George Coppard Embarks; Francis Ledwidge Woos; Morgan Crofton Goes for a Ride

George Coppard of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment is finally bound for the front. His battalion forms part of the 37th Brigade, 12th (Eastern) Division–one of the new units primarily composed of the volunteers of Kitchener’s Army.

Came 31 May 1915 and the battalion went on the binge, as it was our last night in Aldershot. The next day we left for Folkestone. A packet-boat called the Invicta sneaked out of the harbour at 9.45 am with the battalion on board, destination Boulogne.[1]

 

The war is changing. The New Army’s strength is rising and new writers with little or no connection to the world of our “fallen” aristocratic officers are heading for the trenches. These are the writers who will carry us forward through this year and into the next, and on through the war.

The wait is over as well for Charles Sorley, another member of the 12th Division. He landed in Boulogne yesterday, and will write his first letters tomorrow.

Francis Ledwidge‘s battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers are not as far along–but they are moving. Not, perhaps, as swiftly as Ledwidge. Although he had recently lost his great love, Ellie Vaughey, has found another young woman to write to. He’ll be off to war soon–it’s good to have a girl waiting behind, no?

[postmark] 31 May 1915

My dear own Lizzie,

It is too bad that I have been so long in answering your welcome letter, but since we came here we have been in a state of great unrest, one day here and three somewhere else, as Paddy can tell you. Basingstoke is a beautiful place in the middle of Hampshire. It is a town not as big as Drogheda but better populated. The country around is beautiful. I have even come across a bog of several acres, on which turf never was cut, full of heather and little pools, white at the bottom with shells. We had dinner there on Whit Monday and Lizzie, as true as God I left my dinner and with a couple of bars of chocolate went into a little copse to dream of the bog far away.

You are beautiful, Lizzie, and I must win you for I am lonely without you and always thinking of you in the land of good hearts. God bless and keep you until I return. I never will forget the night myself and Paddy spent in Wilkinstown. I thought then I would be home by now but I seem to be as far away from returning as when I first joined the colours.

We expect to be going away soon and are glad as we are tired of the monotony of camp. The weather is frightfully
warm here for a month now. Remember me to all. I am sure the bog is lovely now, how I wish I were, there! There’s the bugle.

He writes lovely light-ish verse too, wouldn’t you know. This letter seems to me like pointed flirtation rather than a true outpouring of a soldier’s heart, but I don’t yet know Ledwidge all that well, so I will let his biographer rule on this:

Was anyone ever so ingenuous, or so foolishly hopeful? …When he joined, he expected a commission and
clerical work only; he looked on the army as an avenue to adequately paid work when the war was over; he was completely deceived by the current propaganda that ‘the Germans will be finished off in a few months’. How wide of the mark were his confident forecasts… He lives in a world of happy illusion. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the poet did not even read the daily papers…[2]

Ah, who needs to the daily papers. He’s bound for where he’s bound for, and he’ll go when they send him. And his first book of poems, which we’ll discuss here tomorrow, is finally moving toward the press…

 

So the rough young volunteers are coming. But how are those aristocratic Regulars–you know, the horsey fellows who have held the line these last three seasons–getting on? Morgan Crofton informs us:

Monday May 31

A splendid day. What a pleasure to wake up in my nice room, after the bleak schoolrooms and draughty barns in which I have spent so many months. Menzies arrived back last night from England after his 3 days’ leave, bringing with him some news and my telegraphic instrument, on which I wanted to train some more signallers…  Menzies said that he had heard on very good authority, that the total number of men that the British Empire has under arms in England and on the Continent is now over 3,800,000. He seemed to think that the authorities in England were against conscription because of the difficulty of equipping and feeding more men at the Front.

Renescure_-_Église_Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption_-_2

Notre-Dame de L’Assomption, Renescure

We had news from the trenches this morning. They got in all right without any casualties, and were situated near the Hooge Chateau. We sent a ham, some eggs and letters and papers up to them today by a motor cyclist. We haven’t heard for certain when they return.

That sounds serious. What should the officers in reserve do?

Went for a ride in the afternoon to Renescure…  Renescure has the quaintest old church dating from about 1570, which now looks most picturesque in its setting of lilac and laburnum, with very green grass and millions of buttercups.

IMG_8866

The Chateau, Renescure

Close by is the chateau where General Briggs lives. Its main features are two unique turrets and a fine and very old sundial on the front of the house. The village square backed by the church tower is extremely pretty and old world…

A prettier little village would be hard to find anywhere.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 15-6.
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 110-11.
  3. Massacre of the Innocents, 258-9.

The Afterlives of Julian Grenfell II: Henry James Weighs In; Henry Farnsworth Goes Twice into No Man’s Land; Lord Desborough Replies to Kipling; Rowland Feilding on Patrols and Plover’s Eggs; Vera Brittain Entertains the Wounded, and Struggles

More reactions, today, to the death of Julian Grenfell. Many knew him as a bright and fairly unconventional young man, but thought of him primarily as the son of remarkable parents: Ettie Desborough, dominant spirit of the “Souls,” and her husband Willy Grenfell, Lord Desborough, the athlete, politician, Late Victorian culture hero and social fixture. With the publication of “Into Battle” this is beginning to change.

No less a literary light than Henry James wrote today, a century back, of

those extraordinarily living and breathing, ringing and stinging, verses… I seem almost to have known your splendid son even though that ravaged felicity hadn’t come my way… What great and terrible and unspeakable things! but out of which, round his sublime young image, a noble and exquisite legend will flower.[1]

And Lord Desborough has begun returning his letters of condolence. He had written two days ago to Lord Kitchener, who had inquired repeatedly after Grenfell, one of the millions of young men in his stewardship as Secretary of State for War, with the news of Julian’s death. Desborough had mentioned then too that “there was some particular bit of work he was very pleased about, but I never heard what it was.”

This, I thought at first, was a reference to “Into Battle”–but that was probably because I misread “Kitchener” for “Kipling.” But I realize now that it is a reference to a military action. Perhaps the bereaved father is hoping that the great war minister can crown the glory of Julian’s death with another decoration? Today’s letter makes that fairly clear:

My dear K

You cannot think how grateful Ettie and I are to you for your letter, it takes away one’s sorrow.

You were so fond of Julian that you will be pleased to read what Billy’s Colonel Maclachlan wrote to him.

‘Julian has set an example of light hearted courage which is famous all through the Army in France, and has stood out even among the most lion-hearted’.

There was a piece of work he did the last day which pleased him very much, some observation he took under a heavy fire which he thought turned the situation, but were were told not to let him talk about the war so we shall never really know….

All that can be done now is to see that Julian and his like shall not have laid down their lives in vain: each in the way that is open to him,

Your ever Willy[2]

 

Next we check in with Henry Farnsworth, one of our two Americans in the French Foreign Legion:

May 30, 1915

Dear Papa:

Your funds and those of Aunt Alice arrived at the same time and were both more than welcome, I being entirely out and Sukuna having lost his last 80 francs a week before. You can hardly imagine the joys of cooking eggs and fresh vegetables…

I am writing in cantonnement, having arrived last night from six days in the trenches. This time it was for our section a very peaceful session. Most of the time there was not even the crack of a rifle to break that peculiar brooding silence that pervades the inactive portions of the front…

Here we have adequate shelters and shells are negligible quantities. Sukuna and I are now recognized patrolmen, and go out whenever it is the turn of our section. We made two this last few days, one a cumbersome affair of fifteen men, with the intention of capturing any Germans that might be prowling about in front of the lines. The other, seven of us, including two corporals and a sergeant. It was to carry French newspapers into the German lines. We could not get through the barbed wire, there being an incredibly bright moon, so we stuck them on a stick on their barbed wire. Although plainly visible from our own lines, the Germans have ignored them…

Farnsworth now writes to his sister, to whom he is generally more forthcoming, especially about any thing that Papa might look upon as less than heroic, dishonorable, or, simply, as a dumb move. He also has confided in her his ambition to write a novel. In this second description of the patrols he certainly shows a novelist’s ability to manage a narrative

May 30, 1915 Dear Ellen:

We arrived last night from the trenches—I… succeeded in persuading the doctor that I needed a day of rest. Hence, while others are cursing…  I write in peace; also I have gotten a sheaf of straw and am very comfy.

This throws a glimpse into the side of military life not much advertised at present. A species of low and self-contained cunning is a thing one learns from association with old Legionnaires. The strange thing is that nobody thinks any the worse of you for these self-given holidays. It goes without saying that in the trenches one does one’s work without a murmur and well, and thus stands in with corporals and sergeants. For the trench loafers the trick is not so easily turned.

Of the last six days in the lines, rien a signaler [nothing to report] except two patrols, which lacked nothing but the Germans to make them successful. Between the lines is a broad fertile field of beet sugar and clover. It grows high enough to hide a man crawling on his stomach, and in spots, even on all fours. It is here that the patrols take place. The first was an attempted ambuscade…  The next night seven of us were detailed to carry French papers, telling of Italy’s declaration of war, into the German lines. We crawled from 9 o’clock till 11:30, and succeeded in sticking papers on their barbed wire. They have since then steadily ignored them, much to our disgust.

There is a certain fascination in all this, dull though it may seem. The patrol is selected in the afternoon. At sunset we meet to make the plans and tell each man his duty; then at dark our pockets are filled with cartridges, a drawn bayonet in the belt, and our magazines loaded to the brim… All along the line the sentinels wish us good luck and a safe return. In the petit poste we clamp on the bayonets, blow noses, clear throats, and prepare for three hours of utter silence. At a word from the chief we form line in the prearranged order. The sentries wish us luck for the last time, and the chief jumps up on the edge of the trenches and begins to work his way quickly through the barbed wire. Once outside he disappears in the beet weeds and one after another we follow. Then begins the crawl to the appointed spot. We go slowly, with frequent halts. Every sound must be analyzed. On the occasion of the would-be ambush, I admit I went to sleep after a while in the warm fresh clover where we lay. It was the Adjutant himself who woke me up with a slight hiss, but as he chose me again next night, he does not seem to have thought it a serious matter. Then, too, once home we do not mount guard all the rest of the night, and are allowed to sleep in the morning; also there are small, but pleasing discussions of the affair, and above all the hope of some night suddenly leaping out of the darkness hand to hand with the Germans.

It’s time now that I began cooking Sukuna’s and my midday meal of eggs, so good-bye, my dear, and love to all.

Henry[3]

 

Rowland Feilding writes home today, a century back, with a brief “all in a night’s work” vignette. It’s a very similar story to Farnsworth’s–and yet both more bloody and less vividly told:

May 30, 1915, Support Trench, Le Rutoire.

Out in Noman’s Land, close to the German line, grows a tree, which, though small and insignificant considered as such, is the only object in the broad and desolate and otherwise treeless space intervening here between the German trenches and our own. This tree, therefore, has achieved a notoriety which it most certainly would never have done otherwise. It is known as the “Lone Tree” and, I daresay, is as famous among the Germans as among our troops. Last night a patrol of No. 1 Company, which was engaged in examining the enemy’s wire, bumped suddenly into a hostile advanced post near it, and lost two killed, while a third man was wounded, but was got away.

To-day was very quiet. I lunched at Battalion Headquarters in in the cellar under the ruins of Le Rutoire farm, and ate plovers’ eggs from home.[4]

I have a correction to make, by the way, after more studious attention to Burke’s Peerage. Rowland Feilding is not a second cousin to Dorothie and Rudolph/Rollo/Tubby, but of the previous generation (though slightly older), so a first cousin once removed.

 

Vera Brittain is busily engaged with end-of-term events at Oxford. But these have changed. This term, the buildings of her college, Somerville, had been given over to convalescent officers. Two days ago she took part in a program of entertainment for them. She wrote about this in her diary and, as so often, then reworked some of the same phrases in a letter to Roland Leighton.

It all seemed so terribly wrong–to see these fine well built men crippled & invalided, their strong capable bodies rendered, temporarily, at least, useless, all for the sake of no one quite knows what…

To Roland she wrote today, a century back:

I went with a few other Somerville people to give an entertainment to the wounded soldiers at Somerville… it was a mixture of singing, dancing, & more or less elementary acting. I had some of the singing to do. The majority of the wounded at Somerville are not very bad cases, most of them were able to sit in the garden, where we gave the entertainment, and those not quire so well sat in the windows or the rooms all round. But of course most of them were cripples & bandaged in various ways, and I don’t know when anything has made me so sad as the combination of the music, the lovely garden on a glorious afternoon, and these fine specimens of humanity with their once strong bodies broken & helpless. One feels at such times that no cause is great enough to excuse the wrong that made them like that…[5]

Vera then veered away from the subject–she mentions conscription, actually, asking Roland’s opinion of the dramatic measure that is only beginning to be seriously considered. So the letter turns to contemplate those safe young men, and avoids pushing too far these dark thoughts of what happens to those already in khaki. And yet: in the diary she had gone just a little bit further toward despair, and–despite their pact of total honesty–she held back a little on the exact nature of her agony:

The worst of it was that, as officers & even Tommies at a distance give something of the same impression, every soldier I saw reminded me of one. As I stood watching them & observing their different injuries, I could imagine him with a wrecked & broken body struggling to walk with the help of a padded stick…

They all looked quite cheerful, especially those in the windows round, but I was thinking of all who never come back, whose crushed & broken bodies lie lifeless on the fields of Flanders, past all the loving redemption which is given to these & such as these at Somerville.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, His Life and the Times of his Death, 1888-1915, 266-7.
  2. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 312-3.
  3. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 151-6.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 17-18.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 114.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 202-3.

