Julian Grenfell Skirmishes with the Fairer Sex and Idly Encloses His Legacy; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke II: A Fistful of Elegies; Dismay from Congreve and a Vision of a Lost City from Tolkien

Two letters today from Julian Grenfell, and we can continue the discussion of his violent nature and Homeric stance. First, to “Flossie,” in continuance of their epistolary flirtation:

30 April 1915

My darling Flossie

Thank you awfully for your letter. I’m so glad you had win at Cheltenham… What are your colours? What is the name of the steed? Of course I will buy him. Please reserve him for me at once. £800 or £8,000–all the same to the rich. Do you remember when you tried to sell me that nice horse with his hock down to the fetlocks… I remember the amused look on your face that evening and on mine! Flossie did you really have a fall on the flat? Poor little girl! But if you have really taken to that golf I shall never speak to you again…

A playful tone from the man who wrote “Into Battle” yesterday. But soon the razzing turns a trifle elegaic:

We will have great fun after this war, you and Hubert and me… We will fairly knock them in the Old Kent Road.

We’ve been assisting at this battle for the last week, but have been no nearer the fighting than getting shelled a bit. I’m writing this in a Belgian farm, where we are billeted. It’s full of refugees–old men and old women and young children. You see them all day streaming down the roads, carrying everything they can in their arms, and with little carts drawn by dogs; it is too pathetic.

I wish I could get some fighting. The only fighting I can get is boxing. A private in the A.S.C. challenged me at a show the other night, but I hit him with great violence below the fifth rib (as the Bible says) and he subsided with a nasty groan…

If the Homeric fighter thing is in any way a pose, it’s a consistent one. Grenfell loves fighting and the glory of winning, be it the normalized and relatively safe combat of the boxing ring or war itself. Nor is it necessarily out of character to note the plight of the Belgian refugees. To be Homeric is not to be a full-time monster–that would be Achilles in his blood-lust, not the typical hero in his everyday brutality–and any fighter might have sympathy for the young and old victims of war. (A truly committed Homeric hero emulator would, however, see rape, pillage, and the enslavement of useful non-combatants as the victor’s natural right…)

But note the lack of distinction in that last paragraph: Grenfell has knocked out a British private, and sees it as only a poor substitute for killing a German. I should go thumb through my Homer to see if any of the heroes, during the intensely contested athletics scenes, similarly rank that non-mortal competition as less desirable than battle itself. If memory serves, they compete fiercely in athletics for the sake of their glory and do the same in battle, without commentary on how different defeat in discus is from defeat in battle. (And when four heroes contest in throwing or racing, they tend to all get prizes–just like little league in these benighted days!–which should indicate that the emphasis-after-winning is on glorious display, not the meaning of defeat.)

Squint one way, and Grenfell is finding his pre-Christian warrior spirit with the help of his fine classical education. Squint another, and he’s a polite, well-bred, clever psychopath, happy to be where (or close to where–damn all this waiting around that the cavalry has been doing) his inclinations can be indulged.

 30 Apr 1915

Darling Mother

I haven’t written to you for ages and ages. First I went to Paris for four days (and saw Casie on the way back)–and then we have been up here to assist at the fighting. We’ve been up just a week doing Fire Brigade, which has meant lying all day in the fields, with the horses…

I was asleep in the sun when they started the heavy bit of shelling; and they ragged me terribly because they said I slept on through the first 3 shells that fell in the garden. I don’t believe I did; anyhow when I got up a man staggered into me, very white and gibbering, saying he had been hit in the legs. I carried him to a doctor…

I did love seeing Casie; I’ve never seen her looking so well and radiant and pretty, and we had the greatest fun. She was so good with the wounded Tommies, who all seemed to love her; she was just exactly “right there” with them…

And Paris! I can’t imagine how I have lived so long without being there… I saw a bit of everything… It was the biggest “experience” of New Things I’ve ever had in my life, bigger than India…

I do love getting your letters, and you’ve been awfully good in writing such a lot. I got another tonight, dated 27th, and the shirts & socks…

Here is a poem, if you can read it. I rather like it. Publish it, if you think fit, with “JG”. Can you send me a typed copy; and 3 typed copies of the “staff” one?

Goodbye, Mummy darling. Best love to Dad and all the family.

How sad about R Brooke. J.[1]

Achilles, one imagines, would seem different, too, if we had his chats with Briseis and he letters home to Thetis side by side.

Actually, that’s perfect–Achilles is very different when he interacts with his mother, tearfully bemoaning the injustices of his fate. And Julian Grenfell’s mother, the bizarre and irrepressible Lady Desborough, is really more of a major goddess in British society than Thetis was among the Olympians. She too, encourages her son in his martial exploits, and blanches neither at the heated words of the poem she is now being sent nor the terribly cool descriptions he has written of actually killing. Grenfell doesn’t get to kill with the brazen spear in a moment of perfect competition, the better man the victor, the lesser man dead. He has killed three men by lying close and quiet, and shooting them unawares. War is different now–but mummy is still proud.

But I believe he mentioned one R. Brooke, of whose poetry he has spoken so approvingly? There are many others who have been moved to write by the writings of Brooke, and by his death.


A sampling, then, of the first outpouring of verse in memory of Brooke.

Our F.W. Harvey, of the 5th Glosters, produced a poem headed “To Rupert Brooke,” subheaded “Dead in Defence of Beauty.” The opening lines, unfortunately, meet the expectations that such a sentimental beginning might raise:

Sweet singer of this latter day/ Whom Death unkindly takes away…

It gets slightly better. Harvey writes as a grateful reader, beseeching the poet’s shade to

…Take the praise/ Of all who in these sordid days/ Have needed liveliness.

And then it gets worse. Harvey can have a light touch, but not here:

…ne’er the less/ Thy end’s sheer glory. Evermore

Joy diadems thy death to all/ Who loving thee–love beauty more,

Since in thy death thou showest plain/ …The things that made the songs remain.

F.W.H. 30/4/15[2]

So. A poem with very traditional diction and some rather questionable sentiments. What would Grenfell make, for instance, of the assertion that there is “Glory” in dying before battle from sunstroke (or a mosquito bite)? The verse is hackneyed and the point is unfortunate–Harvey seems to be arguing that to die in uniform is somehow to die for an idea of beauty that seems–especially if “the songs” we are to think of are the famous 1914 sonnets–to be yoked together with patriotism and righteous war. The Germans don’t have poets?

And yet Harvey is not exactly wrong, even if this is not exactly where, perhaps, he would have the emphasis fall: Brooke has written “songs” for a patriotic purpose, and his death has immeasurably increased their effectiveness. So does anyone who praises Brooke do so without some complicity in the war effort? Churchill was not slow off the mark on that one, and I think the answer is, simply, “no.” All praise of Brooke, however sincere, will be, for the duration, a contribution to the transmutation–of poet to symbol, and verse to pro-war propaganda.

Aubrey Herbert, who was with Brooke at the pyramids, and will serve at Gallipoli, will hit many of the same notes in this later poem. But he also goes in for more direct homage:

Bitter loss his golden harpstrings and the treasure of his youth;
Gallant foe and friend may mourn him, for he sang the knightly truth.
Joy was his in his clear singing, clean as is the swimmer’s joy;
Strong the wine he drank of battle, fierce as that they poured in Troy…

The reference to “swimmers” there is to one of the more famous lines from the 1914 sonnets, which is cleverly done. But much of the rest of this doesn’t hold up–the “knightly truth” that death can be construed as a romantic/nationalist sacrifice? And he didn’t ever get a chance to drink the wine of battle…

I’m carping, I’m niggling, I’m taking the hatchet to century-old poems–I realize. The point is, in part, to show how writers less skillful than Brooke will come to surround him like moss on an old stone, fixing him to one place in the history of the writing of this war. He is responsible for putting the stone there, but now they are weighing him down. Here’s how Herbert finishes, giving Brooke over to the most poetical of birds:

Sleep you well, you rainbow comrade, where the wind and light is strong,
Overhead and high above you, let the lark take up your song.


And how about John Masefield, a non-combatant who nevertheless was very much involved with the war (and, as we will see, with its writing) and is even now in France, working as a hospital orderly. When he returns he will take a walk to a place where he and Brooke had recently been a year before, and commune with his thoughts about death, and Skyros:

But from one grave that island talked to me;
And, in the midnight, in the breaking storm,
I saw its blackness and a blinking light,
And thought, “So death obscures your gentle form,
So memory strives to make the darkness bright;
And, in that heap of rocks, your body lies,
Part of the island till the planet ends,
My gentle comrade, beautiful and wise,
Part of this crag this bitter surge offends,
While I, who pass, a little obscure thing,
War with this force, and breathe, and am its king.”

Much better–a poem rather than a gesture. He takes the loss of a friend and a writer and uses it to grapple with the task of memory, and of moving on.


Brooke’s friend and fellow Georgian Wilfrid Gibson takes a more romantic or ghostly approach to a similar theme, writing a sort of rhapsodic eulogy (or elegaic rhapsody?) in several stanzas. Brooke’s personal and poetic beauty are very prominent:

And as we neared the roaring ruddy flare
Kindled to gold your throat and brow and hair
Until you burned, a flame of ecstasy.
The golden head goes down into the night
Quenched in cold gloom—and yet again you stand
Beside me now with lifted face alight,
As, flame to flame, and fire to fire you burn . . .
Then, recollecting, laughingly you turn,
And look into my eyes and take my hand.

“Ecstasy” will repeat in this poem, after a more precisely rendered visitation of Brooke’s spirit to Gibson’s “garret:”

…looking up, I saw you standing there
Although I’d caught no footstep on the stair,
Like sudden April at my open door.
Though now beyond earth’s farthest hills you fare,
Song-crowned, immortal, sometimes it seems to me
That, if I listen very quietly,
Perhaps I’ll hear a light foot on the stair
And see you, standing with your angel air,
Fresh from the uplands of eternity.

Gibson goes on to recall moments of Brooke’s actual life–and to allude, too, to his earlier, better writing–before closing with a flurry of classical allusions (Styx, Lethe, etc).

