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