C. E. Montague on the Beauty of Innocence, the Brim of Confidence, and the Glorious Camp Life of the New Armies; Kipling and Lister Write of Julian Grenfell; Morgan Crofton Stays at Peace

may 29 desborough diary

Lady Desborough’s Diary. Julian’s dying exclamation “Phoebus Apollo!” is at left. Today records a visit from Billy, training nearby with his battalion, and the lower right space is filled with a quotation from Hamlet, ending “the readiness is all.”

Rudyard Kipling, also father of a boy in uniform in France, wrote to Lord Desborough, Julian Grenfell‘s father, today, a century back:

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex / May 29, 1915

My dear Desborough
We saw the news yesterday–side by side with the poem that rounded out that splendid young life. No words can mean anything to you now, nor even the knowledge that we all lie under the shadow of a similar loss sooner or later: but we both send our love and our sorrow and our  sympathy to you two.

Ever most sincerely,

Rudyard Kipling

 

Charles Lister, wounded at Gallipoli and recovering on Malta, wrote to his father today, a century back. We’ve seen Lister as a companion of Rupert Brooke, but he had known Julian Grenfell longer–since Eton. It will take him another five days to find the words to write to Lady Desborough.

Blue Sisters Convent

May 29, 1915.

God! how sad it is about Julian. It’s the bitterest blow I have had since this war and am likely to have.

You must not make reservation about the “ultimately satisfactory issue.” [i.e. of the war.” I’d sooner spend my life in trenches than have any other issue…[1]

 

We’ll be hearing a bit from Morgan Crofton in the coming days, before the sweeping changes overtake him as well. So a brief status check today: and we find him once again exempted from the worst duty, although it seems that in his over-officered regiment he is hardly alone.

Saturday May 29

Another glorious day. It was lovely waking up in my nice room, and looking out of the windows across the park. The War seems miles away. For the first time for seven months I hardly hear any cannonading going on. What a relief. It is quite like staying in a nice country house at home. One feels one ought to get into tennis shoes and flannels instead of this shabby and dirty khaki.

Torrie gave me orders to stay behind and look after the horses while the Regiment was in the trenches. Only 3 Officers per squadron were to go up, and Gurney and l and about 10 others are to stay herd…

But at breakfast today, orders came that we were to relieve the 3rd Hussars in the front line trenches near Hooge, to the E of Ypres. We shall be anxious about them while they are up there, and anxiously watch the wind to see if it is favourable for gas.[2]

 

I’ve been making a big deal lately about how the end of May, 1915 seems to be a transition zone, a sort of geological boundary layer between the early days of the war–high hopes, aggressive tactics and more aggressive verse, the death of so many dashing aristocratic officers of the dashing but over-matched old Regular army–and the grim war of mass attrition (and strangely wonderful writing) that is to come.

Now, the very best book written about the collective experience of the war (i.e. one that takes a broader view than a typical memoir) by one of its participants is surely C.E. Montague‘s Disenchantment.[3] And there’s the spoiler right in the title. It’s a smart, precise, angry book,and one which dwells on the disasters and disappointments of the later phases of the war.

But bitter experience must be preceded by innocence, and old man Montague summons in the early pages of his masterwork a beautiful vision of the enchanted camp days of the volunteers. This is the essence of the early-war experience of the volunteers, the great days of fellowship before they went out to the horrors–and, well, yes, the disenchantments–of the trenches.

Last spring was England’s Last Spring. And so is this one.

Forgive me if I quote Montague at some length:

The mental peace, the physical joy, the divinely simplified sense of having one clear aim, the remoteness from all the rest of the world, all favoured a tropical growth of illusion. A man, says Tennyson, “imputes himself.” If he be decent he readily thinks other people are decent. Here were hundreds of thousands of quite commonplace persons
rendered, by comradeship in an enthusiasm, self-denying, cheerful, unexacting, sanely exalted, substantially good. To get the more fit to be quickly used men would give up even the little darling vices which are nearest to many simple hearts. Men who had entertained an almost reasoned passion for whisky, men who in civil life had messed up careers for it and left all and followed it, would cut off their whisky lest it should spoil their marching. Little white, prim clerks from Putney—men whose souls were saturated with the consciousness of class—would abdicate freely and wholeheartedly their sense of the wide, unplumbed, estranging seas that ought to roar between themselves and Covent Garden market porters. Many men who had never been dangerous rivals to St. Anthony kept an unwonted hold on themselves during the months when hundreds of reputable women and girls round every camp seemed to have been suddenly smitten with a Bacchantic frenzy. Real, constitutional lazy fellows would buy little cram-books of drill out of their pay and sweat them up at night…

Men warned for a guard next day would agree among themselves to get up an hour before the pre-dawn winter Reveille to practise among themselves the beautiful symbolic ritual of mounting guard in the hope of approaching the far-off, longed-for ideal of smartness, the passport to France… How could they not have the illusion that the whole nation’s sense of comradeship went as far as their own?

Who of all those who were in camp at that time, and still are alive, will not remember until he dies the second boyhood that he had in the late frosts and then in the swiftly filling and bursting spring and early summer of 1915?

The awakening birdnotes of Reveille at dawn, the two-mile run through auroral mists breaking over a still inviolate England…  the long, intent morning parades under the gummy shine of chestnut buds in the deepening meadows; the peace of the tranquil hours on guard at some sequestered post, alone with the Sylvester midnight, the wheeling stars and the quiet breathing of the earth in its sleep…  and then jocund days of marching and digging trenches in the sun; the silly little songs on the road that seemed, then, to have tunes most human, pretty, and jolly…

When you think of the youth that you have lost, the times when it seems to you now that life was most poignantly good may not be the ones when everything seemed at the time to go well with your plans, and the world, as they say, to be at your feet; rather some few unaccountable moments when nothing took place that was out of the way and yet some word of a friend’s, or a look on the face of the sky, the taste of a glass of spring water, the plash of laughter and oars heard across midsummer meadows at night raised the soul of enjoyment within you to strangely higher powers of itself. That spirit bloweth and is still: it will not rise for our whistling nor keep a time-table…  for a moment some intervening darkness had thinned and we were seeing further than we can see now into the heart of life.

Montague, who famously dyed his hair upon enlistment and was now a happily vigorous non-commissioned officer, generally combines historical commentary with memoir. The reverie gets personal, now:

To one recollection at least it has seemed that the New Army’s spring-tide of faith and joyous illusion came to its height on a night late in the most beautiful May of 1915, in a hut where thirty men slept near a forest in Essex. Nothing particular happened; the night was like others. Yet in the times that came after, when half of the thirty were dead and most of the others jaded and soured, the feel of that night would come back with the strange distinctness of those picked, remembered mornings and evenings of boyhood when everything that there was became everlastingly memorable as though it had been the morning or evening of the first day. Ten o’clock came and Lights Out, but a kind of luminous bloom still on the air and a bugle blowing Last Post in some far-away camp that kept worse hours than we…

I’m not sure if this particular passage is particularly celebrated, but it oughta be. It strikes me now that this is like a prose “Adlestrop.”[4] “No one left and no one came–” “Nothing particular happened. And now the blackbird and the bugle:

I believe the whole hut held its breath to hear the notes better. Who wouldn’t, to listen to that most lovely and melancholy of calls, the noble death of each day’s life, a sound moving about hither and thither, like a veiled figure…

Poetry compresses, of course, and Edward Thomas made the brilliant decision to include the station’s name–only the name–thus hitting early upon the ways in which conventional lyric (and, indeed, most literary forms) will fail to describe the war and be forced to fall back upon “the concrete names of villages.”

But Montague is doing something different. Remember that he has already mentioned how strong the memories of these halcyon days must be–for those still living. Many are not, and Montague has written neither a lyric poem–individual and universal–nor a solipsistic memoir, but a moment of collective memoir, tinged with elegy. A whole platoon remembers, and with them the readers.

…among the dim thoughts that we have about death the approaching extinguisher—resignation and sadness and unfulfilment and triumph all coming back to the overbearing sense of extinction in those two recurrent notes of “Lights Out”? One listens as if with bowed mind, as though saying “Yes; out, out, brief candle.”

A moment’s silence to let it sink in and the chaffing and laughter broke out like a splash of cool water in summer again. That hut always went to bed laughing and chaffing all round…

That is where I should break off, if prose and memory were our only subject here. But history. But irony:

…It made life seem too wonderful to end; such were the untold reserves that we had in this nation of men with a hold on themselves, of hardly uprightness…  What, then, must be the unused stores of greedless and fearless straightness in others above us, generals and statesmen, men in whom, as in bank-porters, character is three parts of the trade! The world seemed clean that night; such a lovely unreason of optimist faith was astir in us all, We felt for that time ravish ‘d above earth And possess’d joys not promised at our birth.

It seemed hardly credible now, in this soured and quarrelsome country and time, that so many men of different classes and kinds, thrown together at random, should ever have been so simply and happily friendly, trustful, and keen. But they were, and they imagined that all their betters were too. That was the paradise that the bottom fell out of.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Recollections, 185-6.
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 255-6.
  3. I do loathe the misuse of superlatives--I am carving out space for Disenchantment here while remaining able both to declare The Great War and Modern Memory to be the best book about the war, hands down (non-participant writer!), and also to lavish a spread of superlatives on one or another of the self-centered traditional memoirs...
  4. Find the poem here--but 'ware spoilers in the comments.
  5. Disenchantment, 7-14.

Robert Graves on Sausages, Lechery, and Bricks; Reactions to Julian Grenfell’s Death; Tolkien is Still a Scholar; Morgan Crofton Outs the Idiocy of Francis Grenfell’s Comrades

Robert Graves introduces us today to one of the landmarks of the British sector, and–drawing on his re-purposed novel of trench life–he provides us with a chatty-but-useful sketch of the ways, wherefores, and weapons of static trench warfare.

brickstacks

Not a Western Mesa, but the Cuinchy Brick-Stacks

May 28th.  In trenches among the Cuinchy brick-stacks. Not my idea of trenches. There has been a lot of fighting hereabouts. The trenches have made themselves rather than been made, and run inconsequently in and out of the big thirty-foot-high stacks of bricks; it is most confusing. The parapet of a trench which we don’t occupy is built up with ammunition-boxes and corpses. Everything here is wet and smelly. The Germans are very close: they have half the brick-stacks, we have the other half. Each side snipes down from the top of its brick-stacks into the other’s trenches. This is also a great place for German rifle-grenades and trench mortars. We can’t reply properly; we have only a meagre supply of rifle-grenades and nothing to equal the German sausage mortar-bomb.

Nothing to be suspicious of here–this is a modest general sketch of what the Cuinchy trenches were like at this time. Although one hopes that we hear so often of corpse-incorporated parapets because the few such instances were so memorably appalling rather than because the practice was so common. But now Graves gets specific about the whens and wheres, and he goes straight to that favorite trope of the new soldier–the near-miss.

This morning about breakfast time, just as I came out of my dug-out, a rifle-grenade landed within six feet of me. For some reason, instead of falling on its head and exploding, it landed with its stick in the wet clay and stood there looking at me… I can’t understand why this particular rifle-grenade fell as it did. the chances were impossibly against it.

‘Sausages’ are easy to see and dodge, but they make a terrible noise when they drop. We have had about ten casualties in our company today from them. I find that my reactions to danger are extraordinarily quick; but everyone gets like that. We can sort out all the different explosions and disregard whichever don’t concern us…

Last night a lot of German stuff was flying about, including shrapnel. I heard one shell whish-whishing toward me and dropped flat. It burst just over the trench where ‘Petticoat Lane’ runs into ‘Lowndes Square’. My ears sang as though there were gnats in them, and a bright scarlet light shone over everything . My shoulder got twisted in falling and I thought I had been hit, but I hadn’t been. The vibration made my chest sing, too,in a curious way, and I lost my sense of equilibrium. I was ashamed when the sergeant-major came along the trench and found me on all fours, still unable to stand up straight.

