men a generous tot of whiskey, on the sly. The rest of the letter, written tomorrow, describes the arrival of a new draft of troops, bringing the 2/Scots Guards back up close to their paper strength for the first time in months.[5]


Lastly, a brief word from Billy Congreve, and not a happy one. Eleven days ago his old friend “Godders”–Captain Maurice Godolphin Osborne–had been shot in the head by a sniper while helping to build up a low section of parapet made perilous by that same sniper (exactly what the Scots Guards were trying to prevent on their stretch of the front). Congreve had rushed to see him in hospital in Armentières, where

I found Wyatt (his servant) looking after him. Godders looked awful bad, paralysed all down his right side and quite unconscious, but his left arm and leg moving up and down continuously… The bullet went in at the top of the head and, besides breaking a bit of his skull away, seriously injured his brain.

Despite this horrible injury and the doctors’ prediction of imminent death, Osborne lingered. Congreve–taking advantage of the staff officer’s greater freedom of movement–visited him nearly every day. His friend seemed to improve, becoming semi-conscious, and Congreve began to hope. Yesterday, a century back, he wrote that “I really believe that he knew me.”

But then the improvement stalled–a fact which Congreve seems to attribute to the departure of a particularly good nurse:

Sunday, February 21st

Saw Godders as usual-much the same. The new nurse could not give much account of him. I do wish he would speak–sometimes I feel he tries to and, today, when I said, “Give me your hand” he did so, but that’s all.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. The letter is dated "Sunday, 20 February," which presumably means the 21st, which was a Sunday in 1915.
  2. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 660-1.
  3. Their names are tastefully redacted from the published text--and in fact should not have been mentioned in the letter, although it seems that they were.
  4. Possibly the protagonist of Great Expectations, greatly aged and re-enlisted; I'm looking into it.
  5. Letters Written From the English Front in France, 85-7.
  6. Armageddon Road, 101-2.

T.E. Hulme Describes a Regiment on the March, and What Mud is to the Shelled; Julian Grenfell Has a Little List; Edward Thomas Dons a Mask

Today, a century back, T. E. Hulme wrote a long and eventful entry in his running letter/trench diary. Is this the first time he has decided to write in the present tense?

We went down to the trenches on a Saturday. We form up at dark in the one street of the town here. There is generally a lot to be done on the last day as we have to clean up all our billets ready for the other brigade marching up after their 4 days at the trenches. While we are formed up there in the street waiting, some of the other regiments of our brigade who go up to the trenches at the same time as we do are sure to march past.

A regiment on the march here is a very curious sight. In spite of the fact that they have to clean themselves and their clothes in their 4 days of rest, they all look a general pale, washed out, dusty muddy colour. The officers march on foot generally at the head of their platoons, looking very little different to their men, except that they generally carry a roughly trimmed piece of wood, about as long as a shepherds crook, as a walking stick. They find these useful in the muddy paths up to the actual trenches.

Very few are in any kind of step and they slouch along generally two deep, for only the centre of the road is really passable. The exception to the slouching is an occasional section when the two front men play a mouth organ or bones, when they march well together. Their packs look a good deal lighter than ours, they don’t get so many parcels. At intervals come the officers’ horses, generally unmounted (they ride them however at the end of 4 days when they are coming back from the trenches and are more tired). At the end come the mules carrying extra ammunition, the transport and finally the field kitchens, usually boiling something and stuffed up with odd bits of wood ready for fuel and the cooks leaning on them as they walk behind…

The next night we went up to the trenches…

…we went up by a new way over the fields. Suddenly when we were going up a fearfully muddy field by the side of a wood in a long line and single file, a shell whizzed over us and burst a few yards behind the last man. I happened to be looking backward when it burst. Being night it was very bright and looked more like a firework than anything else.

We at once got the order to lie flat in the mud on our faces and although it isn’t pleasant to be flat on your face in pure mud, yet the presence of the shells makes us do it without any reluctance. I didn’t see much after that, for I had my head down flat, but they put about 20 shells over us, rather smallish shells they must have been which seem to go whizz-bang–very quickly… we got bits of earth flung over us but nothing more.

Vivid–and “whizz-bang” will become the standard term for the short range, high-velocity German artillery. Not for the first time, I need to issue a warning against reading letters written hurriedly by a stub candle with the same intensity that we train on a bit of verse that has been through twelve agonized drafts… and then plunge ahead, warning be damned.

He started off going for the eternal/immediate/representative present tense, but has lapsed into past. And now watch the grammatical person veer about–Hulme is not quite sure whether he is jotting down his own experiences or beginning on a “trench piece.” Did this happen? Are we there? Is it happening now? Are we safe?

They all thought their last hour had come for to be caught and shelled in the open like that is the most dangerous thing that can happen to you. You have no protection like you have in a trench. It was soon over however and then we got up and continued our walk to the trenches, most of us expecting suddenly to hear the same explosion again. We had to cross several shell and Jack Johnson holes full of water bridged by a single plank and in the dark most of us fell in once before we got there.