Just two more! I don’t want to come off as (too much of) an elitist or a boor. You can do good poetry–or, at least, a simple an inoffensive memorial verse–with stock poetic images (e.g. birds and flowers) and classical allusions. And you can write appalling dreck. For example, here (first one, then the other):


(In Memoriam)

I never knew you save as all men know
Twitter of mating birds, flutter of wings
In April coverts, and the streams that flow—
One of the happy voices of our Springs:

A voice for ever stilled, a memory,
Since you went eastward with the fighting ships,
A hero of the great new Odyssey,
And God has laid His finger on your lips.

Moray Dalton[3]

Pleasant and simple, the diction poetic but not heavy-handedly antique, the simplest and least problematic Homer reference… a modest elegy. Now another:

Out of the primal dark
He leapt, like lyric lark,
Singing his aubade strain;
Then fell to earth again.
We garner all he gave,
And on his hero grave,
For love and honour strew,
Rosemary, myrtle, rue.

Son of the Morning, we
Had kept you thankfully;
But yours the asphodel:
Hail, singer, and farewell!

Eden Phillpotts[4]

Bad rhythm, awkward alliteration, rhyme-forced reversed-diction, and an image that calls to mind a Monty Python version of German romanticism: Ron Obvious leaping upward out of a cupboard, with tiny lark’s wings upon his back…

This will be a lot of legacy to live down–Brooke has become a shooting star with an awfully long, dusty trail.


So. What about the war itself, you ask? If you have read this far and are still asking, I’m flattered. So:

The last of the scales are falling from the eyes of Billy Congreve, a brave and energetic Regular officer. The war is being written, day by day, but not truthfully. There are only two possible explanations:

I see that all our papers at home treat this Ypres affair almost as if it were a victory for us, and talk about our ‘vigorous offensive’. What offensive we have made has been badly handled and quite useless. As regards regaining the ground lost, we cannot do more until the French shove up on our left. Our papers are damnably incorrect, or else Sir J. French is lying.[5]


And finally, still at Oxford, and farther indeed from thoughts of (modern) war, the young Ronald Tolkien wrote a poem today, a century back. It’s an odd piece, about a mythical city–“Kôr,” a “City Lost and Dead”–the name of which he has borrowed from the Victorian adventure/romancer H. Rider Haggard. The short poem goes in for medievalisms–“A sable hill, gigantic, rampart-crowned”–and pseudo-Romantic ambiance–“There slow forgotten days for ever reap/ The silent shadows.”

And yet it’s neither a fever dream nor a ruin fit for the pith-helmeted adventurer. It’s the city that will become (or has been) Tirion upon Túna, in Valinor, the eternal home of the High Elves–a giant city, a haunted city, a magnificent city, suitable for elves of ancient power, nothing like little goblin feet or precious Victorian fairies. I forbear to copy the poem, because Tolkien, even a century on, is outlived by many more than nine lawyers, black garbed and swift and merciless on their iron-shod black steeds. But you can catch a glimpse here.

Like You and Me, the poem looks like something of this world, something any young writer with a poetic inclination could produce–but it’s actually a little piece of a different place, the world he has just begun to build. Undateable, but much more significant to his life’s work, is Tolkien’s progress on the first lexicon of the invented language that will become Quenya, the older form of Elvish. He seems to have been busy coining words and shaping the morphology throughout this spring, and Kôr will be one of the first place-names he defines.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 280-2, 330-1.
  2. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 76.
  3. A pseudonym, apparently, for Katherine Mary Dalton Renoir, who will become a prolific writer of mysteries.
  4. According to wikipedia, Borges was fond of this guy. Which is perhaps the strangest fact I've learned yet, in nearly a year of constant Great War reading and writing.
  5. Armageddon Road, 131.
  6. Lost Tales I, 136.

Julian Grenfell’s Into Battle; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Gives Us a Classical Tour of the Eastern Mediterranean

Julian Grenfell is a sportsman and a gentleman, and he has been an athlete and a fairly serious scholar. But he also writes:

Tuesday 29th. Moved off 8 a.m. towards Pop[eringhe]. Brigade rested in field. Rested all day, and got back to our farm at 7.30 p.m. Pork chops for dinner. Wonderful sunny lazy days–but longing to be up and doing something. Slept out. Wrote poem–‘Into Battle’.

Here, then, is the poem that will bring Grenfell renown:



Julian Grenfell

Into Battle

The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s kiss glorying.
And quivers in the loving breeze;
And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run.
And with the trees a newer birth;
And when his fighting shall be done.
Great rest, and fulness after dearth.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their high comradeship,
The Dog-star and the Sisters Seven,
Orion’s belt and sworded hip.

The woodland trees that stand together.
They stand to him each one a friend;
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridge’s end.

The kestrel hovering by day.
And the little owls that call by night.
Bid him be swift and keen as they,
As keen of sound, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him ‘Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you will not sing another;
Brother, sing!’

In dreary doubtful waiting hours.
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And Joy of Battle only takes
Him by the throat, and makes him blind,

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands.
And in the air Death moans and sings;
And Day shall clasp him with strong hands.
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.


Didst skim, reader mine? It needs to be read carefully. The conventional bits are there: it’s spring; you can’t die except by “Destined Will,” so therefore be brave; death will be a sweet release, etc. But these conventionalities mask, somewhat clumsily (those blackbirds are not terribly convincing), a few more startling claims.

The poem is not at all sentimental (except for the last two lines, which many critics will object to), nor is it really patriotic. Grenfell is not telling us that sacrifice is noble and that war is wholesome and heroic. He’s claiming, simply, that battle is an occasion for joy; that fighting is, in and of itself, fulfilling, and that, most perversely, death in battle isn’t beautifully-but-meaningfully-sad (the typical Brookean, patriotic, gauzy lie, which several of our poets will eventually call out) but a positive achievement, the mark of a life well-lived, a thing that brings “increase.”

What to make of this? “Increase” we will return to. First, Grenfell’s biographer:

The poem that Julian wrote… against the above background of confusion and randomness and waiting–is almost unique amongst poems of the First World War in that it shows no outrage against war and yet its luminousness
and serenity do not seem false.[1]

Not false, but perhaps a little crazy–and while there is serenity in this poem there is also berserker rage, and battle grabbing a man by the throat.

T. Sturge Moore, author of an early (but still post-war) volume on war poetry, takes another tack:

Young Grenfell exults at fulfilling an inborn promise. At last he feels free to be what instinct and capacity make him; general consent and his own conscience permit him to kill and to die.

Yes, that point is crucial: killing is more prominent here than dying. That was once the way with war poems–the Iliad is fascinated with both, but foregrounds killing–but killing has been slipping out of focus. Soon it will be the “sacrifice” and the dying that completely predominate.

(Which, by the way, is a travesty neither of military history nor literature: infantrymen once did killing and dying in roughly equal measure, and it is essential to the meaning of the Iliad that to fight means to intend to kill your man and risk death by him. Even when paramount heroes face lesser men, the gods may be fickle… In this war, infantryman will do the vast majority of the dying, while the artillery and machine guns do most of the killing. When the poets adjust and demonstrate this, the apparent imbalance is not mere squeamishness or self-centered protest, but a literary-political adaptation under stress.)

But “Into Battle” is not really about the conscience of a warrior, nor is the poet much interested in ethics. This is the man, remember, who sniped German soldiers and entered them in the family game book.

Grenfell writes of the “Joy of Battle,” but let’s translate that into our lower-case vernacular: “killing is fun.” This is absolutely Homeric–a label we will take up in good time–but only if you know your Homer well enough to appreciate that, while killing and dying are intimate, important parts of the heroes’ world, Achilles’s superabundant bloodlust and joy in the act of killing is indicative of his alienation from the proper ways of that world, his falling into a sickness of self-centered revenge. Killing happens, and it structures the lives of the heroes–but exultation is not right, even in Homer.

The critic John Silkin quotes this bit from Moore, but he also points out that “Into Battle” is hardly a “war poem,” per se, but rather “a release in verse of Grenfell’s predatoriness.”[2] This is exactly right, and it brings to mind the findings of psychologists investigating later wars that suggest that combat may in some small percentage of men reveal a sort of latent psychopathy. Most of us have built-in inhibitions to extreme physical violence and killing. Most of us will kill or torture only while in the grip of extreme emotions or under intense social pressure. A very few discover that they enjoy killing[3] and become serial killers. And then there is this third group, men who would have gone through a peaceful life seeming to be more or less emotionally normal, yet discover, by dint of their participation in war, that, well, killing is fun.

Back to Moore:

The ecstasy is like that of married love: a fundamental instinct can be gratified untaxed by inward loss or damage and with the approval of mankind.[4]

This is too much, too weird, too awful. Or, at least, it needs to be carefully handled: Grenfell’s poem does not–should not–speak for most of our fighters, and his approval of violent ecstasy, while heartfelt, demonstrates a rare and chilling aspect of his character.

It will become a popular poem in part because it’s easy to slightly misread that battle-joy and dying-increase as of a piece with more typical blandly exhortative drums-and-bugles verse. It’s even easier to miss the fact that the other elements of that sort of pro-war poem are missing: there’s no patriotism here, no claim that fighting for something is what makes it acceptable to kill. And there is no Christianity, only “Destined Will.”

So how to read all this? There are echoes of Nietzsche, perhaps, but we’re on much firmer ground (in terms of what we know of Grenfell’s education and reading) if we see this as the direct influence of the Greek classics. Which means Homer about all else.

Elizabeth Vandiver’s excellent book–the goofy title, Stand in the Trench, Achilles, quotes the work of one of our soldier-poets–works through the poem from the “classical receptions” point of view. Vandiver works hard to expose the influence of the classics on many poets, but her argument that “Into Battle” is a “profoundly and essentially Homeric poem” is convincing. She begins, as I did above, with an argument from absence. But it’s a strong one: there is no God in this poem, no country; no duty or sacrifice, or collective responsibility. “The poem’s focal point is the individual fighter’s skill and his relationship with war itself.”