Graves next returns to the comic description of his platoon of Welsh miners which had occupied much of a previous chapter. After relating instances of their easy black humour around corpses–a useful carryover from their former jobs–he explains their moral code:

It’s moral, for instance, to rob anyone of anything, except a man in their own platoon. They treat every stranger as an enemy until he proves himself their friend, and the there’s nothing they won’t do for him. They are lecherous, the young ones at least, but without the false shame of the English lecher. I had a letter to censor the other day, written by a lance-corporal to his wife. He said that the French girls were nice to sleep with, so she mustn’t worry on his account, but that he far preferred sleeping with her and missed he a great deal.[1]

 

The reactions to the death of Julian Grenfell continue. Raymond Asquith learned the news a day after his father:

It is simply bloody about Julian. I quite thought that his strength and pugnacity would pull him through.[2]

 

And Ivo Grenfell, Julian and Billy’s younger brother, wrote to their sister Monica:

Darlingest Casie

Juju is in peace and happy for evermore, and no one could have died so bravely… The world will never be quite the same again, but God does everything for the best… Juju has so nobly done his duty, and has died as I am sure he wished to die, fighting for his country… we must all try and be like Juju. He has triumphed over all, and he would never wish us to feel sad but rather what a glorious thing death is…

Ivo is sixteen, so he will have to wait some time for his chance to be like his brothers.[3]

 

Morgan Crofton is nearing the end of his tether. And soon, too, he will be left once again holding the tethers of the tether-holders–detailed to stay in rest billets with the horses while his regiment takes its turn in the trenches. Crofton is a fighting soldier–at least in his own self-estimation–but it is a bit suspicious that he seems to draw this duty repeatedly. Perhaps he is not as keen as the other senior officers of the regiment: his reaction to the news of the upcoming spell of trench duty (he had not yet learned that he would be left behind) was to write “What a nuisance it all is. I had hoped that we should have had a quiet time in Racquinghem.”

Today the regiment moved up toward the reserve lines in preparation for the next move into the actual trenches. Crofton’s honesty–to his diary–is one of his most valuable features for us. Today, he turns his uncensored criticism–albeit indirectly–on Francis Grenfell, late of the 9th Lancers.,

Friday May 28

Cold, but fine day. Breakfast at 7.30…

Was not sorry on the whole to leave Wallon-Cappel. Although it was better latterly than it was when we first went there in April, it really is an unhealthy village, and we were not too comfortable in billets…

I believe that the 9th Lancers are to take our place at Wallon-Cappel. They suffered very heavily from the gas in the trenches last Wednesday, chiefly owing to laziness on the part of the officers and men in not taking the trouble to put on respirators.

Noel Edwards (the polo player who played in America, in the Polo Team taken over by Wimborne last year) never bothered to put either a respirator or mask on, with a result that he was badly gassed, and although he succeeded in walking back through Ypres, he died some hours afterwards.[4]

Can this debacle explain the apparently very gallant–and strangely aggressive, given that the British were on the defensive at Second Ypres–behavior of Francis Grenfell several days later? Francis was an international polo player as well, and the 9th Lancers were his regiment. Did he dash forward for reasons of revenge? Or, perhaps, because criticism of his regiment’s foolish laziness were widespread and needed to be expunged? It’s impossible to tell–but it’s a reminder that the panegyric letters written after an officer’s death may stray very far indeed from the truth.

Crofton is no bureaucrat of the New Armies, but his grumpiness about the inefficient use of the cavalry and the swaggering disregard of the old-school sportsmen for the realities of modern warfare is more confirmation that the war is changing. Another gently born cavalryman goes bravely–and in this case, unquestionably stupidly–down into the dark, and the rough-and-ready infantry of the New Armies must come up to fill the gaps.

 

And John Ronald Tolkien, in his last weeks at Oxford, gave a paper today to The Psittakoi, a student literary society, reviewing The Quest of Beauty and Other Poems by H.R. Freston, a recent graduate. Several letters of advice from his friends and former classmates–of practical advice about the inevitable next step–are already in the post.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 111-113.
  2. Raymond Asquith, Life and Letters, 200.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 314.
  4. Massacre of the Innocents, 254.

Into Battle Again: The Afterlife of Julian Grenfell; On the Uses of Homer in the Great War; Two Asquiths on Waiting, Loss, and Conscription

Today, by a somewhat ghoulish quirk of timing, Lady Desborough’s efforts to get her son’s recent poem published finally bore fruit–one day after his death. The Times had already decided to run Julian Grenfell‘s Into Battle, but now it ran along with his death notice.[1]

The scholar of classical receptions Elizabeth Vandiver begins her appraisal of Julian Grenfell’s “Into Battle” by establishing a useful opposition to another poem we’ve just had occasion to mention: Henry Newbolt’s arch-Victorian pseudo-elegy, Clifton Chapel. It was this same poem which, just a few days ago, Julian’s brother Billy had drawn upon in attempting to offer his father some consolation.

“Into Battle” begins with two stanzas of more-or-less natural imagery (more on that more-or-less in a moment) but in the third Grenfell pivots toward the spiritual, declaring of his happy warrior that

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their bright comradeship,

Vandiver reads this as an echo of Clifton’s “Of the great fellowship you’re free,” a line Grenfell surely knew. The similarities are strong indeed. We have two brave young warriors–one ready to die, the other already dead–and both are joined after death in a heavenly fellowship. The spirit of heroic optimism, of grief diminished by pride in fighting, is common to both.

But then there is a radical departure. Christianity falls completely away, in favor of “an unapologetically Homeric viewpoint.” Absent is the Christian idea of a just war–or any mention of a particular enemy. Absent as well is Rupert Brooke‘s obsession with the notion of sacrifice.

Grenfell fights because “he is dead who will not fight” and because–this is that shocking note at the end of the first stanza– “who dies fighting has increase.” Battle is not only positive but productive: it alone can, by demonstrating the skill and courage of the warrior, make glory.

This is an ancient value. These days we tend to imagine that, while war may elicit heroic behavior–the soldier who discovers exceptional skill or the courage to sacrifice for his or her comrades–it is the stress of combat that reveals innate qualities. War is a test. But for the Greeks–and for Grenfell–war is a contest, without which the prize of glory would not exist.

Not to mention that the Christian warrior, however eager, however bloodthirsty in truth, should make some obeisance to the idea of a higher cause. Or some cause. Vengeance! Containing the German threat! Something. Grenfell seems indifferent to all of that. He is happy to be fighting because fighting, no matter the cause, enables him to realize his dearest ambition. He had won the DSO in the autumn–not quite a torque from one of Beowulf’s ring-giving lords or the gaudy armor of some fallen Trojan brave, but still pretty good. He had hoped to win more.

The cause of the war doesn’t matter, Germany doesn’t matter, and peace doesn’t matter. His performance, his chance at greatness and fame–the Greek kleos, the glorious reputation of the successful warrior–is what matters. And if that is gained, then death is no object. Or so says the poet.

He continues in this vein, and by the last two stanzas the poem is openly Homeric, imitating the vocabulary and diction of the 19th century translations, a sort of Tennyson’s Homer:

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run

This is to the detriment, as Vandiver points out, of any realistic description of 20th century warfare. None of Robert Graves‘s onomatopoeia here. Instead “the brazen frenzy” and the “patient eyes, courageous hearts” of the horses. But bronze is no longer the paradigmatic stuff of weapons, and the horses these days are stabled far behind the lines.

Grenfell is writing the battle he dreams, not the reality unfolding before him. This is a poem of aspiration and passion and apotheosis, not experience.

Nor is it a great poem–but that’s hardly the point. It’s a stirring, unsettling one, and it soon became very popular. For many–for Julian, for his mother, who corrected the manuscript and saw it published–it represented the way they wanted to feel about how a young soldier should enter battle.

Which is why it is so strange that its amorality was hardly remarked upon at the time. Pay attention, folks! The words “God” and “England” do not appear in this poem! (The secret, I think, is in the diction: if it resounds like “Clifton Chapel,” you might not notice that its values are 2600 years different, suitable for an open air fane in ancient Greece, not a Public School chapel.)

It’s the penultimate stanza, though, that seals the argument that this is an intensely Homeric poem:

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only joy of battle 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.

This is what students of Homer might recognize as the mood which prompts an aristeia, the moment when a hero is seized by a spirit of divine frenzy and fights with virtuosic violence. “Joy of battle” is a hackneyed phrase and blindness a familiar poetic semi-metaphor–but Grenfell shows his strength with that throat-grabbing image.

One thinks of his greyhounds, of the many times he was in at the kill in the hunt. And one thinks of the Greek gods seizing their favorites and sweeping them over the battlefield, cutting down lesser men like a child swinging a great doll through entire formations of little toy soldiers.[2] As Vandiver points out, this is nothing like the emotional state he was in when he actually did kill three Germans in late 1914–then he was a stalker, a cold-blooded sniper. But this is beside the point. Julian Grenfell will take his shots, and pride himself on his kills. But he would rather be galloping, slashing, stabbing, fighting breathlessly for his life.

And that “Destined Will” is Homeric, not least in its weakness or, better, its fungibility. There may be an overarching “fate” but it is remote. Here we are fighting by our wits and on our own strength. Zeus, not even the master of fate, is, like his squabbling children, a fight fan. He is inclined to let the heroes and their divine patrons rely on their strength and wits.

I’m not sure I can ratify the final section of Vandiver’s argument, but it’s interesting. Critics have generally agreed that the poem’s closing stanza is its weakest element:

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

It certainly doesn’t feel much like the rest of the poem–as if the throat-grabbing hound has left off, suddenly, and headed back, tail-tucked, toward a semblance of propriety. Vandiver points out that this conclusion confirms Grenfel’s Homeric intentions:

‘The Destined Will’ of the ninth stanza recalls the Dios boule, the Will of Zeus, as it is cited in the opening lines of the Iliad (1.5), and in the last two lines the capitalized and personified Day and Night perform the same function as the similarly personified Sleep and Death of Iliad 16.666-83…

These are the figures that carry off Sarpedon, hero, son of Zeus, after he is slain. And in “INno Battle,”

Day and Night are not ‘portentously intruding’; [the judgment of Bernard Bergonzi] instead, they provide a consistent and satisfying culmination of the entire poem’s Homeric mise en scène. For Grenfell’s ‘fighting man’, as for Homer’s Sarpedon, benevolent personifications of natural forces will provide safety and protection after his death.[3]

The question, then, is whether understanding the Homeric “intertext” (as the kids likes to call it) should change one’s appreciation of the poem. It is violent, amoral, and, in its untroubled correlation of deadly violence and personal virtue, profoundly troubling. But the Iliad is a true poem, the foundation stone of the Western literary tradition, and it can inspire many things…

For Vandiver, the question, too, is to what extent Grenfell’s attitude to battle and killing taint the legacy of the classical education that he, like so many of our poets, received. Are the Classics merely outdated equipment, like the horses and the sabers? Or can we separate the tradition from what one bloodthirsty poet did with it?

We will, of course, return to these questions. (To which the answers are “not exactly” and “yes.”) But I think I’ll give the last word today to Grenfell’s biographer, Nicholas Mosley:

The last words that Julian spoke to Ettie–‘Phoebus Apollo’–were recorded by Ettie with delight. But Phoebus Apollo is the god, though of the sun, whose irradiating powers have not yet separated from destructiveness; whom mortals still use for justification.[4]

 

Julian Grenfell is not as central to the literary history of the war as Rupert Brooke was and will be–he’s a second symbol, the more accomplished soldier but the lesser poet. Still, we will continue to track not only the afterlife of his poetry, but the way in which the news of his death affected those who had known him.

There are dozens of reactions to his death by the writers, soldiers, and society figures whose wars I’ve been tracking. His fame as the author of the quintessential post-Brooke pro-war poem is yet to come, but he was still well known among the Eton and Oxford sets, and his mother, presiding spirit of the “Souls,” was known to pretty much everyone in the great governing/aristocratic/society clique. Representing this large acquaintance today will be a father and son, Prime Minister and New Army subaltern.

H.H. Asquith has just survived the collapse of both his government–although deftly enough to remain the Prime Minister in a new coalition government–and of his paramount obsession. For several years he had been desperately in love with Venetia Stanley, a young friend of his daughter, Violet. Incredibly, Asquith went so far as to write to her several times a day… from cabinet meetings… to ask her advice on the war… and enclosing state secrets.

Two weeks ago Venetia had informed him that their affair could not continue–she was marrying Lord Montagu (never mind poor old Mrs. Asquith). But H.H. Asquith was a survivor, with the short-term emotional memory of a great goal-keeper or closer. By today, a century back, he was deep into chummy and indiscreet letters to her sister, Sylvia Henley. Or, as is the case today, he wrote to her about the sadness and uncertainty that has reached the very top of the British wartime establishment:

27 May 1915

We are sad to hear the news of poor Francis Grenfell’s death… he was as fine an example of clean and unselfish manhood as was to be found in the country. We hear this morning that Julian–Ettie’s eldest son–has succumbed to his head wound. The world at present is full of horrors, and we are all walking in the valley of the shadow of death.

In an hour’s time we shall have our first meeting of the new Cabinet: it will be a strange experience, and I can only hope that it may better my expectations.[5]

 

Amusingly, Asquith’s son Raymond–the star wit and charismatic leader of the “Coterie,” the younger generation’s answer to the “Souls”–wrote today–to his wife–about one of the issues which the new cabinet would shortly be considering.

Today I had luncheon with Lady Sybil [Grant] at Primrose House. She was kind and friendly and rather unintelligently voluble. She seems to want conscription. It is very odd how many people do now-a-days. The idea they have at the back of their minds seems to be that if their lovers are being killed, it is only fair that their footmen should be killed too. I don’t feel that myself.