I’m resisting the urge to break in, to re-paragraph–as much as I can. “Jack Johnsons” by the way are the now-standard term for large calibers of shells which burst with a thick black smoke, and, if they explode on contact, leave significant craters. This a dubious homage to the great pugilist…

We got to miserable trenches where we were not allowed to have a brazier and we sat there absolutely wet through up to the pips for 24 hours…  We had to sleep in our boots etc all night and couldn’t take anything off. That made 48 hours thoroughly wet through…

There is then a strange sentence which I take to mean that, despite the conditions, the HAC is seeing far fewer men go sick than in December. But there’s more to wet mud than physical weakness. Hulme continues from this report of good health to the following comments:

It makes you very depressed however and weakens you–it gave me diarrhoea…

And now the last shift–he’s followed this pattern in several letters–from the senses and the body to the psychological predicaments of trench warfare:

The most annoying part of being in the trenches is the waiting for ‘relief.’ You get ready long before it comes. Sometimes it comes hours after you expect it. You listen and think you hear voices and feet. At last it’s coming. Then it turns out that you were mistaken. Finally a German star shell reveals them to you half-way across the field. They are all standing immobile in the middle of the field bent down. It is curious how this continuous shelling and the apprehension of it has altered some men. They keep very quiet all day long and hardly say anything. This day in the trenches I should think 50 or 60 dropped in the one field making holes all over it like a sort of smallpox…

And now to the envelope itself for a bit of slightly ex post facto historical irony:

[NOTE BY CENSOR. Please inform sender next letter of this length will not be passed.][1]


Julian Grenfell wrote home to his mother today–an easy letter, a chatty missive from billets,  mostly concerned with managing the massive flow of parcels out to the trenches.

Let’s see: there is “real spring weather,” and requests for a novel–“I’m longing for stuff to read”–then cigarettes for his men (the autumn’s massive oversupply of donated tobacco seems to have been worked through), underclothes to replace the single government-issued replacement set, electric torches, pipe-lighters, matches, cocoa, cakes, and jam… he gets all the way to the end, in fact, before reassuring Lady Desborough of his high spirits and bloodymindedness:

All love, J.

I’ve got a real “Spring Running” on me. I wish they’d let me go and fight the Boches on my own.[2]


Finally, a big day for Edward Thomas. He wrote to Eleanor Farjeon beseeching her aid in publishing his poetry–pseudonymously, hence the need for a go-between.

My dear Eleanor

Here are 4 poems by Edward Phillips for you to palm off on Blackwood if you can. I shall be enormously pleased if you can…

I am still hesitating about sending my verses to de la Mare and others–It is too much like begging for compliments. I shall wait.

Knowing Farjeon fairly well at this point, it is easy to assume that she took this as a testament to his trust in her, rather than jibing at the equally obvious implication that he doesn’t mind getting criticism from good old Eleanor, but a poet like de la Mare, on the other hand…

She did question the choice of pseudonym (there was another Phillips poet), so Thomas wrote back suggesting an old but strikingly un-English family name: Marendaz. She pushed him instead toward a third alternative, and his first submissions were under the name of Edward Eastaway.

It’s sweet, and a little sad, that Eleanor Farjeon–who will never have Edward Thomas, the man, nor pursue any claim to him–should assert herself here and now. Not in the flesh but in writing, and over a matter of poetry, she wins her way, and stakes a claim to Edward Eastaway, here at his creation.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Ferguson, The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 202-3.
  2. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 261-2.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 118-9.

Vera Brittain on Beauty; Julian Grenfell on a Funny Game

Julian Grenfell‘s diary for today indicates that, while in rest billets, he managed to scare up three dogs and take them out hunting. He found, but failed to kill, one hare.[1] But he’s still catching up on his letters, writing and rewriting the incidents of the last rotation in trenches. Today he wrote to his sister Casie with yet another version of the trench mortar and rifle grenades duel, similar to the one he sent to their mother:

They started firing silly little sticks of nitro-picric-high-explosive-fire-and-brimstone-glycerine at us out of a trench gun. I was asleep, when suddenly there was a deafening crash, and half of the dug-out roof fell onto my face. I rushed out, and found all the men roaring with laughter, because Old Sammy had been buried in his dug-out. Old Sammy was pulled out by the legs, amid yells of ribald laughter…

Similar, but a bit more slapstick. The next shell is “like a rocketing pheasant” and “by great luck I pitched the first three [rifle grenades] plum into their trench.”

Is this war?

“Oh, it’s a funny game!”[2]


It’s been a few days since we checked up on Vera Brittain, and today’s entry makes a sharp contrast in tone and substance to Grenfel”s comic near-tragedy. The war is far from Oxford yet…

Friday February 19th

After dinner the Tub-Thumpers–which is the College select debating society–held an open meeting followed by coffee, to which they invited all of College who cared to come. I found that Miss Chubb was the President of the Society & Miss Rose the Secretary. I was so possessed by Miss Rose’s beauty to-night that I was simply impelled to look in her direction & nothing seemed at all attractive to me in comparison. Her face was flushed & eyes very deep, & the electric light from above shone upon her hair. Nothing draws me like beauty; it exercises an almost immoral
influence — especially when she got up to speak and her tall figure & rather deep gracious voice enhanced the effect of her face’s loveliness.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 292.
  2. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 260.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 153.