This leads us to an understanding of perhaps the poem’s key word–that “increase.” Vandiver, following Jon Stallworthy, interprets it as, simply, “glory.” So the poem, then, is not about feeling alive with the thrill of war, and the rejoicing is not in the heightened intensity of life-or-death action. It celebrates the warrior’s opportunity to do glorious, violent deeds–and to count coup, to keep score, and to revel in the status it brings. “You at home have nothing worth having–I have glory.”

And if we accept this interpretation, which places death as the warrior’s eventual paying of his wager, rather than any happy or meaningful transition, Destined Will, too, falls into place. It is the powerful and fate-like (but not quite fate-certain) force which in Homer is called the Will of Zeus, more the reluctant “out” call of a hitter’s umpire than a necessity comprehended only by an ultimate judge.

And there you have it: in a moment, the polite Christian veneer of the athletic Edwardian gentleman falls away. He rides and hunts and enjoys the spirit of competition, but he no longer has to hide behind the idea of “the game.” War is not the purity of sportsmanship, bounded by rules, or of Christian warfare, propped by moral precepts–it’s competition for pure glory.

Falling away, too, are all of the ethical senses of “good” (a good man may kill, but does he celebrate killing as if his victims were animals?), “better” (shouldn’t he assert that the British cause is better than that of the Germans?), and “best:” we are told that Julian Grenfell was clever and handsome and talented, one of the best of the young generation. Now he is telling us that he is most interested in being the best at war, the best at killing, that this has become the most meaningful thing. The good life is combat.


I should move on–we will discuss this poem again. Even tomorrow. So, now to another Homeric young soldier, who’s written, today, a century back, a much prettier thing.

Shaw-Stewart croppedI’ve discussed before the great number of classical scholars among the young volunteer officers, and Patrick Shaw-Stewart was among the best of the lot. The serious argument that I will strive to make–in the footsteps of Fussell and leaning heavily on  Vandiver–is that a working knowledge of classical poetry, especially “Homer”–strongly colored one vein of war poetry. But strangely. Can modern Britons, Christians and men of self-conscious civilization, really draw on the old pagan poems to describe their own exploits? The test of battle will be interesting.

But today Shaw-Stewart is not imagining battle. Instead, he is playfully deploying his extensive knowledge of the classical world in a letter to Ronald Knox that describes the wanderings of the Gallipoli invasion force. Shaw-Stewart will edge around the rules prohibiting the revelation of military detail in letters by replacing place names with classical references. (Which wouldn’t fool those Germans, who are generally stronger in Greek than their British equivalents. But anyway.)

Rupert Brooke is recently dead, but his friends are young men facing battle–they move on. And even without Brooke, the Grantully Castle, carrying the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, is still full of brilliant young men. Who can resist classical allusion in such circumstances? Knox himself will later describe it as “a… magic ship in a fairy story… its crew… all people of marked individual powers… By a fated course they even followed the Argo’s track…” But Knox was writing with knowledge of the failure of the Gallipoli expedition and twists the playful analogy into an uncomfortable allegory in which “the honour of Belgium” becomes the Golden Fleece.[5]. Which is a bit much.

Shaw-Stewart does it better:

This is a pleasant cruise. How can I describe it uncensoriously?

First to the island of Hephaestus (or Philoctetes, or Hypsipyle) for a longish stay;

This would be Lemnos, which the Grantully Castle reached on the 10th of March or thereabouts–eerily, Rupert Brooke was then imagining his death, and Lemnos is the place where a sick/wounded soldier (Philoctetes) is abandoned while his comrades sail on for Troy.

Then to the Pelusiac mouth to a town famed for its low life, where I escaped a too-sandy camp;

A term from Herodotus, it would seem, for the Nile. This might not be from distant memory–one of these “Argonauts” had, if memory serves, sent a request for a Herodotus. So then, the mouth of the Nile: he has arrived at Alexandria, toward the end of March. A city named for a great conqueror which will soon grow into a great capital and center of classical learning–very nice.

then to the island where the fleet-footed Aeacid hid sub lacrimosa Troia funera, and his son enjoyed the advantages of a classical education; and whence the bones of Theseus were taken home.

Skyros now, drawing on the popular (but extra-Homeric) story of Achilles being hidden away, dressed as a girl, to avoid being conscripted (so to speak) into the Trojan War. (The Aeacid would be his father Peleus, or himself, both being descendents of Aeacus). And that’s an apposite quotation from Horace, tossed in from memory, which more than drives home the wry superiority of that “classical education” line–this is a letter that does great credit to those buildings which border the playing fields of Eton. Oh, and Theseus is a hero of the legendary age whose bones were dug up on Skyros after the Pythian oracle directed the Athenian statesman Cimon thither… a nice piece of religious-imperialist spectacle, actually.

It is now thirdly bound up with Rupert Brooke, whom we buried there, and over whose grave I commanded
the firing-party; an olive grove looking southwards on the Aegean, and what more could a poet ask? He was a very jolly man, and I was sad about it: I shouldn’t have thought that any one, in three months, could come to fill so large a space in my life…

“Jolly?” “Sad?” Shaw-Stewart is neither the first nor the last Classicist to be more eloquent when fluidly quoting the ancients than when trying to turn his own experience into simple English prose.

The travelogue continues, however, and it will serve the purpose too of bringing us up to date on the Gallipoli campaign:846

Thence we came almost straight to the very edge of the tyranny of Miltiades, in sight of the notissima fama insula, in sight of Samothrace, in imaginary sight of windy Ilios itself, and not so very far from Aegospotami;

Facing, then the straights now known as the Dardanelles, and in earlier times as the Hellespont. The tour de force continues with references to classical Greek history and Latin epic: the “tyranny” (meaning a sort of fiefdom) of Miltiades (Miltiades being the hero of the battle of Marathon) is today the Gallipoli peninsula; the Latin tag, from the second book of the Aeneid, (“that most famous island”) describes Tenedos, where the Greeks hid their fleet while the Trojan Horse stratagem unfolded; “windy Ilios” is Troy by its other name; and Aegospotami was the site of the decisive battle of the Peloponnesian war, in which Sparta destroyed the Athenian fleet once and for all. Ominous, that.

and on this association saturated spot they propose, I believe, to shove us ashore almost immediately to chase the Turk. The stiffest work has been done already: the landing must have been an amazing performance by
Australians and the 29th [Division]; but no doubt there’s still some walking (shall we say?) for us to do.’[6]

It was, and there is. And here endeth today’s classics-saturated lesson.

The ill-conceived and brutally contested Gallipoli campaign has already bogged down, but it has months to run. I had intended this project to be restricted to the Western Front ,and I will not provide any general descriptions of the Gallipoli campaign, which are of course readily available. However, since Shaw-Stewart and Aubrey Herbert and a few others will be there, we will read something about Gallipoli from time to time this summer, and gather its most interesting writing into the larger story.


References and Footnotes

  1. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 256-7.
  2. Silkin, Out of Battle, 70-3.
  3. Or are otherwise vastly distorted in their emotional makeup, however it should be put--I don't want to get into a discussion of "abnormal psych."
  4. Moore, Some Soldier Poets, 15. Now, an extremely cynical, (i.e. realistic) reading of this metaphor might point out that Grenfell is indeed a predator, as Silkin notes. It is small human glory, then, to be happy that he is not--in the sexual metaphor--a roving rapist (murderer) but in fact a sanctioned fornicator. It's o.k.! He's married! There's a war on! So the killing of "In Battle," then, sounds a hell of a lot like marital rape.
  5. Knox, Shaw-Stewart, 133, see Vandiver, Stand, 265
  6. Shaw Stewart, 126-7.

Charles Sorley Finds Two Ways to Write of Sacrifice and Death: A Withering Critique of Rupert Brooke, and “All the Hills and Vales Along”

Rupert Brooke could make limp pens stiffen and steel-sharp critical minds soften into warm, approving fudge. It is bad form to speak ill of the recently dead–but it’s also bad form to surrender critical judgment to opportunistic piety or timely propagandizing. Charles Sorley fights on:

Aldershot, 28 April 1915

I saw Rupert Brooke’s death in The Morning Post. The Morning Post, which has always hitherto disapproved of him, is now loud in his praises because he has conformed to their stupid axiom of literary criticism that the only stuff of poetry is violent physical experience, by dying on active service. I think Brooke’s earlier poems–especially notably “The Fish” and “Grantchester,” which you can find in Georgian Poetry–are his best.

That last sonnet-sequence of his, of which you sent me the review in the Times Lit. Sup., and which has been so praised, I find (with the exception of that beginning “These hearts were woven of human joys and cares, Washed marvellously with sorrow ” which is not about himself) overpraised.

Now the hammer drops:

He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances, where non-compliance with this demand would have made life intolerable. It was not that  “they” gave up anything of that list he gives in one sonnet: but that the essence of these things had been endangered by circumstances over which he had no control, and he must fight to recapture them. He has clothed his attitude in fine words: but he has taken the sentimental attitude.

I agree! And my nattering on further won’t lend any real support. In part this is because of the nature of Sorley’s authority: he’s a young man who knows and loves German culture, who had no desire to be a soldier or go to war, but who gritted his teeth and volunteered, because he thought that England’s cause was right. This is the force–his own conduct, his own willingness to surrender his body to the army without surrendering his intelligence to “the sentimental attitude”–backing up Sorley’s swift and deadly judgment.

But even without that force Sorley’s lunge scores a critical hit: precise, palpable, and deadly. That’s exactly what Brooke has done, and it is (almost) happenstance that a young amateur critic in uniform is the first to have phrased it so precisely and so well. Brooke has dramatized and sentimentalized, using his “eloquence” (as Edward Thomas will shortly, pointedly, be calling it) to throw the war into a wishful, hazy light. His sonnets are very pretty–“fine words”–and Sorley has no bone to pick there. Poetry should be fine, and pretty. But it shouldn’t take the easy way out, refusing to do the deep thinking that is supposed to lie behind the pretty words.

(There’s a near-crossing of paths here, too: Sorley’s letter goes on to note that he went to Oxford for a weekend’s leave and a “delightful” time “In spite of the rather dismal atmosphere of an empty Oriel.” This would mean that he visited the college in which Vera Brittain, her own Somerville emptied out to serve as a hospital, is now staying.)