Amusing. And interesting. Asquith is thirty-six, with children, closer to Edward Thomas in that regard than most of our young officers. But not only does he have the better sort of ruling class prejudices–nothing for it but to go–he also demonstrates the fullness of commitment, the yearning toward the test of combat,shared by virtually all of our younger men in uniform.

Among the more dashing young officers in this regiment there is a growing spirit of disaffection. We are wasting time here on duties which make for weariness but not for efficiency. The Colonel is becoming conscious of this I think, and takes one or other of us aside from time to time to communicate mysterious hints that we may be wanted abroad at any moment. But we none of us believe him now. … Several of the subalterns are scheming to have themselves transferred to some more active unit… unless prospects improve in the near future, I think I shall do something of the kind myself… the Coldstream Guards… push one along very quickly I believe, and it is a fine regiment, I suppose about the best…[6]

Julian Grenfell is gone. But many hearts–even the older and calmer hearts–still yearn to go into battle.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A number of sources put the death notice and the poem's date of publication on the 28th--and several letters we'll be quoting from soon seem to bear that out. But I'm following Vandiver--Stand in the Trench, 185--in giving it today's date, for consistency's sake (and I'm too proud or lazy to deal with the Times' paywall to make certain--especially when today is a convenient day to discuss the poem).
  2. This, by the way, I have just realized, is my exceedingly lame attempt to echo the great modern British interpreter of Homer, Christopher Logue. Logue's Athena grabs Achilles (by the hair, as in the text, not the throat) and treats him very much in this ecstatic, violent manner.
  3. Vandiver, Stand in the Trench Achilles, 184-96 (194-5).
  4. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, His Life and the Times of his Death, 1888-1915, 266-7.
  5. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 108.
  6. Raymond Asquith, Life and Letters, 200.

The Death of Julian Grenfell; Lesser Departures for Lady Feilding and the Nursing Sister

Julian, Billy, Ettie, 1900

Julian, Ettie, and Billy Grenfell, 1900

Julian Grenfell lapsed into unconsciousness yesterday afternoon. His last words, according to his mother, were “Phoebus Apollo” and then his father’s name. He lived on through the night and the morning, and into the afternoon of today, a century back.

At 7:30 on Wednesday morning, May 26th, they thought he was dying, but he lived on till 20 minutes to 4 in the afternoon. He knew them to the very end, and moved his mother’s hand to his lips. At the moment that he died, he opened his eyes a little, with the most radiant smile that they had ever seen even on his face.”[1]

Lady Desborough insisted that no one wear mourning for her son, and no one did.

Julian’s biographer Nicholas Mosley sorted through some of the letters of condolence that Lady Desborough would receive, and singled out these:

‘To live greatly and to die soon is a lot which all must admire and some of us envy: indeed to my thinking it cannot be bettered’ (Arthur Balfour)

‘He was all that you could have desired and all that our race needs to keep its honour fair and bright… He at any rate lived and died as he would have
wished’ (Winston Churchill).[2]

As Julian Grenfell’s body was being prepared for burial, “Into Battle” was being prepared for the press–it will run tomorrow, in the Times, along with the news of his death.

 

Grenfell’s death feels, in a way, like the end of the beginning. This has something to do with the way he lived and died–the dashing cavalryman struck down only to linger painfully through a macabre, extended scene of Victorian/Edwardian death-denial. It has much to do as well with the nature of his poetry and its prominence in the standard assessment of the war’s literature as an epitome of the violent enthusiasms of the early war.

We’ll have another look at this poetry tomorrow, but it’s hard to resist the sense that the war’s first stage is over. It works for military historiography–we’ll see how John Buchan handles this in a moment–because the allied effort in Artois and the German push known as “Second Ypres” have just about now died down into attrition, with no major assaults pending until the beginning of autumn. And, curiously enough, it works here too. Our two women near the front, Dorothie Feilding and the Nursing Sister, are each departing, and while the polyphony of Great War writers will continue here on a century back, summer’s assemblage of voices will be quite different from winter’s.

First, Lady Feilding, who is evidently exhausted and ailing. Her mother–who, with the departure of a second son, a naval officer aboard the cruiser Defence, for Gallipoli now has a husband and three children in danger zones–has begged Dorothie to come home for a rest.

Whit Tuesday [26 May]

Mother darling,

…Thank you so much for wiring me last night, but honestly I think I would rather come home later on & just vegetate with you in the dump for quite a while. If I come home now this minute I’d only have to come back in a day or two as there are some radical changes going on as to whether the corps will continue working for the Belgians or seek more work elsewhere. I’d rather like to see it through one way & another & until things are decided & would prefer therefore to return in a few weeks time if you don’t mind & then to take a good little time off.

I am afraid you are thinking I am in the last stages of exhaustion but for a week things have been beautifully quiet here just in our beat & it has bucked me up no end…

Goodbye Mrs Ma dear–God bless you. I am feeling very fit please don’t think I am dying, because these last 10 days have been a regular rest cure.

Yr loving

DoDo[3]

Nevertheless, Lady Feilding will soon be headed home for several weeks of rest. In just a few days she will write again to admit that the Furnes aid post is being regularized and reduced. Soon after that she came home to England for a rest of several weeks.

And today is the last entry in the diary that will shortly be published as The Diary of a Nursing Sister.

Wednesday, May 26th.—No time to write yesterday; had a typical Clearing Hospital Field Day. The left-out-in-the-field wounded (mostly Canadians) had at last been picked up and came pouring in. I had my Tent Section of eighty beds nearly full, and we coped in a broiling sun till we sweltered into little spots of grease, finishing up with five operations in the little operating tent.

The poor exhausted Canadians were extraordinarily brave and uncomplaining. They are evacuated the same day or the next morning, such as can be got away to survive the journey, but some of the worst have to stay.

In the middle of it all at 5 p.m. orders came for me to join No.— Ambulance Train for duty, but I didn’t leave till this morning at nine, and am now on No.— A[mbulance].T[rain]. on way down to old Boulogne again.

Later.—These orders were afterwards cancelled, and I am for duty at a Base Hospital.[4]

Another promotion, perhaps, but not one of which the Nursing Sister approves, since it sends her further from the action and the most acute cases. Strange, though, that she is almost sent to Boulogne on the very day that Julian Grenfell died there.

The Nursing Sister will, however, be sent back up the line in October. Her letters pick up then too, and they will be published under her own name–Kathleen Luard. So it is goodbye for now to the Nursing Sister, but she will be back not long after the casualties start pouring in again, and when she returns we will come to know her better.

 

Finally, today, we will use John Buchan‘s history to take a peek at the contemporary view of this transitional period in the history of the war. Buchan is working as a correspondent in France now, and still churning out “histories” of the war’s events, at a remove of only a few weeks or months. Here is a historian–in name–who writes like a partisan, a propagandist, and a friend of many officers of the embattled armies. All of which he was: when he writes of the cavalry at Ypres, he is thinking of Francis Grenfell, among others, and when he accurately sketches the strategic situation and goes on to speak of British morale he is not wrong, only hopeful. The recap of the battle becomes a paean to the New Armies, which are only now beginning to be tested.

This last stage of the battle was a triumph for the cavalry, and their splendid steadfastness saved the infantry on their left and right. The Second Battle of Ypres was less critical than the first, for it was not fought to defeat any great strategical intention. It was an episode in the war of attrition, in which the Germans, by the use of heavy artillery and gas, caused us severe losses without gaining any special advantage of position. We still held the Ypres Salient—a diminished salient; but we had lost so heavily that, so far as attrition went, the balance of success was clearly with the enemy. On the other hand, the moral gain was ours. The Germans had a wonderful machine—a machine made up of great cannon firing unlimited quantities of high-explosive shells, an immense number of machine guns, and the devilry of the poisoned gas. We had no such mechanism to oppose to theirs, and our men were prevented from coming to grips. The Second Battle of Ypres was the first event which sharply brought home to the British people the inferiority of the machine which handicapped their man-power, and it led indirectly to that reconstruction of the Government with which we shall presently deal.

The moral gain was ours, because no battle in the war so convinced us of our superiority in manhood, and inspired our troops with a stronger optimism or a more stubborn determination. We learned that we had now a homogeneous army, in which it was hard to say that one part was better than another. The Territorials, infantry and cavalry, whether they had been out since November or had left home a few days before, held their ground in the most nerve-racking kind of conflict with the valour and discipline of veterans. The miners of South Wales and North England, the hinds and mechanics of the Scottish Lowlands, the shepherds and gillies of the Highlands, the clerks and shop-boys of London and the provincial cities, were alike in their fighting value. They were led, and often brilliantly led, by men who a little time before had been merchants, and solicitors, and architects. One lean veteran had ten months before been a spruce clerk on the Stock Exchange, travelling to the City every morning in the sombre regimentals of his class. He looked now like a big-game hunter from Equatorial Africa… A grimy private from whom the visitor asked the way answered in the familiar accents of Oxford.[5]

What is the value of this sort of description as history? Not much, on the surface of things. The bias is too acute, and the writer is too intent upon influencing the course of events that follows directly on those he wrote about. And yet… this is history too, not pure propaganda. It’s not your Soviet-style tissue of lies, but a stout linen napkin of true-enough facts, deftly folded into the shape of a grim-faced Tommy, bayonet lowered, advancing…

The real men of this idealized army are coming out now in their thousands and their tens of thousands. It will be a summer of acclimatization and attrition, and the next big push will begin in September. And that sentence holds true, as well, for this project: as several of the New Army officers (and wartime Special Reserve officers, to be technical about it) come to France, we will become accustomed to a new range of sources. More on this anon…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. From Lady Desborough's privately published memoir, quoted in Powell, A Deep Cry, 26-7.
  2. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, His Life and the Times of his Death, 1888-1915, 265.
  3. Lady under Fire, 77.
  4. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  5. Buchan, A History of the Great War, 57-8.

Julian Grenfell Begins to Slip Away; Edward Thomas Finds Wisdom Warbling

Julian Grenfell has taken a significant turn for the worse. Three members of his immediate family wrote, today about the decline, each in his or her own manner. Lady Desborough, to her diary:

25 May With Julian all day long. Less well. Talked a little in morning, but did not speak again after 2.30pm. With him all night. Very Peaceful & looking so happy.[1]

Lord Desborough replied to a note of concern from Lord Kitchener:

My dear Kitchener

I am so grateful to you for your two letters… It is most kind of you.

Julian is I deplore to say very bad: there is little or no hope now. I quite thought yesterday that he was going to pull through–but I am afraid it is not to be….

Yours sincerely Desborough[2]

And word had reached Julian’s lighthearted brother Billy, bound for now for the trenches. He wrote a letter which combines a decent attention to the hopeless task of addressing a family calamity with fealty to some very Julian-like values which, even if we were to suppose that they were expressed in order to give solace to his parents, read as strangely self-involved. Very, very Julian-like:

My dear daddy

I got your second letter today with the less good account of dear Ju. The issue lies with God alone now, & He will decide for the best–I pray to Him to be with you all in these days of trial, & to uphold the splendid courage you have shewn through all.

I thank him too for having allowed the dear boy to show his glorious valour to all the world before he was struck down.

What better fate could one desire for a loved one–“Sed miles, sed pro patria…”[3]

Hm. Isn’t that a fitting touch? God’s hands, and remember that he did well (“glorious valour”) and–ah, has brilliant Billy delved deep into the classics to find a fitting classical tag? It does sound a bit like a famous bit of Horace–something about dying “pro patria,” something that is due to be famously re-purposed by one of our trench poets to be. Summoning Roman fortitude in this moment is a nice touch…

But it’s not Roman, not really. It’s Victorian/Edwardian, through-and-through, a quotation from an English-poem-with-Latin-kicker by Henry Newbolt, poet laureate of idiot muscular British Christian imperialism and the chest-puffing, lip-stiffening way of the gentleman. The four Latin words are lifted from the last line of Clifton Chapel, a celebration of the brave death of a young man, who “fell”[4] far away fighting. The “sed“–“but” is the usual “translation”–is concessive: alas for the boy who died–young, and far away, but a soldier, but for the homeland.

On the one hand, positive values. Sometimes war is necessary and soldiering is honorable (and few Britons a century back yet questioned the necessity and honorableness of the current war) and patriotism is a good thing (when it’s ourpatria,” anyway). On the other, sport and war and God and country and the denial of grieving, all tangled up, and to the general detriment of, well, everything. Patriotism may be good, violence may be well-directed, but not for long,not out of such a tangle of unqualified emotional commitments. But this is an inappropriate argument to be having over a young man’s deathbed–I apologize.

From later accounts we learn that Julian was aware of the nearness of death.

On 25 May Julian said to Monica ‘Goodbye Casie’; and to his mother–‘Hold my hand till I go’. Ettie [Lady Desborough] saw how ‘a shaft of sunlight came in at the darkened window and fell across his feet’. He smiled at her and said ‘Phoebus Apollo’. After that–‘He did not speak again, except once, to say his father’s name’.[5]

Julian Grenfell lingered, unconscious, on into the night.

 

A little uncanny, then, are the thoughts that Donald Hankey–who is not far away from Boulogne now, and preparing to enter the trenches for the first time himself–jotted down today, a century back. These are solemn consolations for those in the Grenfells’ situation, and also something of a rebuke to my own ranting. It’s one thing to rail at the convenient pieties of vicious young fighters like the Grenfell brothers, but Hankey is a deeply serious and committed Christian, serving in the ranks in order to better serve his flock after the war:

Death is a great teacher: from him men learn what are the things they really value….

True religion is betting one’s life that there is a God.

In the hour of danger all good men are believers: they choose the spiritual, and reject the material.

The death of a hero convinces all of eternal life: they are unable to call it a tragedy.[6]

 

It’s an awkward transition, from the bedside of a dying soldier to… well, to anywhere. But especially to a writer still in civilian clothes in England. And yet perhaps it’s precisely within the spirit of this project to spend the rest of today on the doings and writings of Edward Thomas.

If we were in the business of quick-and-dirty (or compelling-but-perhaps-rather-shallow) comparisons–and who isn’t?!?–it would be easy to set Grenfell and Thomas up as twin avatars of two different types of war poetry, their portraits gazing quiet daggers at each other over the ornate hearth, glances not quite connecting, like Holbein’s Cromwell and More.

There they are, diffidently confronting each other over the war in verse: the aristocratic sportsman and cavalryman and the middle class naturalist and prodigious walker; the aloof loner, feared or respected more than befriended, and the family man with his dozens of fast friendships, ambulatory, amatory, and epistolary; the decisive lover of battle, never so happy than when freed from responsibility or looking for creatures to kill, and the keeper-fearing, path-in-the-woods-pausing, ever-vacillating temperamental artist.

Thomas’s letters have been full of the joys of May, of late, but also of deeper uncertainty–about his writing, his finances, and his fate. Should he volunteer? Emigrate? Could he continue to put the best of himself into poetry that was garnering little interest from publishers?

To Jesse Berridge, today, he wrote with an update on his prose chores, and also to offer up his poems, once again, for review.

…just about the end of March I began a new piece of work, a life of Marlborough. After 6 or 7 weeks reading I began the writing last week & it will keep me close at it for I don’t quite know how long, but less than 2 months I hope. Then I shall be free or empty & have to make up my mind what to do if there isn’t any work.

Thomas needed, as he wrote to Harry Hooton on the 19th, “an honest reader’s opinion because I seem to be committed to a new path that does not promise money and I want any confirmation I can get that it promises at any rate some advance in effectiveness.”[7] But confirmation or not, he still needed cash. He laid out his options before Berridge:

I tried to get a job at the historical  section of the War Office, but only had my name put down on possibly a very long list…

I am still suffering from my ankle or perhaps I should regard some military service as the thing for me especially if ordinary work fails. Nobody that I know well has enlisted so I am really at sea as to how men really feel about it & if my own hesitations are at all common…

That second sentence is worth a brief note–it must have seemed, reading here last fall, that every middle class Englishman, no matter if he was legally blind, halt, or pushing sixty, stumbled straight to the recruiting sergeant when the world began. Millions did, but we were hearing from far too many recent Public School graduates. Away from that distorting effect it’s quite true that many men–especially those no longer in their twenties, those with family responsibilities–had never felt crushing pressure to enlist. Many hesitated–few wrote about it as much as Thomas did. They hesitated, and, indeed, they hadn’t even been called. And the waves of young volunteers without dependents are subsiding, now–which is why we shall shortly hear serious talk of proposals for Britain’s first-ever conscription law.

Anyway. From there Thomas touches base–spring, nightingales–and asks for Berridge’s help:

It has been a most lovely Spring here. We had a nightingale singing close to the house for 3 weeks. I have gone on with my versification & I will send you some specimens with this, & I should like to know if you find anything to like among them…  I have sent some out to all the possible papers & without success…[8]

To Eleanor Farjeon he had written, on the 22nd, with a similar report and request for aid. Farjeon had read many of Thomas’s poems, offered criticism, and even typed and mailed out many of them. But he tended to dismiss her comments even more completely than those of his (male, published) friends. Gordon Bottomley has recently criticized Thomas’s prosiness-in-verse, however, and Thomas acknowledged the comment that he was  “using words in the spirit of the prose writer &… everyday syntax” as “quite an essential remark…”

Acknowledged–but did not exactly agree to correct. No ellipsis in the original, but instead a parry: “& yet not one I can do anything with but remember.[9].

This, too, was why Thomas desired anonymity for his published verse–he was being judged with his prose in mind. To Farjeon he wrote that

Gordon Bottomley… tells me I am still too much bound [by] my prose methods of statement. I suspect he is right, but of course I can’t do anything but hope that experience and honesty will lead me to a better way if there is one (for me)…

So, three days ago, a century back, he was near despair. As he went on to tell Farjeon, his time is overwhelmed with the hack biography and his mind nearly overcome with worry for the future:

I am in the thick of writing [Marlborough]—very slowly, but as I do 6 or 7 hours a day I have covered many pages already. It is mostly paraphrase so far with some bits of argument on points of character and conduct. In 30 or 40 such days, if I keep the pace up, I could put the blessed thing behind me, and yet I know I may find myself with nothing to do afterwards and nothing to hope for either. If it were right and reasonable to leave England in the present state of things I suppose I ought to go and really try to get something out of New York and Boston; also if I could seem to afford it…[10]

This quandary will only intensify: exile might mean penury; work may dry up and may be killing his poetry anyway; so, war?

But every day is a new day. Two days back, the 23rd, Thomas took a long walk, stumbled onto a beautiful scene, and was roughly and wonderfully manhandled by the muse.

He came home and drafted a poem–his production dwindles with his time, but his power seems to wax under the pressure. Minutes or hours later he wrote to Frost in a mood of deep melancholy–with an admixture of quiet exultation. (This, I think, was the mood that turned him toward thoughts of his distant friend and inevitable “rival”–if that term must needs encompass any pair who are driven to better work by the other’s presence, no matter their mutual love and admiration.)

Frost will know how to read Thomas’s shyly proud little announcement: “it seemed I had dried up, owing to Marlborough, but I have done a thing today.” This was Sedge-Warblers, the poem that spurred his pen on. But Thomas missed Frost, and in a post-script the next day (yesterday, a century back) he laid out his thoughts about the future:

P.S. Of course I keep thinking about the chances of coming over this year. In any case it will be hard to seem to be able to afford it, so that I could perhaps only risk it if I really made up my mind I would see editors as much as possible. I dread them as much as that keeper. I hate meeting people I want to get something out of, perhaps…

I don’t feel at all certain. Like everything else that means an unusual & conscious step it looks impossible, like becoming a teacher or a soldier–I suppose I ought to write a long short story about a man who didn’t enlist.

I tell you I wish you were in Gloucestershire as God is (‘as sure as God’s in Gloucestershire’ is a proverb you probably know) or instead of him. There are a good many moments when I feel there is hardly anybody that matters except God in Gloucestershire or any other county. I have been very impatient with people lately & yet sorry they have drifted off.[11]

 

Let’s leave the lives, for the poetry.

In a few days we will have cause to look at Into Battle again; today we will read Sedge-Warblers.

Not yet six months a poet, Edward Thomas’s skill with rhyme and rhythm is such that his first version of Sedge-Warblers fell into the form of an ingenious double sonnet. The revision–of yesterday, a century back, and the version usually printed–is still a complex play on that most familiar form, yet it reads as smoothly as the freest of free verse.

The first long stanza is a beautiful feint–a beautiful feint toward beauty. The poet comes upon a babbling brook, entertains thoughts of nymphs and the sacred abundance of nature, and captures the music of his thoughts in language tripping and sweet and pure, sound and sense in harmony.

It’s real poetry, not least because, as his notebook confirms, the poem was begun en plein air, in the moment. The great walker-poet has walked into inspirational beauty, and, though exhausted by his slogging pursuit of Marlborough’s armies, he has risen to the muse’s challenge.

And then he’s off in another direction entirely, and the reader, wrong-footed, must hurry to catch up.

And yet, rid of this dream, ere I had drained
Its poison, quieted was my desire
So that I only looked into the water,
Clearer than any goddess or man’s daughter,
And hearkened while it combed the dark green hair
And shook the millions of the blossoms white
Of water-crowfoot, and curdled to one sheet
The flowers fallen from the chestnuts in the park
Far off. And sedge-warblers, clinging so light
To willow twigs, sang longer than the lark,
Quick, shrill, or grating, a song to match the heat
Of the strong sun, nor less the water’s cool,
Gushing through narrows, swirling in the pool.
Their song that lacks all words, all melody,
All sweetness almost, was dearer then to me
Than sweetest voice that sings in tune sweet words.
This was the best of May–the small brown birds
Wisely reiterating endlessly
What no man learnt yet, in or out of school.

This is brilliant. Larkin couldn’t have done this better, though he would have greyed and scuffed down the diction.

How many larks have we seen already? And we have many larks to go before we sleep. The lark is a great singer, for centuries the poets’ favorite herald of the dawn. And soon the war poets will undertake an ironic counter-march against this tradition, many of them noting the incongruity of the lark singing on among the corpses and desolation, at the break of day in the trenches.

sedge warbler

The Sedge-Warbler Sings, Longer Than The Lark

But Thomas is too subtle to violently ironize the lark. He simply moves beyond, to the humble sedge-warbler.

What is this bird that “sang longer than the lark?” Longer, and straighter. Thomas, in other moods, loves sweetness. But he recognizes that a sweet tooth, in life or in poetry, will not satisfy consistently. Here he finds something more important. The best of May is not pure beauty and sweetness, but a sort of common wisdom–something that will last longer than lark song.

Thomas is a great bird poet, but often a conventional one, whose birds signify mysteries or infinities, or represent transcendence or the higher purities of nature. Sure. And the lark is lovely, eloquent, ethereal. But you can’t every day host exaltations–what of the simple bouquets? What of the falls, the confusions and wrenches of life?

Here, in this poem, the sedge-warbler is human, and wise, its song “re-attaches the speaker-as-poet to the earth.” Instead of desire–a dangerous, larkish thing, for desires can be irrational or impossible to fill, or even self-destroying–the sedge-warbler seems to impart real, measured knowledge. Not every day is ripe for sweetness, not every sonnet must be a love song. Edna Longley makes this point by positing an apt, if rather pedantic, deepening of the natural analogy: “Thomas assumes (rightly) that birdsong, the most complex utterance by any other species, and the lyric poem have a common evolutionary origin.”[12] So the lyric poet waxes wise, and sings of more than mere beauty.

One final comparison.

Julian Grenfell’s two best-known poems–other than Into Battle, which will soon be published and far eclipse them–also celebrate animals. How do they compare to these manifold birds of Edward Thomas? Well now. Grenfell chose the swiftest and sleekest (the best and most beautiful, the Greeks would say) of hunters, the greyhound, and the most fierce and deadly of the beasts of venery the boar.

That Thomas is a much more skillful and subtle poet while Grenfell was a talented amateur writing in a somewhat hackneyed style is not the point. It’s what they lived, and what they saw, and how they chose to make their experienced worlds into verse…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 299.
  2. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 311.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 312.
  4. See Fussell on all this, whose ranting assault on Newbolt I surely can't improve upon.
  5. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 264-5.
  6. A Student in Arms, 190.
  7. Selected Letters, 111.
  8. The Letters of Edward Thomas to Jesse Berridge, 77.
  9. Letters From Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 247-8.
  10. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 141.
  11. Elected Friends, 56-8.
  12. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 241.

Francis Grenfell Goes Back to the Sunlight; Julian Grenfell’s Outlook Darkens; Siegfried Sassoon Meets a Lovely Young Man

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Francis and Riversdale Grenfell

This is another day to turn a page–a title page, to push the morbid analogy a bit farther.

I have quoted quite often from “Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell,” but the full title is Francis and Riversdale Grenfell: A Memoir. Buchan, a prolific writer on many subjects, is already, a century back, working on thrillers, journalism, and a history of the war. And now he will begin work on the joint memoir of the Grenfell twins. This has been my primary source on the lives of the twins, and I have been quoting occasionally from it since last spring.

Buchan today goes into the mode of a traditional military historian. He writes rousing prose, but with close attention to detail–when he can get it. When he can’t provide us with information on the doings in the very front, he writes in sweeping, broad-canvass fashion (cinematic prose, we would say). There is the brilliance of the day, the awesome misery of enduring the German attack, the heroic and bedraggled band of survivors…  Buchan is always a good reminder for us: he is a a well-connected, serious-minded, militarily-knowledgeable historian who is–always–writing literature. Being a writer of ripping yarns doesn’t really make you a good or bad historian on the facts, but it surely puts you on the road to writing compelling, strongly-shaped history. Today, however, the historian is only the advance guard for the life-writer.