Now, having said all that about Sorley’s judgment being independent of his own attitude toward the war and the necessity of service, it is also the case (as it will be with Thomas) that his judgment of Brooke is tied up with his own writing. Sorley is an amateur poet, of conventional and rough phrasing but lively intelligence, but he is beginning to develop. In the same letter he includes seven new poems, some recently written, all sent today to his mother for safekeeping. He begins with a little self-deprecating joke–poetry as a budgetary concern.

I enclose my occasional budget. You will notice that most of what I have written is as hurried and angular as the hand-writing: written out at different times and dirty with my pocket: but I have had no time for the final touch nor seem likely to have for some time, and so send them as they are. Nor have I had the time to think out (as I usually do) a rigorous selection, as fit for other eyes. So these are my explanations of the fall in quality. I like “Le Revenant” best, being very interested in the previous and future experience of the character concerned: but it sadly needs the file. You will also find the last of my Marlborough[1] poems called “Lost” written in sideways on the foolscap.[2]

And what has Sorley been writing about?

Here’s how one of the poems begins:

If I have suffered pain
It is because I would.
I willed it. Tis no good
To murmur or complain.

So take that, Rupert.

And yet Sorley has not yet been to the front. There will be other perspectives to take, eventually, on the “good” that a poetry of protest can do, in the face of pain.

Still. The subject here is not so much pain or complaint but rather the attitudes that one might take to the apparent necessity of volunteering–and possibly dying. Sorley has written (perhaps as long ago as last year, before Brooke’s last sonnets were even around to be read and disapproved of) one of the best ironic ripostes to jaunty early-war recruiting poster poetry. This too was in today’s occasional budget:

All the hills and vales along
Earth is bursting into song,
And the singers are the chaps
Who are going to die perhaps.
O sing, marching men,
Till the valleys ring again,
Give your gladness to earth’s keeping,
So be glad, when you are sleeping.

Cast away regret and rue,
Think what you are marching to.
Little live, great pass.
Jesus Christ and Barabbas
Were found the same day.
This died, that went his way.
So sing with joyful breath,
For why, you are going to death.
Teeming earth will surely store
All the gladness that you pour.

Earth that never doubts nor fears,
Earth that knows of death, not tears,
Earth that bore with joyful ease
Hemlock for Socrates,
Earth that blossomed and was glad
‘Neath the cross that Christ had,
Shall rejoice and blossom too
When the bullet reaches you.
Wherefore, men marching,
On the road to death, sing!
Pour your gladness on earth’s head,
So be merry, so be dead.

From the hills and valleys earth
Shouts back the sound of mirth,
Tramp of feet and lilt of song
Ringing all the road along.
All the music of their going,
Ringing swinging glad song-throwing,
Earth will echo still, when foot
Lies numb and voice mute.
On, marching men, on
To the gates of death with song.
Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping,
So you may be glad, though sleeping.
Strew your gladness on earth’s bed,
So be merry, so be dead.

We will return to “All the Hills and Vales Along.” It will bear re-reading. Musically, it’s quite good–and intentionally obnoxious. Sorley can labor sometimes in his prosody, but here he is clever in his hooks–especially the “perhaps” in the fourth line, like a trailing punch line (or a late punch), and the final line, the sneaky repeat, falling like a curtain on the last beat of the song and suddenly meaning something different. It’s a jaunty pro-war poem; no, it’s a strange little lark, a soldier’s free-spirited joke–no, it’s a grim cynical little whistling performance: “we are marching far too cheerily to our doom.”

It ain’t the first, but it might be either of the second two. And it’s a nature poem too, and this is another young Englishman devoted to tramping (or running) through the countryside. Sorley will go to the front soon, and his poetry will expand to encompass human nature, and religion, and the indifference of the physical world. But it’s here already, really: whether these be brave lads or hapless fools, the earth will outlive their tuneful marching.


References and Footnotes

  1. It's an odd little coincidence, an oblique crossing of paths, that Sorley's old school, the subject of many of his poems, is the namesake of Edward Thomas's much protested and detested biographical subject.
  2. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 262-4.

Morgan Crofton is Under Fire Near Ypres; Tolkien Writes of Lands Farther West

Two very different sorts today, as we move away from the height of Second Ypres and the dramatic death of Rupert Brooke, back toward the rhythm of trench warfare and the young writers’ approach to the line that will be basic rhythm of this project until September’s major battle.

John Ronald Tolkien is at work, these days, on two poems. Both may well be the sort of thing that a mature author would be embarrassed by–and yet both are true to the boy who is father to the man. Behold the collegiate versifier who is father to the fantasist. (Tolkien, by the by, will become an important exemplar of one minority position: that the horrors of the war might have little effect, in the end, on the writerly trajectory of some.)

The first, Goblin Feet, is unquestionable juvenilia–very silly, highly Victorian. All those happy Goblin feet must be regarded as little missteps for a man who will mount the world’s greatest literary objection to the idea of elves/faeries/goblins as diminutive, precious, or cute. And yet it’s a story of enchantment and loss–which is also a good six word description of Tolkien’s life’s work.

The second, too, is uncharacteristic–it’s a love poem about two real people, Tolkien himself and his intended, Edith Bratt. And yet You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play too aims for the as-yet-un-(sub)created ground of a fantasy world. The basic idea–showing the (acknowledged) influence of J.M. Barrie–is that Edith and John Ronald have always known each other, in dreams prior to reality. There is a land far away, but nearer than you might think, a place of happiness and romantic fulfillment and higher beauty…

So a boyish love poem, pretty and slight. But always, for the orphaned Tolkien–or, for those of you allergic to biographical criticism, the man who would create a world of surpassing beauty and then write until it was broken, drowned, twisted, and battered, age after age–there is that undercurrent of loss:

And why it was Tomorrow came
And with his grey hand led us back;
And why we never found the same
Old cottage, or the magic track
That leads between a silver sea
And those old shores and gardens fair
Where all things are, that ever were–
We know not, You and Me.

He will never get around to seeking publication for love poems about himself or Edith–or for anything openly biographical. So Edith and the poet will withdraw from this land indeed… but he will return to the Cottage of Lost Play.


Sir Morgan Crofton, on the fringes of battle for days now, would probably like to get a word in, even beneath the moonings of an undergraduate still months away from taking a commission. “Second Ypres” is still playing out, and his regiment, the 2nd Life Guards, have marched all night to reach the outskirts of Vlamertinghe, in what had recently been a rear area of the British section of the salient. Here, then, is a very long day under fire–fruitless and confused at the battalion level, surely, and yet part of a larger effort that succeeded in preventing a German breakthrough.

Tuesday April 27

We had considerable difficulty in finding the point where we were to meet the staff officer who was to give us our billets. It was by a railway crossing just through the village. The street of the village was hill of French and Canadian ambulance motors. Every house seemed to be used as a hospital. A ceaseless flow of wounded kept coming back from the district N and NE of the road, where the firing showed that considerable fighting was still going on…

We were all dog tired, so we crowded in [to a handful of tiny huts], put down our blankets on the floor and dropped into a heavy unrefreshing sleep. We received orders the last moment before we bedded down to say that we were to remain ready to move at a moment’s notice, and that on the following day we should probably have to go into the trenches.

We woke about 7 o’clock and at once set about getting some food. We discovered in a neighbouring field four Canadian Cookers, and from the NCO in charge we managed to get some hot coffee. We felt better after that, but we still felt very stiff and sore from the effects of our plank bed. We couldn’t get much news…

We had a scratch lunch at 12.30 of tinned tongue and the foulest tasting tea.

About 4 o’clock the first shell arrived. It came with a whoof and a crash bang into Vlamertinghe. This was followed by a regular shower of them. We all crowded out to watch. About 50 per cent didn’t burst, but those that did, threw up tall columns of dust and bricks. They seemed to fall right amongst the hospitals in the village. The Germans soon began to lengthen their fuzes. We could see the shells coming nearer and nearer, pitching and
bursting on the field and road which lay between us and the village.

We had just decided that the shelling wasn’t going to amount to much, when there was a roar and a crash. Hut No. 29, which was three from ours and which was occupied by the 1st Life Guards, flew into the air, in the midst of a column of black greasy smoke. There was no mistaking this portent. We were being shelled with high-explosive shells fired by an eleven-inch howitzer. Considerable confusion ensued, increased by the arrival of
two more of these tokens of regard. Hut 29 had entirely disappeared. In its place lay two dead men and another with both his legs blown off.

The order was given to fall in at once and march to a point previously fixed (a tree with a bushy top) where we were to lie down in extended order. Torrie told me to go on and act as a directing point. There was a great rush
to collect kits, belts, glasses, etc., and in the rush many went out without bothering to collect anything.

The shells now began to fall fairly fast all over the whole camp. Two or three pitched into Vlamertinghe, blowing up huge pillars of dust, black smoke and pink fluff from the pulverised bricks. Outside amongst the waggons and the men of the ammunition and supply columns, the panic was considerable. This was natural owing to the fact that most of these men were very young and hadn’t been under shellfire before. The fields were covered with loose horses galloping in all directions and dozens of little parties of men riding half-saddled or harnessed horses, all galloping.

As always, Crofton’s calm observation and forthright private description gives an excellent picture of combat–even, as so often, combat in which only the enemy’s guns are effective, or even engaged. But Crofton now shows how much simple calm and physical courage matter in confused situations. The situation is close to tragedy and close to farce:

I proceeded over the fields to the S, to take a position where I could be seen so that the Regiment could march on me. When I reached the rising ground which I had selected for my point, I turned to watch the excitement.
A shell burst with a terrific report about 10 yards behind two men who were running towards me; they both fell like dead men, and remained motionless. Then they started rolling away like mad, to what they considered a safe
distance before they resumed their upright flight.

There was a four-wheeled waggon, packed very high with chairs, tables and cooking pots. This was drawn at full gallop by four horses which were urged to greater efforts by their drivers. By way of taking a short cut, it dashed across a field in front of me. About half way across the intrepid drivers were confronted by a gully, five feet deep and nine across. In they plunged, the waggon rocking and clattering, over it went as it attempted to ascend the opposite side. Off the drivers flung themselves, unhooked the team, mounted and disappeared towards the setting sun in clouds of dust. A field-kitchen, belching smoke like a fire engine, and streams of soup pouring from it in cascades, rumbled past, also ventre à terre, [“belly to the ground, i.e. “flat-out”] the driver applying his whip like a threshing flail. Into the gully it plunged like its confrere of the four wheels, over went the kitchen, the mingled fumes of wood fire and soup rising into the evening air. Off sprang the driver, the horses were unhooked and off quicker than I can write this.

About 50 shells in all were put into the hutments, surrounding fields, and onto the Poperinghe-Vlamertinghe road. Every road leading from this area was now packed with long straggling columns of marching men, ambulances,
and supply waggons moving back. Shortly after 5.30 the shelling ceased. We took up our position about a mile and a half to the south and lay down in extended order in the fields round a large farm, in which, later in the
evening, we fixed our headquarters. Towards 7 o’clock parties were sent back to the hutments to remove any kit or belongings left behind in the haste of the departure. The evening was delightful, very clear and cool, after a blazing day.

About 10 o clock we heard the ominous sound of a motor cycle approaching us. Our worst fears were realised when its cessation was followed by a cry of Turn Out. We collected in the field outside, and heard that the Turcos [French colonials] were falling back in some disorder on Brielen, and we were ordered to go in as supports, and fill any gap which they might leave.

The moon was most brilliant, the night was as bright as day. We sat, awaiting the order to move. I was very tired, and dozed pleasantly off. At about 11.30 I was awoken and told that counter orders had arrived. We were to stay where we were for the night.[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Massacre of the Innocents, 214-7.

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, Part I

Churchill on BrookeRupert Brooke had jokingly wondered, during the winter, who would “do the Times” obituary if he should die. Well. The first draft was written by Eddie Marsh, but–as the penmanship at right demonstrates–it was Churchill himself who redrafted and produced the final version. Winston’s obituary is characteristic and, for us, very interesting, a strong new example of the war being written to a purpose other than the service of simple truth.

The prose swells, it rolls and thunders–it’s inspirational, and yet it’s not really about what it’s about. Churchill, who will one day become an orotund, inspiring, and inaccurate historian, continues the transmutation of Rupert Brooke’s life and (recent) work into instrument and symbol. Which is to say propaganda. This is the First Lord of the Admiralty writing about the death (not in action) of one humble temporary sub-lieutenant. How much greater is his moral[1] value dead, his handsome portrait shimmering force-like behind his rousing patriotic verses, than his tactical value alive, just one more half-trained subaltern?

That, I suppose, is not really our concern here. Instead, we should begin tracking his legacy as a writer. In the days to come we will read assessments of Brooke from several of our other soldier-poets, but today let’s begin with the obituary.

During the last few months of his life, months of preparation in gallant comradeship and open air, the poet-soldier told with all the simple force of genius the sorrow of youth about to die, and the sure triumphant consolations of a sincere and valiant spirit. He expected to die: he was willing to die for the dear England whose beauty and majesty he knew: and he advanced towards the brink in perfect serenity, with absolute conviction of the rightness of his country’s cause and a heart devoid of hate for fellow-men.

Those last few lines assume too much, protest too much. Presumptuous history or biography–but useful obituary. But the rest of it is–and this is the remarkable thing–more or less accurate. Was Brooke depressed, ill, uncertain, and nasty at different moments over the past six months? Sure. But as far as his writing/public persona went, he was fluently, trippingly serene–and ready to die. We will read critiques of his posture: it seems fair to say that Brooke’s obsession with sacrifice stems from self-obsession, even neurosis, and not calm, quiet, patriotic conviction.

It doesn’t matter if the truth is that his patriotism was bound up in a nasty tangle with his depression and anxiety. Now he is become a name, and a face, and a sequence of sonnets. Back to Churchill:

The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward in this, the hardest, the cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, ruled by high undoubting purpose, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.

It’s 1915–Gallipoli is just beginning; there have been no major British attacks on the Western Front; the Somme is more than a year away. So, although “sacrifice” was Rupert Brooke’s idea, and Churchill is blithely, resolutely spinning the man and the poetry into the myth of national sacrifice, the scale of the sacrifice to come–still less its futility–are not something that Brooke could have guessed at, or should be thought responsible for. His death, and the uses of his legacy, are ironic. Which is to say, as well, that the trajectory he aimed himself along as he anticipated his own demise was not history’s true path.

History will come. This, however, is a liminal moment, a time for everyone to tie their own flower onto the end of the broken branch. His friend Frederick Kelly, who helped bury him, saw this very clearly:

It was as though one were involved in the origin of some classical myth.

And so we are–not for nothing were Brooke’s Cambridge circle sometimes called the Neo-Pagans. But the deluge is coming, and the fall, and after it the vengeful modernists.

There are too many literary responses to note here, but praise along Churchillian lines will continue to reverberate. We will return for several of the more perceptive reactions, and to make a short study of Brooke’s fraught executorship (Eddie Marsh and Brooke’s mother, at first mourning and sorting together, would spend an agonizing afterlife battling over the sanitizing of his memory–they were both for it, of course, but differently). But here are a few to begin with:

D.H. Lawrence wrote  while still under the impression that it was the sun that had killed Brooke–not an enemy saber or bullet or even a shell fragment, but not, at least, a mosquito, that most practical, least glorious, most appropriate symbol of the traditional deadliness of military campaigning. He did something clever with this, writing that to be “slain by bright Phoebus’ shaft” was”the real climax of his pose… It is all in the saga. O God, O God, it is all too much of a piece: it is like madness.”

Similar, too, was the reaction of Frederic Manning, an Australian who will eventually become one of the most significant Great War writers. Manning “thought Brooke the best of the Georgians, [and] was moved later to an epigram on this symbol of golden youth lost:

Earth held thee not, whom now the gray seas hold
By the blue Cyclades, and even the sea
Palls but the mortal, for men’s hearts enfold.
Inviolate, the untamed youth of thee.”[2]


In time, and because of this sort of instrumental apotheosizing, his friends–and the defenders of poetry and reasoned writing (among them Harold Monro and H.W. Nevinson)–will protest. They risked opprobrium by suggesting either that a real, flawed person had died, and not a god or hero. They pointed out that the torrent of sentimentalized, recruiting-poster-appropriate verse written in his memory amounted to a betrayal of his own more complex poetry–his pre “1914″ poetry, that is. The book 1914 and Other Poems will be rushed out soon and sell tremendously.[3]


So Rupert Brooke is dead–his corpus will suffer a Homeric fate, oiled and burnished to a luster greater than that which they had in life, and yet also dragged behind the victor’s chariot, as time and taste change and the new (literary) order gleefully over-kills the old. But his physical body, at least, was safe. In Flanders, today, an officer is missing, and Billy Congreve describes the quest to learn of his fate.

26th April

Last night, [Lt. Col. George] Cory received news that his brother, Bob, was missing. He is in the 57th Highlanders (Canadian). This was about 8 p.m., so we found a car and, after dinner, set off together. He was naturally very much upset. We left the car outside Ypres, as the shelling was very heavy. Luckily it was a bright moon…

Just as we got to the level-crossing at the north-west corner of the town, a big crump landed almighty close, throwing all sorts of stuff about us. Two dead horses were there, evidently just killed. Two shells a minute (and big ‘uns) were coming on to this place. A dead civilian was there too, a grotesque-looking muddle at the side of the road with a huge bundle of his worldly goods wrapped on a sheet…

Everything was a horrid mess and the town was on fire in several places. It was a rummy scene: the big battered town, the very still moonlit night, the scrunch of broken brick and glass underfoot and no sign of life, except for the occasional motor ambulances rushing through. Then several times a minute, one would hear the coming wailing of some big shell getting closer and closer, then the crash as it hit some building and a roar as it burst…

We were looking for the 15th Battalion and, by great good fortune, found them in St Jean… Half-way along to St Jean, I said to Colonel George [Cory], ‘I suppose it is my imagination but my eyes are smarting a good deal.’

…Sure enough, we were well into a belt of it–this, mind you, was a good one and a half miles from the front line. Tears ran down our cheeks and it was an abominably chokey chemical smell, rather like ether. It was not unpleasant, reminding me of oranges and lilac, but even so it was a ‘wicked’ scent.

…This battalion [the 15th, a.k.a 48th Highlanders of Canada] was on the extreme left of our line… [on the 23rd they had] found themselves surrounded, especially at that part of the line which had drawn back its left on St Julien. Cory’s brother was here. From all accounts he made a gallant fight, for after the rest of the battalion had retired, he was heard to be going on fighting with his machine-gun and the remnants of his company. So that is all they knew about him, and he may be dead or wounded, and anyhow, a prisoner…

Eventually Colonel G. and I came away, but we had many a scare on the way home. We cut across the Plaine D’Amour and never have I seen a place so ill-named! A misery it was, dead things, shell holes and broken trees. I was very tired and my eyes hurt. It is a new horror to this already horrible war, and there is something depressing in this gas. However, I dare say we shall get used to it.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. As in "morale."
  2. Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 120.
  3. See Jones, Rupert Brooke, 428-33; Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 514-7.
  4. Congreve, Armageddon Road, 128-130.

Violets, Violence, and a Villanelle from Roland, with Queries from Vera; After Action Reports from Lady Feilding and the Nursing Sister; Edward Thomas is Melancholy; Donald Hankey is at Peace; Tolkien is Read; The Facts on Rupert Brooke Are Addressed


Roland’s first real “war poem,” referred to either as “Violets” or “Villanelle.”

A letter from Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton:

Oxford, 25 April 1915

I received your letter dated April 20th this morning. Yes, tell me all the gruesome things you see—I know that even war will not blunt your sensibilities, & that you suffer because of these things as much as I should if seeing them,—as I do when hearing of them.

There’s another way, too, to combat the blunting of sensibilities, namely literature. Roland has already addressed the horror of stumbling upon the corpse, writing the villanelle (above) which takes the age-old tactic of mingling blood and corpses.