The dawn of Monday, 24th May, promised a perfect summer day with cloudless skies and a light north-easterly breeze. About three a.m. the cavalry in the trenches saw a thick yellow haze, thirty feet high, rolling down from the ridge a hundred yards before them, and the air was filled with a curious pungent smell. They had had no previous experience of gas, and in twenty seconds the cloud was upon them. Then came the German guns, making a barrage behind to keep back reinforcements. Though our respirators at the time were elementary the cavalry managed to weather the gas, and held their ground through the seventeen long hours of daylight that followed. It was the last phase of the battle, and the German assault broke for good on that splendid steadfastness.

But a high price was paid for victory. In the small hours of the 25th a little party of some forty men stumbled in the half light along the Menin road, through the crumbling streets of Ypres, and out into the open country towards Vlamertinghe. Those who passed them saw figures like spectres, clothes caked with dirt, faces yellow from the poison gas. They were all that remained of the 9th Lancers. Their Brigadier, General Mullens, met them on the road, but dared not trust himself to speak to them. “Tell them,” he told the Colonel, ” that no words of mine can express my reverence for the Ninth.” Next day General Byng, who commanded the Cavalry Corps, visited the remnant. ” Put anything in orders you like,” he said. ” Nothing you can say will be adequate to my feelings for the old Ninth. Of course I knew you would stick it, but that doesn’t lessen my unbounded admiration of you all.”

With them they brought the body of Francis Grenfell. When the attack opened and the infantry on the left fell back, he was busy converting a communication trench into a fire trench, and shouting out in his old cheery way, “Who’s afraid of a few dashed Huns?”‘ He stood on rising ground behind the trench when he was shot through the back. He managed to send a message to his squadron, the true testament of the regimental officer: “Tell them I died happy, loving them all.” Then he who had once lived cheerfully in the sun, but for months had been among the fogs and shadows, went back to the sunlight.

He was buried in the churchyard of Vlamertinghe, and beside him was laid Sergeant Hussey, one of the most gallant N.C.O.’s in the Ninth. Some one said at the graveside, “How happy old Hussey would have been to know he died with Francis.”[1]

Neither Francis nor Riversdale were writers, really, although Buchan has quoted at times from their vivid letters. Nor were they intellectuals or unusual in their lives and opinions. I included them at first because they seemed to represent a certain type: the unreflective, self-assured aristocrats who have, however, the courage of their convictions–and more to spare. Orphaned, then done out of their money by an older brother’s financial mismanagement, the two–never mind their famous family, their costly educations, their lives of privilege–had come to seem like a strange sub-species of the innocent, blinkered-but-benign British boys who stumbled upon the war and embraced it as the answer to their problems.

Or does this story only resound so ringingly because Buchan–writing, with love, but also a good deal of condescension–made it that way? I don’t know his sources for today’s events, but he has taken what seems to be hearsay from combat-exhausted fellow soldiers and presented it without equivocation as Francis’s heroic last words. Is this too far for “history” to go? Can we be as confident as we would like that Francis died as he lived, a happy warrior to the end?

grenfell9thLancersIn any event it seems unfair to mark the death of the twins–Rivy was killed in September–by declaring them to be “types” who represent or “signify” some fundamental aspect of the early war experience. They were hardly ordinary officers–Francis, after all, won the Victoria Cross–and no one person’s experience (nor any pair of twins’) can be representative in any meaningful way. The point I want to make is about life-writing rather than historiography: these two will end up standing for the early war experience because that’s how their lives were written. By Buchan. Not that Buchan has traduced them, but he has shaped their stories as he chose–they, simply, did not get a chance to write their own lives. As the photo of his V.C. trading card at right vividly illustrates, one cannot control how one is remembered, nor can depth come from silence.

Because this project cleaves to the idea of being always exactly one century back, I rarely talk about the sources I’m using, not wanting to draw attention to a very likely presumption: that those who have published their stories must have survived the war (spoiler!), and those who are being written about by others (or who appear here only in contemporary documents) do not. This is a flaw in the plan, here–but worth, I hope, preserving the strange historical sensation of reading the war “in real time,” a century back. It’s true, too, that the presumption will not always be correct: some memoirs are written in the midst of the war, and do not guarantee their author’s survival; and some survivors published not a memoir but collections of letters or poems written during the war, with dates that I can seize upon.

Enough explanation. Francis Grenfell is dead, and John Buchan tells us that he lived joyfully and died, despite the cloud of his fortunes and the death of his twin, happily, in the end. His war story ends now, and his silence is absolute.

 

His cousin Julian, meanwhile, is still clinging to life. Lady Desborough’s diary is faintly upbeat today:

24 May  Home at 6:30. Lay down for an hour. Back to Hosp. Lister. Sargent at 11 gave us one thread of hope. We had quite given up hope. Ca & W[2] stayed there. I slept till 2. With him whole aft. Shade better. Slept there. he had fair night.[3]

Julian’s sister Monica wrote to his friend in hunting-and-innuendo Flossie Garth today, with greater medical detail–and additional positive reporting. She explains that the second operation had involved trepanning to remove pressure building up around the site of the first operation, and praises her brother’s fortitude:

He has been so wonderful and good and brave though it all–and he had been conscious almost all the time. He was talking today about you & Mr Hubert and of the happy hunting days…[4]

Conscious, but beginning to lose feeling in his extremities. According to Nicholas Mosley, who is probably drawing on Lady Desborough’s memoir,

One or other of his family were always with him… they told him of how well he had fought, and how they would cake him to get well in the forests by the sea in Normandy. They talked to him of old holidays, in Scotland or
at Panshanger; of an enormous fish he had once caught. He once clasped his mother’s hand and she said to him ‘That is what you do when you are asleep and you think I am going away’ and he said ‘No, it is only affection’. He said to his father when one of his arms began to be paralysed ‘Take my hand in your two strong hands and rub my poor arm’; and when his father did this and he groaned, he explained–‘It is only contentment’. He liked to have poetry read to him, and sometimes said poetry to himself. Of his own poems he liked to say ‘The Fighting Boar’. He also said his favourite speech from Euripides’ Hippolytus, in which Phaedra laments that she cannot be like her stepson. He prayed, mostly childhood prayers–those about which he had sometimes been ironical.[5]

Here, too, it is hard to separate reality from the stricken mother’s version–never mind the biographer’s point of view. Mosley, with that last phrase, is clearly signaling a polite disbelief of this beautiful, sad, symbolic family tableau. He is at pains to explain throughout the biography–which at times is almost a dual biography of Julian Grenfell and Ettie Fane/Grenfell/Desborough–that Lady Desborough’s most remarkable charismatic feat was to rewrite reality at her pleasure and compel others to conform to her view of the world. For many years Julian had violently and completely rejected his mother’s cult–but his letters usually show only affection. And now, paralyzed and silenced, his narrative–of their relationship and of everything else–is completely in her hands.

This isn’t history–this is a family story, and a very sad one.

 

There is sunlight and shadow in England today, too, but the shadow falls not yet on young Siegfried Sassoon–apologies, on “George Sherston”–living the heady life of a good regiment’s training camp.

Life in the officers’ mess was outwardly light-hearted. Only when news came from our two battalions in France were we vividly reminded of the future. Then for a brief while the War came quite close; mitigated by our inexperience of what it was like, it laid a wiry finger on the heart. There was the battle of Festubert in the middle of May. That made us think a bit. The first battalion had been in it and had lost many officers. Those who were due for the next draft were slightly more cheerful than was natural.

The next thing I knew about them was that they had gone—half a dozen of them. I went on afternoon parade, and
when I returned to the hut my fellow occupant had vanished with all his tackle. But my turn was months away yet… [Sassoon’s ellipsis]

The following day was a Sunday, and I was detailed to take a party to church. They were Baptists and there were
seven of them. I marched them to the Baptist Chapel in Bootle, wondering what on earth to do when I got them to the door. Ought I to say, “Up the aisle; quick march”? As far as I can remember we reverted to civilian methods and shuffled into the Chapel in our own time. At the end of the service the bearded minister came and conversed with me very cordially and I concealed the fact that it was my first experience of his religion. Sunday morning in the Baptist Chapel made the trenches seem very remote. What possible connection was there?

This, it hardly bears pointing out, is the “novelistic” prerogative of the memoir writer in all its glory. He foreshadows. He gives us, that is, a prospective irony of proximity that he had not yet, a century back, himself earned. We smile sadly with him, knowing, as he did not, that the trenches are very close indeed.

Sassoon will give us a carefully “factual” account of his past. The names are changed, sure, but the fiction is stretched so close to the skeleton of his own experiences that the real threat to the historically-minded reader’s sensibilities is not that he writes of “Sherston” and not “Sassoon” or that the dates might be wrong, but rather that his greatest concern as a writer is with the nature of time and memory. This is Sassoon’s “binary vision–” but one eye is always dominant. He writes what he sees in retrospect, after ruminations and reconsideration of the vanished years between. He is not trying to recapture what he saw then, or perhaps what he saw–but not how he saw it. The Sassoon of 1915 is a reporter become a character in a future report–and he doesn’t get the final edit.

We arrive now at today–a Monday, a century back:

Next day some new officers arrived, and one of them took the place of the silent civil engineer in my room. We had the use of the local cricket ground; I came in that evening feeling peaceful after batting and bowling at the nets for an hour. It seemed something to be grateful for—that the War hadn’t killed cricket yet, and already it was a relief to be in flannels and out of uniform. Coming cheerfully into the hut I saw my new companion for the first
time. He had unpacked and arranged his belongings, and was sitting on his camp-bed polishing a perfectly new pipe. He looked up at me. Twilight was falling and there was only one small window, but even in the half-light his face surprised me by its candour and freshness. He had the obvious good looks which go with fair hair and firm
features, but it was the radiant integrity of his expression which astonished me. While I was getting ready for dinner we exchanged a few remarks. His tone of voice was simple and reassuring, like his appearance. How does he manage to look like that? I thought; and for the moment I felt all my age, though the world had taught me little enough, as I knew then, and know even better now. His was the bright countenance of truth; ignorant and undoubting; incapable of concealment but strong in reticence and modesty. In fact, he was as good as gold, and everyone knew it as soon as they knew him.

Such was Dick Tiltwood,[6] who had left school six months before and had since passed through Sandhurst. He was the son of a parson with a good family living. Generations of upright country gentlemen had made Dick Tiltwood what he was, and he had arrived at manhood in the nick of time to serve his country in what he naturally assumed to be a just and glorious war. Everyone told him so; and when he came to Clitherland Camp he was a shining epitome of his unembittered generation which gladly gave itself to the German shells and machine-guns—more gladly, perhaps, than the generation which knew how much (or how little, some would say) it had to lose. Dick made all the difference to my life at Clitherland. Apart from his cheerful companionship, which was like perpetual fine weather, his Sandhurst training enabled him to help me in mine. Patiently he heard me while I went through my repetitions of the mechanism of the rifle. And in company drill, which I was slow in learning, he was equally helpful.[7]

“Dick Tiltwood” is David Cuthbert Thomas, a young Welsh officer impossible to dislike, and easy to love. “Sherston” has found a friend and model–never mind the fact that “Tiltwood” is eight years younger–a practical teacher and a comrade gifted with the sort of peaceful sunny strength that will both draw others to him and serve them all in good stead when they go together into the violent dark…

And Sassoon the memoir writer has found a symbol, an epitome, a focal point, an embodiment of a nation and a class and a generation, with no idea how much he might lose…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 233-5.
  2. I.e. Willy, Lord Desborough, and Monica, "Casie," their daughter.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 299.
  4. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 332.
  5. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 263.
  6. For my American readers, perhaps, especially, this name will seem to be a remarkably blatant bad joke, as both "dick" and "wood" are common slang terms for the penis. Given Sassoon's quondam homosexuality and his love for Thomas on the one hand and his memoir's sad seriousness on the other, it might seem to be a bizarre choice... but it is a linguistic coincidence. This is not a "dick joke."
  7. Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, 240-1. (I will use page numbers from the one-volume Complete memoirs of George Sherston throughout.)

Julian and Francis Grenfell Take Communion; Charles Sorley and Vera Brittain’s Thoughts Wander in Church; Bally Belgians & Dirty Dogs Have Been Spreading Yarns About Lady Feilding; Patrick Shaw-Stewart on Larks, Corpses, and Poetry; Robert Graves Spins a Yarn

The swelling around Julian Grenfell‘s brain has increased. His mother’s diary is grim today–but still hopeful.

23 May

We all had Communion with Julian at 7. Darling Julian less well, a second operation sole chance, performed at 11. Saw him at 1. With him from 4 straight on & all 3 there all night. He slept after 1.15 & from 20 to 5 very soundly.[1]

While Julian clings to life, his cousin Francis prepares for battle–and he too sought the solace of sacrament.