From the First World War Poetry Digital Archive

In a very straightforward example of poetic license, the primroses of the letter have become violets. It’s wonderful–a first counter-attack from pledged Innocence against the assaults of Experience–that his first poem is about his faith that the written transmission of this sort of experience is possible, at least for two bound by a love such as theirs:

Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory,
Knowing you will understand.

Vera responds with fierce personal ratification–and a feminist declaration to boot.

I want your new life to be mine to as great an extent as is possible, & this is the only way it can–Women are no longer the sheltered & protected darlings of man’s playtime, fit only for the nursery & the drawing-room–at least, no woman that you are interested in could ever be just that. Somehow I feel it makes me stronger to realise what horrors there are. I shudder & grow cold when I hear about them, &-then feel that next time I shall bear it, not more callously, yet in some way better…

I’m sure that some regular readers may be growing tired of the young lovers, but I feel strongly that this is the heart of the project. It’s Two Against the World–a belief common to many young people in love, but here the World is bent upon real violence, and the forces that may tear them apart are awesome and implacable. So it’s a direct collision of ordinary lives and the historical specificity of the war–of this war, trench warfare, and its quick-but-not-quick-enough transmission of letters. And–this is important–they are good writers. It’s not so much Roland’s poetry, which is capable but not remarkable, but rather their letters, especially Vera’s–their self image as young intellectuals in love require that they fight against sentimentality and foolishness (where they can perceive it).

So she turns, now, from vivid introspection to an unusually tough-minded (not for her–for home-front letter writers more generally) challenge of Roland’s assumptions:

Is it really all for nothing,—for an empty name–an ideal? Last time I saw you it was I who said that & you who denied it. Was I really right, & will the issue really not be worth one of the lives that have been sacrificed for it? Or did we need this gigantic catastrophe to wake up all that was dead within us? You can judge best of us two now. In the light of all that you have seen, tell me what you really think. Is it an ideal for which you personally are fighting, & is it one which justifies all the blood that has been & is to be shed?[1]


And the Nursing Sister, today, gives us a glimpse of the ad hoc nature of the war of technological development:

But this afternoon the medical staffs of both these divisions have been trying experiments in a barn with chlorine gas, with and without different kinds of masks soaked with some antidote, such as lime. All were busy coughing and choking when they found the A.D.M.S. of the — Division getting blue and suffocated; he’d had too much chlorine, and was brought here, looking very bad, and for an hour we had to give him fumes of ammonia till he could breathe properly. He will probably have bronchitis. But they’ve found out what they wanted to know–that you can go to the assistance of men overpowered by the gas, if you put on this mask, with less chance of finding yourself dead too when you got there. They don’t lose much time finding these things out, do they?[2]


But the Sister is rather far from the main German thrust at Ypres. Dorothie Feilding was much closer. She can be an irritatingly blithe (and prejudiced, and shallow) writer, although this has something to do with the fact that she is writing to keep up the spirits of a mother who has several children in harm’s way. Still, she often portrays herself (just as Julian Grenfell has portrayed her) as a socialite in service, carefree and chirpy no matter what. Which is why it is startling to see her write of “horror,” :misery,” and “futility.” The first phase of the war is over indeed.

April 25th, Fumes
Mother darling,

…About a week ago when the Germans got through & over the Yser it was just touch & go & everyone was rather jumpy & very depressed. The Allies lost over 200 men prisoners & 3 guns. Most of this French but now they counter attack every night & are gradually regaining lost ground & consolidating generally. The casualties have been awful; one regiment of Zouaves about 1,500 strong lost 60 men & 15 officers in one night. It has been just like the Yser fight of October again…

One of our wretched doctors did 63 operations in 24 hours without a pause & was so beat he could hardly stand. All the little nurses & staff are perfect bricks & I can’t see how they get round the work. Only the awful cases can be taken in, & then are moved on as soon as it is possible to make room for worse cases. It just despairs one & makes one rage when you see this endless, endless stream of shattered humanity & sees the ghastly work a shell can make of their poor bodies; bullet wounds are so very different & devoid of the same horror. It’s the shell wounds that are simply haunting & sometimes one feels ill with the sheer futility of it all, rather than the fact of its being a horrible thing to look at. It’s hard to be patriotic when these days of heavy fighting one sees so much of the horror & misery of this filthy war…

God bless you all
Yr sleepy Diddles
The daffies received!![3]


An uncommonly busy day. Briefly, then, a letter from Donald Hankey, who is preparing to cross to France today, a century back. He wrote to his sister, putting his psychological affairs in order.

April 25, 1915

My Dear Hilda,

If I do survive the war I shall have gained immensely in every way by having been in the ranks; and if I do not, I feel that this is a good time to finish, when one is extraordinarily happy in many friendships, and when the world lies before one as an attractive place, full of promise and interest. I would not like to finish my life feeling disappointed and cynical. So either eventuality will find me philosophical.

Your aff. brother, April 25, 1915.[4]


Before we get to the ongoing project of writing Rupert Brooke’s legacy, two bits from our poets not-yet-in-uniform. Edward Thomas has received word from Harold Monro about the (immediate) fate of his poetry. The letter is lost, but its content is clear.

Many thanks for saying it. I am sorry because I feel utterly sure they are me. I expect obstacles and  I get them. It was chiefly to save myself what I think unnecessary pain that I asked for no explanations. One blow was better. I assume the verses expressed nothing clearly that you care about, as that is the only ground for not liking written work, But don’t let us talk about it.[5]

So then let us defy the biographical fallacy and consider this the scene which sets the writing of today’s poem:


The rain and wind, the rain and wind, raved endlessly.
On me the Summer storm, and fever, and melancholy
Wrought magic, so that if I feared the solitude
Far more I feared all company: too sharp, too rude,
Had been the wisest or the dearest human voice.
What I desired I knew not, but whate’er my choice
Vain it must be, I knew. Yet naught did my despair
But sweeten the strange sweetness, while through the wild air
All day long I heard a distant cuckoo calling
And, soft as dulcimers, sounds of near water falling,
And, softer, and remote as if in history,
Rumours of what had touched my friends, my foes, or me.


John Ronald Tolkien‘s has happier news today, however, from his early readers. His friends have been passing around several of his recent compositions, including “Two Trees,” and “The Man in the Moon,” and today Christopher Wiseman wrote to him to praise the “gaudy” and “amazing” poems, which “burst on me like a bolt from the blue.”[6] College and separation had strained the fast boyhood bonds of the TCBS, and it’s no spoiler, really, to suggest that the war may break them apart–or “rend them asunder,” as the boys would surely prefer. But Tolkien, always confident and self-contained, has perhaps not yet moved beyond influence and approval–these are early efforts, but praise is never unwelcome.


Finally, today, Denis Browne sat down to write to Eddie Marsh. Marsh, as the private secretary to Churchill, has already learned of Brooke’s death, the news traveling–unusually–by wireless. But Browne thought it his duty to give Marsh, who so loved Brooke, an account of the “bare facts–” he repeats the word “facts” again and again, as if he is trying desperately to refuse the task of interpretation. We’ve read much of this letter already, up through the burial. But here is the beginning of the post-script on Rupert Brooke.

Off Gallipoli,
The Hood Battalion
Royal Naval Division
Sunday, 25 April [1915]

My dear Eddie,

I wonder how long after you hear the terrible news it will be before you get this. The tragedy was so sudden, so inexplicable, so hopeless; the loss so unspeakable…

We could not see the grave again as we sailed from Skyros the next morning at 6 (Sat. Ap. 23rd) [really the 24th].

These are some of the bare facts: forgive me for telling them so confusedly & badly. I have had so many interruptions—all day we have been waiting for orders to land on Gallipoli.

I thought you would care to have the facts as they happened.

What I can’t write about is the irreparable loss that his death is to all of us. That he was taken just the day before we began fighting is in some ways saddest of all. Yet if he had gone from us later we might never have been able to see to his burial. We felt that he would hate to be buried at sea: he actually said in chance talk some time ago that he would like to be buried in a Greek island.

And he lies now in the loveliest of them all in the most heavenly place it can show—he wouldn’t wish a better grave, nor, I think, a different burial. I could speak to you about his better than I can write. It is all so near, so impossible. One can’t realize that that spirit that knew and loved all the beautiful things of the world so strongly is cut off from them for ever.

He will not miss his immortality. I like to think he went when he had just given his best, when his powers were at their real zenith—& not before.

And yet—the awfulness of it goes on & the blank is there for us all–

W. D. B.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters from a Lost Generation, 86-7.
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 64-6.
  4. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 290-1.
  5. Hollis, Now All Roads, 223.
  6. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 69-70.
  7. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 686-7.

Edward Thomas Puts a Cat Among the Songbirds

Edward Thomas has been hard at work, holed up in Hampshire during these tense days on two fronts. As he told Robert Frost, he has been giving most of his time to the dreary Marlborough biography, but reserving the few best hours to his verse. Today he wrote A Cat, which can stand, perhaps, as a conclusion to a little sequence of recent poems.

Three days ago he wrote She Dotes–and upon what, pray tell, does she dote?

She dotes on what the wild birds say
Or hint or mock at, night and day,–
Thrush, blackbird, all that sing in May,
And songless plover,
Hawk, heron, owl, and woodpecker.

Nearly all the birds in Hampshire… The cuckoo shows up, too, in the third and final stanza–which, of course, darkens the mood of the poem considerably. Thomas is reveling in spring and in the birds he loves, but then he complicates things, twisting his protagonist from a sort of pastel Cinderella into a woman whose losses have left her paranoid, believing “blackbirds hide/ a secret, and that thrushes chide.”

The next day–the 22nd–we have birds and love and ambiguity again, as Thomas wrote another “Song.” There’s a cuckoo in this one, and the bird shows up a tearful poet, spoiling his tune and provoking giggles from the woman he is wooing.

A lot of lovely birds… and then today, a century back, the cat.

A Cat

She had a name among the children;
But no one loved though someone owned
Her, locked her out of doors at bedtime
And had her kittens duly drowned.

In Spring, nevertheless, this cat
Ate blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales,
And birds of bright voice and plume and flight,
As well as scraps from neighbours’ pails.

I loathed and hated her for this;
One speckle on a thrush’s breast
Was worth a million such; and yet
She lived long, till God gave her rest.

As Edna Longley notes, “Bird-murder is calculated to attract Thomas’s deepest ‘loathing’, yet he accords the cat ambiguous respect and even some compassion.” He loves the birds and hates the cat for her killing. But the last thought–the bit following “and yet”–seems hard to read as anything other than a grim alliance with nature–all of nature–against “Christian constructs.”[1]

Cats seem to torture and murder–to kill for pleasure or practice, that is, rather than in immediate hunger. And yet who knows what they feel, or how far (oh, not far!) our morality can be extended to the birds and beasts. As for men, and the beliefs they draw up in order to sanction cruelty and murder, well…

Thomas is good at seamlessly and troubling uniting two of the heart-matters of poetry: beauty, and the unwillingness to simplify or abbreviate the consolation that beauty might suggest.


References and Footnotes

  1. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 231.

The Deaths of Rupert Brooke and Robert Sterling


Robert W. Sterling

It’s St. George’s Day, today, and two of England’s young poets are no more. Rupert Brooke‘s slow demise from an infected mosquito bite has been well documented, here and elsewhere. His fame and his published poetry ensure, too, that the afterlife of his writing will be contentious, here and elsewhere…

But Robert W. Sterling is not famous. We’ve hardly begun to discuss him here, and his death, which came suddenly, will be the end.

I can’t even tell you much about the action in which Sterling was killed. Our prolific John Buchan wrote the History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, which doesn’t even include “Second Ypres” as one of the regiment’s more significant moments. Today, the First Battalion “was holding the line on a front from north-east of Zonnebeke to Polygon Wood,” in the eastern part of the salient and on the southern edge of the main German attack. We have a single sentence in a regimental history. It’s the sort of sentence that, through esprit de corps and fierce loyalty to tradition, rescues a life from the prosaic fate of being “only a footnote.” But little more.

Second Lieutenant R.W. Sterling, a young officer of notable promise, fell, after holding a length of trench all day with 15 men.[1] Sterling was twenty-one.

We will see a little of that promise in just a moment. But this is a first opportunity for me to discuss one of the major types of sources for this project. The century back conceit forbids discussing things that happened after today’s date–the future of a writer should be (as far as possible) his future for us, as it was for him. So I do not let on, other than in a truncated footnote, whether I am drawing on a post-war memoir, or, rather, on a posthumously assembled collection of writings by soldier who did not survive.

But today, a century back, Robert Sterling’s future was cut short–his life his over, and so the intervening century is, in a sense, no time at all. So we can move forward to the slim volume of poems that were put out in 1916 by an imprint of Oxford University Press. Sterling had been a scholar of Pembroke College, and his poem The Burial of Sophocles had won a prize, so the memorial volume may have been initiated by friends or officials at Oxford. (In many other cases, as we shall see, the writings of dead soldiers will be published, publicly or privately, by friends or grieving parents, in small acts of memory, of loyalty, of protest against untimely oblivion. These publications add much interesting material to the corpus of Great War writing.)

Much of this amateur writing–especially the verse–is very bad. Sterling’s is not. The little collection includes a number of childhood poems and school poems, but only a few “war” poems–two of which we have already seen.

I don’t want to minimize the sorrow and loss occasioned by the death of such a young, talented man, but surely it is the case that many of the war poets would. had they lived longer, either given up poetry or failed much to advance beyond young and floral pseudo-Victorianism. Nor should the rote–or just plain lousy–poems be dismissed entirely for lack of literary interest. They are still, like even the most self-centered of Vera Brittain‘s diary entries, “testaments” of youth. I just stumbled across a defense of this kind of writing in one of the first anthologies, so I’ll toss it in now:

Young poets are old-fashioned, like Nature herself; they have usually not yet acquired the professional desire to be in advance of the public. Nothing seems hackneyed to genius, and youth is perhaps half genius.[2]

Sentimental. But useful, too, I think–young writers trying to express themselves without anxiously struggling against the tradition should (or could, at the least) be read on their own terms… We’ll have to walk a fine line between the mushy embrace of weak writing by handsome young men who died young and over-aggressively attacking what is, in essence, a corps of cadets with the full arsenal of mature criticism.

But Sterling, in any case, left behind a very strange fragment of a very different sort of project. “Maran” is an early aesthetic foray–Oxford went to the expense of printing a fold-out, two-color facsimile of the manuscript, reproduced below–into pseudo-early-medieval epic. Inspired perhaps by the proto-fantasies of William Morris, it’s like nothing else I’ve read. Except for the fact that it’s a lot like some of the alliterative poetry that a certain other young Oxford man and soldier-to-be will one day write.

It’s an appealing new music, here, a tough and thumping rhythm. Which, apparently, requires lots of explanation (see below–but I’ll omit the actual metrical instruction). It’s not quite the minor revolution in prosody that a skilled, mature poet (I’m thinking of Housman, but I don’t know poetry well enough to be confident that this is a decent analogy) might pull off. And the subject matter–as Sterling admits in notes made to the fair copy before his death–is a little silly. There is a never-never land with medieval trappings, a cruel killer-king, and a maiden of blinding divine beauty, innocent and pure…

Well, take a look, if you wish. And that will be all from Robert Sterling. Somehow, seeing a little collection of school poems ending in this strange little labor of love drives home all the harder the point that a “promising” and “talented” young man has just been erased from the world, and will write nothing else. This could have been his “Lay of Leithian”–it could have been nothing much, but it could have led to so much more..

 Note by the Author

The fragment Maran is valuable, not for its theme or language (which are both in parts immature, uncertain, and
childish), but for its rhythm, which reveals a new music, and, properly handled, might afford a contribution to literature and the melody of the world.

The poem is an attempt to recover for the English tongue a lost heritage—that bequeathed by the old Saxon epicists…[3]


A strange poem, an interesting poem–a writer’s beginning, with no middle and no end.

This last bit, above, he called “The Round,” and–though it can be fatally easy to find portents in poetry–we can imagine Robert Sterling, too, writing his own epitaph:

Starlit and hushful
Wearily homeward:
Rest to the brow


And Rupert Brooke is dead. I’ll quote from the hurried, grief-stricken letter that Denis Browne will soon write to Eddie Marsh:


Rupert Brooke

…on Friday he was not conscious at all up to the very last & felt no pain whatever. At 2 o’clock the head surgeon told me he was sinking & I went off to the Franconia for the Chaplain for his mother’s sake. The chaplain (Failes by name) came back with me & saw him, but he was unconscious so after saying a few prayers he went away.

Oc had arrived at 2.30 & I brought Schlesinger from the Royal George. He confirmed the change & told me that it was simply a matter of hours. Oc then went off to see about preliminary arrangements and I sat with Rupert. At 4 o’clock he became weaker & at 4.46 he died.

We had orders to sail next morning at 6 for Gallipoli: and the French ship was off at the same moment for Asia Minor. So Oc & I had to decide at once what to do.

The cause of death was septicaemia, almost surely the result of the infected mosquito bite on his lip, with the sunstroke contributing only to the doctors’ failure to recognize the true source of his illness.

Later biographers have (of course) tossed in the suggestion that previous bouts of venereal disease may have weakened his immune system, but there is little evidence for this. It’s more accurate to say–especially if we are reaching out to tweak the biography of the last 19th century poet (he wasn’t really that–but won’t it become convenient to remember him that way?)–that he was generally sickly, his body not hale enough for the rigors of warfare in an unfamiliar climate. He was a doomed volunteer, done down by a mosquito’s kiss, only a few days from the guns of a major battle…

Always fortunate in his friends and favored by those on high, Brooke’s death and immediate burial were written–and written well–by those on the expedition. Sir Ian Hamilton hear the news and wrote his reaction, a very accurate sense of the way “meanings” would flock to the death from blood-poisoning of a volunteer sub-lieutenant.

War will smash, pulverize, sweep into the dustbin of eternity the whole fabric of the old world; therefore the firstborn of intellect must die. Is that the reading of the riddle?

Let’s pick up Denis Browne’s account:

We buried him the same evening in the olive grove I mentioned before—one of the loveliest places on this earth, with grey-green olives round him, one weeping above his head: the ground covered with flowering sage, bluish grey & smelling more delicious than any other flower I know. The path up to it from the sea is narrow & difficult and very stony: it runs by the bed of a dried-up torrent. He was carried up from the boat by his A Company petty officers, led by his platoon-sergeant Saunders: and it was with enormous difficulty that they got the coffin up the narrow way.

The journey of a mile took two hours. It was not till 11 that I saw them coming (I had gone up to choose the place & with Freyberg & Charles Lister I turned the sods of his grave: we had some of his platoon to dig). First came one of his men carrying a great white wooden cross with his name painted on it in black: then the firing party, commanded by Patrick; & then the coffin followed by our officers. General Paris, Saunders & one or two others of the Brigade Staff. The Commodore could not be there, nor was Maxwell.

Think of it all under a clouded moon, with the three mountains around & behind us, and those divine scents everywhere. We lined his grave with all the flowers we could find & Quilter set a wreath of olive on the coffin. The funeral service was very simply said by the Chaplain and after the Last Post the little lamp-lit procession went once again down the narrow path to the sea. Freyberg, Oc, I, Charles & Cleg stayed behind & covered the grave with great pieces of white marble which were lying everywhere about. Of the cross at his head you know: it was the large one that headed the procession. On the back of it our Greek interpreter, a man picked up by Oc at Lemnos, wrote, in pencil [in Greek]:

 Here lies the servant of God

Sub-Lieutenant in the English Navy

who died for the deliverance of Constantinople from the Turks.

It was quite spontaneous, and, don’t you think, apt. At his feet was a small wooden cross sent by his platoon.

Actually–and I am uncomfortably aware that I am playing spoiler as a group of brave young officers bury their beloved friend–only the middle line was apt. Brooke’s body–literally not yet cold at this point, a century back, for such was the rush to see him decently buried before the fleet moves on–is being appropriated.