On the morning of Sunday the 23rd Francis, along with his Colonel, attended early Communion. I have said little of that religion which was so strong a feature of his character, for it was of the simple and vital type which is revealed more in deeds than in phrases. He was never at ease in Sion, and shunned the professions of facile piety. But he did not lose his childlike trust in God, and drew strong and abiding comfort from a creed which was as forthright and unquestioning as a mediaeval crusader’s. He and Rivy during their brief campaign together read the 121st Psalm every morning. Francis never went into a match, much less a battle, without prayer.[2]

This connection of sport and battle–placing the two at different locations on the same sliding scale by which one determines the need for divine aid and protection–is more common now, surely, than it was a century ago. And Buchan is not quite making the same semi-assertion by so many of today’s religious athletes that God has beenvwith them–them more than others–during a game. Rather, I think, he is presenting the idea that Francis and Rivy looked to God before times of danger. Their sport was polo and polo is a dangerous sport, if “much less” than battle. But they were more often co-conceptualized as trials, contests, opportunities for glory… so the phrasing still begs the question: “do you mean to hope that God protects you from harm or also, you know, that He will help you defeat/kill the other fellow?”

The willingness to at least imply the answer “both” is, to my mind, a thing recent and American and strange. (When, that is, sport and battle are deliberately placed on the same continuum–obviously the invocation of God against the enemy has a long and distinguished and nearly universal history.) But we should remember that it is actually a very British thing, a Newbolt thing, sprung from the exact milieu of these Grenfells, in the generation of their fathers.

Back to the war. The 9th Lancers had seen bloody battle in the Ypres Salient between the thirteenth and the fifteenth, then had two days in rest-reserve and several more in support. Tonight, a century back, they moved into the front line at Hooge, as the core of an ad-hoc force which their colonel divided into two squadrons. Francis commanded “B” Squadron, on the left, “with the two regimental machine guns and about 200 Yorkshires.”

 

Battle is coming again. But some are still awaiting their chance–and no longer patiently. Charles Sorley writes to Arthur Watts, erstwhile teacher of English at the University of Jena, and now, like Sorley, a New Army subaltern.

Aldershot, 23 May 1915

We are in a mass of accounts I do not understand, and sometime next week we shall exchange this bloody
“area” for a troop-ship at Southampton, and then a prim little village in France in the middle of some mildly prosperous cultivation–probably. On the other hand we may sit here for weeks, making our wills and looking at our first field dressings and reading our religions on our identity discs. In jedem Falle [in any event, always, no matter what happens] we know that we are stale to the moulding point and sooner or later must be chucked across to France. We profess no interest in our work; our going has lost all glamour in adjournment; a weary acceptance of the tyranny of discipline, and the undisguised boredom we feel toward one another, mark all our comings and goings: we hate our general, our C.O. and men; we do not hate the Germans: in short we are nearing the attitude of regular soldiers to the army in general.

And so one lives two lives. The other one–appearing very occasionally in London, at the theatre watching the Irish Players; in church, when the band plays and amazement at the noise and splendour and idolatry shakes one to one’s senses–is still as pleasant as ever. So I have no cause to complain, really. I am so convinced that one’s profession is bound to be dull, and it is only in by-paths that one finds enjoyment, that I am almost thinking of staying in the army, as a fairly profitable, not too exacting main course…[3]

That, surely, is a half-joke. Sorley, irascible and certainly not in possession of any “childlike trust in God,” is deeply frustrated, and this is probably just a casual sally. But he, an independent spirit and intellectual, is stultifying. Boredom, waiting–and, though he doesn’t say it–not even the satisfaction of doing what one volunteered to do, of learning whether one is brave, efficient, etc. is weighing hard upon him. It won’t be long now.

 

The faint religious theme continues, with its new musical motif. Vera Brittain, who received yesterday Roland’s letter about seeing bodies removed from a mine and essentially re-copied it into her diary, today begins with religious music. She is not tending atheistical, quite, (she had an intellectual/religious revival phase in her late teens) but she is neither simply entertained by the “noise” of religious music and the “idolatry” of ceremonial, nor moved to thoughts that are exactly churchly…

Sunday May 23rd

After prayers I went again to the New College organ recital. I have come to the conclusion that music awakens the usually dormant physical side of my emotions. When I am listening to music it is always the touch, the voice, the physical embrace of the beloved that I long for. I ache more then for the feel of his hand over mine and the glance of his eyes when I look into his, than at any other time. And I dream of my imagined children…[4]

This, alas, is not something she can put in a letter to her beloved, or at least not half so baldly.

 

Vera and Roland have been chaste, however strong their longings. Lady Feilding too, so far as we know. There Belgian beaux from time to time, but she is working too hard to worry about propriety. The world is changing… but the gender politics police are not hanging up their whistles, quite yet:

May 23rd

dorothie and Dr. Jellet

Lady Feilding and Dr. Jellett outside their home in Furnes

Mother darling–it’s a puzzling world & I get fed up with it at times. Here am I out here, wearing trousers & hoping people will look on me like a boy just because I feel & live like one & it seems no one is the least deceived & old Mrs Grundy as active ever! You see since Fumes was shelled the corps has been necessarily split into four small groups… The Fumes group consisted of the Coopers & Gurney in one little house & Munro, Mrs Clitherow, Jellett & I in the other. Well for the last 2 or 3 weeks, Munro & old Clitherow having left, Dr Jellett and I have necessarily been alone in the little house. There are two other rooms used at odd times by casual members drifting in but at the moment there are no other possible inhabitants. It appears bally Belgians & dirty dogs have been spreading yarns that I had no business to be there alone with Jellett, but there is no alternative. Bevan was asking the Mission advice about the ‘lady’ question & they were very indignant & said to pay no attention & it didn’t matter a scrap. We had just to adapt ourselves to war conditions & everyone realised it & more honour to us because we just ‘lumped’ things…

I am just writing you all this in case you might get yarns via Dunkerque or some busybody which would worry you. Whereas there is nothing to be worried about when you know the facts. Jelly is a hot tempered old cuss but a very good sort really & does his work A1 & is one of the most genuineely useful members we have in the corps…[5]

 

Penultimately, today, let’s look in on Patrick Shaw-Stewart, still ashore at Gallipoli with the Hood Battalion and writing to his childhood nurse.

A lovely pair of drawers arrived yesterday, which I am now wearing with great pride, having prepared myself for them by bathing in the sea yesterday afternoon, and getting rid of some of the dust and dirt of the trenches. (Dust is better than mud anyhow, and hot than cold.) We had been to the French camp to try and buy wine, and so bathed near there—and the difficulty we had to get out of the range of dead horses in the sea was something painful. There’s no doubt, Dear, that that’s the worst part of war—the dead bodies of man and beast. There was another heap of dead in front of the trench, and at dawn a lark got up from there and started singing—a queer contrast. Rupert Brooke could have written a poem on that, rather his subject.

Is this… a little bit of cheek? To his old nurse? Is he slighting Brooke?  What would-be modern wouldn’t write a poem on such a contrast (we shall see dozens), and why should this new situation be Brooke’s subject in particular? Brooke was not a notable ironist, and had anything but a light touch with the subject of mortality…  but perhaps there is no disrespect intended, and this is just the bluff manner of a new old soldier.

A strange letter, and setting a record, perhaps, for the shortest distance between “thanks for the parcel” and the “death and (beautiful) nature” theme. But Shaw-Stewart covered similar ground ten days earlier, and in this one there is no real jadedness to his ironic appreciations:

To-day I am… interested in Nature—the most divine poppies and vetches making the whole place red and blue, and a quite black cypress grove full of French artillerymen down which I took 100 stokers this morning to bathe sumptuously in the actual Dardanelles themselves! And the great and startling beauty of blue jays and cranes, the latter as large and frequent as aeroplanes. (Ibycus did himself proud in birds.)

…Another aspect of creation which is of vital interest is the insect department. Besides centipedes and other monsters, this peninsula is marvellously rich in various species of ants, spiders, and beetles, with which, in our troglodytic life, one becomes curiously familiar. I am constantly reminded of the invocation of Achilles in the Iliad which mentions the Selloi,[6] a peculiar tribe of dervishes sacred to Zeus, ‘‘who couch on the ground and never wash their feet.” The former prescription I have complied with rigorously for the last fortnight and the latter I have broken very seldom. I am slightly surprised, not so much at my health, which I knew I could trust, as at my absence of tiredness. Three nights running (with the fight in between) I had practically no sleep, as one can’t trust the Petty Officers to control the men’s fire in the first line trenches—and I really felt as fresh as a lark at the end of it.

No ellipses before larks, even in similes! Shaw-Stewart has asked for supplies from home, as well, and you know I also can’t resist these lists:

Malted milk and gelatines are wonderful to carry in the pocket, but one isn’t always on the march, and the amount of more solid and luxurious food one can consume at one meal is surprising—so that some more unpractical non-portable treats like that first lot of shortbread, or any sort of cakey substance, would be most acceptable. Another great idea which has struck me, is that you might get hold of a bottle of good old brandy… another thing is that chocolate goes in a flash… another still is that butter is a wonderful treat…

On the other hand, cease to bother about shaving sticks, as I have grown beautiful red beard. On the other hand, socks, bootlaces, and note-paper (plenty of it) always wanted, and pencils and matches. Oh, and I want a really good air cushion, that must be tested by sitting on it—the fattest shopwalker—for a good stretch, as they nearly all leak if you put them under the hip-bone, and you wake up collapsed on the hard earth…[7]

 

And finally, today (according to the suspect but basically acceptable dating given in the memoir version of his first days in the trenches), Robert Graves presents one of the all-time-great trench tall-tales:

Our machine-gun crew boil their hot water by firing off belt after belt of ammunition at no particular target, just generally spraying the German line. After several pounds’ worth of ammunition has been used, the water in the guns–which are water-cooled–begins to boil. They say they make German ration and carrying parties behind the line pay for their early-morning cup of tea. But the real charge will be on income-tax after the war.[8]

Terrific stuff, worthy of a sight-gag/ironic aside in a latter-day action film. But, you know, not true. Another of our writers–George Coppard, who is going out soon and will eventually become a specialist machine-gunner, has heard the tale, and explains that it cannot be true.

This suggests that machine gunners who fancied a cup of tea or a shave simply loosed off a couple of belts. In fact, this was not the case, as tea laced with mineral oil would taste pretty ghastly. Also machine-gun crews who seemed to be firing ‘indiscriminately’ might well be engaged on barrage fire,[9] and infantry officers would not necessarily be aware of that fact.[10]

That bastard Graves! Memoir fraud! Lies! How dare he!

Paul Fussell reassures us:

We are in no danger of being misled as long as we perceive that Good-Bye to All That is no more “a direct and factual autobiography” than Sassoon‘s memoirs. It is rather a satire, built out of anecdotes heavily influenced by the techniques of stage comedy…[11]

The whys and wherefores of this genre-bending decision by Graves–the literary glories and the historical dangers of embracing satire and comedy and factual flexibility and dressing it up as autobiography–we shall continue to explore in the coming months and more…

 

And, hardiest of readers, a post-script: Edward Thomas took a walk past Warnford, Hampshire, today, a century back, where he saw a clear-running brook and heard the calls of Sedge-Warblers. He scrawled down in his notebook a few fragments of what would shortly become a wonderful poem… which there will be a little more room to write about in two days’ time…

References and Footnotes

  1. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 298.
  2. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 232-3.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 265-6.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 200.
  5. Lady Under Fire, 75-6.
  6. Il. xvi. 235.
  7. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 131-4.
  8. Good-Bye to All That, 109-110.
  9. Firing, that is, not directly at targets they can see, but on a ballistic arc, lofting bullets from behind their own trenches into--or so they hoped--those of the enemy.
  10. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 93.
  11. The Great War and Modern Memory, 207.

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke V: Graves and Leighton Weigh In; Siegfried Sassoon Arrives at Camp; Updates on Julian Grenfell and the Nursing Sister

Roland Leighton writes to Vera Brittain today in an uncharacteristically buoyant mood. He rather archly plays sleight of hand with the pastoral and military modes, toggling back and forth as if seeking to rattle his reader. The effect is a little like one of Humphry Repton’s “Red Books”–except that here the ruins that replace unspoiled nature are not so picturesque…

In Billets, Flanders, 22 May 1915, 3 p.m.

I am in a field behind a farm house, perched on top of a large iron roller–you see than in England sometimes with a horse drawing them and the driver siting in little seat behind. I have just sent my servant into the nearest town to buy oranges and bits of looking-glass to make periscopes with…

Everything is very quiet now. There is a lark singing overhead and one of our mountain guns firing at intervals far away on the right, I am feeling very lazy–rather like a fat bumble-bee in fact; and rather pleased with the world… It is very nice sometimes to be a person of moods…

Later, he drops the page on pleasant nature, turning back to war:

I must be off to practise throwing hand-grenades and other unpleasantly explosive things of the kind, and to instruct my platoon in how to use them…

But–and can this be the reason for the unusual flippancy?–Roland will now respond to Vera’s recent reading assignment. What, Roland, do you think of Rupert Brooke?