Yes, he was an English officer, and his sonnets have claimed this ground on Skyros for England, movingly and prophetically. But religious reflex in extremis and actions “for his mother’s sake” have now claimed a doubter and quondam atheist for a crusade. Not only will Constantinople (or Istanbul, as its long inhabitants know it) not be “delivered,” but rather the whole Christian imperial tradition which Brooke seemed to embrace, if insouciantly, in his letters at the outset of the expedition, will collapse. Many evils resulted from the Great War, but this would not be high on the list…


Frederick Kelly also described the scene of the burial, and he takes a somewhat different tack from the interpretation that Browne offered to Marsh:

The herbs gave a strong classical tone, which was so in harmony with the poet we were burying that to some of us the Christian ceremony seemed out of keeping. One was transported back a couple of thousand years, and one felt the old Greek divinities stirring from their long sleep.

I have had a foreboding that he is one of those, like Keats, Shelly and Schubert, who are not suffered to deliver their full message… No more fitting resting place for a poet could be found that this small grove, and it seems that the gods had jealously snatched him away to enrich this scented island…

When at last the five of us [including Lister and Freyberg], his friends, had covered his grave with stones and took a last look in silence–then the sense of tragedy gave place to a sense of passionless beauty…[4]

This, I think, is a rendition that Brooke would have approved of–it’s very much, in fact, what he insists that he has been writing toward.

Of the six friends–the five officers who had made the small cairn on his grave while the sixth (Asquith) brought the burial party back on board–only two would survive the war. I doubt that any of the others were buried by close friends. Or in a beautiful, inconvenient place. Or that England had the time to mourn them much, as individuals.


References and Footnotes

  1. Buchan, The History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, 318; Powell, A Deep Cry, 5.
  2. T. Sturge Moor, Some Soldier Poets, 7.
  3. Poems of Robert W. Sterling, 53.
  4. Jones, Rupert Brooke, 420-6; Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 508-13.

Billy Congreve on the Attack, and Defense; Second Ypres Begins–the First Use of Gas; Rupert Brooke is Ailing Again

Billy Congreve, our man on the (divisional) staff, gives us a short-term post-mortem on the fight for Hill 60.

22nd April

A long dull day. Hill 60 is fairly quiet again now, but it is an awful shambles up there. All these exploding mines and the terrible quantity of crumps have brought to light many things that were better buried, especially large quantities of very old Frenchman. These added to our own and German dead, make things very bad…

But this small, costly British victory is about to be overshadowed.

At 7 p.m. I went again to Armentières and, on arriving back, I head the bad news that the noise we heard at 5 p.m. was the forerunner of a very heavy attack by the Germans on the junction of the Canadian division and the French. We have little news of it as yet, except that the Germans used poison gases (as we were warned they were going to) and drove back our extreme left and the French right a longish way…[1]


Several of our regulars (in both senses) will be involved in this attack, and if we pick up John Buchan’s account of Francis Grenfell‘s return, yesterday, we find that he moved immediately toward the new fighting.

Next evening orders suddenly came to saddle up and support the French north-east of Ypres. In the April twilight a strange green vapour had appeared, moving over the French trenches. It was the first German gas attack, and with it the Second Battle of Ypres began.[2]

Note the difference here between the matter-of-fact young staff officer–yes, we’d heard they might do this–and Buchan’s deployment of a rather cheap literary effect. But this was a significant “first.” Poison gas was against the rules, even then, and, like any fiendish innovation, it invited retaliation both heavy and self-righteous. Not only could a new charge of frightfulness be laid upon the Germans (American public opinion will shortly become a decisive new front in the war) but the British could respond more effectively with their own gas: the prevailing winds in northern France were westerly.[3]


img010The special cruelty of gas is something that we could debate later on–is it worse to suffocate than to be torn apart by bullets or shells?–but for the moment, at least, the new weapon terrified, and terror is usually as effective as actual killing. A number of French colonial regiments broke and retreated, and the general sense was that only a stand by a handful of Canadian units prevented the collapse of the northern half of the salient.

One of the battalions which would bear the brunt of the continuing German assault was the 9th Royal Scots. We have already met W.S. Lyon, and today we make the acquaintance of another subaltern of this same battalion, Lieutenant John Brown.

Brown, another Balliol man and aspiring poet, enlisted in September and arrived in the salient  in February. Like T.E. Hulme, he seems to have compromised with the rule against diary-keeping by writing lengthy and detailed letters home.

On the afternoon of the 22nd April some of us were in Vlamertinghe [due west of Ypres, just off the map at right] shopping, buying wine, tins of fruit, and some chops… We had just come back when suddenly a terrific bombardment began. There is nothing more depressing than the boom of a bombardment when you are waiting to go into it. We stood to…

We knew we were in for something and abandoned most of our parcels in the dark huts, for all lights were put out. We took the railway. All along it we met old women with bundles flying from Ypres. In front was the glare of the burning city and the thunder of the guns. Then we came on to the main road…

There were some cavalry beside us who called out to us: ‘Give them hell’. We wondered vaguely how we would do it…

Later on, the battalion came under artillery and machine gun fire in the village of St. Julien, which can be seen in the north-center of the map above (the shading rather gives away the future of the battle).

We lay there for some time. We could stretch out our hands, and pick up spent shrapnels. We will always remember two sights. One was a signaller coming crouching along like a shot rabbit, the other the figure of a Lieutenant swanking along as if here were in Princes Street…

We lined a hedge, and were ordered to dig ourselves in. Some of us managed to get some biscuits from a tin lying behind the hedge. Others cleaned their rifle bolts. In about five minutes we were ordered to put up our tools, and file around the hedge. As soon as we got round we began to advance at the double in open order. Bullets seemed to cover all the ground by our feet. We advanced by short rushes. For the first part of a rush one feels very brave and happy, for the last, dead tired. We did not fire a shot…[4]

In the confusion–and with continual British reinforcements moving up–the German advance slowed and then halted. In some places the German infantry were held up by their own gas cloud.

If the pattern already established at Neuve Chapelle and Hill 60 holds–if, that is, initial gains could not be exploited as the defenders regrouped and the attackers struggled to bring up guns and reinforcements through the broken ground of the old front line–then the salient will be saved.


And far away in the Aegean, Rupert Brooke‘s condition worsened today, a century back. Several doctors were brought in for consultations, and they realized now that the sore on his lip was a mosquito bite that had become infected. And the infection was spreading. Oc Asquith and Denis Browne accompanied a comatose Brooke to a French hospital ship, where he became the lone patient. Asquith–a naval lieutenant, but the son of a Prime Minister and the friend, now, of a “genius” poet–radioed the Admiralty, seeking instructions.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Congreve, Armageddon Road, 126-7.
  2. John Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 227.
  3. Falls, The Great War, 112.
  4. Powell, A Deep Cry, 365-6.
  5. Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 508.

Two Grenfells Return to Duty; Francis Ledwidge Has a New Squeeze; Vera Brittain and the Feeling of Unreality

Julian Grenfell left Paris today–leaving a note from Peggy unanswered.

Petit Ami,… Quand partez vous? Dites le moi, et si vous le voulez on pourrait diner ce soir ensemble. Bons Baiser…

[Boyfriend… when are you leaving? Tell me, and, if you want to, we could have dinner together this evening. Kisses…]

Turning his back on the (de)lights of Paris and returning to respectability, Julian visited his sister Monica, now working as a nurse in Wimereux, and then rejoined his regiment.[1]


As did his cousin Francis, now healed of his wounds.

Francis rejoined his regiment on Wednesday 21st April. He found the 9th Lancers in billets at Meteren where they had been training on and off for several months. “I must say,” he wrote, “I am mighty glad to get back here, for this life is made for me… I finds pals everywhere. I somehow never seem to go anywhere out here without finding friends.”[2]


Meanwhile another Francis, Francis Ledwidge, was preparing to depart. It is not so many months since his true love, Ellie Vaughey, had rejected him to marry another. But now Ledwidge is writing–amorously and melodramatically–to Lizzie Healy, the 20-year-old sister of a friend. There have been several letters, but the one dated today bears significant news, as well as bold propositions:

We are off to the war at the end of this week. Our King and Country need us at last. We leave here about Saturday, or Sunday morning, for Reading, England. The Tenth Division mobilizes there, thence we proceed to some part of the great battlefield.

It is for you I will fight as you are all I have, or ever will have, worth fighting for. When I come back I will claim you. I may not be long away as immediately the war is over I will be free again.[3]

Fulsome! But a bit fast and loose…


I realize that cramming in yet another bit of Vera Brittain‘s writing on busy days may exhaust even the most tireless reader, but I have a weakness for these sorts of pronouncements… life is like a novel? Do tell!

Plus, Vera’s habit of distilling the day’s war news into a line or two is a good way of maintaining our vague sense of the general progress of the war.

Wednesday April 21st

Sometimes I can hardly believe I am I. I feel as if I were writing a novel about someone else, & not myself at all, so mighty are the things happening just now. If, that summer just after I came out & things seemed as though they would always be stagnant & dull, someone had to me “Before three years are over you will not only have fallen deeply in love with someone, but that very person will be fighting on the battlefields of France in the greatest war ever known to man. And your anguish of anxiety on his account will be greater than  anything you have dreamed possible.” I should not have believed it could really ever happen. To-night–not only when I heard from Roland but before–I have been full of a queer excitement–almost exultation. There has been no apparent reason for it, so I very much wonder why.

Apparently the hill we have taken near Ypres is a real advantage to us, our losses are reported to be heavy. That means terrible long casualty lists within the next few days.[4]


Finally, notes on the progress of two of our central “characters.”

Henry Williamson–headstrong boy, fearful soldier, and newly commissioned officer–opened an officer’s bank account today, a century back, transferring his own funds out from under parental control for the first time.[5]


And Rupert Brooke is not doing well. He has more or less recovered from the “sunstroke,” but a sore on his lip had never entirely cleared up. Today it swelled considerably and Brooke took to his bed. By evening he had a temperature of 103.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 254.
  2. John Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 227.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 103-4.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 181.
  5. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson, 63.
  6. Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 506-7.