I am very fond of the sonnets. Three of them I had read before, but not the last one. There is a grave a few yards away from where I am sitting–a private of the Somerset Light infantry killed in December: which makes the two poems on ‘The Dead’ more real than ever. There is also a Major of the 19th Hussars buried near here (we put a new fence round the grave the last time we were out of the trenches). I cannot help thinking of the two together and of the greater value of the one. What a pity it is that the same little piece of lead takes away as easily a brilliant life and one that is merely vegetation. The democracy of war![1]

This is very strange. What is going on today with stiff, proper Roland? And what exactly does he mean? Which “two?” It’s possible that he intends to snipe at dull, vegetative cavalry officers, but I doubt it. Brooke, surely, is the “brilliant life,” and therefore this private–or perhaps the private and the major both–are discounted as “merely vegetation.” This is a rather stiff dose of elitism. And does he intend a grim reference to the “vegetation” their bodies now nurture? Do the brilliant souls burn clear of their bodies, fleeing their trench graves to join the muses on Parnassus?

Or perhaps we are seeing the sudden fraying of one cable in the letter-bridge that links Vera and Roland. This would be reading too much in (yet there must be some explanation of Roland’s tone, so read in we must), but is it possible that Roland doesn’t quite know how to express jealousy, or, rather, annoyance at being compared to the now-famous dead poet? Is it the wounded dignity of the brilliant young scholar (and writer of verse) that prompts this? It seems almost as if Roland, Brooke-like, is contemplating the sort of tiny, impossible chance that may carry away his own life as easily as these others…

 

graves 5-22-15, 4

The fourth and final page of Graves’s letter to Marsh of today, a century back (Dictionary of Literary Biography)

Nor is Roland Leighton the only poetical young subaltern writing about Rupert Brooke today. Robert Graves, with enormous chutzpah, is making a play for the patronage of Brooke’s great friend and supported. Graves wrote a letter to Eddie Marsh that combines condolence, braggadocio, prosy preening–an obvious stab at winning Marsh’s attention with vivid description–and a faux-humble submission of recent verses.

3rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, attached 2nd Welsh Regt

3rd Brigade, 1st Division

22 May 1915

Dear Eddie

A three days’ spell in billets gives me the chance I have been wanting for some time, of writing to tell you how truly grieved I am about poor Rupert’s death, for your sake especially and generally for all of us who know what poetry is: my Father (dear old man!) said that this was a fitting end for Rupert, killed by the arrows of jealous Musagetes in his own Greek islands; but fine words won’t help; we can only be glad that he died so cheerfully and in such a good cause. What mightn’t he have written had he lived?

Graves is having his cake and eating it too, making the clever classical allusion (Musagetes, or “leader of the muses,” is an epithet of Apollo, the golden god of poetry who slays with arrows of disease) but then pinning it on old dad. And it’s hard to imagine the grief-stricken Marsh being touched–in any positive sense, at least–by this brisk, naive consolation. Graves is awkwardly swift about getting to his own business:

I feel here exactly like a man who has watched the “movies” for a long evening and then suddenly finds himself thrown on the screen in the middle of scalp-hunting Sioux and runaway motor-cars: and rather surprised that I am not at all frightened, and that the noise doesn’t disturb me at all yet. You may disbelieve the following but I swear to you, Eddie, it’s a true bill, that a violent artillery duel going on above my dug-out two nights ago simply failed to wake me at all though I was conscious of the whole place rocking, but, when this had ceased, I was awoken by a very persistent lark which hung for some minutes over my platoon trench swearing at the Germanoes…

Our Robert is gawky and insensitive, but talented. He might not have the measure of Marsh, but he is showing his range. First the ancient god of muses, then the movies, that newest of arts and entertainments; first the scream of modern ordinance, then the eternal lark.

Next up, more bravado:

 …the best I can hope for is to ‘do the Blighty touch’, i.e. get a wound serious enough to qualify me for England. There are three touches: the Base Touch, The Blighty Touch and the Six-foot Touch (absit omen). It’s hard to know if you’re alive or dead with Busy Berthas booming overhead. This last sentence recalls a recent improvisation of mine, not brilliant but perhaps suggestive…

Graves then writes out several (draft) stanzas of “It’s a Queer Time.” It’s an… odd poem, straining between the jaunty, affected, patriotic tone of early war verse and Graves’s own outsider-sardonic voice. The young officer is proud to be… an old soldier. But is it really wise to send a humorous poem about sudden death to Marsh, only a few weeks after his protégé’s demise? Here are some excerpts from the published version of the poem–enough to get the point:

It’s hard to know if you’re alive or dead
When steel and fire go roaring through your head.

One moment you’ll be crouching at your gun
Traversing, mowing heaps down half in fun:
The next, you choke and clutch at your right breast–
No time to think—leave all—and off you go…
To Treasure Island where the Spice winds blow,
To lovely groves of mango, quince and lime–
Breathe no goodbye, but ho, for the Red West! It’s a queer time…

The trouble is, things happen much too quick;
Up jump the Boches, rifles thump and click,
You stagger, and the whole scene fades away:
Even good Christians don’t like passing straight
From Tipperary or their Hymn of Hate
To Alleluiah-chanting, and the chime
Of golden harps… and… I’m not well to-day…
It’s a queer time.

Yes, and a queer decision, here. Graves defends himself, as smoothly as ever:

… I know it is very rude and inconsiderate of me inflict my verses on you, but last January you told me to bring my technique up to date and try and do a bit better than what I showed you, so I send a thing I wrote at Wrexham with you advice still ringing in my ears. I think it really is a bit better…[2]

I am aware that I presuming on out quite short acquaintance but you haven’t snubbed me yet and must be accustomed to unconventional (which means bad-mannered) people.

Tomorrow we go, they say, into some trenches where we and the Bosches are sitting in each other’s pockets, the whole place mined counter-mined, complete with trench-mortars, gas and grenade throwing parties, so now for a little sleep.

Yours in the muses

Robert Graves[3]

 

From a newly experienced Fusilier to a newly minted one. Siegfried Sassoon‘s progress has so far been slow. Although he joined the army on the eve of war in August, his fall was spent training with the Yeomanry, during which he broke his arm in a riding accident. After the long recovery and a langorous winter, Sassoon, though as quiet and diffident as ever, surrendered to the exigencies of social class and drew upon contacts among the local Kentish gentry to get himself a commission in a fine old regiment–the Royal Welch, of course.

Sassoon has recently arrived–not at the depot in Wrexham, where he would have just overlapped with Robert Graves, but at one of the subsidiary training camps. His first set of memoirs are fictionalized, but sometimes very thinly: Litherland Camp, on the outskirts of Liverpool, is cunningly concealed as “Clitherland.” Sassoon, now marking an important way-station on the long journey from superannuated youthful dreaminess to intense wartime experience, describes the camp as he first knew it:

In May, 1915, the recruits were men who had voluntarily joined up, the average age of the second lieutenants was twenty-one, and “war-weariness” had not yet been heard of. I was twenty-eight myself, but I was five years younger in looks, and in a few days I was one of this outwardly light-hearted assortment, whose only purpose was to “get sent out” as soon as possible.

The significant aspects of Clitherland as it was then can now be seen clearly, and they are, I think, worth reviving. It was a community (if anything could be called a community under such convulsive conditions) which contained contrasted elements. There were the ostensibly permanent senior officers of the pre-war Special Reserve Battalion (several of whom had South African War ribbons to make them more impressive); and there were the young men whose salutes they received and for whose future efficiency at the Front they were, supposedly, responsible. For these younger men there was the contrast between the Camp at Clitherland (in the bright summer weather of that year) and the places they were booked for (such as the Battle of Loos and the Dardanelles). It was, roughly speaking, the difference between the presence of life (with battalion cricket matches and good dinners at the hotel de luxe in Liverpool) and the prospect of death: (next winter in the trenches, anyhow). A minor (social) contrast was provided by the increasingly numerous batches of Service Battalion officers, whose arrival to some extent clashed with the more carefully selected Special Reserve commissions (like my own) and the public school boys who came from the Royal Military College. I mention this ‘feeling’ because the ‘temporary gentlemen’ (disgusting phrase), whose manners and accents were liable to criticism by the Adjutant, usually turned out to be first-rate officers when they got to the trenches. In justice to the Adjutant it must be remembered that he was there to try and make them conform to the Regular ‘officer and gentlemen’ pattern which he exemplified. And so, while improvised officers came and went, Clitherland Camp was a sort of raft on which they waited for the moment of embarkation which landed them as reinforcements to the still more precarious communities on the other side of the Channel.

Those who were fortunate enough to return, a year or two later, would find among crowd of fresh faces, the same easygoing Militia majors enjoying their port placidly at the top of the table. For, to put it plainly, they weren’t mobile men, although they had been mobilized for the Great War. They were the products of peace, and war had wrenched them away from their favourite nooks and niches…

A gentle but devastating portrayal of this class of useless old officers follows, but let’s skip ahead to his first thoughts on the actual business of the camp, namely the basic training of many thousands. He makes it seem to happen almost effortlessly, a last Edwardian amateur effort of good-will and aspirational modeling.

Young officers were trained by efficient N.C.O.’s; the senior officers were responsible for company accounts, kit
inspections, and other camp routine, and the spirit of the regiment, presumably, presided over us all. I have reason to believe that Clitherland was one of the most competently managed camps in the country; high authorities looked upon it as exemplary.

Needless to say, I felt awestruck by my surroundings as I edged my way shyly into mess on my first evening…[4]

 

While Sassoon eases from pastoral memoir toward the trenches, there is acute drama elsewhere. Aubrey Herbert, the adventurer-turned-interpreter at Gallipoli, offered himself, today, as a hostage during a cease-fire for the recovery of the wounded. He did not, it would seem,have approval for this action–but being the only fluent Turkish speaker on the staff gave him his own latitude.[5]

And the Nursing Sister, with a field ambulance just behind the junction of the British and French lines in Artois, came under heavy fire today.

Saturday, May 22nd, 6.30 a.m.—Things have been happening at a great pace since the above, and we are now in our camp-beds in an empty attic at the top of an old château about three miles back…

Just as I was thinking of getting up yesterday evening they began putting shells over into the town, and soon they were raining in three at a time…

The evacuation was jolly well done; their servants appeared by magic, each with every spot of kit and belongings his officer came in with (they are in all cases checked by the Sergeant on admission, no matter what the rush is), and the place was empty in an hour. The din of our guns, which were bombarding heavily, and the German guns, which are bombarding us at a great pace, and the whistle and bang of the shells that came over while this was going on, was a din to remember.

Then we went back to our billet to hurl our belongings into our baggage, and came away with the A.D.M.S. and his Staff-Major in their two touring-cars. The Division is back resting somewhere near here. We got to bed about 2 a.m. after tea and bread and butter downstairs, but slept very little owing to the noise of the guns, which shake and rattle the windows every minute.

We don’t know what happens next.

At about four this morning I heard a nightingale trilling in the garden.

Of course she did. Although she spent the fall and winter much further back, with the ambulance trains, the Nursing Sister has now been just behind the reserve trenches for some time. Long enough to give us, with this evacuation, an “irony of proximity”[6] piece.

2 p.m.—In the Château garden. It is a glorious spot, with kitchen garden, park, moat bridge, and a huge wilderness up-and-down plantation round it, full of lilac, copper beeches, and flowering trees I’ve never seen before, and birds and butterflies and buttercups. You look across and see the red-brick Château surrounded by thick lines of tents, and hear the everlasting incessant thudding and banging of the guns, and realise that it is not a French country house but a Casualty Clearing Hospital, with empty—once polished—floors filled with stretchers, where the worst cases still are, and some left empty for the incoming convoys. Over two thousand have passed through since Sunday week. The contrast between the shady garden where I’m lazing now on rugs and cushions, with innumerable birds, including a nightingale, singing and nesting, and the nerve-racking sound of the guns and the look of the place inside, is overwhelming…

Lastly, a near-miss and a promotion:

The General of the Division had a narrow escape after we left last night. The roof of his house was blown off, just at the time he would have been there, only he was a little late, but an officer was killed; six shells came into the garden, and the seventh burst at his feet and killed him as he was standing at the door. I’m glad they got the wounded away in time. Aeroplanes are buzzing overhead. The Aerodrome is here, French monoplanes chiefly as far as one can see…

Miss —— has given me charge of the Tent Section, which can take eighty lying down.[7]

 

Lady Desborough is also enjoying the weather and also hospital-bound, but she is far too relentlessly optimistic to comment on ironies of circumstance or proximity. Around this time she received telegrams of concern from many eminent figures–including both Winston Churchill and the Queen, to whom she had been a Lady in Waiting.

Churchill, who will serve that Queen’s husband as a cabinet minister for a few more days yet, will also serve her granddaughter, the current queen. Sometimes a century back doesn’t seem so far.

Anyway, we lend today’s lengthy post on a positive note:

Too lovely day, much w Julian, he seemed really a shade better…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 111-2.
  2. This would be "The Poet in the Nursery," another somewhat immature poem.
  3. In Broken Images, 31-33.
  4. Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, 236-8. (I will use page numbers from the one-volume Complete Memoirs of George Sherston throughout.)
  5. The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 160.
  6. Having just returned to the source--Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory--in order to brush up on how one reads Graves, I am reminded that I took this phrase from him, cobbling together his discussions of irony (or "Satire of Circumstance") and what he calls "a ridiculous proximity."
  7. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  8. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 298.